Tag Archives: Laura MacDonald

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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Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. September 2012.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: International Bands. July 2012.

The one EJF gig that didn’t work for me was the Jeremy Pelt Quintet’s headlining show. It might have been because it was in a tent and there was a lot of spillage from neighbouring gigs; or because it was a windy evening – which, coupled with the tent, caused a lot of interfering flappage; or maybe because the band were jetlagged. Whatever, it didn’t really catch. I don’t think it help that the following first chorus was a long bass solo. It just felt like the show lacked energy.

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I saw the same band the following evening – and it felt like a different band: full of energy this time, they seemed excited to be playing, and that excitement spilled over. Which just goes to show that every band can have an off-night – but that might be the one chance that punters get to see you, and that is all they can go on…

I hadn’t planned to go to the second night of Jeremy Pelt – though I’m glad I did. They were supporting the Bad Plus with Joshua Redman; I was going to see the Bad Plus the following evening and I have been disappointed by previous collaborations with the Bad Plus (their trio work makes for a very high hurdle), but since I had never seen Redman I decided to go along. This was a very good decision: this music played was the most engaging and exciting I had heard for a long time. The Bad Plus have been touring with Redman during the summer, and he fitted in seamlessly – it felt like he had been part of the group for a long time. His presence seemed didn’t inhibit the trio at all, adding more depth. As a quartet they created marvellous music, by turns powerful, moving and humorous. (This video of one number from the gig is typical of their playing.)

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After such a superlative performance, the Bad Plus as a trio the following evening could only be disappointing. Their performance was very good, but it just couldn’t match up. This was not the band’s fault: if I felt pretty drained after the superlative performance of the night before, how must they have felt? Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone to the gig; but then I’d always have felt I was missing out…

There were two gigs which mixed up Scottish and European musicians. First up was Laura MacDonald and Joakim Milder, together with Mattias Stahl on vibes. Stahl stole the show: the two saxophonists played some lovely music, but the vibraphonist stole the show. Without a pianist or drummer, much of the rhythm-duties fell on Stahl’s shoulders.

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Trumpeter Colin Steele and pianist Dave Milligan – one of Scottish jazz’s little known heros – played an all too short duet – just a couple of numbers, which left me feeling a little short changed (Steele and Milligan work very well together!). Before, that is, Enzo Favata and his trio took to the stage and opened the way for something more interesting still. With Danilo Gallo on bass and U. T. Gandhi on drums, the saxophonist lead an energetic exploration of the space between jazz and folk improvisation, with music with its roots in (he said) Sardinia and southern Italy. It got more interesting still when the trio was joined by Steele and Milligan for a full set of exciting jazz. Much of Steele’s music is tinged with folk from the celtic fringes – his big band Stramash is active at the crossroads between jazz and folk – and Milligan has played in many folk settings. Together as a quintet, playing tunes from both their repertoire, they proved music as a universal language: each brought something different, to create an evening that felt unique. Steele and Favata had a natural ease together – their styles, though different, blended superbly. This was exciting because it was unexpected.

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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Laura MacDonald at Edinburgh Jazz Festival. July 2007.

The Lot functions as a jazz club throughout the year, and last time I was there – back in February (which seems like an awful long time between visits!) – it was for a concert by alto saxophonist Laura MacDonald. Then, she was playing with a Norwegian drummer; this time, it was meant to be a collaboration with trumpeter Ryan Quigley, but Quigley (a fiery player who excels at hitting the high notes) had cancelled, so it was more or less a quartet date, with the Paul Harrison on piano, Aidan O’Donnell on bass and Tom Bancroft on drums – an excellent band.

Perhaps because of the missing trumpeter, the band fell back on a mixed set of MacDonald originals and old standards – including several old Charlie Parker numbers. It was good but it felt safe: MacDonald played as if perhaps her heart wasn’t really in it. Perhaps it wasn’t – most of the band were part of Bancroft’s band who were playing a later set, so maybe they felt they had to keep something in reserve.

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Individually they played really well – Harrison and O’Donnell particularly – but as a band it seemed a bit ordinary.

MacDonald brought on fellow alto player Paul Towndrow for the second set – a curious choice since adding another alto didn’t really extend the dynamics a great deal. Towndrow was excellent, though, playing some great solos.

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Ethan Iverson Quintet: Play Monk. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2006.

Iverson’s third outing at this year’s Edinburgh jazz festival, this time with a band of local musicians playing the music of Thelonious Monk: Colin Steele on trumpet, Laura MacDonald on alto sax, Aidan O’Donnell on bass and Alan Cosker on drums. With other musicians around him, Iverson was more relaxed than earlier in the week.

The angular, jagged character to Monk’s compositions suited Iverson’s style – he said he had been playing these tunes since he was fourteen (which I would guess means the last twenty years or so) – and he played with a lot of energy, launching out of the piano stool to hit the notes.

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Steele was on fine, fiery form, driven along by the piano; he played some excellent muted trumpet, and he brings a great deal of pyrotechnic excitement to the bandstand. MacDonald, who had already played a solo gig that night, was flying, her solos building within the structure of Monk’s tunes. Iverson gently prodded the keys behind the soloists, a few piano notes adding just a touch of texture.

Iverson avoided the better-known of Monk’s tunes – there was no Round Midnight or Blue Monk – but they covered much of Monk’s career. Misterioso, Well You Needn’t, Crepuscule With Nellie and what sounded like Monk’s Mood (it was name checked as Ask Me Know – not a track I know) were all featured.

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There were only two non-Monk compositions – a sax feature of Body And Soul from MacDonald, and a beautiful version of Angel Eyes for Steele.

Whilst the music was excellent, there was little re-interpretation of these classic tunes. Iverson was working from recently published versions of the music, derived from the original manuscripts, and he could have brought some more of himself to the tunes.

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Reid Anderson. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2006.

The Bad Plus have an affinity with Scotland; whilst their pianist Ethan Iverson was booked for a series of concerts, the bassist from the band, Reid Anderson, was in town for a concert of his own music. He said that he rarely plays this any more – and only then in Scotland: he is a regular at the Edinburgh jazz festival.

Most of the music for this concert came from Reid’s 2001 album, The Vastness Of Space. The music is very spacious: the line up of two saxes, guitar, bass and drums create broad soundscapes. The tunes had a startling beauty.

The band – Laura MacDonald on alto, Bill McHenry on tenor, Jorge Rossy on drums and Graeme Stephen on guitar – played free but disciplined. The two saxes weaved in and out of each others solos, building layer upon layer. MacDonald’s playing was excellent – she has developed greatly over the past few years.

The music had a great intensity and depth, Anderson’s tunes providing the musicians the structure to improvise around. They finished with the moody, expansive, glowing Silence Is The Question, leaving the sound hanging in the air; it was a wonderful concert.