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
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
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
There’s a prevailing optimism about Colin Steele’s first quintet recording since Through the Waves marked the trumpeter’s signing with one of Europe’s leading jazz labels, Act in 2005.
Steele has been in some pretty dark places since then, as the title of this new album suggests, much of the problem stemming from bad advice regarding improvements to his playing technique and the work he had to do to get back on track.
This hasn’t affected his ability to come up with earworm-like melodies such as the one that propels There Are Angels or let his band loose on waltzing rhythmical progressions as exemplified by Robin Song.
As with previous Steele quintet albums, the trumpeter is indebted to pianist Dave Milligan’s inspirational arrangements, which underline Steele’s Scottish folk tendencies and give the music a gospel-flavoured groove and forward motion.
Milligan’s soloing is also an uplifting presence, not least on the Scottish hard bop-styled final section of Down to the Wire, and while Steele’s own improvising often takes on a confiding tone, saxophonist Michael Buckley probes every neuk and cranny on tenor and soprano and adds to the gallus swagger of Looking for Nessie.
From The Herald, March 24, 2017
Music technology and the jazz big band tradition came together very effectively here in Jazz Jigsaw, the successor to Wagner’s School of Cool, which won the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Award for Community / Education Project at the New Music Scotland Awards 2017.
Composer of Wagner’s School of Cool, Lewis Forbes created Jazz Jigsaw in four movements, each involving students from Braidburn and Pilrig Park Special Schools interacting with their contemporaries in Edinburgh Schools Jazz Orchestra.
Forbes’s writing is easily accessible, using simple but strong themes and rhythmical grooves that stay with the listener after the music stops. The opening movement, Firework Fusion, wouldn’t have sounded out of place as the theme tune to an American television crime drama and its warm brass and horn harmonies showcased the ESJO’s tight ensemble playing alongside its crisp rhythm section.
Submarine Scene and Cityscape Strut both conveyed readily imaginable visual scenes in the writing, the latter kicking along on a well-executed keyboard-driven boogaloo, and invited accomplished trombone and saxophone solos and impromptu interaction through electronic technology, including splendid use of the soundbeam to construct a synth-like solo that had impressive shape, imagination and stop-on-the-beat discipline.
What came across most forcibly was the enthusiasm and sense of involvement from everyone on the stage, with accordion and percussion fills adding to the freedom of expression and slap bass guitar lines propelling the eponymous final movement, Jazz Jigsaw, in its able drawing together of all the suite’s components to create a satisfying resolution.
An excellent, uplifting showcase, overall, for the great pioneering work being done by Drake Music Scotland and for the dedication of everyone involved in presenting a musical experience enhanced by back-projected images and filmed action sequences.
You’d never know that Corrie Dick is a recent arrival into pianist Elliot Galvin’s trio. The Glasgow-born, London-based Dick, who won the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year title in 2013, wasn’t the drummer on the album that Galvin is touring to promote, Punch, but he has assimilated himself into the twists, turns and idiosyncrasies of Galvin’s music so well that it seemed as if he’d been involved in its conception.
Galvin presents a deeply involved and thoroughly evolved musical experience. There are pieces that sound as if drawn from the soul of Eastern European folk melodies. Others touch on African folklore and instrumentation in the shape of a thumb piano or completely reinvent items from the standards repertoire. Still others take an original theme and develop it through a multitude of variations, and that’s before we get to the sheer theatre of the trio interacting with a Punch & Judy soundtrack or Galvin’s virtuosic extemporising on a melodica.
A particular favourite involved Galvin literally tearing strips off a roll of gaffer tape into the microphone as Tom McCredie played a muscular bassline and then improvising with jaw-dropping facility on piano keys whose strings were dampened with said strips of tape. Lulu’s Back in Town featured similar keyboard brilliance, sounding like the product of a liaison between Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Cecil Taylor and Scott Joplin, and Mack the Knife, with its familiar melody whistled over a juddering, reconfigured rhythm, took an engaging walk on the wild side. That all this passes to the listener so easily, and often so entertainingly, is a tribute to Galvin’s wit, wisdom and inclusive musicality.
