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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.

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Martin Kershaw Octet. Edinburgh, December 2018.

Last July, during the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, I saw the Martin Kershaw Octet premiere a new, extended work, commissioned by the festival. I was very impressed but something didn’t quite work for me.

A couple of weeks ago I had a second chance to hear the piece, Dreaming of Ourselves. I’m so glad I gave it another hearing: it was a tremendous gig.

It was the same line up, and, I think, the same programme. Dedicated to David Foster Wallace, the first half featured a quartet of Kershaw on soprano, alto and tenor saxes (I kind of wish he’d added baritone just to get a full house!), Paul Harrison on piano, Calum Gourlay on bass and Doug Hough on drums, playing older tunes of Kershaw’s inspired by Foster Wallace’s writing. The second half featured Dreaming of Ourselves, a long, through-composed suite, performed by the quartet with the addition of Graeme Stephen on guitar, Sean Gibbs, trumpet, Chris Grieve, trombone, and Adam Jackson on alto sax.

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Martin Kershaw. Not at this gig. I didn’t take my camera!

It was absolutely magical. I’m not sure what had changed (and it might be something as trivial as the venue, or maybe even my mood!), but it seemed like the music took on a life of its own: the music was so much more than the notes on the paper and the eight musicians playing them.

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Chris Grieve (L) and Calum Gourlay (R).Not at this gig. I didn’t take my camera!

It had a great depth. There were carefully controlled sections, periods of chaotic freedom, improvised solos and moments of deep emotion and intensity. A bit like the way Kershaw described David Wallace Foster, in fact. None of the musicians seemed to hold anything back; they were all excellent (and frankly must have been shattered at the end!). The whole performance shone.

At the end of the gig, the audience was buzzing with excitement: the stranger sitting next to me turned to me and just said “wow!”

I bumped into one of the musicians later in the week at the SNJO’s gig (another superlative show – four of the musicians from the octet were in the SNJO that night) who said that they hoped to record the piece next year. So there’s that to look forward to!

(And kudos to Soundhouse for putting Martin and the octet on, as well as EJF for commissioning the work!)

Henri Matisse – “Jazz”.

I was lucky enough to have a close look at Henri Matisse’s collection of prints “Jazz” recently. I’ve seen prints from it before – they’re well known images – and when the opportunity was provided by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to look at their copy, I took it.

The images from Jazz were made late in Matisse’s life, after illness had stopped him painting and he’d started making his highly coloured cut outs and collages.

Seeing the printed up close was startling: the vivacity of the colours and the energy present in still representations of movement were impressive. Matisse was very particular about the colours and moaned at length about it to the publisher.

Learning the context of the prints was interesting too: images that I had thought abstract were representational. The collection started off as being about the circus, but the current broadened out. (Jazz refers to the vibrancy and liveliness of the images; none are about jazz.) The leaf-forms used by Matisse in a lot of his cut outs stood in many objects – faces, hands, bodies, waves – as well as leaves.

Matisse apparently said that there were no hidden depths or interpretations of the prints: what you saw is what you got. The thing is, I saw all sorts of things. The images were created at the end of and just after the war (the book was published in 1947), and he had been estranged from his family, sound of whom had joined the French resistance and suffered at the hands of the gestapo. Many of the pictures seemed to be open to interpretation: the curator said that three sword swallower was clearly simply that, but I saw a screaming mouth, reminiscent of the horse in Picasso’s Guernica.

The red on the chest of Icarus plummeting to the ground may be his heart; but maybe it’s a bullet wound instead. Or both.

My own experience was reflected in my interpretation, too. After a week of looking at Renaissance art in Florence, the first thing I saw when I looked at Destiny was the silhouette of the Madonna and child.

Martin Kershaw Octet and Mark Hendry Large Ensemble: Orchestral Jazz at Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2018.

Two gigs on successive nights at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival fell firmly into the category of “orchestral jazz”.

