Tag Archives: Graeme Stephen

Three Recent Scottish Jazz CDs (And One From Last Year, Too).

There have been several excellent CDs by Scottish bands recently. And they’re up for the Scottish Jazz Awards. So I thought I’d try to gather my thoughts about three of them.

Starting with the most familiar first…

Graham Costello’s Strata – Obelisk.

It’s less than a year since I first heard Strata, almost by mistake; they blew me away with their passion and intensity, as well as their tremendous musicianship. I have seen them several times since.

Obelisk came out in February, and I picked up a copy as soon asI could, keen to see how it matched up to their live shows. It feels less intense, which is probably a good thing – there’s only so much intensity one can take at home. The same mixture of (to my ears) jazz, prog rock, Reichian minimalism and touches of folk music are all there, of course, and some passionate solos from Liam Shorthall, Harry Weir, Joe Williamson and Fergus McCreadie. (It was a curiosity about what Fergus McCreadie was up to outside his trio that lead me to Strata in the first place.)

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I’m still rather awestruck by how talented these young musicians are. They all play in a plethora of bands, part of Scotland’s flourishing is scene. Graham Costello wrote all the music on Obelisk, which would be an achievement in itself. That he is a pretty phenomenal drummer just adds another dimension.

But it is also very much a group: they all contribute something as the music twists one way and another. They seem at ease hopping from one genre-sound to another, and the whole seems pretty complete.

(Graham Costello’s Strata regularly play in Glasgow, and they have a couple of gigs coming up in the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in July – their show with a string quartet sounds particularly interesting.)

Tom Bancroft’s In Common – Love & Stillness.

I only got this a couple of weeks ago, and I have listened to it many times since then. Tom seems to specialise in putting together slightly wacky, unusual line ups: this one features some of his regular collaborators tohether with musicians from India. He was recently bemused by some reviewers’ take on what bands had influenced the record, so I’ll have to choose my words carefully.

What I hear are jazz and Indian music, with a large helping of Celtic folk influences. This band played at Celtic Connections (I missed the gig), and whilst I’m somewhat surprised at what gets badged “celtic”, here it is entirely warranted. The three elements are combined, and something energetic and new results.

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The Celtic side comes from Tom himself – he plays bodhran on several tracks – from the three singers’ intonation, and from some of Graeme Stephen’s guitar playing. Graeme wrote some of the pieces, too. The use of loops and effects creates some magical moments. The title track is pretty fab, all the elements coming together – the three singers (Gina Rae, Sophie Bancroft and Inge Thomson – I’ll admit I’m not sure who’s singing which line) bring Celtic passion, Bancroft and Stephen rumbling jazz improvisation, and the Indian musicians top it off. Written down, it sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it really does.

The two Indian musicians – playing percussion and violin – are as at home in the western styles as their own. Sharat Chandra Srivastava’s violin works really well; Gyan Singh’s tabla bring another dimension to Bancroft’s already eclectic percussion. The aptly named “Bodhran and Tabla” features the two with drone, exchanging phrases till it is hard to tell which is which; “Drums and Tabla” (guess the instruments featured on that?!) has Bancroft laying down some rockish rhythms together with the tabla (or perhaps it’s the other way around!).

Something else about this record is what it says about Scotland. Rooted in a variety of cultures, exploring others and creating something new. It says so much.

(Tom Bancroft is bringing his new new project, Africa Groove Machine to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, too! It features some great musicians, including Claude Deppa, who I haven’t seen play in an age.)

Kevin MacKenzie – The Ballad of Future Joe.

This trio record seems so simple in comparison to In Common and Strata: but no less effective. Together with Mario Caribe and Alyn Cosker, Kevin Mackenzie has made an optimistic, cheerful record. It has the same feeling as Marc Johnson’s “The Sound of Summer Running”. There are times when Mackenzie is reminiscent of both Bill Frisell and John Scofield in their quieter moments.

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Caribe and Cosker are excellent, though that’s not news. There’s a real warmth to Mario’s bass playing – he has some lovely solos. Cosker is probably at his best in a small, acoustic group like this; there’s a swinging clarity to good playing. (And top marks to the engineer – all the instruments sound great, but Cosker’s drum sound is superlative.)

It is hard to know what more to say, other than that this is a really lovely record!

(Suffice to say, the Kevin Mackenzie Trio – with Alyn Cosker and Mario Caribe – are also playing at the the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. Which is just as well, because, listening to this record again, I was thinking how much I’d like to see them play live.)

