Tag Archives: Chris Grieve

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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SNJO and Courtney Pine Play Coltrane. Edinburgh, March 2014.

There’s been a bit of a stushie after a critic criticised the Cure for playing three hour long sets. Well the SNJO and Courtney Pine would have given them a run for their money, playing for well over three hours in this tribute to John Coltrane.

There has been a bit of criticism about that too, suggesting that Pine was somewhat overindulgent. Quite possibly. But then so was Coltrane – he famously didn’t know how to stop once he got going (to which Miles Davis is supposed to have said “try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth“…)

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In the past I have sometimes tired of Pine’s pyrotechnics, but here the stream of consciousness flow of notes, together with an extreme display of circular breathing seemed fitting. Some critics described Coltrane as trying to play every note at once, which gave rise to the description of his playing as creating “sheets of sound“, and Pine did the same. His playing was fast and intense, and the audience loved it.

True, I think the audience would have loved it whatever: a combination of SNJO, who always get a good crowd at her Queen’s Hall, and Coltrane, who still seems to inspire devotion amongst his fans, nearly fifty years since his untimely death, seemed a guaranteed winner.

It was interesting to hear how such loved music translated from Coltrane’s small groups into a big band setting. Extremely well, I felt. With the band taking on much of the work done by McCoy Tyner, pianist Steve Hamilton was less to the fore and a bit lost in the mix, but Alyn Cosker more than held his own on drums in inevitable comparisons with Elvin Jones. He was in cracking form, especially when the band dropped out leaving Cosker and Pine to duet – or battle it out.

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Of the ten pieces, only one didn’t work for me, Joe Locke’s reimagining of the almost cliched ballad Naima – and even then Locke should be applauded for doing something different with his material.

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The rest of the material was faster – sometimes much faster. They started off with a ripping Impressions, with Pine blowing furiously from the start, and kept going. And going. And going! The arrangements generally stuck close to the originals, the band providing the support to allow Pine and the other soloists to blow. It was of course a night for the saxes, with Tommy Smith and Konrad Wizsniewski contributing on tenor, and Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow soloing on alto. Pine alternated between tenor and soprano. There were also a couple of trumpet solos from Tom McNiven and Lorne Cowieson, and a trombone solo by Chris Grieve. My one quibble from the evening was that with so many great soloists the band, it is a shame they got little opportunity to show their chops.

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I think my favourite piece of the night was a storming version of Afro Blue – but then it’s one of my favourite Coltrane numbers. The only piece in the evening not penned by Coltrane (though the programme didn’t credit Mongo Santamaria), hearing the full band play the central riff for several choruses was exhilarating.

They bravely honoured Acknowledgement and Resolution from A Love Supreme, music which is so loved that it is rarely tackled by other artists. Resolution was arranged by Towndrow, and also featured his alto solo; Impressions was also arranged by an SNJO member, Ryan Quigley, though he wasn’t in the band on this occasion. Tommy Smith contributed The Father, The Son And The Holy Ghost, which closed the show. It is very pleasing to see the SNJO using home grown talent as well as their roster of international arrangers.

Smith and Pine battled on the closer, sometimes with just Cosker powering along behind them. A more free piece which I didn’t know, and apparently minimal arrangement – Smith taking a break from his soloing to direct the band – this worked really well, building up to climax after climax. I think it had to be the last number: after three hours, I don’t know how they could have kept going!

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All in all, an evening of wonderful music, and it was great to hear Pine playing the music of one of his major influences so fluently. Marvellous.

Islay Jazz Festival. September 2008.

I have been to Islay three times now, each time for the jazz festival. Islay is famous for one thing really – whisky. And the combination of the island, the whisky and jazz makes for a very memorable weekend. Whisky flows: the jazz festival is sponsored by Black Bottle, and they give out (small) samples everywhere.

Islay is a small place: a population of 3,500 people spread over the island, and most of those are in Port Ellen and Bowmore. Much of the island is wild, and every time I go there, I think that I must spend more time exploring – I really must go for longer than just the jazz festival. Next year, perhaps.

The festival itself is a curious affair, because it largely consists of musicians from the central belt of Scotland who play regularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow playing to an audience which mostly consists of visitors from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Frankly, it shouldn’t work – because I can see these guys play any weekend.

But instead it is wonderful. Maybe it is the setting – many of the gigs take place in distilleries (the best being Bunnahabhain, where the concert takes place in the bottling room, surrounded by empty whisky casks and the air full of spirit); maybe it is the audience and the musicians – because you have to be really keen to make the 350 mile round trip from Edinburgh.

