I have been to Islay three times now, each time for the jazz festival. Islay is famous for one thing really – whisky. And the combination of the island, the whisky and jazz makes for a very memorable weekend. Whisky flows: the jazz festival is sponsored by Black Bottle, and they give out (small) samples everywhere.
Islay is a small place: a population of 3,500 people spread over the island, and most of those are in Port Ellen and Bowmore. Much of the island is wild, and every time I go there, I think that I must spend more time exploring – I really must go for longer than just the jazz festival. Next year, perhaps.
The festival itself is a curious affair, because it largely consists of musicians from the central belt of Scotland who play regularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow playing to an audience which mostly consists of visitors from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Frankly, it shouldn’t work – because I can see these guys play any weekend.
But instead it is wonderful. Maybe it is the setting – many of the gigs take place in distilleries (the best being Bunnahabhain, where the concert takes place in the bottling room, surrounded by empty whisky casks and the air full of spirit); maybe it is the audience and the musicians – because you have to be really keen to make the 350 mile round trip from Edinburgh.
Either way, it is brilliant.
I went over on the lunchtime ferry, together with a whole bunch of musicians (Tommy Smith, Mario Caribe, Calum Gourlay, Colin Steele… Hell, they could have had a jam session on the boat!). The water was very calm; no porpoises that I could see, but I watch cormorants and gannets fly low over the water.
I was staying in a B&B on the Oa, across the bay from Port Ellen. It overlooked the water and was a lovely setting. Rather than sit and take in the view, though, I dashed off for the first gig.
The one downside of the Islay jazz festival: all the venues are a long way from each other – and the only way between them is to drive. The first gig I wanted to get to was way on the west of the island, at Port Charlotte. A very pretty village.
The concert was a duet gig with Dave Milligan and Colin Steele. I have seen them both play many times before, often together, but never just the two of them. It worked really well – the setting creating a more thoughtful music than their usual quintet or bigger ensemble. It was very intimate; the backdrop behind the musicians was the view across Loch Indaal to Oa, which added to the whole. These two musicians know each so well that their playing blended wonderfully – Steele was perhaps not as fiery as he can be in a larger ensemble, but this lead to greater subtlety. (Too subtle for photographs, I’m afraid – I didn’t want to disturb people.)
There was then a mad dash in convoy back to Bowmore, home to Bowmore malt. Bowmore is a great little town, but it somehow lacks a fish and chip shop. There is a very poor excuse for an Indian restaurant, though. Indeed, the whole of Islay lacks a chip shop; there is meant to be a chip van in Port Ellen on Friday and Saturday night, but I couldn’t find it.
The next gig was another duet: Tommy Smith and Jakob Karlzon. Although the hall was set up to preclude a sea-view for all but the front row, the musicians were lit by the setting sun. (I can’t quite get my head around the geography, though – because I would swear the sun was setting in the east!)
I have seen Smith play in lots of duet settings recently: I can’t help wondering if he has perhaps become a bit of a control freak, preferring to reduce the risk of playing with more soloists by keeping to solo or duo gigs. Still, this was a spectacularly good gig. I hadn’t heard – or even heard of – Karlzon before I read the blurb for this gig, and he and Smith didn’t have time to rehearse – but they linked together really, really well. Smith was at his most Nordic; the tunes were slow and thoughtful, with a lot of reverb. Karlzon – who I saw play in many different combinations over the weekend – was a revelation: the perfect balance to the saxophone, and all in all it was a lovely gig.
The following day it was back to the west of the island, the village hall in Portnahaven, for a lunchtime gig by the Colin Steele Quintet. A lot of people had been partying late into the night, including the band (me, I don’t have the energy for that: the idea of going to a gig starting at 10.30pm, especially when I’d be driving and thus not drinking – oh no), and there were lots of hangovers, including on the stage; but it didn’t seem to get in the way of some energetic playing. The more I see Stu Ritchie, the quintet’s drummer, play, the more impressed I am (although I am not so keen on his choice of headwear – he wore a hat at every gig he played). Steele was excellent, too, and Phil Bancroft played with an angry passion; maybe he was just trying to blow away his hangover. Milligan was a bit too low in the mix, and Calum Gourlay on bass – playing his first gig with the band – seemed low-key but good. (Still, I missed Aidan O’Donnell, who decided not to leave his new New York home for the festival – apparently he received a better offer!)
