Monthly Archives: August 2006

Scottish Ballet. Edinburgh International Festival, August 2006.

Scottish Ballet were beautiful. They performed a mixed bill of modern dance pieces at the Edinburgh Playhouse on Saturday, although modern is a flexible term: the first piece, Agon by George Balanchine, was nearly fifty years old. There was no set – just deep blue light flooding across the plain backdrop – the dancers in complex groups and en masse looked excellent.

I didn’t like the music to Agon, though – it was some Stravinsky pieces which I didn’t recognise, rather jarring.

The second piece was stunningly beautiful. A duet to Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, Afternoon Of A Faun was a gentle piece which used a set of ballet rehearsal room in perspective. The two dancers – Vassilissa Levtonova, and Paul Liburd – were excellent, the music was lovely and the whole worked superbly. This was followed by another duet, Two Pieces For Het, with music by Arvo Pärt and Erkki-Sven Tüür.

The evening finished with a long, full ensemble piece, In Light And Shadow. Set to several pieces by Bach, this was energetic and exciting dance. The dancers wore unisex costumes – some of the men in skirts, some of the women in trousers – and danced singly, in duet, in groups and en masse. It looked excellent, the dancers moving with elegance and fluidity.

Niki King. Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August 2006.

Niki King was appearing in a tent outside Fettes College, where they held a weekend of jazz. I don’t normally like jazz singers, but I make an exception of King: she is great. She should be a household name – like the hobbit Cullum or any of the “jazz singers” who have been selling albums by the bucket-load over the past year or three. But then, if she were, we wouldn’t be able to see her in small gigs like this. The first time we saw her – a few years ago – she was bottom of the bill in a show which also included Tina May and Stacey Kent – singers who really are jazz singers – and she was by far the best singer all evening.

She played two sets at Fettes. The first was more jazzy, in duet with the pianist Paul Harrison: mostly jazz standards and ballads, this was a soulful set. She has a good jazz voice, and she brings the tunes to life, breathing feeling into phrases that are usually worn and familiar.

She had a good foil in Harrison, who brought a great deal of sensitivity to the songs: his playing matched her voice well, and he shone without upstaging her.

The second set added bass, drums and backing vocals to the mix, for a more pop-soul collection of songs, largely King’s own compositions. Harrison added an electric keyboard to the piano, allowing for the more funky nature of the songs. The bass and drums provided a solid backing, and backing singer Madelaine provided some vocal depth.

King had a great rapport with the audience: she knows how to work the crowd. There was a real party – even festival – atmosphere, quite rare for stormy Sunday evening in Edinburgh.

Ethan Iverson Quintet: Play Monk. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2006.

Iverson’s third outing at this year’s Edinburgh jazz festival, this time with a band of local musicians playing the music of Thelonious Monk: Colin Steele on trumpet, Laura MacDonald on alto sax, Aidan O’Donnell on bass and Alan Cosker on drums. With other musicians around him, Iverson was more relaxed than earlier in the week.

The angular, jagged character to Monk’s compositions suited Iverson’s style – he said he had been playing these tunes since he was fourteen (which I would guess means the last twenty years or so) – and he played with a lot of energy, launching out of the piano stool to hit the notes.

Colin Steele

Steele was on fine, fiery form, driven along by the piano; he played some excellent muted trumpet, and he brings a great deal of pyrotechnic excitement to the bandstand. MacDonald, who had already played a solo gig that night, was flying, her solos building within the structure of Monk’s tunes. Iverson gently prodded the keys behind the soloists, a few piano notes adding just a touch of texture.

Iverson avoided the better-known of Monk’s tunes – there was no Round Midnight or Blue Monk – but they covered much of Monk’s career. Misterioso, Well You Needn’t, Crepuscule With Nellie and what sounded like Monk’s Mood (it was name checked as Ask Me Know – not a track I know) were all featured.

Laura MacDonald

There were only two non-Monk compositions – a sax feature of Body And Soul from MacDonald, and a beautiful version of Angel Eyes for Steele.

Whilst the music was excellent, there was little re-interpretation of these classic tunes. Iverson was working from recently published versions of the music, derived from the original manuscripts, and he could have brought some more of himself to the tunes.

Colin Steele

Reid Anderson. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2006.

The Bad Plus have an affinity with Scotland; whilst their pianist Ethan Iverson was booked for a series of concerts, the bassist from the band, Reid Anderson, was in town for a concert of his own music. He said that he rarely plays this any more – and only then in Scotland: he is a regular at the Edinburgh jazz festival.

Most of the music for this concert came from Reid’s 2001 album, The Vastness Of Space. The music is very spacious: the line up of two saxes, guitar, bass and drums create broad soundscapes. The tunes had a startling beauty.

