Jazz @ the Edinburgh Fringe 2014

Here’s my pick of five jazz gigs to catch during this year’s Fringe…

* Colin Steele & Brian Kellock: My Fair Lady, The Jazz Bar, August 9th & 23rd. My Fair LadyThe wonderful songs written by Lerner & Loewe for the 1956 Broadway musical version of Pygmalion have long been favourites of discriminating jazz musicians – especially trumpeters, from Chet Baker to Ruby Braff. Now, for the first time, it’s the turn of the lyrical Colin Steele and his dynamic pianistic partner in crime, Brian Kellock, to serve up their take on such loverly melodies as The Street Where You Live, Show Me and I Could Have Danced All Night. With a little bit of luck, they’ll invite the audience to shout out the key line on The Ascot Gavotte. ..

Remembering Chet, The Jazz Bar, August 16th & 18th. Scottish vocalist Iain Ewing’s must-see homage to the great Chet Baker was a winner at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival and last year’s Fringe … Accompanied by the Baker-inspired trumpet of Colin Steele and  Euan Stevenson’s classy piano, he sings and swings with a Chet-like simplicity and elegance, while putting his own stamp on a string of classic Baker songs. No need to bring the hankies in readiness for Baker’s tragic life story; Ewing’s patter is witty as well as informative. A funny – and stylish – valentine.

* Joe Stilgoe – Songs on Film, Assembly Checkpoint, August 4th-22nd. Songs on FilmMr Stilgoe’s love of film shone through on his fab solo show a couple of years ago, when he seduced the Fringe audience with a bittersweet ballad inspired by the masterful, bittersweet Billy Wilder movie The Apartment – (That’s The Way It Crumbles) Cookie-Wise. Now he’s back with a trio gig entirely themed around songs from the movies, including (if the CD of his London Jazz Festival Songs on Film concert is anything to go by) a mixture of more of his original tunes as well as favourites from his formative years in film buffery.

* The Cabinet of Caligari, The Jazz Bar,  August 13th-15th; 18th & 19th. And speaking of film, if you like your silent movies to be screened with atmospheric original music, check out the screenings of the Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) which will be accompanied by a performance by guitarist Graeme Stephen of his new, specially written score.

* Jazz Rite of Spring, The Jazz Bar, August 20th-24th. Pianist David Patrick’s reimagining of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking and riot-inducing masterpiece has been critically acclaimed; my Herald colleague Rob Adams describing it as “highly credible and genuinely exciting”. I haven’t heard it yet but am intrigued by the “12” certificate. Maybe they’re expecting Paris-style trouble; let’s hope The Jazz Bar has the riot police on speed dial..

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Niki King – The Songs of Duke Ellington

Niki King – The Songs of Duke Ellington, 3 Bristo Place, Friday July 25th ***

Singer Niki King brought her stylish Ellington show back to Edinburgh (it was part of the British Vocal Jazz Festival during last year’s Fringe) on Friday night. The local singer can clearly do no wrong as far as her many loyal followers are concerned but this concert was very much a game of two halves – and for the first half (and on the iconic Mood Indigo later on), it looked as if Ellington, and devotees of the Duke, were the losers. Why? Because she avoided singing – even just once in each song – the melody that the legendary composer wrote. And not only that, but she killed the mood of such ballads as I Got It Bad and I Didn’t Know About You with shouty climaxes; a total contrast to the sensitive accompaniment from her band, notably the elegant Euan Stevenson on piano.

The Duke was accorded more respect by King on a couple of second half ballads which compensated significantly for the earlier trauma: Something to Live For and, especially, Sophisticated Lady – a powerful, simply sung, duet with Stevenson – were stand-outs, as was a thrilling Caravan, introduced by a dynamic drum solo by Alyn Cosker.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday July 28th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Conal Fowkes – Woody Allen & Jazz

Conal Fowkes – Woody Allen & Jazz, Tron Kirk, Thursday July 24th ****

It was a sign of how elegantly thought-through his main solo jazz festival concert was that Conal Fowkes kicked off proceedings in his Woody Allen-themed evening with the tune I’ve Heard That Song Before, one of the numbers that open Allen’s 1986 masterpiece Hannah and Her Sisters – and a title that summed up the fact that we were going to hear a programme of music familiar from its association with the great New York filmmaker.

So, over the course of Thursday’s concert, Fowkes  – who has a lovely, easygoing, swinging piano style with a clear Fats Waller influence (along with some dashes of Teddy Wilson) – dished up tunes that many of us first heard in such iconic films as Annie Hall. Particularly delightful was a medley from Manhattan, which had an all Gershwin soundtrack; Fowkes’s tender and dreamy Someone To Watch Over Me was a knockout, as was his interpretation of Si tu vois ma mere, the opening theme of Midnight in Paris.

For that film, Fowkes had sung and played piano, but he is – by his own admission – not as accomplished a singer as he is a pianist, and certainly his instrumental numbers were far superior to the ones he also sang. Including numbers which Allen plays on clarinet with his band – of which Fowkes is a member – meant that the already varied programme could also feature such rarely played jazz gems as Jelly Roll Morton’s Good Old New York, with which Allen apparently likes to end his gigs when he’s on tour.

First published in The Scotsman, Saturday July 26th

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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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