Neil Charles’ Dark Days at Cheltenham Jazz Festival: The Interview

In this video Neil Charles is interviewed by Tony Dudley-Evans; he talks of how the American writer James Baldwin is an icon, and how the short book about racial issues, Dark Days, has inspired him.

In writing the music for the commission Neil has taken excerpts from the book, and involved vocalist Cleveland Watkiss in declaiming these, and also in capturing the rhythms of Baldwin’s speech patterns. The three instrumentalists, pianist Pat Thomas, drummer Mark Sanders and Neil himself on double bass, will be ‘bubbling’ behind the vocals in order to capture the intensity of Baldwin’s prose.

Neil also talks of how he got into jazz and subsequently into free playing, and also of his alter ego as an electronic producer. Finally he addresses briefly the issue of jazz festivals in relation to the legacy of slavery.

The video can be viewed at

You can buy tickets for the gig (Saturday 30th April) at

New Line Up For Hammond Organ Night at the Eastside Jazz Club

A Hammond Organ

Revival Room, the Hammond Organ Trio with Adam Fairhall, Mark Hanslip and Johnny Hunter, have had to postpone their appearance at the Hammond Organ night at the Eastside Jazz Club tomorrow night (Thursday 24th) as one of the trio has caught Covid. We wish him well, and will plan to rebook the trio for the autumn.

However, the music goes on, and club director and Head of Jazz, Jeremy Price, has been able to book another excellent trio featuring Dave Ferris on Hammond, Tom Barford on saxophone, and Jonathan Silk on drums. This should be a really top class band, and the wonderful Gabriella Liandu will also be performing with her own band in the support slot at 6.30. Gabriella received a standing ovation for her performance at Symphony Hall ten days ago.

There will also be a set of students playing the Hammond, so the evening now looks like this:

6.30pm Gabriella Liandu Quintet support band
7.45pm student Hammond bands
8.30pm Ferris Silk and Barford
9.30pm close

Residencies in Jazz: The ELDA Project

In Bed With

I have occasionally been involved with newly commissioned work that involves collaboration between British and French musicians. There was the second version of In Bed With when Kit Downes joined drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq and guitarist Julien Desprez, and also Tweedledee, a band led by saxophonist Robin Fincker.

These were very successful projects, but the experience of presenting them and subsequent discussions with the musicians involved have revealed interesting cultural differences between the British and the French approaches to preparing for new work. The French tend to want extensive rehearsal leading up to the first date, whereas the British prefer a much shorter rehearsal period, and to keep the music fresh for the premiere. Clearly this is an generalisation, perhaps an over-simplification, but the musicians I have discussed this with tend to agree that there are these differences.

The two approaches have their distinct advantages and disadvantages: a new work developed and extensively rehearsed in France will usually be fully ready and tight for the first gig, but it may lose spontaneity and become a little stale if it is played over a series of gigs. By contrast, new work in Britain is sometimes not quite ready for the first gig, which therefore becomes a kind of final rehearsal. The advantage is that the work continues to develop and retain its freshness if and when it is played over a series of gigs. When a new work or a commission is developed in Britain, it is therefore advisable to have a small warm up gig before the official premiere of the work.

The lack of time for extensive rehearsal in Britain undoubtedly creates a situation where musicians who have a flexibility and adaptability thrive and take advantage of the opportunities the funding system creates for new work, commissions and special projects. Nonetheless it is undoubtedly the case that bands develop, and become tighter when they have the opportunity to work together over a short period, either on a tour or in a residency which acts as a creative workshop. I have had the privilege of touring with a number of bands, and it is always fascinating to observe how the music of the groups grows during the tour. I particularly remember touring with a Contemporary Music Network project led by percussionist Don Alias featuring Michael Brecker; it was fascinating to hear how Brecker’s solos gradually changed over the tour.

It is in this context that I welcome the setting up of a residency by ELDA, the duo of Andrew Woodhead and Aaron Diaz, piano/electronics and trumpet/electronics respectively. ELDA has always looked to collaborate with other musicians, and have done so with Norwegian vocalist Kari Eskild Havenstrøm, bass player Meesha Fons, the Archipelago trio, bass player Chris Mapp, trumpeter Sam Wooster, and guitarist Anton Hunter. This time the project will be more ambitious with a four-day residency that will feature different collaborators each day. This will take place at Artefact, the coffee shop on Stirchley High Street which is the perfect small informal venue in which to develop new ideas and partnerships.

The full programme is as follows:

Sunday 27th March, 3pm

ELDA Residency Day 1 Featuring Chris Mapp & Sam Wooster

Sam Wooster – Trumpet/Electronics, Chris Mapp – Bass/Electronics, Andrew Woodhead – Keyboards/Electronics, Aaron Diaz – Trumpet/Electronics

Monday 28th March, 7pm:

ELDA Residency Day 2 Featuring Faye MacCalman

Faye MC – Reeds/Electronics, Andrew Woodhead – Keyboards/Electronics, Aaron Diaz – Trumpet/Electronics

Tuesday 29th March, 7pm:

ELDA Residency Day 3 Featuring Meesha Fones

Meesha Fones – Synths/Electronics, Andrew Woodhead – Keyboards/Electronics Aaron Diaz – Trumpet/Electronics

Wednesday 30th March, 7pm:

ELDA Residency Day 4 Featuring Anton Hunter

Anton Hunter – Guitar/FX, Andrew Woodhead – Keyboards/Electronics, Aaron Diaz – Trumpet/Electronics

Paul Dunmall Quintet with the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Big Band at Eastside Jazz Club

I don’t usually write about gigs that I have promoted, but last Thursday’s concert with the Paul Dunmall Quintet and the RBC Big Band conducted by Ed Puddick was so good that I feel the urge to write about it.