Either way, it is brilliant.

I went over on the lunchtime ferry, together with a whole bunch of musicians (Tommy Smith, Mario Caribe, Calum Gourlay, Colin Steele… Hell, they could have had a jam session on the boat!). The water was very calm; no porpoises that I could see, but I watch cormorants and gannets fly low over the water.

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I was staying in a B&B on the Oa, across the bay from Port Ellen. It overlooked the water and was a lovely setting. Rather than sit and take in the view, though, I dashed off for the first gig.

The one downside of the Islay jazz festival: all the venues are a long way from each other – and the only way between them is to drive. The first gig I wanted to get to was way on the west of the island, at Port Charlotte. A very pretty village.

The concert was a duet gig with Dave Milligan and Colin Steele. I have seen them both play many times before, often together, but never just the two of them. It worked really well – the setting creating a more thoughtful music than their usual quintet or bigger ensemble. It was very intimate; the backdrop behind the musicians was the view across Loch Indaal to Oa, which added to the whole. These two musicians know each so well that their playing blended wonderfully – Steele was perhaps not as fiery as he can be in a larger ensemble, but this lead to greater subtlety. (Too subtle for photographs, I’m afraid – I didn’t want to disturb people.)

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There was then a mad dash in convoy back to Bowmore, home to Bowmore malt. Bowmore is a great little town, but it somehow lacks a fish and chip shop. There is a very poor excuse for an Indian restaurant, though. Indeed, the whole of Islay lacks a chip shop; there is meant to be a chip van in Port Ellen on Friday and Saturday night, but I couldn’t find it.

The next gig was another duet: Tommy Smith and Jakob Karlzon. Although the hall was set up to preclude a sea-view for all but the front row, the musicians were lit by the setting sun. (I can’t quite get my head around the geography, though – because I would swear the sun was setting in the east!)

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I have seen Smith play in lots of duet settings recently: I can’t help wondering if he has perhaps become a bit of a control freak, preferring to reduce the risk of playing with more soloists by keeping to solo or duo gigs. Still, this was a spectacularly good gig. I hadn’t heard – or even heard of – Karlzon before I read the blurb for this gig, and he and Smith didn’t have time to rehearse – but they linked together really, really well. Smith was at his most Nordic; the tunes were slow and thoughtful, with a lot of reverb. Karlzon – who I saw play in many different combinations over the weekend – was a revelation: the perfect balance to the saxophone, and all in all it was a lovely gig.

The following day it was back to the west of the island, the village hall in Portnahaven, for a lunchtime gig by the Colin Steele Quintet. A lot of people had been partying late into the night, including the band (me, I don’t have the energy for that: the idea of going to a gig starting at 10.30pm, especially when I’d be driving and thus not drinking – oh no), and there were lots of hangovers, including on the stage; but it didn’t seem to get in the way of some energetic playing. The more I see Stu Ritchie, the quintet’s drummer, play, the more impressed I am (although I am not so keen on his choice of headwear – he wore a hat at every gig he played). Steele was excellent, too, and Phil Bancroft played with an angry passion; maybe he was just trying to blow away his hangover. Milligan was a bit too low in the mix, and Calum Gourlay on bass – playing his first gig with the band – seemed low-key but good. (Still, I missed Aidan O’Donnell, who decided not to leave his new New York home for the festival – apparently he received a better offer!)

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Off to Bunnahabhan; this gig – in the whisky-flavoured bottling room – is usually the big concert for the weekend; this time around, it was set up as the tenth anniversary concert, headed up by Mario Caribe, one of the few musicians who has been to all ten festivals – he says it is so his family can get a holiday each year (and this year, he had one of his sons with him). This concert was great fun, featuring Caribe in different settings – duet with a percussionist, then a piano trio with Paul Harrison, a quintet with Phil Bancroft and Ryan Quigley, building up by adding more musicians – Steele on trumpet, the visiting Jimmy Greene on tenor, Chris Grieve on trombone, until there were ten people on stage. The finale was a short suite Caribe had written specially for the ten piece, and it worked relly well; unfortunately, a lack of funding had stopped him extending the piece further (thank you, Scottish Arts Council!); but he’s writing a large suite for the SNJO, who will be touring it in the late autumn.

