I reviewed the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival for LondonJazzNews; here are some more photos of the Tom & Okoe African Groove Machine gig.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!)
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.
* * *
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!)
Intrigued by the idea, I went along to a gig: jazz arrangements of Bowie songs, the singing by Becc Sanderson and the arrangements by trombonist Chris Greive. This was a bit of an outlier for me: I don’t normally go for singers. The vocal lines were played more or less straight; the arrangements came over the other instruments.
The first set was jazz standards, albeit standards that might not often get an airing – My Favourite Things with words rather than tenor, for instance. It was the second set that had the Bowie. And it was very fun – hugely enjoyable. Nothing too unexpected, a range of songs from the seventies and eighties. Space Oddity morphed into Ashes to Ashes; The Jean Genie and Time featured from Aladdin Sane (Sanderson stiffling a laugh at the frank language); a suitably lively Let’s Dance. Changes was an instrumental.
Sanderson has a good voice, well matched to the (mostly) familiar songs. The arrangements didn’t mess around with the songs too much – a slight change to the phrasing, a nudge to the rhythm; and lots of space for the band to stretch out.
The band reminded me once again at how much talent there is in Scotland. On drums was Tom Gordon, who I haven’t seen over here for ages (he based in Glasgow, I think). The pianist was Steve Hamilton, who was superb – there were moments where he changed the mood of a song with some subtlely placed chords. And Greive and Martin Kershaw made a fine front line.
“The Birth of the Cool” was the first jazz record I bought, over thirty five years ago. It’s not my favourite jazz record – it’s not even my favourite Miles Davis record, not even in the top ten – but it is one naturally has a special place in my heart. So when I saw a project to put together a band to play the album in its entirety live at Edinburgh Jazz Festival, it was a gig I had to go to.
And a very special occasion it was.
Colin Steele – not at this gig, but he looks the same!
The trumpet seat was filled by Colin Steele, at competitively late notice, apparently; Martin Kershaw was on alto and Allon Beauvoisin was on baritone. The other musicians making up the nonet were a younger generation: Alan Benzie on piano, May Halliburton on bass, and a trombonist, drummer, tuba and French horn players whose names I didn’t get – though it was pointed out that even the younger players were older than Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, and Get Mulligan when they recorded the original. The whole thing was directed by Richard Ingham, who didn’t so much conduct as dance around the rhythm.
Recreating a historical record could easily slide into kitsch, but one faux radio announcement aside, this performance moist certainly didn’t. The music sounded lively and fresh, bouncy when it needed to be. It no longer has the capacity to surprise (as it once must, the first of Miles’ three big innovations), but it was a particular joy to be able to hear such familiar music live.
* * *
The following night saw Steele lead his own quartet, playing the music by the band The Pearlfishers, which they’ve recorded on the recently released CD “Diving for Pearls“. He might not have written the music, but Steele and pianist and arranger Dave Milligan made it totally their own.
Steele said that he didn’t think hit his stride till the second set, but it didn’t show. Playing with a battered mute throughout, close into the mike, he was enthralling and beguiling.
Colin Steele and Dave Milligan – again, not at this gig!
It was a huge pleasure to hear Milligan, who seems to get better and better: some of his solos had an intensity that was gripping. In the second half Steele took a break leaving the trio of Milligan, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Alyn Cosker to play an open, seemingly improvised piece – it would lovely to see Milligan do more trio work. Gourlay and Cosker were full of confident competence throughout the show – it is easy to take them for granted, but they add a lot to the bands they play in.
But it was Steele’s evening: literally muted but the notes flying from his trumpet.
* * *
Milligan played a solo set in the final weekend of the festival. I managed to miss the first half of his set – I got the time wrong (a schoolboy error…) but what I did hear was wonderful. Largely improvised (he told a story of his young daughter asking what he was going to play, so he had to tell her he didn’t really know), he produced a variety of moods – energetic, contemplative, quiet, all engaging. This was music to get lost in, full of depth.
