Tag Archives: Calum Gourlay

Tommy Smith Quartet. Edinburgh, January, 2018.

Tommy Smith had a busy January: a duo gig with Brian Kellock (broadcast on Radio 3’s Jazz Line Up), a string of sell out shows with the SNJO at Ronnie Scott’s, and Judy a couple of days later, he brought his quartet back to Edinburgh to play music from their album, “Embodying the Light”. They’d played a gig last July based on the same repertoire – an exciting, storming show that was one of the best concerts I saw last year. Which meant this show had a lot to live up to.

The first set didn’t quite make it: good though it was (and it was), it lacked the punch of last year’s gig. That was partly because in contrast to July’s sell out show, the much larger Queen’s Hall was only half full, and the acoustics weren’t as good. The quartet were playing without amplification, and at times Calum Gourlay’s bass was drowned out. (They were recording the show for video, and the instruments were miked for that, but they weren’t using the PA system.)

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The second half was something else, though: I don’t know if the band had warmed up a bit, or the audience had warmed up, or may it was only me who had warmed up – but it felt like they had gone up a gear. In part it might be that they made more space – Smith played a solo piece early in the second set, using the piano as a resonator, which provided a change of dynamics.

The band were superlative. Sebastiaan de Krom played an amazing drum solo in the second half, and seemed to get better and better as the show continued. Pete Johnstone on piano was inspired and inspiring; he listens very attentively, even when he’s not playing – the look on his face showed how exciting he finds this band, and he creates genuinely exciting music as a result. And Calum Gourlay’s bass playing hits the mark.

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After each solo from the side-men, I thought “that’s the real star of the show!”, each one bettering the previous. And them Tommy Smith would play, and put them a little in the shade: push them further, and they pushed him. Collaborative rather than competitive, it resulted in a truly exiting evening of jazz.

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“Spirit of Light”: Tommy Smith & the SNJO. Edinburgh, December 2017.

It is now several weeks since the SNJO premiered Tommy Smith’s new piece at three concerts across Scotland over the weekend before Christmas, each in a large cathedral. But I’m still trying to work out what I thought of it; it certainly made me think, and keeps returning to my thoughts. At this distance, and on only one hearing, the specifics may be lost but the impression remains.

At over two hours, Spirit of Light is a major undertaking for jazz orchestra – augmented by several guests – and choir. As guest vocalist Kurt Elling said as he introduced the piece, it is a challenging work. Smith’s accomplishment must be applauded: his ambition and vision to create the piece are remarkable.

The music fell somewhere between jazz and classical: the choir – Capella Nova – and Elling were singing fixed words, their vocal lines written; but elsewhere there was ample space for improvisation. Smith’s own playing was superb (he seems to get better and better – and he started off pretty good). The trumpets and trombones were also given their chance to shine.

But the writing also seemed to constrain the jazz side of the project: they were rarely let off the leash. On the few occasions they were able to let rip and swing – and with the rhythm section of Calum Gourlay and Alyn Cosker setting the pace, they certainly know how to swing – but then they were quickly brought to heel. Knowing what the SNJO can do, they seemed underutilised.

Elling explained that the pieces were being played slowly so that we could hear the words. For me, the words took presence over the music: it was almost too wordy. The music felt like it was written to fit the words, rather than the words being cut to flow together with the music. It meant the pieces didn’t feel like songs, but poems accompanied by music – which is what they were. But those poems which had a more song-like structure, such as Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, worked much better for me. There were several poems by Rainer Maria Rilke which didn’t necessarily scan well: it seemed like musical lines were extended to fit Rilke’s text, which must have made them hard for Elling to sing.

I’ve been impressed by Smith’s writing for classical orchestra in the past – I really liked Modern Jacobite which he composed for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – and it was interesting to hear him incorporating classical instrumentation into Spirit of Light. The inclusion of harp and his writing for percussion both worked well.

There was a certain theatricality to the show. Smith entered St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral slowly processing down the nave, blowing a heartfelt, Coltranesque solo whilst the choir entered with him through the aisles. The cathedral was dramatically lit (Smith thanked the lighting designers from Black Light), making much of the space, and the sound took advantage of the space too.

But it was also fiercely cold. A cathedral in Scotland, in winter? Who’d have guessed? Well me, frankly, glad that I had worn an extra fleece layer. Still, after over two hours I was still feeling the chill. I had expected the new piece might fill the first half, giving the second over to more typical Christmas jazz fare – the SNJO have played several Christmas concerts in the past.

