Tag Archives: Colin Steele

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?!)

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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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Two Gigs: Colin Steele Quintet, and “Playtime” Play Monk. Edinburgh, March 2015.

The last of the short season of Jazz Scotland gigs I went to featured Colin Steele in a quintet. I have seen Steele play a lot over the years: you could say I am a fan; so I was likely to go to this gig whatever, but particularly when I learned he would be playing new material. Much as I love listening to his older tunes (and I do) I have long felt it was time for some new ones.

Over the past couple of years, Steele has been relatively quiet, having changed his embouchure and had to practically relearn to play his trumpet. (He expressed his gratitude to his teachers and others who had supported him in this period.) His sound is as clean as ever, but there was a reticence in his playing on this occasion, possibly because it was the band’s first outing in a while, or maybe because they were debuting the new material, or perhaps the nature of the venue, the Festival Theatre Studio, which, with its theatre seating, feels a bit formal – though as a jazz venue, it has a lot going for it, not least an excellent sound and great sight lines.

The new tunes sat comfortably in Steele’s treasury of folk-infused jazz. A couple were rearrangements of charts he prepared for a big band in the Edinburgh Jazz Festival a few years ago (a gig I sadly missed), but most were brand new. His new(ish) quintet were excellent – long time band members Dave Milligan on piano and Stu Ritchie on drums, and relative newcomers Michael Buckley on saxes and the ever-impressive Calum Gourlay on bass. It was a very enjoyable evening, but it didn’t reach the heights of excitement that Steele can reach.

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Colin Steele. From a few years ago because, frankly, I have enough photos of Colin…

Steele’s website says they were due to record the new tunes after their tour, which is great news. I look forward to more regular gigs, too!

* * *

The previous evening, Stu Ritchie was in the audience at “Playtime”, where the usual “Playtime” quartet – Tom Bancroft, Graeme Stephen, Mario Caribe and Martin Kershaw – were celebrating Thelonious Monk. I find it amusing that a piano-less band focus on music by pianists, but I’m glad they do: like their recent session on Bill Evans, this was an excellent evening of music.

Monk is hugely influential, but his music can still sound jagged and edgy; notes that don’t necessarily belong together are forced into close proximity, and he makes them work.

The quartet started with one of my favorites, In Walked Bud (written to honour Bud Powell), and they ran through many of Monk’s tunes over two sets. So many of these tunes have become standards that it is a surprise they don’t sound hackneyed. Bancroft’s arrangement of Round Midnight made it fresh, by taking it towards the abstract; the tune was still there, but it was like it was haunting rather than dominating the piece.

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Martin Kershaw and Tom Bancroft at a previous “Playtime” gig. Because I have more than enough photos of them, too.

The quartet made me listen to such familiar tunes in a new way. Without a piano, the guitar took all the chords, Stephen finding interesting ways of expressing the tune.

So: another very enjoyable evening at my local jazz loft!

Tommy Smith Sextet. The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, c1986-1990.

These photographs confuse me. I have no recollection of the gig in the slightest, and I didn’t record the date. The backdrop shows the Queens Hall.

Tommy Smith said by email that he put the sextet together before recording Paris, which was released in 1992 – but that only adds to my confusion because I wasn’t living in Edinburgh at that time!

I can’t think how I could have forgotten such a good line up – Tommy, Steve Williamson and Julian Arguelles on saxes, Guy Barker on trumpet, Terje Gewelt on bass and, Tommy’s email said, Jason Rebello on piano. I think it looks like Ian Froman on drums behind Tommy in one of the pictures.

Trumpeter Colin Steele was in negatives on the same film; Tommy Smith says he’s never had Colin in his band, so I presume that Colin was providing the support.

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Leith Jazz Festival. June 2014.

The Leith Jazz Festival back in June had loads of bands hosted in pubs. So it turned into a bit of a pub crawl – one set by four groups in four pubs in one afternoon. (The festival was spread over two days, but I could only do the Saturday afternoon.) It was great fun – very busy.

