Culture Music: Cheltenham's Credentials Boosted by Jazz Festival

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Byline: Peter Bacon

The Cheltenham Jazz Festival brings the finest contemporary jazz musicians in the world to the Midlands' doorstep.

Peter Bacon recommends heading south There are times when the elegant Regency boulevards of Cheltenham are aglow with the tweeds and bling of the horse-racing crowd, and there are times when the earnest classical concert goers bring their "naice" well-bred vowels to the night air, distinguished from the literary set by their less shabby dress sense.

And then there is the long weekend when it's far more difficult to pigeonhole the crowd, unless one is acutely aware of the more relaxed gait they exhibit while wandering from Town Hall to Everyman Theatre and up to Montpelier for a quick snack and drink.

These are the easy rollers, the affable, lowblood pressure, laid back and ever so slightly cool characters we know as jazz fans.

They are arriving slightly earlier each year as the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, which now has the initials HSBC added in front of it, stretches even further before the May Day holiday weekend.

And they are a remarkably eclectic bunch - from greying goateed grandfathers to young afro-haired, tie-dyed students (you can see examples of both on the festivals i-pod-like brochure illustrations) - partly because jazz is a pretty broad church and especially because Cheltenham Jazz Festival offers such a remarkable range of music, from the most popular artists working on the jazz periphery of other styles to those working at jazz's very core.

So, this year, it opens with two nights on which the legendary eternal Eartha Kitt plays in the uncharacteristically intimate and proper setting of the Pittville Pump Room, and also features gigs by a British iconoclast like Pete Wareham and his band The Final Terror!, and New York saxophonist Tim Berne's equally feisty and aptly named Science Friction.

Kitt might be found in the easy listening section of your local record shop, while Berne's and Wareham's discs would sit more easily in the racks labelled, triumphantly, uneasy listening. But down in Cheltenham they become not so much uneasy bedfellows but rather happy contrasts. Also included on the easy side of the scales are the Celtic blues rock of Van Morrison, the strutting funk of one-time James Brown horn man Maceo Parker, the modern jazzabilly of Dublin's Imelda May, the soul singing of Ruby Turner and the Italian jazz DJ flair of Nicola Conte and the BBC Big Band.

Representing the less compromising side of jazz are players from both here and New York, as well as a few mainland Europeans. They include the Dutch jazz avant-gardist drummer Han Bennink, the oh-so Italian duo of pianist Stefano Bollani and trumpeter Enrico Rava, drummer Bobby Previte's New Bump band, Ralph Alessi's This Against That and young English trio Blink.

And then there are the really big names of jazz in 2008, the ones that are qualified with "the great" in front of their names.

Like the great guitarist Bill Frisell and the great drummer Jack DeJohnette. These are the headliners wherever in the world there is a really serious jazz festival. …