Cheltenham Jazz Festival with Gilles Peterson
Programming a jazz festival is far from easy. In fact, it’s a little like juggling live eels: a slippery prospect. On the one hand, you want to keep the purists and serious aficionados happy with some classic, heavyweight jazz names. However, you also want the festival to pay its way, so you need to engage marquee-quality headliners that, although they might have only a tenuous link to jazz, will put bums on seats. There is also an imperative to acknowledge whatever new scene (and there is always a new scene) is emerging, be it from Manchester or Munich. The Cheltenham Jazz Festival has managed, over the years, to navigate these choppy waters with a remarkable degree of deftness.
With this year’s event (which runs May 2-7th), it has a slew of guaranteed crowd pleases such as Van Morrison, Randy Crawford and Corinne Bailey Rae, but Cheltenham demonstrates that yet again it has a finger firmly on the current jazz pulse by inviting Gilles Peterson to curate a strand of young and exciting emerging artists.
Gilles, of course, can be heard on BBC Radio 6 Music, where his Saturday afternoon show is essential listening in my house, and on his own award-winning Worldwide FM station. Eclectic barely describes what he plays, from vintage bebop to cutting-edge hip-hop, from Tokyo jazz to Cuban reggaetón, always with a large Latin American presence, particularly music from Brazil. I suspect, however, that he also came to Cheltenham’s attention because he has been such a prominent champion of the fresh strain of jazz bursting out of (mostly south) London.
With players like Shabaka Hutchins and Nubya Garcia to the fore, it is music that does not distinguish or discriminate between jazz, hip-hop, grime, dub, trap and lots of other uniquely British sub-genres of club music. Even the staid New York Times has sat up and taken notice: “Now more than ever,” it announced recently, “the easiest answer to that pesky question - what’s keeping jazz vital these days? - appears to lie in London.”
“I think one thing we have got over the Americans,” Gilles Peterson told me over coffee at the home of his Worldwide station in London, “is the link to club culture. All those different variations of dance music coming out of our clubs – house and grime, via acid house, dubstep and drum and bass and it is all British. The Americans are incorporating some of it, but our people are actually going to the parties, or organising them, so they are just organically absorbing it.” And he adds one other important element: “They’re all great players.”
So this year, Gilles has brought across three artists associated with this new scene, all appearing on Saturday May 5th. The afternoon slot (12.30pm) belongs to the brilliant young drummer Moses Boyd and his Exodus project, which fuses jazz with elements of electronica, afrobeat, ambient and grime. Boyd also plays regularly with, among others, new saxophone colossus Nubya Garcia and in the freewheeling Binker-Moses duo.
Later, at 7.30pm, Zara McFarlane showcases a voice that has been described as a cross between Nina Simone and Roberta Flack on original and classic songs. Zara is another artist not defined or constrained by boundaries – there will be jazz, yes, which she handles with effortless aplomb, but also soul, plenty of reggae (the music she grew up listening to) and even pop.
Then, in a late night slot at 11.30pm, the soulful Jordan Rakei will perform. New Zealand-born, but raised in Australia, with his mix of R&B, jazz and hip-hop (he cites the likes of Q-Tip and early Kanye as an influence), this multi-talented singer, writer, producer and player deserves to go far. Gilles DJs in this slot as well, making it a fine way of grooving into Sunday morning. And what’s wrong with that?
So for those who want a taste of what is exciting a young, diverse audience at home, in Europe and increasingly across in the USA, check out at least one of these concerts. Elsewhere, though, Cheltenham demonstrates that jazz is a very broad church – from the soaring, spiritual sounds of saxophonist Kamasi Washington (Sunday May 6th, 5.30pm) to the crooning of Rick Astley with the Ronnie Scott’s Big Band (Monday May 7th, 4.30pm), from Bowie’s saxophonist of choice, Donny McCaslin (Sunday May 6th, 4pm), to Nigel Kennedy playing Gershwin and Bach (Thursday, May 3, 8.30pm). Once again, Cheltenham has all the bases covered.
However, don’t forget the central role that Hotel du Vin plays in the proceedings. Away from the Green Room, it acts as an ad hoc HQ for the musicians (many actually stay there, of course, or in its sister property the Malmaison, a short walk away). The hotel also hosts (free) late night jam sessions. For me, the latter are one of the highlights of the entire festival. Like the music itself, they are spontaneous and unpredictable. If you go along with a set of expectations, they’ll be thwarted. Magic happens down that spiral staircase, although it can’t be summoned at will. But….
…sometimes the star names playing the festival will come down and stretch out a little, have some fun. I’ve seen that gentle giant Gregory Porter grinning his way through Nat King Cole, the cerebral and swinging Kurt Elling channelling Frank Sinatra in the wee small hours and the wonderful singer Candace Springs paired with ace trumpeter Christian Scott on The Nearness of You, which brought a tear to a few eyes.
The jams can go on till five or six in the morning, as pianists Jamie Cullum, Joe Stilgoe and festival stalwart Joe Baxter did once, mining the Ben Folds catalogue. Or everyone could decide to call it a day at the relatively early hour of 3am. More than once I have emerged into the dawn of a new day, eyes blinking, ears still ringing with the great music I’ve heard. As I said, you can’t guarantee exactly what you’ll get on any given night. Than again, that’s jazz. See you down there.
* Late Night Jam Sessions at the Hotel du Vin Cheltenham happen on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10.30 onwards. You do not have to be a guest at the hotel to attend. For further details of who is playing at the festival, see https://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz/
Robert Ryan is an author and screenwriter who also collaborates on long-form jazz pieces with trumpeter, composer and arranger Guy Barker, who appears at Cheltenham conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra and his own big band at 8pm on May 4th in the Big Top