Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2013: Mud Morganfield

Mud Morganfield, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Saturday July 27th ** 

It was all happening down in the front row of the Saturday night concert at the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. For the first hour of the gig by singer Mud Morganfield half of the front row was busily engaged in flouting the no-filming rules and the other half was bopping in the aisle. By the second hour, the number of dancers had swollen as the original boppers were joined by couples from all over the theatre. And it wasn’t long before the star of the show, realising that what was happening in front of the stage was proving more interesting than what was happening on it, began inviting dancers up to join him.

Frankly, for those of us who had hoped to be entertained merely by listening and watching (which we had been during an opening set by Jenson Interceptors Blues Revue and Shades of Blue), this provided some relief from the monotony of Mud Morganfield’s performance. For much of the first half of his set, he had sung similar-sounding songs with unintelligible lyrics; a bit more variety (some ballads and some R’n’B) came into play after his brush with two female dancers from the audience. And when I say brush, I mean nigh-on encouraging them to rub up against him. The two male dancers who had also come up on stage somehow de-materialised, and Morganfield announced that the better female dancer would be given a CD if they waited at the end of the show ..

* First published in The Scotsman on Monday, July 29th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2013: Swing 2013

Swing 2013, Royal Overseas League, Edinburgh, Friday July 26th ***

Along with the Queen’s Hall, the Royal Overseas League, at 100 Princes Street, must be one of the only venues that has been a fixture of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival since it began in the 1970s. Ascending the stairs and navigating the maze of narrow corridors to find the always-crowded room – which, in recent years has been the festival home to some of the longest-serving local bands – always triggers flashbacks to the 1980s when the likes of Art Hodes, Milt Hinton and Dick Hyman were the draws.

The place has had a bit of a makeover recently (though one has the impression that the decorators might have had to work around the jazz festival audience since both it – and the volunteer who mans the ticket desk – seem to be part of the fixtures and fittings, never changing) – and so, by coincidence, has the band which was on the stand on Friday afternoon. Earlier this year, Swing 2013 lost its star soloist, the uber-talented Dick Lee – a virtuoso of the clarinet and various saxes. Its line-up may now be subject to change but on Friday it scored something of a winning goal by having as its guest the effervescent swing violinist Seonaid Aitken, whose ability to keep smiling gamely despite being verbally patted on the head at regular intervals by bandleader John Russell had to be admired.

With her bouncy, uplifting style of playing, Aitken evoked the spirit of Stephane Grappelli and enabled the band to dig deep into the Hot Club repertoire which he and gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt made famous. She won the packed house over from the off, but it was her dazzlingly accomplished solo on Bossa Dorado and her un-flashy, swoonsomely romantic contribution to Troublant Bolero which stood out.

* First published in The Herald on Monday, July 29th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2013: Jerry Forde New Phoenix Jazz Band

Jerry Forde New Phoenix Jazz Band, Palazzo Spiegeltent, Edinburgh, Friday July 26th ***

The talented Martin Foster should take some considerable satisfaction in the fact that his place in the advertised line-up of the Jerry Forde New Phoenix Jazz Band  last night was filled by not one but two saxophonists (baritone and alto).  As one of the A-list front line of this reborn sextet, Foster would have been a draw, alongside trumpeter Colin Steele and clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Dick Lee. But even with two deps in Foster’s place, the band still didn’t premiere The New Century Jazz Rag which had been flagged up in the festival programme.

Nevertheless, they did deliver on the theme of music from across the decades of jazz, and it was a treat to hear Colin Steele – not usually a player one hears in this kind of group – getting his chops around tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Johnny Dodds and Louis Armstrong. Indeed, Steele revealed an Armstrong influence in his playing which was by turn exuberant, majestic and playful and stood out especially on Symphonic Raps, That’s My Home and Oriental Man. On Thelonious Rag, he played with a Louis-like swagger.

The more loosely arranged numbers, notably Riverside Blues, were most appealing but the evening’s two stand-outs both featured a young singer, Christine Adams, who blew the audience away with her beguiling and quirky interpretations of the Billie Holiday song Endie and My Sweetie Went Away (last heard on these shores crooned by the much-missed Marty Grosz).

