Edinburgh Jazz Festival caught just the right tone with this celebration of an event that began as a one-day series of pub jazz sessions and has grown into ten days featuring myriad styles of music that liberally interpret the ‘A to Z’ in the middle of the word ‘jazz’ while promoting home-grown talent alongside world class touring attractions.
With due reverence paid to the festival’s founder, Mike Hart, who is currently indisposed, the evening moved on with equal parts quality and jollity. Hosted by Seonaid Aitken, who in recent years has become the voice of jazz in Scotland through both her professional presentation of BBC Radio Scotland’s Jazz Nights programme and her clear, unaffected singing, the running order kept to a tight schedule.
Aitken herself opened the show, singing It’s Alright with Me from her Ella Fitzgerald tribute presentations and introducing her accompanist, pianist Brian Kellock who proceeded to live up to Aitken’s assessment of him playing every style of jazz. First imbuing Aitken’s song with an energetic boogie, Kellock then led his trio, with bassist Kenny Ellis and drummer John Rae, with big swinging momentum, tender-and-then-some ballad interpretation and intricate, right on the edge piano and cymbals interplay.
Kellock’s partnership with saxophonist Tommy Smith next justified Smith’s rating of the pianist as his own personal orchestra. Uncanny anticipation and a kaleidoscopic range of piano tones responded to Smith’s variously assertive, acerbic, softly affecting, beautifully considered and – as on their version of Sweet Georgia Brown – rompingly good natured playing.
Another duo, singer Carol Kidd and pianist Paul Harrison negotiated a fine line between perfection and near-anarchy. Kidd’s diction and tone production on Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark were fabulous and her refusal to match Harrison’s pre-planned modulation on Just in Time was a feat in itself.
Martin Taylor produced his inimitable solo guitar magic before Aitken’s band, the hot club swing-styled Rose Room featuring guest saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewksi complementing Aitken’s virtuosic violin playing, and an all-star jam on I Got Rhythm sent the audience home satisfied.
From The Times, July 16, 2018
Bassist Stanley Clarke’s first appearance in Glasgow in many years last summer reminded fans of his own singular talent and introduced them to a trio of young accomplices of conspicuous skill, not the least of them being the brilliant pianist from Tbilisi, Georgia, Beka Gochiashvili.
Barely into his twenties, Gochiashvili thrilled at every opportunity and while Clarke obviously runs the show on an album that covers the bassist’s interests in pop-soul, classical music, rap and the sort of high production sounds that he’s brought to his work in film soundtracks, the pianist’s contributions ring out strongly.
The piano, bass and drums feature Alternative Facts is almost worth the admission by itself, with Gochiashvili playing with energy, quick- thinking creativity and physical joyfulness.
Elsewhere, Clarke demonstrates supple mastery of both electric and acoustic basses on the bass guitar and synth produced title track and his reading of Bach’s Cello Suite 1 (Prelude) on double bass. The quartet that mesmerised Glasgow is both supercharged and augmented on a revisit to Return to Forever’s After the Cosmic Rain and the spirit of Clarke’s late conspirator, George Duke hovers on To Be Alive’s partying, parting groove.
From The Herald, June 23, 2018
Twenty-four-year-old guitarist Joe Williamson became the latest winner of the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year title following this keenly but amiably contested final.
A graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland jazz course, which currently nurtures three of his four fellow finalists, Williamson has already enjoyed success with his band Square One, as winners of the coveted Peter Whittingham Jazz Award in 2015, and his experience in arranging for and working with seasoned professionals – Square One toured earlier this year with American saxophonist Andy Middleton – shone through in his performance here.
Working with the house trio of pianist and Square One colleague Peter Johnstone, bassist Mario Caribe and drummer Alyn Cosker, Williamson fashioned an almost seamless piece of music from the standard I’ll Remember April and his own composition, Morning Star.
He transformed I’ll Remember April into a modern jazz vehicle, from its chordal, folk-rock opening through an assertive statement of the theme, a very effective passage for guitar and piano and into its energetic ensemble coda. Morning Star was similarly multi-phased and allowed Williamson to feature tonal variation, well-crafted phrasing and expressive improvisation.
Back in its original slot on the opening night of Glasgow Jazz Festival, the final was a fine showcase for the young jazz scene that has developed in Glasgow in particular and Scotland in general. Pianist Fergus McCreadie showed real musical personality, evoking the Scottish landscape in his lucidly atmospheric composition The Teacher and bringing fire and virtuosity to his soloing on The Groove Merchant.
In a rare sighting of a singer over the event’s history, Luca Manning delivered This Masquerade is Over with good tone production, clear diction and confident interaction with the trio, and Rise, his own, wordless composition, beginning a cappella, developed a strong momentum.
Saxophonist Matt Carmichael showed good pacing and an ability to marshal ideas well, particularly on his initially tender and ultimately commanding version of Brad Mehldau’s When It Rains, and bassist Conor Murray played with energy and a firm tone across the instrument’s full range.
From The Times, June 22, 2018
On his last visit to Scotland, saxophonist Joshua Redman featured in a sensational partnership with maverick New York combo the Bad Plus. His latest group would be equally welcome.
