Tag Archives: Kevin MacKenzie

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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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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Islay Jazz Festival. September 2008.

I have been to Islay three times now, each time for the jazz festival. Islay is famous for one thing really – whisky. And the combination of the island, the whisky and jazz makes for a very memorable weekend. Whisky flows: the jazz festival is sponsored by Black Bottle, and they give out (small) samples everywhere.

Islay is a small place: a population of 3,500 people spread over the island, and most of those are in Port Ellen and Bowmore. Much of the island is wild, and every time I go there, I think that I must spend more time exploring – I really must go for longer than just the jazz festival. Next year, perhaps.

The festival itself is a curious affair, because it largely consists of musicians from the central belt of Scotland who play regularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow playing to an audience which mostly consists of visitors from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Frankly, it shouldn’t work – because I can see these guys play any weekend.

But instead it is wonderful. Maybe it is the setting – many of the gigs take place in distilleries (the best being Bunnahabhain, where the concert takes place in the bottling room, surrounded by empty whisky casks and the air full of spirit); maybe it is the audience and the musicians – because you have to be really keen to make the 350 mile round trip from Edinburgh.

Either way, it is brilliant.

I went over on the lunchtime ferry, together with a whole bunch of musicians (Tommy Smith, Mario Caribe, Calum Gourlay, Colin Steele… Hell, they could have had a jam session on the boat!). The water was very calm; no porpoises that I could see, but I watch cormorants and gannets fly low over the water.

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I was staying in a B&B on the Oa, across the bay from Port Ellen. It overlooked the water and was a lovely setting. Rather than sit and take in the view, though, I dashed off for the first gig.

The one downside of the Islay jazz festival: all the venues are a long way from each other – and the only way between them is to drive. The first gig I wanted to get to was way on the west of the island, at Port Charlotte. A very pretty village.

The concert was a duet gig with Dave Milligan and Colin Steele. I have seen them both play many times before, often together, but never just the two of them. It worked really well – the setting creating a more thoughtful music than their usual quintet or bigger ensemble. It was very intimate; the backdrop behind the musicians was the view across Loch Indaal to Oa, which added to the whole. These two musicians know each so well that their playing blended wonderfully – Steele was perhaps not as fiery as he can be in a larger ensemble, but this lead to greater subtlety. (Too subtle for photographs, I’m afraid – I didn’t want to disturb people.)

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There was then a mad dash in convoy back to Bowmore, home to Bowmore malt. Bowmore is a great little town, but it somehow lacks a fish and chip shop. There is a very poor excuse for an Indian restaurant, though. Indeed, the whole of Islay lacks a chip shop; there is meant to be a chip van in Port Ellen on Friday and Saturday night, but I couldn’t find it.

The next gig was another duet: Tommy Smith and Jakob Karlzon. Although the hall was set up to preclude a sea-view for all but the front row, the musicians were lit by the setting sun. (I can’t quite get my head around the geography, though – because I would swear the sun was setting in the east!)

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I have seen Smith play in lots of duet settings recently: I can’t help wondering if he has perhaps become a bit of a control freak, preferring to reduce the risk of playing with more soloists by keeping to solo or duo gigs. Still, this was a spectacularly good gig. I hadn’t heard – or even heard of – Karlzon before I read the blurb for this gig, and he and Smith didn’t have time to rehearse – but they linked together really, really well. Smith was at his most Nordic; the tunes were slow and thoughtful, with a lot of reverb. Karlzon – who I saw play in many different combinations over the weekend – was a revelation: the perfect balance to the saxophone, and all in all it was a lovely gig.

The following day it was back to the west of the island, the village hall in Portnahaven, for a lunchtime gig by the Colin Steele Quintet. A lot of people had been partying late into the night, including the band (me, I don’t have the energy for that: the idea of going to a gig starting at 10.30pm, especially when I’d be driving and thus not drinking – oh no), and there were lots of hangovers, including on the stage; but it didn’t seem to get in the way of some energetic playing. The more I see Stu Ritchie, the quintet’s drummer, play, the more impressed I am (although I am not so keen on his choice of headwear – he wore a hat at every gig he played). Steele was excellent, too, and Phil Bancroft played with an angry passion; maybe he was just trying to blow away his hangover. Milligan was a bit too low in the mix, and Calum Gourlay on bass – playing his first gig with the band – seemed low-key but good. (Still, I missed Aidan O’Donnell, who decided not to leave his new New York home for the festival – apparently he received a better offer!)

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Off to Bunnahabhan; this gig – in the whisky-flavoured bottling room – is usually the big concert for the weekend; this time around, it was set up as the tenth anniversary concert, headed up by Mario Caribe, one of the few musicians who has been to all ten festivals – he says it is so his family can get a holiday each year (and this year, he had one of his sons with him). This concert was great fun, featuring Caribe in different settings – duet with a percussionist, then a piano trio with Paul Harrison, a quintet with Phil Bancroft and Ryan Quigley, building up by adding more musicians – Steele on trumpet, the visiting Jimmy Greene on tenor, Chris Greive on trombone, until there were ten people on stage. The finale was a short suite Caribe had written specially for the ten piece, and it worked relly well; unfortunately, a lack of funding had stopped him extending the piece further (thank you, Scottish Arts Council!); but he’s writing a large suite for the SNJO, who will be touring it in the late autumn.

