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Derlak forges a female path in Polish jazz


Aga Derlak does not usually play any David Bowie songs with her trio but a tribute to the late creator of Warszawa, Ashes to Ashes and Lazarus might yet feature in her concerts. 


The Polish pianist, who makes her Scottish debut at Edinburgh Jazz Festival this weekend, was invited to take part in a special arrangement of these Bowie songs as the winner of Fryderyk  2016, Poland’s most important musical award, and is seriously reconsidering her trio’s ‘no covers’ policy as a result.


The Bowie sequence was put together by Derlak’s fellow pianist Nikola Kolodziejczyk for an ensemble including trumpet, bass clarinet, string quartet and Derlak’s trio. It was a once-only performance and “wonderful,” says Derlak, who is becoming used to winning awards, having racked up a handful of others before Fryderyk since emerging on the Polish scene with her trio in 2012. “Maybe we should play some Bowie with the trio to honour him.”


Playing jazz piano has been Derlak’s dream since she attended her first jazz concert with her parents at the age of ten. She’d been listening subconsciously to jazz through her father’s record collection before this epiphany but this didn’t prepare her for the thrill she felt on hearing the harmonies, melodies and improvisations of the band in question, a group of Polish musicians who were making a rare visit to her home town, Chelm, in Eastern Poland.


“I remember thinking, I really, really, really want to be a jazz pianist,” she says via Skype from her base in Katowice. “But back then that would have been impossible. There were no women musicians in jazz that I knew about. I didn’t know about Carla Bley or JoAnne Brackeen or any of the other great women musicians at the time. There were women singers but a pianist? No. So I gave up my dream and studied classical music for six years, and after that I switched from piano to flute.” 


She might have made it as a flautist, too. The great Polish saxophonist Zbigniew NamysÅ‚owski visited the Fryderyka Chopina music school in Warsaw, where Derlak was studying flute in the jazz department by this time, and chose her to play in a student ensemble to perform his music. 


“It was a ten-piece group and the music was really complicated and challenging but actually beautiful,” she says. “This was the beginning of my jazz adventure and it was great training. It was a really important opportunity, meeting Zbigniew Namyslowski. It gave me the confidence to return to my dream of playing jazz piano.”


Moving to Katowice’s music academy, she met double bassist Tymon Trabczynski and drummer Bartosz Szablowski and the three students bonded due to their similar musical tastes and inspirations. They practised together at every opportunity, quickly forging a group identity.


“We were free to play whatever we wanted and we would get very excited by the ideas we came up with as a group,” she says. “Maybe that’s why we’re still together, because right from the start we felt the same way about how we were going to play, how we wanted to sound.”


Derlak’s trio is part of a generation that has created a very strong jazz scene in Poland. She puts the health of the scene down to the camaraderie that has built up through students supporting each other in the academies and continuing to support one another as they move on into careers as professional jazz musicians.


“There’s a great variety of jazz musicians in Poland now,” she says. “And it’s inspiring to be part of a movement where everyone has their own approach. It’s a really friendly scene. We all go out and listen to each other when we can, and we hang out together and talk about what we’re working on and what we’ve been listening to.”


Among Derlak’s current enthusiasms is the Dutch-born, Los Angeles-raised pianist Gerald Clayton, whose music she describes as the sort of music she wants create herself.


“I listen to other pianists – Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett, of course, Craig Taborn, Aaron Parks – and they all have great sounds but Gerald Clayton, I’d say, is my main inspiration. I’ve transcribed his music to find out how he composes and what makes it special is that it’s complicated but at the same time very attractive to listen to. It’s full of ambition, joy, freedom, energy, emotion, all the things I want to convey in my own music.”


For Derlak and her trio, music is not about playing as many notes as possible at the fastest tempo possible.


“You can often say more in one note than you can in twenty notes,” she says. “I might not always have followed that idea but I think now I put more emphasis on emotion and making music with a message.”


Aga Derlak Trio appears at Rose Theatre, Edinburgh on Sunday, July 23.


From The Herald, July 19, 2017





Kellock eases into busiest musician on the festival role


There is a school of thought that says the best way to prepare for a jazz gig is to play dozens, if not thousands, of jazz gigs beforehand. Pianist Brian Kellock has some sympathy with this thinking. The busiest musician over the ten days of Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, which begins on Friday, might also put forward another form of preparation: a course in logistics.


On at least one occasion during a run of – at the last count - eleven gigs, Kellock is due to finish one gig a mere half an hour before starting another in a different venue half a mile or so away. And that’s before we factor in the different style of jazz and different format, in this case sextet to duo, to say nothing of a different piano to get used to almost immediately.