Working with cornetist Ron Miles, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, Redman invokes the spirit of the band his late father, Dewey featured in during the 1970s and 1980s, Old and New Dreams. And while this is mostly new music, a revisiting of Playing, the title track from Old and New Dreams’ third album, and of both groups’ guiding light, Ornette Coleman’s Comme Il Faut emphasises just how close is their kinship.
The approach is free-spirited but with each player bringing logic, shape, hunger and direction to a style drawn from folk, blues and gospel influences. In taking the Don Cherry role, Miles plays with a great variety of attack, including a lovely muted tone that gives way to a full-blooded cry on Comme Il Faut, and he and Redman’s bluesy commingling makes the ballad Haze and Aspirations all the more affecting. At less than three minutes, It’s Not the Same, propelled by Blade’s glorious bounce, is not alone in leaving the listener wanting more.
From The Herald, June 9, 2018
Paul Harrison is one of the Scottish jazz scene’s most versatile musicians. As a pianist he’s as likely to turn up playing swing classics as he is the music of Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti and on electronic keyboards he’s equally fascinated by organ grooves and creating new sounds.
It’s in this last endeavour that his group Sugarwork finds him. Joined by three other restless spirits – saxophonist Phil Bancroft, guitarist Graeme Stephen and drummer Stuart Brown – Harrison fashions and manipulates music that’s by turns robust and forthright, gently probing, strongly melodic and intriguingly atmospheric.
The opening Habit Control is a blast of tough directness set against fidgety rhythms and while over its nine companion pieces the boldness ebbs and flows and gives way to tenderness and vulnerability, with beautifully inventive playing from Bancroft and Stephen, the sense of a quest for new things to say and different tones to say them in is ever-present.
Harrison didn’t rush this, the group’s first album and that shows on attention to detail where even the final fade out has imaginative ticks and clicks. Even so, it’ll be fascinating to hear where the next set of adventures takes this intrepid quartet.
From The Herald, May 25, 2018
Citing preeminent pianists McCoy Tyner and Esbjorn Svensson might seem to be placing too much of a burden on a twenty-year-old’s shoulders but these are the names that immediately spring to mind on listening to Fergus McCreadie’s debut.
Opening track The Culearn Mill’s quiet beginnings, although very Scottish sounding, have much of Svensson and his trio’s subtle persuasion and thoughtful attention to detail. Then … crack and we’re into Tyner’s Fly with the Wind, or something very redolent of it, reimagined through the Scottish and European classical traditions.
The effect is exhilarating and typical of McCreadie whose finely tuned group with bassist David Bowden and drummer Stephen Henderson has been wowing audiences with live performances that bristle with collective dynamism and individual prowess that, in their youthful leader’s case, speaks of prodigious, cascading technique while communicating warmth of personality and the ability both to convey a sense of place and landscape and make a melancholy phrase somehow spiritually uplifting.
Turas, which is Gaelic for journey, is jazz with a strong Scottish accent but with all the best ingredients of the American model – including brilliant solo building and touches of church music – well to the fore.
From The Herald, April 28, 2018
Edinburgh-born trumpeter Sean Gibbs is probably best known back home for his work with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra but since going to study at Birmingham Conservatoire and gaining his BMus (hons) he’s made quite an impression as a player, composer and arranger down south.
Following his superb big band album, Burns, Fervour finds the twenty-five- year- old leading a quintet of conspicuous talents on nine original compositions that draw on a wide variety of influences from the New Orleans march-propelled, varied tempo riffing of opening track Go On Then to Spring at Last’s Brazilian flavoured groove and on to the slow, bluesy Adieu that closes the album and showcases both Gibbs’ wah-wah soloing and guitarist Ben Lee’s marvellous high tensile playing.
Gibbs’ music has bags of personality and his soloing is full of ideas, now cool and reflective, now fast and assertive, now downright mischievous. His band go with him all the way and add their own thoughts and commentaries, with pianist Andy Bunting making many telling contributions and Lee a consistently mature presence whose eager trading of phrases with Gibbs on the aptly named, smart, up-tempo Don’t Hold Back is a particular highlight.
From The Herald, April 7, 2018.
Norwegian double bass master Arild Andersen’s trio with Oslo-based Italian drummer Paolo Vinaccia and Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith has been widely acclaimed as one of the best small groups working in jazz today, and this live recording, captured in Bad Ischl, Austria, demonstrates why.
The group tours often and over its ten years together it has developed the kind of understanding that allows free movement between musical styles – from the gospel-like Blussy to the folky Venice to the knotty In House with its tightly articulated collective phrases – while always retaining a strong, immediately recognisable identity.
Quality of sound is important, be it on Andersen’s gorgeous melodic-cum-chordal intro on the opening Mira or North of the North Wind’s haunting electronic atmosphere, but the most striking features here, as on their last Scottish visit, are the contrasts they create and their exhilarating collective energy.
Smith slips between plaintive, soulful vulnerability and raw, angular feistiness. Andersen caresses the strings one moment and takes enthusiastically muscular flight the next and all the while the marvellously resourceful Vinaccia provides the delicacy, elasticity rock solid drive and exacting punctuation as required to give these changing moods fabulous potency.
From The Herald, March 24, 2018.
The great English jazz singer and lyricist Norma Winstone delivers a masterclass in marrying words, melody, mood and storytelling on this, her fourth album with German saxophonist-clarinettist Klaus Gesing and Italian pianist Glauco Venier.