Dave Milligan – not at this gig! (I didn’t have my camera, ok?!)
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.
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.
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.
The Playtime quartet dedicated one of their bi-monthly gigs to the music of Duke Ellington, and it was a pleasure, as I’d expected. Some tunes they played straight, but others were warped and twisted beyond recognition.
They opened with C Jam Blues, which I didn’t realise until the closing notes. But they swung their hearts out, taking it very fast. They then played a tune I didn’t think I knew, Warm Valley, but a quick search on my iPod shows that I have five different versions of it! One if the problems of such a prolific artist as Ellington or maybe I have more music than I can listen to!).
An excellent, straight forward version of Caravan followed, and a similarly straight Sophisticated Lady. They closed the first set with a radical dissection of It Don’t Mean A Thing. Slowed down, they took this in all sorts of directions, with a really different, almost abstract interpretation. This was creative and imaginative. To my ears it sounded like Mingus (who played with Ellington, both in the orchestra and in small groups, and who was greatly influenced by him), maybe bits of Mingus At Antibes (Prayer for Passive Resistance, I think). It was the first number of the evening which didn’t swing!
They did the opposite to Come Sunday in the second half. The original is a slow, sometimes lugubrious piece: it is hard to give it the life it deserves. Whilst keeping the tempo of main melody, the drums and bass played double, maybe triple, time, turning it into a fast, almost bebop tune – as if Bird had played it. It must have been very hard to execute, especially for saxophonist Martin Kershaw. I’m not entirely sure it worked, but at least they didn’t drag!
They also played In A Mellow Tone, Weary Blues (not strictly Ellington, but he and Johnny Hodges played it on the album Back to Back), and In A Sentimental Mood. All were just what one would have wanted.
They closed with Take The A Train, Billy Strayhorn’s theme for the orchestra. Tom Bancroft worked up a real shuffle on the drums, imitating a speeding locomotive. A great finish to a very enjoyable gig. But they only played ten numbers; I hope they’ll have to delve back into Ellington’s rich portfolio for another night or four!
* * *
The following week, saxophonist and clarinetist John Burgess lead a quintet playing the music of W.C. Handy and Spencer Williams. This would have been a gig I’d previously run a mile from: early New Orleans jazz is way out of my normal listening. (And Handy was from Alabama, via Memphis, Shi that’s probably wrong of me anyway.) But that’s actually why I thought I’d give it a go: it’d be different, and even if I didn’t enjoy, I’d learn something.
I did learn something. I learned I enjoyed it a lot. I learned that good music is good music.
I think if it had just been a random selection if New Orleans numbers, I probably wouldn’t have bothered going, but the idea of listening to music by specific, early jazz composers hooked me. And frankly it had to be better than the football. (Indeed it was.)
I was slightly more familiar with Handy, but I hadn’t heard of Spencer Williams before, whose music featured in the first set. It turned out I had actually heard his music, though. He wrote Basin Street Blues and Royal Garden Blues, both long term jazz standards. I’ve got versions of both of them by Ellington, for instance. Other numbers were familiar, too.
W.C. Handy is possibly best known for the classic St Louis Blues – also recorded by Ellington (and many others); the version I know best is Gil Evans’ arrangement on New Bottle, Old Wine, though Evans didn’t change much – a lot of the Gershwin-like touches are there in early versions of the tune, too. Burgess opened the second set with this, maybe to get the hit out of the way early. Handy wrote many other standards. Burgess played several of them – Memphis Blues, Beale Street Blues, Ole Miss Rag.
It would be wrong to call the music authentic: it was made by modern musicians on modern instruments for modern ears, and long long way from Memphis and New Orleans. But it seemed to be played without taking too many liberties. And it was very enjoyable.
What I kept thinking about was the age of this music. All the tunes the band played were originally written around one hundred years ago. That’s not very long in the scheme of things. Jazz has changed immeasurably – gone of in all sorts of directions. But the music Burgess played was definitely, recognisably jazz. It’s like it’s come a long way in a short time, but at the same time hasn’t changed much either.