Tag Archives: The Queen’s Hall

Mike Stern and SNJO. Edinburgh, February 2016.

I didn’t have high expectations of this gig. I saw Mike Stern with Bill Evans a couple of years ago, a very enjoyable gig, but I couldn’t imagine how his electric-jazz would translate to a big band. I mean, I thought it’d be fun, but nothing special.

So much for my lack of imagination. Because this gig was very special indeed – just amazing. If I see a better show this year, I will feel myself very lucky indeed.

The band sounded just brilliant. No surprise there. But they worked perfectly with Stern’s electric guitar. Drummer Alyn Cosker was given free rein – I think he’s better jazz-rock than swing drummer (though he didn’t have as much freedom as during the SNJO’s outing of Coltrane material). Bassist Calum Gourlay played electric bass as fluently as he does his acoustic.

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The soloists stretched out, but it was the band as a whole that sounded so good. I think a lot of that must be down to the arrangers, too – Geoff Keezer and Florian Ross are regular contributors, but I think there were some new names among the arrangers, as well. Either way, they turned Stern’s tunes into highly crafted big band pieces, showing off the SNJO at its best.

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And Stern sounded brilliant, too. He appeared to have a deep respect for the band, a huge understanding, never overshadowing them. He spent most of the evening with a joyous smile on his face.

But perhaps the best moments were the three or four duets he played – short pieces, just Stern and another soloist. They were just magical.

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Aside from Marcus Miller’s Splatch, which features Stern on the SNJO album “American Adventure”, I have no idea what tracks were played. I mean, I could copy the list from the programme, but not knowing the music I couldn’t say which is which. Neither Stern nor Tommy Smith said anything between the tunes, as if they didn’t want to waste time talking when they could be playing. One tune flowed into another, Stern playing throughout, as happy accompanying as soloing.

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As he left the stage at the end of the second set, Stern exclaimed “well, that was fun!” Yes, Mike, it was. It was very fun indeed!

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SNJO Play “The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn”. Edinburgh, February 2015.

I have seen the SNJO play many times since they started twenty years ago. I like what they do. And I love the music of Billy Strayhorn. So they would have tried very, very hard for me not to enjoy this gig.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Though they did work hard, it was a joy. Working from Strayhorn’s original charts – and including many recently found tunes and scraps of tunes – and covering the whole of Strayhorn’s career to celebrate the centenary of his birth, this was the SNJO in repertory mode.

They started with “Take the A Train”, the first of Strayhorn’s charts for Duke Ellington, a more restrained performance than their concert of Ellington numbers a while ago, and over the course of two long (but two short!) sets took us through to Strayhorn’s last composition, “Blood Count”, written when he was having treatment for leukaemia (and recorded after his death on Ellington’s memorial to Strayhorn, “…And His Mother Called Him Bill”). “Blood Count” was beautifully elegaic.

The playing was subtle and refined, the charts leaving little space for extravagant histrionic solos. At times it seemed like the band were channelling the greats from Ellington’s bands: altoist Paul Towndrow had Johnny Hodges’ tone down to a tee, trumpeter Tom McNiven stretching for Cat Anderson’s high notes and, had I been listening with my eyes closed, I would have sworn the clarinet was coming from Jimmy Hamilton rather than Martin Kershaw.

With Kershaw leading on clarinet he had to double on tenor, and the second alto was filled unusually by Konrad Wiszniewski, leaving Tommy Smith as the only lead tenor player. He naturally filled that role perfectly, with beautiful solos on “Isfahan” (played as a duet with Brian Kellock on piano) and “Lush Life”.

SNJO have got a busy year ahead as they celebrate their twentieth anniversary. with Kurt Elling singing Sinatra in May, a June tour of the Highlands & Island with Eddi Reader (I have half a mind to catch them in Ullapool…) and autumn tours featuring firstly the music of Benny Golson and secondly Glenn Miller. I wonder if they do requests?

Tommy Smith Sextet. The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, c1986-1990.

These photographs confuse me. I have no recollection of the gig in the slightest, and I didn’t record the date. The backdrop shows the Queens Hall.

Tommy Smith said by email that he put the sextet together before recording Paris, which was released in 1992 – but that only adds to my confusion because I wasn’t living in Edinburgh at that time!

