Tag Archives: Gregory Porter

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.

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.