Top Tips for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival

The Cheltenham Jazz Festival is almost upon us and I’m really looking forward to this year’s programme.  The thing I particularly like about the programme is that every year it mixes big names from both the jazz and jazz-related areas with some really cutting edge contemporary music.  So this year we have, to take just two examples, The Bad Plus as well as Gregory Porter, the Swiss jazz harpist Julie Campiche as well as the vocalist Kandace Springs.

As ever, a festival such as Cheltenham Jazz Festival offers the opportunity to try out something different, something that is more adventurous and that people may not have heard of.  I would like to suggest nine concerts that I think are worth checking out.  Of course this is a personal choice!

  1. MICHAEL FORMANEK’S ELUSION QUARTET  Four top players from New York including one of my favourite saxophone players, Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis, and one of the most inventive percussionists in the USA, Ches Smith, in a quartet led by bass player, Michael Formanek, a key figure on the New York scene for over 20 years  Saturday 4th May, 10.15 Parabola Arts Centre.


  1. JOHN SURMAN, JOHN WARREN and the BRASS PROJECT John Surman marks his 75th Birthday with this revival of what for me is one of his most interesting projects, the Brass Project conducted by John Warren.   Saturday 4th May 2.15 Town Hall


  1. RACHEL MUSSON’S I WENT THIS WAY Improvising saxophonist Rachel Musson leads a nine-piece ensemble performing her  I Went This Way   Saturday 4th May 2pm Parabola Arts Centre


  1. THE BAD PLUS it will be fascinating to hear how the music of this piano bass drums trio will have changed now that Orrin Evans is on the piano Sunday 5th May, 4pm Jazz Arena


  1. THE PARIS BIRMINGHAM CONSERVATOIRES EXCHANGE This year the Birmingham Conservatoire students will be collaborating with French students from the  Paris Conservatoire.  This is always one of the best gigs in the Parabola Saturday 4th May 11am Parabola Arts Centre.


  1. CHERISE ADAMS-BURNETT A brilliant and talented vocalist who worked with the Birmingham based Trope and impressed with the Kansas Smitty’s last year Saturday 4th May, Daffodil Restaurant, dinner at 7pm, performance at 8.30


  1. JULIE CAMPICHE QUARTET I heard Julie’s harp playing in the context of her quartet at last year’s 12 Points Festival and immediately thought she is right for Cheltenham Sunday 5th May 1.45 Parabola Arts Centre


  1. SUNLIGHT: Soweto Kinch meets Andreas Schaerer and Kalle Kalima Soweto and Andreas have a brilliant rapport combining Andreas’ amazing vocals with Soweto’s saxophone playing and rapping.  Guitarist Kalle Kalima will surely fit in well  Friday 3rd May 7pm Parabola Arts Centre


  1. HERMIA CECCALDI DARRIFOURCQ  This saxophone, cello drums trio represents all that is good about contemporary European jazz.  For this gig Hermia is replaced by French saxophonist Quentin Biardeau.  Sunday 5th May 9.45 Parabola Arts Centre

Mike Fletcher’s Picasso(s) for Large Ensemble

Mike Fletcher launches a new project for a large ensemble this week as part of the Surge in Spring day festival that is taking place on Saturday 27th April at 1pm (full details here).  The new work involves developing what was originally a solo saxophone project, Picasso(s), for a 12-piece ensemble.   The original performances took place in 2017 and involved Mike improvising a solo set based on Coleman Hawkins’ short saxophone solo recording, Picasso.

mike fletcher 2All this came about as the basis of Mike doctoral research completed last year.  Mike had been fascinated by an exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s Las Meninas, which are 58 variations by Picasso on the original Las Meninas 1656 painting by Diego Velazquez; Mike was particularly interested in Picasso’s comment in a letter to a friend that, as he made changes to the original, the results would gradually cease to be copies of the original work, and would become new works of Picasso’s.  Mike immediately saw a parallel with the approach of the improvising jazz musician.  In order to develop his ideas about originality in improvisation, Mike decided to base a performance on a similarly iconic work in jazz, Coleman Hawkins’ solo saxophone recording.  The fact that Hawkins had named his piece after Picasso gave the project an excellent cohesion.