Almost fifty years on from her recording debut, Winstone marshals long experience and shrewd musical judgement to sound gracefully ageless, turning these songs by composers including Michel Legrand, Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone and even William Walton into miniature, self-contained films in their own right, her clear diction and warm, assured phrasing negating any need for visual images.
There’s a delicate beauty in the trio’s interpretation of Legrand’s His Eyes, Her Eyes as Gesing’s soprano saxophone caresses and soars away from Winstone’s voice and Venier’s gently probing piano and elsewhere, percussion, cello and piccolo cello increase the instrumentation with superb discretion.
Two songs at the album’s heart, both featuring Winstone’s wordless singing, provide gorgeous contrast - the sad, inconsolable Vivre Sa Vie and the carefree Lisbon Story - and while Winstone’s lyics to and singing of Morricone’s Malena produce a wonderfully weightless ballad, Rota’s attractively medieval-sounding What Is A Youth and the folksong-like Meryton Townhall emphasise the album’s breadth of stylistic reference.
From The Herald, March 10, 2018.
There’s a case for Christmas concerts staged in venerable Scottish architectural marvels being held in summertime. The room temperature for SNJO director, saxophonist Tommy Smith’s settings of poems reflecting the deep midwinter might have allowed the brilliant Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset to perform one of his ice spectaculars.
In the circumstances the focus fell more on the performance than the work itself. The cathedral, with its Victorian gothic splendour and natural echo, became almost the musical and theatrical equivalent of football’s “twelfth man” as it offered a wonderfully effective dramatic and acoustic platform for Smith’s arrival, processing down the centre aisle, playing a beautiful folk-song-like air, with the ten-strong Cappella Nova choir in the right and left aisles adding their humming to the low drone of cathedral organ and arco double bass.
As the other vocal component, Kurt Elling intimated, this was a meditation rather than a jazz gig and SNJO itself was in unfamiliar form, being reduced to three trumpets, two trombones, double bass and drums, and enhanced by pedal harp, flute, bass clarinet, tuba, tympani and percussion.
Elling was superb, giving due weight to both spoken and sung verses and his oaky tone set against the limber voices of Cappella Nova sang out alongside the understated orchestrations, with Smith, as the other featured soloist, on tenor, choosing his phrases with great care, letting them breathe, sigh and expire in the atmosphere.
The words came from writers living and both long and not so long gone, from St Francis of Assissi to Liz Lochhead, who served as Scots Makar, or national poet, from 2011 to 2016, and the buoyant march of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening performed the hit single role, playing in the internal jukebox all the way home.
From Jazzwise magazine, March 2018.
The east coast of Scotland meets Seventh Avenue, Manhattan on this appealing first album from East Lothian-based guitarist Malcolm MacFarlane and Dundonian saxophonist Gordon McNeil’s new group.
McNeil has long had a fascination for the music that came out of the Brecker Brothers’ New York jazz club, Seventh Avenue South, and although the mind-set behind the album is Blue Note Records’1960s legacy, it’s the decades that followed immediately afterwards that the music suggests most. The Breckers, Pat Metheny and British jazz-funk heroes Morrisey-Mullen all spring to mind.
Easy on the ear melodies played in superb, sibling close sax-guitar unison combine with variously rugged, rhapsodic and conversational improvising from the leaders especially but also from Perth-born pianist Malcolm Edmonstone while drummer Tom Gordon adds poise and energetic fizz as required and bassist David Bowden lends a sure presence.
The addition of Iain Sandilands on vibes emphasises the relaxed, swinging Steps Ahead-like quality of Mendy’s Song and McNeil’s homage to saxophonist Bob Berg, whose life was tragically cut short at fifty-one by a motoring accident during a blizzard, captures its subject beautifully, its rumble-tumble creative urgency spurring MacFarlane, Edmonstone and McNeil himself into an eager, three-way trading choruses sequence.
From The Herald, February 10, 2018.
The Elusive Tree Ensemble is a product of Glasgow’s vibrant jazz scene where the well-paid gigs may be few but the musicians somehow thrive and develop, creating strong band identities which in this case includes Rachel Lightbody’s wordless vocals in a front line with alto and tenor saxophones and trumpet.
Their music combines both airy melodies and more urgent, urban grooves fuelled by Ben MacDonald’s superbly fluent guitar playing and Doug Hough’s crisp, assertive but never domineering drumming, with Paul Harrison, on organ, providing harmonic richness and bass pedal propulsion.
Alto saxophonist Adam Jackson’s For Folks Sake gets into the kind of swirling, reeling traditional-music inspired jazz that the Anglo-Scottish-Irish band Lammas used to purvey so successfully in the 1990s, with Lightbody impressively taking the role Christine Tobin used to fill in that band, and Jackson’s Amsterdam emphasises the ensemble’s compositional strength with staccato menace giving way to calmer tunefulness and expansive soloing from trumpeter Phil Cardwell.
It’s all immensely satisfying and while Cardwell, MacDonald and tenor saxophonist Andy Baker all contribute fine compositions, a particular highlight is their conversion of ill-starred Californian singer-songwriter Judee Sill’s The Kiss into a tenderly magnificent jazz ballad.
