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 Finding a way to make Playtime last

 

The Playtime quartet (l to r) Tom Bancroft, Martin Kershaw, Graeme Stephen, Mario Caribe

 

In the upstairs room of a bar down a lane just round the corner from Edinburgh’s city centre tram terminus, every second Thursday, musical magic happens. That the venue itself, the Outhouse, should offer a successful location is not so surprising. Here, during the Edinburgh Fringe over the past ten years or so, audiences have experiencing shows by musicians who have flown in from Los Angeles or New Orleans to appear in the intimate loft space.

 

More of a triumph is that Playtime, the Thursday jazz session, has survived and thrived now for five years and shows no sign of losing momentum. If anything, these fortnightly sessions are becoming more popular.

 

Saxophonist Martin Kershaw, who started the session in partnership with guitarist Graeme Stephen, felt that there would be an audience for what they had in mind but it has taken persistence and commitment to ensure that the core Playtime quartet regularly attracts enough people to cover a reasonable band fee.

 

“Graeme and I talked about starting a session where we could try out new compositions,” says Kershaw, who has been a familiar sight to Scottish National Jazz Orchestra followers for many years as well as leading his own projects. “There was nowhere we could do that at the time in the informal way we discussed, so we set about compiling a list of venues we could approach and we got lucky.”

 

First on the list was the Outhouse, which at the time was owned by veteran jazz pianist Tom Finlay and managed by his daughter, Kim, and was already staging jazz gigs during the Fringe.

 

“Kim was immediately receptive to the idea,” says Kershaw. “In fact, she virtually said, When can you start? So, in March 2014, we opened for business. We initially tried to run a weekly session but for various reasons – mostly to do with musician availability – we settled into a fortnightly routine.”

 

Kershaw and Stephen had agreed that a core group of four would be the best plan, bringing in a bass player and drummer to create a house quartet. They asked Mario Caribe and Tom Bancroft to join them and as well as the house quartet, they had four composers who, between them, could provide two fifty-minute sets of new music on a regular basis. They also had a host who was happy to get involved in promoting the newly-named Playtime sessions.

 

“I’m not sure we could have got it off the ground if it hadn’t been for Kim’s support,” says Kershaw. “Obviously there was the family link to music, which she wanted to maintain, but she went as far as doing initial publicity, having posters printed and that sort of thing. She also gave us the room for no charge and was happy for us to keep the door money while the bar downstairs got the business from people coming to the gigs. It was a great relationship that made it easier for us to keep going but also made us want to repay Kim’s faith in us by establishing Playtime as the sort of gig people wanted to come to.”

 

With four of Scotland’s leading jazz musicians involved, Playtime had built-in quality. It was also susceptible to having its musicians booked elsewhere for gigs that, to be frank, paid better.

 

“We were quite open from the start,” says Kershaw.  “It was inevitable that there would be times when everyone couldn’t make it but there’s always been at least one of the original four who can take on the session and bring in other people to make sure the run stays unbroken. That’s proved to be one of strengths of Playtime, in a way, because if some of us have had to pull out, whoever’s left can decide what to play. And partly for that reason we started incorporating tribute nights where one of us would choose a composer, and maybe some guest musicians, and put a programme together with new arrangements of established jazz tunes.”

 

The range of styles and eras these “Playtime plays …” tributes have included almost covers the entire history of jazz. Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Charles Mingus and more have all been featured.

 

“For me, that’s been one of the most enjoyable aspects of Playtime,” says Kershaw. “There have been nights when I’ve been allowed to explore someone’s music that I either hadn’t played at all or hadn’t played very much. For instance, Mario was very keen to do a programme of the Crusaders’ jazz-funk, and he put a lot of time and effort into choosing the material and writing arrangements. Our regular audience seem to like that variety and are pretty confident that whatever we do they’ll enjoy it, even the nights when we do two fifty-minute sets of completely improvised music. That can ask quite a lot of people’s listening powers but they stay with us and even bought the CD when we recorded a “free” session and released it as a double album.”    

