Category Archives: Jazz

Three Recent Scottish Jazz CDs (And One From Last Year, Too).

There have been several excellent CDs by Scottish bands recently. And they’re up for the Scottish Jazz Awards. So I thought I’d try to gather my thoughts about three of them.

Starting with the most familiar first…

Graham Costello’s Strata – Obelisk.

It’s less than a year since I first heard Strata, almost by mistake; they blew me away with their passion and intensity, as well as their tremendous musicianship. I have seen them several times since.

Obelisk came out in February, and I picked up a copy as soon asI could, keen to see how it matched up to their live shows. It feels less intense, which is probably a good thing – there’s only so much intensity one can take at home. The same mixture of (to my ears) jazz, prog rock, Reichian minimalism and touches of folk music are all there, of course, and some passionate solos from Liam Shorthall, Harry Weir, Joe Williamson and Fergus McCreadie. (It was a curiosity about what Fergus McCreadie was up to outside his trio that lead me to Strata in the first place.)

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I’m still rather awestruck by how talented these young musicians are. They all play in a plethora of bands, part of Scotland’s flourishing is scene. Graham Costello wrote all the music on Obelisk, which would be an achievement in itself. That he is a pretty phenomenal drummer just adds another dimension.

But it is also very much a group: they all contribute something as the music twists one way and another. They seem at ease hopping from one genre-sound to another, and the whole seems pretty complete.

(Graham Costello’s Strata regularly play in Glasgow, and they have a couple of gigs coming up in the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in July – their show with a string quartet sounds particularly interesting.)

Tom Bancroft’s In Common – Love & Stillness.

I only got this a couple of weeks ago, and I have listened to it many times since then. Tom seems to specialise in putting together slightly wacky, unusual line ups: this one features some of his regular collaborators tohether with musicians from India. He was recently bemused by some reviewers’ take on what bands had influenced the record, so I’ll have to choose my words carefully.

What I hear are jazz and Indian music, with a large helping of Celtic folk influences. This band played at Celtic Connections (I missed the gig), and whilst I’m somewhat surprised at what gets badged “celtic”, here it is entirely warranted. The three elements are combined, and something energetic and new results.

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The Celtic side comes from Tom himself – he plays bodhran on several tracks – from the three singers’ intonation, and from some of Graeme Stephen’s guitar playing. Graeme wrote some of the pieces, too. The use of loops and effects creates some magical moments. The title track is pretty fab, all the elements coming together – the three singers (Gina Rae, Sophie Bancroft and Inge Thomson – I’ll admit I’m not sure who’s singing which line) bring Celtic passion, Bancroft and Stephen rumbling jazz improvisation, and the Indian musicians top it off. Written down, it sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it really does.

The two Indian musicians – playing percussion and violin – are as at home in the western styles as their own. Sharat Chandra Srivastava’s violin works really well; Gyan Singh’s tabla bring another dimension to Bancroft’s already eclectic percussion. The aptly named “Bodhran and Tabla” features the two with drone, exchanging phrases till it is hard to tell which is which; “Drums and Tabla” (guess the instruments featured on that?!) has Bancroft laying down some rockish rhythms together with the tabla (or perhaps it’s the other way around!).

Something else about this record is what it says about Scotland. Rooted in a variety of cultures, exploring others and creating something new. It says so much.

(Tom Bancroft is bringing his new new project, Africa Groove Machine to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, too! It features some great musicians, including Claude Deppa, who I haven’t seen play in an age.)

Kevin MacKenzie – The Ballad of Future Joe.

This trio record seems so simple in comparison to In Common and Strata: but no less effective. Together with Mario Caribe and Alyn Cosker, Kevin Mackenzie has made an optimistic, cheerful record. It has the same feeling as Marc Johnson’s “The Sound of Summer Running”. There are times when Mackenzie is reminiscent of both Bill Frisell and John Scofield in their quieter moments.

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Caribe and Cosker are excellent, though that’s not news. There’s a real warmth to Mario’s bass playing – he has some lovely solos. Cosker is probably at his best in a small, acoustic group like this; there’s a swinging clarity to good playing. (And top marks to the engineer – all the instruments sound great, but Cosker’s drum sound is superlative.)

It is hard to know what more to say, other than that this is a really lovely record!

(Suffice to say, the Kevin Mackenzie Trio – with Alyn Cosker and Mario Caribe – are also playing at the the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. Which is just as well, because, listening to this record again, I was thinking how much I’d like to see them play live.)

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I was going to limit my thoughts to the three records but one of my favourite records from last year is also in the running for the award, and it seems remiss to miss it off…

Fergus McCreadie Trio – Turas.

