“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!

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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.

The SNJO play Gil Evans / Miles Davis. Edinburgh, April 2017.

Tonight I saw the SNJO play two classic Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaborations, Sketches of Spain and Porgy & Bess. Two of the most famous pieces of jazz ever recorded, so familiar that they’re taken for granted. But rarely heard live: the last time I heard them live must have been when SNJO played the same programme about twenty years ago.

Tonight’s gig was superb. Such a wonderful sound. I sat with a broad smile through most of it, just pleased to be able to hear it again.

In Sketches of Spain, the lead trumpet was taken by Laura Jurd, who filled the role perfectly. Whilst keep close to Evans’ classic arrangement, three was still plenty of space for Jurd to improvise. I had forgotten how much of Sketches was just trumpet, bass and drums – and Calum Gourlay and Alyn Cosker made a great rhythm section behind Jurd. (No saxes, either!)

Porgy & Bess was just as good. This time it was Tom McNiven taking the lead, with trumpet and flugelhorn. This music as so familiar that at times I found myself singing along. Oh Doctor Jesus (Prayer) sent shivers down my spine. Summertime and Ain’t Necessarily So were the showstoppers one could expect. 

The adapted SNJO were superb. The extra instrumentation (harp, horns, flutes, clarinets …And a very good tuba, who made it sound easy!) seemed to fit right in. Evans’ arrangements are full of texture and nuance, and it all sounded wonderful.

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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