Category Archives: Music

The Waterboys. Edinburgh, August 2015.

The best rock gig since maybe the last time I saw the Waterboys. Though actually I think the last gig I went to WAS the Waterboys

This time they were playing in Princes St Gardens, and it was very much a homecoming gig for Mike Scott and this trans-Atlantic version of the band: only violinist Steve Wickham remains from the classic line ups, with Ralph Salmins on drums, who played the last tour, with from various points in the US, Dave Hood on bass, Brother Paul on a very bluesy organ, and Zach Ernst on guitar.

They played exactly what you would expect, starting with A Girl Called Johnnie and moving through much of Fisherman’s Blues and This Is The Sea, with several newer things, and closing with an amazing encore of a long version of Purple Rain and closing with, of course, The Whole Of The Moon.

Halfway through The Whole Of The Moon, the Tattoo fireworks went off, not quite to the beat but pretty close. And leaving, we could see the full moon appearing from behind the castle.

It was all fab. Just a wonderful evening.

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“Playtime” Play the Music of Ornette Coleman. Edinburgh, July 2015.

The recent death of free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman has lead to a lot of people reappraising his influence – which is vast, wide and deep. It was no surprise when the Playtime crew decided to dedicate an evening to his music.

I saw Ornette play a couple of times with his free-jazz-funk double quartet “Prime Time”, and I have long found his music easier to listen to live: it can be hard work on record, but in a live setting it works, for me at least.

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And the two sets the Playtime quartet played worked very well for me. I had wondered what altoist Martin Kershaw would make of Coleman’s music, since Coleman was one of the defining voices one the instrument. Despite the ostensible avant garde nature of the music, Coleman was deeply rooted in the blues, and that came through in the selections made in the repertoire by the band.

Almost wholly taken from his very productive, early period of the late 1950s and early 1960s – I think most of the tunes played came from Coleman’s first five albums – the connection to the blues was emphasised, as was the extension of Charlie Parker’s bebop lines in completely new directions. This surely came from Coleman rather than Kershaw: it’s in the themes and riffs, as well as the titles. (“Bird Food” was one of the tunes played.)

Coleman’s rhythm section – notably drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden – let him go in all the directions he wanted, by keeping great time. Here, Mario Caribe and Tom Bancroft admirably fulfilled those roles, showing the strength of the rhythm within the jagged melody. Graeme Stephen added lots of subtle flavours with his guitar.

But mostly it was. about the saxophone, which was gutsy and passionate – a fitting tribute.

“Running Under Bridges”, Again. Edinburgh, May 2015.

I went back to see the last improvised performance of Running Under Bridges, a week after I saw the second. (I wish I had seen the first, too.)

This time, joining saxophonist (and co-creator of the project) Raymond MacDonald and guitarist George Burt was harpist Catriona McKay. Taking as their “score” the same images by Jo Ganter as before, with the same instructions and direction (and, indeed, some passages were recognisable between the two performances), it was a very different experience.

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I can’t remember having seen an improvising harpist before, certainly not one playing steel bottle neck or tupperware on the harp. (There are a couple of jazz recordings I have which feature a harp, I think – one by Alice Coltrane, for instance.)

Having spent some more time looking at the exhibition of Ganter’s artworks and the images from which they were derived, as well as her fascinating animations of some previous performances of Running Under Bridges and a couple of improvisations by MacDonald and pianist Marilyn Crispell (a couple of videos are at the end of this post), it was easier to follow the way the musicians translated the abstract “score” into music – maybe to grasp what their process was.

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This performance felt more intimate, as if the audience was watching something very raw and personal going on. Like we were eavesdropping a private conversation between the musicians. There is an openness that improvisation brings to an event – shared by the audience, too, because we need to be open to experiment (and, at times, disappointment) – and you never know what is going to happen.

Another fascinating experience.

Parallel Moments | Longing from Ganter MacDonald on Vimeo.

Running Under Bridges: improvisation at Talbot Rice. Edinburgh, May 2015.

I spent an hour or so this afternoon in the Talbot Rice gallery, listening to the pictures. Well, listening to improvisers interpret the graphic images, which represented the scores around which they improvised. The pictures they had on their music stands were copies of the art on the walls.