The format of the concert involved the improvising quintet led by Paul Dunmall working with the horns of the RBC Big Band to play arrangements by Ed Puddick of compositions of Paul Dunmall’s from the latter’s Dreamtime and Soultime Suites. One arrangement of a composition by Ed Puddick was included in the programme.

There were two particularly interesting features of the way they concert was organised. The arrangements essentially added texture to the improvisations of the quintet, and enriched both the playing of the themes and the free playing in the solos. Secondly, there was a spontaneity about the use of the arrangements in that Ed Puddick would cue the the big band horns at moments that seemed appropriate to the improvisations of the quintet; in other words there was no fixed point at which the big band was due to play a particular arrangements, nor even a fixed order for them.

All of this created what I believe I am right in saying was a unique way of bringing together free improvisation, composition and a big band sound. This was different from, say, The Globe Unity Orchestra, or Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra in that it provided a different balance between freedom and structure as compared to those two ensembles.

It certainly created an exciting concert. We had some particularly brilliant playing from Paul Dunmall, and some equally fine blowing from Percy Pursglove on the trumpet. Glen Leach on the piano was a revelation, and he combined extremely well with Dave Kane on the double bass and Miles Levin on drums. Indeed, some of the best improvised passages came from the piano bass drums trio. The trumpets, trombones, tuba and saxophones of the RBC Big band were magnificant, and clearly enjoyed the experience of working in a different context. Conductor/arranger Ed Puddick was the key to the whole project; he had come up with the concept of using the arrangements in the spontaneous way described above, had actually arranged the pieces for the big band horns, and did the difficult job of conducting the big band flexibly.

The music was received with great enthusiasm by a sellout audience. There are now tentative plans to record the project.

Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2022: The Programme In The Parabola Arts Centre

The programme in the Parabola Arts Centre (PAC) will this year present 11 concerts representing what we consider to be some of the most interesting contemporary jazz from the UK, Europe and the USA. 

There are various themes, small groups and large ensembles, new commissions, vocal jazz, improvised music and premieres of new bands.

On the first night, the Friday night, we welcome back the Swiss singer Lucia Cadotsch, who was a huge success in the 2018 festival with her beautiful renditions of well known songs in the Speak Low trio.  On this occasion she will be performing with Kit Downes, Phil Donkin and James Maddren.

The second gig on the Friday night will feature a new group led by pianist Zoe Rahman featuring trumpeter Byron Wallen and flautist Rowland Sutherland.   Zoe will be writing new material for this band

The Saturday programme is very full.  It starts with one of the most popular events of the whole PAC programme: the collaboration between jazz students from Birmingham Conservatoire and students from across Europe.  This year the Birmingham students will be collaborating with jazz students from Siena and Hamburg to form three groups.  They get together in Birmingham, work out their material, play a warm up gig in Birmingham on the Friday, and then travel down to Cheltenham.

Dark Days is a new commission for bass player Neil Charles inspired by the thoughts of the American writer James Baldwin in his book Dark Days.  Neil has put together a great group with vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, pianist Pat Thomas and drummer Mark Sanders for this new work.

We always want to include in the PAC programme bands from continental Europe, and this year we have Shake Stew from Austria led by bass player Lukas Kranzelbinder.  It’s a great band which recently won the best International Band in the German Jazz Awards, and are making their UK debut at Cheltenham.

There is a very interesting scene developing in Scotland, particularly in Glasgow, with bands drawing on Scottish traditional music and integrating it with jazz.  Graham Costello‘s band Strata which also features Fergus McCreadie on piano, is an excellent example of this tendency. They play the final set of the day in PAC.

Sunday is equally busy.  The day begins with an improvising quartet led by saxophonist Paul Dunmall.  We always want to include free jazz/improvised music in the PAC programme; this group is the finest in the UK, and Paul Dunmall is one of the greatest improvisers on the saxophone anywhere in the world. He leads a wonderful quartet with Liam Noble on piano, John Edwards on double bass andw Mark Sanders on drums.

We follow that opening gig with a nice contrast: a large ensemble led by and composed for by trumpeter/composer Laura Jurd.  This is a rare live outing for Laura’s Stepping Back, Jumping In project, which was recorded, but not often heard live.  Compositions for the ensemble are by Laura, Elliot Galvin, Soosan Lolavar, Anja Lauvdal and Heida Johannesdottir.

Fascinada is a new project led by saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren with Rob Luft guitar, Conor Chaplin bass and Will Glaser drums.  The band will be playing tribute to great Brazilian musicians, notably Tom Jobim, Hermeto Pascoal, Milton Nascimento, Ivan Lins, Joao Bosco moving from  improvisation into themes inspired by these musicians.

The day concludes with the great Mike Westbrook leading his jazz orchestra performing his tribute to Duke Ellington, On Duke’s Birthday.  Mike is one of the most important musicians and composers in the UK and Europe, but this is the first time that Mike has appeared at Cheltenham.

This year we have one concert in PAC on the Monday of the festival.  This is an all woman band from New York led by pianist Myra Melford and featuring Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, Mary Halvorsen on guitar, Tomeka Reid on cello and Susie Ibarra on drums.  They come to Cheltenham as part of an extensive European tour.  It will be great to welcome Ingrid Laubrock back to Cheltenham; she was one of the Jerwood Rising Stars before she moved to New York. And Myra Melford is a charismatic pianist and bandleader.

I should also mention one concert on another stage: Dave Douglas will perform in duo with Joey Baron on the Jazz Arena on the Saturday.  Dave is a great friend of the festival, and a key figure in the US scene as is his partner on this occasion, drummer Joey Baron.

Booking for all these concerts can be made at