Monthly Archives: July 2011

Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Kenny Ellis Trio

Kenny Ellis Trio, Dans Paleis, Thursday July 28th                                      

Talk about having the odds stacked against you. The Kenny Ellis Trio’s gig at the Dans Paleis (it was originally to be the Bosco Theatre) really had more than its fair share of obstacles to overcome on Thursday evening. Firstly, there was the monsoon going on outside (which undoubtedly deterred some folk from venturing into the “tented village” in George Square), then there was leaking of sound from the tent next door (which has been a problem throughout the jazz festival, especially for Spiegeltent audiences), and then there was a drum kit which seemed to be playing itself thanks to its reverberating cymbals – either that or Lord Lucan was putting in a guest appearance.

Luckily, bassist Ellis and his cohorts – trombonist Brian Keddie and pianist Brian Kellock – surmounted all these challenges. And in style. These musicians are old friends and, in the case of Ellis and Kellock – who play a weekly gig together – regular collaborators.

What was most apparent on Thursday was how well all three worked together and could second guess each other’s next musical step, and how each gave the other the best possible accompaniment to allow him to shine. As Ellis, commenting on the terrific interplay between the two Brians, said: “Not having drums or other horns just gives you a bit more freedom.” The trombone-piano-bass combo had a lovely gentle feel which worked well in the small tent.

Among the highlights were a gorgeous Everything Happens to Me which showcased Keddie’s lyrical, understated style and Miles Davis’s Nardis, a stand-out for all three musicians but one which was, really, owned by Kellock, whose solo was edge-of-your-seat stuff.

(First published in The Scotsman, Saturday July 30th)


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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Django a la Creole

Django a la Creole with Evan Christopher , The Hub, Wednesday July 25th *****

There must be an awful lot of musicians who are kicking themselves for not having dreamt up the concept for Django a la Creole, the quartet which fuses the gypsy jazz style and line-up with that of the traditional New Orleans jazz clarinet. Why? Because it’s such a brilliant and inspired mix – and one which, certainly on the evidence of Wednesday’s jazz festival concert at The Hub, is utterly seductive and widely appealing.
The members of the band may live in different countries, but over the course of two albums and regular tours they have clearly established a terrific relationship, yet sparks still fly when they play – and, as with the original recordings of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, the atmosphere is of sheer joie-de-vivre.

On Wednesday night, they dished up one thrilling treat after another – from a lovely repertoire that ranges from 1850s New Orleans to Hoagy Carmichael classics. Of course, much of the appeal of this uniformally top-notch band is the gorgeous and downright mesmerising clarinet playing of the flamboyant Evan Christopher who injected drama and New Orleans-style colour into every tune. As with the late, great Kenny Davern, Christopher has a flair for the theatrical (both musically and, rather distractingly, in his stage presence): in Davern style, Christopher played such quieter numbers as Mood Indigo and Solid Old Man in the lower register to begin with before exploding into a soaring flight of fancy, after holding back and almost lulling the audience into expecting that the whole tune would be soft and gentle.


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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Ken Peplowski Ensemble Plays West Side Story

Ken Peplowski Ensemble Plays West Side Story, The Hub, Tuesday July 26th ****

If Ken Peplowski and Brian Kellock send in notes from their mothers to excuse them from the rest of the jazz festival, it would be perfectly understandable – given the amount of energy and sweat expended at Tuesday night’s concert of the music from West Side Story.

For clarinettist and tenor saxophonist Peplowski, as musical director, the pressure was on to pull off a series of challenging arrangements of Leonard Bernstein’s notoriously tricky and demanding music. (“On second thoughts, I should have told the jazz festival we’d do the tribute to Kid Ory,” he quipped, as he mopped his brow after the exhilarating opener, Prologue.) It’s safe to say that they succeeded – though some of the arrangements worked better than others.

For Kellock, who barely had the chance to pause for brow-mopping, the concert called on him to unleash his inner pianistic demon. “Representing the Jets – Brian Kellock,” was Peplowski’s introduction, and the pianist certainly seemed to be in killer mode, particularly on the electrifying Jet Song; America, where singer Clairdee’s renditions of the verses were broken up by frenzied, feverish attacks on the ivories by Kellock, and I Feel Pretty, one of the numbers which showed everyone off to best advantage and boasted  a terrific solo by Peplowski himself.

Leonard Bernstein’s music is notoriously tricky and demanding, so it was no surprise to find that the Peplowski Ensemble comprised some of Scotland’s best jazz players – notably Stewart Forbes, who turned in a superb alto sax solo on Jet Song, trombonist Phil O’Malley and drummer Tom Gordon.

(First published in The Scotsman, Thursday July 28th)

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Speaking of Ken Peplowski ….

