Tag Archives: The Festival Theatre

John Scofield Uberjam / Mike Stern & Randy Brecker Band. Edinburgh, July 2017.

Friday was the start of the jazz festival, and the first of my twelve gigs over ten days: John Scofield Uberjam and the Mike Stern / Randy Brecker band at the Festival Theatre.

I went mainly because I love Scofield’s music: I first saw him round about the release of Time On My Hands, nearly thirty years ago. But it was actually Stern who impressed on the night.

John Scofield Uberjam were good but it felt a bit perfunctory. Good jazz-funk, but it never really caught fire. I expected brilliance, and felt a bit disappointed. But even on an off night – and this wasn’t an off night – Scofield is still better than most.

I think I was most disappointed with Dennis Chambers: an awesomely experienced drummer. Someone told me after the gig that he’d had sound problems. What he did was good, but he didn’t shine.

Whereas the Mike Stern / Randy Brecker band were superlative. Their start was delayed by technical problems with Brecker’s trumpet mike (I think): Stern joked about, chatting to the audience and strumming his guitar – “I’ve been working on that for years”, he joked.

DSCF6016

Mike Stern. Not at this gig, but hey, he looks just the same.

And when they got going, they were superb. They had Lenny White in the drum chair: he played on (bits of) Bitches Brew with Miles Davis, nearly fifty years ago. And last night he was amazing. He made it look easy.

Brecker’s trumpet playing was great, even when he still looked pissed off after his sound problems. The bass player, Teymur Phell (at least that’s who was billed – I couldn’t catch his name) was very impressive, playing a seven- or eight-string bass, not showy off but hugely competent.

And Mike Stern was… Mike Stern. His mood seems infectious – even before he started playing it seemed like he was having so much fun, and really pleased to be there. He comes across like he’s a fan of his own band, cheering their solos, and loving the applause he received fun the audience, too.

I’ve seen him play several times in the last few years, none of which I went to because of him: but every time he has excelled. Hugely entertaining.

“The James Plays”. Edinburgh, January 2016.

Yesterday I had a bit of a theatre marathon, spending eight hours in the Festival Theatre watching all three of the National Theatre of Scotland’s James plays. I saw the previews of each play when they were performed in the Festival in 2014 – and I was very impressed.

With the same production returning to Edinburgh, I thought it would be interesting to see them in one go, to see how they’d changed in the interim and whether there was additional meaning to be gained from setting them together.

2016-02-07_01-19-36

It was a very good idea: they benefited from a revisiting. The big themes of the plays – relationships, power, politics (public and private) clearly remained, but seeing them together emphasised the connections, particularly the way in which playwright Rona Munro presaged scenes in later plays in the earlier. She also repeated dialogue in each of the plays, short lines which appeared in each which had passed me by the first. (I can’t have been paying attention.)

The acting was superb throughout. The actor playing James ll damaged his ankle (I think) during the second half, and struggled on regardless; he hid his injury well: I didn’t notice until the curtain call, when he had to be helped on stage by his colleagues. Literally a supporting cast.

The first in the trilogy – James l – had been the least effective when I saw them first. A lot of the rough edges had been knocked off – the sense of trepidation or procrastination I had felt was completely absent this time. It was powerful and effective drama, even gripping.

James ll had significant changes to its staging, which whilst simplifying and clarifying the story left it less rich dramatically. The use of puppets to convey the actions of children, which was so effective in the original run, has been been dropped, and, to prevent confusion of adult actors playing children, there were specific mentions of the children’s ages. These might have been present in the original, though I don’t recall them, and they seemed very obvious this time around.

James lll, which I thought was the strongest of the plays originally, now seemed the weakest. Queen Margaret’s big speech which so impressed me before seemed much less potent – it held a negative, niggardly character now. I think some of it had been changed. I also believe the final scene had been added, too negative effect. (I’m not certain about this – but I had no recollection of the closing scene at all. A friend of mine who has both the original published and revised scripts has been set some homework to see what had changed…)

Of course, it might not be the plays that have changed: it might be me. In the highly politicised atmosphere of the run up to Scotland’s referendum on independence, perhaps I was more willing to accept polemic. Or, in the equally polarised debate around Scotland’s place in the union (particularly what seems to be toxic discussions on how to share finances), perhaps I’m simply interpreting Munro’s words in a different way, detecting a disappointment that isn’t really there. One of the plays’ themes – the stitching up of Scotland’s political future by a cabal of worthies – still seems apposite.

Two Gigs: Colin Steele Quintet, and “Playtime” Play Monk. Edinburgh, March 2015.

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.

DSC_0086

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.

