Review – Cheltenham Jazz Festival 3-6 May 2013

One week on, Cheltenham Jazz Festival still glows in my mind, it was extraordinary on so many counts: the crowds who filled every cranny of the festival site; the buzz at every gig, whether for established artists like Gregory Porter or newcomers with colossal confidence like George Montague; the intimacy of the Parabola; the masterclasses and interviews, but most of all, the truly moving and touchingly modest performances. Not modest in delivery of course, we had world class sounds, but self effacing and genuine when met, fleetingly, after a gig or seen around the festival.

I found myself with tears in my eyes on several occasions. First was Gregory Porter and his St Nick’s Pub Band from Harlem. Did his band ever think they would tour the world, could they believe their luck? Clearly at home in the Big Top, and with an adoring audience, his new song No Love Dying is stunning. Surely this is his next Grammy nomination? In a masterclass Gregory told us he was an optimist, that he took the symbols of death – broken mirrors, birds in the house, drooping flowers in a vase – and flipped them so they were about life and love. Whether heard in a huge venue or a tiny tent, this song has the power to affect. Here it is performed backstage at Cheltenham:

Then came folk singer Heather Masse with Dave Douglas. When simple hymns and folk tunes are sung well they really strike home, go straight to the heart. I loved Heather’s haunting delicacy in Be Still my Soul, a favourite hymn of Dave’s mother, and supported by Dave’s infectious joy of performance and sharing. It’s not just the words that move

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

It was Dave’s haunting trumpet which transported us beyond a vale of tears to something we can smile about through those tears.

Finally was Marius Neset’s performance in a sublime evening gig with the Edition Quartet. Yes, we had all been blown away by him the previous evening with his quartet’s performance of the album of the year, Birds. The sheer physicality and power of Marius’s blowing leaves you breathless, exhilarated. Here is a short clip, filmed by Olivia Dickeson, for Edition Records, leaving you in no doubt about his prowess:

But on Saturday night we saw another Marius (last glimpsed in Flight by Dave Stapleton at St George’s Brandon Hill last year), unexpectedly fragile, human, reflective. Just as a Michelangelo sculpture moves us as its strength appears out of simple form (I am thinking of his unfinished Slaves here), so Marius has the same effect on me. The Edition Quartet is a perfect ensemble – Dave Stapleton on piano, Neil Yates on trumpet, Daniel Herskedal on tuba and Marius on saxophones. Dave’s masterpiece Flight took on a new life in this smaller ensemble, the tuba adding an unexpected eeriness.

At Cheltenham I expected to be entertained, I knew I would probably laugh at witticisms (several false ends in Kit Downes’s new composition, The General in a staggering, hugely enjoyable Troyk-estra), gasp at virtuosity again and again, be challenged and made to think, but my abiding memory is being touched by simple words, heartfelt performances, unforgettable melodies, haunting fragile sounds. And that’s what I love most about jazz.

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