I attended (and ran!) a performance in the Hexagon Theatre at mac in 2017.   Mike developed an extensive and absorbing improvisation which was about 50 mins in length based on Hawkins original recording of just over three minutes.  What was original about the performance was that Mike had transcribed Hawkins’ solo and only allowed himself to use the same notes as those used by Hawkins.  This was in order to be true to Picasso’s approach to Las Meninas in which he had not permitted himself to add an extra figures or objects to those in the original Velazquez painting.

The new work for the large ensemble will follow the same principle; the writing and the soloing will only use the notes used by Hawkins.  This is an interesting and original challenge and it will be fascinating to see how the musicians deal with it.  The 12 musicians are all top improvisers from the burgeoning Birmingham and London scenes so I have every confidence that they will relish the opportunity.  The full line up is listed below.

trane_660x330Mike Fletcher constantly looks for fresh ideas in music.  I particularly remember a project commissioned in 2013 as part of a short festival at Symphony Hall based on Steve Reich’s music and its influences.  The commission entitled Different Trane drew on the fact that Reich took inspiration for his move into minimalism from hearing John Coltrane play with his quartet in a New York club and also from the Africa Brass album that added a horn section to the quartet.  Mike was given the difficult task of writing pieces influenced by minimalism for a large ensemble.  The concert was a great success and created some very original music.  Sadly, Steve Reich, who had attended part of the festival in order to lead a performance of his latest work,  could not attend the performance by Different Trane, but he did meet Mike and wished him luck commenting that he would not be able to undertake such a commission!

The line up for the ensemble playing on Saturday is:

The band: Mike Fletcher, alto saxophone, composition and direction; John O’Gallagher, George Crowley, saxophones; Sean Gibbs, Aaron Diaz, Sam Wooster, trumpets; Kieran McLeod, Richard Foote, trombones; Andy Johnson, tuba; Tom Ford, guitar; Chris Mapp, bass; Jonathan Silk, drums.

Mike will also be introducing the music before the concert and running a Q&A session afterwards.   The pre-concert talk will be at 12.30.  He discusses his ideas for the talk and Q&A in an interview for London Jazz News, which you can read here.

A Weekend of Varied Music In Birmingham: From Hard Bop to Heavy Metal

I really enjoyed the gig with the Tobie Carpenter Quartet at the Jazzlines foyer session at Symphony Hall last Friday.  The session has been running for nearly 20 years and attracts a large audience of up to 360 people every week to a session that runs in the early evening from 5 to 6.30 on the Friday.  It is a free entry session, but the audience is always generous in its donations.

nadim teimooriThe Tobie Carpenter Quartet is perfect for the session playing really swinging, uncomplicated music in a guitar, organ, saxophone and drums line up.  It has the feel of Blue Note jazz of the 60s and Tobie’s guitar playing is influenced in this context by the playing of Wes Montgomery.  But most of the material is original, written by Tobie.  The group also featured Dave Ferris on organ, David Ingamells on drums and Nadim Teimoori on tenor saxophone.  The latter was particularly impressive playing inventive solos with constantly fresh ideas that fitted the material really well.

Tobie tells me that they have a quartet album coming out later this year and Nadim should be back at Symphony Hall in another context before too long.

Saturday night was the second night at Centrala of the Thinking/Not Thinking Festival curated by Si Paton.  His aim is to bring together different genres and thereby show that they all fit together well and attract an audience with open ears and a willingness to broaden their taste.  Saturday night was an excellent example beginning with the ambient group J Frisco, a trio with soprano sax, keys and electric bass with everyone contributing vocals.  The mood was initially quite gentle, but, as the set progressed, they brought in heavier elements, particularly on the bass.  In a sense their set typified the whole approach of the day.  They were followed by a heavy metal set from The Guts, that was not only very heavy, but also theatrical with constant dramatic movement from the two guitarists and the keyboard player.  steve tromansThey were followed by a trio led by Steve Tromans on keyboard, Ash Trigg on electric bass and Tymek Jozwiak on drums.  From personal communication I know that Steve was concerned about following The Guts, and was wondering how his set could fit the overall vibe of the evening and keep up the intensity levels.  The trio succeeded at this magnificently.  The set began with Tymek and Ash laying down a groove that really built up the mood; Steve was biding his time waiting for the right time to come in.  This extended for quite a time and one began to wonder when he would come in!  But when he did, his building of excitement through dramatic statements and repeated clusters of notes was just right.  This was the pattern throughout the set with the mood set by the swirling rhythms of bass and drums and the powerful interventions from Steve.