The project, Running Under Bridges, is a collaboration between musician Raymond McDonald and visual artist Jo Ganter. The musicians – McDonald was joined by longtime collaborator George Burt on guitar, Stu Brown on drums, and (I think) Emma Smith on bass – used the pictures to set the rules and then took the improvisation from there.

(c) Jo Ganter, from the Talbot Rice Gallery website.

It was a fascinating experiment, clearly not free improvisation, but intriguing.

Created on a grid, some of the artworks produced a strong sense of time, with a strong melodic line from McDonald’s saxes; at other points, Burt’s choppy, abstract guitar provided the industrial noise required by the score.

The artist and musicians answered questions from the audience between the four or five pieces. It was clear that the audience were trying to understand both the music and the process – how they translated images into sound. Did the colours have meaning? (To an extent.) How were the patterns turned into music? (Through the musicians improvising skills.)

There is another concert next Saturday, with McDonald and Burt and a harpist (possibly Corrina Hewat, but I couldn’t catch the name!), working with the same pieces, and I have every intention of going back to see how it works out. (I’m thinking of submitting a photo of the Forth Bridge for them to play, too…)

Noise. Sometimes Annoys, But Often Not.

Two more improvisation gigs; when I said there wasn’t much improvised music in Edinburgh, I was wrong: I just hadn’t found it.

The more I listen to live improvised music, the more I am working out what works for me, though mostly I can’t explain it. It is easier to explain what I don’t like than what I do: musicians who create what I perceive as noise, particularly electronically generated, don’t work for me. When they open up their Macs and hunch over the qwerty keyboard, I tend to switch off.

But lots of things that I’m sure others consider noise I hear as art. It is a very fine boundary.

Both these gigs were produced under the banner of EdImpro, which seems to be a band, a collective and a promoter… The first was in the pristine white space of the university’s Infomatics dependent, and was ostensibly part of the Science Festival.

There were three acts. The first was clarinetist Pete Furniss , who played three solo pieces. Ok, he used a Mac – but to loop and interact with his music, not to create noise. Apparently with composed and improvised elements – the computer running along established rules – these were lovely pieces. Their roots were clearly classical, the lines wandering along a western tradition.

The second act were Jess Aslan & Emma Lloyd, a violin and Mac duo. It maybe it was the other way around. I couldn’t hear what the Mac was doing; the violin was making a variety of atonal sounds. Where the clarinet had reeled me in, the violin pushed me away.

The final act was – different. Pure noise, but engaging and compelling. An enigma. Jean-François Laporte makes his own instruments; in this case, a multiple foghorn powered by compressed air. The compere said that Laporte wouldn’t be offended if the audience used earplugs. By chance rather than design, I had a pair with me, and I decided prevention was better than cure. I used them.

The horns were loud. The air rumbled, my lungs resonated. It was noise at its most elemental. But it was strangely compelling. There were overtones – not harmonies, perhaps, but undercurrents as the different horns crossed over. It was visceral.

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He slowly unwound the horns. His next piece was much more playful: he stood on a table amidst the audience and swung a tin can, tied to a cord, around his head. As it circled him it generated a sound, much higher and quieter than the horn. The flying can span faster and faster, higher above Laporte’s head (and over the amused and concerned punters), its pitch rising.

As much performance art than music, this was a fascinating close to the evening. (No members of the public were hurt in the production of this performance…)

* * *

This was followed a couple of weeks later by another EdImpro gig, this time in an Edinburgh city centre pub. Well, it now calls itself a club, but since it doesn’t seem to have changed since its pubdom, pub it is.

There were another three acts. The highlight – what had roused me out into the rainy night – was a performance by percussionist Eddie Prevost. I hadn’t realised there were others on the bill.

First up was an ensemble performance by EdImpro, this time featuring a violinist (possibly the same player from the previous gig), a reeds man, a drummer, assorted Mac players – and someone on cardboard box.

No really.

Ok, the box man also manipulated sounds in a Mac, but there was something brilliantly naive about contributing to a performance by bowing a cardboard box.

