Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Zara McFarlane

Zara McFarlane, Palazzo Speigeltent, Monday July 21st *****

Not since American sensation Cecile McLorin Salvant took to the same stage three years ago has such a formidable new singing talent been launched on the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. Hearing Zara McFarlane on Monday night at the Speigeltent, it was impossible not to feel that you were in the presence of a future great; the next big thing.

McFarlane has a commanding, stately stage presence. At the Speiegeltent, the young British singer gently swivelled on the spot to draw in the attention of – and effortlessly seduce – an audience that very quickly fell under her spell thank to her beautiful, clear and soulful voice, wide vocal range, and unfussy, unshowy style.

She may only be 30 years of age, but McFarlane exuded the air of an older spirit, someone who has lived, loved and lost – and her songwriting skills (most of the songs were her own compositions) made the most of that. Simple, catchy melodies combined with extraordinarily eloquent lyrics are her signature, and she has a beguiling way of painting a portrait, and evoking a situation or feelings – notably on the sultry Woman in the Olive Groves, You’ll Get Me In Trouble and the gorgeous ballad, Love.

Her very personable patter between numbers further endeared her to the enthusiastic crowd, and provided the background to her songs. More Than Mine, which was by turns funny, nightmarish and bitchy, was inspired by bumping into her ex with his new flame, and drawing comparisons. Safe to say McFarlane would have been the winner in the singing stakes …

First published in The Scotsman, Saturday July 26th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Gramophone Jass Band

Gramophone Jass Band, Tron Kirk, Sunday July 20th ***

The first impression of the Gramophone Jass Band was that the sight of these seven twentysomething guys holding the instruments of a traditional jazz band was a sight to warm the jaded jazz heart. And the first impressions of their music was that it was a sound to lift the spirit. After all, unless it’s being played by a European band, Exactly Like You is usually more likely to be heard at the jazz festival being played by groups with a dress code of beer-belly accommodating T-shirts and Humphrey Lyttelton-inspired primary coloured trousers. Overall, however, the Gramophone Jass Band looked like they’d been styled by the costume designer of O Brother Where Art Thou – with an obligatory “jazz beret” thrown in for good measure.

Clearly, image is – understandably and refreshingly – important to this band. As for the sound, well, it was also refreshingly energetic, exuberant and youthful, bringing new life to such ancient jazz numbers as The Darktown Strutters’ Ball and Sweet Georgia Brown. The ensemble played in a raggedy, loose style which worked well most of the time, but occasionally became so raggedy and loose that it sounded as if the wheels were falling off the band wagon.

Generally, it would have been great to dance to (something that was not lost on the audience-member who rose, trance-like, from her seat and began dancing suggestively at the bar), but for a 90-minute concert, the music wasn’t compelling enough, and there were too many opportunities to hear the two vocalists and not enough to hear the band’s secret weapons – their loose-limbed clarinettist/soprano saxophonist, who seemed to throw his whole body into his playing,  and their eloquent and commanding trumpeter.

First published in The Scotsman, Saturday July 26th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Conal Fowkes Solo/Stephanie Trick Trio

Conal Fowkes/Stephanie Trick, Tron Kirk, Wednesday July 23rd ****

Two pianists headlined the late afternoon programme at the Tron Kirk on Wednesday, and brought back memories of classic jazz festival “Pianoramas” which highlighted diverse styles of playing on that instrument. Mind you, all diversity was focused into the first session, by Conal Fowkes, who plays piano in Woody Allen’s traditional jazz band.

Fowkes opened his solo set with Take the A Train – the A Train being the line that went to Harlem – and then took the audience on a whistlestop tour of the legendary piano players who emerged from that neighbourhood. Like Dick Hyman, his predecessor as chief musical collaborator on Allen movies, Fowkes is an expert on the different early piano styles and he evoked such greats as James P Johnson, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington in a personal way, with a loose, laidback approach.

The highlights were the last four numbers – all from the Ellington canon – and they included a mesmerisingly lovely Lotus Blossom (the more moving for Fowkes’s explanation of its background) and two 1920s compositions not usually played as piano solos – the gorgeous ballad Black Beauty and the spirits-lifting closer Jubilee Stomp.

Stephanie Trick, who took to the same stage a little later along with clarinettist/saxophonist Engelbert Wrobel and drummer Bernard Flegar, also took the audience to Harlem but she got stuck at Fats Waller. Every tune – whether uptempo or ballad (and even ballads were taken at a brisk pace) – were given the stride treatment, though the all-important left hand was not very strong and she didn’t seem comfortable when she wasn’t playing solo. It’s tempting to say she’s a one Trick pony, but it’s early days – she’s not yet 30 years old.

First published in The Herald, Friday July 25th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Kaiser Bill Invented Jazz!

Kaiser Bill Invented Jazz!, Queen’s Hall, Tuesday July 22nd ****Kaiser Bill Invented Jazz!

It could all have gone so spectacularly wrong: a concert based on an unlikely – but catchily titled – premise  featuring a band of musicians whose names weren’t available last week, plus a music director who only arrived in Blighty a day or two earlier. Over its 36-year history, the Edinburgh Jazz Festival has notched up its share of casualties when trying to pull off extravaganzas like this – but Tuesday night’s turned out to be a victory, even if it didn’t quite prove its point about the Kaiser being a jazzer.