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I rushed from the bottling room to make the journey back to Bowmore for the next gig: Karlzon-Greene-Quigley quintet. Karlzon had been at the Bunnahabhain gig, too, watching from the side. So with nearly all the musicians having to make the same trip, I kind of knew I wouldn’t miss it; indeed, the minibus ferrying them back to Bowmore was two cars in front of me.

God, Ryan Quigley can play loud. I was sitting near the front, and I was worried I would have to move – worried because it was packed out. Again, I was seated so I couldn’t watch the sunset, which was even more spectacular. The music was great – energetic post-bop – and Karlzon was equally at home in this setting – he’s a good pianist. He wrote all the tunes – it was very much his gig. Gourlay was on bass – he seemed to open up as the weekend went on: he worked really well in this quintet – perhaps it was just because the lunchtime gig had been his first time with Colin Steele that he had seemed a little reticent.

I liked Jimmy Greene, as well. Based in New York, he plays the role of long tall tenor perfectly: he worked in lots of different formats.

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The first gig of Sunday was at Ardbeg: essentially a jam session featuring a front line of Greene, Quigley and Grieve, with Gourlay on bass, Milligan on piano and a drummer who I didn’t know and whose name I can’t remember… The drummer had been rather nondescript at the Mario Caribe Bunnahabhain gig, but he played much better this time around. I could have done with a bit more of Dave Milligan, but then I do really rate him as a pianist. This time around, I was right at the front, so I guess I hadn’t learned how not to damage my hearing with Quigley’s high notes. He was loud, too, but softened a bit after the first number – he came out all guns blazing, and maybe his hangover kicked in after that! This was a fun gig, but nothing to special – very much a jam session. Still, Quigley demonstrated a rather neat capacity for naming tunes – a number called “Duck Egg Blue” was based on several tunes from Kind of Blue… (Geddit?!)

At Ardbeg we were treated to some of the malt rather than Black Bottle – which made for a very nice dram with lunch!

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Another madcap dash from Port Ellen back to Bowmore for the last of Jakob Karlzon’s gigs, a trio with Gourlay and Ritchie. Stu Ritchie was on fine form, doing his fast-energetic-gentle thing, and sounding a lot like Elvin Jones (and if you’re going to sound like someone, Jones is definitely the drummer to sound like!). This setting really let Karlzon lay it down: again, it comprised of only his tunes, this time much more in the Jarrett/Evans/Svennson mould; and like Jarrett, he was signing tunelessly along at some points – very distracting! He dedicated one number to Esbjorn Svennson, a fellow Swede, explaining how shocked he still was. Now that Assembly Direct have discovered Karlzon, I expect he’ll find his way back to Scotland quite often.

Back to Laphroig for my final gig. I was hurrying because there was only 30 minutes between gigs, but not as fast as an old Peugeot that passed me (I had had to slow down when the car in front of me turned right into the airport). When I got to Laphroig, Stu Ritchie was setting up his drumkit – so it was he who sped past.

This gig was the Kevin McKenzie Quartet – and they were blistering. This was a really special concert. Bancroft was on tenor – looking ill but playing exceptionally (he is a very good saxophonist); I was glad to see him there as I had decided to go to the Ardbeg jam session instead of Bancroft’s own quartet, since I had seen them during the Edinburgh jazz festival a few weeks before. Caribe was on bass, really solid – he’s a very good player. Ritchie was also excellent – he must have been knackered – and succeeded in fitting into a completely different style of music. I really like Kevin McKenzie’s guitar playing – and his writing: this was great music. I am most familiar with his playing through Trio AAB, with Phil Bancroft on tenor and (twin?) brother Tom on drums – they play music that verges from the folky to the very wacky. This was a bit more down to earth, but still great music. It is coming out on CD soon – definitely one to get.

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I caught the ferry back to Kintyre the next day. It rained non-stop, and kept it up for thirty six hours. I ate lunch of fresh oysters – straight from the sea – and langoustine from the seafood cabin, warm in front of a log fire. Magic.

Chris Grieve’s “Islay Quartet”. Edinburgh, January 2008.

Last month, I went to see the Chris Grieve Islay Quartet at the Lot in Edinburgh. According to my sources, they played a storming gig at the Islay Jazz Festival last year (hence their name…). It was a while since I had been to a jazz gig – this was the first of the year; and I took my camera with me.

Here are some of the pictures I took – there are a lot more on flickr…. Mostly they are of Chris Grieve (trombone), Ryna Quigley (trumpet) and Phil bancroft (tenor and alto sax).

It was a great gig – Quigley and Bancroft were particularly storming.

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