I caught John Burgess’ Ugly Bug Ragtime Three – a style of music I would normally avoid, but they proved me wrong: it was very enjoyable, if unchallenging, pub-in-the-afternoon jazz – and Martin Kershaw/Ed Kelly duo – more difficult, perhaps, but rewarding.

I also saw a couple of sets by Colin Steele in different combinations, but I didn’t take any pictures of those…

The Ugly Bug Ragtime Three.

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Martin Kershaw / Ed Kelly.

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Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. September 2013.

September saw me migrating to Islay, like the geese, though I was only there for three days: the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. I give it its full name because I love this festival, and I doubt it could happen without the sponsorship of Lagavulin, one of the distilleries on the island. Also, at each gig, they hand out drama of Lagavulin, one of my favourite whiskies, so that’s even more reason to thank them! I think Lagavulin deserve a lot of praise for supporting jazz in a pretty remote part of Scotland, so in case you missed it, it’s the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. (I should point that I have no connection with Lagavulin whatsoever. But should they wish to thank me for my support, a bottle would always be welcome…)

It is a very special event. Because it is remote – a two hour ferry trip from the mainland – and the ferry port is itself three hours drive from Glasgow, you have to want to get there. There is little passing trade. The islanders welcome the festival, both for the music and for the tourism, one of the mainstays of the economy. (The other being whisky – which also brings a lot of tourists.)

The gigs are put on in small, unusual venues: distillery visitor centres, the RSPB reserve, village halls, the Gaelic centre. The audience, too, is relatively small, and one sees the same faces at different gigs – and different years. People go back year after year; I think this is the seventh time I have made the trip in twelve years.

The small venues and audience mean that each gig has an intimate feel; and the sponsorship means that one can see internationally renowned artists in circumstances that are hard to imagine anywhere else. It is a privilege to go to these gigs.

Over three days I caught five gigs by four bands, two of which were really the same. The festival kicked off with Trio Libero, an improvising band costing of Andy Sheppard on tenor and soprano sax, Michel Battina on bass and Seb Rochford on drums. I had seen Sheppard and Rochford play in a trio before; this outing was a much more rewarding experience. Sheppard’s is necessarily the main voice, but both other players are central. Indeed, Rochford’s minimalistic playing is key: at times it seemed as if he was barely playing, but he made every note, every space count. They moved from bebop tunes to free(ish) improvisation, a joy throughout.

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The artists on Islay frequently pay in a variety of ensembles, the programmers mixing them around in new settings. But this was the first time I saw something new: two different ensembles which comprised the same three people. Debuting first as the Callum Gourlay Trio and then playing the following day as the Kit Downes Trio, the tag team of Gourlay on bass, Downes on piano and James Maddren on drums were a revelation. The first gig saw them playing mostly Gourlay’s tunes with a couple of standards added in. Gourlay’s writing showed real depth and maturity, with some beautiful tunes; his playing was excellent too – he played Charlie Haden’s “Chairman Mao” as an exquisite solo.

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The mood changed a little under Downes’ leadership, in a gig that featured mostly his tunes. I have seen him play several times in different bands, but I think this was the first time I had the opportunity to see him lead a trio. It was impressive.

Bassist Mario Caribe lead a trio with trumpeter Colin Steele and guitarist Graeme Stephen. Mario is the one musician – possibly the one person – who has been to every year’s Islay jazz festival, in one guide or another. He played three trio gigs this year, and I caught the first. Featuring several of Steele’s tunes, including excerpts of his Islay suite from his Stramash recording, a bunch of Mario’s and some standards, this was a comfortable afternoon gig: it had a lovely relaxed feel about it. Stephen worked some guitar trickery with a bundle of pedals that balanced Caribe and Steele’s unamplified instruments.

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The promoters had long wanted to get the Esbjorn Svennson Trio to Islay, and had discussed it several times with the band; Svennson’s untimely death in 2007 stopped that from happening, but EST’s drummer, Magnus Ostrom made the trip this year. Headlining two nights at different venues, the Magnus Ostrom Band were perhaps a curious choice for Islay. Their large amount of electronic equipment filled the two stages they played, and at times looked dangerously overloaded. A mixture of jazz, folk and prog-rock, they have quite a dark sound. Ostrom plays drums with a powerful intensity; he uses brushes unlike any other drummer. He looks pained as he plays, as if exorcising inner demons.