Filing the whole concert with new music may have reduced its appreciation, and taking it slowly – giving priority to the words rather than the music – made it at times ponderous and heavy: it felt neither bright or light to me.

For some in the audience, it was too much: several people left in the interval. Of those that stayed, a very many of them loved it: they gave Smith and the orchestra a standing ovation. A friend who was at the same show as me described how she felt immersed in the sound.

I felt more ambivalent: whilst there were several sections I thought were great and there was much to admire, I didn’t think it worked as a whole. But it has clearly stayed with me, demanding further consideration.

Tommy Smith Quartet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

As opening statements go, it was pretty definitive: a short introduction from Calum Gourlay’s bass and then the whole quartet roared into the Resolution, the second part of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Many people consider A Love Supreme to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century – me included. It is a work of passion that communicates a deep spirituality. It is a piece that is rarely played by other musicians, despite it being hugely influential: it seems almost sacrilegious to do so.

So for Tommy Smith and his quartet to start their concert celebrating Coltrane with Resolution, full of energy and passion themselves, controlled and forceful, clearly marked the territory.

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On the hottest night of the year, the theatre was full, and sweltering. On stage, the band wore suits and ties, buttoned up, and kept their high energy approach going the whole time. Like many (most?) tenor players, Smith has long been influenced by Coltrane: as a young artist, he recorded Giant Steps on his first album, and he regularly included numbers by Coltrane in his live sets. He directed, and played tenor (together with Courtney Pine) with, the SNJO playing Coltrane a few years ago. He has an affinity with Coltrane’s music.

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Playing with a line up guaranteed to bring to mind Coltrane’s classic quartet, and on this night apparently playing entirely acoustically (no mikes to be seen – though I’d be surprised if the bass wasn’t miked), Tommy Smith made a glorious sound. The band were superb. Peter Johnstone, a relative youngster, must have been channeling McCoy Tyner, laying down thick chords and searing solos. Sebastiaan de Krom was both light and loud, letting rip enough to do Elvin Jones justice; and Calum Gourlay, in the fourth gig I’d seen him play in four days, just gets better and better.

Smith explained that they were playing music from their latest CD, Embodying the Light – and I think they played the whole thing: three compositions by Smith, five by Coltrane, and ‘Trane’s arrangement of Summertime. It was powerful music – pure Smith, but pure Coltrane too. It was hugely exciting – exhilarating, even. It was a full blown experience, a bit of a roller coaster – aside from Naima, it was all pretty full on – and every bit as exciting. Wonderful stuff.

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Colin Steele: “The Birth of the Cool”, and the Pearlfishers Quartet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2107.

“The Birth of the Cool” was the first jazz record I bought, over thirty five years ago. It’s not my favourite jazz record – it’s not even my favourite Miles Davis record, not even in the top ten – but it is one naturally has a special place in my heart. So when I saw a project to put together a band to play the album in its entirety live at Edinburgh Jazz Festival, it was a gig I had to go to.

And a very special occasion it was.

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Colin Steele – not at this gig, but he looks the same!

The trumpet seat was filled by Colin Steele, at competitively late notice, apparently; Martin Kershaw was on alto and Allon Beauvoisin was on baritone. The other musicians making up the nonet were a younger generation: Alan Benzie on piano, May Halliburton on bass, and a trombonist, drummer, tuba and French horn players whose names I didn’t get – though it was pointed out that even the younger players were older than Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, and Get Mulligan when they recorded the original. The whole thing was directed by Richard Ingham, who didn’t so much conduct as dance around the rhythm.

Recreating a historical record could easily slide into kitsch, but one faux radio announcement aside, this performance moist certainly didn’t. The music sounded lively and fresh, bouncy when it needed to be. It no longer has the capacity to surprise (as it once must, the first of Miles’ three big innovations), but it was a particular joy to be able to hear such familiar music live.

* * *

The following night saw Steele lead his own quartet, playing the music by the band The Pearlfishers, which they’ve recorded on the recently released CD “Diving for Pearls“. He might not have written the music, but Steele and pianist and arranger Dave Milligan made it totally their own.

Steele said that he didn’t think hit his stride till the second set, but it didn’t show. Playing with a battered mute throughout, close into the mike, he was enthralling and beguiling.

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Colin Steele and Dave Milligan – again, not at this gig!