From The Herald, March 20, 2017
The opening statement on Henry Spencer’s debut album may come from the trumpeter alone, as he plays an introduction that has a certain New Orleans bluesy swagger, but the ten tracks herein as a whole demonstrate this exciting recent arrival on the British jazz scene’s abilities as a bandleader and composer-orchestrator as much as his prodigious trumpet and flugelhorn talent.
A graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and recipient of Help Musicians UK’s Emerging Excellence Award, Spencer is a technically assured player who conceives music in song form and arranges with a strong sense of structure while also giving his musicians room to open up and express themselves. His close partnership with guitarist Nick Costley-White results in variously gentle ballad playing and urgent, bravura lines from both musicians and his excellent rhythm section are keenly tuned in to his melodic ideas and dynamic variations.
The sheer attack of Still Open to Confusion contrasts with Eulogy (Goodbye Old Chap)’s gentle lyricism and on the final two tracks, as quintet becomes nonet with the arrival of a string section, Spencer’s clear focus produces music that’s strong, direct, dramatic and emotionally involving.
From The Herald, March 3, 2017
Joe Locke didn’t need to confess to being an emotional sort of guy as he composed himself to give his thanks at the end of this concert. The vibraphonist had, by then, already been singing the blues for a couple of hours on an instrument that doesn’t always lend itself to such frank expression, his four pink-topped mallets landing meaningful affectionate blows on the chime bars with unerring certainty.
Locke and his discovery, California-based singer Kenny Washington were the focus of this celebration of two great songwriters whose work is readily familiar but was here given smart new arrangements as typified by the sumptuous orchestral voicings and kicking energy with which Locke himself revitalised Johnny Mandel’s The Shadow of Your Smile.
They make a contrasting pair, these two Americans. While Locke is outgoing to the point of flamboyance as he transfers the phrases in his head to his instrument with lightning reflexes, Washington is physically undemonstrative and self-contained, his immaculate clarity borne on a beautifully warm tone that paints pictures with words.
On one detour from the Mancini & Mandel script that included a superbly paced Moon River and a romping Pink Panther, Locke recalled the late saxophonist Bob Berg and not only did Washington capture the feelings and scene that Locke had described in introducing Verrazano Moon, but you could just imagine Berg emoting on its evocative melody.
In a nice touch, the guests were given the encore to themselves and sent the audience home with a vocal and vibraphone duet of Locke’s Available in Blue that provided a perfectly poised soulful coda.
From The Herald, February 28, 2017
It almost goes without saying that jazz musicians are composers. Their music, at its best, is in a constant state of recreation and ideas happened upon while exploring one piece might well reappear in some form as another composition entirely.
Even so, Polish guitarist Szymon Mika and his group take an approach to performance that’s composer-like in the extreme. Without giving any impression of repeating a previous gig, Mika, bassist Max Mucha and the wonderful New York-based drummer Ziv Ravitz played two sets here that were carefully structured and beautifully balanced.
Mika’s improvisations are thoughtful explorations that contain little hint of displaying chops, although he clearly has the jazz guitar vocabulary at his disposal. He’s all about creating fluent variations and diversions that have a logical, always melodic thread. Storytelling is the useful shorthand and he uses his technique – a combination of fingerstyle and plat-picking – in a sort of conversation with himself that he projects easily to the listener.
With an attentive audience the trio rewarded concentration with subtle interplay, painstaking detail and a huge range of colours. Mika can play with crunch as well as gentleness and Ravitz, who can motor very intensely at low volume, injected an indie rock-like urgency on occasion to great effect.
As is composers’ wont, Mika also occasionally integrates existing melodies into his own style. His reading of Sleep Safe and Warm, Krzysztof Komeda’s lullaby from Rosemary’s Baby became a soul ballad that sang directly through his warm tone and expressive extemporising, and his own opening number reappeared in a different guise at the end to give a satisfying feeling of resolution to a thoroughly involving group performance.
