Playtime - intimate, informal, incredible jazz
The Playtime regulars (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 sessions take place every second Thursday in The Outhouse, Broughton Street Lane, Edinburgh
From The Herald, February 13, 2019.