Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Part 1

Published in The Herald, Thursday August 8, 2002

This year’s Nairn International Jazz Festival must have some sort of jinx on it, if its catalogue of problems to date is anything to go by. First, there was the Nairn accommodation crisis – caused by double bookings and the fact that since so many jazz fans had booked rooms, there were few left for the performers – which was resolved by putting most of the musicians in Elgin.

Then there was the nightmare journeys faced by anyone travelling on public transport at the weekend. (One musician endured a ten-hour train and bus trip from Edinburgh.) And yesterday came the announcement that festival organiser Ken Ramage’s personal piece de resistance – the debut of American crooner Steve Tyrell on Saturday night – had been cancelled by Tyrell himself. As if that wasn’t enough, Ramage’s mobile phone has gone AWOL …

Despite all this, the festival swung into action as if nothing was wrong. There is a ramshackle, everybody-pitches-in, quality about this festival, but the bottom line is that everything always works out in the end – and that the music always comes first. Which is presumably why musicians love to come here.

One musician who left, yesterday morning, looking as if he had had the time of his life was Bob Wilber, the American clarinettist and saxophonist who was lured out of semi-retirement by two tempting reunions – with the clarinettist Kenny Davern on Monday night, and with the Hot Club de France-style band fronted by Belgian guitar maestro Fapy Lafertin on Tuesday evening.

Wilber and Davern gave a sensational concert at the stiflingly hot Universal Hall in Findhorn. These virtuoso musicians have known each other for decades and they clearly thrive on opportunities to play together. Their duetting style, formed during the heyday of their group, Soprano Summit, is thrilling whether they’re both playing clarinet or whether Wilber has switched to soprano sax. These guys know each other’s styles so well, and are so experienced, that they produce spine-tingling harmonies as a matter of course.

For the most part they steered clear of standard fare on Monday night, and instead offered such lesser-played numbers a Smiles, Jazz Me Blues and The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.

However, it was during an old Fats Waller warhorse, Honeysuckle Rose, that the camaraderie onstage reached its high point, with Wilber (on soprano sax) and Davern jabbing and jousting to exhilarating effect as they traded breaks. And they were buoyed by the accompaniment of a peerless band featuring the lyrical guitarist James Chirillo, Britain’s top bass player Dave Green, the impressive young drummer Steve Brown and the super elegant American pianist John Bunch who, at 80, is as nimble and stylish a player as ever.

Wilber’s next appearance was in civvies – as a member of the audience at Davern’s lunchtime gig at the The Newton Hotel, Nairn, on Tuesday. This was a wonderfully relaxed session featuring the clarinettist in charge – and at his best. And it was a treat to hear him playing such rarities as Then You’ve Never Been Blue (which he learned from an old George Raft movie) and My Gal Sal, the first few bars of which featured unsolicited audience participation.

What really put the smile on Wilber’s face was his second and last concert as a player – on Tuesday night at Findhorn, with Fapy Lafertin’s Quartet. Before he went onstage, Wilber was enthusing about Lafertin being the world’s leading exponent of the “gypsy” jazz style of guitar playing made famous by Django Reinhardt, and reminiscing about his own face-to-face meeting with Reinhardt in Nice in the late 1940s. He obviously loves the Hot Club’s music and to play it with such a class act was clearly a great treat.

And the Lafertin outfit – two guitars, bass and violin (played by the fiendishly talented Dutchman Tim Kliphuis) – was just as delighted to have the chance to renew its acquaintance with Wilber, with whom they last worked in 1996. The results were a knockout, with Wilber absolutely in his element – hunched over his horn and dancing about as if he was in a New Orleans parade – and egged on by the dazzling, though far from flamboyant, virtuosity of Lafertin.

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