 

One of the most often-remarked-upon features of Playtime is that the core quartet has so successfully paid homage to jazz pianists without having a pianist in the band. The Bill Evans night remains among the best-received of the Playtime tributes and to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Playtime, Kershaw, Stephen, Caribe and Bancroft will be returning to another triumph by featuring the music of piano master Keith Jarrett in a rare gig away from the Outhouse, at the popular and similarly intimate Jazz at St James series of concerts in Leith.

 

“It maybe sounds strange to be honouring a pianist without a piano but it’s actually quite liberating,” says Kershaw. “When we did the Jarrett programme before, Tom [Bancroft] had favourite albums from a particular era, including Personal Mountains, which features Jarrett’s Scandinavian quartet with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, a classic group. So Tom did a lot of transcribing and it worked really well. It’s not the musician we’re trying to capture in that situation, it’s the music, and coming at it from a different angle gives it a fresh perspective. We’re not copying that classic quartet, not that we could if we tried, it’s more about presenting our take on the music they played. I really enjoyed playing that music and it’ll be a great way to celebrate our fifth anniversary.”

 

Looking ahead, Kershaw wants to see Playtime building on its success. The session has already won recognition in the shape of the Ginkhana Innovation in Jazz Award at the New Music Scotland awards in February last year and the core musicians are always looking to expand the Playtime audience and playing opportunities.

 

“We created a Playtime website quite early on and we’d like to revamp it and document what Playtime is, what it does and has done because that’s now well over a hundred concerts we’ve staged,” says Kershaw. “More recording, getting commissions for new music and finding ways of bringing in more guests from further afield, as we did when we were able to take advantage of visits north by saxophonist Rachael Cohen and trumpeter Neil Yates – that would all add to Playtime’s presence, although everyone involved’s energy and enthusiasm for what we do is as strong, if not stronger than, ever.”

 

Playtime plays Keith Jarrett at St James Scottish Episcopal Church, Leith on Saturday, February 16. The next Playtime session at the Outhouse in Edinburgh takes place on Thursday, February 21.

 

From The Herald, February 13, 2019

 

 

 

 

STRATA takes it up to another level

 

              

                                          photo by Jannica Honey

 

As his exciting, super-accomplished young band launches its first album, drummer Graham Costello talks about where his music came from an where he hops to take it.

 

Graham Costello’s STRATA, is among the wave of exciting young jazz acts that has been gathering momentum in Glasgow over the past two or three years. Along with others including pianist Fergus McCreadie, who plays with STRATA as well as leading his own attention-grabbing trio, fellow drummer Stephen Henderson and guitarist Joe Williamson, Costello has been setting a standard of musicianship that has seasoned observers talking about Glasgow as a jazz hotbed of approaching New York proportions.

 

Much of this has to do with the environment created around the jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Costello is a graduate of the course and by his own admission, a less likely candidate for involvement in jazz education would have been hard to find when he applied to the RCS six years ago.  

 

“I was always a fan of jazz,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily understand it but I liked the improvisational aspect of it, although when I played my audition for the RCS I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I’d never played with a piano, or any of the other two instruments that I was sitting in with, saxophone and double bass, and it was quite an experience. Looking back it was hilarious but I somehow managed to get an unconditional acceptance.”

 

His success might have been down to him surviving a baptism of fire. The pianist who gauged his credentials was Steve Hamilton, who currently tours with Mahavishnu Orchestra drumming legend Billy Cobham. Tommy Smith, the RCS jazz course founder and internationally regarded jazz heavyweight, was on saxophone and the still youthful but experienced Brodie Jarvie was on bass.

 

Unlike his colleagues on the bandstand for that session, Costello was entirely self-schooled. He began playing drums at the age of six when his father acquired a drum kit “of sorts” from a friend at work to keep his younger son occupied and out of trouble.