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I was going to limit my thoughts to the three records but one of my favourite records from last year is also in the running for the award, and it seems remiss to miss it off…

Fergus McCreadie Trio – Turas.

Fergus has already featured as part of Strata: here he is with his regular trio, playing jazz-folk fusion. And bringing the best of both worlds to the party. Fergus is a versatile and eclectic player – as at home bending folk tunes with Stephen Henderson and David Bowden as he is in the complex intensity of Strata.

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The trio develop a different kind of intensity: a west coast lament, a Scottish air. The titles reflect Scotland – “Ardbeg”, “Hillfoot Glen”, “Mull”, “The Culearn Mill”. There is a real sense of place. There are passages of meditative calm and passages of romantic flair. Another lovely record – considering that this is his debut CD, it really does bode well.

(What do you know! The Fergus McCreadie Trio are ALSO playing at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival! Though I’ve seen the band several times in the last few months, so I’m hoping to catch Fergus McCreadie and Tommy Smith playing in a duo – they played a short set in Islay last year, and it sounded great!)

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Five Years of Playtime. Edinburgh, April 2019.

Last Thursday I went along to Playtime, my local bimonthly gig, as I often (but not always) do. Tom Bancroft pointed out that it was five years since their first show, and that seems worthy of note.

I was at the first Playtime; quite a few were, although there has apparently been at least one occasion in the last five years when the band played to an empty house. I wish I’d been there – though then it might not have been noteworthy. Nowadays, they get good houses, often standing room only (stifling in the summer!).

It started as a space for the four regular musicians – Bancroft, Martin Kershaw, Mario Caribe and Graeme Stephen – to try out new tunes, but it has become broader as they have sessions dedicated to specific influences (with new arrangements of well known tunes) and welcome guests from the lively Scottish scene and further afield, as musicians on tour stop by, and in particular, regular (and very wonderful) sessions of wholly improvised music.

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There have been many very memorable nights, and several absolutely magical. I can recall only one I was glad to hear only one set – I’d arrived late, in the interval, and I think if I’d seen the first set I might have taken the opportunity to leave during the break. But frankly one show I didn’t enjoy out of the fifty or so I must have seen seems like an excellent hit rate.

On Thursday, it was a return to their roots – trying out new tunes and arrangements. Unfortunately Graeme Stephen wasn’t there (off gigging with Sugarwork in Aberdeen), so it was a trio of Bancroft, Caribe and Kershaw providing the music. There were some lovely tunes – Bancroft’s “Occo In Scotland”, a piece written for a schools’ big band, and Caribe’s gorgeous arrangement of (I think) “Silenciosa”. Kershaw presented some new reworkings of Strayhorn and Ellington tunes, the originals of “Take The S Train” and “Stain Doll” [sic] barely hinted at.

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There was a fair bit of politics, what with Brexit confusion and parliamentary mayhem going on in the outside world. Caribe introduced “The Underbelly Of The Beast” as an attack on far right governments everywhere, and particularly his native Brasil; it might just have been the political nature of the tune, but I couldn’t help thinking of Mingus (and that’s always a good thing).

Despite the general pissed-offedness at politics, Bancroft hit a high note with a lovely tune called “Everything Is Going To Be Ok”. And in those minutes, it certainly was.

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For me and many others, Playtime has become a regular fixture, a landmark in the Edinburgh jazz scene. It attracts an audience there to listen and appreciate the music. There’s a lot of humour in the music, too – the musicians want people to listen, but don’t take themselves too seriously. The dedication to new and improvised music may not be unique, but it is hugely welcome.

Happy Birthday, Playtime!

(I didn’t take my camera to this gig, because the lighting is awful and I have many pictures of Tom, Mario and Martin already. The pictures in this post are some of my favourites from five years of Playtime from the core players and their guests.)

Martin Kershaw Octet. Edinburgh, December 2018.

Last July, during the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, I saw the Martin Kershaw Octet premiere a new, extended work, commissioned by the festival. I was very impressed but something didn’t quite work for me.

A couple of weeks ago I had a second chance to hear the piece, Dreaming of Ourselves. I’m so glad I gave it another hearing: it was a tremendous gig.

It was the same line up, and, I think, the same programme. Dedicated to David Foster Wallace, the first half featured a quartet of Kershaw on soprano, alto and tenor saxes (I kind of wish he’d added baritone just to get a full house!), Paul Harrison on piano, Calum Gourlay on bass and Doug Hough on drums, playing older tunes of Kershaw’s inspired by Foster Wallace’s writing. The second half featured Dreaming of Ourselves, a long, through-composed suite, performed by the quartet with the addition of Graeme Stephen on guitar, Sean Gibbs, trumpet, Chris Grieve, trombone, and Adam Jackson on alto sax.