The band – Laura MacDonald on alto, Bill McHenry on tenor, Jorge Rossy on drums and Graeme Stephen on guitar – played free but disciplined. The two saxes weaved in and out of each others solos, building layer upon layer. MacDonald’s playing was excellent – she has developed greatly over the past few years.

The music had a great intensity and depth, Anderson’s tunes providing the musicians the structure to improvise around. They finished with the moody, expansive, glowing Silence Is The Question, leaving the sound hanging in the air; it was a wonderful concert.

Ethan Iverson. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2006.

Ethan Iverson seated

The pianist in The Bad Plus trio, Iverson said he was unaccustomed to playing solo gigs now, and he appeared slightly nervous. Unlike the iconoclastic Bad Plus – who cover all kinds of material (including Abba, Nirvana and Black Sabbath) – Iverson played a set of jazz standards, tunes deeply engrained in the fabric of jazz music – many of the tunes coming from the Frank Sinatra songbook. It could just be that Sinatra covered all the standards, of course.

Iverson started the concert by playing the tunes pretty straight: he began sounding like Art Tatum, with lots of arpeggios up and down the keyboard. He then stretched out and became more modernist, more Monk-like.

Ethan Iverson moving

He became very animated, his feet pounding the floor intensely, hitting the keys and standing over the keyboard.

He became more adventurous as the evening wore on, deconstructing the later tunes and then building them back up.

He played a sombre – or, as Iverson described it, “unusually depressing” – version of Stardust – he hit some wrong notes in the introduction, and he said he never recovered. Sombre, but beautiful.

It was a captivating gig, Iverson putting a lot of energy into his playing and producing some striking music.

Tord Gustavsen Trio. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2006.

A sell-out show at the Hub was appropriate for Gustavsen, a pianist who frequently referred to his pieces as “wordless hymms” – the Hub, like most of the other medium sized venues in Edinburgh is a converted church (and a very fine building it is too – you can see views of it here).

His trio played with a quiet, precise elegance – beautiful, subtle tunes which build layers of minimal music until the whole is quite transformed. in doing so, they build up a large amount of energy, too – surprising if you have only heard their music on disc. There was a sparseness to Gustavsen’s playing that worked well with the spiritual (if not bluesy) material.

The three musicians – Gustavsen’s regular band of Harald Johnsen on bass and Jarle Vespestad on drums, playing only a two-drum kit – were completely at ease within the music, working together to move it forward. Though the trio bears Gustavsen’s name, Johnsen and Vespestad bring much to the party, enabling the pianist to develop his ideas. As the music developed and the themes developed, Gustavsen contorted himself to reach the keys, crossing his hands and stretching the length of the keyboard.

Vespestad was particularly impressive, playing with an intensity that is rare whilst never overpowering the subtleties of the music. His brush work was equisite, providing a gentle energy, pushing the music along. The concert finished with him playing “air drums” – the swish of the brushes through the air being enough to keep the rhythm going.

The audience were deeply respectful – almost awestruck, they waited until the last resonance, the last sound of each tune had escaped the piano before applauding. The applause was loud, genuine and heartfelt – this felt like a very special, personal occasion.

Colin Steele’s Stramash. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2006.

Stramash is Steele’s regular jazz quintet augmented by three fiddlers, a cellist, and a piper; part jazz, then, and part something else. The fiddlers – and they were definitely fiddlers rather than violinists – and the piper give the lie: there is a lot of folk in trumpeter Steele’s new band.

The first set comprised of older numbers which had been re-arranged by pianist Dave Milligan for the larger ensemble. Whilst some jazz-with-strings becomes syrupy and anodyne, the fiddles gave a dynamic, rough edge, balanced by the softer cello. The pipes emphasised the celtic atmosphere of Steele’s tunes, which are firmly rooted in Scottish locations and tradition.

Steele’s trumpet took much more of a backseat role – at times he was simply conducting the strings – as he let the pipes and strings take the lead.

The second half of the concert comprised music composed specially for this band, inspired by a visit to Islay. The music invoked the island well, some tunes reflecting places (Loch Indaal, the Round Church) and others moods (“Farewell My Love” – a lament to leaving the island).

Phil Bancroft played some storming and lyrical tenor and soprano sax solos – in duet with Stu Ritchie’s excellent drums in “Louis’ First Gig” and “The Simpson’s Jig”, another in trio with Ritchie and Milligan, the drums and piano supporting Bancroft as he let fly.

Milligan was excellent throughout, playing some beautiful, mournful solos, and Aidan O’Donnell kept the whole unit together on the bass.

The fiddles knew how to swing, bringing a foot-stamping party spirit to some parts and a soft, Highland lament to others.

This was an energetic, entertaining concert, which brought the audience to its feet, hollering in the ceilidh spirit.