Colin Steele - back with the quintet and folk inspiration


Colin Steele can relate to the notion that life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. The trumpeter, who scaled the dizzy heights for a musician of his calling in winning a BBC Jazz Award and signing to a major European jazz label, Act, in the mid noughties, might well wonder where the time went between those days and the imminent return of the quintet that articulated the music that brought him such approval.


“I remember thinking when we released the first quintet album in 2002 that we’d probably put out a new album every year from then on,” says Steele, whose BBC Jazz Award was joined in the trophy cabinet by one of this paper’s Angel awards in the same year, 2004. “And by the time the third album came out, in 2005, we were more or less on schedule.”


Then, as he says, things turned mad. The folk music inspired compositions that had given Steele’s quintet a signature sound drew him into larger scale operations that effectively derailed the parent group. His nine-piece Stramash, which added fiddles, cello, pipes and whistles to the jazz quintet, took over Steele’s life to the point where he shut himself away on the admittedly inspiring island of Islay to compose music, some of whose titles, including Steak and Whisky, 5am, told their own story.


Self-releasing the subsequent album after Act, which was also home to the then European jazz sensations EST, passed up the opportunity drained Steele’s energy and resources and took longer than the year he remembers. But he bounced back with a bigger band, an orchestra for which he devised a mostly new repertoire.


“These were both big undertakings for me,” he says, “and looking back, they were absolutely mad. It took a lot of work. Just coming up with so many new melodies required a level of focus that was quite draining but at the same time, hearing the music played was elating.”


As a working musician with a family at home Steele also had to get out there and earn a living. He toured all over the UK with musician-playwright Mike Maran’s A Funny Valentine, which told the story in words and music of one of Steele’s great trumpeting heroes Chet Baker, and he picked up as much freelance work as possible.


His situation was complicated by trumpeting problems, however. Part of the generation that produced a wave of Scottish jazz talent including Tommy Smith, the Bancroft brothers, Brian Kellock, John Rae and Kevin Mackenzie, Steele is self-taught and concedes that, technically speaking, he did everything wrong. Around five years ago things came to a head. The inside of his lips would bleed every time he played and the wounds took longer and longer to heal.


Consultancies via the internet with a New York-based professional who promised to sort everything out within a month or two, resulted in Steele essentially starting again from scratch but being no further forward eight months later.


“My throat would tighten up as I played and the notes would just stop,” he says.


He cancelled all the gigs in his diary and was actually looking around to see what other form of work he could do when he realised that music meant too much to him to give up. Then Mark O’Keefe, the principal trumpet player with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, heard of Steele’s plight and volunteered his services. Within four months Steele was back gigging.


“Mark was brilliant,” says Steele. “His take on it was that this was the sort of thing that could happen to any trumpeter and he was a real catalyst in my recovery. I was getting offers to record and turning them down because I felt I was playing at half-strength and I wanted to wait until I was completely happy with my playing before I took on a new project. But probably like every other musician, I’ll never be completely happy with what I’m doing, so I decided to bring the quintet back.”


The band Steele tours Scotland with this week shows one personnel change from his last quintet recording, 2005’s Through the Waves, with Scottish National Jazz Orchestra bassist Calum Gourlay replacing the now New York-based Aidan O’Donnell. Steele considered a change of style, too, but when he tried to deviate from the folk influence that brought success, the music felt forced.


“One or two phrases sound slightly classical to me,” says. “But the folk-styled tunes just seem to come naturally and with Dave Milligan sprinkling his pianist and arranger’s gold dust over them, Michael Buckley adding his beautiful saxophone tone and phrasing and Calum and drummer Stu Ritchie bringing their energy, I’m really pleased with how things are sounding.”


From the Herald, March25, 2015.


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