The Playtime Trio played a gig in July trying out a new venue. A cellar-bar, it was moodily lit – that is, poorly lit! Fun to play around in, though.
I reviewed the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival for LondonJazzNews; here are some more photos of the Tom & Okoe African Groove Machine gig.
There have been several excellent CDs by Scottish bands recently. And they’re up for the Scottish Jazz Awards. So I thought I’d try to gather my thoughts about three of them.
Starting with the most familiar first…
Graham Costello’s Strata – Obelisk.
It’s less than a year since I first heard Strata, almost by mistake; they blew me away with their passion and intensity, as well as their tremendous musicianship. I have seen them several times since.
Obelisk came out in February, and I picked up a copy as soon asI could, keen to see how it matched up to their live shows. It feels less intense, which is probably a good thing – there’s only so much intensity one can take at home. The same mixture of (to my ears) jazz, prog rock, Reichian minimalism and touches of folk music are all there, of course, and some passionate solos from Liam Shorthall, Harry Weir, Joe Williamson and Fergus McCreadie. (It was a curiosity about what Fergus McCreadie was up to outside his trio that lead me to Strata in the first place.)
I’m still rather awestruck by how talented these young musicians are. They all play in a plethora of bands, part of Scotland’s flourishing is scene. Graham Costello wrote all the music on Obelisk, which would be an achievement in itself. That he is a pretty phenomenal drummer just adds another dimension.
But it is also very much a group: they all contribute something as the music twists one way and another. They seem at ease hopping from one genre-sound to another, and the whole seems pretty complete.
(Graham Costello’s Strata regularly play in Glasgow, and they have a couple of gigs coming up in the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in July – their show with a string quartet sounds particularly interesting.)
Tom Bancroft’s In Common – Love & Stillness.
I only got this a couple of weeks ago, and I have listened to it many times since then. Tom seems to specialise in putting together slightly wacky, unusual line ups: this one features some of his regular collaborators tohether with musicians from India. He was recently bemused by some reviewers’ take on what bands had influenced the record, so I’ll have to choose my words carefully.
What I hear are jazz and Indian music, with a large helping of Celtic folk influences. This band played at Celtic Connections (I missed the gig), and whilst I’m somewhat surprised at what gets badged “celtic”, here it is entirely warranted. The three elements are combined, and something energetic and new results.
The Celtic side comes from Tom himself – he plays bodhran on several tracks – from the three singers’ intonation, and from some of Graeme Stephen’s guitar playing. Graeme wrote some of the pieces, too. The use of loops and effects creates some magical moments. The title track is pretty fab, all the elements coming together – the three singers (Gina Rae, Sophie Bancroft and Inge Thomson – I’ll admit I’m not sure who’s singing which line) bring Celtic passion, Bancroft and Stephen rumbling jazz improvisation, and the Indian musicians top it off. Written down, it sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it really does.
The two Indian musicians – playing percussion and violin – are as at home in the western styles as their own. Sharat Chandra Srivastava’s violin works really well; Gyan Singh’s tabla bring another dimension to Bancroft’s already eclectic percussion. The aptly named “Bodhran and Tabla” features the two with drone, exchanging phrases till it is hard to tell which is which; “Drums and Tabla” (guess the instruments featured on that?!) has Bancroft laying down some rockish rhythms together with the tabla (or perhaps it’s the other way around!).
Something else about this record is what it says about Scotland. Rooted in a variety of cultures, exploring others and creating something new. It says so much.
(Tom Bancroft is bringing his new new project, Africa Groove Machine to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, too! It features some great musicians, including Claude Deppa, who I haven’t seen play in an age.)
Kevin MacKenzie – The Ballad of Future Joe.
This trio record seems so simple in comparison to In Common and Strata: but no less effective. Together with Mario Caribe and Alyn Cosker, Kevin Mackenzie has made an optimistic, cheerful record. It has the same feeling as Marc Johnson’s “The Sound of Summer Running”. There are times when Mackenzie is reminiscent of both Bill Frisell and John Scofield in their quieter moments.
Caribe and Cosker are excellent, though that’s not news. There’s a real warmth to Mario’s bass playing – he has some lovely solos. Cosker is probably at his best in a small, acoustic group like this; there’s a swinging clarity to good playing. (And top marks to the engineer – all the instruments sound great, but Cosker’s drum sound is superlative.)
It is hard to know what more to say, other than that this is a really lovely record!