* First published in The Scotsman, Saturday July 27th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2013: Malene Mortensen

Malene Mortensen, Palazzo Spiegeltent, Edinburgh, Thursday July 25th **

With her soft, lilting voice, Danish singer Malene Mortensen – who made her debut at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival last night – immediately recalled her fellow Scandinavian Silje Nergaard, a festival find of a decade ago. But, disappointingly for those of us who fell under the Nergaard spell, that was where the resemblance ended. Although both singers evidently appreciate witty, eloquent lyrics, only Mortensen favoured them at the expense of a decent melody.

Over the course of her 70-minute set, Mortensen – who represented Denmark in the Eurovision Song Contest ten years ago, and came last – highlighted her pop credentials in a series of generally funky, unremarkable and occasionally almost tuneless numbers. The main appeal of most of the original compositions – songs with such titles as Ambiguous Blues and Your Love is Digital – was their wilfully erudite lyrics (something that singers who don’t count English as their first language seem to take very seriously); musical appeal was far from obvious. Mind you, it might have been more apparent had there been a more sympathetic, less in-your-face accompaniment: the electric guitar, bass and drums provided a rather dry , cool setting for Mortensen’s lovely voice.

Things looked set to improve when Mortensen announced that one of her favourite composers is Antonio Carlos Jobim. Unfortunately, the song with which she chose to represent his oeuvre was possibly his least inspiring melodically, but most wittily worded: One Note Samba. Sums it up, really.

*First published in The Scotsman, Friday July 26

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2013: Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert

Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Wednesday July 24th *****
 The Queen’s Hall was a born-again church on Wednesday night as the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, conducted by Clark Tracey, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Choir staged an ambitious, 90-minute performance of Duke Ellington’s sacred music – music from three major concerts which took place in cathedrals (in San Francisco, New York and at Westminster) in the last decade of the great composer, bandleader and pianist’s life.
 
Rather than being a compilation of pieces of music from the three concerts; Wednesday’s Sacred Concert was very much an entity in its own right: this was Stan Tracey’s distillation of the sacred music (itself a blend of jazz, spirituals, classical music and blues) in to one, 90-minute performance which, inkeeping with the spirit of the original events, featured classical singers and a tap dancer.
 
It may have sounded like a strange mish-mish on paper, but it worked; in fact, it more than worked – it was a bit of a sensation, thoroughly engaging throughout and at various points utterly electrifying and extremely moving (though some of the lyrics spoken, Rex Harrison-style by the impressive baritone Jerome Knox sounded as if they had been penned by the Pythons for The Life of Brian).
 
Of course it’s always a thrill to hear the wondrous Ellington sound being channelled through a top-notch band (and that was certainly the case here), but experiencing those uniquely Ellingtonian harmonies being sung by a first-rate choir – a cappella on the exquisite Will You Be There? and Father Forgive – took it to a different level.
 
Only one aspect of the concert was weak: soprano Teuta Koko was mesmerising when in operatic mode but her voice lacked presence and depth for the swinging and/or spiritual songs.
 
*First published in The Herald, Friday July 26th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2013: Ken Mathieson CJO & Evan Christopher

Ken Mathieson Classic Jazz Orchestra with Evan Christopher, Palazzo Spiegeltent, Edinburgh, Tuesday July 23rd ****

It can be a bit of a political minefield when a band which has a brace of ace soloists in its line-up is joined by a special guest: egos can be bruised as the star mops up most of the solo space assigned to his given instrument. But when New Orleans-based Evan Christopher made his debut as a guest with the Classic Jazz Orchestra on Tuesday evening, bandleader Ken Mathieson made a virtue of the fact that he now had three top clarinettists in his group.

Three clarinets playing featured together can be a thrilling sound – and, from the off, Martin Foster, Dick Lee and Christopher made a terrific trio; Foster’s lovely, grainy tone contrasting strikingly with Christopher’s sweet and hot sound on Charlie the Chulo. Dardanella featured several examples of the thrill of the clarinet trio: early on, they were seductive, playing in unison, before letting rip separately but simultaneously at the exhilarating finale. Sidney Bechet’s Moulin a Café also climaxed with a showstopping three-way dialogue between Foster, Lee and Christopher.

