February and March have been quite busy for music. As well as the usual gigs around Edinburgh, Jazz Scotland have been running a series of tours, which continues this week.
The two Jazz Scotland gigs I enjoyed a lot; the two others less so. I don’t expect to enjoy everything, and I think it is healthy to test new ground, going to hear new bands. Sometimes this pays dividends; sometimes it leads to disappointment.
The first jazz gig I went in February was one of the latter. I have seen Kit Downes many times, mostly playing in an acoustic setting, but a couple of times playing organ in the Golden Age of Steam. So I was looking forward to seeing Troyka, in which he plays electric keyboards, with Joshua Blackmore on drums and Chris Montague on guitar.
I’m afraid I hated it. The music did nothing for me at all: I found it soulless and mechanical, a world away from Downes acoustic piano playing. I left early, having given it a fair go. I must say I was definitely in the minority: everyone else in the packed out gig at the Voodoo Rooms seemed to love it. I was clearly missing something, but I wasn’t going to hand around to find out what it was.
The first gig I went to of the Jazz Scotland season featured Ravi Coltrane, with Konrad Wiszniewski/Euan Stevenson Quartet in support, in the somewhat plush and sold out setting of the Royal Lyceum Theatre. The Wiszniewski/Stevenson Quartet were great, playing some things from their New Focus album of a couple of years back plus some other pieces. They had Mike Janisch on bass, who was on Wiszniewski’s last album, and Alyn Cosker on drums. There was a gentle subtlety to the music. Stevenson is an impressive pianist. The whole thing just worked for me, albeit that we had to make do with a short support set.
I wasn’t familiar with Coltrane’s music, perhaps having been negatively influenced by his family connections – and coming on after Wiszniewski-Stevenson meant Ravi Coltrane’s quartet had their work cut out: I didn’t initially warm to it. But about half way through their set, something clicked. They were excellent. Coltrane evoked comparisons with Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis rather than his father John, though both Shorter and Marsalis came out of John Coltrane’s influence. Rather than Coltrane senior’s stream of consciousness saxophone playing, Ravi seemed to employ a more impressionistic, almost abstract approach. Pianist David Virelles was suitably intense, and Jonathon Blake – who is a large man – played with remarkable grace and subtlety, and impressive speed. This was a reminder that there is always great music out there to be discovered, and I’m annoyed at myself for not giving Coltrane the attention I should previously.
The following week, Edinburgh was graced by a near-local boy done good when Fife expat reedsman Joe Temperley paid a brief visit. He was accompanied by the ever impressive Brian Kellock on piano. This was just sublime. Playing mainly baritone and (I think) bass clarinet, Temperley was masterful, and Kellock – a national treasure, frankly, was great too. It was pretty mainstream repertoire – a lot of Ellington, including a heartbreaking version of Single Petal of a Rose (one of my favorite Ellington tunes), as well as a couple of Thelonious Monk numbers, Tal Farlow’s Good Bait and some other standards. It felt like a very intimate gig – just the two of them, and a load of us. It was magical.
The next night I went to see GoGo Penguin. I normally try to avoid going to gigs on consecutive nights, preferring to spread them out, but I had heard good things of this trio and didn’t want to miss them. There were playing in a night club – what used to be called a disco – and it was absolutely packed, an hour before the show. The audience was very different from a typical Edinburgh jazz crowd – perhaps due to their presence on the Mercury short list, perhaps because they’ve got a good publicist (I saw very little publicity for the gig – but I’m not sure I’m the target audience), perhaps because there is something about their music which had grabbed their audience’s attention – whatever, they have crossed over in a significant way.
For the first three numbers, the sound was truly awful. There was bass feedback which masked the music, the bass drum was so loud that it vibrated my internal organs and I couldn’t hear the piano. The effect made me nauseous. As I moved to leave, I walked past the sound desk; I considered throwing up over it – it couldn’t have made the sound worse. But by the time I got to the back of the club, either sound had been tweaked or the mass of people between me and the band were providing an adequate baffle. It was still loud, but bearable, and not nauseating. I could hear the piano and the rest of the drums.
Overall, I felt it was impressive but unengaging. I certainly wasn’t grabbed by the music. (Again, I am happy to admit I was clearly in the minority. Everyone else seemed ecstatic.) Revolving around repeated piano lines with throbbing acoustic bass and double-speed drumming, it felt a bit like Neil Cowley Trio on steroids without the emotional heft and with added drum-and-bass. I felt like I ought to love it – there was a lot there which I might have expected to – but just couldn’t.
(I picked up a copy of their album as I left the gig, because I really did want to give them a chance. The band seemed a little nonplussed that I didn’t want them to sign it. I have played it a few times, but I remain ungrabbed by it. It seems too intellectual, cold and unemotional to me. I may cube back to it and see I’ve been wrong, but I’m not sure about that.)
To start with, this was a really enjoyable gig in an intimate venue where, for once, the band weren’t drowned out by chattering drinkers. Perhaps all the students had exams the next day.
Playing music from his new CD – though only a download was available at the gig! – Wiszniewski (or “Konrad… Konrad” as Courtney Pine called him at a recent SNJO gig) lead this new band through some muscular playing as if they’d been playing together for ages. Apparently the opposite was true – I was told drummer Alyn Cosker saw the music for the first time only hours before the gig.
Whilst it was clearly Wiszniewski’s band, it was the contributions by Cosker and Wiszniewski’s regular pianist Euan Stevenson that really stood out. The two of them seemed to know exactly how to support each other, and Wiszniewski. This isn’t to diminish the input of bassist Mario Caribe, whom I’ve seen regularly recently in the “Playtime“sessions – this quartet felt very well balanced, Caribe bringing a deft, light touch and wonderful dose of swing.
Together, they blew up a storm. Technically adept, Wiszniewski didn’t use technique for technique’s sake: he could match any saxophonist for speed, but never seemed to play notes just to fill the space. Playing more soprano than I’d expected, his tunes and solos on both tenor and soprano were lyrical and entertaining.
In the intimate, and unusually quiet, surroundings of the JazzBar, this was an evening of exciting, recuperating music. The quartet seemed completely settled despite being new to the music, and I hope Wiszniewski can keep them together as a regular outfit – I’d love to see them play again!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!