5 stars for Cheltenham Jazz Festival – 5th and 6th May 2012

There have been some really great reviews of this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival so I’ll confine myself to a narrow canvas.  When I booked the tickets I thought it was going to be the festival of the pianist but for me it turned out to be the festival of genuine deep emotion.  First up was a workshop with Chris Potter at the un-jazz time of 10.30am.  If Chris was still running on New York time he certainly didn’t show it as he led a small group of local young people through On Green Dolphin Street. Throughout the weekend there were tweets of  “Oh man, I can’t believe I just played with Chris Potter!” which made the weekend for me, their joy at playing with an idol was infectious.

We learned that a very young Chris was playing with Paul Motian in Switzerland in 1993 and one evening after a set he went for a long walk, feeling very down, trying to work out why he was just playing the notes.  He started to scat and that was his epiphany, the moment when he turned a corner. He knew he had to communicate more than the notes in a certain order.  People often ask him what key he plays in, to which he usually replies “I don’t know”.  He uses his ears to guide him into a piece, not written down notes.   His approach reminds me of Keats’s phrase about poetry:  If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.  Now it appears that glorious saxophone playing comes naturally to Chris. But that’s all because he spent his youth mastering standards on a piano and then working out how to get to the same place on a sax, but by one note at a time because that’s all you can do on a horn.  I loved this insight into the emotion of music – through his ears (and I’d add, probably his heart too).

Naturally-occuring emotion was what we got with Gregory Porter in the Big Top.    I loved every minute. That glorious huge voice, that child-like delight in being alive.  His jump for joy easily rivalling a Jamie Cullum leap!  No wonder his band played their socks off.   Who could not be captivated?  I hadn’t appreciated til I looked at the sleeve notes of his latest album Be Good that all the songs he sang were his own. They already sound like standards.  He’s honed his craft in Smoke in New York (one of my favourite clubs) so he manages to make a big venue feel like a small jazz club where he is singing just for you.

I was also captivated by the gentle Seb and Kit late night treat at the lovely Parabola. The Parabola is a new venue for Cheltenham Jazz Festival. It’s near-perfect  (just hope they can rectify the lack of coffee at future gigs!) , you can see/hear from every seat, it’s intimate and could (maybe should?) be used without amplification.   Kit Downes is a maverick pianist who is as comfortable in boisterous Troyka as this delicate duo with Seb Rochford.  It was a striking contrast to the somewhat patrician set by Vijay Iyer before him.  I was hoping for a Brad Mehldau intensity and perhaps that’s what we got, but I couldn’t find the emotion in his performance so it was lost on me.

My final blast of emotion at the festival was Roberto Fonseca and his extraordinary Cuban/Malian band in the Jazz Arena. Someone else has just posted that Roberto should have been in the Big Top and I agree. The sound was so huge I forgot the hard seats.  If we hadn’t been confined to tiny seats we would have got up and danced!  Roberto was barely able to sit on the piano stool, his exuberance propelling him to stand most of the time, a stunning pianist and leader.

All of the artists I have mentioned have this in common  – an innate ability not just to entertain, no, they go much deeper than that; they have the ability to convey deep emotions in a very genuine and humble way so the experience lives with you long after the festival is over.  That’s why I love jazz and already I’m looking forward to Cheltenham 2013.

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