Other highlights included trombonist Phil O’Malley’s spare and elegant contribution to Mood Indigo and tenor saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski’s slinky solo on Barney Bigard’s Lament for Javanette.

Indeed, Mathieson quipped that Barney Bigard’s estate would be having a bumper night, royalties-wise, but it was Jelly Roll Morton’s which received the bigger boost since the CJO performed a string of Morton numbers, including a couple which had never been played before – anywhere. None of these proved as electrifying, however, as an impromptu Blue Horizon in which Christopher, soloing with rhythm section, wowed the audience with a masterful display of his sultry, southern-drenched sound.

* First published in The Herald, Thursday July 25

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The Good Duke & His Sacred Music

Even if this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival programme wasn’t lacklustre, one entry would stand out as more ambitious and impressive than the rest: the Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts which are taking place in both the Queen’s Hall and in Dunfermline Abbey, and which feature this year’s incarnation of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, along with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus, Stan Tracey on piano and Clark Tracey conducting.

Ellington’s Sacred Concerts were a trio of concerts spread over the last decade of the life of the legendary composer, bandleader and pianist, who died in 1974, just six months after the final concert. A unique blend of gospel music, classical music, jazz, choral music and the blues filtered through the distinctive Ellington sound prism and written for a band that included many of the great “Ellingtonians”, the Sacred Concerts were, for Duke, his “most important” work. When he was asked to present the first concert, at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 1965, he said: “Now I can say openly what I have been saying to myself on my knees.”

For the last 20-odd years, the Sacred Concerts have also been an important part of the lives of both Stan Tracey, the great British pianist and lifelong Ellington devotee, and his drummer son, Clark. And both generations of Traceys play key roles in these first-ever performances of this music in Scotland.

Back in 1990, Stan Tracey was invited to play Ellington’s sacred music at a special concert to mark the 900th anniversary of Durham Cathedral. When he was given the music, he and Clark recognized the same arrangements he had played at an earlier Sacred Concert into which he’d been drafted at the last minute. What struck them was, says Clark, “that the transcriptions hadn’t been done right.”

Father and son spent several days figuring out “a much closer approximation of the music” by listening to records of the original Ellington concerts. Clark Tracey recalls: “It was an arduous task but it was really enjoyable too – once you get to that level; the Ellington level. A lot of it was accurate but there were a lot of really poignant, squelchy Ellington moments – those very personal voicings – and it took a while to put your finger on how he’d done them.”

Although the Tracey household had always been immersed in Ellington music, the Sacred Concert albums were less familiar than some of the other LPs. “You don’t just bung those records on, the way you could the others, so it’s always been a very special event,” says Tracey. “And to be able to perform that music is fantastic. I played on the first one Stan did, at Durham Cathedral, and we’ve since played it at all kinds of cathedrals. We did it at Yorkminster last year and that was immense, that one. We had a 250-piece choir accompanying us.”

This isn’t a concert that’s liable to get the spine tingling just once or twice: according to Tracey, it’s packed with electrifying moments. “The best bits are probably the fusion between the orchestra and the choir – when it’s done correctly, the voice is obviously one of the most moving things in any band, so to get Ellington’s voicings … Two of the pieces are a cappella, and they’re absolutely wondrous. I’ve seen grown man cry at them.”

As in Yorkminster, when the Traceys bring the Sacred Concerts to Scotland, Clark will be conducting. “That’s simply down to Stan wanting to put all his energy into just playing the piano and not having to concentrate on leaping up and conducting a band in at the right tempo.. Before Yorkminster my only conducting experience was with a string quartet and I wasn’t that amazing. It’s because I know this music inside-out, and I’m going to hit the tempos bang where they should be that he’s asked me. It’s just taken a huge weight off my dad’s mind, knowing that I’m going to be standing there instead of him.”

* First published in The Herald, Wednesday July 24 (but written for earlier publication)

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