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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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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.)

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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.

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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.

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“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.

“Square One”. Edinburgh, November 2017.

There seems to be a blossoming of young jazz talent in Scotland. Over the past few years, more and more young musicians have been performing in clubs, concert halls, and festivals – graduates and students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and alumni of the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra (Smith is also professor of the jazz programme at the RCS).

Square One are such a band: bass player David Bowden is the 2017 BBC Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year; Peter Johnstone won the same award in 2012, and plays the piano in Tommy Smith’s excellent, current quartet; drummer Stephen Henderson has received rewards and accolades: and Joe Williamson has played with SNJO (TSYJO’s big brother). They all seem to have firest class degrees from the jazz programme at the RSC.

Toegether, they’re a exuberant, lively self-assured quartet playing exciting, engaging music: very enjoyable and a sign that there is another generation coming up fast. Self assured

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Fraser Fifield joins “Playtime”. Edinburgh, October 2017.

I’ve seen Fraser Fiefield play a few times before – most commonly in a duo with Graeme Stephen – but not for several years. This time, the reeds player joined Stephen, Mario Caribe and Tom Bancroft for “Playtime”. I had expected to enjoy it, but I hadn’t expected it to be one of those nights. There was a certain alchemy at work: it was a magical evening, a very special event.

The mixture of folk and jazz blended perfectly and produced something new and surprising. Fifield’s whistles, pipes and saxophone evoked the windswept celtic fringes of Scotland: heartfelt, yearning and perhaps even lonely. The Playtime rhythm section was in full swing, listening hard and adding their own magic to Fifield’s tunes. A exceptional night!

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Tom Bancroft plays Sonny Rollins. Playtime, Edinburgh, June 2017.

Back in June, Phil Bancroft brought his tenor to Playtime for an evening dedicated to the music of Sonny Rollins. Phil spoke about Rollins’ influence – particularly how, when he was finding his voice, he wanted to sound like Coltrane but reckoned he sounded like Rollins; and that that was probably a good place to be.

I’ve been consciously listening to Rollins’ music for decades – I remember buying the Blue Note reissues of Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard and the two eponymous albums in the mid 1980s – and I’ve seen him live a couple of times, though not for the last twenty years. His music has never made the impact that Coltrane’s does. And it is fascinating that fifty years after Coltrane’s death, the two are still being compared. It is probably an unfair comparison, but the two are so influential that perhaps it is only to be expected. Whilst I can describe Coltrane’s style, I’m not sure I can describe Rollins’: softer, more repetitive and rhythmic, perhaps.

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But I do know many of his tunes, and it was great to hear Bancroft play them. Several favourites weren’t played – no St Thomas (though Bancroft did play a calypso he’d written when jamming with musicians in Soweto), nor Alfie, nor Sonnymoon For Two. Indeed, it is strange that I can remember what wasn’t played better than what was!

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The highlight I do remember: it was a roaring version of Rollins’ Freedom Suite, all twenty minutes of it, and it was brilliant: completely absorbing. Not necessarily easy music – it can be jarring (so maybe not much softer!) – but hugely rewarding.

The Bad Plus. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

The last gig of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival for me; and also the last opportunity to see the Bad Plus in their current incarnation. They’re a band I have seen many times: I first saw Ethan Iverson play in 2002, I think, in a small cellar-bar in Edinburgh; I went at the insistence of the promoter, and picked up a copy of the Bad Plus’ “Authorised Bootleg”. Their gig with Joshua Redman five years ago remains one of the most memorable gigs I’ve been to. But with such high expectations, they also have the capacity to diappoint, too.

So this gig held mixed feelings for me. And to start with I wasn’t in the mood: their natural quirkiness seem forced. Maybe an afternoon of high-powered bebop and the excitement of Binker & Moses the night before (not to mention several pints consumed after that gig…) had left me feeling a bit jaded. I took several numbers for me to warm to the Bad Plus.

