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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Conal Fowkes: Woody ‘n’ Me

Conal Fowkes at pianoVersatile doesn’t even begin to cover the nature of Conal Fowkes’s music career. The New York-based 46-year-old comes to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival next week to play numerous solo piano sets and function as pianist, music director and arranger on a First World War-themed concert, but his CV spans classical to Cuban music, and his jazz piano talents range from Harlem stride to hard bop. Oh, and he also plays the bass. Indeed, it was on that instrument that he landed the gig that indirectly led to his playing being featured on Woody Allen’s two most recent films, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, and his soon-to-be-released Magic in the Moonlight. And it’s his Woody Allen association which will undoubtedly draw the punters in to his numerous festival performances.

Fowkes, who was born in Zambia and grew up in Leicestershire, had not long moved to New York when, 15 years ago, he went to a gig by a traditional jazz band. During a break, he got talking to the group’s banjoist, who had spotted the young Fowkes amongst the rather more senior audience. The banjo player was Eddy Davis, and, after being impressed by Fowkes’s enthusiasm for the music, he invited him to sit in on a couple of tunes – on piano. After the gig, Fowkes mentioned that he also played bass – and, lo, it turned out there was a vacancy in the band Davis played with on a Monday night at the Café Carlyle. Little did Fowkes know that the band was led by clarinettist and filmmaker extraordinaire Woody Allen. For five years, he played bass in Allen’s band before switching to piano when that chair became empty.

What was Fowkes’s first impression of Allen? “I met him on the bandstand and he’s a man of very, very few words so it’s not like we had a conversation – or  a ‘hey, how you doing? Who are you?’. Nothing like that. I think maybe he smiled in my direction, and we just played the gig. I’m sure I was nervous – it was quite a high-profile gig – but it was a lot of fun, and he’s so laid-back that he puts you at your ease anyway. There’s not a lot of tension around.”

When he met Allen, Fowkes wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about his work. “I didn’t know a lot of his films – I’ve obviously gotten in to them more and more over the years working with him.” Is he not terribly critical of his own playing? “He is very critical of himself but he’s very complimentary and full of praise for his sidemen. I’ve heard him say many many times that he would much rather play music than make films; he much prefers being on the bandstand than on the set but he then goes on to say that he’s not good enough to make a living as a musician –he puts himself down all the time. But he loves playing more than anything.

“Just to give you an idea, when he made Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Eddy Davis and I managed to find a location in Barcelona to play – the two of us as a duo – just so that Woody could drop in and play when he felt like it. We had nothing to do with the film: it was just because he was going to be there…  He was shooting a full schedule, Monday to Friday, 9-5 – or if it was a night shoot the same kind of hours in the evening – and he would come directly from the set three or four nights a week, and play for about three hours without a break. And I mean without even going to his hotel and taking a shower, you know; just coming straight to play with us. I think he needs it and desires it so much, it means so much to him. It must help him unwind.”

The first Allen film that Fowkes played on was 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger – all that was used was a tiny clip of Fowkes, Davis and Allen himself in what must have been the first time he played clarinet on his own soundtrack since Sleeper (1973).

The Midnight in Paris gig came out of the blue. Fowkes explains: “One Monday, we had just finished our regular gig and he turned to me and said ‘Hey, I need you to record some songs for my next film’ – just casual like that. I had to sing and play the piano for the actor playing Cole Porter to mime to – not that I knew that at the time. I’m not much of a singer – though thankfully neither was Cole Porter! He gave me the three songs that he wanted, booked a studio for me, and all he said was ‘Don’t play them jazzy, just play the songs. Just think you’re at a party playing and singing a song.’ So off I went completely confused and a little bit nervous, and I recorded them. I got a message saying everything was just as he wanted, and he used it all. I think I just was lucky that it fit what he wanted.”

Fowkes was drafted into Blue Jasmine at the last minute. The film had been made and they were looking for a version of Blue Moon. Allen tried a recording that he had used for a previous film, but it didn’t fit the images so he asked Fowkes to record a new version – again with virtually no remit. “It’s so frustrating. I’ve heard actors saying the same thing about his directing. The thing is: I see him all the time and I would like for him to know I’ll do it any way he wants because what I don’t want to happen is he says ‘Can you do this?’ and I record it and it’s not right, and he doesn’t want to tell me it’s not right – and stops asking me.”

Magic in the Moonlight sees Allen return, musically anyway, to Kurt Weill. And, again, Fowkes has no idea how much of Bilbao Song or Mack the Knife will have made it into the final edit. Still, it means that some wonderful Weill can be included in his Woody Allen-themed concert next Thursday. It’s not the first time that one of Woody Allen’s favourite pianists and collaborators has headlined the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – his longtime music director Dick Hyman (now 87) was a regular visitor to the festival in the 1980s – so it’s surely can’t be long before the movie maestro materialises himself…

* Conal Fowkes – Woody Allen and Jazz, Tron Kirk, Thursday July 24. For information on this and his other concerts, visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

First published in The Scotsman on Monday, July 14th

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Review: Stu Brown’s Twisted Toons, Glasgow

Stu Brown’s Twisted Toons,Recital Room, Glasgow, Saturday June 28th ****

It was impossible not to be charmed by the Twisted Toons concert at the Recital Room on Saturday evening. Not only is drummer Stu Brown an extremely engaging and amiable host, but his passion for Raymond Scott’s cultish compositions – which were used in dozens of classic Warner Bros cartoons as well as the more recent Ren and Stimpy animations – and the performances of them by a septet comprising A-list Scottish jazz musicians make an irresistible combination. That said, however, a little of the Scott repertoire goes a long way…

The opening numbers were highly enjoyable. Jungle Medley was a collection of pieces from Looney Tunes cartoons by Carl Stalling which segued into Scott’s swinging, vaguely early-Ellingtonian composition Dinner Time For a Pack of Hungry Cannibals and featured a superb hot clarinet solo by Martin Kershaw. Scott’s spooky Goblins in the Steeple was another gem, thanks to the terrific ensemble work and a stylish solo by trumpeter Tom MacNiven. The septet sound – of clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, violin, piano, bass and drums – on this number, the playful arrangement and the classy playing brought to mind some of the brilliant work of some of Marty Grosz’s modern-day small, 1920s-style, groups which blend zingy, witty arrangements with top drawer soloing.

Less appealing, however, were full-length cartoon scores – perhaps they would work better if accompanying a screening of the cartoons. The complete scores are too disjointed, and their jazz and tuneful elements too scattered to be satisfying listening on their own for the lay person.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday June 30th

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