Tag Archives: Calum Gourlay

Ant Law, Edinburgh, and Trio HLK, Glasgow. March 2019.

I was fortunate to catch Ant Law play two gigs at the the end March. The first was in my local pub in Edinburgh, with a pick up band; the second, the following day, was with Trio HLK over in Glasgow. (I had the opportunity to see a third, when he played the Jazz Bar with another pick up band in between! But two gigs seemed sufficient.)

The Saturday afternoon slot at the Barony has become a regular thing, as they put on some of the top names in Scottish jazz, usually in a drummerless duo or trio. The band Law put together was a step up – a quartet with Callum Gourlay on bass, Sean Gibbs on trumpet and Doug Hough on drums. Gibbs and Gourlay are based down south, but I think they’d been playing Aberdeen Jazz Festival with Martin Kershaw’s octet and the SNJO.

Despite the all star band, it’s still a pub on a Saturday afternoon, with people stopping by for a pint and some lunch; and a fair degree of chatter. Which, in this environment, was fine, though some of the subtlety from Law and Gourlay’s playing might have been lost to the background hubbub. Gibbs trumpet was needle sharp and rose high above the chatter!

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It was a fun afternoon. Not too taxing, they played a bunch of familiar standards – a couple of Monk tunes, some Ellington and Strayhorn. Good Saturday afternoon fare!

For the second set the quartet were joined by saxophonist Adam Jackson, another member of Kershaw’s octet, who’d been watching appreciatively from the bar during the first half. The combination of Gibbs and Jackson was excellent, and it was a joy to hear Law close up.

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It occurred to me that I’d not heard Ant Law play standards before. But watching Trio HLK the following night corrected that misapprehension: it’s just that I’d never seen him play standards straight. Trio HLK’s tunes are largely based on standards – their album was even called Standard Time, although it is anything but. Pianist and composer Rich Harrold takes the well known and familiar, breaks them down – maybe even fractures them – and creates something totally new from the pieces. The music is complex and intricate, the three musicians (the third being drummer Richard Kass) weaving their lines together to stitch together a while new sound.

There is something very precise about the music: apart from the solos, it seems heavily composed and very thought out, though Law intimated that improvisation around fragments is essential to the trio’s creative process. For the most part, the originals on which they base their tunes are unrecognisable – at least to my ears. Smalls is apparently derived from Blue In Green (BIG – geddit?), but I couldn’t hear it. Similarly, Anthropomorphic, their take on Dizzy Gillespie’s Anthropology, seemed a long way from its bebop roots. One exception I’d TWILT, which was recognisable as The Way You Look Tonight before heading off in some unexpected directions.

But this doesn’t matter, because what they create is very compelling on its own account. The musicianship was of the highest order. All three were frankly remarkable. Kass’s ability to drop in and out of difficult time signatures (which I couldn’t even count) whilst changing tempo and yet be in precisely the right place to match a flourish on the piano seemed inimitable. The one tune that didn’t work for me was a new one, out for its first play – a take on All Blues which had a lurching rhythm, as if it was constantly about to fall over; but the rest were, for me, excellent.

The gig was very intimate, a small but perfectly formed and hugely appreciative audience within touching distance of the band. With Law seated behind a music stand and Harrold hidden behind his piano (at least from where I was sitting), Kass’s energetic but controlled drumming provided the only visual stimulus, although it was fascinating to be able to watch him so closely – he made it look easy (which I’m certain it wasn’t). The band were chatting to the audience during the interval and after the show – indeed, there was a fair bit of banter from the audience between numbers, too. The highly structured, precise nature of some of the music could appear cold, but the band were anything but: their warmth flooded the hall.

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Martin Kershaw Octet. Edinburgh, December 2018.

Last July, during the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, I saw the Martin Kershaw Octet premiere a new, extended work, commissioned by the festival. I was very impressed but something didn’t quite work for me.

A couple of weeks ago I had a second chance to hear the piece, Dreaming of Ourselves. I’m so glad I gave it another hearing: it was a tremendous gig.

It was the same line up, and, I think, the same programme. Dedicated to David Foster Wallace, the first half featured a quartet of Kershaw on soprano, alto and tenor saxes (I kind of wish he’d added baritone just to get a full house!), Paul Harrison on piano, Calum Gourlay on bass and Doug Hough on drums, playing older tunes of Kershaw’s inspired by Foster Wallace’s writing. The second half featured Dreaming of Ourselves, a long, through-composed suite, performed by the quartet with the addition of Graeme Stephen on guitar, Sean Gibbs, trumpet, Chris Grieve, trombone, and Adam Jackson on alto sax.

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Martin Kershaw. Not at this gig. I didn’t take my camera!

It was absolutely magical. I’m not sure what had changed (and it might be something as trivial as the venue, or maybe even my mood!), but it seemed like the music took on a life of its own: the music was so much more than the notes on the paper and the eight musicians playing them.

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Chris Grieve (L) and Calum Gourlay (R).Not at this gig. I didn’t take my camera!