Off to Bunnahabhan; this gig – in the whisky-flavoured bottling room – is usually the big concert for the weekend; this time around, it was set up as the tenth anniversary concert, headed up by Mario Caribe, one of the few musicians who has been to all ten festivals – he says it is so his family can get a holiday each year (and this year, he had one of his sons with him). This concert was great fun, featuring Caribe in different settings – duet with a percussionist, then a piano trio with Paul Harrison, a quintet with Phil Bancroft and Ryan Quigley, building up by adding more musicians – Steele on trumpet, the visiting Jimmy Greene on tenor, Chris Greive on trombone, until there were ten people on stage. The finale was a short suite Caribe had written specially for the ten piece, and it worked relly well; unfortunately, a lack of funding had stopped him extending the piece further (thank you, Scottish Arts Council!); but he’s writing a large suite for the SNJO, who will be touring it in the late autumn.
I rushed from the bottling room to make the journey back to Bowmore for the next gig: Karlzon-Greene-Quigley quintet. Karlzon had been at the Bunnahabhain gig, too, watching from the side. So with nearly all the musicians having to make the same trip, I kind of knew I wouldn’t miss it; indeed, the minibus ferrying them back to Bowmore was two cars in front of me.
God, Ryan Quigley can play loud. I was sitting near the front, and I was worried I would have to move – worried because it was packed out. Again, I was seated so I couldn’t watch the sunset, which was even more spectacular. The music was great – energetic post-bop – and Karlzon was equally at home in this setting – he’s a good pianist. He wrote all the tunes – it was very much his gig. Gourlay was on bass – he seemed to open up as the weekend went on: he worked really well in this quintet – perhaps it was just because the lunchtime gig had been his first time with Colin Steele that he had seemed a little reticent.
I liked Jimmy Greene, as well. Based in New York, he plays the role of long tall tenor perfectly: he worked in lots of different formats.
The first gig of Sunday was at Ardbeg: essentially a jam session featuring a front line of Greene, Quigley and Greive, with Gourlay on bass, Milligan on piano and a drummer who I didn’t know and whose name I can’t remember… The drummer had been rather nondescript at the Mario Caribe Bunnahabhain gig, but he played much better this time around. I could have done with a bit more of Dave Milligan, but then I do really rate him as a pianist. This time around, I was right at the front, so I guess I hadn’t learned how not to damage my hearing with Quigley’s high notes. He was loud, too, but softened a bit after the first number – he came out all guns blazing, and maybe his hangover kicked in after that! This was a fun gig, but nothing to special – very much a jam session. Still, Quigley demonstrated a rather neat capacity for naming tunes – a number called “Duck Egg Blue” was based on several tunes from Kind of Blue… (Geddit?!)
At Ardbeg we were treated to some of the malt rather than Black Bottle – which made for a very nice dram with lunch!
Another madcap dash from Port Ellen back to Bowmore for the last of Jakob Karlzon’s gigs, a trio with Gourlay and Ritchie. Stu Ritchie was on fine form, doing his fast-energetic-gentle thing, and sounding a lot like Elvin Jones (and if you’re going to sound like someone, Jones is definitely the drummer to sound like!). This setting really let Karlzon lay it down: again, it comprised of only his tunes, this time much more in the Jarrett/Evans/Svennson mould; and like Jarrett, he was signing tunelessly along at some points – very distracting! He dedicated one number to Esbjorn Svennson, a fellow Swede, explaining how shocked he still was. Now that Assembly Direct have discovered Karlzon, I expect he’ll find his way back to Scotland quite often.
Back to Laphroig for my final gig. I was hurrying because there was only 30 minutes between gigs, but not as fast as an old Peugeot that passed me (I had had to slow down when the car in front of me turned right into the airport). When I got to Laphroig, Stu Ritchie was setting up his drumkit – so it was he who sped past.
This gig was the Kevin McKenzie Quartet – and they were blistering. This was a really special concert. Bancroft was on tenor – looking ill but playing exceptionally (he is a very good saxophonist); I was glad to see him there as I had decided to go to the Ardbeg jam session instead of Bancroft’s own quartet, since I had seen them during the Edinburgh jazz festival a few weeks before. Caribe was on bass, really solid – he’s a very good player. Ritchie was also excellent – he must have been knackered – and succeeded in fitting into a completely different style of music. I really like Kevin McKenzie’s guitar playing – and his writing: this was great music. I am most familiar with his playing through Trio AAB, with Phil Bancroft on tenor and (twin?) brother Tom on drums – they play music that verges from the folky to the very wacky. This was a bit more down to earth, but still great music. It is coming out on CD soon – definitely one to get.
I caught the ferry back to Kintyre the next day. It rained non-stop, and kept it up for thirty six hours. I ate lunch of fresh oysters – straight from the sea – and langoustine from the seafood cabin, warm in front of a log fire. Magic.