The Playtime Trio played a gig in July trying out a new venue. A cellar-bar, it was moodily lit – that is, poorly lit! Fun to play around in, though.
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.)
I’ve seen Fraser Fiefield play a few times before – most commonly in a duo with Graeme Stephen – but not for several years. This time, the reeds player joined Stephen, Mario Caribe and Tom Bancroft for “Playtime”. I had expected to enjoy it, but I hadn’t expected it to be one of those nights. There was a certain alchemy at work: it was a magical evening, a very special event.
The mixture of folk and jazz blended perfectly and produced something new and surprising. Fifield’s whistles, pipes and saxophone evoked the windswept celtic fringes of Scotland: heartfelt, yearning and perhaps even lonely. The Playtime rhythm section was in full swing, listening hard and adding their own magic to Fifield’s tunes. A exceptional night!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This was a gig that was could have been designed for me. My friendly local jazz night play music by one of my heroes – or maybe that should be anti-heroes, since he was quite irascible, getting into fights on stage (which lead to him being fired by Ellington) and breaking Jimmy Knepper’s teeth and embouchure. The one time I saw him play, at a festival in 1977 and several years before I got into his music, he spent half the set haranguing the audience for being white.
But when I did get into it – well, his music is something else. Working with limited resources, he managed to make his small bands sound like big bands, with tight but fluid orchestrations that really swing. He also wrote my all time favourite tune, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, from one of my favourite jazz albums, Mingus Ah Um.
So it’s fair to say that I was looking forward to this gig. And I loved it.
The Playtime quartet started as a trio, because, ironically, bassist Mario Caribe was delayed. Still they had played gigs of both Bill Evans’ and Monk’s music without a piano, so playing Mingus without a bass should be a doddle. With guest trombonist Phil O’Malley covering the lower end of the scale and Martin Kershaw on alto the upper, driven along by drummer Tom Bancroft playing a stripped back rhythm to the beat flowing, they opened with Nostalgia in Times Square. As a trio they were remarkably effective and resourceful, Kershaw getting really low notes to mimic the bass during O’Malley’s solo.
Then Mario showed up and they really got going. Next up was Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, and then they spent the next two hours or so running through some of Mingus’s most famous repertoire. My Jelly Roll Soul, Fables of Faubius, Tijuana Gift Shop, Pithecanthropus Erectus, Boogie Stomp Shuffle… It was all a joy. My incredibly picky quibble was that though they played two long sets and an encore – something I’ve not seen Playtime do before – I wanted more! Mingus has such a rich seam of tunes, they were bound to miss some favorites. (The opener from Ah Um, Better Git Hit In Your Soul, was one I’d have loved to hear! And Orange Was The Colour Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues. And…)
Bancroft was great, somewhat more understated than he can be, really capturing the essence of Mingus’s longtime collaborator Dannie Richmond. Once Caribe had settled in, he did a fine job, not copying Mingus but praising him. Kershaw and O’Malley were excellent, too, The trombone bringing some extra tonal qualities to the quartet.
The encore was a quartet version of Nostalgia on Times Square, and with the bass it could have been a different tune: it was more swinging, and of course closer to the original, with Bancroft given greater scope to explore the tune. But it felt as if the necessity forced on the trio by the absence of the bass had made Kershaw and O’Malley a bit more creative too. It had certainly made them work harder!
But that is a minor quibble. This gig was everything I had hoped, full of exciting music. And I walked home singing my own, somewhat less tuneful version of “Nostalgia”…
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.
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.
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.
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!