 

“I didn’t know any different at the time but this was the best drum kit in the world to me, despite the fact that its one cymbal was the bottom one of a hi hat pair and the skins on the tom toms and snare drum were so pitted they were like craters,” he says. “I played it all the time. I didn’t have a teacher but my dad fed me a diet of Led Zeppelin, followed by more Led Zeppelin and even more Led Zeppelin.”

 

This accounts for Costello possibly being the only musician to have passed through the RCS bearing a tattoo of John Bonham, Led Zeppelin’s virtuosic but ill-starred drummer. At school, with an older brother who plays guitar and bass guitar, Costello fell into bands with mostly pupils two or three years his senior and when the choice of studying music or art was given to him, he chose art. He still works in visual art, creating eye-catching designs and taking commissions.

 

By the time he left school, however, he was thinking more about becoming a musician. He took a course at the Academy of Music and Sound, where he was able to ensconce himself in a room every day and dedicate himself to drumming, and he became involved in Glasgow’s underground music scene, playing in noise rock bands including the duo Young Philadelphia, who toured across Europe. There were gaps in his knowledge, though, and if he was going to become a full-time musician he recognised the value of adding musical theory to the practical experienced he was gaining. At this point, the obvious door, Strathclyde University’s Applied Music course, closed in a restructuring process. So he “took a punt” with the RCS jazz course. 

 

“I didn’t just want to be a drummer because I have a bit of a problem with the idea that, as the old joke goes, a drummer is someone who hangs out with musicians,” he says. “I wanted to compose and understand harmony and of course, being on the RCS course I got to play – and become friends - with all these monster musicians.”

 

STRATA grew out of course work and the EP that followed surprised Costello by getting nominated for the Best Album title in the Scottish Jazz Awards, not least because his ideas for the band, while musically bridging the gaps between jazz, minimalism and rock, went against the trend of jazz practices.

 

“One of the things that bugs me about jazz is that you might never have the same line-up in a band twice,” he says. “Everyone’s a great player and can sit in on a gig, read the part, play great solos, no problem, but I wanted a settled line-up. I also wanted to rehearse. I was used to being in bands where you rehearsed whether there was a gig coming up or not and I wanted to develop the chemistry between the musicians so there was a real band feel and a particular band sound that you only get when people play together a lot.”

 

A major part of STRATA becoming one of the most talked-about bands on the Glasgow – and wider – scene has been Costello’s insistence that the band play a residency. The owners at Bar Bloc in Bath Street gave him access to their venue once a month, so irrespective of what else is happening gig-wise the band has a gig to work towards.

 

“We’re not a jazz band in the sense that we have tunes that we play and then improvise over,” says Costello. “For me, jazz has become an approach as much as a style of music. We get people coming up to us – and you’ll hear this a lot – saying, I don’t usually listen to jazz but I like what you’re doing. It’s as if they have one idea about what jazz is, that it’s big band swing or away at the other extreme, free improvisation, when there’s a whole world of music in the middle. And we don’t play tunes, stop and chat and start again – it’s one continuous performance because once I have an audience’s attention, I want to keep it.”

 

For their debut full CD release, Obelsik, Costello took STRATA to a cottage near Inverary, in the West Highlands, for a week’s intensive rehearsal, a kind of STRATA boot camp where they brought his compositions up to a pitch where they could record in a minimum of takes.

 

“For me, to play this music, you have to be absolutely confident in what you’re doing and totally relaxed because there’s quite a lot of repetitiveness but it needs to be human repetitiveness and not robotic,” he says. “It’s about creating a flow of energy and I think that’s what audiences are picking up on. We’re trying to give them an experience that’s different every time we play.”     

 

STRATA'S Obelisk is out now. The band plays the Tolbooth, Stirling tonight, Saturday February 9; the CCA. Glasgow, Sunday February 10; Catsrand, New Galloway, Friday, February 16; the Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, Thursday, February 28. 

 

 

LoLanders go Dutch on tour 

 

Fraser Fifield (left) with Graeme Stephen

 

Fraser Fifield is untangling the web of lines that has brought together LoLanders, a band that made its debut at Glasgow's Celtic Connections festival in January.