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Aside from Ostrom’s insistent drumming, the major musical voice is that of guitarist Andreas Houdarkis. Bringing the main prog vibe, Houdarkis uses lots of pedals to create a rich sound, balanced by the jazz-oriented acoustic piano of Daniel Karlsson. It was a moving performance.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival. July 2013.

July’s Jazz Festival was understandably busy. Ten gigs in ten days, with a couple of extra, excellent outdoor events, too. It was a fun time.

I tried to balance newer and old music, musicians I knew (and knew I liked) with people I’d not heard before; and a range of styles and groups. I won’t cover every gig I went to, but I’d like to cover those that worked well, or didn’t.

The festival opened fire with the Brian Kellock Copenhagen Trio. Kellock is a great pianist, with a chimeric skill in mixing genres and styles whilst presenting an engaging whole. His music twists and turns as he moves from stride to Monk and references more modern, keeping the bass and drums in their toes – and there was clearly a fair bit of joshing going on between the three of them.

Kellock filled some very big shoes when, a few days later, he took the place of Stan Tracey, who had pulled out of his quartet gig with Bobby Wellins due to illness. So it became the Wellins Quartet, with Clark Tracey on drums and Andrew Cleyndert on bass. This was a fun gig, but Kellock seemed subdued – at least compared to his form earlier in the festival – and it felt a bit as if the band were going through the motions. Good, but not outstanding.

The festival was beset with illness, losing the last night headliner Pharoah Sanders as well as Tracey. This was a big disappointment, since Sanders is one of the remaining firebrands from the 1960s avant garde, and not having seen him live for many years I had been looking forward to seeing how he had settled into life as an elder statesman.

The Italian/Sardinian-Scottish connection in Stone Islands had been forged at last year’s festival, when Scots trumpet Colin Steele and pianist Dave Milligan teamed up with reedsman Enzo Favata. That was one of the surprise hits last year, and their return with an extended band this year was eagerly awaited. My expectations worked against them, since I thought they were excellent, but I was still disappointed! Tinged with a folk feel and featuring saxophonists Martin Kershaw and Konrad Wisniewzski, this ten piece had some of the anarchy of Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. They made a great sound, but didn’t quite capture the magic or excitement of last year’s debut.

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Despite the familiarity of a band I had seen four or five times in the last year, the Neil Cowley Trio put on such a high energy show that they couldn’t fail to excite. Very much a band, each member is integral to the sound, from Evan Jenkins’ powerhouse drumming, through metronomic Rex Horan’s bass playing to Cowley’s passionate piano. Their tunes move from subtle to intense to loud, and they do it all very well. This was just a superb gig, the power of a rock band with the intricacy and emotion of – well, a jazz trio.

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They were just beaten as highlight of the festival by the Festival Orchestra’s performance of Duke Ellington’s Concert of Sacred Music. I had mixed feelings ahead of this gig. It was a must-see because it was a rare opportunity to here this music played live; but I was worried it would just be played note for note. And the involvement of a classical choir meant it might not sound like jazz at all. The Ellington recordings of his sacred music can feel like a missed opportunity, a little bit too sacred. This gig was, however, a joy from beginning to end. Directed by Clark Tracey, the band and choir swung like the clappers, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus clearly enjoying the added freedom from their more usual classical constraints. Joined for several numbers by dancer Junior Laniyan, whose own percussive take added to the driving drums of Tom Gordon, the band were magnificent. The whole gig was like a hymn to Ellington and an earlier age. Absolutely wonderful.

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Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. September 2012.

