Trumpeter Colin Steele has no fewer than three Edinburgh Jazz Festival gigs in the next week, followed by a residency at the Jazz Bar during the Fringe. Hardly headline news you might think, given how well established he is on the Scottish music scene. But it is actually pretty remarkable: six months ago Steele was unable to get even a single note out of his horn, and four months ago the most he could muster was Three Blind Mice.
The 43-year-old Edinburgher, who made his name on the jazz scene in his twenties, and went on to become known for his crossover work fusing other forms of music with jazz in his playing and writing, has been through hell in the last year – and at one point had to face the”terrifying” possibility that he might never play again.
Rewind to last summer, and Steele was prominently featured in an Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra concert. What nobody knew at the time was that he was struggling to re-learn how to play the trumpet, which he had never been properly taught – and this involved un-picking years of bad habits.
Steele explains: “When I learned trumpet at school, it was just a matter of getting a sound and getting on with it – but I never did anything correctly. Later on, I always practised more than anybody else practises but I never really improved, and nobody liked to tell me I was doing stuff wrong – fundamental stuff like taking a really deep breath before playing.”
Of course it didn’t help that Steele’s primary influence was Chet Baker. “He had this very light, soft sound – and that was what I was aiming for. I found I could emulate it by taking very shallow breaths but there was no finesse, and no underlying power. If I had to play a high note, I didn’t know how to.”
Steele tried, unsuccessfully, to address the problem in his early twenties. It wasn’t until last summer that he decided to have another go. “After every gig my mouth would be cut to shreds – and it would only be by about late afternoon the next day that it would have healed enough for me to play. Last year I noticed that it was taking longer and longer to heal.
“The other issue was that because I felt that I was hurting myself when practising, practising itself became sort of self-defeating. If I had a gig at night, I felt I couldn’t practise as I’d knacker myself so I was frustated because I wanted to play.”
As a pre-emptive strike, before anything else went wrong, Steele began to look for a teacher. He settled initially on Adam Rapa, an American trumpeter, who gave him some lessons via Skype, prescribing the same sort of radical change Steele had tried in his twenties.
This time, Steele persevered, but being tutored over the internet, with the tutor unable to see at first hand what he was doing, proved, ultimately, disastrous: he ended up with a whole new problem, of his throat closing up when he went above a certain note. During a gig in December, his throat went into excruciating spasms . “By this point I couldn’t play the old way or the new way. It all fell apart and I had to cancel gigs.”
It was two weeks before Christmas, and Steele – a father of three, two of whom are under ten years old – not only had no work, but also no idea whether he’d be able to work again. “I was terrified I’d never get it back,” he admits, “and although I did wonder what I might do if it didn’t work out, I couldn’t really come up with anything. The last thing I did was study accountancy at university until I was 19, but I took a year out when I got offered the chance to join Hue and Cry, and I never returned.”
At this point he reached out to John Kenny, an experienced and highly regarded trombonist and teacher with whom he had worked many times – and he began to deal with the throat problems, while Steele was also working on his breathing and his posture. Meanwhile, he wasn’t earning. Did he work out how long he could afford to give himself to re-learn the trumpet?
“No, because if you start giving yourself deadlines then you put yourself under pressure and then things are going to go wrong the second you panic. I needed to be able to play in a relaxed way – so it was a matter of digging deep into credit cards for a while, remortgaging, keeping the head down and not panicking.”
However, panic – and grim despair – did set in. “It took six weeks for me to blow one note,” explains Steele. “I was so excited that I expanded that very quickly, and got so carried away that I hurt my throat again, and went right back to the beginning: I couldn’t play. I did think ‘maybe this is never going to work’. I’d pushed it too far too fast. It was devastating. I felt like I was facing losing my identity.”
Despite being depressed about this catastrophic setback, Steele, who admits to being a stubborn character, started all over again. And exactly six weeks later, he managed to play a note without any side effects. Needless to say, this time he proceeded with extreme caution.
Realising that Steele needed to see someone more regularly, John Kenny put him in touch with the BBC SSO’s principal trumpeter Mark O’Keeffe who agreed to take him on – and, like Kenny, refused to take any payment. At their first session, O’Keeffe asked Steele to play Three Blind Mice, and immediately identified his problems. “He gave me loads of incredible advice. Everything he said made perfect sense, and it wasn’t radical change he was suggesting – it was a natural approach. I would go in with an issue and within five minutes he’d have explained the whole thing and I’d be doing it correctly – after 20-odd years of doing it wrong.”
Steele’s progress from this point was “shocking – I felt even from the first day that I was getting 10% better every day”. After three weeks, he played I Loves You Porgy and O’Keeffe said: “That was beautiful.” And that, says Steele, “was the best compliment I’ve ever had. I felt that I was finally at the beginning of something.”
“Another great supporter,” he says, “was Bill Kyle [who runs The Jazz Bar]. He was one of the first people I confided in last December, and every month he would phone me to see if I was ready to come and sit in.”
Steele’s “second chance” at the trumpet coincided with the Fringe programme being finalised so when Kyle called him three hours before the programme deadline and said that a five-gig slot had become available, he grabbed the opportunity to realise a project he’d long hoped to do: a duo with pianist Brian Kellock. And, as luck would have it, he was back in action in time for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival programme too.
Having turned the corner, Steele has just got better and better – and is now “over the moon” with his sound. “I think it’s better now than it was before all this. It’s stronger and warmer and much, much closer to the tone I’ve always wanted to have. Chet may have sounded as if he was taking shallow, very light breaths – which is what I used to do – but he didn’t play that way. And now I don’t either …”
* For details of Colin Steele’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival gigs visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com. His duo is at The Jazz Bar from August 6-11.