Bus timetables meant I missed the final set of the night.  Thinking/Not Thinking has taken place from Friday to Sunday and certainly has legs as a festival.

The photo of Steve Tromans was taken by Garry Corbett.

Alexander Hawkins Nicole Mitchell and Tomeka Reid at Café Oto

Alexander Hawkins invited flautist Nicole Mitchell and cellist Tomeka Reid to join him on the first night of his residency at Café Oto.   They had played together for the first time over the weekend at the Counterflows Festival in Glasgow and had clearly got to know each other’s playing.

nicole mitchellThey played two sets with two improvised sequences in the first set, one long, the other short, then three sequences of similar length in the second set. As far as I am aware, the music was totally improvised and had all the good qualities of that genre.  It was very interactive and conversational in its ebbs and flow.  The interaction was completely seamless with each member of the trio listening carefully to each other, and each one taking in turns to take a lead  in the improvisation.  Moreover, each of the three knew exactly when to come in and respond or take over the lead.

What made the gig really special, however, was the excellence of the three musicians and their mastery of their instruments. Tomeka Reid Nicole Mitchell has a glorious tone on the flute; she is also not afraid to make less traditional sounds by using just the flute mouthpiece, these sounds occasionally reminded me of bird song.  Tomeka Reid has a beautifully rounded sound on the cello and has the ability to create long flowing lines on her instrument.  Alex Hawkins is a brilliant improviser on the piano as we have seen on his stunning solo album Iron Into Wind.

So this was an amazing concert witnessed by a good crowd with a pleasingly wide age range.

Earlier in the day in Birmingham I had witnessed part of an improvised recording session at the Jubilee Centre studio with Paul Dunmall, American trombonist Steve Swell, bass player James Owston and drummer Mark Sanders. It sounded great and I look forward to the end product.

Mike Hobart has fuller review of the Café Oto gig in the Financial Times, and goes into the music in greater detail than my comments, see  I too noticed that Alex Hawkins occasionally went into stride piano mode and for a brief stretch his playing reminded me of Art Tatum.

I am very grateful to Peter Freeman for permission to use these photographs.

Paul Dunmall Quartet at the Claptrap

This concert was an example of improvised music at its very best with four musicians interacting with each other, listening to what was happening around them and reacting in positive and engaging ways to what they were hearing.  Over the two sets the audience heard a huge variety of sounds, textures and grooves.

The quartet was the one that recorded the Inner and Outer Cd which I reviewed very positively at  As is to be expected, the live performance took the music to a higher level.


The first set consisted of three sequences, each building from an initial statement from Philip Gibbs on guitar playing spidery lines, often with the guitar placed horizontally on his knees.  Paul would then come in, initially quite gently before gradually building up the energy levels.  These beautiful initial interactions between Paul and Philip were for me a particular highlight of the afternoon.  Another highlight was the interaction between the two rhythm players, James Owston on double bass and Jim Bashford on drums, which provided a really strong basis for the improvisations.  To use jazz terminology, ‘they swung like the clappers’.  James was also very effective when accompanying Philip in the passages when he was taking the lead on guitar.

Paul was as inventive as ever, always creating fresh melodic lines and never repeating himself.  He was playing the alto saxophone as well as his more usual tenor saxophone and I enjoy the different feel that comes from the alto.

Paul seemed to take the lead in the second set and again there was the pattern of a gradual build up to a climax.  In this set, as well as in the first, the final climax moved into a gentle wind down with Paul making a strong statement accompanied by a beautiful concluding motif from Philip on the guitar.

The gig was recorded and no doubt will appear on the FMR label in due course.

The gig took place on Sunday afternoon in the Claptrap venue in central Stourbridge and was promoted by Richard Bruce Clay.  The Claptrap is an attractive venue, upstairs on the main High Street, just a short walk from the bus and railway station.  It has an excellent stage and comfortable armchairs as well as tables and chairs.  The bar is away from the stage and, all in all, it is an excellent venue for improvised music and jazz.  It is attracting good audiences for these occasional Sunday afternoon concerts.

The photograph was taken by Garry Corbett and his photos can be found at  I am also grateful to Rob Bishop for a conversation which helped form my ideas about this gig.

Jazz on Radio Five Live!