“With the cockiness of youth I might once have said, with absolute confidence, that playing is the best form of preparation,” says Kellock. “Now I probably just hope that this is the case.”


This element of doubt isn’t shared by his fellow musicians. Saxophonist Tommy Smith, Kellock’s long- time duo partner, calls the pianist his own personal orchestra for his ability to provide a style of accompaniment that dispenses with the need for any other instruments. Smith also enthuses about Kellock’s breadth of repertoire in a relationship that will frequently see them deciding what to play minutes before taking to the stage.


Resourceful is the word that springs to mind, and a fine example of Kellock’s resourcefulness involves this newspaper’s arts editor and the Scottish Jazz Awards a few years ago. Kellock was the house pianist on this occasion and as is the way of such events, his trio played everyone onto the stage – including winners and people who were presenting awards – with an appropriate tune.


Coming up in the second half he spied our Mr Bruce. What on earth do I play for the arts editor of the Herald, Kellock asked himself. Getting no response, during the interval he asked someone else, who was able to suggest that something by Elvis Costello would fit. Kellock didn’t know any Costello songs so his helper crooned one into his ear, Kellock took a few notes on a napkin and the trio played Mr Bruce up to make his presentation with Oliver’s Army as if they’d been playing it for ever.


There may be a few more tunes crooned into ears during Kellock’s Edinburgh marathon. Some of his playing partners – trumpeter Ryan Quigley for one – have played duos with Kellock before. The baritone saxophonist Bill Fleming, a regular with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and Kellock actually made a point of rehearsing a few weeks in advance and the singers Liane Carroll and Fionna Duncan Kellock knows well.


“I played with Bill on the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s Ellington concerts and he’s a lovely player,” says Kellock. “And because he also plays bass clarinet he can bring that along and we can pay tribute to Joe Temperley, who played both instruments, as well as Ellington.”


 Kellock has a particular affinity with singers, provided they’re the sort who interact and are as happy to follow him as they are for him to follow them, and he loves the tightrope walk (“you hold my hand and I’ll push you off,” he jests) of a situation where both participants are exposed.


“I don’t always know the words to the songs we’re playing, to my shame,” he says. “But I love responding in the moment to a lyric, especially when the phrasing being sung isn’t exactly as it was written. Audiences react to spontaneity – if it’s working – because I think they feel part of what’s happening onstage.”


Audiences also react to the camaraderie, he says, that develops offstage in conversations that might have nothing to do with music but become part of the performance in that they break the ice and help everyone to relax. Football might be the pre-gig topic of conversation for Kellock’s long-standing trio with bassist Kenny Ellis and drummer John Rae as they reunite for a rare appearance but it’s less likely to figure when he gets together with the Ear Regulars from New York.  


Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and saxophonist Scott Robinson play on Sunday nights at the Ear Inn in Greenwich Village. Kellock has never met them but he likes the modern take on mainstream jazz that the Ear Inn fosters and he has invited them to Edinburgh in a mountain coming to Mohammed scenario.


“I was in New York once, playing a gig at Small’s jazz club with Tommy [Smith] and it was only later that I found out that our hotel was just round the corner – two minutes away – from the Ear Inn and that these guys were playing that night,” says Kellock. “So when the festival asked who I’d like to invite to Edinburgh, I immediately thought of them.”


They’ll probably meet just before the gig but the background to it sounds like the start of another conversation.


From The Herald, July 12, 2017  





Smith rises to the Coltrane challenge 


Tommy Smith is celebrating turning fifty with two challenges. Firstly, this week at Rochester Jazz Festival in New York, the saxophonist is playing his first-ever solo concert.     


Smith has played onstage by himself many times before. In the early noughties he toured his Alone at Last project to over forty venues across Scotland and  further afield, working with soprano and tenor saxophones and samples of his late friend and collaborator Edwin Morgan’s poetry, natural sounds and special effects. He has also recorded alone, on his 2001 album Into the Silence, which saw him working with what was at one time the longest echo in the world in Hamilton Mausoleum. 


The Rochester concert, however, will be his first time “playing with no help”, as he puts it, in front of an audience and it’s something he finds scary but at the same time, exciting.


“I’ve seen some great saxophonists playing completely solo and even someone like Michael Brecker, who used awesome virtuosity and fantastic technique to prolong his compositions in that setting, played too many notes,” he says. “It’s a really big challenge and there’s the temptation to fill the space available because you’re exposed by the silence, but to me space is important. It gives you time to reflect on what you’ve just played and what you’re about to play. It lets the music breathe. If you just play constantly, for the audience it’s like listening to someone talking non-stop, twenty to the dozen, and that can just get annoying.”