 

The late artist and writer Pete Frame became the go-to guy for rock family trees that traced every connection leading up to the birth - and what came after their lifespan - of bands both famous and not so well known, and his assiduousness would have been useful here.

 

Fifield and his nominal co-leader, the Dutch violist Oene van Geel, have worked together before, as have van Geel and LoLanders guitarist, Graeme Stephen, and Fifield and Stephen have history as a duo and in Fifield’s on-and-off trio with various drummers. Then there’s van Geel’s duo with LoLanders’ bass guitarist Mark Haanstra and other situations that have involved one or other of the above with Glasgow-based tablas player Hardeep Deerhe and Dutch percussionist Udo Demandt.

 

“What’s most exciting for me, and I think for all the other musicians too, is that we’d never all played together before and we didn’t know what LoLanders sounded like until the first day of rehearsals,” says Fifield, who prefers to be thought of as the catalyst who caused the sextet to form rather than a bandleader. “We have six very experienced musicians who all have an input and although the composers among us all brought new pieces to rehearsals, there’ was no pre-thought direction for us to follow. It really was a case of let's see what happens.”

 

LoLanders is the latest project in the Going Dutch programme that has been bringing musicians from the Netherlands to the UK and Ireland over the past eighteen months or so. The difference here, though, is that, rather than a one-way visit, plans are in hand for LoLanders to play concerts in the Netherlands, including a gig at Amesterdam’s long-established Bimhuis, as well as further UK appearances in the summer.

 

“It’s actually quite unusual to know before we played the first concert that there will be others six months or so down the line,” says Fifield, a multi-instrumentalist whose versatility has taken him across the world, touring internationally with Indian percussion master Zakir Hussain and recording in Buenos Aires with leading contemporary exponents of tango music as well as featuring with musicians from closer to home including Capercaillie and Aly Bain. “Lots of bands have come together for an initial project that has turned into a one-off, never to be heard from again, so knowing that we have a possibility of developing a LoLanders repertoire and identity makes this all the more interesting.”

 

The idea behind LoLanders was that Fifield and Oene van Geel should each invite two musicians they enjoyed working with to create the sextet. Fifield and van Geel first met in 2012 when they were selected for the London-based organisation Serious’s first international Take Five, an initiative aimed at giving composer-performers aged twenty-five to thirty-five with a background in jazz and improvising music the opportunity to take time out to develop their craft, build their careers and get their music out into the world. 

 

“We got on really well from the start and understood each other musically,” says Fifield. The fact that their first instruments – Fifield plays bagpipes and saxophone but for some time has majored on the low whistle – aren’t immediately associated with jazz probably helped with the bonding process. Following on from the Take Five retreat van Geel invited Fifield over to Amsterdam to work with his trio Nordanians, a group that marries international influences with jazz and raga approaches, on concerts marking his receipt of the prestigious Boy Edgar award, which over the past fifty years and more has acknowledged musicians who have made a significant contribution to the Dutch music scene.

 

“Playing with the Nordanians was really liberating,” says Fifield, who made quite an impression on Dutch promoters and festival organisers at that time. “Up to then I’d come through the experience of learning the pipes but not feeling completely at ease because of my Scots-English background and then coming at the saxophone from a slightly odd perspective and not having the full grounding in jazz. With the Nordanians I played whistle more or less exclusively and I felt, here’s a situation where I can be completely myself. I feel I’ve progressed as a player since then and developed a technique where I can play chromatically. The low whistle especially is a very versatile instrument and I’ve worked really hard to try and chip away at its perceived limitations. I’ll probably have the pipes and saxophone with me for LoLanders but playing the low whistle is where I feel I’ll make the most natural contribution.”

 

It was shortly after Fifield’s experience with the Nordanians that he put his long-time associate Stephen in touch with Oene van Geel. The guitarist was working on music that featured himself with a string quartet who would have to be fairly elastic in their approach. And it turned out that van Geel had just such a group, Zapp4.

