I reviewed the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival for LondonJazzNews; here are some more photos of Konrad Wiszniewski in the New FocusDuo; I couldn’t get any pictures of Euan Stevenson, because of where I was sitting, but I swear he was playing, and he was also very good!
Arild Andersen joined the SNJO a bassist for the night, playing Mingus. The band have played Mingus before – back in 2003, Tommy Smith said – and I loved it then, and I loved it now. And it seemed like they loved it, too. Andersen has played with the orchestra several times, but this time he was (more or less) just the bassist – the music was the star. A special guest bassist, true, and he played some great solos – but then they were celebrating a special bassist.
The first half was brilliant. They warmed up with Song With Orange, not a tune I’m familiar with. An extended solo from Andersen lead into the bass riff to Haitian Fight Song and then it all kicked off. The synchronised riffing from the saxes, trombones and trumpets, band members hollering in between riffs, and some fast and furious solos. Fables Of Faubus followed, more riffs backing the soloists.
Tommy Smith and Arild Andersen played Goodbye Pork Pie Hat largely as a duet. Smith’s solo was remarkably powerful. I’ve been seeing him play regularly since (I think) 1984 (a fund raising gig for his studies at Berklee and a small residency in a bar in Bruntsfield, if you’re interested), and somehow he gets better and better. It’s too easy to take musicians for granted, but once again I was reminded what world class musicians we have in Scotland.
Not just Smith, mind. Soloist after soloist made their mark: Tom McNiven and Tom Walsh in the trumpets, Chris Grieve and Phil O’Malley in the trumpets and a whole slew of saxophonists – Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow on altos, with Kershaw also on soprano, and Konrad Wiszniewski belting out bluesy chorus after chorus.
The first set was remarkable: exciting, high energy music. The second set felt a little more sedate, though only in comparison. It opened with Moanin’, a feature for Allon Beauvoisin on baritone. Apart from the ballad Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love, the other pieces were less well known. For the encore, though, the band were back to full on hollering form for Ecclusiastics. The high point was Wiszniewski and Smith trading choruses, each excited by the other’s performance (Smith a bit cooler, perhaps), until they joined together in a real tenor battle.
A great evening, full of exciting music and solos. And a reminder if one were needed of the compositional skill of Charles Mingus: one reason his tunes work so well in a big band context is that he wrote for a large ensemble, but could only afford small groups. So he just made them sound big, instead.
Mingus, in 1976.
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!
There’s been a bit of a stushie after a critic criticised the Cure for playing three hour long sets. Well the SNJO and Courtney Pine would have given them a run for their money, playing for well over three hours in this tribute to John Coltrane.
There has been a bit of criticism about that too, suggesting that Pine was somewhat overindulgent. Quite possibly. But then so was Coltrane – he famously didn’t know how to stop once he got going (to which Miles Davis is supposed to have said “try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth“…)
In the past I have sometimes tired of Pine’s pyrotechnics, but here the stream of consciousness flow of notes, together with an extreme display of circular breathing seemed fitting. Some critics described Coltrane as trying to play every note at once, which gave rise to the description of his playing as creating “sheets of sound“, and Pine did the same. His playing was fast and intense, and the audience loved it.
True, I think the audience would have loved it whatever: a combination of SNJO, who always get a good crowd at her Queen’s Hall, and Coltrane, who still seems to inspire devotion amongst his fans, nearly fifty years since his untimely death, seemed a guaranteed winner.
It was interesting to hear how such loved music translated from Coltrane’s small groups into a big band setting. Extremely well, I felt. With the band taking on much of the work done by McCoy Tyner, pianist Steve Hamilton was less to the fore and a bit lost in the mix, but Alyn Cosker more than held his own on drums in inevitable comparisons with Elvin Jones. He was in cracking form, especially when the band dropped out leaving Cosker and Pine to duet – or battle it out.
Of the ten pieces, only one didn’t work for me, Joe Locke’s reimagining of the almost cliched ballad Naima – and even then Locke should be applauded for doing something different with his material.
The rest of the material was faster – sometimes much faster. They started off with a ripping Impressions, with Pine blowing furiously from the start, and kept going. And going. And going! The arrangements generally stuck close to the originals, the band providing the support to allow Pine and the other soloists to blow. It was of course a night for the saxes, with Tommy Smith and Konrad Wizsniewski contributing on tenor, and Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow soloing on alto. Pine alternated between tenor and soprano. There were also a couple of trumpet solos from Tom McNiven and Lorne Cowieson, and a trombone solo by Chris Greive. My one quibble from the evening was that with so many great soloists the band, it is a shame they got little opportunity to show their chops.