(Suffice to say, the Kevin Mackenzie Trio – with Alyn Cosker and Mario Caribe – are also playing at the the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. Which is just as well, because, listening to this record again, I was thinking how much I’d like to see them play live.)
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I was going to limit my thoughts to the three records but one of my favourite records from last year is also in the running for the award, and it seems remiss to miss it off…
Fergus McCreadie Trio – Turas.
Fergus has already featured as part of Strata: here he is with his regular trio, playing jazz-folk fusion. And bringing the best of both worlds to the party. Fergus is a versatile and eclectic player – as at home bending folk tunes with Stephen Henderson and David Bowden as he is in the complex intensity of Strata.
The trio develop a different kind of intensity: a west coast lament, a Scottish air. The titles reflect Scotland – “Ardbeg”, “Hillfoot Glen”, “Mull”, “The Culearn Mill”. There is a real sense of place. There are passages of meditative calm and passages of romantic flair. Another lovely record – considering that this is his debut CD, it really does bode well.
(What do you know! The Fergus McCreadie Trio are ALSO playing at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival! Though I’ve seen the band several times in the last few months, so I’m hoping to catch Fergus McCreadie and Tommy Smith playing in a duo – they played a short set in Islay last year, and it sounded great!)
Last Thursday I went along to Playtime, my local bimonthly gig, as I often (but not always) do. Tom Bancroft pointed out that it was five years since their first show, and that seems worthy of note.
I was at the first Playtime; quite a few were, although there has apparently been at least one occasion in the last five years when the band played to an empty house. I wish I’d been there – though then it might not have been noteworthy. Nowadays, they get good houses, often standing room only (stifling in the summer!).
It started as a space for the four regular musicians – Bancroft, Martin Kershaw, Mario Caribe and Graeme Stephen – to try out new tunes, but it has become broader as they have sessions dedicated to specific influences (with new arrangements of well known tunes) and welcome guests from the lively Scottish scene and further afield, as musicians on tour stop by, and in particular, regular (and very wonderful) sessions of wholly improvised music.
There have been many very memorable nights, and several absolutely magical. I can recall only one I was glad to hear only one set – I’d arrived late, in the interval, and I think if I’d seen the first set I might have taken the opportunity to leave during the break. But frankly one show I didn’t enjoy out of the fifty or so I must have seen seems like an excellent hit rate.
On Thursday, it was a return to their roots – trying out new tunes and arrangements. Unfortunately Graeme Stephen wasn’t there (off gigging with Sugarwork in Aberdeen), so it was a trio of Bancroft, Caribe and Kershaw providing the music. There were some lovely tunes – Bancroft’s “Occo In Scotland”, a piece written for a schools’ big band, and Caribe’s gorgeous arrangement of (I think) “Silenciosa”. Kershaw presented some new reworkings of Strayhorn and Ellington tunes, the originals of “Take The S Train” and “Stain Doll” [sic] barely hinted at.
There was a fair bit of politics, what with Brexit confusion and parliamentary mayhem going on in the outside world. Caribe introduced “The Underbelly Of The Beast” as an attack on far right governments everywhere, and particularly his native Brasil; it might just have been the political nature of the tune, but I couldn’t help thinking of Mingus (and that’s always a good thing).
Despite the general pissed-offedness at politics, Bancroft hit a high note with a lovely tune called “Everything Is Going To Be Ok”. And in those minutes, it certainly was.
For me and many others, Playtime has become a regular fixture, a landmark in the Edinburgh jazz scene. It attracts an audience there to listen and appreciate the music. There’s a lot of humour in the music, too – the musicians want people to listen, but don’t take themselves too seriously. The dedication to new and improvised music may not be unique, but it is hugely welcome.
Happy Birthday, Playtime!
(I didn’t take my camera to this gig, because the lighting is awful and I have many pictures of Tom, Mario and Martin already. The pictures in this post are some of my favourites from five years of Playtime from the core players and their guests.)
I’ve seen Fraser Fiefield play a few times before – most commonly in a duo with Graeme Stephen – but not for several years. This time, the reeds player joined Stephen, Mario Caribe and Tom Bancroft for “Playtime”. I had expected to enjoy it, but I hadn’t expected it to be one of those nights. There was a certain alchemy at work: it was a magical evening, a very special event.
The mixture of folk and jazz blended perfectly and produced something new and surprising. Fifield’s whistles, pipes and saxophone evoked the windswept celtic fringes of Scotland: heartfelt, yearning and perhaps even lonely. The Playtime rhythm section was in full swing, listening hard and adding their own magic to Fifield’s tunes. A exceptional night!