I can’t think how I could have forgotten such a good line up – Tommy, Steve Williamson and Julian Arguelles on saxes, Guy Barker on trumpet, Terje Gewelt on bass and, Tommy’s email said, Jason Rebello on piano. I think it looks like Ian Froman on drums behind Tommy in one of the pictures.

Trumpeter Colin Steele was in negatives on the same film; Tommy Smith says he’s never had Colin in his band, so I presume that Colin was providing the support.

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Christian Scott Sextet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2014.

Some things annoy me. One thing that is pretty much guaranteed to annoy me is being told to enjoy myself. I’ll do what I want, thanks, and if you’re an entertainer and you feel the need to tell me that I should be enjoying myself – well, that makes me think that maybe you’re not doing you’re job. (This goes for promoters, too. Indeed, anyone standing on a stage trying to get an audience to react by bellowing “ARE YOU HAVING A GOOD TIME?” really should get another job. Because if you have to ask, the answer’s probably “NO!”)

And when you then tell the audience to lighten up and not look so serious, as Christian Scott did, well, I’m going to look like I look. And wonder if maybe I’m looking like that because you’re not entertaining me. And I really wouldn’t compound it by pointing at people in the front row of your concert.

If Mr Scott hadn’t spoken, it might have been fine. Not a great gig, but fun. But unfortunately he kept speaking. He instructed us to enjoy ourselves. He told us not to look serious. (That worked. Immediately: I changed the way I looked.)

And he spent maybe twenty minutes introducing the band. And the hilarious stories of how he met the band. And the pranks they played. And why he thought they were so great. Personally I’d have preferred hearing them play so I could make my own mind up, ta.

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He also told us how he liked to mix styles. “I call it Fusion 2.0”, he said. Unfortunately, jazz has moved on to v5.7.3, and nothing Scott played sounded new, energetic or experimental. Most sessions on JazzOn3 are more challenging and exciting. It sounded like jazz-soul-funk from the 1980s – which is fine, but not what he promised. He has a lot of catching up to do.

The more straight ahead jazz numbers sounded fresher and more interesting, the band allowed the stretch out and flex their muscles. Even Elena Pinderhughes’ flute – a much maligned instrument in jazz – sounded good.

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Scott’s trumpet playing was exciting, with lots of high notes pouring from his Dizzy-ing “bent” horn.

But the choice of numbers was stilted. With further audience participation, he asked what we’d like to hear for the last number, and someone shouted out “the blues!” So the band played a dragging, turgid version of “Blue Monk”. Sometimes it’s good not to give the punters what they want. It would have been sad to end the festival on that, and they pulled back with a rousing encore which barely featured Scott until his final, fiery solo.

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The Bad Plus. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2014.

This was the Edinburgh Jazz Festival gig I was most looking forward to, and simultaneously the one I was least looking forward to. That’s because it was the one that had the potential to disappoint me most, because my expectations were so high. Last tune I saw the Bad Plus play, I was disappointed, because the previous occasion – which happened to be the night before – they played, together with Joshua Redman, one of the most powerful, moving gigs I’ve ever been to. The following night, without Redman, could only have been disappointing.

What would happen this time?

Well, it wasn’t quite as good as that gig with Redman; but it was pretty close.

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Spread over two long sets, they played some beautiful music. Playing music written by each of them but keeping to a band-style, the trio seems intricately balanced: Ethan Iverson seems serious on piano, Dave King brings irreverent humour on percussion (with a bag full of gadgets and a wry smile on his face – he always looks like he’s enjoyinging himself), and between the two of them is Reid Anderson on bass, propelling them along.

Anderson also writes the tunes which most resonate with me – his “Prehensile Dream” was a high point of the gig, brooding beauty building and building to its climax. For three people, they have a big sound. There is a lot going on without it being too busy or full.

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So. This was the best of the several EJF gigs I went to this year, and I felt grateful and privileged to be there. Still, I can’t help but imagine what they’d have been like if they had surpassed their show with Redman…

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Mike Stern / Bill Evans Band. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2014.

My main reason for coming to this gig was to see drummer Dennis Chambers, so I was a little miffed when it was announced that he had been taken ill, and Derico Watson (of whom I’d not heard) would be taking his place. More fool me.

Watson was phenomenal, and one would never guess he’d had so little preparation. The rest of the band were pretty good, too, producing enjoyable music (some might say fusion with Stern’s electric guitar and Tom Kennedy’s electric bass – but the jazz chops were evident throughout, and there was some mighty swinging drumming from Watson) across two long sets.