It had a great depth. There were carefully controlled sections, periods of chaotic freedom, improvised solos and moments of deep emotion and intensity. A bit like the way Kershaw described David Wallace Foster, in fact. None of the musicians seemed to hold anything back; they were all excellent (and frankly must have been shattered at the end!). The whole performance shone.

At the end of the gig, the audience was buzzing with excitement: the stranger sitting next to me turned to me and just said “wow!”

I bumped into one of the musicians later in the week at the SNJO’s gig (another superlative show – four of the musicians from the octet were in the SNJO that night) who said that they hoped to record the piece next year. So there’s that to look forward to!

(And kudos to Soundhouse for putting Martin and the octet on, as well as EJF for commissioning the work!)

Martin Kershaw Octet and Mark Hendry Large Ensemble: Orchestral Jazz at Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2018.

Two gigs on successive nights at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival fell firmly into the category of “orchestral jazz”.

The first featured the Martin Kershaw Octet. Well, they started as a quartet in the first half, Kershaw on saxes joined by Paul Harrison on piano, Doug Hough on drums and Calum Gourlay on bass; for the octet they added Graeme Stephen on guitar, Chris Greive on trombone, Sean Gibbs on trumpet and Adam Jackson on alto. All the music was inspired by the writer David Foster Wallace (about whom I know nothing!): the first half was older material, tunes prompted by passages and characters from Foster Wallace’s works; the second a large scale orchestrated suite, Dreaming Of Ourselves.

The suite was very impressive in its conception, scope and execution: ambitious and challenging, it demanded attention from both musicians and listeners. The arrangements brought to mind Charles Mingus’ larger scale works. At times the musicians seemed a little stiff, as if they were still settling into the piece. I came out wanting to hear it again, maybe when the musicians were slightly more familiar with the music.

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The next night was even more ambitious: two original suites orchestrated for twenty three musicians, written by bassist Mark Hendry, still a student at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, as were apparently many of the musicians in his Large Ensemble. This gig was one of my wild cards: I’d not seen Hendry before, but a friend suggested it sounded like my kind of thing. Had I known the scale of the works being premiered I might have dismissed it as hubris. But Hendry pulled off his vision superbly.

The orchestra comprised classical strings – violins, cellos and double bass – with jazz brass – trumpets, trombones and saxophones – and a rhythm section of Hendry’s bass, Fergus McCreadie on piano and Stephen Henderson on drums. (The orchestra weren’t introduced, so apart from Harry Weir on tenor, I’ve no idea who they were!) The arrangements brought to mind Gil Evans – curiously, since I can’t recall Evans using strings. There is always a danger that strings add syrup to an arrangement, making it sickly and sticky. Hendry’s use of strings avoided this completely, instead using therm to add texture and depth.

I thought the first piece, inspired by endangered species (with a section named after each of five animals) worked a bit better than the second, based around the novel 1984. But that’s quibbling: it was a highly successful evening: Hendry has accomplished something remarkable, and it speaks volumes for the quality of the young musicians coming out of the RCS and Scotland’s thriving, youthful jazz scene.

(I picked up a copy of Hendry’s recent CD Esperance. It too is excellent!)

SNJO & Laura Jurd Play Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Sister Suite. Edinburgh, April 2018.

Another gig by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Another blinder. Sometime I’ll be disappointed by an SNJO performance, but not it wasn’t this time.

The first half was a performance of Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Sister Suite. Commissioned by the SNJO early in their existence, twenty years ago, and they played it with Wheeler taking the flugelhorn part. I hadn’t discovered SNJO at that point. Which is a shame, because the music is tremendous. Eight sections but played without a break, Wheeler’s writing is full of depth and nuance – there were a lot of dynamics at play.

And the excellent music showed off musicians as well as expected. The SNJO were joined by Laura Jurd who played the flugel beautifully – every note clear and full of emotion. Jurd is familar with the SNJO – she played the trumpet part in Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain a year ago (and was similarly impressive). The vocal parts in Sweet Sister Suite, originally written for Norma Winstone, were taken by Irini Arabatzi: her vocalese (including some long, long notes) felt spontaneous and exciting, and those sections with words were witty and moving. There were moments of intense quiet and moments of loud, exuberant swing.

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Alyn Cosker couldn’t make the gig (he’s touring with his own band) so Tommy Smith called on Sebastiaan de Krom to fill the drum stool: this meant that the SNJO’s rhythm section contained all of Smith’s regular quartet (with Pete Johnstone on paino and Calum Gourlay on bass). Johnstone played some powerful solos, as did Smith.

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This was a tremendous performance: the SNJO was on excellent form. And we got to take it home, too: earlier in the year the SNJO recorded the piece with Jurd and Arabatzi (but not de Krom) for release in the near future.

The second half comprised the music of Mary Lou Williams, spanning about fifty years of composition. Using her own arrangements, this seemed more standard, swinging big band fare. Another guest (and regular collaborator) Brian Kellock took over the piano stool, and Arabatzi came back for a couple of numbers, including a very light hearted In the land of Oo-Bla-Dee (written for Dizzy Gillespie).

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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.

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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.

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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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