The concert was the brainchild of trombonist Dave Batchelor and it’s to him and, undoubtedly, to his experience as a BBC radio producer that credit should go for the unusually stylish presentation, which blended expertly selected readings (by actors/singers Crawford Logan and Sandy Batchelor), with music from the years preceding and during the war being played by a seven-piece band and accompanied by entertaining period dancing. While all this was going on, images of everything from sheet music of the songs being performed to photographs of the most famous “madams” from New Orleans’ celebrated Storyville, the undisputed birthplace of jazz, were beamed on to a screen above the stage.

It went down a storm with the audience which clearly got a kick out of the rare opportunity to hear music exclusively from this often neglected period – not just early jazz but the popular music of the day; a beautiful duet of John McCormack’s First World War hit Somewhere A Voice is Calling – performed by Sandy Batchelor and pianist Conal Fowkes – was particularly affecting, inter-cut as it was with a moving reading of a poignant Oswald Sitwell memoir.

First published in The Herald, Thursday July 24th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Iain Hunter

Iain Hunter, Queen’s Hall, Saturday July 19th ***

Well, there’s a first time for everything – and it’s safe to say that Saturday night’s concert by crooner Iain Hunter was the first jazz festival gig in which the headline act offered the audience a discount on mince (ten per cent, in case you’re interested). This, after all, was the Queen’s Hall debut of the man known as “the Singing Butcher”, and, boy, was he thrilled to be on that stage.

Anyone who attended his concert and had never heard him before, however, might have been forgiven for wondering if they had gatecrashed a mega wedding reception. Why? Not just because women got up and danced in a circle, but because the star seemed to know most of the members of the audience personally. Likable and self-effacing though he was, Hunter did rather push his luck with the name-checks and dedications – so much so that it was tempting to seek out one of the former church’s donations boxes to pass among the pews as a makeshift sick bucket.

So what is it – chummy banter aside – that made the audience go bonkers for the butcher? Well, he has an appealing, commanding voice and swinging style. He sings the songs of Sinatra, Darin and co the way we remember hearing them. Singing along is not discouraged; it’s de rigueur. It’s all very familiar and enjoyable. And on Saturday, he had the accompaniment of a first-class band – led by Eliot Murray – featuring some of Scotland’s top players; something he was clearly relishing. It would have been nice to hear some instrumental solos, but this wasn’t a jazz concert; this was all about the singer and his rapport with the audience.

First published in The Herald, Monday July 21st

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Cindy Douglas Sings Billie Holiday

Cindy Douglas Sings Billie Holiday, Tron Kirk, Saturday July 19th ***

Scottish singer Cindy Douglas served up a pretty impressive debut show at the Tron on Saturday. Well, two shows actually – both celebrating the often unsung musical relationship of the great Billie Holiday and her tenor saxophonist soulmate Lester Young. The fact that this was not going to be an attempt at recreating their sounds was obvious even before Douglas had opened her mouth: the choice of Konrad Wiszniewski, who sounds beefier and more muscular than the melancholic, dreamy Lester Young, as her musical partner spoke volumes. It’s a shame that his name wasn’t advertised beforehand – not that there would have been room for many more audience-members.

With a girlish, soft-edged voice, Douglas herself sounds nothing like Lady Day though aspects of her style, notably its simplicity, evoked her heroine’s on occasion. She put her own spin on the songs, most of which had a casual, spontaneous accompaniment by Wiszniewski and her trio.

On some of Holiday’s more personal later numbers, however, there were bold attempts to reinvent them – with varying degrees of success: a heavy-handed arrangement of Good Morning Heartache turned it, bizarrely, into a jaunty number. More daring and successful was a striking duet of Strange Fruit with Karen Marshalsay playing the bray harp.

Some of the song choices were odd – How Long Has This Been Going On? is not a Holiday-associated number – and it would perhaps have made sense to include more of the 1930s repertoire which is synonymous with the Holiday-Young heyday. But it was a flying start.

First published in The Scotsman, Monday July 21st

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: The Big Chris Barber Band

The Big Chris Barber Band, Queen’s Hall, Friday July 18th ****

There was a sense of déjà vu about the concert given on Friday at the Queen’s Hall for the opening night of this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival. As the Big Chris Barber Band launched into a performance of Duke Ellington’s glorious Rent Party Blues which stirred neck hairs into a standing ovation, memories of this British outfit’s last visit to the Glasgow Jazz Festival flooded back. And so it was for much of the evening, which seemed to follow the same programme (a mixture of classic New Orleans jazz tunes and spirituals, Ellington compositions and the wild card of Miles Davis’s All Blues) and trigger the same pleasures and frustrations as that 2010 concert.

Among the pleasures of hearing this band are the fact that it offers a rare opportunity to hear 1920s Ellington being played so expertly and enthusiastically. Its slick, exhilarating ensemble playing – especially when trios of clarinets, saxes or trumpets are featured playing in unison (as happens so often, to thrilling effect, on such early Ellington numbers as East St Louis Toodle-Oo and Hot and Bothered) – was a particular delight, and there were some ace solos, not least by star clarinettist Bert Brandsma.

Barber himself, now 84 and in a wheelchair, played some memorable solos when the spotlight (the stylish lighting also added to the concert’s classiness) was on him but, unfortunately, the tear-your-hair-out frustration of being an audience member at one of his concerts was still very much present: it’s nigh-on impossible to make out 90% of what he says because of his rushed delivery. And what makes it even more infuriating is that the 10% that was intelligible was funny and/or fascinating.

First published in The Herald, Monday July 21st

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