From The Herald, December 2, 2017
As his Edinburgh Jazz Festival concert in July confirmed, guitarist Mike Stern has made a remarkable recovery from the fall he suffered a year earlier in which he broke both his arms, a career-threatening trauma that he makes light of, with characteristic upbeatness, in this album’s title.
Stern also suffered nerve damage in his right hand but you would never know from his urgent, energetic picking on the frankly exciting, effervescent opening, title track. Surrounding himself with the cream of New York musicians, Stern has produced an album that’s up there with anything he’s delivered since he first made an international impact on Miles Davis’s The Man with the Horn album in 1981.
Davis’ later influence is felt in tracks such as Blueprint, where trumpeter Randy Brecker solos with fabulous commitment and musicality, but what particularly stands out is the uniformity of quality not just across a variety of styles, from the modern bebop of the aptly named Half Crazy, to the funk of Watchacallit to the lyricism of Emilia to the acoustic reflection of Gone, but also across the different line-ups Stern employs. Trip would be a great record under any circumstance but given its background, it’s heroic.
From The Herald, October 7, 2017
The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra ended its 2017 Queen’s Hall concert series with a concert full of fun and exuberance as well as virtuosity. Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt’s music lends itself naturally to these qualities while also inviting the kind of soulful, sighing note reflection that featured soloist, guitar master Martin Taylor brought to probably Reinhardt’s most famous composition, Nuages, in a lovely arrangement by the orchestra’s alto saxophonist and clarinettist Martin Kershaw.
A good number of Reinhardt’s creations, along with tunes associated with him, were sequenced into medleys, mini suites in a way that allowed the music to change tempo and direction very effectively and brought out some startling, dynamic and ultra-smart ensemble work piloted by drummer Alyn Cosker, whose use of skulls and cowbell, harking back to the orchestral manoeuvres of the 1940s, was brilliantly and often comically theatrical without cheapening the impact.
Taylor was flanked by the marvellous Chris Garrick on violin and Karen Street on accordion in a side unit that could operate both independently of and beautifully and subtly in sync with the horns. If their playing on Taylor’s own Musette for a Magpie, with its French bar atmosphere, was bright and alive, then the way they swapped phrases on the brisk Django’s Rag was postively, in the favourite word of approval of another guitar hero, the recently departed Allan Holdsworth, gazeuse.
The bebopping Impromptu fizzed too and in contrast, Taylor and Street duetted with terrific sensitivity on Hymn a l’Amour before the concert finished with the SNJO horns processing around the auditorium while Taylor and orchestra director Tommy Smith co-led a cooking swing blues.
From The Herald, September 25, 2017
With two young children under three needing entertained at home, Zoe Rahman says she doesn’t get to play piano to an audience of adults very often these days. Let’s hope these youngsters come to appreciate how privileged they are to enjoy such intimate recitals because listening to the Chichester-born Rahman getting to know the Tolbooth’s Estonia grand, especially when she delicately explored her Bengali roots, was a treat indeed.
Rahman is more usually found leading her trio, a situation, she joked, that lets her take off her cardigan much earlier during bass or drum solos, but aside from that convenience, she doesn’t need other musicians’ company. Her forceful left hand provides strong rhythm patterns and big chords at times reminiscent of McCoy Tyner driving the classic John Coltrane Quartet and she seems able to inspire a flow of improvised ideas within herself, building her ‘solos’ with a conversational logic where she asks and answers questions melodically.
Her choice of material was both refreshingly diverse and easily familiar but still featuring her own take and pacing on standards including Duke Ellington’s The Single Petal of a Rose and Thelonious Monk’s Ruby My Dear, which was delivered as a brief but sincere parting shot.
There’s a lot of joyfulness and wit in her playing, the latter quality coming through notably as she dampened the strings on Jessica Williams’ soul-jazz flavoured The Sheikh and stretched the phrasing to her own will on These Foolish Things, and she balances stormy vigour, as on her own The Epicentre, with a marvellously poetic touch on pieces selected from Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore and her dad’s favourite music from his days in Dhaka.
From The Herald, September 25, 2017
It was a night for acknowledging the gone but not forgotten. Charles Mingus was among them, as were – briefly – Miles Davis and John Coltrane, then more substantially the great George Duke, and following some entirely musical hooliganism down by the tail-piece, so was Stanley Clarke’s bass bridge.
Clarke does rather give his instruments some punishment. His signature sounds on both bass guitar and double bass have always seemed, at least in part, a creation of improbable finger strength. Just before the mishap that led to his acoustic bass, restored and retuned, sitting waiting to be brought back into action, Clarke had being paying homage to his former project co-leader, Duke with the keyboard master’s Brazilian Love Affair.
Exuberance doesn’t begin to describe this samba-ing, life-affirming celebration as Clarke and his band – the outrageously gifted Beka Gochiasvili, here on piano, soulful keyboardist-vocalist Caleb McCampbell and volcanic drummer Mike Mitchell – smiled their way through solo after virtuosic solo.
Charles Mingus’s Good-bye Pork Pie Hat, its theme having been stated with real, string caressing feeling by Clarke on bass guitar, was taken on a similarly energetic, exciting odyssey and the flamenco-dancing No Mystery, with Clarke showing ridiculous upper-fingerboard facility on double bass, and Gochiasvili and McCampbell trading fiery piano and keyboard choruses, was only stopped from achieving complete physical lift-off by Clarke giving his bass one affectionate punch too many.