From The Herald, February 27, 2017
There’s possibly an underlying justification in saxophonist Trish Clowes being a BASCA award winner. BASCA is the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors and Clowes is all of these things on this album, recorded with three outstandingly sympathetic musicians.
Storyteller might be more apt than author, as each piece has a narrative behind it, and there’s certainly a songlike quality to much of Clowes’ writing, which in the case of Tap Dance (For Baby Dodds) couches a serious point about the Atlantic slave trade in an addictive groove.
As both a composer and an improviser Clowes has a lovely melodic turn of phrase, especially on soprano where she sounds a little like Wayne Shorter at times, and as well as being happy to become part of a sometimes knotty rhythm section she gives her musicians, especially the wonderful Ross Stanley (on piano and organ), plenty of room in which to express themselves.
Chris Montague’s guitar stings and rumbles admirably and James Maddren drums with his customary thoughtful assertiveness as the quartet collectively probes pieces that incorporate space, momentum, proggy riffing and the quietly affecting atmosphere of guest singer-composer Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian’s Muted Lines with consistently fascinating results.
From The Herald, February 10, 2017
Christine Tobin relocated to Brooklyn shortly after recording this latest album so we’ve still to hear what effect her new surroundings will have on the Dubliner’s music.
Chances are she’ll always sound like herself anyway as these settings of poems and lyrics by Paul Muldoon use a wide variety of arrangements and give hints of influences from the Beatles to John Martyn and Tom Waits yet could only be Tobin’s creations.
She has long had a way of appropriating other people’s words and giving them her unique storytelling spin with a voice that can be dreamy, mischievous, sultry and forthright.
To that talent she’s added composing and arranging gifts that have taken her far beyond any perceived confines of the jazz singer’s milieu, although jazz-friendly ears will enjoy the occasional piano, flute and guitar solos here.
Opening track Zoological Positivism Blues inhabits a junkyard groove. Promises, Promises is a complete contrast with its exquisite strings but all of Pelt combines to make an assured, wonderfully imaginative work.
From The Herald, January 6, 2017
Clackmannanshire-born drummer Jonathan Silk won the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year title in 2014, by which time he was already making his presence felt on the jazz scene in Birmingham where he graduated from the conservatoire three years earlier.
Fragment is his second album and it showcases his talents not just as a drummer but as a composer and orchestrator. Scored for a nineteen-piece big band supplemented by a thirteen-strong string section, it’s ambitious in scale and adventurous in its approach, drawing together brassy power, a crisp, dynamic rhythm section and the strings’ gracefulness and colour with skill, sensitivity, urgency, and descriptiveness.
Silk studied with top American composer-arrangers Vince Mendoza and Maria Schneider and while their influence is audible there are Scottish tones too, notably on Buchaille, and a loose-limbed African quality to Barefeet. At nearly eleven minutes, Fool’s Paradise is quite the epic, swirling keyboards, riffing guitar and whipcrack drums leading to an intimate horn and piano duet before the full ensemble gathers momentum. Impressive stuff.
From The Herald, December 23, 2016
Steps Ahead founder Mike Mainieri has been enjoying expanding the long-running fusion outfit’s music lately.
In June the vibraphonist joined the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra for a Steps Ahead celebration and here he leads another one with a group of Steps Ahead alumni at the heart of a big band arranged by regular SNJO collaborator Michael Abene.
It’s by no means the small band with added horns affair it might appear on paper as Abene involves the WDR players thoroughly, adding richness and colour but also bringing clear focus to music that’s variously intense, atmospheric, relaxed and pop hook-like in its simplicity as well as intricate and sophisticated.
The WDR players also go toe to toe with Mainieri & co on solos, with trombonist Shannon Barnett igniting the swinging Steppish and Paul Heller trading hot tenor lines with Bill Evans on Oops.
Essentially joyful, Steppin’ Out can also surprise, as witness drummer Steve Smith integrating Indian vocables into his solo on the dizzying Beirut.