Fergus has already featured as part of Strata: here he is with his regular trio, playing jazz-folk fusion. And bringing the best of both worlds to the party. Fergus is a versatile and eclectic player – as at home bending folk tunes with Stephen Henderson and David Bowden as he is in the complex intensity of Strata.

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The trio develop a different kind of intensity: a west coast lament, a Scottish air. The titles reflect Scotland – “Ardbeg”, “Hillfoot Glen”, “Mull”, “The Culearn Mill”. There is a real sense of place. There are passages of meditative calm and passages of romantic flair. Another lovely record – considering that this is his debut CD, it really does bode well.

(What do you know! The Fergus McCreadie Trio are ALSO playing at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival! Though I’ve seen the band several times in the last few months, so I’m hoping to catch Fergus McCreadie and Tommy Smith playing in a duo – they played a short set in Islay last year, and it sounded great!)

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Five Years of Playtime. Edinburgh, April 2019.

Last Thursday I went along to Playtime, my local bimonthly gig, as I often (but not always) do. Tom Bancroft pointed out that it was five years since their first show, and that seems worthy of note.

I was at the first Playtime; quite a few were, although there has apparently been at least one occasion in the last five years when the band played to an empty house. I wish I’d been there – though then it might not have been noteworthy. Nowadays, they get good houses, often standing room only (stifling in the summer!).

It started as a space for the four regular musicians – Bancroft, Martin Kershaw, Mario Caribe and Graeme Stephen – to try out new tunes, but it has become broader as they have sessions dedicated to specific influences (with new arrangements of well known tunes) and welcome guests from the lively Scottish scene and further afield, as musicians on tour stop by, and in particular, regular (and very wonderful) sessions of wholly improvised music.

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There have been many very memorable nights, and several absolutely magical. I can recall only one I was glad to hear only one set – I’d arrived late, in the interval, and I think if I’d seen the first set I might have taken the opportunity to leave during the break. But frankly one show I didn’t enjoy out of the fifty or so I must have seen seems like an excellent hit rate.

On Thursday, it was a return to their roots – trying out new tunes and arrangements. Unfortunately Graeme Stephen wasn’t there (off gigging with Sugarwork in Aberdeen), so it was a trio of Bancroft, Caribe and Kershaw providing the music. There were some lovely tunes – Bancroft’s “Occo In Scotland”, a piece written for a schools’ big band, and Caribe’s gorgeous arrangement of (I think) “Silenciosa”. Kershaw presented some new reworkings of Strayhorn and Ellington tunes, the originals of “Take The S Train” and “Stain Doll” [sic] barely hinted at.

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There was a fair bit of politics, what with Brexit confusion and parliamentary mayhem going on in the outside world. Caribe introduced “The Underbelly Of The Beast” as an attack on far right governments everywhere, and particularly his native Brasil; it might just have been the political nature of the tune, but I couldn’t help thinking of Mingus (and that’s always a good thing).

Despite the general pissed-offedness at politics, Bancroft hit a high note with a lovely tune called “Everything Is Going To Be Ok”. And in those minutes, it certainly was.

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For me and many others, Playtime has become a regular fixture, a landmark in the Edinburgh jazz scene. It attracts an audience there to listen and appreciate the music. There’s a lot of humour in the music, too – the musicians want people to listen, but don’t take themselves too seriously. The dedication to new and improvised music may not be unique, but it is hugely welcome.

Happy Birthday, Playtime!

(I didn’t take my camera to this gig, because the lighting is awful and I have many pictures of Tom, Mario and Martin already. The pictures in this post are some of my favourites from five years of Playtime from the core players and their guests.)

Ant Law, Edinburgh, and Trio HLK, Glasgow. March 2019.

I was fortunate to catch Ant Law play two gigs at the the end March. The first was in my local pub in Edinburgh, with a pick up band; the second, the following day, was with Trio HLK over in Glasgow. (I had the opportunity to see a third, when he played the Jazz Bar with another pick up band in between! But two gigs seemed sufficient.)

The Saturday afternoon slot at the Barony has become a regular thing, as they put on some of the top names in Scottish jazz, usually in a drummerless duo or trio. The band Law put together was a step up – a quartet with Callum Gourlay on bass, Sean Gibbs on trumpet and Doug Hough on drums. Gibbs and Gourlay are based down south, but I think they’d been playing Aberdeen Jazz Festival with Martin Kershaw’s octet and the SNJO.

