Nairn Jazz Festival 2004

I was too busy throwing up round the clock (I was pregnant with twins) to make the 2003 Nairn Jazz Festival but I managed to get to the 2004 event – for one day only.. As it turned out, however, heavy rain caused a landslip on the train line between Inverness and Glasgow and I ended up having to spend an extra night away from the babies…

This write-up was first published in the September 2004 issue of Jazz Review 

It takes some jazz festivals a week to notch up the quantity of quality music on offer in a 24-hour period at the Nairn event. In the space of just one day, slap bang in the middle of this most laid-back of festivals, it was possible to hear clarinettist Bobby Gordon three times, and many of the other stars – including Bob Wilber, James Chirillo, Rossano Sportiello and John Sheridan – twice apiece. Old band-mates were reunited, and new alliances were formed. And this year, the programme featured a significant injection of new names (drummer Herlin Riley’s Swing Quartet went down a storm with aficionados of a more contemporary persuasion) alongside long-established favourites.

One Nairn newcomer whom it was impossible to avoid was the veteran American violinist Johnny Frigo. It may not have been his fault, but by the time he had gatecrashed his second concert (delaying the start, much to the inevitably vocal chagrin of Kenny Davern who was expecting to kick-off at the advertised time), Frigo was beginning to outstay his welcome. His impressive age (he’s 87) and impish sense of fun may allow him to get away with a great deal (a degree of arrogance and a penchant for reading his own poetry onstage to name but two examples), but his invitation for requests was dangerous, since what most of the audience wanted to hear was the band they had bought tickets for – Summit Reunion.

This musical meeting of Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber – the twin titans of the clarinet (plus, in Wilber’s case, the soprano sax) – turned out to be well worth the wait. It’s two years since their last Nairn summit, and clearly the time apart has had only a positive effect on their collaborations. Their concert in the excellent, Davern-pleasing,acoustics of the Newton Hotel’s conference room was – by their own reckoning – their best ever. What shone through was the fact that they were revelling not only in each other’s company, but also in the company of a terrific band – the Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello (whose exquisitely tasteful playing won him many fans), guitarist James Chirillo, bass player Andrew Cleyndert and drummer Tony De Nicola.

This was classic Soprano Summit: Davern and Wilber jostle and joust with the melody, bouncing it to and fro before one of them throws down the gauntlet with his solo; then, all solos taken, the pair reunite for an invariably exhilarating  climax, packed with the kind of harmonies that cause spines to tingle. This time out, the tunes ranged from such old SS favourites as Some of These Days to numbers – Comes Love, for one – which aren’t associated with this band. As ever, the leaders seemed energised by each other’s playing, and the results were utterly thrilling.

Less thrilling, but extremely satisfying nevertheless, was the reunion of most of the group featured on the recent Arbors CD Yearnings. Clarinettist Bobby Gordon, making his Nairn debut this year, initially appeared ill at ease next to the majestic-sounding Bob Wilber on the bandstand and, until the volume of his microphone was bumped up, he didn’t make much of a musical impression. By half-time, however, he had hit his stride, playing with ever greater assurance, and revealing – even more than he had in a far from relaxed duo concert with James Chirillo the previous day – a breathy, Pee Wee Russell-informed style which was a joy on his featured number If You Were Mine. Towards the end of the set, he felt sufficiently comfortable to sing –  a charmingly unaffected, characterful rendition of Sweet Lorraine which was reminiscent of Doc Cheatham’s similarly gentle vocal version.

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