 

Van Geel takes up the story: “Fraser told me about Graeme and I thought, if Graeme has the same sense of adventure and the same expression in his playing as Fraser does, then this could be really interesting. So Graeme and I set up a Skype call. I loved Graeme’s ideas, especially his compositions for silent movie soundtracks, which have become a specialism of his. In fact, one of my compositions – a double cello concerto – was quite heavily influenced by Graeme’s writing and Distances, the suite we recorded and toured with Graeme and Zapp4 turned out really well. After we’d recorded that, in 2015, Stephen composed a soundtrack for the 1927 classic film Metropolis for himself, Zapp4 and the drummer/percussionist Tom Bancroft, which we premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. We later took that to the Xintiandi Festival in Shanghai, China. So we have quite a history together now and I’m really looking forward to working with him again in LoLanders.”

 

For Fifield, it’s the strength of personalities that all of the musicians bring to LoLanders that gives him confidence that this untried combination will produce something interesting.

 

“We actually chose the musicians first and considered the instrumentation, not exactly as an afterthought but as of secondary importance,” he says. “As it happens we have a combination of melody and harmony instruments with quite a strong emphasis on rhythm, between guitar, bass guitar and two percussionists, so we have the three main elements covered. I have no idea of what it might sound like but I’ve every faith in the musicians concerned and I’m confident that what they produce together will be of good quality.”

 

Lolanders play The Lescar, Sheffield on 19 June; Glasgow Jazz Festival on 21 June; Newcastle Going Dutch Day on 23 June; All of the Above, Bath on 24 June; Bimhuis, Amsterdam, 26 June; and In Jazz Festival, Rotterdam 27 June.

 

 

   

 

Singer explores Gaelic's Icelandic connections

 

                 

 

Kathleen MacInnes brings a new collaboration with the Icelandic string ensemble amiina to Celtic Connections next month knowing that one of its central themes has already worked its magic on a select audience.

 

The Gaelic singer from South Uist with the distinctive smoky tone has been researching the common threads in the Icelandic and Gaelic traditions and has found that the lullabies from her own culture that she sang to her three sons as infants have echoes in Icelandic songs.   

 

 “I sang all my boys to sleep when they were babies,” she recalls. “I’d mostly sing Gaelic lullabies, just rolling one into another, and they worked really well. Now the boys are past the lullaby stage I no longer needed these songs for that purpose so I decided to share them with parents who might appreciate them.” 

 

MacInnes never set out to become a professional singer. Growing up with Gaelic as her first language  in the Hebrides in the 1970s, she sang at school and joined in the ceilidhs that were at the centre of the local social life. Her native language proved handy as, when she arrived in Glasgow to take up a job at the BBC, Gaelic television was just beginning to take off and she was chosen for acting roles – she’s appeared in Gaelic soap Machair and comedy shows including Ran Dan and PC Alasdair Stewart - and offered work as a presenter.

 

It was while she was presenting the music programme Tacsi that MacInnes met Donald Shaw, the founder of Gaelic band Capercaillie and Celtic Connections’ artistic director for the past decade, who was the programme’s musical director. Shaw encouraged her to sing and she has gone on to win admirers including film producer Ridley Scott, who described her voice as “beautiful” and chose her to sing in his 2010 film of Robin Hood, and to perform in a variety of musical situations.  

 

As well as singing with musicians from the Gaelic world, including the piping brothers Iain and Allan MacDonald, and the Scottish tradition such as singer Fiona Hunter and multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass, she has sung with Transatlantic Sessions stalwarts Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas, bluegrass sweetheart Alison Krauss and banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck. She has also embraced music technology, appearing on Gaelic electro-experimenters Niteworks’ Maraiche, and music from wider cultures, singing with Malian singer Oumou Sangare and kora player Toumani Diabate. Then, at Celtic Connections 2018, she showed another example of her willingness to try something different by joining jazz duo Tommy Smith & Brian Kellock onstage.

