Monthly Archives: July 2017

Tommy Smith Quartet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

As opening statements go, it was pretty definitive: a short introduction from Calum Gourlay’s bass and then the whole quartet roared into the Resolution, the second part of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Many people consider A Love Supreme to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century – me included. It is a work of passion that communicates a deep spirituality. It is a piece that is rarely played by other musicians, despite it being hugely influential: it seems almost sacrilegious to do so.

So for Tommy Smith and his quartet to start their concert celebrating Coltrane with Resolution, full of energy and passion themselves, controlled and forceful, clearly marked the territory.

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On the hottest night of the year, the theatre was full, and sweltering. On stage, the band wore suits and ties, buttoned up, and kept their high energy approach going the whole time. Like many (most?) tenor players, Smith has long been influenced by Coltrane: as a young artist, he recorded Giant Steps on his first album, and he regularly included numbers by Coltrane in his live sets. He directed, and played tenor (together with Courtney Pine) with, the SNJO playing Coltrane a few years ago. He has an affinity with Coltrane’s music.

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Playing with a line up guaranteed to bring to mind Coltrane’s classic quartet, and on this night apparently playing entirely acoustically (no mikes to be seen – though I’d be surprised if the bass wasn’t miked), Tommy Smith made a glorious sound. The band were superb. Peter Johnstone, a relative youngster, must have been channeling McCoy Tyner, laying down thick chords and searing solos. Sebastiaan de Krom was both light and loud, letting rip enough to do Elvin Jones justice; and Calum Gourlay, in the fourth gig I’d seen him play in four days, just gets better and better.

Smith explained that they were playing music from their latest CD, Embodying the Light – and I think they played the whole thing: three compositions by Smith, five by Coltrane, and ‘Trane’s arrangement of Summertime. It was powerful music – pure Smith, but pure Coltrane too. It was hugely exciting – exhilarating, even. It was a full blown experience, a bit of a roller coaster – aside from Naima, it was all pretty full on – and every bit as exciting. Wonderful stuff.

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Colin Steele: “The Birth of the Cool”, and the Pearlfishers Quartet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2107.

“The Birth of the Cool” was the first jazz record I bought, over thirty five years ago. It’s not my favourite jazz record – it’s not even my favourite Miles Davis record, not even in the top ten – but it is one naturally has a special place in my heart. So when I saw a project to put together a band to play the album in its entirety live at Edinburgh Jazz Festival, it was a gig I had to go to.

And a very special occasion it was.

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Colin Steele – not at this gig, but he looks the same!

The trumpet seat was filled by Colin Steele, at competitively late notice, apparently; Martin Kershaw was on alto and Allon Beauvoisin was on baritone. The other musicians making up the nonet were a younger generation: Alan Benzie on piano, May Halliburton on bass, and a trombonist, drummer, tuba and French horn players whose names I didn’t get – though it was pointed out that even the younger players were older than Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, and Get Mulligan when they recorded the original. The whole thing was directed by Richard Ingham, who didn’t so much conduct as dance around the rhythm.

Recreating a historical record could easily slide into kitsch, but one faux radio announcement aside, this performance moist certainly didn’t. The music sounded lively and fresh, bouncy when it needed to be. It no longer has the capacity to surprise (as it once must, the first of Miles’ three big innovations), but it was a particular joy to be able to hear such familiar music live.

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The following night saw Steele lead his own quartet, playing the music by the band The Pearlfishers, which they’ve recorded on the recently released CD “Diving for Pearls“. He might not have written the music, but Steele and pianist and arranger Dave Milligan made it totally their own.

Steele said that he didn’t think hit his stride till the second set, but it didn’t show. Playing with a battered mute throughout, close into the mike, he was enthralling and beguiling.

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Colin Steele and Dave Milligan – again, not at this gig!

It was a huge pleasure to hear Milligan, who seems to get better and better: some of his solos had an intensity that was gripping. In the second half Steele took a break leaving the trio of Milligan, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Alyn Cosker to play an open, seemingly improvised piece – it would lovely to see Milligan do more trio work. Gourlay and Cosker were full of confident competence throughout the show – it is easy to take them for granted, but they add a lot to the bands they play in.

But it was Steele’s evening: literally muted but the notes flying from his trumpet.

