Category Archives: Jazz

The Clark Tracey Quintet

Chris Maddock
James Copus

In London for a weekend in March, I was able to catch the Clark Tracey Quintet at the Vortext. It’s several years since I last saw Tracey with his own band, though I’ve seen him play with others’ bands several times. This gig he was in full on hard-bop mode, immediately reminiscent of Art Blakey. And like Blakey, he filled his band with youngsters. Aside from Tracey, the only member of his band I’d seen before was bassist Daniel Casimir: the rest of the quintet were Harry Bolt on piano, Chris Maddock on tenor and James Copus on trumpet.

They blew up a storm, playing bop standards mostly, with a couple of “handpicked” ballads (a running gag, I think). A really enjoyable, fun gig.

I took some photos; I couldn’t get a clear view of Clark, nor Bolt.

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Laura MacDonald and “Playtime”. Edinburgh, February 2017.

I saw Laura MacDonald play for the first time in a while last year, and this was her first visit to Playtime. It was a very enjoyable evening: the double sax frontline of Laura and Martin Kershaw (who played a bit of tenor, as well as his usual alto) were superb, and the rhythm secion of regulars Graeme Stephen (guitar) and Tom Bancroft (drums), with Andy Sharkey sitting in on bass, kept things moving at a cracking pace.

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It was an evening of standards, such as All The Things You Are, Four, and You, The Night And The Music. Hearing the Playtime regulars dip into the classic jazz songbook was a real pleasure.

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Rune Klakegg & Scheen Jazzorkester – “Fjon”.

Despite what is clearly a long and illustrious career in Norway, I’m not aware of having heard Rune Klakegg before; which is a pity. Fjon, a CD of his compositions (and one cover) recorded by the large ensemble he set up, is full of rewarding large scale arrangements.

The obvious comparisons are to both Gil Evans and Maria Schneider: the instrumentation and orchestration allow similarly rich, evocative arrangements. Indeed, it was reading of the similarities to Evans and Schneider that first drew my attention to this record. And if you’re going to be influenced, they’re very good influences to have! There’re are also sections which brought to mind some of the work Colin Towns has done with both the HR and NDR big bands.

The brass sounds deep and rich; the saxes crying and plaintive. Rob Waring guests on vibraphone, a voice often lacking from a big band setting – it can sometimes sound lost in the context of an orchestra – but here it is a great addition. The arrangements leave space for both vibes and piano, rather than competing with them.

The one cover is Klakegg’s arrangement of Henry Mancini’s Moon River, with vocals by another guest, Nina Gromstad (who performs with Klakegg in one of his small bands, Lush Life). It is a dark, dislocated arrangement, in parts deconstructed. The vocal is taken pretty straight, but set against the orchestra has even more of a yearning, mournful tone than usual. Klalegg’s solo is disjointed and quirky, as if Monk were tackling the tune..

Klakegg’s tunes have a similar quality: rich and dark; slightly out of kilter, with a touch of melancholic wistfulness. The Evans-like opener, Achille, is a tribute to Debussy, and there are other nods to classical music on the CD, too. The sleeve notes say “fjon” could translate as “snow flurries”; these melodies, though sometimes melting, liner a lot longer. All in all, it’s a collection of lovely music.,

SNJO & Arild Andersen Play Mingus. Edinburgh, September 2016.

Arild Andersen joined the SNJO a bassist for the night, playing Mingus. The band have played Mingus before – back in 2003, Tommy Smith said – and I loved it then, and I loved it now. And it seemed like they loved it, too. Andersen has played with the orchestra several times, but this time he was (more or less) just the bassist – the music was the star. A special guest bassist, true, and he played some great solos – but then they were celebrating a special bassist.

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The first half was brilliant. They warmed up with Song With Orange, not a tune I’m familiar with. An extended solo from Andersen lead into the bass riff to Haitian Fight Song and then it all kicked off. The synchronised riffing from the saxes, trombones and trumpets, band members hollering in between riffs, and some fast and furious solos. Fables Of Faubus followed, more riffs backing the soloists.

Tommy Smith and Arild Andersen played Goodbye Pork Pie Hat largely as a duet. Smith’s solo was remarkably powerful. I’ve been seeing him play regularly since (I think) 1984 (a fund raising gig for his studies at Berklee and a small residency in a bar in Bruntsfield, if you’re interested), and somehow he gets better and better. It’s too easy to take musicians for granted, but once again I was reminded what world class musicians we have in Scotland.

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Not just Smith, mind. Soloist after soloist made their mark: Tom McNiven and Tom Walsh in the trumpets, Chris Grieve and Phil O’Malley in the trumpets and a whole slew of saxophonists – Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow on altos, with Kershaw also on soprano, and Konrad Wiszniewski belting out bluesy chorus after chorus.

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The first set was remarkable: exciting, high energy music. The second set felt a little more sedate, though only in comparison. It opened with Moanin’, a feature for Allon Beauvoisin on baritone. Apart from the ballad Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love, the other pieces were less well known. For the encore, though, the band were back to full on hollering form for Ecclusiastics. The high point was Wiszniewski and Smith trading choruses, each excited by the other’s performance (Smith a bit cooler, perhaps), until they joined together in a real tenor battle.

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A great evening, full of exciting music and solos. And a reminder if one were needed of the compositional skill of Charles Mingus: one reason his tunes work so well in a big band context is that he wrote for a large ensemble, but could only afford small groups. So he just made them sound big, instead.