In the morning I tend to listen to Radio Five Live and enjoy listening to talk rather than music, largely because I listen to a lot of live and recorded music and need a change.  I also enjoy the informality of the presenters on Five Live.  I am always interested in the occasional mention of gigs these presenters have been to or are about to attend; they are usually big pop and rock acts, and often stadium or festival gigs.  So I was fascinated this morning to hear Chris Warburton on this morning’s Breakfast Show say that he is really looking forward to hearing The Comet Is Coming, comet is comingand to catch his co-presenter Eleanor Oldroyd reflect that jazz is on the way back!   Of course every few years we are told that jazz is back!  A few years ago I remember Richard Bacon, who was presenting the Late Night show on 5, conducting a phone in about the state of jazz; that also seemed to be claiming a resurgence in interest in the music.

I am, however, encouraged.  Of course jazz has never gone away and the surge in interest in jazz is largely based on one strand, the new London scene, but this trend is healthy nonetheless.  It’s a shame that BBC Radio is at the same planning to cut its coverage of experimental music and jazz.

Three New Discoveries from the New York Scene (For Me at Least)

The recent tour with Jacob Garchik was a great success.  The primary focus was the formation of the UK Trombone Gospel Choir to play music from Jacob’s The Heavens album, but the quintet formed for the first set of each concert with Jacob and Richard Foote on trombones plus Andy Woodhead on piano, Olie Brice on double bass and Andrew Bain on drums also played some great music.  The short tour took in three venues, the CBSO Centre, Birmingham, the Yellow Arch in Sheffield and the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston London.

My purpose here is not to reflect back on the tour, but to suggest that it provided a reminder that there is so much interesting innovative music happening in New York, that this more radical music is gradually becoming part of the mainstream, and that, in fact, the distinction between the so-called mainstream scene and the so-called avant-garde or experimental scene is becoming increasingly blurred.  In this regard it is interesting to note that Tim Berne is playing the doyen of the New York clubs, The Village Vanguard, this week, see

There is a tendency to think, perhaps on my part rather than others, to see all the new work and innovation in the music as coming these days from the different parts of the European scene, from Berlin, France, Norway, London, etc., but, as I say, it is good to be reminded that there is still so much happening in the US.

I have caught up with Jacob Garchik’s 2015 recording, Ye Olde, an album that features Jacob on trombone, and alto and tenor horns playing over three guitars and drums. The music is described as ‘a 2015 cover of the soundtrack to a 1970’s remake of a 1930’s movie about the Middle Ages’.  The three guitarists are Brandon Seabrook, Mary Halvorson and Jonathan Goldberger, and this results in a soundscape that moves between progressive rock and elements of heavy metal, particularly with the drive provided by Vinnie Sperrazza’s drums, then into a more jazz focus.  But there is much more variety than that description suggests; the writing is full of humour and surprises and Jacob’s solos are, as ever, full of interesting twists.  A sample of a live gig can be seen here.

brandon seabrookBrandon Seabrook is a new name for me.  An internet search reveals that he plays banjo as well as guitar and performs in a number of different settings, Seabrook Power Plant, Needle Driver, Die Trommel Fatale, but it is his Brandon Seabrook Trio, a trio with Daniel Levin on cello and Henry Fraser on bass, but no drums that has impressed me most.  I have particularly enjoyed their album Convulsionaries that has a raw energy.  Have a listen here.

joel rossThe research into Brandon Seabrook has led to another new name for me, vibes player Joel Ross.  He is a young player, originally from Chicago, but has already been spotted by Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride and others.  His playing builds on a strong sense of swing, but differs from the traditional approach to the vibes with a tone that is ‘brittle, percussive and woody’ (Asher Wolf, All About Jazz).  Interestingly, he started on the drums as a child before moving to other percussion instruments.  Have a listen here.

anna webberFinally, Jacob introduced me to the music of Anna Webber, a saxophonist and composer originally from British Columbia, but now based in New York.  Her music draws on both contemporary jazz and new music, and she is a member of the new music group Bang on a Can Allstars as well as leading and composing for her own ensemble, a group that includes  fellow saxophonist, Jeremy Viner, Jacob Garchik, bassist Chris Tordini, pianist Matt Mitchell, cellist Christopher Hoffman and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith.  They have recorded the album Clockwise, a sample of which you can hear here.