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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!