February and March have been quite busy for music. As well as the usual gigs around Edinburgh, Jazz Scotland have been running a series of tours, which continues this week.
The two Jazz Scotland gigs I enjoyed a lot; the two others less so. I don’t expect to enjoy everything, and I think it is healthy to test new ground, going to hear new bands. Sometimes this pays dividends; sometimes it leads to disappointment.
The first jazz gig I went in February was one of the latter. I have seen Kit Downes many times, mostly playing in an acoustic setting, but a couple of times playing organ in the Golden Age of Steam. So I was looking forward to seeing Troyka, in which he plays electric keyboards, with Joshua Blackmore on drums and Chris Montague on guitar.
I’m afraid I hated it. The music did nothing for me at all: I found it soulless and mechanical, a world away from Downes acoustic piano playing. I left early, having given it a fair go. I must say I was definitely in the minority: everyone else in the packed out gig at the Voodoo Rooms seemed to love it. I was clearly missing something, but I wasn’t going to hand around to find out what it was.
The first gig I went to of the Jazz Scotland season featured Ravi Coltrane, with Konrad Wiszniewski/Euan Stevenson Quartet in support, in the somewhat plush and sold out setting of the Royal Lyceum Theatre. The Wiszniewski/Stevenson Quartet were great, playing some things from their New Focus album of a couple of years back plus some other pieces. They had Mike Janisch on bass, who was on Wiszniewski’s last album, and Alyn Cosker on drums. There was a gentle subtlety to the music. Stevenson is an impressive pianist. The whole thing just worked for me, albeit that we had to make do with a short support set.
I wasn’t familiar with Coltrane’s music, perhaps having been negatively influenced by his family connections – and coming on after Wiszniewski-Stevenson meant Ravi Coltrane’s quartet had their work cut out: I didn’t initially warm to it. But about half way through their set, something clicked. They were excellent. Coltrane evoked comparisons with Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis rather than his father John, though both Shorter and Marsalis came out of John Coltrane’s influence. Rather than Coltrane senior’s stream of consciousness saxophone playing, Ravi seemed to employ a more impressionistic, almost abstract approach. Pianist David Virelles was suitably intense, and Jonathon Blake – who is a large man – played with remarkable grace and subtlety, and impressive speed. This was a reminder that there is always great music out there to be discovered, and I’m annoyed at myself for not giving Coltrane the attention I should previously.
The following week, Edinburgh was graced by a near-local boy done good when Fife expat reedsman Joe Temperley paid a brief visit. He was accompanied by the ever impressive Brian Kellock on piano. This was just sublime. Playing mainly baritone and (I think) bass clarinet, Temperley was masterful, and Kellock – a national treasure, frankly, was great too. It was pretty mainstream repertoire – a lot of Ellington, including a heartbreaking version of Single Petal of a Rose (one of my favorite Ellington tunes), as well as a couple of Thelonious Monk numbers, Tal Farlow’s Good Bait and some other standards. It felt like a very intimate gig – just the two of them, and a load of us. It was magical.
The next night I went to see GoGo Penguin. I normally try to avoid going to gigs on consecutive nights, preferring to spread them out, but I had heard good things of this trio and didn’t want to miss them. There were playing in a night club – what used to be called a disco – and it was absolutely packed, an hour before the show. The audience was very different from a typical Edinburgh jazz crowd – perhaps due to their presence on the Mercury short list, perhaps because they’ve got a good publicist (I saw very little publicity for the gig – but I’m not sure I’m the target audience), perhaps because there is something about their music which had grabbed their audience’s attention – whatever, they have crossed over in a significant way.
For the first three numbers, the sound was truly awful. There was bass feedback which masked the music, the bass drum was so loud that it vibrated my internal organs and I couldn’t hear the piano. The effect made me nauseous. As I moved to leave, I walked past the sound desk; I considered throwing up over it – it couldn’t have made the sound worse. But by the time I got to the back of the club, either sound had been tweaked or the mass of people between me and the band were providing an adequate baffle. It was still loud, but bearable, and not nauseating. I could hear the piano and the rest of the drums.
Overall, I felt it was impressive but unengaging. I certainly wasn’t grabbed by the music. (Again, I am happy to admit I was clearly in the minority. Everyone else seemed ecstatic.) Revolving around repeated piano lines with throbbing acoustic bass and double-speed drumming, it felt a bit like Neil Cowley Trio on steroids without the emotional heft and with added drum-and-bass. I felt like I ought to love it – there was a lot there which I might have expected to – but just couldn’t.
(I picked up a copy of their album as I left the gig, because I really did want to give them a chance. The band seemed a little nonplussed that I didn’t want them to sign it. I have played it a few times, but I remain ungrabbed by it. It seems too intellectual, cold and unemotional to me. I may cube back to it and see I’ve been wrong, but I’m not sure about that.)