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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Partikel. Edinburgh, April 2016.

I was expecting a trio, but Partikel are now a quartet, the sax-bass-drums line up augmented by violin. Since I’d not seen them before, though I’d heard a couple of numbers, that didn’t make a huge difference because I didn’t really know what to expect. What we got was an evening of impressive, sometimes intense music that was clearly jazz but a lot more, too.

Aided by a suite of electronics at their feet, Duncan Eagle managed to make his saxophones sounds like an organ, and Benet McLean got his violin to sing like a choir. Max Luthert was doing something with a Mac, too, but mostly his bass sounded just like a bass should do.

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In fact, the only member who didn’t appear to be electronically enhanced was Eric Ford at the drums, but frankly he didn’t need it: he’s an exciting player as it is, so speedily dexterous that at times I wondered “how’s he doing that?” without being overbearing or brash. (I meant to ask him after the show, but forgot. I think the answer might be multiple pedals.)

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With or without the electronics – which never got in the way and were used sparingly – the quartet made a full, rich sound, with lots of texture and light. There seemed to be a distinct dose of prog in the mix (though this might reflect me rather than the band), and violin added both folk and classical influences.

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Most of the music was new – they were going into the studio the following week to record their fourth album – though since I didn’t know their work, it didn’t really matter. It was complex without being complicated, covered a range of moods and feelings, and was at times energetic and exciting.

Mike Stern and SNJO. Edinburgh, February 2016.

I didn’t have high expectations of this gig. I saw Mike Stern with Bill Evans a couple of years ago, a very enjoyable gig, but I couldn’t imagine how his electric-jazz would translate to a big band. I mean, I thought it’d be fun, but nothing special.

So much for my lack of imagination. Because this gig was very special indeed – just amazing. If I see a better show this year, I will feel myself very lucky indeed.

The band sounded just brilliant. No surprise there. But they worked perfectly with Stern’s electric guitar. Drummer Alyn Cosker was given free rein – I think he’s better jazz-rock than swing drummer (though he didn’t have as much freedom as during the SNJO’s outing of Coltrane material). Bassist Calum Gourlay played electric bass as fluently as he does his acoustic.

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The soloists stretched out, but it was the band as a whole that sounded so good. I think a lot of that must be down to the arrangers, too – Geoff Keezer and Florian Ross are regular contributors, but I think there were some new names among the arrangers, as well. Either way, they turned Stern’s tunes into highly crafted big band pieces, showing off the SNJO at its best.

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And Stern sounded brilliant, too. He appeared to have a deep respect for the band, a huge understanding, never overshadowing them. He spent most of the evening with a joyous smile on his face.

But perhaps the best moments were the three or four duets he played – short pieces, just Stern and another soloist. They were just magical.

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Aside from Marcus Miller’s Splatch, which features Stern on the SNJO album “American Adventure”, I have no idea what tracks were played. I mean, I could copy the list from the programme, but not knowing the music I couldn’t say which is which. Neither Stern nor Tommy Smith said anything between the tunes, as if they didn’t want to waste time talking when they could be playing. One tune flowed into another, Stern playing throughout, as happy accompanying as soloing.

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As he left the stage at the end of the second set, Stern exclaimed “well, that was fun!” Yes, Mike, it was. It was very fun indeed!

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“Freedom” at the Vortex. March, 2016.

Orphy Robinson runs a monthly improvisation night at the Vortex, “Freedom”, at which he invites musicians to participate and plays open house. Any musician seems welcome to perform, and Orphy arranges short 15 minute sets. Not only is the music improvised, but there’s no certainty that the musicians have played together before – or even know each other.

I happened to be in London for this week’s show. I’d wanted to go for a while, but living four hundred miles away can get in the way of going to London gigs.

The nature of the event means the quality of the music can be variable: you don’t know who will turn up, or what their skill will be. But that makes it interesting, too: alchemy might happen. And it did.

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There were several “sets” – seven or eight. The first piece had Orphy on vibes with tenor player Ed Jones – who I’d not seen play for ages – together with a drummer (Alex?) who had been working behind the bar up to that point. (They’re a talented bunch at the Vortex.) It set the tone for the evening – the trio produced some excellent, impassioned music, and it was great to hear musicians being so creative.

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Not all the contributions were quite so impressive: that’s the nature of a show like this. Not knowing who or what was coming there were several players I’d really like to see again. The second piece featured Marta Capone’s highly expressive wordless vocals and Kate Shortt on cello, both inventive and entertaining. A pianist introduced only as “Victor” sounded pretty good, too.

