Tag Archives: The Usher Hall

Public Service Broadcasting. Edinburgh, April 2018.

Public Service Broadcasting seem to get better and better. This was at least the fifth (possibly the sixth) time I’ve seen them in as many years. Always entertaining, they have got more political: they started out almost as a novelty act – how could two guys make all this music?! – but they have got more nuanced, more complex. The old material of still very good, but the newer tunes have more depth.

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Tonight they played things from each of their three studio albums. (Nothing from The War Room that wasn’t on Inform-Educate-Entertain. That is, Spitfire, which was brilliant as ever.) And they seemed to play chunks from their albums – several tunes from each before moving to the next, with Every Valley featuring two chunks.

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It was a great show. I was pretty near the front. The bass player, JF Abrahams, is the most lively performer, and gives them a bit more energy on stage, which benefits shows in larger venues; Wigglesworth is stuck behind his kit, J Willgoose Esq hides behind his keyboards even when playing guitar, barely lit. Wigglesworth is the driving force behind the band, though. Willgoose might be the brains, but Wigglesworth is the pounding heart.

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The lights, projections and props add much to the live show: they’re an intrinsic part of the performance. (And how many others bands take a pit-head on tour? Or a satelite? Or…) I can’t help thinking they should perform Every Valley at the Scottish Mining Museum – with a real pit-head to play with.

Given their reliance on samples and what might seem a formulaic approach, the emotional heft of PSB’s music is surprising. Maybe I’m just growing sentimental, but several of their tunes pull strongly on my heartstrings, or send shivers over my skin.

A very impressive performance!

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Jane Weaver. Edinburgh, April 2018.

Jane Weaver and her band were supporting Public Service Broadcasting at the Usher Hall. I’d caught a number late one night on TV and reckoned they were worth getting there early for.

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They were very good: exceptionally tight. Nary a guitar solo nor a drum break – they were impressively self-controlled. Jane Weaver held the limelight, guitarist Pete Philipson and keyboard player Raz Ullah literally staying in the shadows. There was no bass player, Ullah creating the bassline and Philipson creating moody, distorted soundscapes over which Weaver sang. The nameless drummer – Weaver didn’t introduce the band (“we are Jane Weaver”, she said) – kept a steady, propulsive motoric beat.

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The result was very effective, reminiscent of Stereolab with more discipline and a touch of psychadelia. Very good indeed.

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Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra. The Usher Hall, Edinburgh, June 2014.

Coming the evening after the Neil Cowley Trio in Glasgow, the Jazz the Lincoln Centre Orchestra, lead by trumpet maestro Wynton Marsalis, was a very different affair – it felt studied and slightly academic. The band of sixteen players certainly didn’t build up the same head of stream – the exuberant energy – that just three had the night before.

Ostensibly a celebration of the seventy fifth anniversary of Blue Note records, the two sets largely comprised music taken from huge Blue Note catalogue, but with a couple surprising additions from elsewhere, too.

The performance seemed dominated by two Scottish musicians, one present, the other sadly absent. The latter was local Joe Temperley, who, though scheduled to play, hadn’t been able to make trip from his adopted home the USA. Marsalis told the audience that he had asked Temperley what the band should play that night, and that determined the opening and closing numbers.

The surprise guest – very much present – was Scottish violinist Nicola Bernedetti, who played two pieces from Marsalis’ long work “Blood on the Fields”. It was a coup by Marsalis, and one much appreciated by the audience (including me) – Bernedetti is a favourite with Scottish music lovers as well as being a worldwide star. But last time I saw JALCO play, they had featured some local (London) jazz musicians, and I thought it was a pity that they hadn’t invited some players from the thriving Scottish jazz scene along. It might have introduced the sell-out crowd to some musicians they might not ordinarily see.

The Blue Note music featured was mostly from the classic period of the late 1950s and early 1960s. There is a wide repertoire to choose from, but in the whole they shied away from the more popular or obvious choices. There were pieces by Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and a couple by the recently deceased Horace Silver, amongst others. But no Thelonious Monk, for instance – one of the major figures of twentieth century music who released some major recordings on Blue Note.

The orchestrations seemed a little too reverent, taking the originals as the way the tunes should be played, rather than the starting off point for musical explorations. The arrangement of Sidney Bechet’s “Weary Blues” was the most respectful of all – rather than featuring the whole orchestra, it was arranged for a septet, and sounded like a reproduction instead of a modern interpretation of a pre-war classic. It felt somewhat of a waste – I wondered what “Old Wine”-period Gil Evans might have made of it. It was disappointing that it was this tune that got most applause, prior to Bernedetti’s surprise appearance.

The closing number of the second set was a very respectful and beautiful rendition the finale to Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” suite. This suited the orchestra’s feeling precisely. When Marsalis announced that they’d be closing with an Ellington piece – Temperley’s suggestion – I hoped that they’d commissioned arrangement of a tune from “Money Jungle”, Duke’s Blue Note collaboration with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. But this was better – rich and luscious with exquisite playing, capturing the mood and style the original.

“Now’s the Time!”: Denys Baptiste. Edinburgh, October 2013.

Denys Baptiste played his new suite, Now’s the Time, for only the second time on Monday night; it is an extended, complex and ambitious piece for jazz orchestra and chorus that made demands of both the players and the audience. It had moments of passion and brilliance, but was slightly marred by teething problems and the unforgiving environment of the Usher Hall.