I think my favourite piece of the night was a storming version of Afro Blue – but then it’s one of my favourite Coltrane numbers. The only piece in the evening not penned by Coltrane (though the programme didn’t credit Mongo Santamaria), hearing the full band play the central riff for several choruses was exhilarating.
They bravely honoured Acknowledgement and Resolution from A Love Supreme, music which is so loved that it is rarely tackled by other artists. Resolution was arranged by Towndrow, and also featured his alto solo; Impressions was also arranged by an SNJO member, Ryan Quigley, though he wasn’t in the band on this occasion. Tommy Smith contributed The Father, The Son And The Holy Ghost, which closed the show. It is very pleasing to see the SNJO using home grown talent as well as their roster of international arrangers.
Smith and Pine battled on the closer, sometimes with just Cosker powering along behind them. A more free piece which I didn’t know, and apparently minimal arrangement – Smith taking a break from his soloing to direct the band – this worked really well, building up to climax after climax. I think it had to be the last number: after three hours, I don’t know how they could have kept going!
All in all, an evening of wonderful music, and it was great to hear Pine playing the music of one of his major influences so fluently. Marvellous.
I have an admission: I don’t really like jazz singers. There are exceptions – some, like Billie Holliday, are so emotional, so raw, that I find it hard to listen to them – but others – most, I reckon – are so anodyne that they reduce songs to a syrupy lowest common denominator. For me jazz is about improvisation, and for most singers, improvisation is out – because a song is all the words.
But I saw video of Kurt Elling singing with the SNJO, tackling Coltrane’s “Resolution” from A Love Supreme, and sounding brilliant, so thought I’d give them a chance when they played in Edinburgh a few weeks ago.
SNJO have been playing a lot recently – and I think they always sound brilliant: lively, forceful, full of great musicians and always apparently up for something special. They are busy right now. They did a few nights with Branford Marsalis at the end of last year, a tour with Jacqui Dankworth (which I didn’t catch), then this tour with Elling, and the end this month they back with Courtney Pine, paying homage to Coltrane. I reckon that’ll be special, too.
When the SNJO started out, they were very much a
respiratory* repertory orchestra: they performed orchestral jazz classics, providing a hugely welcome opportunity to hear well-loved music live: they played full concert versions of the Miles Davis / Gil Evans collaborations Miles Ahead, Sketches Spain and Porgy & Bess; Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder and Far East suite; Basie’s The Atomic Mr Basie; and an orchestration of Mingus’s Ah Um. There was something truly magical about hearing these great works brought to life.
But more recently, they have changed they way they work, focusing as much on the guests as the repertory – and commissioning new arrangements to match the guests. As well as Branford playing the music of Wayne Shorter, they’ve worked with Arild Andersen (playing arrangements from the ECM catalogue), Dave Liebman, and John Scofield. (The concert I saw with Sco was one of the very few – perhaps the only – time I was disappointed by an SNJO gig; but then loving Sco, and loving SNJO, I had high expectations!)
They seem to commission the same arrangers for each off their projects – composers of the calibre of Geoff Keezer, Florian Ross, and Bob Mintzer. Each arranger sounds different, but they all sound just like the SNJO, and they capture the voice.
And this gig with Elling didn’t disappoint. Opening up with a fast scat, the band set a rollicking pace, driven by Alyn Cosker’s drums. Elling bought energy and verve to the interesting selection of tunes. Tommy Smith’s arrangement of Mingus’s “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”, a tune Smith has worked with before, stood out, as did Geoff Keezer’s version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere”. (I think Keezer had become my favourite arranger from SNJO’s stable – lush arrangements that have a real feel of Gil Evans.)
It was a fascinating mixture of tunes – a couple from Wayne Shorter (with lyrics added by Elling), traditional Scottish (a gorgeous rendition of the Loch Tay Boat Song, arranged by Florian Ross) and so on.
The orchestra sounded superb, and Elling appeared to enjoy listening to them much he enjoyed singing. The only problem with the band seemed to be the wealth of talent: I wanted to hear more solos, from everyone. Tommy Smith seems to get better and better, which is saying something, and there were also great sax solos from Konrad Wiszniewski and Martin Kershaw. The trumpets blew fast and high, the trombones moody and low.
Behind it all was the solid, swinging rhythm section. For a couple of numbers the band dropped out, leaving pianist Steve Hamilton, bassist Calum Gourlay and Cosker as a trio backing Elling, and they were very good.
This gig showed SNJO to be consistently good – and proved that sometimes I do actually like singers!