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Martin Kershaw. Not at this gig. I didn’t take my camera!

It was absolutely magical. I’m not sure what had changed (and it might be something as trivial as the venue, or maybe even my mood!), but it seemed like the music took on a life of its own: the music was so much more than the notes on the paper and the eight musicians playing them.

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Chris Grieve (L) and Calum Gourlay (R).Not at this gig. I didn’t take my camera!

It had a great depth. There were carefully controlled sections, periods of chaotic freedom, improvised solos and moments of deep emotion and intensity. A bit like the way Kershaw described David Wallace Foster, in fact. None of the musicians seemed to hold anything back; they were all excellent (and frankly must have been shattered at the end!). The whole performance shone.

At the end of the gig, the audience was buzzing with excitement: the stranger sitting next to me turned to me and just said “wow!”

I bumped into one of the musicians later in the week at the SNJO’s gig (another superlative show – four of the musicians from the octet were in the SNJO that night) who said that they hoped to record the piece next year. So there’s that to look forward to!

(And kudos to Soundhouse for putting Martin and the octet on, as well as EJF for commissioning the work!)

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!)

Fraser Fifield joins “Playtime”. Edinburgh, October 2017.

I’ve seen Fraser Fiefield play a few times before – most commonly in a duo with Graeme Stephen – but not for several years. This time, the reeds player joined Stephen, Mario Caribe and Tom Bancroft for “Playtime”. I had expected to enjoy it, but I hadn’t expected it to be one of those nights. There was a certain alchemy at work: it was a magical evening, a very special event.

The mixture of folk and jazz blended perfectly and produced something new and surprising. Fifield’s whistles, pipes and saxophone evoked the windswept celtic fringes of Scotland: heartfelt, yearning and perhaps even lonely. The Playtime rhythm section was in full swing, listening hard and adding their own magic to Fifield’s tunes. A exceptional night!

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Laura MacDonald and “Playtime”. Edinburgh, February 2017.

I saw Laura MacDonald play for the first time in a while last year, and this was her first visit to Playtime. It was a very enjoyable evening: the double sax frontline of Laura and Martin Kershaw (who played a bit of tenor, as well as his usual alto) were superb, and the rhythm secion of regulars Graeme Stephen (guitar) and Tom Bancroft (drums), with Andy Sharkey sitting in on bass, kept things moving at a cracking pace.

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It was an evening of standards, such as All The Things You Are, Four, and You, The Night And The Music. Hearing the Playtime regulars dip into the classic jazz songbook was a real pleasure.

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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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A Harp And A Viola at “Playtime”. Edinburgh, January 2016.

The first Playtime of the year and the loft is a bit fuller than usual. Tom Bancroft attributes this to the presence of two guests for the evening, harpist Catriona McKay and viola player Oene Van Gael joining regulars Bancroft on drums, Mario Caribe on bass and Graeme Steven on guitar. Van Gael is part of Steven’s new quartet, together with Caribe and Bancroft, so this might be an indication of what that group will sound like.

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I’ve seen McKay several times in the last year: she’s clearly the go-to harpist for improvisation. Actually she the only harpist I’ve seen improvising on the last year, I think – it’s not common a jazz instrument. Upstairs in the Outhouse, it fits well into the intimate setting. Together with Van Gael, she brought a folk tinge to music, reminding how close the jazz and folk scenes are in Edinburgh.

Van Gael was an animated performer, mostly bowing his viola but often plucking it, occasionally strumming it like a guitar. McKay was more static by nature of the size of her harp, but equally energetic in her playing.

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Many of the pieces played were largely or wholly improvised, others written, such as a number by Bancroft I’d not heard before dedicated to his old car, the wittily titled “Fables of Fabia”. There was a lot of humour in the music too.

In the second half they were joined by Martin Kershaw, the other of the Playtime regulars, on alto. As a sextet, particularly with harp and viola, they brought a folk tinge to the music, reminding how close the jazz and folk scenes are in Edinburgh.

“Playtime” Play the Music of Ornette Coleman. Edinburgh, July 2015.

The recent death of free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman has lead to a lot of people reappraising his influence – which is vast, wide and deep. It was no surprise when the Playtime crew decided to dedicate an evening to his music.

I saw Ornette play a couple of times with his free-jazz-funk double quartet “Prime Time”, and I have long found his music easier to listen to live: it can be hard work on record, but in a live setting it works, for me at least.