Back in his youth the now sixty-six year old Clarke was presented as a force-to-be by jazz legends including Horace Silver, Joe Henderson and Stan Getz. They were right and you wouldn’t bet against these phenomenal talents he had with him here following his example.
From The Herald, July 27, 2017
There are few sounds more uplifting than Liane Carroll finding the joy – and sometimes the pain or the atmosphere – to be explored in negotiating a particular passage in a song. She does this again and again on this collection of songs that examine, celebrate and mourn love in all its glorious and not so glorious aspects.
Carroll’s stock-in-trade is believability. When she sings Tom Waits’ In the Neighbourhood she takes the listener down streets with tipped-over garbage pails and newspaper sleeping bags and on a down-home acoustic guitar and voice reading with an exuberant scatted solo, she really does have Georgia on her mind.
As well as being about love this album is about putting Carroll’s magnificently expressive voice in the right settings, and the arrangements are superb, with horns, rhythm section and Mark Jaimes’ many-sided guitar talent applied with unerring empathy. She phrases a little like Michael McDonald on the country soul-styled It’s A Fine Line but mostly she sounds like herself, zooming in on Carole King’s gospel essence on Goin’ Back, finding soulful layers of affectingly raw drama on Stevie Wonder’s Lately, and sounding charmingly, utterly bewitched on Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark.
From The Herald, July 21, 2017
New Jersey-born pianist George Colligan was a familiar face in Scotland back when Henry’s Cellar Bar in Edinburgh hosted jazz almost every night of the week, and on the evidence of this album with his current quartet, it’s time he returned.
Composition was always as strong a part of Colligan’s armoury as onstage spontaneity and his writing here, especially on the trio tracks, continues to showcase a talent for clean, clear melodies that stay with the listener long after the album’s finished and develop into full-on dramas.
Add tenor and soprano saxophonist Nicole Glover to a group that comprises the steadfast and pliable Linda May Han Ho and the brilliantly effervescent Rudy Royston on drums alongside Colligan, and the drama increases exponentially in teethy quartet pieces such as More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine and the initially bold, strong statement of Empty that grows more excitingly fractious with every minute.
Colligan’s playing is always supremely confident and unfailingly fluent, with ideas tumbling forth on the flying opener, Whiffle Ball, and he’s sufficiently generous as a bandleader to let Glover, on soprano, and Royston go toe to toe in a marvellous sax-drums throwdown on The Nash.
From The Herald, July 7, 2017
SIXTY-plus years on from the first jazz-with-strings experiments, jazz and classical elements can still make an uneasy blend. Scotland’s own New Focus is one group that has successfully brought the two together and the Canadian pianist Ron Davis’ SymphRONica is another.
Davis’ ideas have some resemblance to another outfit that merges differing genres, Portland’s Pink Martini, not least in the way Latin American rhythms are given vivid emotional colour by the string arrangements but also in the light, almost throwaway manner that serious musical ability is juxtaposed with wit.
There may have been an element of putting the show together as we go here – only two of the other seven players onstage actually flew over with Davis – but the music has such a strong personality, and the musicians responded so surely to the aide memoirs from guitarist and musical director Kevin Barrett, that the results were entirely convincing.
The only drawback was that Davis is probably much more used to working with an acoustic piano. Even on an electric keyboard borrowed from the very promising and instrumentally accomplished young opening band, Manchester’s Artephis, however, Davis confirmed his chops.
His own compositions show a liking for characterful basslines, now taking big menacing steps, now waddling contentedly as the string quartet variously converses animatedly, conspires, sighs and improvises, and his arrangements and contrafacts lack nothing in imagination, drama and surprise. Rhythma-Ron, based on I Got Rhythm, featured the strings in brilliant duo and trio conflagrations and just to confirm Davis’ ear for detail and sense of fun, the Muppets theme was delivered as immaculately as the determinedly swinging The Way You Look Tonight.
From The Herald, July 4, 2018
Theo Croker, St Luke’s
If Theo Croker thinks jazz is a dying art form he should listen to his band. The trumpeter made this pessimistic observation, perhaps with tongue in cheek, one number into a gig that must have been akin to what journalist-turned-manager Jon Landau heard in Bruce Springsteen before making his famous “the future” statement.
It might be placing an unfair burden to confer similar status on Croker & Co but they justified it here.
This was a prime example of learning from the past and taking the lessons forward, an utterly invigorating and life-affirming performance from musicians who individually had the power to enthral and collectively the talent to captivate.
In Michael King, Croker has a pianist of breath-taking skill. His every contribution was immense: improvisations that combined conservatoire-level chops with mastery of jazz language and inventiveness; accompaniments full of drive, ideas and variety. And the sense he gave that every number should be a gripping adventure, at the very least, permeated the quintet.
Croker himself is a multi-faceted player, now coolly considered, now playing on the edge of his emotions, and his frontline partner, Anthony Ware added a big tenor saxophone personality and the ability to form rhythmical phrases consistently into a cogent, fascinating narrative.
