Tag Archives: Graeme Stephen

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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!

“Playtime” Plays Bill Evans. Edinburgh, January 2015.

The “Playtime” sessions at the Outhouse in Edinburgh are back for the new year, switching to alternate weeks, and seeming to pick up a larger audience in the process.

The first session of the year was a trio of Martin Kershaw, Graeme Stephen, and guest bassist Tom Lyne. A very enjoyable evening of inventive improvisation, Lyne bringing a bit more of a folk influence.

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Graeme Stephen. At a different “Playtime” gig.

The second gig last week was back to the core Playtime quartet – Kershaw on saxes, Stephen on guitar, Mario Caribe on bass and Tom Bancroft on drums. And it was a somewhat different prospect: an evening dedicated to the music of pianist Bill Evans.

Evans is one of my favorite musicians, though I sometimes feel a little goes a long way. So I was curious, and perhaps more than a little anxious, about how would work: Bill Evans, without a piano. Still, one of my favorite “Bill Evans” albums is Cannonball Adderley’s “Know What I Mean?”, with Evans on piano and Adderley’s lovely alto over the top. And John McLaughlin’s beautiful reminiscence of Evans, “Time Remembered”, didn’t have a piano on it; indeed, out doesn’t have anything but guitar. Kershaw also has a good record with pianists – last summer he lead a band playing the music of Lennie Tristano.

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Martin Kershaw. At a different “Playtime” gig.

From the very start, any doubts I had were allayed. There was something in the opening chords played by Graeme Stephen played that just said “Bill Evans!” A soft, plangent quality, gently ringing before the band came in. It just fitted.

Across two sets, the quartet played lots of familiar tunes, and a couple of less familiar ones, too. There was perhaps less free improvisation than usual, the musicians focusing on the music’s melodic qualities.

It was a lovely gig, an opportunity to reassess Evans’ music from different periods in a way one wouldn’t do normally. More, please.

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Tom Bancroft. At a different “Playtime” gig.

Julian Arguelles. “Playtime”, Edinburgh, August 2014.

The only jazz I saw during the Edinburgh Fringe was a show by Julian Arguelles with the “Playtime” trio of Tom Bancroft on drums, Euan Burton on bass and Graeme Stephen on guitar. A month or so before, Arguelles had played on of the best gigs at the Jazz Festival; this was an opportunity to see him with some musicians he was less familiar with, in a much more intimate setting. And it should be no surprise that it was a very different gig.

The set list was similar, mostly culled from Arguelles’ latest CD, Circularity (with Dave Holland on bass, Martin France on drums, and John Taylor on piano. An experiment line up and a superb record – but again, a very different sound!). Stephen’s ethereal guitar made it a much more spacious sound. Coupled with Bancroft’s open rhythms, the result was a freer sound: less certain and more experimental.

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Silent Films at “Playtime”.

Last week I went to the fifth evening on the Playtime series, and my fourth visit. (I missed one… And I’ll miss tonight’s show, too.) It got me thinking why it was that I was so keen to give it my support when, for instance, I only make it to the other Edinburgh small jazz venue every few months (maybe five times a year).

In part it is the musicians. With the same roster of players each week, more or less, it actually feels as if one is watching an evolving process, as they experiment with new ideas and spark off each other. As Rob Adams said after the inaugural gig, “that was four creative people being creative.”

They don’t play standards, so (so far) there is no opportunity for them to coast.

It also means that the audience builds a relationship with the musicians, seeing them change week by week.

This is helped by the small venue. There is no physical barrier between the musicians and the audience, either during their performance or before and after. The musicians recognise and know their audience.

Another reason, of course, is that Playtime is local to me, and it feels like a privilege to have this music so close to home. I want to make sure it keeps going!

* * *

Two of the shows I’ve seen have been “silent” movies, a trio of musicians providing the soundtrack. Thus head been a very interesting experience. Personally, the first – a showing of Nosferatu – worked better than the second – the Cabinet of Dr Cagliari. I think this is largely down to the films rather than jazz accompaniment. Nosferatu is a naturalistic film; Dr Cagliari very studio-bound, with clearly stylised sets. For me this meant that the music and film seemed indivisible for Nosferatu whilst Dr Cagliari almost forced me out of the film, so I was more aware of the music being separated from the film.

It is possible that this was also down to the two scores – both by Graeme Stephen: Cagliari was scored for guitar, drums and saxophone; Nosferatu featured guitar, bass and drums. Cagliari was more jarring, strident, than Nosferatu.

But both have also emphasised quite how important music can be (and almost always is) to the way one feels about any film. In modern cinema, music is an integral part of the production: there are times in the cinema when the music is telling you how to feel.

Watching a film with a live accompaniment, as happened in the early days of cinema feels really special, better perhaps than either would be alone. (I doubt I would have gone to a cinema to see either of these films without the live music.)

Well worth giving it a try!