Tag Archives: The Outhouse

Two Gigs at the Outhouse. Edinburgh, June 2016.

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!

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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.

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A Harp And A Viola at “Playtime”. Edinburgh, January 2016.

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.

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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.

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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.

“Playtime” Plays Bill Evans. Edinburgh, January 2015.

The “Playtime” sessions at the Outhouse in Edinburgh are back for the new year, switching to alternate weeks, and seeming to pick up a larger audience in the process.

The first session of the year was a trio of Martin Kershaw, Graeme Stephen, and guest bassist Tom Lyne. A very enjoyable evening of inventive improvisation, Lyne bringing a bit more of a folk influence.

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Graeme Stephen. At a different “Playtime” gig.

The second gig last week was back to the core Playtime quartet – Kershaw on saxes, Stephen on guitar, Mario Caribe on bass and Tom Bancroft on drums. And it was a somewhat different prospect: an evening dedicated to the music of pianist Bill Evans.

Evans is one of my favorite musicians, though I sometimes feel a little goes a long way. So I was curious, and perhaps more than a little anxious, about how would work: Bill Evans, without a piano. Still, one of my favorite “Bill Evans” albums is Cannonball Adderley’s “Know What I Mean?”, with Evans on piano and Adderley’s lovely alto over the top. And John McLaughlin’s beautiful reminiscence of Evans, “Time Remembered”, didn’t have a piano on it; indeed, out doesn’t have anything but guitar. Kershaw also has a good record with pianists – last summer he lead a band playing the music of Lennie Tristano.

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Martin Kershaw. At a different “Playtime” gig.

From the very start, any doubts I had were allayed. There was something in the opening chords played by Graeme Stephen played that just said “Bill Evans!” A soft, plangent quality, gently ringing before the band came in. It just fitted.

Across two sets, the quartet played lots of familiar tunes, and a couple of less familiar ones, too. There was perhaps less free improvisation than usual, the musicians focusing on the music’s melodic qualities.

It was a lovely gig, an opportunity to reassess Evans’ music from different periods in a way one wouldn’t do normally. More, please.

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Tom Bancroft. At a different “Playtime” gig.

Julian Arguelles. “Playtime”, Edinburgh, August 2014.

The only jazz I saw during the Edinburgh Fringe was a show by Julian Arguelles with the “Playtime” trio of Tom Bancroft on drums, Euan Burton on bass and Graeme Stephen on guitar. A month or so before, Arguelles had played on of the best gigs at the Jazz Festival; this was an opportunity to see him with some musicians he was less familiar with, in a much more intimate setting. And it should be no surprise that it was a very different gig.

The set list was similar, mostly culled from Arguelles’ latest CD, Circularity (with Dave Holland on bass, Martin France on drums, and John Taylor on piano. An experiment line up and a superb record – but again, a very different sound!). Stephen’s ethereal guitar made it a much more spacious sound. Coupled with Bancroft’s open rhythms, the result was a freer sound: less certain and more experimental.

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“Playtime”. Edinburgh, March 2014.

I was very pleased when I learned that the Outhouse was hosting a new, weekly jazz night. Not only was it featuring some of my favourite local musicians in an informal setting, even better it’s just up the road from me. My own local jazz club.

Playtime” is every Thursday evening, and I’ve been to each of the three sessions they’ve run so far. (I’m a bit pissed off that I’ll probably miss this week’s, but three out of four ain’t bad.)

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The venue first. The Outhouse is a bar in a mews off Broughton St; the music happens upstairs, in what is effectively a news loft. It doesn’t take many people for it to feel busy – but comfortably so rather than crowded. There are sofas to the side, candles on tables; it feels a bit like someone’s front room.

A front room with an avant garde jazz band.

“Playtime” is well named. The four musicians seem to be taking the opportunity to try some new things and play around with old ideas too. They’re all accomplished band leaders in their own rights. On the first two nights, Martin Kershaw’s saxophones were the lead voice, with Mario Caribe on bass, Tom Bancroft on drums and Graeme Stephen on guitar. I’ve seen them all play, many times – but never in this combination.

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Each member of the band brought tunes to the table, and they ranged from free improvisation through quirky rhythms reminiscent of M-base to some standard swing style – all with a coherent sound. It was great to hear Mario Caribe – a strong, rhythmic player who really swings – playing more freely, but the real surprise for me was the texture brought by Graeme Stephen’s guitar: freed by the lack of a piano, he added a whole new dimension to the music.

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The third night – last Thursday – was a little different. A trio of Stephen, Caribe and Bancroft played Stephen’s score for the 1922 silent movie “Nosferatu”, the original vampire movie, the film playing on the wall being them. This was a very different experience, the music perhaps taking second place to the images on screen, but greatly adding to them too. Stephen’s soundtrack had elements of free music as well as more straight ahead sections: impressionistic music for an expressionistic masterpiece . Bancroft somehow timed his rolls and cymbal crashes perfectly to the action, and the trio really enhanced the melodramatic mood of horror.

I really hope they keep “Playtime” running – having a regular gig in this part of town is a godsend. Stephen said on Thursday that they were planning more silent movies-with-jazz, so presumably they’ve got the next few dates scheduled.

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