The opening night of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival fell on Mandela Day – celebrated on the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth – and EJF joined in by lining up three South African act.
The evening opened with, for me, the main draw: legendary pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. I have seen Ibrahim many times over the years in many different settings (he will be playing with his small group, Ekaya, in London Jazz Festival in November); this was Ibrahim in solo, meditative mood. He played snippets of his many compositions straight through, with no gap between tunes and no space for applause. But he didn’t give himself scope to develop the themes, either – the moment he settled into one familiar tune, he moved on to the next. The audience was continually playing catch up.
The music was lovely, but Ibrahim didn’t bring anything new to the keyboard. His set felt like a greatest hits compilation – good to hear, but ultimately unsatisfying. I would have loved to hear him explore his back catalogue in more depth, getting lost in the tunes. And at little more than thirty minutes, this festival opener left me disappointed and feeling a bit short changed.
My mood wasn’t lifted by the next act, either. Freshlyground’s up tempo South African fusion should have moved me – it had all right ingredients – but their exuberance felt forced in the large hall of the Festival Theatre.
So I probably shouldn’t have been in the mood for the Mahotella Queens. Maybe Freshlyground had warmed me up more than I realised; maybe the Queens’ authenticity won me over. Whatever it was, they plucked the right strings and even got me moving in my seat. Many people went further – there was dancing in the aisles (including Freshlyground’s singer, Zolani Mahola, who joined the audience out front).
Dating back fifty years and with two of the original members – the third couldn’t travel on health grounds, her vocal and dancing duties being taking by a youngster – the Mahotella Queens’ blend of township music and dancing was infectious.
I am listening to Abdullah Ibrahim on Radio 3, with the BBC Concert Orchestra. I have seen Abdullah Ibrahim play many, many times – a couple of the best gigs (evah) were his, but also a couple of the most prissy, stuck-up and irritating ones, too.
He does this thing where he comes across all zen-like, and refuses to hear applause – or bans it outright, playing through from one tune to the next to the next… It can actually be quite irritating, because there is no release of the beautiful tension he builds up.
He is a great pianist and composer, and he is one of the few jazz composers who I am pleased to say breaks my private rule that jazz and strings don’t mix. (The favourite “jazz” albums that people that don’t like jazz like are Bird with Strings, Billie with Strings, or Ella with Strings. Sickly sweet syrupy confections. That don’t swing.)
His “African Suite” – tunes he wrote in other contexts played by his trio and a string orchestra – is just beautiful, sublime music.
But not tonight. Introduced by Petroc Twelawney (how come it is always him MCing Radio 3 concerts I don’t like?) as if Abdullah Ibrahim playing with an orchestra is new (the African Suite recording is ten years old), the BBC Concert Orchestra are – well, syrupy suite; they’re not adding anything, and they don’t swing. They are getting in the way.
The vocal trio featuring Iain Shaw and Cleveland Watkiss (I think) are little better – Shaw’s recognisable voice sounded strangled and angst-ridden, strange among what is fairly chilled, relaxed music.
There has been a spate of jazz gigs in Edinburgh recently; big, international gigs (Edinburgh harbours a healthy jazz scene, and a new club has opened up replacing Henry’s Jazz Cellar – Henry’s was voted one of the best venues in the world – I’ve been to a few, and I’d agree with that: a wonderful dark cellar, the bar away from the stage, sight lines ruined by pillars… a great place; let’s hope the Lot in the Grassmarket matches it; anyhow, there is a fair bit of jazz in town of an evening, if you want to find it).
There hasn’t been a theme – it is more spill-over from the London Jazz Festival.
Last month kicked off with Abdullah Ibrahim at the Queen’s Hall. This gig had personal significance, since when I started seeing my wife (a while back), Abdullah Ibrahim was the first jazz piano gig I took her too; and she loved it.
