Tag Archives: EJF

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!)

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Graham Costello’s STRATA. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2018.

I had no expectations of this gig, other than I’d seen two of the musicians several times before and wanted to see what else they were up to. And so it was that I heard some of the most exciting new music for a long time.

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Those two musicians were guitarist Joe Williamson and pianist Fergus McCreadie. Indeed, McCreadie must have thought I was stalking him – I saw him play three or four shows in the jazz festival, including his own trio gig. But the other three that make up the band were superlative too. Angus Tikka played excellent, sometimes funky electric bass (and I had been close to giving up on electric basses in a jazz setting!). Harry Weir played some blistering, intense tenor. And Graham Costello himself was superb on drums – energetic, powerful, exciting.

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They had me hooked on the first number (none of the tunes were introduced, and they played through, from one tune to the next, so I have no idea what any of them were called). Building slowly, McCreadie seemingly playing a single chord, Williamson stoked the tension. And they kept it going through two sets of high energy jazz rock. Not a retread of electric Miles or seventies fusion – this seemed very much of its time.

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I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm, either: chatting at other shows, people I didn’t know were telling me how good it was!

(They’ve just released a a video of a recent performance on Radio Scotland.)

Kurt Elling. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2018.

I don’t normally seek out vocalists, but having seen Kurt Elling a couple times with the SNJO, I wanted to see what he was like with his own band. And it was very good indeed. He has a deep, rich voice which he uses as an instrument, improvising scat and vocalese as much as singing lyrics. He started with Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain, taken slowly and acapella – with moments he had the Assembly Hall spellbound. A marvellous evening.

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Keyon Harrold. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2018.

I hadn’t heard Keyon Harrold’s music before this show. It had a quite a dark feel to it – the opening number was long and brooding. There was an undoubted – and understandable – political edge: Harrold is from Ferguson, Missouri, and one number, Lament for MB, was dedicated to Mike Brown, the young black man whose killing by police lead to riots a few years ago. He also expressed his thanks to the people of Edinburgh who had been marching against the US president’s visit to Scotland. The music had a distinct, infectious groove, a hint of hiphop beats and rock rhythms, as well as vocal samples operated by the drummer, Charlie Haynes.

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The Bad Plus. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

The last gig of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival for me; and also the last opportunity to see the Bad Plus in their current incarnation. They’re a band I have seen many times: I first saw Ethan Iverson play in 2002, I think, in a small cellar-bar in Edinburgh; I went at the insistence of the promoter, and picked up a copy of the Bad Plus’ “Authorised Bootleg”. Their gig with Joshua Redman five years ago remains one of the most memorable gigs I’ve been to. But with such high expectations, they also have the capacity to diappoint, too.

So this gig held mixed feelings for me. And to start with I wasn’t in the mood: their natural quirkiness seem forced. Maybe an afternoon of high-powered bebop and the excitement of Binker & Moses the night before (not to mention several pints consumed after that gig…) had left me feeling a bit jaded. I took several numbers for me to warm to the Bad Plus.

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But warm I did. Something kicked in half way through and grabbed me. Maybe they started playing more familiar tunes (for me they are much more of a live band, and I haven’t heard their most recent recordings). Reid Anderson’s bass playing I think is superb. (A large part of me hopes that he does more solo work – his album “The Vastness of Space” is one of my favourites.) And Dave King’s drumming took me along for the ride. I ended up really enjoying it.

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Ethan Iverson has announced he’s leaving the band, and I will miss his presence. I can’t help wondering what they’ll become without him, and where it will take him, too.

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Binker & Moses. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

Aside from one number on Jools’ Later, I hadn’t heard Binker & Moses, but I seemed to have heard a lot about them. Normally I avoid bands that seem to be hyped, having gone through several “jazz revivals” (and many jazz saviours!) since I started listen to the music. But I thought maybe I ought to see what the fuss is about, since they were playing in my home town.

Much to my surprise, the hype was right. Maybe even understated. Binker & Moses were superlative: powerful, exciting, gripping music. That only two guys could make all that sound was astonishing.

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Binker Golding plays tenor – and he plays it very well, muscular in a Coltrane vein, cascades of tumbling notes. But where Binker is exceptional, Moses Boyd is amazing. Playing a small drum kit, he was superlative when laying it out loud in full-on, polyrhythmic Elvin-mode, but his power really showed when he played quietly. He played so many notes, and then somehow seemed to fit a whole load more in between them, and then some more for good measure.