DSCF0360

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!

“The James Plays”. Edinburgh International Festival, August 2014.

It sounded like “event theatre” in the Festival programme; and so I decided to devote all my Festival theatre-going to the first run of the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre [of Great Britain] co-production of Rona Munro’s “James Plays”, a cycle of three historical plays about the medieval Scottish kings James l, ll and lll.

First, a major caveat: for convenience and economy, I went to the public previews of the plays on three nights in the week before the Festival opened properly. As with all productions, but more so with previews, things may change as the production progresses. (They are being performed in London in September and October.)

It is difficult not to view just about everything to do with Scotland through the lens of politics at this time, and that was particularly true of these plays. In the programme, Ms Munro states that the plays were conceived and commissioned before September’s referendum on Scotland’s independence was discussed by politicians, though it is possible that some of the writing was done after the date for the vote was fixed.

The plays are overtly political: they deal with the kings’ relationship with their parliaments (an unelected body of nobles) and focus on power, influence and loyalty. The idea of nationhood and its relationship to the crown and the powerful (and rich) earls is central. Power and wealth come through property: the stories frequently revolve around the struggle for more land. The church is also a presence throughout: not least through the large broad sword which dominated the set, its handle creating a cross. The sword reflects the brutality and cruelty of the time; violence was never far from the action. God may have made kings, but it seems He used men and their swords to accomplish it.

Interestingly, though the main characters are men – the three kings and the earls – much of the plays concentrates on the role of women at court. The wives and, successively, mothers of the kings determine much of the action. Their wants and desires, and their presence and absence, drive the plot in each of the plays.

Whilst the three plays have common themes and stand as a whole, they were each quite different and separate, too (the more surprising since they were all directed by the NTS’s artistic director, Laurie Sansom). The same set is used quiet differently in each; the wardrobes change from period to modern dress (the kilts rankled a little – a garment not invented until Georgian times; though same could be said of trousers and other items, I would guess); they were lit quite differently. The mood, the feel of each play was different.

The first, “James l: The Key Will Keep The Lock” was good but, when I saw it, felt over long. There was an uncertainty about it – a trepidation reflected in the young king, imprisoned for years by the English, trying to establish his rule. Whether this stemmed from the script, the direction or the fact that I saw it on the first night of a long run when the cast were still getting used to the staging, the venue – and having an audience – I can’t say. I thought it interesting but flawed; I heard several voices as I left who hadn’t appreciated it.

The second, “James ll: Day of the Innocents”, felt completely different. It was more theatrical, particularly in the way it depicted events from James’ childhood. The same set felt different. This play felt more accomplished, more dramatic.

The last, “James lll: the True Mirror” was different yet again. It was lighter and brighter: it opened with the cast singing and dancing on stage in an easy manner – it didn’t feel contrived. The performance by Sofie Gråbøl (best known in Britain for wearing cardigans in Nordic noir) was superlative; the key speech that Munro wrote for Queen Margaret, James’ Danish-Norwegian wife, was powerful rhetoric (and probably swung a few “don’t know” referendum votes!).

Gråbøl only appears in the last play; most of the cast appear in all three, not least Gordon Kennedy who plays a different manipulative adviser in each. The continuity of characters and cast between the first two plays works well, the characters developing as time elapses – not least Joan, wife to James l and mother to James ll – Stephanie Hyam then goes on to play James ll’s wife, Mary too. The transition of Balvenie (Peter Forbes) from a lowly noble in James l to the most powerful (if deeply flawed) earl in James ll is completely believable.

Producing these three plays was clearly a big undertaking, at a key time in Scotland. NTS, barely ten years old, has a record of producing challenging and rewarding work, and the three James plays add greatly to their rich repertoire.

(You can see images from the productions byphotographer Kenny Mathison on flickr.)

Abdullah Ibrahim, Freshlyground and the Mahotella Queens. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2014.

The opening night of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival fell on Mandela Day – celebrated on the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth – and EJF joined in by lining up three South African act.

The evening opened with, for me, the main draw: legendary pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. I have seen Ibrahim many times over the years in many different settings (he will be playing with his small group, Ekaya, in London Jazz Festival in November); this was Ibrahim in solo, meditative mood. He played snippets of his many compositions straight through, with no gap between tunes and no space for applause. But he didn’t give himself scope to develop the themes, either – the moment he settled into one familiar tune, he moved on to the next. The audience was continually playing catch up.

The music was lovely, but Ibrahim didn’t bring anything new to the keyboard. His set felt like a greatest hits compilation – good to hear, but ultimately unsatisfying. I would have loved to hear him explore his back catalogue in more depth, getting lost in the tunes. And at little more than thirty minutes, this festival opener left me disappointed and feeling a bit short changed.