The first featured the Martin Kershaw Octet. Well, they started as a quartet in the first half, Kershaw on saxes joined by Paul Harrison on piano, Doug Hough on drums and Calum Gourlay on bass; for the octet they added Graeme Stephen on guitar, Chris Greive on trombone, Sean Gibbs on trumpet and Adam Jackson on alto. All the music was inspired by the writer David Foster Wallace (about whom I know nothing!): the first half was older material, tunes prompted by passages and characters from Foster Wallace’s works; the second a large scale orchestrated suite, Dreaming Of Ourselves.

The suite was very impressive in its conception, scope and execution: ambitious and challenging, it demanded attention from both musicians and listeners. The arrangements brought to mind Charles Mingus’ larger scale works. At times the musicians seemed a little stiff, as if they were still settling into the piece. I came out wanting to hear it again, maybe when the musicians were slightly more familiar with the music.

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The next night was even more ambitious: two original suites orchestrated for twenty three musicians, written by bassist Mark Hendry, still a student at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, as were apparently many of the musicians in his Large Ensemble. This gig was one of my wild cards: I’d not seen Hendry before, but a friend suggested it sounded like my kind of thing. Had I known the scale of the works being premiered I might have dismissed it as hubris. But Hendry pulled off his vision superbly.

The orchestra comprised classical strings – violins, cellos and double bass – with jazz brass – trumpets, trombones and saxophones – and a rhythm section of Hendry’s bass, Fergus McCreadie on piano and Stephen Henderson on drums. (The orchestra weren’t introduced, so apart from Harry Weir on tenor, I’ve no idea who they were!) The arrangements brought to mind Gil Evans – curiously, since I can’t recall Evans using strings. There is always a danger that strings add syrup to an arrangement, making it sickly and sticky. Hendry’s use of strings avoided this completely, instead using therm to add texture and depth.

I thought the first piece, inspired by endangered species (with a section named after each of five animals) worked a bit better than the second, based around the novel 1984. But that’s quibbling: it was a highly successful evening: Hendry has accomplished something remarkable, and it speaks volumes for the quality of the young musicians coming out of the RCS and Scotland’s thriving, youthful jazz scene.

(I picked up a copy of Hendry’s recent CD Esperance. It too is excellent!)

Graham Costello’s STRATA. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2018.

I had no expectations of this gig, other than I’d seen two of the musicians several times before and wanted to see what else they were up to. And so it was that I heard some of the most exciting new music for a long time.

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Those two musicians were guitarist Joe Williamson and pianist Fergus McCreadie. Indeed, McCreadie must have thought I was stalking him – I saw him play three or four shows in the jazz festival, including his own trio gig. But the other three that make up the band were superlative too. Angus Tikka played excellent, sometimes funky electric bass (and I had been close to giving up on electric basses in a jazz setting!). Harry Weir played some blistering, intense tenor. And Graham Costello himself was superb on drums – energetic, powerful, exciting.

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They had me hooked on the first number (none of the tunes were introduced, and they played through, from one tune to the next, so I have no idea what any of them were called). Building slowly, McCreadie seemingly playing a single chord, Williamson stoked the tension. And they kept it going through two sets of high energy jazz rock. Not a retread of electric Miles or seventies fusion – this seemed very much of its time.

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I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm, either: chatting at other shows, people I didn’t know were telling me how good it was!

(They’ve just released a a video of a recent performance on Radio Scotland.)

Kurt Elling. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2018.

I don’t normally seek out vocalists, but having seen Kurt Elling a couple times with the SNJO, I wanted to see what he was like with his own band. And it was very good indeed. He has a deep, rich voice which he uses as an instrument, improvising scat and vocalese as much as singing lyrics. He started with Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain, taken slowly and acapella – with moments he had the Assembly Hall spellbound. A marvellous evening.

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Keyon Harrold. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2018.

I hadn’t heard Keyon Harrold’s music before this show. It had a quite a dark feel to it – the opening number was long and brooding. There was an undoubted – and understandable – political edge: Harrold is from Ferguson, Missouri, and one number, Lament for MB, was dedicated to Mike Brown, the young black man whose killing by police lead to riots a few years ago. He also expressed his thanks to the people of Edinburgh who had been marching against the US president’s visit to Scotland. The music had a distinct, infectious groove, a hint of hiphop beats and rock rhythms, as well as vocal samples operated by the drummer, Charlie Haynes.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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