Tag Archives: EJF

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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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.

Christian Scott Sextet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2014.

Some things annoy me. One thing that is pretty much guaranteed to annoy me is being told to enjoy myself. I’ll do what I want, thanks, and if you’re an entertainer and you feel the need to tell me that I should be enjoying myself – well, that makes me think that maybe you’re not doing you’re job. (This goes for promoters, too. Indeed, anyone standing on a stage trying to get an audience to react by bellowing “ARE YOU HAVING A GOOD TIME?” really should get another job. Because if you have to ask, the answer’s probably “NO!”)

And when you then tell the audience to lighten up and not look so serious, as Christian Scott did, well, I’m going to look like I look. And wonder if maybe I’m looking like that because you’re not entertaining me. And I really wouldn’t compound it by pointing at people in the front row of your concert.

If Mr Scott hadn’t spoken, it might have been fine. Not a great gig, but fun. But unfortunately he kept speaking. He instructed us to enjoy ourselves. He told us not to look serious. (That worked. Immediately: I changed the way I looked.)

And he spent maybe twenty minutes introducing the band. And the hilarious stories of how he met the band. And the pranks they played. And why he thought they were so great. Personally I’d have preferred hearing them play so I could make my own mind up, ta.

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He also told us how he liked to mix styles. “I call it Fusion 2.0”, he said. Unfortunately, jazz has moved on to v5.7.3, and nothing Scott played sounded new, energetic or experimental. Most sessions on JazzOn3 are more challenging and exciting. It sounded like jazz-soul-funk from the 1980s – which is fine, but not what he promised. He has a lot of catching up to do.

The more straight ahead jazz numbers sounded fresher and more interesting, the band allowed the stretch out and flex their muscles. Even Elena Pinderhughes’ flute – a much maligned instrument in jazz – sounded good.

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Scott’s trumpet playing was exciting, with lots of high notes pouring from his Dizzy-ing “bent” horn.

But the choice of numbers was stilted. With further audience participation, he asked what we’d like to hear for the last number, and someone shouted out “the blues!” So the band played a dragging, turgid version of “Blue Monk”. Sometimes it’s good not to give the punters what they want. It would have been sad to end the festival on that, and they pulled back with a rousing encore which barely featured Scott until his final, fiery solo.

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The Bad Plus. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2014.

This was the Edinburgh Jazz Festival gig I was most looking forward to, and simultaneously the one I was least looking forward to. That’s because it was the one that had the potential to disappoint me most, because my expectations were so high. Last tune I saw the Bad Plus play, I was disappointed, because the previous occasion – which happened to be the night before – they played, together with Joshua Redman, one of the most powerful, moving gigs I’ve ever been to. The following night, without Redman, could only have been disappointing.

What would happen this time?

Well, it wasn’t quite as good as that gig with Redman; but it was pretty close.

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Spread over two long sets, they played some beautiful music. Playing music written by each of them but keeping to a band-style, the trio seems intricately balanced: Ethan Iverson seems serious on piano, Dave King brings irreverent humour on percussion (with a bag full of gadgets and a wry smile on his face – he always looks like he’s enjoyinging himself), and between the two of them is Reid Anderson on bass, propelling them along.

Anderson also writes the tunes which most resonate with me – his “Prehensile Dream” was a high point of the gig, brooding beauty building and building to its climax. For three people, they have a big sound. There is a lot going on without it being too busy or full.

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So. This was the best of the several EJF gigs I went to this year, and I felt grateful and privileged to be there. Still, I can’t help but imagine what they’d have been like if they had surpassed their show with Redman…

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Leah Gough-Cooper / Hanna Paulsberg Quartet and Julian Arguelles Quartet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2014.

I hadn’t seen Julian Arguelles play for several years, and then I get to see him twice in a week…

First up though was Leah Gough-Cooper and Hanna Paulsberg Quartet. I saw Gough-Cooper play in last year’s festival with a sextet, and whilst I thought the playing was excellent, the compositions didn’t work for me – they seemed took busy, as if trying to fit in everything she could do.

The tunes she and Paulsberg brought to the party this year were of a different order – simpler, but with more depth; essentially more mature. With Gough-Cooper on alto and Paulsberg on tenor, they had gutsy voices, ably helped by Calum Gourlay on bass. They played a really enjoyable set.

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Arguelles set which followed was something else, though. A different league. Confident and assured, subtle and unshowy, the music was engrossing. They started off with several pieces from a suite and finished with a piece called “Iron Pyrites” apparently abstracted from a Stone Roses’ tune (with any of the Roses elements well and truly disposed of), and in between played a wealth of exciting music.

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Arguelles was helped by his band – Kit Downes on piano, Sam Lasserson on bass and James Maddren on drums. Downes is always a pleasure and Maddren, who regularly plays in Downes’ trio, was a revelation – he could let rip in the less intimate, amplified setting. Together, the quartet were an excellent unit.

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This was a wonderful gig, one of my favourites of the Festival, and I’m looking forward to seeing Arguelles again in Playtime’s Fringe programme on August 20!

Mike Stern / Bill Evans Band. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2014.

My main reason for coming to this gig was to see drummer Dennis Chambers, so I was a little miffed when it was announced that he had been taken ill, and Derico Watson (of whom I’d not heard) would be taking his place. More fool me.

Watson was phenomenal, and one would never guess he’d had so little preparation. The rest of the band were pretty good, too, producing enjoyable music (some might say fusion with Stern’s electric guitar and Tom Kennedy’s electric bass – but the jazz chops were evident throughout, and there was some mighty swinging drumming from Watson) across two long sets.

