Jazz Breaking News: Dave Holland, Troyka And Jamie Cullum Pull In The Crowds At The Cheltenham Jazz Festival

The 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival saw considerable changes this year with a new outdoors tented square and jazz arena, the end of the Jerwood Rising Stars programme and a guest director in Jamie Cullum. The festival also incorporated a vibrant Norwegian strand as well as a programme of free jazz curated by comedian Stewart Lee.

These new elements added to the familiar mix of vocal and mainstream jazz and new bands. This year festival director Tony Dudley-Evans managed to pick some of the hottest new bands in trioVD, Empirical, Troyka and Polar Bear which meant that Cheltenham was even more au fait with the breaking scene than in recent years.

While all the best laid plans can be hijacked by the weather and the heavy rain on the Saturday hampered a little of the outdoor crowd’s enthusiasm, Cheltenham is hardly Glastonbury even with the new outdoor element. What the new-look Cheltenham did have was a healthy festive feel and bristled with activity.

The Saturday and Sunday concerts were well attended with the Pillar Room and Town Hall full and for the big concert on Saturday with Dave Holland joined by flamenco star Pepe Habichuela and his group the audience warmed appreciatively to the delightful fandagos, tangos and rumbas performed. Holland was performing with the group for the first time outside Spain and a CD is expected later in the year.

Later in the evening the John McLaughlin-influenced Chris Montague impressed as part of Troyka with Kit Downes’ bleeps and alarming grunts from the organ adding extra spice to Josh Blackmore’s scuttling rhythms.

The Pillar Room next day saw a fine performance from Empirical, professional as ever as they evocatively played tribute to Eric Dolphy while later American trio Fly took a while to settle but gradually moved into their own domain anchored by Larry Grenadier’s bass playing around the laconic lines of Mark Turner’s Warne Marsh-influenced saxophone.

Jamie Cullum in the evening put on what could really only be called a show, with a level of crowd engagement and interaction no one else matched all weekend. Not that this was always a good thing, as the piano jumping, shirt stripping and Simon Cowell jokes irritated as much as they entertained at times. Sometimes it was if there was a Duracell bunny on stage and no one knew how to switch it off.

But the show caught fire, with a whip-smart band that included up-for-it drummer Brad Webb and talented sax player Tom Richards and trumpeter Rory Simmons. Cullum excelled on the Cole Porter material and the material from debut Universal album Twentysomething. He was touchingly joined by brother Ben on ‘These Are The Days’ and pulled off a lovely finish with ‘Gran Torino’. The crowd went suitably potty when the band decamped to the middle of the hall to belt out ‘Cry Me A River’ just before the end and Cullum, it must be said, put in one hundred per cent.

Judging by the large numbers swilling around the venues over the weekend and optimistic talk by chief executive Donna Rennie about healthy box office figures Cheltenham this year, after last year’s travails, seems to have turned a corner. If it takes a bit of populism to pull in the crowds fair enough but hopefully the organisers won’t forget to keep the left field jazz and maverick choices to the fore as well in the future.

- Stephen Graham

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