In September I made my bi-annual trip to the Islay Jazz Festival. The boat across was full of jazz pilgrims, many of whom recognised each other from previous years (many of whom I seem to be on a nodding relationship), and musicians (and many of whom I seem to be on a nodding relationship, too – it is always strange to be greeted by musicians). It was a rough crossing – the first trip over I remember the boat rocking (and I’ve been to Islay five or six times). The skipper’s docking was poor – I could have parked the boat better!

The highlight – well, highlights, since there were two of them – were the sets by the Neil Cowley Trio. Cowley plays big venues, usually – I last saw the trio play at the QEH in London in March which holds 900. On Islay, they were playing to 80 or so at each venue.

First up was an hour’s set at Lagavulin (the festival’s sponsors – without whom I guess acts of the stature of Neil Cowley Trio wouldn’t get as far as the Hebrides), the opening gig of the festival. I was sitting in the front row, just a couple of feet away from Cowley’s high energy piano playing.

They crammed a lot into their hour, playing with great dynamics and covering much of their repertoire. Cowley is a very physical, percussive pianist, lifting himself off the piano stool with the force of his playing. Bassist Rex Horan and drummer Evan Jenkins are well matched to Cowley, whether they’re rocking out a groove or adding sensitive texture.

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Their second gig the following evening was different: much longer, there was less urgency but an equal intensity. It was a more relaxed, less frenetic gig. But equally enthralling. I was again in the front row – strange that there are so often spaces left in the front of gigs! Cowley was more chatty than before – very affable and entertaining – but it is the music that really speaks: powerful and compelling.

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The first Cowley gig was followed by the Fredrik Kronkvist Quartet, loud modern saxophone. It had everything I like – fast saxophones, good bass, great drums – but after the intensity of the Neil Cowley Trio, I didn’t have ears for the quartet. It wasn’t their fault – but I felt as if I had spent all my energy for the night.

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Kronkvist’s rhythm section made up a piano trio the following lunchtime. One of the things about Islay that makes it so interesting is way they make use of imaginative venues: in this case, the RSPB visitor centre. Though not a distillery, Lagavulin was handed around, making sure we were warmed up after a morning exploring the Loch Gruinard RSPB reserve.

The music was exactly what was needed for a lunchtime gig: pretty mellow, a bunch of standards and a couple of originals. And it was really fun – emphasising once more that it wasn’t the band at fault the night before.

The lunchtime gig on Sunday was lead by pianist Brian Kellock playing (mostly) tunes by Ellington and Strayhorn. The first set was a trio with Kenny Ellis on bass and the ever-excellent Stu Ritchie on drums. Kellock spanned styles with panache, playing a great set. The second set added Colin Steele on trumpet and Laura MacDonald on alto – Steele’s fiery trumpet sparking of MacDonald’s more tempered, cool sax. Another fine lunchtime gig!

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For a small island, journeys on Islay can take a while. The afternoon session was at Sanaigmore: literally the end of the road. And in keeping with the adventurous choice of venues, this was an art gallery turned jazz club for the day. This was a performance by a one-off band, a trio of Mario Caribe on bass, Michael Buckley on tenor and Snorre Kirk on drums. An interesting line-up, ostensibly lead by Caribe (who is the only musician to have played at every Islay festival), and they played some interesting tunes: “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, for instance, and “Smile”, which Buckley took pleasure in telling us had been written by Charlie Chaplin. This was a fun gig, the musicians trying things out in relaxed surroundings.

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The final gig featured Steele again – another tradition, apparently. His quintet were only excellent form, despite it being the first outing for pianist Euan Stevenson (Steele stalwart Dave Milligan had to cancel at the last moment). Steele has an affinity for Islay – he composed a suite performed there a few years ago (it appears on his album “Stramash”), some of which was played in this gig. With Buckley on sax, Ritchie on drums and bassist Calum Gourlay, Steele played a typically exuberant set to close the festival – this was barnstorming stuff, and a great way to close the festival!

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Scottish Bands. July 2012.

Colin Steele’s own quintet played a cracking gig on their own account. With Milligan on piano, Michael Buckley on tenor, Stu Ritchie on drums and Callum Gourlay on bass, Steele played his familiar, celtic post-bop with verve and panache. He is an exciting player – lots of high notes – with space for the contemplative, too. My one quibble is that the music was a bit too familiar – some new tunes would have livened up the mix even more.