Bits of the half hour performance I loved – there were some lovely moments from saxophone and clarinet, and from the violin, too – and others less so. I’m not certain the point at which improvisation goes from a bunch of soloists playing at the same time to a cohesive piece played by a group: certainly, there were times when I couldn’t perceive much interaction between the players. (I’m not saying it wasn’t there.)

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And I really liked the cardboard box. Perhaps I really liked the idea of the cardboard box, but again it added some levity to the proceedings. He generated a fair variety of sounds from the box, at times percussive, through a hum to sawing. It is amazing what you can do with a bow.

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As Eddie Prevost demonstrated. Despite having several drums set up, he concentrated on his cymbals – and mostly bowing them rather than hitting them. He even had a gadget rotating at the side of the stage to automatically play his cymbals.

His whole performance was enchanting. Prevost’s imagination seemed unbound, coming up with more and more ways to generate sound from his cymbals.

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I can’t explain why I found the noise produced by Prevost or Laporte so engaging, but both were – much more so than any electronic wibbling. It might be that the very analogue methods of creating those sounds are important took me – both using archaic techniques. But Prevost’s forty minute set didn’t drag at all. Intriguing.

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After Prevost, a Mac duo made noises which drove me from the room. Whatever it is about Mac-noise, I think I’ve a while to go before I’ll enjoy it.

Mwamba/Champion/Darrifourcq/Ceccaldi and Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. GIOfest, Glasgow. November 2013.

One of the things I think I have missed most moving away from London is the availability of improvised music – music from the wackier end of jazz. Improvised music is a strange beast. I live the excitement and energy I’d watching live improvised music, knowing that anything could happen. But I find it very hard to listen to at home: maybe it takes too much concentration. And there is something contradictory about recorded improvised music. It has to be live, for me. This means that I have no recordings of some of my favourite musicians!

So when I noticed on Twitter that vibes player Corey Mwamba was coming to Glasgow, I made the effort to get across for the show. He was playing in a quartet as part of a four day festival of improvised music organised by Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, supporting GIO who were playing a piece commissioned by Radio 3. How did I not know about this before?!

Mwamba was playing with Andy Champion on bass, Sylvain Darrifourcq on drums and Valentin Ceccaldi on cello, a cross-Channel quartet who had been playing a few dates in the UK. They played for forty five minutes, straight through. Mwamba was the visual centre, energetically dancing around his vibes; at times it seemed like the vibes were playing him. He played recorder at one point, too. The band were lively, energetic and played exciting music that twisted and turned. At times all four played percussion, Champion and Ceccaldi banging the bodies of their instruments; indeed, Champion and Ceccaldi routinely sought novel ways to play, Ceccaldi playing his cello’s spike at one point. They finished their with a long work out to a groove-waltz, giving a lie to the idea that improvised music is just for the head – we could even have danced to that!

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I found the GIO commission, “Parallel Moments Unbroken”, more challenging. I had seen the “composer”, Raymond MacDonald, discuss his methods earlier in the year, and it was interesting to see him put them into practice. With more than thirty performers, they need to be disciplined and organised: each musician had a pre-prepared sketch – both musical and pictorial – to play with, though they decided exactly when and what to play. MacDonald directed the orchestra at times, moderating the pitch and volume through hand gestures (though not the precise notes).

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There were moments of emotion and excitement, but the sheer number of musicians meant that some got lost in the mix. Marilyn Crispell was one of several visiting artists, and I would have loved to have heard more of her (she had played solo and small group gigs earlier in the week, so this was partly down to my choice!); similarly some of the local musicians, like trumpeter Robert Henderson and MacDonald himself on sax, played some beautiful phrases, and I wanted more of their playing. Other musicians seemed to my ears to create cacophany – I wondered whether using an electronic keyboard to produce noise fitted into the structure of the piece; it certainly didn’t add anything for me.

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But the overall effect of the piece was fascinating, worth the challenge, and one I will be seeking out again!

The Waterboys. Glasgow Barrowland, December 2013.

A pre-Christmas gig by the Waterboys. In Glasgow. At Barrowland. Clearly unmissable. And so it was.