Back in June, Phil Bancroft brought his tenor to Playtime for an evening dedicated to the music of Sonny Rollins. Phil spoke about Rollins’ influence – particularly how, when he was finding his voice, he wanted to sound like Coltrane but reckoned he sounded like Rollins; and that that was probably a good place to be.
I’ve been consciously listening to Rollins’ music for decades – I remember buying the Blue Note reissues of Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard and the two eponymous albums in the mid 1980s – and I’ve seen him live a couple of times, though not for the last twenty years. His music has never made the impact that Coltrane’s does. And it is fascinating that fifty years after Coltrane’s death, the two are still being compared. It is probably an unfair comparison, but the two are so influential that perhaps it is only to be expected. Whilst I can describe Coltrane’s style, I’m not sure I can describe Rollins’: softer, more repetitive and rhythmic, perhaps.
But I do know many of his tunes, and it was great to hear Bancroft play them. Several favourites weren’t played – no St Thomas (though Bancroft did play a calypso he’d written when jamming with musicians in Soweto), nor Alfie, nor Sonnymoon For Two. Indeed, it is strange that I can remember what wasn’t played better than what was!
The highlight I do remember: it was a roaring version of Rollins’ Freedom Suite, all twenty minutes of it, and it was brilliant: completely absorbing. Not necessarily easy music – it can be jarring (so maybe not much softer!) – but hugely rewarding.
The band Thelonious – definitely not Calum Gourlay’s band, he kept telling us – played two nights at this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival, at two venues, and their performances felt quite different: one good and one excellent.
It is an interesting band: a tribute to Monk without a pianist. This confused some people – the guy next to me at the Jazz Bar, the first night, kept saying “How can you have a band playing Monk without a pianist?” The answer is: very easily. With Gourlay on bass, Martin Speake on alto and Hans Koller on euphonium, together with local drummer Tom Bancroft for these shows, the instrumentation allows one to concentrate on the melodies that Monk crafted. With a pianist, one would waste energy comparing them to Monk – was the pianist copying, did they get that bit right…? Without the choppy angularity of Monk’s piano playing and his sometimes idiosyncratic chords, it was all down to the tunes.
And what tunes. They didn’t repeat any number over the two shows, and still managed not to play my favourites (Well You Needn’t, I Mean You and, tops, In Walked Bud. Next time, guys…). They played famous numbers like Round Midnight, Epistrophe, and Pannonica and tunes I’d not heard before, such as Teo, We See, and Ask Me Now. I thought I knew Brilliant Corners, but clearly I was mistaken – perhaps the most jagged of the pieces played, it reminded me of Jackie McLean’s Melody for Melonae – and McLean was also recognised when the band played Jackie-ing.
The euphonium gave the music a rich, rounded sound, in contrast to Monk’s often spiky feel. Speake’s alto sparkled, and the rhythm section of Gourlay and Bancroft were superb. Gourlay – who seemed to be everywhere in the first half of the festival – is a very confident, accomplished musician. I’m so used to seeing Bancroft play in more improvising bands that it was refreshing to hear him playing such swinging drums.
I thought the first night at the Jazz Bar was the better of the two shows, perhaps because I had more to drink, the atmosphere at the venue – the second night in the basement of the Rose Theatre wasn’t as full – or maybe just because it was a Sunday. But still great fun!
I saw Laura MacDonald play for the first time in a while last year, and this was her first visit to Playtime. It was a very enjoyable evening: the double sax frontline of Laura and Martin Kershaw (who played a bit of tenor, as well as his usual alto) were superb, and the rhythm secion of regulars Graeme Stephen (guitar) and Tom Bancroft (drums), with Andy Sharkey sitting in on bass, kept things moving at a cracking pace.
It was an evening of standards, such as All The Things You Are, Four, and You, The Night And The Music. Hearing the Playtime regulars dip into the classic jazz songbook was a real pleasure.
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.
Trio Red played an intimate gig in Edinburgh last month. With Calum Gourlay depping on bass for an absent Per Zanussi, they played many of the tracks from their new album Lucid Dreamers (which I reviewed for LondonJazz, and liked a lot) as well numbers from their first CD. The music is full of humour, and this comes out live. Tom Bancroft is full of stories and provided the context for the songs and their often surreal titles, and this feeds into their music. They expand the tunes more than they do on the CD, letting things go further. A really fun gig.