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Supporting Steele was the Konrad Wiszniewski Quartet, with Euan Stevenson on piano and the powerhouse drumming of Alyn Cosker driving the quartet from behind. Wiszniewski has a full, powerful saxophone sound, with a very slight tendency towards saxophone-histrionics (as many tenor players have!). Stevenson played Tyner’s role, supporting Wiszniewski with lots of block chords and rhythmic solos. Wiszniewski played tenor and a curved soprano, the saxophone looking almost toylike in his large hands.

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Altoist Martin Kershaw opened the festival with his quartet of Paul Harrison (excellent on piano), Doug Hough on drums and Euan Burton on bass. Kershaw’s music is intelligent and thoughtful, his tunes often inspired by works of literature or art. Much of this show came from his latest album The Howness, with numbers based on his reaction to Mervyn Peake and Philip Larkin, as well as tunes from earlier projects like his reworking of Charlie Parker pieces.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: International Bands. July 2012.

The one EJF gig that didn’t work for me was the Jeremy Pelt Quintet’s headlining show. It might have been because it was in a tent and there was a lot of spillage from neighbouring gigs; or because it was a windy evening – which, coupled with the tent, caused a lot of interfering flappage; or maybe because the band were jetlagged. Whatever, it didn’t really catch. I don’t think it help that the following first chorus was a long bass solo. It just felt like the show lacked energy.

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I saw the same band the following evening – and it felt like a different band: full of energy this time, they seemed excited to be playing, and that excitement spilled over. Which just goes to show that every band can have an off-night – but that might be the one chance that punters get to see you, and that is all they can go on…

I hadn’t planned to go to the second night of Jeremy Pelt – though I’m glad I did. They were supporting the Bad Plus with Joshua Redman; I was going to see the Bad Plus the following evening and I have been disappointed by previous collaborations with the Bad Plus (their trio work makes for a very high hurdle), but since I had never seen Redman I decided to go along. This was a very good decision: this music played was the most engaging and exciting I had heard for a long time. The Bad Plus have been touring with Redman during the summer, and he fitted in seamlessly – it felt like he had been part of the group for a long time. His presence seemed didn’t inhibit the trio at all, adding more depth. As a quartet they created marvellous music, by turns powerful, moving and humorous. (This video of one number from the gig is typical of their playing.)

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After such a superlative performance, the Bad Plus as a trio the following evening could only be disappointing. Their performance was very good, but it just couldn’t match up. This was not the band’s fault: if I felt pretty drained after the superlative performance of the night before, how must they have felt? Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone to the gig; but then I’d always have felt I was missing out…

There were two gigs which mixed up Scottish and European musicians. First up was Laura MacDonald and Joakim Milder, together with Mattias Stahl on vibes. Stahl stole the show: the two saxophonists played some lovely music, but the vibraphonist stole the show. Without a pianist or drummer, much of the rhythm-duties fell on Stahl’s shoulders.

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Trumpeter Colin Steele and pianist Dave Milligan – one of Scottish jazz’s little known heros – played an all too short duet – just a couple of numbers, which left me feeling a little short changed (Steele and Milligan work very well together!). Before, that is, Enzo Favata and his trio took to the stage and opened the way for something more interesting still. With Danilo Gallo on bass and U. T. Gandhi on drums, the saxophonist lead an energetic exploration of the space between jazz and folk improvisation, with music with its roots in (he said) Sardinia and southern Italy. It got more interesting still when the trio was joined by Steele and Milligan for a full set of exciting jazz. Much of Steele’s music is tinged with folk from the celtic fringes – his big band Stramash is active at the crossroads between jazz and folk – and Milligan has played in many folk settings. Together as a quintet, playing tunes from both their repertoire, they proved music as a universal language: each brought something different, to create an evening that felt unique. Steele and Favata had a natural ease together – their styles, though different, blended superbly. This was exciting because it was unexpected.