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But warm I did. Something kicked in half way through and grabbed me. Maybe they started playing more familiar tunes (for me they are much more of a live band, and I haven’t heard their most recent recordings). Reid Anderson’s bass playing I think is superb. (A large part of me hopes that he does more solo work – his album “The Vastness of Space” is one of my favourites.) And Dave King’s drumming took me along for the ride. I ended up really enjoying it.

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Ethan Iverson has announced he’s leaving the band, and I will miss his presence. I can’t help wondering what they’ll become without him, and where it will take him, too.

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Binker & Moses. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

Aside from one number on Jools’ Later, I hadn’t heard Binker & Moses, but I seemed to have heard a lot about them. Normally I avoid bands that seem to be hyped, having gone through several “jazz revivals” (and many jazz saviours!) since I started listen to the music. But I thought maybe I ought to see what the fuss is about, since they were playing in my home town.

Much to my surprise, the hype was right. Maybe even understated. Binker & Moses were superlative: powerful, exciting, gripping music. That only two guys could make all that sound was astonishing.

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Binker Golding plays tenor – and he plays it very well, muscular in a Coltrane vein, cascades of tumbling notes. But where Binker is exceptional, Moses Boyd is amazing. Playing a small drum kit, he was superlative when laying it out loud in full-on, polyrhythmic Elvin-mode, but his power really showed when he played quietly. He played so many notes, and then somehow seemed to fit a whole load more in between them, and then some more for good measure.

Watching them, I had two recurring thoughts: how come I had never seen these guys before? (It turns out I had – at least, I saw Binker play with the Nu Civilisation Orchestra five years ago.) And, of Moses, how is he doing that?! Together, they were breathtaking.

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With just two musicians playing such high octane music, it might have been easy for one to overwhelm the sound, but they seemed supremely balanced. Moses let on that he was jetlagged, though one wouldn’t have known: I can’t imagine them playing with more passion and energy.

This, I think, was my gig of the festival (of the twelve shows I saw), because it was unexpected, a salve to my jaded assumptions. I expected hype, and heard instead creativity, imagination and fervour.

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John Rae Sextet: “Ah Um”. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

It wasn’t planned, but several of the gigs I went to in this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival celebrated musicians or their records: The Birth of the Cool; Thelonious; Coltrane; Dizzy and Bird; and this gig, in which John Rae lead a band paying homage to Mingus and specifically his 1959 record, Mingus Ah Um.

Mingus Ah Um has long been one of my favourite records: it was the first jazz LP I had, a gift from my father one Christmas (I’d asked for some jazz, not knowing what records specifically to request; as well as Mingus, he gave me a Miles Davis Quintet double, Relaxin’ / Workin’, a live Ellington record, and Benny Goodman Live At Carnegie Hall. I didn’t like the latter, and still don’t, but loved the rest).

So of course I had to see Rae, back in Scotland for some gigs, and a pick up band play Mingus. Rae was joined by the very excellent Phil Bancroft on tenor, who brought his own anarchic energy to the gig, a necessary ingredient to Mingus’ music; a couple of bassists to ensure sufficient Mingusicity, Patrick Bleakley and an American player whose name I didn’t get (many apologies if that was you!); and two more guests from the States, Shea Pierre on piano and a trombonist who I think was named David Hawkins (but I can’t verify that, so I might have got it wrong).

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They played a few tunes from Ah Um, starting off with a superb Better Get Hit In Your Soul, and later Pussy Cat Dues, but they played a variety of Mingus numbers, mostly well known – Tonight At Noon, Peggy’s Blue Skylight, Remember Rockefeller At Attica – and a couple of less well known pieces – Opus 3 and Canon.

Canon was a slow, bluesy melancholic number – and a canon, the instruments seeming to chase each other along extended lines. The band managed to achieve that Mingus sound, making a small band feel a lot bigger than it actually was. Hanging two bassists helped, with one keeping the band swinging whilst the other added little touches and emphasis, or a solo.

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They closed with an energetic Boogie Stop Shuffle, from Ah Um: a great way to finish a tribute to a wonderful album and a truly great musician.