Watching them, I had two recurring thoughts: how come I had never seen these guys before? (It turns out I had – at least, I saw Binker play with the Nu Civilisation Orchestra five years ago.) And, of Moses, how is he doing that?! Together, they were breathtaking.

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With just two musicians playing such high octane music, it might have been easy for one to overwhelm the sound, but they seemed supremely balanced. Moses let on that he was jetlagged, though one wouldn’t have known: I can’t imagine them playing with more passion and energy.

This, I think, was my gig of the festival (of the twelve shows I saw), because it was unexpected, a salve to my jaded assumptions. I expected hype, and heard instead creativity, imagination and fervour.

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John Rae Sextet: “Ah Um”. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

It wasn’t planned, but several of the gigs I went to in this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival celebrated musicians or their records: The Birth of the Cool; Thelonious; Coltrane; Dizzy and Bird; and this gig, in which John Rae lead a band paying homage to Mingus and specifically his 1959 record, Mingus Ah Um.

Mingus Ah Um has long been one of my favourite records: it was the first jazz LP I had, a gift from my father one Christmas (I’d asked for some jazz, not knowing what records specifically to request; as well as Mingus, he gave me a Miles Davis Quintet double, Relaxin’ / Workin’, a live Ellington record, and Benny Goodman Live At Carnegie Hall. I didn’t like the latter, and still don’t, but loved the rest).

So of course I had to see Rae, back in Scotland for some gigs, and a pick up band play Mingus. Rae was joined by the very excellent Phil Bancroft on tenor, who brought his own anarchic energy to the gig, a necessary ingredient to Mingus’ music; a couple of bassists to ensure sufficient Mingusicity, Patrick Bleakley and an American player whose name I didn’t get (many apologies if that was you!); and two more guests from the States, Shea Pierre on piano and a trombonist who I think was named David Hawkins (but I can’t verify that, so I might have got it wrong).

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They played a few tunes from Ah Um, starting off with a superb Better Get Hit In Your Soul, and later Pussy Cat Dues, but they played a variety of Mingus numbers, mostly well known – Tonight At Noon, Peggy’s Blue Skylight, Remember Rockefeller At Attica – and a couple of less well known pieces – Opus 3 and Canon.

Canon was a slow, bluesy melancholic number – and a canon, the instruments seeming to chase each other along extended lines. The band managed to achieve that Mingus sound, making a small band feel a lot bigger than it actually was. Hanging two bassists helped, with one keeping the band swinging whilst the other added little touches and emphasis, or a solo.

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They closed with an energetic Boogie Stop Shuffle, from Ah Um: a great way to finish a tribute to a wonderful album and a truly great musician.

Ryan Quigley Quartet and Quintet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

I saw Ryan Quigley play two gigs during the Edinburgh Jazz Festival: the first a quartet, the second a quintet. The quartet gig was with Brian Kellock (one of many unsung local heroes) on piano, Kenny Ellis on bass and John Rae in drums. I had thought it was just going to be Quigley and Kellock playing duets – and they started the second set with a few exquisite pieces, just the two of them – but the quartet was great, too: a very enjoyable evening of standards. It was a real pleasure to hear them play familiar tunes – Softly As A Morning Sunrise, Caravan, Moanin’ (the Benny Golson / Jazz Messengers’ tune, not the Mingus one), Cherokee – spot on swinging bebop. The Quigley-Kellock duo played a mesmerising and rather apt Cheek to Cheek, Quigley standing beside the piano and blowing without amplification.

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The quintet gig was more bebop: dedicated to the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. With Quigley amply qualified to take the trumpet parts, the real joy was his guest standing in for Bird: Soweto Kinch. I’ve seen him play his own music a few times, but never tackling hardcore bebop tunes like these. I knew he could play, but he owned these tunes: he took to these numbers like a Bird to water.

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This music, though decades old, still has the ability to excite. They tore through tunes such as Hot House and A Night In Tunisia at great speed, Kinch showing how dexterous he is. The rhythm section – Mario Caribe on bass, Alyn Cosker on drums and Alan Benzie on piano – were equally at home with this material. Another hugely enjoyable gig. Boptastic!

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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?!)