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And the two sets the Playtime quartet played worked very well for me. I had wondered what altoist Martin Kershaw would make of Coleman’s music, since Coleman was one of the defining voices one the instrument. Despite the ostensible avant garde nature of the music, Coleman was deeply rooted in the blues, and that came through in the selections made in the repertoire by the band.

Almost wholly taken from his very productive, early period of the late 1950s and early 1960s – I think most of the tunes played came from Coleman’s first five albums – the connection to the blues was emphasised, as was the extension of Charlie Parker’s bebop lines in completely new directions. This surely came from Coleman rather than Kershaw: it’s in the themes and riffs, as well as the titles. (“Bird Food” was one of the tunes played.)

Coleman’s rhythm section – notably drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden – let him go in all the directions he wanted, by keeping great time. Here, Mario Caribe and Tom Bancroft admirably fulfilled those roles, showing the strength of the rhythm within the jagged melody. Graeme Stephen added lots of subtle flavours with his guitar.

But mostly it was. about the saxophone, which was gutsy and passionate – a fitting tribute.

“Big Screen”, big screen and small screen: three gigs. Edinburgh, April and May, 2015.

Hearing a track played on Jazz Line Up of their new release, Take One, took me down to the JazzBar to listen to the trio Big Screen. And a very enjoyable gig it was, too.

After a series of lots of modern, improvising gigs – enjoyable and exciting as they were – it was rather refreshing to hear two sets of straight forward standards. Most of the tunes were familiar, being taken from hit movies across the decades, and the musicians were sincere: there was no cynical irony here.

This meant that even something like Vangelis’ Theme for Chariots of Fire was played straight, as the springboard for some excellent solos. (They played it a lot better than Mr Bean and Sir Simon Rattle, too!) Neither the repertoire nor the musicianship could be faulted: David Newton on piano, Empirical’s Tom Farmer on bass and Matt Skelton on drums were all great.

Amongst several other tunes, we got to hear On The Street Where You Live and I’m Getting Married In The Morning from My Fair Lady, Surrey With The Fringe On Top (Oklahoma), and It Might As Well Be Spring (which I didn’t know was from a film: State Fair, apparently).

So, a very enjoyable gig, with great tunes, wonderful solos – excellent fun.

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The following evening was another in “Playtime’s” ongoing series of silent movie soundtracks by Graeme Stephen, with the regular quartet of Stephen on guitar, Mario Caribe on bass, Tom Bancroft on drums and Martin Kershaw on saxes.

The film was Murnau’s Faust. I thought I knew the story of Faust quite well, but the movie had me completely foxed, not least because the heavy gothic subtitles were illegible. (This may have been in part due to the projector, since they were much better on the second half, but by then I was too lost to catch up.)

Unlike the previous films I’ve seen Playtime improvise to, Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, in which the music and film reinforced each other, my inability to get into the film meant that the film detracted from the music. I really enjoyed the music, but I could have done without the distraction.

It might be that I was feeling jaded after the previous evening of movie music, but the contrast in musical styles between Big Screen and the Playtime quartet kept me interested in the music; it was the on screen action that left me behind.

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Two weeks later and the next Playtime had the same quartet taking tv theme tunes as their topic. This basically meant tunes from the tv programmes of our apparently shared youth. They kept away from those shows which could have been thought of having a jazz score, like the Sweeney, instead choosing themes that allowed them to explore more adventurous places.

Without the distraction of the screen, the quartet were at their occasionally wacky best. Their arrangements, by each of the band though Bancroft supplied the most, brought a surreal and humorous ear to play: Bancroft’s mashing together of the Magic Roundabout and Roobarb and Custard was magical, anarchic and rampant, and his take on Kojak crossed with the Rockford Files crossed with Cagney and Lacey sounded like an imaginary Coltrane soundtrack.

Graeme Stephen strung together the occasional music from several episodes of Star Trek with its main theme, proving him to be both geeky and a highly competent arranger (though that was never in doubt). I think it was Stephen who contributed a klezmer-esque version of some of the music from the Angry Birds game, too.

We also heard the classic Match of the Day theme which made me think of Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto and a ska version of Ski Sunday. That’ll be Ska Sunday, then! Their version of Tony Hatch’s Sportsnight theme recast it as 70s modern jazz.

They closed with Ronnie Hazlehurst’s theme for Are You Being Served, and making it sound like classic Blue Note funky soul jazz. At least, that’s what I heard…

Through it all, they were inventive and entertaining, taking what might be such standard fare to the edge of anarchy. A really enjoyable in which the overly familiar was by turns exciting, comforting and funny.