With bassist Ameen Saleem and drummer Francesco Ciniglio joining King in adding muscle, crisply-executed intricacy, sensitivity and sheer fizz to make Joe Henderson’s A Shade of Jade swing improbably hard, fast and excitingly and allow Croker’s feature of My Funny Valentine to sing a very personal blues, this was a night that people will look back on and say, “I was there” – possibly whether they were there or not!
Jay Phelps, City of Music Studio
Canadian trumpeter Jay Phelps brings a world of influences and a catalogue of tales to life in his current set list. From Stratford upon Avon, where he suffered a broken rib while rescuing his mum’s dog from a canal, to Barcelona, Thailand and Brazil, Phelps relayed the music that came from an enforced lay-off and extensive travels through work with a celebratory spirit alongside some social comment and a positive spin on a love song whose inspiration no longer deserves his poetic affection.
Angel, or possibly ex-Angel to be more accurate, was one of several instances that showed Phelps as a capable, smooth soul singer as well as a trumpeter with a strong, firm tone and a sure talent for building expressive, exploratory and satisfying solos from simple, direct phrases.
In a set that majored on upbeat forward motion, Phelps used a variety of rhythms that projected a feel-good vibe and showcased his band’s copious talents. Pianist Rick Simpson, who could be heard rattling through Chopin-esque exercises with apparent ease during the soundcheck, produced a fund of ideas, all played with vigour, poise, precision and great feeling, and engaged in a series of clearly mutually inspiring trading sequences with Phelps.
Their understanding and ability to drive one another forward was particularly noticeable on Everybody’s Ethnic, Phelps’ statement on racial equality, whose Latin American groove allowed bassist Mark Lewandowski to demonstrate his muscular sureness and the splendid drummer Will Glaser to show his very musical approach while propelling the piece with detail and heft. All in all, an excellent opening night session from a band of superbly matched and warmly communicative talents.
Neil Cowley Trio, St Luke’s
It is easy to understand why Neil Cowley’s piano skills have been sought by pop singers including Adele and Emeli Sande. Cowley’s own music may be about as far away from mass market acceptance as his group is from the conventional jazz piano trio, yet underneath the knotty motifs and aggressive minimalism there is a pop sensibility and the kind of digging into the rhythm elbow grease that gave birth to Rolling in the Deep’s essential groove.
NCT’s latest work takes them further into prog rock territory, especially with computer-driven chords that sound a bit 1970s despite the involvement of state of the art software and bassist Rex Horan’s doubling as rather grandiose and endearingly theatrical keyboard lick provider. With his bearded boffin mien, he surely missed a trick with early Supertramp or Van der Graaf Generator.
This is all part of the wacky charm, though, not to mention part of a masterly dynamic plan. If ever a band knew what it was doing, down to the very demisemiquaver, it’s NCT. Where a conventional piano trio might improvise, NCT introduces pin-sharp variety of colour or abrupt and brilliantly choreographed changes of mood, and in The City and the Stars, even allowing for a very NCT-like stop-start figure, it has a pop song working its way through the arrangement.
They stand accused – and may plead guilty – of using repetitiveness for effect and of bombast, although these are contrasted with prayerfully sensitive solo piano passages or downright lovely tender, bowed bass reflection. The most repeated phrase, though, with the exacting drummer Evan Jenkins somehow finding added layers of intensity, produced undeniable, audience-lifted-from-seats excitement.
Tony Allen: Tribute to Art Blakey, Old Fruitmarket
Art Blakey never played at Glasgow Jazz Festival. The hard bop pioneering drummer and serial talent scout, having died three or four years into its thirty-one year lifespan, remains one of just a few of the music’s real heavy hitters to have evaded the festival’s programmers. His spirit was present in this tribute by Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, though, especially through the tunes arguably most associated with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: A Night in Tunisia and Bobby Timmons’ gospel-flavoured Moanin’.
Not that Allen adhered to any kind of Blakey script or formula. He did it his way, working in a quartet, rather than in a sextet or septet as were Blakey’s chosen formats, and substituting his super-relaxed, lightly applied Afro-beat for Blakey’s hard swinging, propulsive approach.
Bronislau Kaper’s Invitation, the first of half-a-dozen tunes that illustrated Blakey’s ability to spot compositional talent as well as outstanding musicianship in his charges, was a persuasive opener, played at quite a reduced pace compared to the one another jazz icon, Jaco Pastorius, used in making his rollicking version the industry standard. All four musicians took a solo, serving notice that each had chops enough to spare.
While there was ample room for self-expression, however, with Cuban saxophonist Irving Acao displaying an unhurried but still hot style, bassist Mathias Allamane exuding strong presence and a sumptuous tone and pianist Jean Phi Dary adding Rhodes piano licks and spiritual-sounding scat vocals on Tunisia, the music was really about the feeling of well-being and the pulse that Allen’s immaculate drumming generates.
As his one rather rambling chat suggested, Allen prefers to let his playing do his talking for him and it’s a very musical form of conversation. He has a fabulously understated touch, stroking hi hat and snare drum with quiet precision, highlighting the melody with beautifully placed accents and producing a singing tone from the toms.
The evening ended with the space in front of the stage filling up with dancers, no surprise really considering the rhythm that flows from Allen’s sticks and limbs.