My mood wasn’t lifted by the next act, either. Freshlyground’s up tempo South African fusion should have moved me – it had all right ingredients – but their exuberance felt forced in the large hall of the Festival Theatre.

So I probably shouldn’t have been in the mood for the Mahotella Queens. Maybe Freshlyground had warmed me up more than I realised; maybe the Queens’ authenticity won me over. Whatever it was, they plucked the right strings and even got me moving in my seat. Many people went further – there was dancing in the aisles (including Freshlyground’s singer, Zolani Mahola, who joined the audience out front).

Dating back fifty years and with two of the original members – the third couldn’t travel on health grounds, her vocal and dancing duties being taking by a youngster – the Mahotella Queens’ blend of township music and dancing was infectious.

“War Horse”. Edinburgh, February 2014. (…with spoilers!)

I saw the National Theatre’s production of War Horse a couple of weeks ago; it was a moving, haunting experience. And surprising, too: I would not have believed how quickly one could empathise with what are basically puppets. The operators got a standing ovation at the curtain call.
Continue reading

Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Big Bands. July 2012.

Suddenly it is nearly two months on from Edinburgh International Jazz Festival; so I really ought to get my thoughts down on this year’s festival. (And in another week it’ll be time for Islay, too…)

I thought it was a pretty good festival this year: ten gigs in ten evenings, and only one which I didn’t really rate – most of the gigs were excellent, and one superlative that I’ll be very lucky if it isn’t my “gig of the year”; a mixture of local talent and international stars; small bands and big bands; and a range of styles.

The two big bands I saw were playing from the repertoire and, I think, both were essentially one-off projects for the festival – at least, neither seems to have much presence outside the festival.

The first up was the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, playing the music of Gil Evans. The third such gig in a year (after Mark Lockheart’s leading the Trinity Laban Contemporary Jazz Ensemble in the music from “Out of the Cool” and, on Gil’s one hundredth birthday, his son Miles playing first trumpet with the London Jazz Orchestra performing music from “Miles Ahead”) – all of which were wonderful gigs, not least because it is just such a pleasure to hear music familiar through recordings played live. The Edinburgh Festival Jazz Orchestra, lead by Tim Hagans, had wanted to play Evans’ “The Individualism of Gil Evans”, but they couldn’t source the charts – instead they played a first set of Evans’ early work – arrangements of bebop tunes for Claude Thornhill, mostly – and a glorious second set of “Sketches of Spain”, complete, with Hagans taking the lead trumpet part. It was a pleasure all the way – the music sounded fresh and vibrant, the orchestra bringing the music alive.

DSCN5089 v2 DSCN5099

The second big band was the World Jazz Orchestra under local boy Joe Temperley playing the music of Duke Ellington. And, in his slipstream, Billy Strayhorn, too. Temperley also had some problems with the charts – they hadn’t made it across the Atlantic (along with his suit and his wife!). This meant that the band leaned on standards more than they had anticipated – though Ellington produced enough of those. For the first couple of numbers it seemed as if they were coasting somewhat, and it wasn’t clear what Temperley was bringing to the bandstand. But then he started playing – mellifluous baritone sax and bass clarinet – and it all clicked: his reeds made all the difference. The highlight was a gorgeous version of “Single Petal of a Rose” – quite magical.

DSCN5171 DSCN5210

Scottish Ballet. Edinburgh International Festival, August 2006.

Scottish Ballet were beautiful. They performed a mixed bill of modern dance pieces at the Edinburgh Playhouse on Saturday, although modern is a flexible term: the first piece, Agon by George Balanchine, was nearly fifty years old. There was no set – just deep blue light flooding across the plain backdrop – the dancers in complex groups and en masse looked excellent.

I didn’t like the music to Agon, though – it was some Stravinsky pieces which I didn’t recognise, rather jarring.

The second piece was stunningly beautiful. A duet to Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, Afternoon Of A Faun was a gentle piece which used a set of ballet rehearsal room in perspective. The two dancers – Vassilissa Levtonova, and Paul Liburd – were excellent, the music was lovely and the whole worked superbly. This was followed by another duet, Two Pieces For Het, with music by Arvo Pärt and Erkki-Sven Tüür.

The evening finished with a long, full ensemble piece, In Light And Shadow. Set to several pieces by Bach, this was energetic and exciting dance. The dancers wore unisex costumes – some of the men in skirts, some of the women in trousers – and danced singly, in duet, in groups and en masse. It looked excellent, the dancers moving with elegance and fluidity.