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Mingus, in 1976.

Ryan Quigley Quintet. Edinburgh, September 2016.

Ryan Quigley brought his quintet to Edinburgh, during their tour to promote their new CD. The band featured Geoff Keezer on piano (sitting in for Steve Hamilton, who appears on the album) and Clarence Penn on drums, both on excellent form. It was a cracking gig, lively, original hard bop.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival. July 2016.

I wrote briefly about my favourite Edinburgh Jazz Festival gigs for LondonJazz. Here are some of my photos from various EJF gigs I went to.

Magnus Ostrom Band.

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Paul Harrison Sugarwork.

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Graeme Stephen Quartet.

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Laura MacDonald Quartet.

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Colin Steele Quintet.

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Two Gigs at the Outhouse. Edinburgh, June 2016.

The Playtime quartet dedicated one of their bi-monthly gigs to the music of Duke Ellington, and it was a pleasure, as I’d expected. Some tunes they played straight, but others were warped and twisted beyond recognition.

They opened with C Jam Blues, which I didn’t realise until the closing notes. But they swung their hearts out, taking it very fast. They then played a tune I didn’t think I knew, Warm Valley, but a quick search on my iPod shows that I have five different versions of it! One if the problems of such a prolific artist as Ellington or maybe I have more music than I can listen to!).

An excellent, straight forward version of Caravan followed, and a similarly straight Sophisticated Lady. They closed the first set with a radical dissection of It Don’t Mean A Thing. Slowed down, they took this in all sorts of directions, with a really different, almost abstract interpretation. This was creative and imaginative. To my ears it sounded like Mingus (who played with Ellington, both in the orchestra and in small groups, and who was greatly influenced by him), maybe bits of Mingus At Antibes (Prayer for Passive Resistance, I think). It was the first number of the evening which didn’t swing!

They did the opposite to Come Sunday in the second half. The original is a slow, sometimes lugubrious piece: it is hard to give it the life it deserves. Whilst keeping the tempo of main melody, the drums and bass played double, maybe triple, time, turning it into a fast, almost bebop tune – as if Bird had played it. It must have been very hard to execute, especially for saxophonist Martin Kershaw. I’m not entirely sure it worked, but at least they didn’t drag!

They also played In A Mellow Tone, Weary Blues (not strictly Ellington, but he and Johnny Hodges played it on the album Back to Back), and In A Sentimental Mood. All were just what one would have wanted.

They closed with Take The A Train, Billy Strayhorn’s theme for the orchestra. Tom Bancroft worked up a real shuffle on the drums, imitating a speeding locomotive. A great finish to a very enjoyable gig. But they only played ten numbers; I hope they’ll have to delve back into Ellington’s rich portfolio for another night or four!

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The following week, saxophonist and clarinetist John Burgess lead a quintet playing the music of W.C. Handy and Spencer Williams. This would  have been a gig I’d previously run a mile from: early New Orleans jazz is way out of my normal listening. (And Handy was from Alabama, via Memphis, Shi that’s probably wrong of me anyway.) But that’s actually why I thought I’d give it a go: it’d be different, and even if I didn’t enjoy, I’d learn something.

I did learn something. I learned I enjoyed it a lot. I learned that good music is good music.

I think if it had just been a random selection if New Orleans numbers, I probably wouldn’t have bothered going, but the idea of listening to music by specific, early jazz composers hooked me. And frankly it had to be better than the football. (Indeed it was.)

I was slightly more familiar with Handy, but I hadn’t heard of Spencer Williams before, whose music featured in the first set. It turned out I had actually heard his music, though. He wrote Basin Street Blues and Royal Garden Blues, both long term jazz standards. I’ve got versions of both of them by Ellington, for instance. Other numbers were familiar, too.

W.C. Handy is possibly best known for the classic St Louis Blues – also recorded by Ellington (and many others); the version I know best is Gil Evans’ arrangement on New Bottle, Old Wine, though Evans didn’t change much – a lot of the Gershwin-like touches are there in early versions of the tune, too. Burgess opened the second set with this, maybe to get the hit out of the way early. Handy wrote many other standards. Burgess played several of them – Memphis Blues, Beale Street Blues, Ole Miss Rag.

It would be wrong to call the music authentic: it was made by modern musicians on modern instruments for modern ears, and long long way from Memphis and New Orleans. But it seemed to be played without taking too many liberties. And it was very enjoyable.

What I kept thinking about was the age of this music. All the tunes the band played were originally written around one hundred years ago. That’s not very long in the scheme of things. Jazz has changed immeasurably – gone of in all sorts of directions. But the music Burgess played was definitely, recognisably jazz. It’s like it’s come a long way in a short time, but at the same time hasn’t changed much either.

Trio Red. Edinburgh, May 2016.

Trio Red played an intimate gig in Edinburgh last month. With Calum Gourlay depping on bass for an absent Per Zanussi, they played many of the tracks from their new album Lucid Dreamers (which I reviewed for LondonJazz, and liked a lot) as well numbers from their first CD. The music is full of humour, and this comes out live. Tom Bancroft is full of stories and provided the context for the songs and their often surreal titles, and this feeds into their music. They expand the tunes more than they do on the CD, letting things go further. A really fun gig.

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