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Evans playing was excellent, and both he and Stern looked like they were having a ball. Compatriots from Miles Davis’ band of the early eighties (perhaps not Miles’ finest period), they played a blend of each other’s tunes, Evans’ perhaps more solid jazz and Stern’s a bit rockier.

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Evans spoke warmly and at length of his previous experiences in Edinburgh, particularly with SNJO (he appears on their latest CD). The crowd, in turn, loved this band, giving them a standing ovation.

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SNJO and Courtney Pine Play Coltrane. Edinburgh, March 2014.

There’s been a bit of a stushie after a critic criticised the Cure for playing three hour long sets. Well the SNJO and Courtney Pine would have given them a run for their money, playing for well over three hours in this tribute to John Coltrane.

There has been a bit of criticism about that too, suggesting that Pine was somewhat overindulgent. Quite possibly. But then so was Coltrane – he famously didn’t know how to stop once he got going (to which Miles Davis is supposed to have said “try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth“…)

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In the past I have sometimes tired of Pine’s pyrotechnics, but here the stream of consciousness flow of notes, together with an extreme display of circular breathing seemed fitting. Some critics described Coltrane as trying to play every note at once, which gave rise to the description of his playing as creating “sheets of sound“, and Pine did the same. His playing was fast and intense, and the audience loved it.

True, I think the audience would have loved it whatever: a combination of SNJO, who always get a good crowd at her Queen’s Hall, and Coltrane, who still seems to inspire devotion amongst his fans, nearly fifty years since his untimely death, seemed a guaranteed winner.

It was interesting to hear how such loved music translated from Coltrane’s small groups into a big band setting. Extremely well, I felt. With the band taking on much of the work done by McCoy Tyner, pianist Steve Hamilton was less to the fore and a bit lost in the mix, but Alyn Cosker more than held his own on drums in inevitable comparisons with Elvin Jones. He was in cracking form, especially when the band dropped out leaving Cosker and Pine to duet – or battle it out.

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Of the ten pieces, only one didn’t work for me, Joe Locke’s reimagining of the almost cliched ballad Naima – and even then Locke should be applauded for doing something different with his material.

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The rest of the material was faster – sometimes much faster. They started off with a ripping Impressions, with Pine blowing furiously from the start, and kept going. And going. And going! The arrangements generally stuck close to the originals, the band providing the support to allow Pine and the other soloists to blow. It was of course a night for the saxes, with Tommy Smith and Konrad Wizsniewski contributing on tenor, and Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow soloing on alto. Pine alternated between tenor and soprano. There were also a couple of trumpet solos from Tom McNiven and Lorne Cowieson, and a trombone solo by Chris Grieve. My one quibble from the evening was that with so many great soloists the band, it is a shame they got little opportunity to show their chops.

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I think my favourite piece of the night was a storming version of Afro Blue – but then it’s one of my favourite Coltrane numbers. The only piece in the evening not penned by Coltrane (though the programme didn’t credit Mongo Santamaria), hearing the full band play the central riff for several choruses was exhilarating.

They bravely honoured Acknowledgement and Resolution from A Love Supreme, music which is so loved that it is rarely tackled by other artists. Resolution was arranged by Towndrow, and also featured his alto solo; Impressions was also arranged by an SNJO member, Ryan Quigley, though he wasn’t in the band on this occasion. Tommy Smith contributed The Father, The Son And The Holy Ghost, which closed the show. It is very pleasing to see the SNJO using home grown talent as well as their roster of international arrangers.

Smith and Pine battled on the closer, sometimes with just Cosker powering along behind them. A more free piece which I didn’t know, and apparently minimal arrangement – Smith taking a break from his soloing to direct the band – this worked really well, building up to climax after climax. I think it had to be the last number: after three hours, I don’t know how they could have kept going!

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All in all, an evening of wonderful music, and it was great to hear Pine playing the music of one of his major influences so fluently. Marvellous.

Tord Gustavsen Quartet. Edinburgh, March 2014.

I have seen Tord Gustavsen play with his trio several times I the last few years, though this was the first time I had seen his quartet, the trio augmented with Tore Brunborg on saxophone.

