Featured post

Welcome to my blog.

Welcome to the new home for my posts on jazz and other cultural things which interest me. I have been blogging on another platform, as well as doing occasional reviews for the LondonJazz blog for a while, and decided to gather things together on WordPress.

I have compiled an index of all musicians, artists and venues, though I can’t guarantee this will always be completely up to date.

Advertisements

SNJO & Laura Jurd Play Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Sister Suite. Edinburgh, April 2018.

Another gig by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Another blinder. Sometime I’ll be disappointed by an SNJO performance, but not it wasn’t this time.

The first half was a performance of Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Sister Suite. Commissioned by the SNJO early in their existence, twenty years ago, and they played it with Wheeler taking the flugelhorn part. I hadn’t discovered SNJO at that point. Which is a shame, because the music is tremendous. Eight sections but played without a break, Wheeler’s writing is full of depth and nuance – there were a lot of dynamics at play.

And the excellent music showed off musicians as well as expected. The SNJO were joined by Laura Jurd who played the flugel beautifully – every note clear and full of emotion. Jurd is familar with the SNJO – she played the trumpet part in Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain a year ago (and was similarly impressive). The vocal parts in Sweet Sister Suite, originally written for Norma Winstone, were taken by Irini Arabatzi: her vocalese (including some long, long notes) felt spontaneous and exciting, and those sections with words were witty and moving. There were moments of intense quiet and moments of loud, exuberant swing.

DSCF2447 DSCF2462

DSCF2453 DSCF2475

Alyn Cosker couldn’t make the gig (he’s touring with his own band) so Tommy Smith called on Sebastiaan de Krom to fill the drum stool: this meant that the SNJO’s rhythm section contained all of Smith’s regular quartet (with Pete Johnstone on paino and Calum Gourlay on bass). Johnstone played some powerful solos, as did Smith.

DSCF2454

This was a tremendous performance: the SNJO was on excellent form. And we got to take it home, too: earlier in the year the SNJO recorded the piece with Jurd and Arabatzi (but not de Krom) for release in the near future.

The second half comprised the music of Mary Lou Williams, spanning about fifty years of composition. Using her own arrangements, this seemed more standard, swinging big band fare. Another guest (and regular collaborator) Brian Kellock took over the piano stool, and Arabatzi came back for a couple of numbers, including a very light hearted In the land of Oo-Bla-Dee (written for Dizzy Gillespie).

DSCF2464 DSCF2439

Public Service Broadcasting. Edinburgh, April 2018.

Public Service Broadcasting seem to get better and better. This was at least the fifth (possibly the sixth) time I’ve seen them in as many years. Always entertaining, they have got more political: they started out almost as a novelty act – how could two guys make all this music?! – but they have got more nuanced, more complex. The old material of still very good, but the newer tunes have more depth.

DSCF2383 DSCF2368

Tonight they played things from each of their three studio albums. (Nothing from The War Room that wasn’t on Inform-Educate-Entertain. That is, Spitfire, which was brilliant as ever.) And they seemed to play chunks from their albums – several tunes from each before moving to the next, with Every Valley featuring two chunks.

DSCF2398 DSCF2396

It was a great show. I was pretty near the front. The bass player, JF Abrahams, is the most lively performer, and gives them a bit more energy on stage, which benefits shows in larger venues; Wigglesworth is stuck behind his kit, J Willgoose Esq hides behind his keyboards even when playing guitar, barely lit. Wigglesworth is the driving force behind the band, though. Willgoose might be the brains, but Wigglesworth is the pounding heart.

DSCF2410 DSCF2413

The lights, projections and props add much to the live show: they’re an intrinsic part of the performance. (And how many others bands take a pit-head on tour? Or a satelite? Or…) I can’t help thinking they should perform Every Valley at the Scottish Mining Museum – with a real pit-head to play with.

Given their reliance on samples and what might seem a formulaic approach, the emotional heft of PSB’s music is surprising. Maybe I’m just growing sentimental, but several of their tunes pull strongly on my heartstrings, or send shivers over my skin.

A very impressive performance!