*Unfortunately instead of writing “repertory”, my computer thought I meant “respiratory”; when it was pointed out, I reckoned respiratory might be an apt description of the brass section…”
July’s Jazz Festival was understandably busy. Ten gigs in ten days, with a couple of extra, excellent outdoor events, too. It was a fun time.
I tried to balance newer and old music, musicians I knew (and knew I liked) with people I’d not heard before; and a range of styles and groups. I won’t cover every gig I went to, but I’d like to cover those that worked well, or didn’t.
The festival opened fire with the Brian Kellock Copenhagen Trio. Kellock is a great pianist, with a chimeric skill in mixing genres and styles whilst presenting an engaging whole. His music twists and turns as he moves from stride to Monk and references more modern, keeping the bass and drums in their toes – and there was clearly a fair bit of joshing going on between the three of them.
Kellock filled some very big shoes when, a few days later, he took the place of Stan Tracey, who had pulled out of his quartet gig with Bobby Wellins due to illness. So it became the Wellins Quartet, with Clark Tracey on drums and Andrew Cleyndert on bass. This was a fun gig, but Kellock seemed subdued – at least compared to his form earlier in the festival – and it felt a bit as if the band were going through the motions. Good, but not outstanding.
The festival was beset with illness, losing the last night headliner Pharoah Sanders as well as Tracey. This was a big disappointment, since Sanders is one of the remaining firebrands from the 1960s avant garde, and not having seen him live for many years I had been looking forward to seeing how he had settled into life as an elder statesman.
The Italian/Sardinian-Scottish connection in Stone Islands had been forged at last year’s festival, when Scots trumpet Colin Steele and pianist Dave Milligan teamed up with reedsman Enzo Favata. That was one of the surprise hits last year, and their return with an extended band this year was eagerly awaited. My expectations worked against them, since I thought they were excellent, but I was still disappointed! Tinged with a folk feel and featuring saxophonists Martin Kershaw and Konrad Wisniewzski, this ten piece had some of the anarchy of Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. They made a great sound, but didn’t quite capture the magic or excitement of last year’s debut.
Despite the familiarity of a band I had seen four or five times in the last year, the Neil Cowley Trio put on such a high energy show that they couldn’t fail to excite. Very much a band, each member is integral to the sound, from Evan Jenkins’ powerhouse drumming, through metronomic Rex Horan’s bass playing to Cowley’s passionate piano. Their tunes move from subtle to intense to loud, and they do it all very well. This was just a superb gig, the power of a rock band with the intricacy and emotion of – well, a jazz trio.
They were just beaten as highlight of the festival by the Festival Orchestra’s performance of Duke Ellington’s Concert of Sacred Music. I had mixed feelings ahead of this gig. It was a must-see because it was a rare opportunity to here this music played live; but I was worried it would just be played note for note. And the involvement of a classical choir meant it might not sound like jazz at all. The Ellington recordings of his sacred music can feel like a missed opportunity, a little bit too sacred. This gig was, however, a joy from beginning to end. Directed by Clark Tracey, the band and choir swung like the clappers, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus clearly enjoying the added freedom from their more usual classical constraints. Joined for several numbers by dancer Junior Laniyan, whose own percussive take added to the driving drums of Tom Gordon, the band were magnificent. The whole gig was like a hymn to Ellington and an earlier age. Absolutely wonderful.
Colin Steele’s own quintet played a cracking gig on their own account. With Milligan on piano, Michael Buckley on tenor, Stu Ritchie on drums and Callum Gourlay on bass, Steele played his familiar, celtic post-bop with verve and panache. He is an exciting player – lots of high notes – with space for the contemplative, too. My one quibble is that the music was a bit too familiar – some new tunes would have livened up the mix even more.
Supporting Steele was the Konrad Wiszniewski Quartet, with Euan Stevenson on piano and the powerhouse drumming of Alyn Cosker driving the quartet from behind. Wiszniewski has a full, powerful saxophone sound, with a very slight tendency towards saxophone-histrionics (as many tenor players have!). Stevenson played Tyner’s role, supporting Wiszniewski with lots of block chords and rhythmic solos. Wiszniewski played tenor and a curved soprano, the saxophone looking almost toylike in his large hands.
Altoist Martin Kershaw opened the festival with his quartet of Paul Harrison (excellent on piano), Doug Hough on drums and Euan Burton on bass. Kershaw’s music is intelligent and thoughtful, his tunes often inspired by works of literature or art. Much of this show came from his latest album The Howness, with numbers based on his reaction to Mervyn Peake and Philip Larkin, as well as tunes from earlier projects like his reworking of Charlie Parker pieces.