Concert: Silje Nergaard at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, The Times, BBCi

The Times 4 May, BBCi 4 May 2004

05/05/2004 ::  

Blowing from the wilder shores

“And now we’re going to play a piece inspired by Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time,” announced the trumpeter Tom Arthurs, halfway through the concert by his band Centripede. His buttery flugelhorn and Ingrid Laubrock’s blurry tenor saxophone delivered the angular opening phrases, underpinned by dramatic drumming from Asaf Sirkis, before the band charge off into a sunny hard-boppish theme that borrowed its contour from Messiaen’s original. Once upon a time, such sources of inspiration would have been regarded as unusual, but the theme running through this year’s Cheltenham concerts, and in particular those that formed part of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation’s Rising Starts series, is that jazz can be made out of almost anything.

The Jerwood series is unique in a British jazz. It’s an opportunity for up-and-coming talents to present their work to a large audience, with a budget for proper development, plus, in some cases, original composition. This year’s major commission was Improvokation, Anglo-Hungarian co-operation co-ordinated by the British bassist Arnie Somogyi to coincide with Hungarian accession to the EU. Its pieces came from many backgrounds, including Celta-Rozsa by the band’s trumpeter Neil Yates, which combined Celtic and Hungarian themes, and the guitarist Zsolt Bende’s wistful portrait of his return to Budapest after years abroad. Most successful was the terpsichorean Bear Dance by Mihály Borbély, which whisked fiddle and cimbalom into an intoxicating blend with conventional jazz instrumentation, topped off by the brilliant eccentric pianism of Béla Szacksi Lakatos.

Other Jerwood presentations drew on very different source material, and Chris Bowden’s Slightly Askew band looked back to the heady days of the free-festival scene of the early 1970s, with subtle jazz rock grooves of the kind favoured by Nucleus suddenly exploding into the leader’s acerbic Charlie Parker- influenced alto saxophone solos. There was a conscious sense of throwback, too, in the playing of the aptly titled Acoustic Ladyland, whose neatly camouflaged Jimi Hendrix covers also contained an impassioned Velvet Underground number. In this tumultuous climax to their set, Seb Rochford’s rhythmic frenzy at the drums goaded the tenor saxophonist Pete Wareham into the weekend’s most dramatic playing.

Outside the Jerwood series, there were equally intriguing sources of inspiration for other new music. The trumpeter and flugelhornist Gerard Presencer put himself at centre stage for his commission, a suite of pieces inspired by Jim Crace’s book The Devil’s Larder. Subtle writing and clever playing portrayed everything from whistling waiters to the old gits of Crace’s text.

This year’s artist in residence was the pianist John Taylor, whose big band and international quartet drew inspiration from the English countryside. Iain Ballamy’s lyrical soprano sax on Windfall and the gritty precision of the leader’s own playing on his Ambleside Days suite more that compensated for the quartet’s star American guest, John Abercrombie, playing some belowpar guitar solos.

The most surprising inspiration of the weekend came from the Norwegian singer Silje Negaard. Her classic ballade, Unbreakable Heart, delivered in a delicate hush with an exquisite solo from her pianist Tord Gustavsen, was inspired by a mundane poster at Frankfurt Airport.

Alyn Shipton for The Times


Silje steals the show
Norwegian jazz songstress Silje Nergaard and her band put on an awesome show at the 2004 Cheltenham International Jazz Festival.

For me, Silje Nergaard and her support band were undoubtedly one of the highlights of this year's jazz festival. Her graceful, captivating voice was silky in tone and perfectly suited to the mellow nature of her music.

There's an engaging quality to her on stage - you really get the sense that she loves every minute of her performance and it seems to be naturally portrayed in her voice.

Silje Nergaard
Her songs are also well crafted and hugely enjoyable. She writes her own songs and performed some of them at the festival. Her compositions are excellent because she seems to have a complete understanding of her voice and what she can do with it.

Even her interpretations of other artists' work seen to have a unique feel to them. She sang a cover of Sting's 'If You Love Someone (Set Them Free)' and it was such an entertaining version that it had a life of its own.

Catchy jazz tunes
I've heard her music before when I chanced upon one of her older albums. It was 'At First Light' (2001) and I was just listening to it out of curiosity. I found that I really enjoyed it. Musically, it was very appealing. The smooth, catchy jazz tunes were easy to like and it quickly became a favourite of mine.

In fact, she sang a song from that album called 'Japanese Blue' at the festival. It stood out as a silky smooth number with fantastically rich lyrics that, accompanied by some fine atmospheric jazz, was a delight to listen to.

Hearing Silje sing live, you can certainly say I'm a fan of her music! And after hearing the high praise from members of the audience on the way out, I somehow think I'm not the only one.

Fantastic support
I can't write this review without mentioning the outstanding performances of her support band. They were Tord Gustavsen on piano and keyboards, Harald Johnsen on bass, Jarle Vespetad on drums and Hallgrim Bratberg on guitar.

Tord Gustavsen
Tord on the piano was an absolute revelation. His control and technique were marvellous and he deservedly received generous applause from the audience. I think he's quite possibly one of the most accomplished jazz pianists I've ever heard playing live.

At one point he was playing both the piano and the Fender Rhodes keyboard. Such was his talent that he carried the dual performance off without making a single mistake.

Jarle Vespetad also merits a mention because his delicate touch at drums helped to underscore the rich, melodic feeling of the music. His understated performance underpinned the silky sound of the jazz and gave it an enticing beat.

Along with Silje, they make a very fine ensemble indeed. Here were five artists who really performed magnificently together. It was as if they were at the peak of their powers and the music flowed so naturally that it just couldn't fail.

Outstanding performance
My review for the collective efforts of Silje and her band may seem high on the praise but it was one of the most sophisticated and accomplished performances I've witnessed in a long time. Her striking voice was accompanied by some truly marvellous jazz. For me, it was hands down the best concert I've attended at this year's festival.

It was Silje's very first appearance at the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival and I'm hoping she returns next year because her performance and that of the excellent musicians around her warrants it.

Review by Nic Baddeley for BBCi

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