The stunning Parabola Arts Centre (PAC) programme puts a spotlight on contemporary jazz, and includes a series of intimate and inspiring concerts that provide a snapshot of the contemporary jazz scene across the UK, Europe and the USA.
The PAC programme showcases a range of small groups, larger ensembles, and even features a solo performance from the Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus this year. The music has a lot of variety, from free improvisation to more structured music, and draws on many influences both from within jazz and other genres of music.
There are various themes in the programme and the first is a focus on the very healthy Norwegian scene. The Festival has always had strong links with Norway, the first Festival opened with the Bergen Big Band with special guest Andy Sheppard. Andy returns this year with a smaller Norwegian group, the excellent Espen Eriksen Trio, who have been touring together for several years, and have developed a strong bond.
Then we have Paal Nilssen-Love’s Circus, a group that Paal brought together during lockdown to concentrate on his love for music from Brazil, Ethiopia and West Africa (Mali and Senegal). Stian Westerhus will also be performing solo and with the very powerful CollapseUncollapse, with duo drummer Mark Sanders and electric bass player Chris Mapp.
One of the most intriguing concerts this year will be Angrusori, a pan-European collaboration between the Norwegian Kitchen Orchestra and Roma musicians from Slovakia led by Iva Bittova. The collaboration is based on the traditional Roma songs from Slovakia, but with arrangements from the Kitchen Orchestra that retain the beauty of the original songs, and adds in flavours of contemporary jazz from Norway. This unique concert introduces another theme of the PAC programme: the mixing of jazz with other genres.
Another focus is on students studying jazz at tertiary level. Students from the jazz course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire will join students from the Siena Jazz Accademia for one of the highlights of the PAC programme.
The PAC programme also showcases how free improvisation is increasingly integrated with elements of structure and composition. Drummer Mark Sanders is known as one of the world’s finest improvising drummers, but in his CollapseUncollapse set with Stian Westerhus I’m expecting an element of pre-determined structure as well as the free improvisation. Likewise, I expect the same mix of composition and open improvisation from the Deadeye trio from Berlin featuring guitarist Reinier Baas, drummer Jonas Burgwinkel and pianist/organist Kit Downes.
Kit will also be playing a solo set on church organ in St. Andrews Church on the final day of the festival, Monday 1 May. Paal Nilssen-Love’s Circus take this approach a stage further as a septet whose music flows in and out of themes from Africa and South America.
Black Top, Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas will be performing with the rising star Xhosa Cole also fit into this theme; they draw on different strands of jazz and black music to create music full of energy, surprises and grooves.
One concert that does not fit into any particular theme, but will undoubtedly be a brilliant opening concert in the PAC programme is Skylla, the vocal trio with Ruth Goller, Lauren Kinsella and Alice Grant. Ruth is one of the most outstanding musicians based in the UK and she'll also be accompanying the vocals on electric bass.
Although we have no Americans in PAC this year, Julian Lage, Stanley Clarke and Lizz Wright will be in other venues at the Festival.
The final concert in the PAC programme will feature a special commission from trumpeter and composer Laura Jurd to mark my final programme at Cheltenham. I have decided – with many regrets – that it is time to step down, so this will be a concert that marks my departure.
The group will bring together a brass section with Laura on trumpet, Chris Batchelor, trumpet, Alex Paxton, trombone, Raph Clarkson, trombone and Oren Marshall, tuba and an improvising quartet with Paul Dunmall, saxophones, Liam Noble, piano, Dave Kane, bass, and Miles Levin, drums. Laura tells me that some of the written material has an earthy, primal folk feel to it and ‘celebrates all the different things brass instruments can do’, from the softer and beautiful side to the more raucous and powerful side.
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