It was a huge pleasure to hear Milligan, who seems to get better and better: some of his solos had an intensity that was gripping. In the second half Steele took a break leaving the trio of Milligan, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Alyn Cosker to play an open, seemingly improvised piece – it would lovely to see Milligan do more trio work. Gourlay and Cosker were full of confident competence throughout the show – it is easy to take them for granted, but they add a lot to the bands they play in.

But it was Steele’s evening: literally muted but the notes flying from his trumpet.

* * *

Milligan played a solo set in the final weekend of the festival. I managed to miss the first half of his set – I got the time wrong (a schoolboy error…) but what I did hear was wonderful. Largely improvised (he told a story of his young daughter asking what he was going to play, so he had to tell her he didn’t really know), he produced a variety of moods – energetic, contemplative, quiet, all engaging. This was music to get lost in, full of depth.

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Dave Milligan – not at this gig! (I didn’t have my camera, ok?!)

“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!

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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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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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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Some Edinburgh Jazz Festival Gigs… July 2015.

Nearly a month has passed since the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, so I thought I’d gather my thoughts about some of the gigs I went to.

The big ticket for the festival was Antonio Sanchez’ Migration. They’d had a crap day, their luggage was lost by the airline, and they seemed to be beset by technical problems. But their playing was beautiful. Sanchez drumming was superlative, just wonderful, and I really liked John Escreet’s piano playing. I don’t get Seamus Blake playing an ewi (and his frantic activity when his Mac decided to run out of power proved very distracting), but his tenor playing was great. But the music didn’t hang together for me: they seemed less than the sum of the parts. They played the Meridian suite straight through, and it was quite intense: the frequent rhythm and time changes made it hard work to listen to. It seemed like a prog rock suite to me, more intellectual than emotional.

I decided to see Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet and Enrico Zanisi Trio at the last minute. Indeed I was late, since I mistook the Spiegel Tent in George Sq for the Spiegel Tent in St Andrew Sq. Two Spiegel Tents! Who knew? Well, everyone else who got there on time, obviously. LondonJazz had tweeted an ecstatic review of a London gig by Akinmusire, and I reckoned that if international musicians were going to visit Edinburgh, they deserve an audience. Actually, it was a packed house, and I was lucky to get a seat. Enrico Zanisi Trio played a good though not exceptional set. (Zanisi is playing a couple of solo gigs in more intimate settings in Islay next month.) Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet were superb. I had no expectations, but was really impressed. Akinmusire has a very clean, crisp sound, and kept away from histrionic solos: it’s like he knows how good he is and doesn’t need to show off. His playing left lots of space, lots of powerful, long notes. Drummer Justin Brown was amazing.

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Trio Red – in this incarnation, Tom Bancroft on drums and Tom Cawley on piano, with Furio di Castri on bass – were joined by writer David Grieg, who improvised stories as the band improvised music. The trio played a couple of numbers without Greig, and they were superb. Bassist di Castri played beautifully, a revelation since I’d not come across him before. (I was told that this was his Scottish debut.) Cawley and Bancroft work really well together, and the three of them made some excellent, incentive music. The intervention of Greig left me in two minds. I loved what he created – humorous, fascinating stories. But I found it distracted from the music: it was hard not to watch the screen on which his words appeared. Still, Trio Red were great, Greig’s words were fun and adventurous, di Castri was phenomenal, and full marks for experimenting.

Thelonious, a project started by Calum Gourlay to play every tune by Thelonious Monk, played a sell out show in the JazzBar. This was the fourth gig I’d seen Gourlay play in five weeks (with the SNJO, his duet gig in Glasgow, and a big band Ellington set earlier in EJF being the others), which probably qualifies me for stalker status. But he is very good (and I can’t recommend his solo CD highly enough). In Thelonious he is joined by Martin Speake on alto, David Dyson on drums and Hans Koller on… euphonium! Another piano-less Monk tribute. Given the instrumentation, I was surprised quite how straight the arrangements were. There was no messing around or weird interpretation, this was pure Monk. And it was very good indeed. They played a mixture of Monk’s standards such as Epistrophe, Criss Cross, Misterioso and Brilliant Corners, with less well known tunes. It was fascinating to hear a whole show of Monk’s sometimes jagged, angular tunes instead of just the occasional number dropped into a set. It emphasised how much of an influence he still is – the music sounded fresh, very now, and simultaneously wacky and normal. Gourlay said they’re recording a CD, and I look forward to it. I’m not sure you can have too much Monk.