On tour to celebrate twenty five years since the release of “Fisherman’s Blues”, and to promote the release of the very-complete box set of the sessions, “Fisherman’s Box”, Mike Scott and the band played two hours’ of songs mostly from Fisherman’s Blues with a handful from its predecessor “Thus is the Sea”, with and others thrown in for good measure.

In part it was an exercise in nostalgia, for me at least. I can remember where I was when I first heard Fisherman’s Blues – in a cottage in Ullapool late one night, drinking whisky with a friend. There use something about the Waterboys’ tunes that entwines with very distinct memories. Many of the tunes the band played conjure up specific memories of places or people; it is as if they are deeply rooted in my psyche.

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The first record of theirs I listened to – obsessively – was “Pagan Place”, as I drove around the highlands of Scotland: and for me that is what that record is all about. (They didn’t play anything from it at Barrowland.) The folk-infused (and enthused) tunes on Fisherman’s Blues and the rockier This is the Sea produce deep reminiscences of times and people.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone. The ecstatic crowd greeted every song with a cheer and it quickly developed into a communal singalong. I didn’t know I knew the words to so many Waterboys’ songs. The Waterboys music has always had a spiritual dimension, and at a time when most people don’t get to sing communally, the crowd felt like a congregation.

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All these songs mean something. Each one is associated with people or places, and it all comes flooding back as we sing. Simultaneously individual and communal.

Our singing didn’t get in the way of Scott and the band. The sound was good and every word of Scott’s could be heard. Steve Wickham’s fiddle was a defining part of the album and the gig, and Antony Thistlethwaite doubled on saxophone and mandolin, adding a lot of depth.

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A fine gig, then. Perhaps with that crowd, the band could do no wrong; but it didn’t matter: we there to celebrate twenty five years, our twenty five years, and we loved it.

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Public Service Broadcasting. Edinburgh, November 2013.

I first saw PSB back in May; they were playing a small venue in Edinburgh and, having heard a couple of tracks on the radio, I went along to catch them live. I was totally blown away: that just two musicians could make so much sound (albeit helped by a hefty load of electronics). It was a superb gig, and the encore, “Everest”, had moments of beauty. All that, and they managed to make banjo trendy…

So when they were back in town in November, I was right up at the front. It was another great gig, marred only by knowing what to expect: the encore, for instance, lacked the chill because I was waiting for it to happen.

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But they still made one hell of a sound for just two guys. The two – who may or may not go by pseudonyms redolent of the mid-20th century vibe they mashup – consist of a drummer (“Wigglesworth”) and “J. Willgoose, Esq.” on, well as they say, “everything else”. That’s keyboards, guitars, bass, banjolele, samples – everything. That said, it is the drumming that keeps the music moving: Wigglesworth is a powerhouse.

Playing against a backdrop of old public information films, with samples from the films set to very modern tunes and rhythms, the duo are completely compelling.

Another great gig.

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Bach to Bite. October-November 2012.

At the end of October and the beginning of November, it felt like I was practically living at the Queens Hall: I went to four concerts there in two weeks.

First up were two jazz gigs: Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played a concert of Ellington pieces, and a week later I saw Tommy Smith’s Karma. (Smith is also director of SNJO.) The Ellington gig started off a bit delicately, as if the repertoire was more important: it felt very much like they were reading rather than playing, the dots being a bit precious. But they stretched out at the end of the first set with a great version of “Rockin’ in Rhythm” which laid the foundations for a roaring second set. They played tunes from the whole of Ellington’s (and Strayhorn’s) career – from “Harlem Airshaft” through to some tunes from The Queen’s Suite, the Nutcracker Suite and the Peer Gynt Suite. “Single Petal of A Rose”, from the Queen’s Suite, was a gorgeous duet between Smith and Brian Kellock, pianist for the night (who was on great form all night). They closed the second set with storming “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”, with Smith blowing chorus after chorus in the role made famous by Paul Gonsalves.

I last saw Smith’s Karma quartet in last year’s London Jazz Festival when they played a single, truncated set. I had felt a bit ambivalent about the band, so the opportunity of seeing them play a full gig seemed interesting. I am still ambivalent: the playing was superb, particularly Steve Hamilton on keyboards, but every time they got going, the rhythm or the tempo would change. It felt like 1980s prog, as if they couldn’t let their playing alone long enough to get on with the music. Very fiddly.