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I rushed from the bottling room to make the journey back to Bowmore for the next gig: Karlzon-Greene-Quigley quintet. Karlzon had been at the Bunnahabhain gig, too, watching from the side. So with nearly all the musicians having to make the same trip, I kind of knew I wouldn’t miss it; indeed, the minibus ferrying them back to Bowmore was two cars in front of me.

God, Ryan Quigley can play loud. I was sitting near the front, and I was worried I would have to move – worried because it was packed out. Again, I was seated so I couldn’t watch the sunset, which was even more spectacular. The music was great – energetic post-bop – and Karlzon was equally at home in this setting – he’s a good pianist. He wrote all the tunes – it was very much his gig. Gourlay was on bass – he seemed to open up as the weekend went on: he worked really well in this quintet – perhaps it was just because the lunchtime gig had been his first time with Colin Steele that he had seemed a little reticent.

I liked Jimmy Greene, as well. Based in New York, he plays the role of long tall tenor perfectly: he worked in lots of different formats.

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The first gig of Sunday was at Ardbeg: essentially a jam session featuring a front line of Greene, Quigley and Greive, with Gourlay on bass, Milligan on piano and a drummer who I didn’t know and whose name I can’t remember… The drummer had been rather nondescript at the Mario Caribe Bunnahabhain gig, but he played much better this time around. I could have done with a bit more of Dave Milligan, but then I do really rate him as a pianist. This time around, I was right at the front, so I guess I hadn’t learned how not to damage my hearing with Quigley’s high notes. He was loud, too, but softened a bit after the first number – he came out all guns blazing, and maybe his hangover kicked in after that! This was a fun gig, but nothing to special – very much a jam session. Still, Quigley demonstrated a rather neat capacity for naming tunes – a number called “Duck Egg Blue” was based on several tunes from Kind of Blue… (Geddit?!)

At Ardbeg we were treated to some of the malt rather than Black Bottle – which made for a very nice dram with lunch!

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Another madcap dash from Port Ellen back to Bowmore for the last of Jakob Karlzon’s gigs, a trio with Gourlay and Ritchie. Stu Ritchie was on fine form, doing his fast-energetic-gentle thing, and sounding a lot like Elvin Jones (and if you’re going to sound like someone, Jones is definitely the drummer to sound like!). This setting really let Karlzon lay it down: again, it comprised of only his tunes, this time much more in the Jarrett/Evans/Svennson mould; and like Jarrett, he was signing tunelessly along at some points – very distracting! He dedicated one number to Esbjorn Svennson, a fellow Swede, explaining how shocked he still was. Now that Assembly Direct have discovered Karlzon, I expect he’ll find his way back to Scotland quite often.

Back to Laphroig for my final gig. I was hurrying because there was only 30 minutes between gigs, but not as fast as an old Peugeot that passed me (I had had to slow down when the car in front of me turned right into the airport). When I got to Laphroig, Stu Ritchie was setting up his drumkit – so it was he who sped past.

This gig was the Kevin McKenzie Quartet – and they were blistering. This was a really special concert. Bancroft was on tenor – looking ill but playing exceptionally (he is a very good saxophonist); I was glad to see him there as I had decided to go to the Ardbeg jam session instead of Bancroft’s own quartet, since I had seen them during the Edinburgh jazz festival a few weeks before. Caribe was on bass, really solid – he’s a very good player. Ritchie was also excellent – he must have been knackered – and succeeded in fitting into a completely different style of music. I really like Kevin McKenzie’s guitar playing – and his writing: this was great music. I am most familiar with his playing through Trio AAB, with Phil Bancroft on tenor and (twin?) brother Tom on drums – they play music that verges from the folky to the very wacky. This was a bit more down to earth, but still great music. It is coming out on CD soon – definitely one to get.

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I caught the ferry back to Kintyre the next day. It rained non-stop, and kept it up for thirty six hours. I ate lunch of fresh oysters – straight from the sea – and langoustine from the seafood cabin, warm in front of a log fire. Magic.

Mario Caribe Quintet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2008.

My last gig of this years festival, and it was a cracker. After the contemplation of Smith, Andersen and Cosker on Friday, the uplifting downbeat of Scottish folk-jazz fusion from Stramash and the verge-of-experimentation from Phil Bancroft, the last gig for me by a local band – albeit one featuring a Brazilian bass player and a New York-based pianist – was straight down the line exciting jazz.

Mario Caribe has been a mainstay of the Edinburgh jazz scene for years, and he plays bass in many bands; this, his own quintet (well, it was billed as “quartet plus …”, and there were five people on stage – I reckon that makes it a quintet!) is the least world- and latin-influenced.

With Laura MacDonald on tenor, David Berkman on piano (from New York but as the blurb for his own gig said, “such a favourite here, he’s almost Scottish”), Kevin MacKenzie on guitar and Alyn Cosker on drums, Caribe’s band played excellent modern jazz. Using MacDonald’s sax and MacKenzie’s guitar as the two front line instruments, they played a mixture of Caribe’s own tunes, a couple of standards (although as Mario said before one number “this is a standard… in Brazil!”), and a few numbers by other people – including, for me, the best number of the night: “Let’s Say We Did” a lyrical, slow ballad by John Scofield.

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I loved MacDonald’s sax playing (just as well, as I was sitting just a couple of feet away from her), and MacKenzie’s guitar was alternately melodic, jagged and rhythmic. He had to avoid hitting the audience with his guitar, too – the Lot isn’t a large venue!

After his softer playing the night before, Cosker was louder and brasher, pushing the music along with Caribe’s lovely resonant bass keeping things flowing at the back.

This was a great gig, and a memorable one to finish the festival on!

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