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Evans playing was excellent, and both he and Stern looked like they were having a ball. Compatriots from Miles Davis’ band of the early eighties (perhaps not Miles’ finest period), they played a blend of each other’s tunes, Evans’ perhaps more solid jazz and Stern’s a bit rockier.

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Evans spoke warmly and at length of his previous experiences in Edinburgh, particularly with SNJO (he appears on their latest CD). The crowd, in turn, loved this band, giving them a standing ovation.

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Celebrating Lennie Tristano at Edinburgh Jazz Festival. July 2014.

I’m not sure why Edinburgh Jazz Festival programmed a series of gigs around the influential pianist Lennie Tristano, but it was an interesting collection of performances over two gigs (with an extra bonus later week).

The support act on both gigs were the Roby Glod Trio. Taking Tristano’s tunes (and those of his acolytes, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh) as a starting point, saxophonist Glod lay down dense, fast sheets of notes. Tristano was one of the instigators of “cool jazz”; I found Glod’s two sets distinctly cold: interesting to observe, not part of it at all.

The opposite was true of the Kenny Ellis Trio’s set. With a chameleon-like Brian Kellock on piano and an alto player (whose name I missed…), bassist Ellis brought some warmth back to the proceedings. Both Kellock and the alto player took to their roles, the saxophonist sounding uncannily like Konitz.

Kellock has a remarkable ability to adopt others’ styles whilst sounding completely himself. He brought that skill back to the evening session when he occupied the piano stool for the Martin Kershaw Quintet. They played a wonderful set.

Kershaw on alto was joined by Julian Arguelles on tenor, with Ed Kelly on bass and the ever-excellent Alyn Cosker on drums. The contrast with Glod’s opening set was even more striking, with Kershaw and Arguelles proving Louis Armstrong’s saying that “…Hot can be cool, and cool can be hot…” In the place of Glod’s onslaught, the saxophonists brought a thoughtfulness to play, and produced some lovely music. Where other musicians might produce a torrent of notes, whilst backing a solo by Kershaw, Arguelles played just one over several choruses – a wonderful example of restraint (and circular breathing).

Their subjects – Tristano, Konitz and Marsh – informed their playing but didn’t dominate. They adopted the dynamics of those relationships without inhibiting their own creativity.

This was a lovely gig, with some wonderful music.

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Later in the festival, I caught another gig that by design it accident echoed Kershaw’s quintet. The Pal Nyberg Quartet played two sets featuring Nyberg’s originals – and a host of numbers by Tristano, Konitz and Marsh, all of which had been featured by Kershaw. It has a very different feel, not least because of the instrumentation – guitar, tenor, bass and drums. This made it feel a bit fussy to my ears – enjoyable enough, but string in comparison to Kershaw’s outing.

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Abdullah Ibrahim, Freshlyground and the Mahotella Queens. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2014.

The opening night of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival fell on Mandela Day – celebrated on the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth – and EJF joined in by lining up three South African act.

The evening opened with, for me, the main draw: legendary pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. I have seen Ibrahim many times over the years in many different settings (he will be playing with his small group, Ekaya, in London Jazz Festival in November); this was Ibrahim in solo, meditative mood. He played snippets of his many compositions straight through, with no gap between tunes and no space for applause. But he didn’t give himself scope to develop the themes, either – the moment he settled into one familiar tune, he moved on to the next. The audience was continually playing catch up.

The music was lovely, but Ibrahim didn’t bring anything new to the keyboard. His set felt like a greatest hits compilation – good to hear, but ultimately unsatisfying. I would have loved to hear him explore his back catalogue in more depth, getting lost in the tunes. And at little more than thirty minutes, this festival opener left me disappointed and feeling a bit short changed.

My mood wasn’t lifted by the next act, either. Freshlyground’s up tempo South African fusion should have moved me – it had all right ingredients – but their exuberance felt forced in the large hall of the Festival Theatre.

So I probably shouldn’t have been in the mood for the Mahotella Queens. Maybe Freshlyground had warmed me up more than I realised; maybe the Queens’ authenticity won me over. Whatever it was, they plucked the right strings and even got me moving in my seat. Many people went further – there was dancing in the aisles (including Freshlyground’s singer, Zolani Mahola, who joined the audience out front).

Dating back fifty years and with two of the original members – the third couldn’t travel on health grounds, her vocal and dancing duties being taking by a youngster – the Mahotella Queens’ blend of township music and dancing was infectious.

Jazz on a Couple of Summer’s Days… Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2013.

The first weekend of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, back in July, featured two outdoor events. First was the Mardi Gras, in the Grassmarket, followed the next day by the Carnival in Princes Street. These were both unexpected fun – unexpected because they didn’t really feature my kind of music. But fun they were, helped by exceptionally good weather.

The Mardi Gras had another advantage – beer, the pubs and restaurants that crowd along the Grassmarket doing great business. It was a lovely afternoon, wandering around in the crowd – the atmosphere was great.

There were a mixture of bands spread across four stages: blues musicians, New Orleans marching brass bands, tags bands – and (I think) a Taiwanese jazz band, played on traditional instruments – worth it just to hear the sound produced!

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The Carnival the next day was on a different scale: along the length of Princess Street, and throughout Princes St Gardens as well, a wealth of marching bands, street dancers and performers from all sorts of styles and traditions gathered and performed. The choice was startling – so much to see! And everyone looked like they were having the time of their lives.

In part this was only possible because Princes St was closed down because of the on-going tram works. There is something joyous about being able to walk unmolested through streets that are otherwise busy: a feeling of reclaiming the street from the traffic. I doubt this will be possible next year – the work is complete, and I can’t imagine the council being willing to close the street down to enable it.

Which would be a real shame! Everyone seemed to have a great time. The mood was excellent, the dancers impressive, and the best infectious – and this is music I didn’t expect to enjoy!

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