The music was as beautiful as I had expected. And that was its major problem: it was exactly as I expected. There were no surprises, nothing jarring. And this predictability leads, for me, to a performance that disappoints. I need some rough edges, some excitement. Without it, the experience was a little too rich, too exquisite.

Aside from one saxophone solo towards the end of the set, the was little building of tension. Gustavsen’s music has a melancholic, contemplative mood. The playing from all members of the quartet is excellent – Gustavsen has found players who match his sound. The drums of Jarle Vespestad in particular fit very well: he’s a drummer who manages to say a lot, quietly and subtly.

But for me the gentleness wears after a while. I craved some change in the heat: this was just too cool.

I have to say that I was in the minority here. I have spoken to several people who were at the gig, and I’m the only one who had too much of what the quartet had to offer! Everyone else was uniformly effusive and could have continued listening all night.

Kurt Elling & SNJO. February 2014.

I have an admission: I don’t really like jazz singers. There are exceptions – some, like Billie Holliday, are so emotional, so raw, that I find it hard to listen to them – but others – most, I reckon – are so anodyne that they reduce songs to a syrupy lowest common denominator. For me jazz is about improvisation, and for most singers, improvisation is out – because a song is all the words.

But I saw video of Kurt Elling singing with the SNJO, tackling Coltrane’s “Resolution” from A Love Supreme, and sounding brilliant, so thought I’d give them a chance when they played in Edinburgh a few weeks ago.

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SNJO have been playing a lot recently – and I think they always sound brilliant: lively, forceful, full of great musicians and always apparently up for something special. They are busy right now. They did a few nights with Branford Marsalis at the end of last year, a tour with Jacqui Dankworth (which I didn’t catch), then this tour with Elling, and the end this month they back with Courtney Pine, paying homage to Coltrane. I reckon that’ll be special, too.

When the SNJO started out, they were very much a respiratory* repertory orchestra: they performed orchestral jazz classics, providing a hugely welcome opportunity to hear well-loved music live: they played full concert versions of the Miles Davis / Gil Evans collaborations Miles Ahead, Sketches Spain and Porgy & Bess; Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder and Far East suite; Basie’s The Atomic Mr Basie; and an orchestration of Mingus’s Ah Um. There was something truly magical about hearing these great works brought to life.

But more recently, they have changed they way they work, focusing as much on the guests as the repertory – and commissioning new arrangements to match the guests. As well as Branford playing the music of Wayne Shorter, they’ve worked with Arild Andersen (playing arrangements from the ECM catalogue), Dave Liebman, and John Scofield. (The concert I saw with Sco was one of the very few – perhaps the only – time I was disappointed by an SNJO gig; but then loving Sco, and loving SNJO, I had high expectations!)

They seem to commission the same arrangers for each off their projects – composers of the calibre of Geoff Keezer, Florian Ross, and Bob Mintzer. Each arranger sounds different, but they all sound just like the SNJO, and they capture the voice.

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And this gig with Elling didn’t disappoint. Opening up with a fast scat, the band set a rollicking pace, driven by Alyn Cosker’s drums. Elling bought energy and verve to the interesting selection of tunes. Tommy Smith’s arrangement of Mingus’s “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”, a tune Smith has worked with before, stood out, as did Geoff Keezer’s version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere”. (I think Keezer had become my favourite arranger from SNJO’s stable – lush arrangements that have a real feel of Gil Evans.)

It was a fascinating mixture of tunes – a couple from Wayne Shorter (with lyrics added by Elling), traditional Scottish (a gorgeous rendition of the Loch Tay Boat Song, arranged by Florian Ross) and so on.

The orchestra sounded superb, and Elling appeared to enjoy listening to them much he enjoyed singing. The only problem with the band seemed to be the wealth of talent: I wanted to hear more solos, from everyone. Tommy Smith seems to get better and better, which is saying something, and there were also great sax solos from Konrad Wiszniewski and Martin Kershaw. The trumpets blew fast and high, the trombones moody and low.

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Behind it all was the solid, swinging rhythm section. For a couple of numbers the band dropped out, leaving pianist Steve Hamilton, bassist Calum Gourlay and Cosker as a trio backing Elling, and they were very good.

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This gig showed SNJO to be consistently good – and proved that sometimes I do actually like singers!

*Unfortunately instead of writing “repertory”, my computer thought I meant “respiratory”; when it was pointed out, I reckoned respiratory might be an apt description of the brass section…”