We interrupt the Edinburgh Jazz Festival coverage to bring you a video I’ve just secured Ken Peplowski’s permission to share… Recorded at the Norwich Jazz Party in May, this is Ken’s serenade to a completely unsuspecting Marty … I’ll be posting more clips soon.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Berlin, Broadway and Buenos Aires – Morten Gunnar Larsen & Stale Ytterli

Berline, Broadway and Buenos Aires – Morten Gunnar Larsen & Stale Ytterli, The Hub, Monday July 25th ****

There was a poignant start to Monday’s jazz festival concert at The Hub, when the Norwegian pianist Morten Gunnar Larsen (right), referring to events in his and and singer Stale Ytterli’s country on Friday, announced the specially chosen opening song. Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, a beautiful ballad with moving lyrics (“Sometimes it seems that God’s gone away”) was perfectly judged- and the perfect introduction to this class double-act which looked, in formal attire and shiny shoes, as if it had stumbled into the wrong festival.

It was a most unusual jazz festival gig in more ways than the merely sartorial. Although many of the songs Ytterli and Larsen performed were written by composers who were influenced by the jazz scene (Weill, Gershwin), or were part of it (Eubie Blake, Lucky Roberts), or whose music became standards (Kern, Porter), most of the concert was upmarket cabaret. Ytterli has a beautiful voice, and his performances of Blake’s Memories of You, and Weill’s Mack the Knife and Bilbao Song were wonderful – though his theatricality, combined with German vocals, on an OTT song by Frederick Hollander, did recall the singing Hitler audition scene from The Producers.

In most cases,Ytterli sang the songs in their original language, following a brief translation, and although it brought authencity to the performance, the language barrier proved a bit of a distraction. Larsen’s delicate, loose-fingered pianistics, however, needed no translation and were a delight – especially on Je ne t’aime pas which compressed a history of jazz piano into one solo.

(First published in The Scotsman, Wednesday July 27th)

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra with Cecile McLorin Salvant

Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra, Spiegeltent, Sunday July 24th ****

Whether it was the Spiegeltent audience’s enthusiastic reception or the fact that they were able to play their favourite tunes – as opposed to being limited to one or two composers’ output – the musicians of the Classic Jazz Orchestra were in especially fine form for their Sunday night session.

As leader Ken Mathieson has often explained, this band draws its repertoire from right across the first half-century of jazz, from the 1920s through to the 1960s – and Sunday’s varied programme was effectively a musical version of this manifesto. Both sets kicked off with numbers recorded definitively by cornettist Bix Beiderbecke in the years running up to his 1931 death (it was a treat to hear Way Down Yonder in New Orleans again, with the band playing Beiderbecke’s glorious solo as part of the arrangement) before moving on to tunes ranging from Jelly Roll Morton to Gerry Mulligan, with one of their new party pieces- Antonio Carlos Jobim’s slithery Waters of March a particular highlight.

Cecile McLorin Salvant, the young American singer who made her debut in Edinburgh this weekend, joined the band for a handful of songs – and blew the audience away. Her lovely, bright voice and habit of paring down the tune and holding back on the beat recalled Billie Holiday on the bouncier tunes, yet she displayed Sarah Vaughan’s ugly-beauty approach when it came to her stand-out song, the ballad Born to Be Blue.

(First published in The Scotsman, Tuesday July 26th)

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Ken Peplowski & Alan Barnes

Ken Peplowski & Alan Barnes, Spiegeltent, Sunday July 24th *****

The Peplowski-Barnes double-act may not have played in Edinburgh before – but its reputation, honed over the last few years at the Lockerbie Jazz Festival where it’s been THE Saturday night gig to attend, clearly preceded it, judging by the impressive turn-out at the Spiegeltent on Sunday evening. And by the fact that some of that impressive turn-out had made the journey from Lockerbie …

The reasons for the popularity of this pair were immediately apparent on Sunday – and not just in the terrific music they made, accompanied by a trio led by Paul Kirby. Anyone who’s seen either Barnes or Peplowski in concert knows that they’re going to be entertained by their patter – and when the two of them get together the fun they have onstage is utterly infectious. One number – Hanrid – couldn’t get fully underway because Peplowski was laughing so much he couldn’t play. No-one in the audience had any idea what had triggered it, but it was impossible not to share his Dudley Moore-like giggles.

Both being saxophonists and clarinettists, there are myriad ways Barnes and Peplowski could perform any tune (alto and tenor sax; two clarinets; one on clarinet, the other on a sax) but, on Sunday, the tunes they chose tended to feature either the two clarinets or two saxes combination. And with winning results. The two-sax Fajista, by now a signature number for the duo, was a highlight but the twin clarinet numbers stole the show; on Barnes’s own composition, the loving homage Humph, the effect was sultry and langorous as the melody unfolded in the chalumeau register of the clarinet. And the encore, demanded by an audience which went nuts for more, of Body and Soul, underlined how luxurious and exquisite two clarinets can sound together – when they’re being played by the best in the business.