From The Herald, November 18, 2016
Preservation and renewal were at the heart of this excellent celebration of one of jazz’s major pioneering figures. In the sixty-one years since his death, many have sought to capture Charlie Parker’s spirit. His tunes are still rites of passage for jazz players, and not just for those who take up his chosen instrument, the alto saxophone.
The exhilarating thing about Parker’s music for the listener, as well as his disciples, is the sheer flow of his creativity, often on melodies he superimposed onto existing chord sequences, and there were some marvellous examples here of giving his ideas new forms while maintaining something of the original.
Moose the Mooche opened the concert by letting the entire Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, certainly in ensemble and more or less individually, pick up Parker’s baton. The pace was bebop brisk, the section work crisp, tight and precise as the horns negotiated the melody’s hair-pin bends before a team of soloists queued up to take a chorus.
If this was from the text book, elsewhere the arrangements became more expansive, more enquiring. Julian Arguelles’ take on My Little Suede Shoes and Martin Kershaw’s on Anthropology made particularly imaginative use of both Parker’s ideas and the orchestral colour available, with flutes and mutes and clarinets being key features.
As well as emphasising SNJO’s high collective sound quality, these re-imaginings – the young trumpeter Sean Gibbs’ adaptation of Drifting on a Reed was another example – spurred the soloists’ creativity. Recent recruit Peter Johnstone’s encapsulation of keyboard power and subtlety on Anthropology was quite the tour de force and another indicator of the orchestra’s own propensity for regeneration.
From The Herald, November 14, 2016
Thomas Stronen’s Time is a Blind Guide is a group, he says, made up of three trios yet only five musicians. The Norwegian drummer and percussionist’s description might seem like a conundrum on paper but onstage it makes perfect sense.
There are passages for piano, double bass and drums, others for violin, cello and bass and still more for a percussion trio, which in the absence of the two percussionists from the group’s recent, self-titled ECM Records debut, comprises Stronen himself, violinist Hakon Aase on tambour and bassist Ole Morten Vagan drumming on his instrument.
All five musicians also play at once and in other combinations as the music develops, often from loose, abstract beginnings but with a gradual certainty into beautifully realised melodic statements that are as compelling as they are instantly familiar.
Perched on an unusually high drum stool and incorporating gongs and a marching band bass drum, Stronen has a physically commanding presence but is as subtle an embodiment of perpetual motion as you’re likely to see. His kit provides colour and definition as much as rhythm and his just-so interactions with pianist Kit Downes add to the music’s airy sense of atmosphere and processional nature.
It’s clearly an ongoing band as there were new pieces, such as the painterly Fugitive Pieces and Bella, with its dancing Eurasian melody given a thoroughly involving ensemble surge, as well as the Chinese-influenced Pipa, from the album, where Aase’s pizzicato violin took on a definite Oriental accent as Vagan and cellist Lucy Railton gently but intently strummed. Delightfully understated, careful music overall but played with conviction and an absolute sureness of touch.
Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim has a remarkable talent for creating music that gets under the listener’s skin with albums such as the magisterial Sangam and a superb collection of duets with accordionist Frode Haltli, Yeraz.
He’s done it again with these settings of poems by the thirteenth century Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi on which he’s joined again by Haltli and another past collaborator, cellist Svante Henryson in a quartet with Norwegian mezzo-soprano Tora Augestad.
Not your average jazz ensemble, for sure, and yet among songs that range in mood from meditative to nursery rhyme-like are some that sound like distant relatives of jazz ballads. Like Every Other Day is a good example, with Haltli’s undulating accordion the perfect foil for Augestad’s exquisite phrasing and Seim’s searching tenor.
Seim has spent much time in Egypt and his playing on both tenor and soprano is soulfully enriched by middle eastern voicings. There are also flavours from India and, less predictably, Argentina, as cello, sax and accordion dance something close to a tango.