DSCF2425

DSCF2426

Jane Weaver. Edinburgh, April 2018.

Jane Weaver and her band were supporting Public Service Broadcasting at the Usher Hall. I’d caught a number late one night on TV and reckoned they were worth getting there early for.

DSCF2346

DSCF2337

They were very good: exceptionally tight. Nary a guitar solo nor a drum break – they were impressively self-controlled. Jane Weaver held the limelight, guitarist Pete Philipson and keyboard player Raz Ullah literally staying in the shadows. There was no bass player, Ullah creating the bassline and Philipson creating moody, distorted soundscapes over which Weaver sang. The nameless drummer – Weaver didn’t introduce the band (“we are Jane Weaver”, she said) – kept a steady, propulsive motoric beat.

DSCF2344

DSCF2354

The result was very effective, reminiscent of Stereolab with more discipline and a touch of psychadelia. Very good indeed.

DSCF2350

Trio HLK with Evelyn Glennie.

I was a little dubious about Trio HLK with Dame Evelyn Glennie. It’s the second time I’ve seen Evelyn Glennie in a jazz setting – she was in Celtic Connections with Trilok Gurtu last year. It’s also the second time I’ve seen Trio HLK: last time was in a room above a pub in Edinburgh, and I wasn’t very impressed; they left me a bit cold. This time, in a much larger hall (the seats went up to KK) – and I was very impressed indeed. Still quirky and clever clever, this was music for the head, but maybe I understood what they were trying to do a bit better.

They were playing standards. Well that’s what they said: their new album (also with Evelyn Glennie) is ironically called “Standard Time”. These standards were anything but: I recognised The Way You Look Tonight, although it was deconstructed and put back together resembling Frankenstein’s monster. Green in Blue and Anthropology were unrecognisable.

The musicianship was amazing, full of jumpy rhythms and abstracted tunes. Evelyn Glennie did a solo spot on an almost-hang drum (she described it as a hang drum’s cousin) and she said after so many complex rhythms she was just going to play 4/4 for a change.

She was excellent, playing all sorts of percussion (much of it hidden behind the vibraphone and marimba which occupied the front of the stage). She even played kit drums at one point, in a thrilling duet with Richard Kass, the K of HLK.

(They’re playing in Edinburgh in May – definitely one to catch!)

Arun Ghosh Band. Bristol Jazz Festival, March 2018.

It had been several years since I had seen Arun Ghosh play live, and the prospect was one of several things that drew me to Bristol Jazz Festival. His records are very good – his latest, Where Are You Really From, reflects on post-referendum politics (at least, that’s what I thought!) – but it’s in concert that his music really comes alive.

DSCF2190

DSCF2186 DSCF2195

Playing tunes from the album, his music was exciting, exuberant and optimistic. Taking elements from jazz, rock and a variety of ethnic musics – jazz-bhangra-reggae-dub, anyone? – he fuses something that could only come out of an multi-ethnic society. If ever there was an advert for multiculturism, this was it.

DSCF2243 DSCF2205

DSCF2236 DSCF2211 bw

His enthusiasm is hugely contagious: moving around the stage, he made the audience want to get up too. At its core, this is dance music: it takes a lot to make me want to dance, but sitting in the middle of a row, I felt constrained by the seated venue. There wasn’t space to dance: I wanted to get up and jump around!

Just a wonderful show.

DSCF2247

Tommy Smith, Makoto Ozone and the SNJO: Peter & the Wolf and the Carnival of the Animals. Edinburgh, February 2018.

Between mid December and the end of February, I saw Tommy Smith play in four – well perhaps three and a half – settings. I’ve seen Smith play many many times over the last thirty or more years, but four gigs in little over two months seems a bit excessive even for me.

The first was his huge work Spirit of Light, a composition for jazz orchestra and choir, which I’m still trying to get my head around; then his quartet tribute to John Coltrane, a completely different affair. Next a solo gig on a very wet night, not as immediately exciting as his Coltrane show as he settled into a more ethereal, contemplative mood, but rewarding nonetheless.