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Milligan played a solo set in the final weekend of the festival. I managed to miss the first half of his set – I got the time wrong (a schoolboy error…) but what I did hear was wonderful. Largely improvised (he told a story of his young daughter asking what he was going to play, so he had to tell her he didn’t really know), he produced a variety of moods – energetic, contemplative, quiet, all engaging. This was music to get lost in, full of depth.

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Dave Milligan – not at this gig! (I didn’t have my camera, ok?!)

“Thelonious”. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

The band Thelonious – definitely not Calum Gourlay’s band, he kept telling us – played two nights at this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival, at two venues, and their performances felt quite different: one good and one excellent.

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It is an interesting band: a tribute to Monk without a pianist. This confused some people – the guy next to me at the Jazz Bar, the first night, kept saying “How can you have a band playing Monk without a pianist?” The answer is: very easily. With Gourlay on bass, Martin Speake on alto and Hans Koller on euphonium, together with local drummer Tom Bancroft for these shows, the instrumentation allows one to concentrate on the melodies that Monk crafted. With a pianist, one would waste energy comparing them to Monk – was the pianist copying, did they get that bit right…? Without the choppy angularity of Monk’s piano playing and his sometimes idiosyncratic chords, it was all down to the tunes.

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And what tunes. They didn’t repeat any number over the two shows, and still managed not to play my favourites (Well You Needn’t, I Mean You and, tops, In Walked Bud. Next time, guys…). They played famous numbers like Round Midnight, Epistrophe, and Pannonica and tunes I’d not heard before, such as Teo, We See, and Ask Me Now. I thought I knew Brilliant Corners, but clearly I was mistaken – perhaps the most jagged of the pieces played, it reminded me of Jackie McLean’s Melody for Melonae – and McLean was also recognised when the band played Jackie-ing.

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The euphonium gave the music a rich, rounded sound, in contrast to Monk’s often spiky feel. Speake’s alto sparkled, and the rhythm section of Gourlay and Bancroft were superb. Gourlay – who seemed to be everywhere in the first half of the festival – is a very confident, accomplished musician. I’m so used to seeing Bancroft play in more improvising bands that it was refreshing to hear him playing such swinging drums.

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I thought the first night at the Jazz Bar was the better of the two shows, perhaps because I had more to drink, the atmosphere at the venue – the second night in the basement of the Rose Theatre wasn’t as full – or maybe just because it was a Sunday. But still great fun!

John Scofield Uberjam / Mike Stern & Randy Brecker Band. Edinburgh, July 2017.

Friday was the start of the jazz festival, and the first of my twelve gigs over ten days: John Scofield Uberjam and the Mike Stern / Randy Brecker band at the Festival Theatre.

I went mainly because I love Scofield’s music: I first saw him round about the release of Time On My Hands, nearly thirty years ago. But it was actually Stern who impressed on the night.

John Scofield Uberjam were good but it felt a bit perfunctory. Good jazz-funk, but it never really caught fire. I expected brilliance, and felt a bit disappointed. But even on an off night – and this wasn’t an off night – Scofield is still better than most.

I think I was most disappointed with Dennis Chambers: an awesomely experienced drummer. Someone told me after the gig that he’d had sound problems. What he did was good, but he didn’t shine.

Whereas the Mike Stern / Randy Brecker band were superlative. Their start was delayed by technical problems with Brecker’s trumpet mike (I think): Stern joked about, chatting to the audience and strumming his guitar – “I’ve been working on that for years”, he joked.

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Mike Stern. Not at this gig, but hey, he looks just the same.

And when they got going, they were superb. They had Lenny White in the drum chair: he played on (bits of) Bitches Brew with Miles Davis, nearly fifty years ago. And last night he was amazing. He made it look easy.

Brecker’s trumpet playing was great, even when he still looked pissed off after his sound problems. The bass player, Teymur Phell (at least that’s who was billed – I couldn’t catch his name) was very impressive, playing a seven- or eight-string bass, not showy off but hugely competent.

And Mike Stern was… Mike Stern. His mood seems infectious – even before he started playing it seemed like he was having so much fun, and really pleased to be there. He comes across like he’s a fan of his own band, cheering their solos, and loving the applause he received fun the audience, too.

I’ve seen him play several times in the last few years, none of which I went to because of him: but every time he has excelled. Hugely entertaining.