Despite the all star band, it’s still a pub on a Saturday afternoon, with people stopping by for a pint and some lunch; and a fair degree of chatter. Which, in this environment, was fine, though some of the subtlety from Law and Gourlay’s playing might have been lost to the background hubbub. Gibbs trumpet was needle sharp and rose high above the chatter!

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It was a fun afternoon. Not too taxing, they played a bunch of familiar standards – a couple of Monk tunes, some Ellington and Strayhorn. Good Saturday afternoon fare!

For the second set the quartet were joined by saxophonist Adam Jackson, another member of Kershaw’s octet, who’d been watching appreciatively from the bar during the first half. The combination of Gibbs and Jackson was excellent, and it was a joy to hear Law close up.

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It occurred to me that I’d not heard Ant Law play standards before. But watching Trio HLK the following night corrected that misapprehension: it’s just that I’d never seen him play standards straight. Trio HLK’s tunes are largely based on standards – their album was even called Standard Time, although it is anything but. Pianist and composer Rich Harrold takes the well known and familiar, breaks them down – maybe even fractures them – and creates something totally new from the pieces. The music is complex and intricate, the three musicians (the third being drummer Richard Kass) weaving their lines together to stitch together a while new sound.

There is something very precise about the music: apart from the solos, it seems heavily composed and very thought out, though Law intimated that improvisation around fragments is essential to the trio’s creative process. For the most part, the originals on which they base their tunes are unrecognisable – at least to my ears. Smalls is apparently derived from Blue In Green (BIG – geddit?), but I couldn’t hear it. Similarly, Anthropomorphic, their take on Dizzy Gillespie’s Anthropology, seemed a long way from its bebop roots. One exception I’d TWILT, which was recognisable as The Way You Look Tonight before heading off in some unexpected directions.

But this doesn’t matter, because what they create is very compelling on its own account. The musicianship was of the highest order. All three were frankly remarkable. Kass’s ability to drop in and out of difficult time signatures (which I couldn’t even count) whilst changing tempo and yet be in precisely the right place to match a flourish on the piano seemed inimitable. The one tune that didn’t work for me was a new one, out for its first play – a take on All Blues which had a lurching rhythm, as if it was constantly about to fall over; but the rest were, for me, excellent.

The gig was very intimate, a small but perfectly formed and hugely appreciative audience within touching distance of the band. With Law seated behind a music stand and Harrold hidden behind his piano (at least from where I was sitting), Kass’s energetic but controlled drumming provided the only visual stimulus, although it was fascinating to be able to watch him so closely – he made it look easy (which I’m certain it wasn’t). The band were chatting to the audience during the interval and after the show – indeed, there was a fair bit of banter from the audience between numbers, too. The highly structured, precise nature of some of the music could appear cold, but the band were anything but: their warmth flooded the hall.

Tangents Quartet plus Paul Harrison. Playtime, Edinburgh, January 2019.

My first gig of the year was, appropriately, Playtime at the Outhouse. Appropriately because despite only being one night every couple of weeks, it is the venue I probably go to most often. And not only because it’s just up the road.
Last Thursday it was an evening of wholly improvised music. Generally I try to avoid writing about improvised music because it is so hard to describe: “they played a whole lot of music. No tunes you’d recognise. And you can’t listen to again anyway.”
But this seemed so special that I’m going to try. The other gigs where I’ve seen them only playing improvised music, it’s been a trio – Tom Bancroft on drums, Graeme Stephen on guitar and Martin Kershaw on reeds. (This trio recorded one of their gigs and released it as a CD a while ago. So actually you CAN hear it again!) This time they were joined by Playtime regular Mario Caribe on bass, and Paul Harrison on piano. These five musicians play together in a variety of combos, so they know each other pretty well.
There is some kind of alchemy that happens when sympathetic musicians get together and improvise. What happened on this occasion was magical. I don’t think I’ve seen Caribe in such a free setting before. He was brilliant. Though the other four were, too. It just worked.
The focus shifted from one musician to another, sometimes abruptly but mostly gently sliding. Without the pauses within a more usual verse-chorus-solo song structure, these weren’t necessarily solos; and without that structure, there was no space for applause, either. As the attention moved from one musician to another, it wasn’t that one solo had finished and another begun, but rather that the subtle balance had tilted one way or another.
I was particularly impressed by Mario Caribe: I can’t remember seeing him play in such a free environment. (The other free improvised gigs at the Outhouse I’ve seen have been trios, with Mario goofing elsewhere.) He had a lovely tone and really added to the sound.
Which is not to diminish anyone else’s contribution – it’s just that I knew what to expect from them. The music was fluid, melodic, rhythmic – and free.