A few days later, Angela Hewitt played a concert of solo piano pieces by Bach. The second half was taken up with (I think) twelve pieces from The Art of Fugue. It was exquisitely beautiful and at times quite jazzy, but despite Ms Hewitt explaining that bits were improvised, it also felt formulaic – inasmuch as it was clear what would happen next. Programmed music, perhaps.

The last concert of my self-curated series was perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the (erm) wackiest. I have been aware of Matthew Herbert‘s role as a big band composer for a long time, though I only have one of his recordings, and he has recently got a new job, so when I saw his show “One Pig was coming to Edinburgh, I knew I wanted to see it. It was – well, hard to describe. Musically, the nearest experience I have to it was a concert of “industrial music” created by chainsaws and sledgehammers that I saw in one of Edinburgh’s cathedrals about 30 years ago. (It might have been Test Dept; which, I read, were founded by Alistair Farquharr, who went on the form NVA who produced “Speed of Light“. A definite feeling of connectedness…) “One Pig” was music, but of a strange, different kind. It was even danceable, but – well, noise.

There wasn’t much to look at: a drummer sitting at a kit of electronic drum pads (Tom Skinner, who I’d seen playing avant garde jazz before), an electronic keyboard player, and two people (including Herbert) operating computers. The fifth member, Yann Seznec, stood in the middle of the stage enclosed within what looked like a boxing ring: this was what Herbert called the “sty-harp“, created by Seznec. (This post describes how you could make one of your own.) Seznec pulled on the strings to interact with the sounds: much of the sound in “One Pig” was sampled from the pig; its bones used to make percussion instruments, its skin used as the head of a drum. The sty-harp as well as the computers and samplers operated by Herbert changed the sounds coming from other sources – the drums and the keyboard. It was difficult to tell what was actually making the noises – there was little to connect the musicians’ actions to the sounds they created.

Towards the end of the piece, a chef appeared behind the musicians and started to cook some pork (not the one pig, I hope – that was slaughtered some months ago), the sounds from the frying pan sampled and used in the music.

But the strangest effect came at the end: the noises stopped and Herbert sang a simple song, accompanied by an untreated piano. It was startling and jarring. A most curious concert.

Writing About Music… March 2010.

The January issue of Jazz Journal contained an article called “How To Write About Jazz, written by John Robert Brown. (I would have copied some of it here, but there is a pompous note on his website forbidding any reproduction. I had half a mind to paste some of his inanity here just to piss him off.)

Anyhow, Brown’s article created a bit of a stushie, because he was trying to be funny, and completely missed the mark.

But he did get me thinking about how to write about jazz. I sometimes write about jazz – both on this blog and occasionally as a guest reviewer on the LondonJazz blog.

I like writing about jazz, but I don’t feel comfortable writing about jazz. One reason I like to write about jazz is to accompany the many photos I take at jazz gigs; but also, I like to record the gigs I have been too.

The thing is, I find it hard to describe music without resorting to clichés – which form a kind of shorthand, a quick way of explaining something. This extends beyond writing, though: it is hard to talk about music and adequately explain. The other day before I headed off to see Vijay Iyer at the Vortex [neither are my reviews – though I did stand next to John Fordham at the gig!], my partner asked what kind of music he’d be playing. “Modern improvised piano” was my unimaginative response. It was true – that is exactly what Iyer, whom I have seen play many times, plays in a variety of formats. But as she pointed out, it doesn’t really convey much information – not enough to decide whether to go to the gig.

When I got back, she asked again, “what did he play?” This time I replied, “Modern improvised piano… in duet with an alto saxophonist with an indo-twist!”. A bit more meaning perhaps, but not a huge amount.

It is the same when writing about jazz. It is really hard to convey what music sounds like. I resort to comparisons – trumpeters in relation to Miles Davis, saxophonists in relation to Coltrane, pianists in relation to Monk or Bill Evans… It doesn’t really work unless you know the compass points; if you do know the reference points, you can probably work it out for yourself.

It may be allegorical, but Elvis Costello allegedly once said

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture… it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”

Maybe he had a point!