Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2015: Blog

Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Cheltenham Jazz Festival - Credit: Archant

The 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival takes place from Wednesday, April 29 – Monday, May 4. We went along to enjoy performances from a range of established stars and emerging talent

Van Morrison among the star-studded line-up of this year's Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Van Morrison among the star-studded line-up of this year's Cheltenham Jazz Festival - Credit: Archant

Van Morrison


Van Morrison emerged from backstage, clad in his usual dark suit, tinted glasses and fedora, nonchalantly taking his place in front of the microphone as the audience clapped and cheered. Without a word, he kicked off the 90 or so minutes of blues, jazz and soul music by jamming with his band, letting his saxophone say hello to the crowd instead. It felt like a long time before we finally got to hear that famous voice, but it was worth the wait; age hasn’t dulled Van Morrison’s vocal tone or power, and he sang impeccably.

Due to stage-fright, Van often looks uncomfortable in the limelight, but as the performance wore on it was great to see him loosen up and enjoy himself. He even felt relaxed enough to joke a little with the Jazz Festival audience, at one point entertaining us with impressions of Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

Van and his band injected a great deal of energy into their brand of blue-eyed soul, and although we were constrained by our seats, feet were tapping, heads were bobbing and hands were clapping, with every song receiving loud applause (and the odd standing ovation, too).

Many of the songs were protracted, with long improvisational sequences allowing each of the band members to shine, as per jazz tradition. Van had a chance to show-off his skills as a multi-instrumentalist, handling saxophone, harmonica and guitar with ease, and the fantastic solo by his drummer was a perfect crescendo to the evening.

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The Big Top was a large enough venue to contain the 1300 people in relative comfort, whilst being small enough to give even those at the furthest corners a sense of intimacy with Van and his band. That said, leaving the venue turned out to be a little like being kettled during the 2011 riots, and we probably needed some considerate Jazz Festival shepherd to guide us in the right direction.

Whilst Van Morrison has gained some notoriety for being a somewhat inconsistent live performer, he was on top form on Wednesday, giving Cheltenham a real treat and getting the Jazz Festival off to a great start.

Jazz In A Box

Katie Jarvis enjoyed an exclusive preview of Jazz In A Box, a free event offering visitors to the Festival the chance to experience a one-on-one performance by a talented musician. Here’s an excerpt from her experience:

Kit Downes

Kit Downes - Credit: Archant

“Hello,” says Kit Downes, almost curtly, as I’m shown into a small, small room of four bare, featureless walls. The only window is blacked out; the door firmly clunks to behind me. An image of Brian Keenan flashes, unbidden, into my mind. There are three things in this room – a piano, and two functional chairs. Kit Downes is sitting in one; I uncertainly take the other. I study for a moment the back of his head. It’s nicely formed; dark, well-cut hair… Look - if I’m being absolutely honest here, I’m clutching at straws: you can’t tell much from the back of someone’s head.

He suddenly turns to me. “Red or blue?” he asks, out of the blue (or red).

Oh Lord, I panic. Why is he asking me this? I mean, it’s a simple question. Too simple, I think, suspiciously. If I say ‘red’, that probably tells him I have latent axe-murderer tendencies. There again, ‘blue’ could signify I’m a wizened, emotionless shell. “Red,” I decide, quickly. (There are no sharp objects in this room.) He gives me a coin. “Flip this and call heads or tails.” Also not a difficult request; but I panic again. Am I meant to predict or note? I’m so uncomfortable; so at sea, here, in this almost-empty, door-shut, window-dimmed cell. He retrieves the coin, glances at it, turns to the piano, lifts elegant fingers, and begins to play. And… listen! It’s like no experience I’ve had before. Just me. Just him. Just a piano. Just two chairs. And a room suddenly crowded with invisible particles of air that jostle, vibrate and resonate with notes just for me. As he plays, and air swirls, I’m sometimes in the room with him; sometimes I’m transported on a wild gallop, across windswept plains. There are discords that scare me; motifs that become familiar friends. I feel very close to him, this man I’ve hardly met; yet I’m also a voyeur, as he - immersed in his playing - breathes a wild tattoo that accords with his music.

I also feel things I can’t express.

When his hands finally still (after how long? I’ve no idea), he almost slumps. Exhausted. I, on the other hand, continue to sit statue-like; but my racing brain has to slow down (I picture it hands on hips, bowed like a recovering marathon-runner), and snail its way back to my waiting body. Kit Downes turns to me and, for the first time, smiles. “Let’s go and talk somewhere,” he says. Life assumes a normality that’s both a relief and a come-down.

Read Katie’s full account and interview with pianist Kit Downes here.

Line-up details

This year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival features performances from a range of established stars and emerging talent, including Jamie Cullum, Van Morrison, Caro Emerald, Laura Mvula, Gregory Porter and Squarepusher. For information about what’s on at the Jazz Festival, read our article here. Or visit the Cheltenham Jazz Festival website.