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Towards the end of her charming set at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, the British singer Corinne Bailey Rae paused to consider what genre her music belonged to. It’s a question that the festival has asked itself – and answered very effectively. Define jazz too narrowly and you end up with a room of 12 inveterate foot-tappers; go too far the other way and the term becomes meaningless. Now 25 years old, the Cheltenham formula – mixing Grammy-winners like Bailey Rae with standard-bearers and avant-gardists – manages to keep everyone happy.
This year, two other things helped: it didn’t rain, and people were just pleased to be back. (In 2020 the festival was cancelled; last year it went virtual.) The venues, from marquees to the town hall, were packed; and over the weekend I witnessed sing-alongs, stamp-alongs, clap-alongs and click-alongs. Thelonious Monk might not have imagined his efforts leading to Montpellier Gardens, the festival’s picturesque focal point, overlooked by Regency terraces. But while the atmosphere was more outdoor-theatre than Woodstock, and the lavatories were spotless, and the seats were surreally comfortable, it was an unstuffy affair. Aficionados patrolled and young musos attempted to outdo each other in the Nitin Sawhney trivia stakes, but plenty of people were simply here for a good time.
Many of the headline acts were vocalists. Along with Bailey Rae, Gabrielle and Jamie Cullum, there was the American Gregory Porter, who has become the festival’s avuncular presiding spirit. This makes sense. With his silky baritone, reminiscent of Bill Withers, Porter combines catchy melodies with a reverence for the great tradition. He’s a deeply vital performer: his voice swells, his fists clench, his whole body trembles. His music is firmly rooted in gospel, and he knows how to carry his congregation with him. “That’s not jazz – that’s...that’s just great singing,” stammered the star-struck bloke next to me.
The night before I had been to the immaculate Parabola Arts Centre to see the pianist Zoe Rahman’s quintet. This was clearly where the purists hung out. I spotted my first polo-neck of the weekend, and across the auditorium sat no fewer than three men who could have been the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton. Rahman is a seriously gifted player, marrying the classically honed poise of Keith Jarrett with the hefty left hand of McCoy Tyner. I just wish she’d been given more than an hour: her set didn’t have many chances to soar, especially in these rather cloistered surroundings. A better venue might have been the Hotel du Vin, where up-and-comers assembled after hours, taking it in turns to play late into the night. Freewheeling, even verging on rambunctious, with clinking glasses and chatter in the background, this session felt closer in spirit to 1950s New York, while making the all-important point that jazz needs people under the age of 30 to survive.
Clever programming highlighted how far-reaching the genre’s influence has been. On the face of it, Penguin Cafe (Arthur Jeffes’s revival of his of his father’s band Penguin Cafe Orchestra, the groundbreaking collective of music-college rebels in the 1970s and 80s) sit somewhere between classical music and folk, with a heady dose of English melancholy. But their rhythmic drive recalls the minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich – both jazz fans. Their set was transfixing. There were times, however, when the Cheltenham church felt too broad. I suspect the women and teenage girls who wolf-whistled their way through James Bay’s set would disagree, but for me this self-styled “troubadour” seemed out of place, with his heavy echoes of Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol, and 2007-issue fedora. Credit where it’s due, though: he persuaded everyone to get up from those comfy seats.
The greatest surprise? I found myself enjoying a big band – though only a real killjoy could fail to smile at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra, led by the wise-cracking Pete Long. There were knowingly theatrical, technically flawless takes on Weather Report, Tubby Hayes and Tower of Power, plus a sparkling turn from the Irish singer Imelda May.
But some of the highest notes came during the set by Lady Blackbird, performing from her debut album Black Acid Soul. The peroxide-haired newcomer (real name: Marley Munroe) had previous lives in R’n’B and rock before taking up jazz. Equipped with a voice like Nina Simone, she brought her influences together with insouciant command and teasing humour, flitting from simmering blues to psychedelia. “Fix It” was based on two of the most beautiful chords in jazz, plucked from Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” and made famous by Bill Evans. Now here they were again, taking on a fresh lease of life. That’s exactly how it should be.
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