And lastly, another SNJO gig: jazz arrangements of Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf and Saint SaĆ«n’s Carnival of the Animals. Where the orchestra had been a bit muted in the December show, here they were at full power. And they swung.

Smith’s arrangement of Peter and the Wolf opened the show. And frankly he did an excellent job: the music was full of depth, with a sprinkling of Ellingtonian flourishes. Smith’s writing continues to impress: he knows this orchestra, and how to get the best from it.

The one downside was that, as with Spirit of Light, the words took a precedence, determining the structure and reigning back the band at times. However this cloud had a lining – not so much a silver lining as a whole treasury of jewels. What words! The text had been reworked by Liz Lochead and narrated by Tam Dean Burn. Lochead rendered the text into (I think) Scots, and it was delivered with passion and humour. It took a little while to ease into the dialect, but then it just flowed. Hugely entertaining.

The special guest for the evening was pianist Makoto Ozone, and he had reworked the Carnival of the Animals. This was, if anything, even more successful the Smith’s adaptation of the Prokoviev. Ozone has worked with the SNJO before (they released a record of Mozart’s Jeunehomme (piano concerto 9), arranged and featuring Ozone) and he clearly knows the orchestra well: his arrangement was full of wit and allowed the band freedom to stretch out.

His playing in both pieces was excellent. As well as being an accomplished classical performer, he has played in Gary Burton’s sextet (with Smith, I think) and has led his own jazz bands. He fitted perfectly within the SNJO.

Becc Sanderson Sextet. Edinburgh, February 2018.

Intrigued by the idea, I went along to a gig: jazz arrangements of Bowie songs, the singing by Becc Sanderson and the arrangements by trombonist Chris Greive. This was a bit of an outlier for me: I don’t normally go for singers. The vocal lines were played more or less straight; the arrangements came over the other instruments.

DSCF2103 bw

DSCF2078 bw

DSCF2044 bw

The first set was jazz standards, albeit standards that might not often get an airing – My Favourite Things with words rather than tenor, for instance. It was the second set that had the Bowie. And it was very fun – hugely enjoyable. Nothing too unexpected, a range of songs from the seventies and eighties. Space Oddity morphed into Ashes to Ashes; The Jean Genie and Time featured from Aladdin Sane (Sanderson stiffling a laugh at the frank language); a suitably lively Let’s Dance. Changes was an instrumental.

DSCF2047 bw

DSCF2099 bw

Sanderson has a good voice, well matched to the (mostly) familiar songs. The arrangements didn’t mess around with the songs too much – a slight change to the phrasing, a nudge to the rhythm; and lots of space for the band to stretch out.

The band reminded me once again at how much talent there is in Scotland. On drums was Tom Gordon, who I haven’t seen over here for ages (he based in Glasgow, I think). The pianist was Steve Hamilton, who was superb – there were moments where he changed the mood of a song with some subtlely placed chords. And Greive and Martin Kershaw made a fine front line.

DSCF2035 bw DSCF2118 bw

DSCF2092 bw DSCF2111 bw

Tommy Smith Quartet. Edinburgh, January, 2018.

Tommy Smith had a busy January: a duo gig with Brian Kellock (broadcast on Radio 3’s Jazz Line Up), a string of sell out shows with the SNJO at Ronnie Scott’s, and Judy a couple of days later, he brought his quartet back to Edinburgh to play music from their album, “Embodying the Light”. They’d played a gig last July based on the same repertoire – an exciting, storming show that was one of the best concerts I saw last year. Which meant this show had a lot to live up to.

The first set didn’t quite make it: good though it was (and it was), it lacked the punch of last year’s gig. That was partly because in contrast to July’s sell out show, the much larger Queen’s Hall was only half full, and the acoustics weren’t as good. The quartet were playing without amplification, and at times Calum Gourlay’s bass was drowned out. (They were recording the show for video, and the instruments were miked for that, but they weren’t using the PA system.)

DSCF1854

DSCF1840 DSCF1857 bw

The second half was something else, though: I don’t know if the band had warmed up a bit, or the audience had warmed up, or may it was only me who had warmed up – but it felt like they had gone up a gear. In part it might be that they made more space – Smith played a solo piece early in the second set, using the piano as a resonator, which provided a change of dynamics.