An Evening with Ginger Baker, Old Fruitmarket
An Evening with Ginger Baker was indeed what the legendary drummer with Cream delivered. Despite health issues, which he went into in some detail, Baker still drums and leads his current band, Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion, with authority if without quite the stamina of yore. His quartet played just the four numbers, beginning with Wayne Shorter’s Footprints and continuing in similar modal style with increasingly African flavours.
What the evening lacked in musical duration, however, it made up for in Baker’s willingness to engage with his audience. Each number was prefixed or suffixed with either a health update or a ruefully wry recollection, such as the time Baker drove his car off the Atlas mountains and landed in an olive tree, and in the Q & A session that opened the second half, he was good value, giving by turns generous, entertaining and often insightful responses or amusingly short shrift.
Baker’s is a life that has ranged from trad jazz to hard rock and from being welcomed into the inner sanctum of African superstars to playing polo, and he covered quite a lot of it.
His parting shot, Why? – complete with audience participation and a smoothly executed detour into Wade in the Water – is Baker’s rage against ill-fortune. Everything happens to him, and at seventy-seven, he’s still being ripped off by record companies. It’s a more jovial tune than its context would suggest, though, and with double bassist Alec Dankworth switching to bass guitar and saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis ruminating over Baker and percussionist Abass Dodoo’s forthright drum patterns it closed the evening with a mood of celebratory defiance.
From The Herald, June 26, 2017
Almost thirty years on from his tragically early death, Jaco Pastorius’ music on this handsomely packaged 2CD set sounds as alive and as current as if it had just been recorded.
Not only did the Floridian Pastorius revolutionise the bass guitar as a musical instrument, giving everything he played a human, singing voice as well as creating basslines of extraordinary intricacy and momentum, through his Word of Mouth orchestra he was moving the big band jazz tradition forward and introducing its excitement to new generations.
On the first album especially of this concert recorded in New York in 1982, much of it previously unreleased, the enlarged Word of Mouth band roars and dances as Pastorius leads the charge with astonishing – even now – musicality and unquenchable creative spirit.
The uptempo numbers are beyond exhilarating and with colleagues including steel pans virtuoso Othello Molineaux and the now sadly also departed Toots Thielemans on harmonica to hand, the more reflective passages are drenched in the advertised soul.
For all the personal problems that hastened his demise, Pastorius could call on the finest musicians available and harness their musicality with spectacular vision, as this recording abundantly confirms.
From The Herald, June 10, 2017
A new, beautifully reappointed venue and a morning slot in Perth Festival of the Arts’ programme gave two of Scotland’s leading young jazz players a platform for their talents.
Perth-born saxophonist Helena Kay and pianist Peter Johnstone are both past holders of the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year title and as befits their status, they produced a concert of high class, intimately played music. Both musicians are composers and their original pieces reinforced particularly the wit and imagination, in Kay’s case, and the harmonic awareness, in Johnstone’s, that they also brought to the more familiar numbers they included.
Kay produces a beautiful tone on tenor with occasional hints of her early alto-playing heroes, such as Art Pepper, in the higher register and a full, rounded, burnished sound elsewhere. Her improvisations are superbly well constructed, always keeping the original theme within touching distance, and her use of pauses and space adds both to the overall beguiling effect and the sense of genuine instant composition.
She and Johnstone, despite not having worked in a duo together much at all previously, showed a great rapport, sometimes switching soloist and accompanist roles and each responding to the other’s ideas and phrasing. Their take on Bill Evans’ Very Early swung with marvellous subtlety as Johnstone, who has a veritable rhythm section in his left hand, injected measured urgency, and the enjoyment they find in working together was clearly audible on Kay’s favourite standard, I’m in the Mood for Love as Kay revelled in Johnstone’s cheeky variations. Kay’s own pert and swinging Mini Max V also emphasised the duo’s good-natured mutual understanding.
From The Herald, May 22, 2017
There are quite a few Ella Fitzgerald tribute shows doing the rounds in this, arguably the greatest jazz singer of all’s centenary year, each of them focusing on different aspects of Fitzgerald’s long career. This one surveys and cherry picks from her association with the guitar marvel, Joe Pass. In doing so, it features familiar, evergreen songs including You Took Advantage of Me and They Can’t Take That Away from Me. It also has the added bonus of offering a guitar master class.
It’s a family affair: Dundonian Alison Burns sings the songs, sedately and without over-elaboration, and her father-in-law, Martin Taylor frames them with exquisite guitar accompaniments. He also takes on much of the audience communication, going off-piste slightly to recollect past Perth gigs with violinist Stephane Grappelli and giving entertaining insights into what it’s like to give guitar lessons in Folsom Prison.
We could have done with hearing more about his experiences with Pass in America, because he’s such a good raconteur, and getting more background to the songs from Burns. Taylor’s two golden solo spots were worth turning up to hear in themselves, however.
His ability to summon up interlocking melody, rhythm and bass parts is no longer a novelty but there are times, as on I Got Rhythm here, when he sets off at such a sprint on the lower strings that it seems unlikely that the rest of the arrangement can possibly fall into place. It does, and exhilaratingly so. He can make fewer notes count, too, though, and his blues-drenched, teased-out intro to Burns’ singing of I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So was pure string-picking poetry.
