Cheltenham Jazz Festival: Mica Paris - playful reinterpretations show how to stir the soul, review

Mica Paris performed at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival - 2017 Steve Thorne
Mica Paris performed at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival - 2017 Steve Thorne

"Isn’t jazz wonderful? Jazz was sleeping and now it’s waking up!” That was soul singer Mica Paris’s defiant assertion, before her Ella Fitzgerald-inspired set at this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Unsurprisingly the sentiment drew a cheer from the crowd. As the festival proved, the art form is in rude health, but the events I attended were a reminder that creation is a surer route to the true jazz spirit than pious recreation.

Paris’s set was a case in point. She wasn’t content just to emulate Fitzgerald’s effortless perfection. Instead she seized some of Fitzgerald’s best-loved songs and turned them into soul anthems. The effect was startling, especially in the sunny swinging number They Can’t Take That Away From Me. In Paris’s version, the song became desperately intense, with those moaning repetitions of phrases that are a trademark of soul singers. To be frank, it felt a bit forced, but in other numbers such as It’s Too Darned Hot, Paris’s injection of a raunchy blues sound was exhilarating.

Soul rockers Booker T and the MGs in 1970 - Credit: AP
Soul rockers Booker T and the MGs in 1970 Credit: AP

We were promised more blues earthiness later, in the shape of Booker T Jones, the singer and keyboardist from Memphis, Tennessee, who had several hits in the early Sixties before he’d even turned 20. Alas, it felt like a curated tour down memory lane, with Booker T as the smilingly polite tour guide in suit and tie, announcing each number with pedantic exactitude.

Classic songs such as Green Onions had all the right bluesy inflections, but they felt weirdly inert. By contrast, the almost-whispered songs in the afternoon set from guitarist and composer Lionel Loueke felt utterly fresh, as if he were inventing them at that very moment.

The musical memories of his native Benin have become ever stronger, with his guitar often made to sound like a thumb-played lute or kora, flavoured with glottal stops and tongue-clicks. That naïve delight in making sounds in unusual ways could be called African, or it could be called jazz-like.

The same playfulness could be heard in the set from the young Elliot Galvin trio. At one point, Galvin put sticky tape on the piano strings, which had the effect of turning the expensive Fazioli into a native African xylophone. In another number he put glowing major chords in odd combinations, as if he’d just discovered them. The whole set was a delight, and a reminder that the best jazz is all about “playing”, in both senses.

Cheltenham Jazz Festival finishes on Monday 21 May. Tickets: 01242 850270

The 30 best jazz films


Register Log in commenting policy