Like Baptiste’s earlier suite, Let Freedom Ring, which made up the second half of this compelling concert, Now’s the Time was composed in response to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream…” speech. Let Freedom Ring was written to celebrate the speeches fortieth anniversary; Now’s the Time its fiftieth. As Baptiste said in his introduction, the world was possibly in a worse place than it was ten years ago, but his music caught an optimism for the future.

I have heard musicians argue persuasively the the blues, and the jazz it gave rise to, are inextricably linked to politics. Improvisation is an expression of freedom, and repressive regimes have repeatedly tried to suppress jazz. Certainly jazz musicians played a big role of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and free-jazz came out as desire for both musical and political freedom. The two suites played tonight are clearly political in their inception, which only adds to their power.

As with its companion piece, Now’s the Time was accompanied by spoken word, the poet Lemm Sissay making videos for each of the four movements. The videos worked well, but his voice overwhelmed the orchestra. For much of the time, the piano and bass were barely audible, a real shame when they are played by musicians of the calibre of Gary Crosby and Andrew McCormack. It took a while for the string section – two violins and two cellos – to settle in the mix too.

But the music was great. Each movement was presaged by the 60-odd members of a local community chorus singing spirituals or protest songs, and they really entered into the spirit of it. Their first tune, a spiritual, raised the hairs on my neck, and set the tone for the whole suite. It took the first orchestral piece for the players to find their feet; for the second, “Now’s the Time”, they stretched out as bit: it had a real bebop feel to it, and quoted sparingly from the bebop tune of the same name. The final section worked best, as if it all came together. The orchestra riffed simply behind a sequence of soloists, each upping the ante for a fine finale.

It will be interesting to see how the suite develops, both with musicians’ and audiences’ familiarity. At well over an hour, I felt it could safely be trimmed a bit, but I hope it is recorded sometime soon: I’d love to hear it again.

The second half of the concert was the more familiar music of Let Freedom Ring, expanded for the strings and chorus. The singers had little to do until the eponymous third part, but here they were very effective: hearing sixty people chant let freedom ring! sends a powerful message, and their singing in the final section, “Free at Last”, as positively moving. When Denys got the audience to join in as well, the effect was spine-tingling.

For this suite, the poetry was provided by Ben Okri, and it fitted better with the music, perhaps because I knew where it was coming. The visuals worked well, too – footage of civil rights abuses in USA in the fifties and sixties (including some heart-rending images) , followed by protests (in particular the “Great March on Washington” where Dr King made his famous speech); and then some more recent footage of civil rights violations and protests – anti-capitalism and anti-austerity marches, the Occupy movement, the Tahrir Square protests, anti-fascism marches in Greece, the Turkish Gezi Park demonstrations – all emphasing Baptiste’s notion of the currency of the feelings expressed in the music.

The final section, “Free At Last”, was a tour de force. Featuring an exquisite piccato cello solo, and a lovely piano solo, Nathaniel Facey then took a long alto solo, set against the chanting of the choir, which lead to a final solo by Baptiste. Then he got everyone chanting, “free at last!” At the end of the concert, after he had introduced the band – it took a while, it’s a BIG band, he lead the orchestra off the stage; as he did so, some of the band started the riff again, and the choir and audience joined in. Powerful stuff indeed.

EST. Edinburgh, March 2007.

Last month, I went to see the Esbjorn Svensson Trio – EST – in a concert hall in Edinburgh. I was looking forward to the gig: EST are one of my favourite contemporary jazz bands; I have seen them many times over the last seven years or so.

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It was disappointing; not bad, but disappointing. Possibly because I have seen them so often – I saw their first Edinburgh gig, when they played Henry’s, a small club which held less than 100 people. It was full that night; the only seat available was right down in the front: I could have turned Svensson’s music. It was an incredible gig, pure musical excitement. The band were loud and soft, rocking and swinging, moving and straight ahead. It was, simply, great.

Since then I have seen them whenever they play in Edinburgh – after Henry’s they graduated to the much larger (but less intimate) venue of the Queen’s Hall – once in Dundee (where they followed a most beautiful gig by Bojan Z; it was empty, and it was like he was playing just for us. EST were too loud, and came across as brash, and didn’t cut it), and once at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, another wonderful performance.

So they have a patchy record, then: I have seen them play brilliant concerts, and I have seen them play poor concerts.

The gig in March wasn’t poor, but it didn’t impress, either. This time they were playing at the Usher Hall, their stature now having outgrown the Queen’s Hall. They are probably the most successful jazz act around at the moment – certainly in Europe. They have crossed over, picking up rock audiences; their music is generally simple – beautiful, but simple: you don’t need to have a knowledge of the jazz tradition to understand or enjoy it. It feelsEuropean, too.

They have a certain sound, a certain consistency to their recordings. But this is a shortcoming, too: their records now tend to sound the same. I have several of their CDs, but I haven’t bothered to buy the latest couple, since the tracks I have heard sound pretty much like those I do have. (A contradiction, clearly: I like the way they sound – I like the noise they make – but I don’t want all their recordings to sound the same.)

They primarily played tunes from their latest album; and they did sound very much like the ones I know from previous records. I thought they were best playing their older material – they played From Gagarin’s Point Of View which was hauntingly beautiful; but mostly, it was their newer, harder-edged material. They were good, but they didn’t really grab me.

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They have had a light show of sorts for a while. (They made videos way back, unheard of for a jazz band.) I found it distracting, as if they were trying too hard to compensate for the lack of intimacy in the hall: images of the band’s hands as they played didn’t add anything for me.

So I was disappointed: they were a long way off their best.

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