Martin Kershaw Octet. Edinburgh, December 2018.

Last July, during the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, I saw the Martin Kershaw Octet premiere a new, extended work, commissioned by the festival. I was very impressed but something didn’t quite work for me.

A couple of weeks ago I had a second chance to hear the piece, Dreaming of Ourselves. I’m so glad I gave it another hearing: it was a tremendous gig.

It was the same line up, and, I think, the same programme. Dedicated to David Foster Wallace, the first half featured a quartet of Kershaw on soprano, alto and tenor saxes (I kind of wish he’d added baritone just to get a full house!), Paul Harrison on piano, Calum Gourlay on bass and Doug Hough on drums, playing older tunes of Kershaw’s inspired by Foster Wallace’s writing. The second half featured Dreaming of Ourselves, a long, through-composed suite, performed by the quartet with the addition of Graeme Stephen on guitar, Sean Gibbs, trumpet, Chris Grieve, trombone, and Adam Jackson on alto sax.

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Martin Kershaw. Not at this gig. I didn’t take my camera!

It was absolutely magical. I’m not sure what had changed (and it might be something as trivial as the venue, or maybe even my mood!), but it seemed like the music took on a life of its own: the music was so much more than the notes on the paper and the eight musicians playing them.

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Chris Grieve (L) and Calum Gourlay (R).Not at this gig. I didn’t take my camera!

It had a great depth. There were carefully controlled sections, periods of chaotic freedom, improvised solos and moments of deep emotion and intensity. A bit like the way Kershaw described David Wallace Foster, in fact. None of the musicians seemed to hold anything back; they were all excellent (and frankly must have been shattered at the end!). The whole performance shone.

At the end of the gig, the audience was buzzing with excitement: the stranger sitting next to me turned to me and just said “wow!”

I bumped into one of the musicians later in the week at the SNJO’s gig (another superlative show – four of the musicians from the octet were in the SNJO that night) who said that they hoped to record the piece next year. So there’s that to look forward to!

(And kudos to Soundhouse for putting Martin and the octet on, as well as EJF for commissioning the work!)

Martin Kershaw Octet and Mark Hendry Large Ensemble: Orchestral Jazz at Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2018.

Two gigs on successive nights at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival fell firmly into the category of “orchestral jazz”.

The first featured the Martin Kershaw Octet. Well, they started as a quartet in the first half, Kershaw on saxes joined by Paul Harrison on piano, Doug Hough on drums and Calum Gourlay on bass; for the octet they added Graeme Stephen on guitar, Chris Greive on trombone, Sean Gibbs on trumpet and Adam Jackson on alto. All the music was inspired by the writer David Foster Wallace (about whom I know nothing!): the first half was older material, tunes prompted by passages and characters from Foster Wallace’s works; the second a large scale orchestrated suite, Dreaming Of Ourselves.

The suite was very impressive in its conception, scope and execution: ambitious and challenging, it demanded attention from both musicians and listeners. The arrangements brought to mind Charles Mingus’ larger scale works. At times the musicians seemed a little stiff, as if they were still settling into the piece. I came out wanting to hear it again, maybe when the musicians were slightly more familiar with the music.

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The next night was even more ambitious: two original suites orchestrated for twenty three musicians, written by bassist Mark Hendry, still a student at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, as were apparently many of the musicians in his Large Ensemble. This gig was one of my wild cards: I’d not seen Hendry before, but a friend suggested it sounded like my kind of thing. Had I known the scale of the works being premiered I might have dismissed it as hubris. But Hendry pulled off his vision superbly.

The orchestra comprised classical strings – violins, cellos and double bass – with jazz brass – trumpets, trombones and saxophones – and a rhythm section of Hendry’s bass, Fergus McCreadie on piano and Stephen Henderson on drums. (The orchestra weren’t introduced, so apart from Harry Weir on tenor, I’ve no idea who they were!) The arrangements brought to mind Gil Evans – curiously, since I can’t recall Evans using strings. There is always a danger that strings add syrup to an arrangement, making it sickly and sticky. Hendry’s use of strings avoided this completely, instead using therm to add texture and depth.

I thought the first piece, inspired by endangered species (with a section named after each of five animals) worked a bit better than the second, based around the novel 1984. But that’s quibbling: it was a highly successful evening: Hendry has accomplished something remarkable, and it speaks volumes for the quality of the young musicians coming out of the RCS and Scotland’s thriving, youthful jazz scene.

(I picked up a copy of Hendry’s recent CD Esperance. It too is excellent!)