Ibrahim comes from a South African tradition, mixing township jive with an Ellingtonian sophistication picked up in New York; he has made some lovely records, township swing to get you going. He even works well with strings – the African Suite is a lovely record. (Most jazz doesn’t work with a classical setting; controversial since I am listening to John Surman in concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra…)
So: Ibrahim was wonderful: an elder statesman of the music, there was a reverential air. (Half the audience were surprised to see that he made it; he is 71.) It was great to see him, and he played some lovely music. But – well, he played; and played. He didn’t stop between tunes, one phrase rolling into the next, one quotation mixed in within another; he just played. And played. There was no applause – he clearly didn’t want the tension to build and break, playing on as one tune morphed into another – and frankly, it was all a bit the same: one tune morphed into another, and they sounded alike too.
He played two sets; and at the end of the first, all the men were dashing for the toilets – his playing without a pause meant there had been no way to quietly leave for the loo. And by the end of the second set – well, we were both pleased to get away. It was just too samey – the same pace, the same key… maybe even the same tune a couple of times.
Next, it was Bill Frisell at the Usher Hall. This was a strange one; Frisell appears on a few records that I have, and they are all very different. It was clear that one shouldn’t have any expectations; so I didn’t.
I met up with a mate from work during the support – where I was sitting, they sounded awful – a pounding African drum resonated through my ribs, irritating my lungs. Not fun. Across the hall, where my mate was sitting – it was fine – it sounded great, actually: a strange quartet of sax, guitar, trombone, and an eastern percussion kit.
Frisell himself was in a trio – him and another guitar, and a fiddle. So not a standard jazz setting. The first tune was a Beatles number, or maybe post-Beatles Lennon. So was the next, and the next. I twigged. Frisell said, “By the way, you may have noticed…” – they were playing all Lennon and McCartney or Lennon numbers. Which frankly got a bit much. They sounded nice, but not too engaging.
And they all sounded the same. So it was good evening, but nothing too exciting.
Then we went to see the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. A big band – and they were such fun! They have a wonderful sound – a full big band – and they have a great repertoire. They were playing tunes from their catalogue – this was their tenth anniversary tour – and they had some wonderful stuff: a lot of Gil Evans, some Ellington; a bit of basie – it was just superb.
They are a very together orchestra – although they seem to have changed their personnel a fair bit in the last years or so (bass players and drummers – the engine room of a big band – have changed). But what a glorious sound! It just raises the heart to hear those tunes live – the original recording are fifty-odd years old, for the most part. But the band bring them alive. Wonderful.
This was followed by McCoy Tyner. He too must be pushing it a bit: he was part of Coltrane’s classic quartet; and it must be a bit strange playing concerts when you know half the audience are there because of a record you made forty years ago – even if it is the most famous jazz record ever made.
Although Tyner was frail as he made his way to the stage, he playing was fine. He had Charnet Moffet on bass – who was great – and a drummer I didn’t know (according to a Radio 3’s Jazz Line-Up, he played with McCoy when they were teenagers, and retired from jazz to raise his kids in Philadelphia). It was a good gig, but didn’t quite cut it – there was something missing.
Tyner may have been pushing it a bit – someone sitting behind me expressed their surprise that he hadn’t keeled over in the interval – and maybe it was the fact that we were all there on the basis of a handful of records made in the sixties, not for what he was playing today, that counted against the gig.
Then last night I went to see Tomasz Stanko, again at the Queen’s Hall (thanks, guys). This was a different league. Maybe because Stanko is coming from a different place (I kept hearing “Silent Way” Miles) or because he has surrounded himself with three musicians from now rather than then, but the whole thing sounded great. His musicians easily held their – as a trio, their playing was incisive and exciting, really powerful (but quiet) – there was depth in their subtlety. The band was the same as his gig here last year, the “Soul of Things” band – I am afraid I can’t spell their names, anyway; they played with an intensity, an energy that was exciting. Brilliant. Abstract – no tunes, really – but brilliant.