 

“That was terrifying and yet at the same time, exhilarating,” she says. “We did an improvised fifteen minutes during their set and I’d only met them for the first time and spent fifteen minutes with them just before the concert.” She’s now looking forward to exploring this musical collaboration further in June in one of two appearances she’s making as part of the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh’s fortieth anniversary celebrations, the other one being on a folk music concert with John McCusker, Heidi Talbot, Phil Cunningham and others.

 

Her project with amiina came about when she decided to record some of the lullabies and melodies she’d sung to her sons. She spoke to Donald Shaw, who has continued to champion her singing (he it was who suggested she sing with Tommy Smith & Brian Kellock and with Oumou Sangare and Toumani Diabate), about working with Icelandic musicians. Having heard a number of Icelanders whose music she enjoyed, she felt they might help to produce the sound she was after. She’d also felt a connection with Iceland for some time, not unnaturally as the Hebrides and Iceland have links going back centuries.

 

“In the late 1990s I lived in New York on and off for three or four years and the way we travelled back and forth was always via Iceland,” she says. “When I'd get off the plane for the connecting flight I’d feel at home because the light there was exactly the same as it was in the Hebrides.”

 

The Norse, or Viking, influence on the Hebrides has been well documented. MacInnes reels off place names such as Stornoway (from the old Norse for steering bay), Laxdale (salmon valley) and Lingashader (a farm or shieling) and says that many Lewis place names can be matched to locations in south-west Iceland around Reykjavik. There’s also research suggesting that Hebridean women were taken to Iceland by Vikings who realised they had a problem when they settled in Iceland in the 9th century – no women. 

 

“Leif Erikson, the great Icelandic explorer and son of Erik the Red, visited Lewis and while wintering in Uig, fathered a child with a noble young woman, Thorgunna,” adds MacInnes. “The boy was named Thorgils, which is now used frequently in Lewis as Torcuil, and other Viking names, such as Tormod and Ruairidh, are still commonly used in the islands.”

 

It was the common use of fairies – or huldufolk (elves in Icelandic and Faorese folklore)-  in both Gaelic and Icelandic lullabies that particularly intrigued her. When she was singing to her sons she used to think it was just as well as that they hadn’t yet learned Gaelic as a lot of the Gaelic lullabies, as with other cultures across the world, are quite dark. Children frequently get carried off by these fairies and huldufolk.

 

“When I spoke with Donald about exploring the musical connections between the Hebrides and Iceland I mentioned artists I had heard producing quite gentle and magical sounds that I thought would work really well,” she says “Donald did some research and approached amiina, who worked with the Icelandic avant-rock band Sigur Ros for a long time. They use a lot of instruments to make their sound and when playing live they swap instruments during a piece to create dreamy soundscapes.”

 

The collaboration with amiina is just one of the shows at Celtic Connections that MacInnes is involved in. As part of a large cast of traditional singers and musicians, she has been working with former Danny Wilson and current Simple Minds bass guitarist Ged Grimes on a Gaelic soundtrack for the computer game The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep, which gets its live premiere at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 31. She will also be singing backing vocals for fellow South Uist singer Sineag MacIntyre, who launches her debut album at St Andrew’s in the Square on January 26.

 

In the meantime she’s been enjoying sitting in for BBC Radio Scotland presenter Iain Anderson and readying herself for her project with amiina, in the process no doubt fielding questions about whether she believes in fairies and huldufolk.

 

“A few years ago I was in Slieve Mór, Teelin in south west Donegal with the brilliant harp player from County Mayo, Laoise Kelly,” she says. “We met Cití Sean Cunningham, a beautiful old Irish lady who was in her nineties at the time. We got talking about na daoine beaga - the small people - and she said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you believe in the fairies or not, they are there anyway’ – and that’s good enough for me.”

 

Kathleen MacInnes and amiina appear at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 19.

 

From The Herald, December 18, 2018

 

 

 

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