The band were superlative. Sebastiaan de Krom played an amazing drum solo in the second half, and seemed to get better and better as the show continued. Pete Johnstone on piano was inspired and inspiring; he listens very attentively, even when he’s not playing – the look on his face showed how exciting he finds this band, and he creates genuinely exciting music as a result. And Calum Gourlay’s bass playing hits the mark.

DSCF1823 bw DSCF1813 bw

DSCF1810 bw

After each solo from the side-men, I thought “that’s the real star of the show!”, each one bettering the previous. And them Tommy Smith would play, and put them a little in the shade: push them further, and they pushed him. Collaborative rather than competitive, it resulted in a truly exiting evening of jazz.

DSCF1824 bw DSCF1801

DSCF1826 bw

“Spirit of Light”: Tommy Smith & the SNJO. Edinburgh, December 2017.

It is now several weeks since the SNJO premiered Tommy Smith’s new piece at three concerts across Scotland over the weekend before Christmas, each in a large cathedral. But I’m still trying to work out what I thought of it; it certainly made me think, and keeps returning to my thoughts. At this distance, and on only one hearing, the specifics may be lost but the impression remains.

At over two hours, Spirit of Light is a major undertaking for jazz orchestra – augmented by several guests – and choir. As guest vocalist Kurt Elling said as he introduced the piece, it is a challenging work. Smith’s accomplishment must be applauded: his ambition and vision to create the piece are remarkable.

The music fell somewhere between jazz and classical: the choir – Capella Nova – and Elling were singing fixed words, their vocal lines written; but elsewhere there was ample space for improvisation. Smith’s own playing was superb (he seems to get better and better – and he started off pretty good). The trumpets and trombones were also given their chance to shine.

But the writing also seemed to constrain the jazz side of the project: they were rarely let off the leash. On the few occasions they were able to let rip and swing – and with the rhythm section of Calum Gourlay and Alyn Cosker setting the pace, they certainly know how to swing – but then they were quickly brought to heel. Knowing what the SNJO can do, they seemed underutilised.

Elling explained that the pieces were being played slowly so that we could hear the words. For me, the words took presence over the music: it was almost too wordy. The music felt like it was written to fit the words, rather than the words being cut to flow together with the music. It meant the pieces didn’t feel like songs, but poems accompanied by music – which is what they were. But those poems which had a more song-like structure, such as Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, worked much better for me. There were several poems by Rainer Maria Rilke which didn’t necessarily scan well: it seemed like musical lines were extended to fit Rilke’s text, which must have made them hard for Elling to sing.

I’ve been impressed by Smith’s writing for classical orchestra in the past – I really liked Modern Jacobite which he composed for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – and it was interesting to hear him incorporating classical instrumentation into Spirit of Light. The inclusion of harp and his writing for percussion both worked well.

There was a certain theatricality to the show. Smith entered St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral slowly processing down the nave, blowing a heartfelt, Coltranesque solo whilst the choir entered with him through the aisles. The cathedral was dramatically lit (Smith thanked the lighting designers from Black Light), making much of the space, and the sound took advantage of the space too.

But it was also fiercely cold. A cathedral in Scotland, in winter? Who’d have guessed? Well me, frankly, glad that I had worn an extra fleece layer. Still, after over two hours I was still feeling the chill. I had expected the new piece might fill the first half, giving the second over to more typical Christmas jazz fare – the SNJO have played several Christmas concerts in the past.

Filing the whole concert with new music may have reduced its appreciation, and taking it slowly – giving priority to the words rather than the music – made it at times ponderous and heavy: it felt neither bright or light to me.

For some in the audience, it was too much: several people left in the interval. Of those that stayed, a very many of them loved it: they gave Smith and the orchestra a standing ovation. A friend who was at the same show as me described how she felt immersed in the sound.

I felt more ambivalent: whilst there were several sections I thought were great and there was much to admire, I didn’t think it worked as a whole. But it has clearly stayed with me, demanding further consideration.