From The Herald, October 14, 2016
Of all the many hours of music that the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra has played and shared over the past twenty-one years it’s the ensemble’s affinity with Charles Mingus that’s the most striking. The orchestra celebrated this most characterful of jazzmen’s work in the early years of this century with a firecracker of a concert and here it was again, with its distinguished guest, Norwegian double bass master Arild Andersen, metaphorically brawling, reeling and positively rocking in rhythm ’n’ hymns.
Mingus was a jazz historian. He championed the music that had gone before, celebrating Jellyroll Morton’s New Orleans spirit, Duke Ellington’s eloquence and Charlie Parker’s fluency in his own compositions and all the time, as illustrated fully here, infusing them with his own blood and guts, blues and gospel, belligerence and gumption. It was soul food when he wrote it and like Thelonious Monk’s music it has become more current with every passing year.
Though slimmed down to three in the trumpet and trombone sections, the orchestra still packed sonic power and colour. And with Andersen, who studied Mingus’s rhythm work closely, pianist Brian Kellock and drummer Alyn Cosker forming an engine room that could change gear and direction with Mingusian devilment, this was jazz with massive personality.
Andersen’s fabulous propulsion drove Haitian Fight Song with an intoxicating groove. Allon Beauvoisin’s baritone gave Moanin’ appropriate filth and force and uniformly keen soloing brought out all Mingus’ uptempo churchy jubilation and bruised ballad romance before the glorious Ecclusiastics, with Tommy Smith and Konrad Wiszniewski trading tenor saxophone phrases imbued with wit and fervour, completed the whole fabulously exhilarating shebang.
From The Herald, September 26, 2016
Ryan Quigley might have to put any plans to stop touring on hold for a while. The trumpeter has just released a new album, What Doesn’t Kill You, that includes the track The Long Journey Home, a musical articulation of his yearning for kith, kin and familiar surroundings in Scotland. He’s also put a band together to promote it, with just one change in personnel from the recording, and he might find that people want to hear what they’re doing. A lot.
It’s a band – and a repertoire – that takes its inspiration from a bygone era, the days of great direct communicators like Freddie Hubbard and Cannonball Adderley, and brings its virtues right into the here and now. Quigley’s recent years of hard travelling have given his playing and compositions added depth and authority and as well as soloing with superb confidence, especially on the album’s title track where he created fabulous tension and release with slight, repeated variations of a choice, bravura phrase, he’s leading this ultra-high class band with assurance and clear enthusiasm.
His frontline partner, tenor saxophonist Paul Booth, is a player of tremendous fertility, consistently building ecstatic, brilliantly sustained improvisations, and the American rhythm section gives a master class in taking the basic shape of a song and re-fashioning it almost wholesale spontaneously. The result is a collective that’s high on energy but also alive to changes of tempo, direction and emotion, with the push-pull partnership of the muscular bassist Michael Janisch and snap-crackle-popping drummer Clarence Penn rolling with all the soloists’ punches while also playing off the exuberant Cuban-to-gospel probings of the marvellous pianist Geoffrey Keezer.
From The Herald, September 13, 2016
Subtitled ‘The Music of Giannis Konstantinidis & Other Improvisations’ this fifth album from one of the Scottish jazz scene’s most enduring partnerships finds Rob Hall forsaking the saxophone family in favour of E flat, B flat and bass clarinets in a series of miniatures that draw on Greek mythology as well as the Turkish-born Konstantinidis’ concisely expressive melodies for inspiration.
The opening, improvised Three Views of Hades duets are by no means always as dark as the generic title might suggest, with Lyall’s bright sense of enquiry and often percussive touch at the piano bringing out the humour in Hall’s playing, and Hall’s solo bass clarinet improvisations capture gently mirthful, suitably equine characteristics in The Horses of Helios.
Konstantinidis’ writing is at the album’s heart, however, forming a twelve-part central suite that roams from the plaintive and solemn to the soulfully vivacious and finds Lyall at his expansive, exploratory best as both accompanist and improviser on Miniature No XLll with its beautifully yearning melody.
From The Herald, September 2, 2016