Colin Steele’s Stramash. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2008.

The third gig in a row, and it was back to the Hub to see Colin Steele’s Stramash. I have seen this band a few times before – Steele’s usual quintet augmented by a cello, a trio of fiddles (well, two fiddles and a viola on this occasion) and a piper (I think he was playing Northumbrian pipes and Scottish bagpipes). I last saw them in the jazz festival two years ago, and that was a cracking gig – so I had high expectations this time around.

I wasn’t disappointed: this was a great party of a concert. There is something so fun and life affirming about this music that it isn’t possible for me to hear it and not smile. It is just great.

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Still, they haven’t changed the music much in the last two years: they played more or less the same set, with arrangements of Steele’s quintet recordings for the expanded line up in the first half and then a suite of tunes written on or about Islay in the second. It was much the same band as well, although apparently a couple of the fiddlers and the piper were new – it was the piper’s first gig.

Phil Bancroft played tenor and soprano, and he and Steele provided most of the solos. Dave Milligan was superb on the piano, as always – he is understated and reverent, and plays just beautifully. (He also does all the arranging.) Aidan O’Donnell and Stu Ritchie made up the rest of the quintet, and they were as good as they had been with the Phil Bancroft Quartet the previous Saturday.

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But it is the extra textures provided by the strings and pipes that really make this band: they add an awful lot. Normally, I dislike strings with jazz; I think they really don’t mix well. This band is one of the exceptions. My own take on it is that both Steele and, more importantly, Milligan have spent a lot of time playing in folk bands as well as jazz, and the original music can be somewhat folk-infused. Adding the strings and the pipes brings this out, so that you get a true fusion of the two traditions.

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I think the original tunes are wonderful by themselves – in concert with the expanded band, they really come to life: this is jazz as ceilidh, joyous and mournful (often at the same time).

Steele said that Stramash have now recorded the Islay suite, and I can’t wait to hear the record, too.

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