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.
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.
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.
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.
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!