They closed with everyone back on the stage. Ed Jones had moved on by then, which was a pity – I’d have liked to hear more of him. Another saxophonist, whose name I didn’t catch, played soprano through a variety of pedals, whilst Orphy played piano and Victor, vibes. Kate, Alex, a trumpeter, a guitarist and three vocalists crammed onto the small stage. I think the smaller ensembles worked better, but it was all pretty interesting – and great fun. As Orphy said as he left the stage, “That’s freedom”!

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“The James Plays”. Edinburgh, January 2016.

Yesterday I had a bit of a theatre marathon, spending eight hours in the Festival Theatre watching all three of the National Theatre of Scotland’s James plays. I saw the previews of each play when they were performed in the Festival in 2014 – and I was very impressed.

With the same production returning to Edinburgh, I thought it would be interesting to see them in one go, to see how they’d changed in the interim and whether there was additional meaning to be gained from setting them together.

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It was a very good idea: they benefited from a revisiting. The big themes of the plays – relationships, power, politics (public and private) clearly remained, but seeing them together emphasised the connections, particularly the way in which playwright Rona Munro presaged scenes in later plays in the earlier. She also repeated dialogue in each of the plays, short lines which appeared in each which had passed me by the first. (I can’t have been paying attention.)

The acting was superb throughout. The actor playing James ll damaged his ankle (I think) during the second half, and struggled on regardless; he hid his injury well: I didn’t notice until the curtain call, when he had to be helped on stage by his colleagues. Literally a supporting cast.

The first in the trilogy – James l – had been the least effective when I saw them first. A lot of the rough edges had been knocked off – the sense of trepidation or procrastination I had felt was completely absent this time. It was powerful and effective drama, even gripping.

James ll had significant changes to its staging, which whilst simplifying and clarifying the story left it less rich dramatically. The use of puppets to convey the actions of children, which was so effective in the original run, has been been dropped, and, to prevent confusion of adult actors playing children, there were specific mentions of the children’s ages. These might have been present in the original, though I don’t recall them, and they seemed very obvious this time around.

James lll, which I thought was the strongest of the plays originally, now seemed the weakest. Queen Margaret’s big speech which so impressed me before seemed much less potent – it held a negative, niggardly character now. I think some of it had been changed. I also believe the final scene had been added, too negative effect. (I’m not certain about this – but I had no recollection of the closing scene at all. A friend of mine who has both the original published and revised scripts has been set some homework to see what had changed…)

Of course, it might not be the plays that have changed: it might be me. In the highly politicised atmosphere of the run up to Scotland’s referendum on independence, perhaps I was more willing to accept polemic. Or, in the equally polarised debate around Scotland’s place in the union (particularly what seems to be toxic discussions on how to share finances), perhaps I’m simply interpreting Munro’s words in a different way, detecting a disappointment that isn’t really there. One of the plays’ themes – the stitching up of Scotland’s political future by a cabal of worthies – still seems apposite.

Joe Locke Quartet. Edinburgh 2016.

There is something about the vibes that just makes me smile. The ringing sound, maybe. The pure physicality. The way vibes players all seem to dance around their instrument, as if it too was a character in the band.

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Joe Locke had all this. I smiled a lot. Sitting right at the front, he dominated the band – I could barely see pianist Robert Rodriguez, and bass player Ricky Rodriguez (apparently no relation) was hidden behind Locke for most of the evening. Locke danced around, moving up and down the vibes. He raised his mallets high and produced some fast trills up and down the vibe’s bars. At other times he was more subtle, leaving each note to ring out.

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A Harp And A Viola at “Playtime”. Edinburgh, January 2016.

The first Playtime of the year and the loft is a bit fuller than usual. Tom Bancroft attributes this to the presence of two guests for the evening, harpist Catriona McKay and viola player Oene Van Gael joining regulars Bancroft on drums, Mario Caribe on bass and Graeme Steven on guitar. Van Gael is part of Steven’s new quartet, together with Caribe and Bancroft, so this might be an indication of what that group will sound like.

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I’ve seen McKay several times in the last year: she’s clearly the go-to harpist for improvisation. Actually she the only harpist I’ve seen improvising on the last year, I think – it’s not common a jazz instrument. Upstairs in the Outhouse, it fits well into the intimate setting. Together with Van Gael, she brought a folk tinge to music, reminding how close the jazz and folk scenes are in Edinburgh.

Van Gael was an animated performer, mostly bowing his viola but often plucking it, occasionally strumming it like a guitar. McKay was more static by nature of the size of her harp, but equally energetic in her playing.

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Many of the pieces played were largely or wholly improvised, others written, such as a number by Bancroft I’d not heard before dedicated to his old car, the wittily titled “Fables of Fabia”. There was a lot of humour in the music too.

In the second half they were joined by Martin Kershaw, the other of the Playtime regulars, on alto. As a sextet, particularly with harp and viola, they brought a folk tinge to the music, reminding how close the jazz and folk scenes are in Edinburgh.