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There was plenty of piano with the Dave Milligan Trio. It is great to see Milligan gigging again, and I hope we get to seed more of him: he is a marvellous, gentle, understated pianist, and it feels like he’s a bit of a private secret. Well not too private, because this was another sell out show. With Tom Bancroft on drums and Brodie Jarvie on bass, they played new tunes, a couple from Milligan’s CDs and some standards, including a thoughtful dedication to the late John Taylor. Just a lovely gig.

Three Gigs. Glasgow Jazz Festival, June 2015.

Aside from the John Taylor gig, I went to three gigs in the Glasgow Jazz Festival, all of which were in the City Halls’ Recital Room, a space I’d not been in before. It is a light, airy room with a high vaulted ceiling. It is quite an intimate space with, in this case, chairs arranged around tables. For all the gigs I was close to the performers, sitting in the second row from the front. It actually felt like a privilege being so close to the musicians.

Zoe Rahman seemed slightly awestruck with the space, and particularly the Steinway piano, as if she couldn’t imagine why so many people would want to be there with her. And then she spent eighty minutes showing exactly why we would want to be there: to hear her music.

In many ways, her performance was similar to Taylor’s a couple of nights before, reflecting their common influences (probably common to jazz pianists anywhere) – Ellington, Monk, Evans, maybe a bit of Jarrett thrown into the mix, too. She opened with a long exploration of an Abdullah Ibrahim number, and included another in her set, together with a beautiful rendition of Duke Ellington’s Single Petal of a Rose (one of my favourite tunes, so she couldn’t lose!), Monk’s Ruby My Dear, a couple of Bill Evans’ numbers, as well as several of her own tunes, often infused with traditional Bengali notes.

It was a lovely show; it felt like Rahman was sharing something with the audience rather than performing for us. She explained how every time she plays a new piano, it’s like building a new relationship, exploring the keys. She clearly bonded with the Steinway, and had a very creative connection!

***

Evan Parker, honoured by Edinburgh University the day before (together with George Lewis) played a concert with a somewhat slimmed down Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. They played three improvised pieces, the first featuring Parker on sax, the second directed by Parker and the third a completely free piece.

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All three were very enjoyable. In the first and last piece, Parker’s playing was superb. He played a couple of long solos in the first piece. The band were good, too, Catriona McKay being inventive with her harp, and some lovely trumpet playing from Robert Henderson. The pianist (whose name I missed) did some inventive things with the inside of the piano, as well as using it as if tuned percussion (something both John Taylor and Zoe Rahman did, too. It must be something about that piano!).

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All in all, a very enjoyable afternoon of improvised music. And great to hear Evan Parker in Scotland!

***

You wait for a jazz gig with a harp and then two chime along on the same day… Following the GIO gig was a duet of
Calum Gourlay on bass and Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian on harp. (The tickets and website called her simply Cevanne, maybe because they ran out of space on the ticket, or perhaps because it is easier to spell. I can use copy and paste, so I shouldn’t have that problem, though my spellchecker may disagree.) They played a set of mostly Ellington pieces, interspersed with some Monk, a piece by Johnny Dankworth, a couple of Armenian folk tunes (reflecting Horrocks-Hopayian’s origins). And some Hendrix, too.

Nothing if not eclectic, then, but they also presented a very coherent sound. I love Gourlay’s bass playing: great tone, wonderful feeling, and intelligent improvisation. He was very at ease with the Ellington repertoire, playing slower titles such as Solitude, Mood Indigo and African Flower, as well a couple of faster tunes in Caravan and It Don’t Mean A Thing.

Horrocks-Hopayian sang on some numbers, as well as playing harp. She has a strong voice, well-suited to the wordless tunes and the folk numbers. I liked her harp playing too, though occasionally it sounded more classical than jazz – a bit too “nice” for the blusier numbers.

The sequence dedicated to Jimi Hendrix was particularly interesting. Gourlay played a solo piece dedicated to Hendrix, predominantly bowed to suggest the wail of feedback, and then the bad and harp played a transcript of the wall of Hendrix’s flat in London: a friend took a rubbing from the wall on manuscript paper, and they edited the marks down to notes, and used it as the basis of composition. As a process, the starting point for music, it is a fascinating idea. Better still, the music they made from it worked, too.