(First published in The Herald, Tuesday July 26th)

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: We Love Louis

 We Love Louis, Queen’s Hall, Saturday July 24th ****

Singers Clairdee & Todd Gordon

Louis Armstrong was – as singer Clairdee pointed out at the tribute concert at the Queen’s Hall on Saturday – the first great jazz innovator and an influence on every player who followed him. But he was also, as Saturday’s show highlighted, one of the great pop singers of the 20th century, who sang songs by all the greats, was a beloved entertainer and always injected fun into the proceedings.

This side of him was brilliantly evoked by a generous programme which was stuffed with tunes from throughout Armstrong’s long career. Some – Jeepers Creepers, Basin Street Blues and Hello Dolly, for example – were more strongly associated with him than others (Love Is Here To Stay and Autumn in New York don’t leap to mind when his name is mentioned).

Nevertheless, the spirit of Satchmo was certainly in evidence throughout – in the All Stars-like line-up (a front line of trumpeter Leroy Jones, trombonist Katja Toivola and clarinettist/saxophonist Martin Foster) – and in the easy-going, good-natured rapport onstage, especially between singers Todd Gordon and the afore-mentioned Clairdee, a honey-voiced American, whose Scottish debut this was. Their duets from the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong records were highlights of the night.

Indeed, with her show-stopping interpretation of Summertime – an elegantly restrained reading of the classic Gershwin ballad – and her gorgeous They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Clairdee probably guaranteed a few more bums on seats for her next jazz festival gig on Tuesday.

(First published in The Scotsman, Monday July 25th)

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Lollo Meier & Tcha Limberger Quartet

Lollo Meier & Tcha Limberger Quartet, Spiegeltent, Edinburgh           ****

A death in the family – no, Amy Winehouse was no relation – meant that the great gypsy guitarist Fapy Lafertin, a musician who has performed at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival at regular intervals in its 33-year history, had to cancel his appearance on Saturday night, but the concert he was headlining went ahead nevertheless.

It may have lacked the swagger and star quality that the charismatic Lafertin brings to proceedings, but there was still plenty of that gypsy passion and colour in evidence in the form of his guitarist cousin, Lollo Meier, and, especially, the young, blind violinist Tcha Limberger. This band, including Lafertin, is often billed as “gyspy jazz royalty” and it on Saturday it was easy to see why: there’s a real sense of history and authenticity about these players who grew up in a similar culture to their musical – and gypsy – forefather, Django Reinhardt.

Although Meier – who looked, from halfway back the Spiegeltent, like Errol Flynn (appropriately enough: his cousin looks like George Brent) – produced dazzling solos, especially on a finger-busting Japanese Sandman, it was Limberger who held centre stage and had most opportunity to impress the audience with his lyrical, loose and virtuosic violin playing.

His vocals were a different matter – I Surrender Dear started out promisingly, with Limberger singing quietly, violin still tucked under his chin, in a manner reminiscent of Chet Baker. But as he began imitating a trumpet and veering from very loud to very soft, the initial charm wore off – and the effect, though enthusiastically received by much of the audience, was a bit like a deranged hyaena singing the blues.

(First published in The Herald, Monday, July 25th)

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Leroy Jones Quintet

Leroy Jones Quintet, Spiegeltent, Friday July 22nd                                           ***                                                                                          The 33rd Edinburgh Jazz Festival started with a whimper rather than a bang. Why? Because the early evening gig in the Spiegeltent felt like an exercise in time-filling until something more exciting came along.

Trumpeter Leroy Jones may tick all the boxes – he’s a born and bred New Orleans musician, he’s served as a sideman to Harry Connick Jr and he’s got an entertaining stage presence which helps draw in the audience. However, the reality was that his gig was lacklustre; the playing largely unremarkable.

Sharing front line duties with his wife, the trombonist Katja Toivola, Jones offered one hackneyed standard from the trad repertoire after another. Fine for the tourists on Bourbon Street, perhaps, but, really if we have to hear another version of China Boy or Chinatown in our lifetimes, it really should be something spectacular and/or different.

That said, Jones’s peculiarity is that he sounds like a modern player – shades of Clifford Brown and Miles Davis were evident in his solos which veered between fast flurries of notes and cool minimalism – but playing in the New Orleans style. Based on the evidence onstage on Friday night, however, it’s not always a winning combination. Much more appealing were his vocal numbers, but the star of the show was his pianist-for-the-night, David Patrick, whose colourful, rollicking solos should have been the spark that ignited the band …

(First published in The Scotsman, Monday, July 25th)

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