 As with everything he does, Smith will have put much thought and preparation into his essentially improvised “naked saxophone” recital and in a way his reliance, in performance,  on his imagination and especially on the pure, unamplified sound of his instrument is related to the second challenge he has taken on.


Back in February, Smith decided that the time was right to face something he’d been putting off almost since he began his career, a tribute to one of his biggest inspirations, John Coltrane. With the fiftieth anniversary of the great saxophonist’s death approaching on July 17 and conscious of his own mortality, Smith put a new quartet together to record an album comprising some of Coltrane’s best loved compositions and a few of his own pieces written in dedication to the master.


“It’s something that saxophonists do on every significant anniversary and I could have done one at any time, I suppose,” he says.  “I actually recorded Coltrane’s classic Giant Steps on my first album, Giant Strides, when I was sixteen, but I’ve never felt ready to do a full-length tribute. I’m not sure I’m ready now, to be honest. Coltrane died when he was forty and here I am at fifty, still not playing at his level, but I felt, if I don’t do it now, I might never get round to it.”


He remembers his first exposure to Coltrane, as a teenage saxophonist in Edinburgh, and it didn’t go well. Up until this point Smith had been listening to Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins and Dexter Gordon, players of an older school to Coltrane. He was inquisitive, though, and was already holding down a residency with his group at La Grenoille in Abercromby Place. So he saved up money from his weekly gig - £5 a time minus expenses such as reeds and bus fares – and went into a record shop in Cockburn Street. There he saw an album cover with Coltrane looking cool on it, sitting holding a soprano saxophone, and he decided to buy it.


When he got the album home and played it, he took it off after two bars.


“It was horrible,” he says. “I skipped through the tracks and just couldn’t get my head round what this guy was doing. So I put it back in the bag, got on the bus – it was a long way from Wester Hailes to Cockburn Street – and took it back to the shop but the guy in the shop refused to give me a refund or exchange it. Eventually, as my ear developed, I got into it – it was called Ascension – but it took some time.”


Someone, it might have been fellow saxophonist and broadcaster Gordon Cruickshank, pointed Smith towards Blue Trane, an earlier Coltrane album that was more conventional than the free jazz-slanted Ascension and showcased the rich sound and passion that Coltrane brought to everything he played without his later full-on intensity. Blue Trane became Smith’s entry point into a player whose music he has returned to constantly over the years.      


Fast forward to February this year and Smith has called together pianist Peter Johnstone and bassist Calum Gourlay, two young musicians he has brought on through his own youth orchestra  and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and drummer Sebastiaan de Krom, an old colleague with whom Smith worked extensively in the early years of this century.


With no preparation – Smith sent  all three their parts ahead of the recording – they went into the Castlesound studio in Pencaitland, just outside Edinburgh, and produced the imminent Embodying the Light over four or five hours.


“We’d never all played together before but I knew they were a group of good spirits with good energy,” he says. “The session was exhausting, because the concentration levels were intense, but it was fun, too, and considering we met in the studio, the album turned out well.”


The new group made its public debut in a short concert before an invited audience for BBC Radio Scotland’s new jazz programme, Jazz Nights at the Quay in early April. Smith, whose diary contains work with Norwegian double bass master Arild Andersen’s trio and pianist Brian Kellock, as well as his commitments with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz course, has been itching to show it off in more detail since then.      


He gets his wish at Edinburgh Jazz Festival next month and then has concerts booked throughout Scotland and beyond in the late summer and into the autumn.  As with his solo saxophone concert the new group will feature the natural sound of their instruments only, something that Smith has been very keen on for some time. His duo with Brian Kellock eschews PA systems in favour of a more intimate presentational style and in Arild Andersen’s trio only the bass, which uses sound effects, is generally amplified.  


“A few years ago my quartet at the time was about to start a concert when the PA blew up,” says Smith. “So we just went ahead and played without any amplification and we all listened harder and played better. The audience response was very positive too. It depends on having a drummer who can play really intensely without being too loud and a bass player with a big sound, which the new quartet has. The pianos we use have to be big enough to carry to the back of the hall and finding those can sometimes be difficult. But I much prefer playing acoustically because the audience gets to hear the true sound of the band – we sound the way we are.”


Tommy Smith Quartet: Embodying the Light plays Rose Theatre, Edinburgh on July 18 and tours from September 26.


Embodying the Light is released on Spartacus Records.


From The Herald, June 30, 2017






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