From The Herald, May 19, 2017
There will be jazz orchestra concerts that create much bigger musical storms and specifically Scottish National Jazz Orchestra concerts that feature more familiar instrumentation. This one, though, has to go down as particularly special. It was the sort of occasion that illustrates how there’s no substitute for being in the room where and when the music is being played, even when that music features on iconic recordings.
SNJO director Tommy Smith, who cast himself in the unusual role as conductor, had worked on the original scores of Gil Evans’s arrangements of Sketches of Spain and Porgy & Bess and expanded the woodwind section, and the result was gorgeously defined, beautifully dynamic settings for the soloists, trumpeters Laura Jurd and Tom MacNiven, who were filling Miles Davis’s shoes.
These are entirely different players and yet they both managed to inhabit the Miles zone while bringing their own personalities to the music. Jurd was measured, playing themes with delicate poise and improvising with a relaxed certainty as an ensemble including French horns, oboe, bassoon, trumpets and trombone produced light, pastel colours and swelled with immaculate pacing on Sketches’ lovely Saeta.
MacNiven, meanwhile is a SNJO treasure, next to Smith its longest serving player. Usually to be found in the trumpet section or introducing an element of mischief into the soloing order, in Porgy & Bess he was the trumpet playing equivalent of an understated star tenor in an opera. His flugelhorn brought soulful weight to the more solemn melodies and his muted trumpet take on Here Come De Honey Man, particularly, demonstrated his mastery at producing jazz with an unquenchable inner gleam.
From The Herald, May 1, 2017
The colour and movement mentioned in the title are articulated in twelve tracks embracing twelve different keys and a variety of time signatures but forget technical detail, this is music that communicates through its sheer attractiveness.
Saxophonist Brian Molley came late to recording, releasing his first album, Clock, in 2013 after many years of concerts, sessions and theatre work, and this second instalment from his quartet finds him creating similarly luxuriant melodies, dancing metres and warm atmospheres with the benefit of the group’s foreign travels and gigging experience as a unit.
The Pushkar Push evokes a camel festival they encountered in India with its slow, relaxed rhythm. Picayne Slinky has drummer Stuart Brown fashioning a crisp New Orleans accent and features a typically creative piano solo from the increasingly impressive Tom Gibbs, and bassist Mario Caribe switches to guitar for the flute-led Brazilian sashay of A Borboleta.
Molley himself is marvellous, always expressive and absolutely sure-footed. Superb readings of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ballad, Cheer Up Charlie, a disguised That Old Black Magic and a reed chorale take on Ellington’s Solitude offer known quantities but Molley’s brilliantly written originals will quickly become just as familiar.
From The Herald, April 28, 2017
For a song dealing with inspiration’s failure to materialise, Fini Bearman’s The Idea doesn’t half blossom in performance. London-based Bearman is more of a singer-songwriter than a conventional jazz singer and as a performer she’s very much part of a five-piece band rather than a singer with a rhythm section, a point that comes across particularly when she uses rhythmical vocal lines to build the mood alongside finely judged guitar vamps from the subtly impressive Nick Costley-White.
Bearman’s own lyrics may often address timeless issues such as broken romances but she lives in a modern world where screensavers, for example, enter her muse unselfconsciously and with a warm, clear and expressive voice she brings a sense of realism and even practicality to her storytelling style.
She’s helped demonstrably in putting this across by tightly executed group arrangements, with a leaning towards art-rock in the bass lines and grooves, and superb individual playing from Matt Robinson on keyboards, who traded keen, incisive lines with Costley-White before Bearman brought Maybe Next Year to a strikingly effective voice-led conclusion.
I Know I Alone and Such a Fool illustrated Bearman’s ability to adapt poems – from the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa and e. e. cummings respectively – into natural-sounding songs and her encore took the wise words of thirteenth century Sufi mystic Rumi further into the realm of Brazilian carnivals than they possibly have been before.
Much of this music comes from Bearman’s latest album, Burn the Boat, released last year, but Endless Clouds, written in the wake of the American presidential election result, shows that she’s already producing material of a similarly fine quality in readiness for the follow-up.
From The Herald, April 19, 2017
Originally a saxophone, bass and drums trio – and they may well return to this format – London-based Partikel have been expanding their sound and line-up over the past two or three years with fascinating results.
They’ve worked with a string quartet and their most recent trip to Scotland featured violinist Benet McLean, who joins the brilliant guitarist Ant Law, cellist Matthew Sharp, flautist and baritone saxophonist Anna Cooper and electronics artist Sisi Lu in enhancing the core trio on this superbly adventurous and restlessly investigative third album.
There’s no sense of a group working with guests; all the cast are fully integrated when called upon into music that can turn on a knife-edge from winsome, atmospheric melody making to dark, hard riffing.
Most of the compositions are by saxophonist Duncan Eagles who writes strong themes and forms a close partnership with McLean, notably on the initially melancholic Lanterns and over Law’s insistent guitar figure on Moving Fields before the guitarist demonstrates his marvellously fluent improvising.
Bolden Days, in tribute to jazz trumpet pioneer Buddy Bolden, stirs in New Orleans influences and a bamboo flute interlude to further illustrate the contrasts and detail at work in this constantly stimulating music.
From The Herald, April 14, 2017