After ten nights at the jazz festival, the next bit of culture I went to was… a jazz gig! This was a one-off gig at Summerhall, opening their Fringe festival programme – though the rest of the fringe hadn’t kicked off by then. Summerhall used to be the veterinary school, and the main space was formerly the dissection lecture hall. Former firebrand Archie Shepp has mellowed slightly, his music solidly based in the blues and much more accessible than his free-playing from the 1960s and 1970s. Playing both soprano and tenor, and with just Tom McClung on piano in support, Shepp played a couple of great sets in front of a very appreciative audience. This music felt rooted in the tradition – Shepp played a couple of Ellington numbers – but also completely modern. McClung’s piano was unobtusive but solid, and he too summoned up the spirit of McCoy Tyner at times.
Colin Steele’s own quintet played a cracking gig on their own account. With Milligan on piano, Michael Buckley on tenor, Stu Ritchie on drums and Callum Gourlay on bass, Steele played his familiar, celtic post-bop with verve and panache. He is an exciting player – lots of high notes – with space for the contemplative, too. My one quibble is that the music was a bit too familiar – some new tunes would have livened up the mix even more.
Supporting Steele was the Konrad Wiszniewski Quartet, with Euan Stevenson on piano and the powerhouse drumming of Alyn Cosker driving the quartet from behind. Wiszniewski has a full, powerful saxophone sound, with a very slight tendency towards saxophone-histrionics (as many tenor players have!). Stevenson played Tyner’s role, supporting Wiszniewski with lots of block chords and rhythmic solos. Wiszniewski played tenor and a curved soprano, the saxophone looking almost toylike in his large hands.
Altoist Martin Kershaw opened the festival with his quartet of Paul Harrison (excellent on piano), Doug Hough on drums and Euan Burton on bass. Kershaw’s music is intelligent and thoughtful, his tunes often inspired by works of literature or art. Much of this show came from his latest album The Howness, with numbers based on his reaction to Mervyn Peake and Philip Larkin, as well as tunes from earlier projects like his reworking of Charlie Parker pieces.
The one EJF gig that didn’t work for me was the Jeremy Pelt Quintet’s headlining show. It might have been because it was in a tent and there was a lot of spillage from neighbouring gigs; or because it was a windy evening – which, coupled with the tent, caused a lot of interfering flappage; or maybe because the band were jetlagged. Whatever, it didn’t really catch. I don’t think it help that the following first chorus was a long bass solo. It just felt like the show lacked energy.
I saw the same band the following evening – and it felt like a different band: full of energy this time, they seemed excited to be playing, and that excitement spilled over. Which just goes to show that every band can have an off-night – but that might be the one chance that punters get to see you, and that is all they can go on…
I hadn’t planned to go to the second night of Jeremy Pelt – though I’m glad I did. They were supporting the Bad Plus with Joshua Redman; I was going to see the Bad Plus the following evening and I have been disappointed by previous collaborations with the Bad Plus (their trio work makes for a very high hurdle), but since I had never seen Redman I decided to go along. This was a very good decision: this music played was the most engaging and exciting I had heard for a long time. The Bad Plus have been touring with Redman during the summer, and he fitted in seamlessly – it felt like he had been part of the group for a long time. His presence seemed didn’t inhibit the trio at all, adding more depth. As a quartet they created marvellous music, by turns powerful, moving and humorous. (This video of one number from the gig is typical of their playing.)
After such a superlative performance, the Bad Plus as a trio the following evening could only be disappointing. Their performance was very good, but it just couldn’t match up. This was not the band’s fault: if I felt pretty drained after the superlative performance of the night before, how must they have felt? Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone to the gig; but then I’d always have felt I was missing out…
There were two gigs which mixed up Scottish and European musicians. First up was Laura MacDonald and Joakim Milder, together with Mattias Stahl on vibes. Stahl stole the show: the two saxophonists played some lovely music, but the vibraphonist stole the show. Without a pianist or drummer, much of the rhythm-duties fell on Stahl’s shoulders.
Trumpeter Colin Steele and pianist Dave Milligan – one of Scottish jazz’s little known heros – played an all too short duet – just a couple of numbers, which left me feeling a little short changed (Steele and Milligan work very well together!). Before, that is, Enzo Favata and his trio took to the stage and opened the way for something more interesting still. With Danilo Gallo on bass and U. T. Gandhi on drums, the saxophonist lead an energetic exploration of the space between jazz and folk improvisation, with music with its roots in (he said) Sardinia and southern Italy. It got more interesting still when the trio was joined by Steele and Milligan for a full set of exciting jazz. Much of Steele’s music is tinged with folk from the celtic fringes – his big band Stramash is active at the crossroads between jazz and folk – and Milligan has played in many folk settings. Together as a quintet, playing tunes from both their repertoire, they proved music as a universal language: each brought something different, to create an evening that felt unique. Steele and Favata had a natural ease together – their styles, though different, blended superbly. This was exciting because it was unexpected.
Suddenly it is nearly two months on from Edinburgh International Jazz Festival; so I really ought to get my thoughts down on this year’s festival. (And in another week it’ll be time for Islay, too…)
I thought it was a pretty good festival this year: ten gigs in ten evenings, and only one which I didn’t really rate – most of the gigs were excellent, and one superlative that I’ll be very lucky if it isn’t my “gig of the year”; a mixture of local talent and international stars; small bands and big bands; and a range of styles.
The two big bands I saw were playing from the repertoire and, I think, both were essentially one-off projects for the festival – at least, neither seems to have much presence outside the festival.
The first up was the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, playing the music of Gil Evans. The third such gig in a year (after Mark Lockheart’s leading the Trinity Laban Contemporary Jazz Ensemble in the music from “Out of the Cool” and, on Gil’s one hundredth birthday, his son Miles playing first trumpet with the London Jazz Orchestra performing music from “Miles Ahead”) – all of which were wonderful gigs, not least because it is just such a pleasure to hear music familiar through recordings played live. The Edinburgh Festival Jazz Orchestra, lead by Tim Hagans, had wanted to play Evans’ “The Individualism of Gil Evans”, but they couldn’t source the charts – instead they played a first set of Evans’ early work – arrangements of bebop tunes for Claude Thornhill, mostly – and a glorious second set of “Sketches of Spain”, complete, with Hagans taking the lead trumpet part. It was a pleasure all the way – the music sounded fresh and vibrant, the orchestra bringing the music alive.
The second big band was the World Jazz Orchestra under local boy Joe Temperley playing the music of Duke Ellington. And, in his slipstream, Billy Strayhorn, too. Temperley also had some problems with the charts – they hadn’t made it across the Atlantic (along with his suit and his wife!). This meant that the band leaned on standards more than they had anticipated – though Ellington produced enough of those. For the first couple of numbers it seemed as if they were coasting somewhat, and it wasn’t clear what Temperley was bringing to the bandstand. But then he started playing – mellifluous baritone sax and bass clarinet – and it all clicked: his reeds made all the difference. The highlight was a gorgeous version of “Single Petal of a Rose” – quite magical.