Monthly Archives: June 2015

Liane Carroll: A Sentimental Journey

Liane Carroll picIf there is one ticket that represents exceptional value for money at the Glasgow Jazz Festival then it is surely the one-man show by Liane Carroll on the festival’s opening night, on Wednesday.

Singer-pianist Carroll doesn’t just play and sing; she takes the audience on an emotional journey which might start, end and be punctuated with rib-tickling jokes but includes detours via various levels of gut-wrenching, heart-rending ballads, swinging standards and raucous blues.

Wherever she goes during her show, Carroll takes enraptured listeners with her; there’s no “her and us” about it – it’s very much a shared experience, and one which leaves no emotional stone un-turned. It’s no wonder everyone from Gerry Rafferty, with whom she toured and recorded, to Joe Stilgoe, who penned the title track of her forthcoming album Seaside, has wanted her to sing their songs.

For Carroll, it’s essential to have the audience on the journey with her. “Singing is communicating,” she says, “so I don’t feel I’m up there on my own. I have the audience with me, and we have a laugh together.” That community feeling undoubtedly stems from the 51-year-old’s first musical experiences, when she was encouraged to sing and play in her grandparents’ home in Hastings, where, from the age of six, she lived with her mother. “It was a daft household but very musical,” she recalls, with a giggle.

Carroll’s parents were semi professional singers. “They sang at the Country Club in Eastbourne – that’s how they met. Me mum had sung for a while in the 1950s with the Ken Mackintosh Band. Me nan played the piano, and I took to it early. I was taught by a concert pianist who lived locally. She was a bit of a dragon – she would threaten to snip my hair if I made any mistakes. I really thought she might do it, and one time I wore my hair in a beret so it was out of sight. Me mum said: ‘What are you doing?’ and I explained – and she had a word with her.”

Having heard and liked jazz being played and sung at home, Carroll got hooked on it in her early teens, and her listening tastes changed from the Osmonds (“I was in love with Donnie”) and the Bay City Rollers to big band music, with which she became obsessed. “I saw the BBC Radio Big Band doing a tribute to the bandleader Ted Heath, and then got into Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson… Me mum and nan used to take me to different gigs and then when I was about 16 I started to go by myself. I’d go up to London on the train and stay with a couple of relatives and come back down. It was lovely. It didn’t happen very regularly but it was my treat.”

By this time, Carroll had begun to teach herself how to play jazz. “Towards the end of my grade exams, I really enjoyed playing jazz but it wasn’t really encouraged in those days. It was [she assumes a snooty voice]: ‘Oh well, if you like that kind of thing…’. Which of course just made me do it even more, and practise doing it even more.”

What did her schoolmates think of this obsession – or was playing and listening to jazz a closet activity? “On the whole, I think it was pretty much accepted,” says Carroll. “A few people thought I was a bit weird not wanting to go to discos, but I didn’t have much confidence about going to discos and I did prefer jazz. I wasn’t that sociable; I wasn’t one of the alpha girls, the popular girls. As I got older, I made lots of friends and they used to enjoy me playing a bit of jazz on the piano at the school assembly – the school liked to have someone playing as people were coming into the hall, and I liked the chance to show off! I wasn’t bullied about it or anything, and I wasn’t shy – I’ve never been shy! I just wasn’t in that set of girls who were popular.”

The singing quickly followed; indeed it was her eventual second husband, bass player Roger Carey, who first got her up to sing on gigs. Asked who her favourite singer was when she was growing up, and Carroll responds immediately: “Vic Damone. He was amazing, a lovely singer. He had it all – the voice, the rhythm and the phrasing – and he did lots with the Count Basie Orchestra. Of the female jazz singers, Sarah Vaughan was my favourite though of course I enjoyed Ella Fitzgerald as well. But I’ve always had diverse tastes: growing up, I used to listen to Laura Nyro – she had a big impact on me when I was about 14 – and I’ve been doing her songs ever since. My husband introduced me to Todd Rundgren’s music, and I really love him too…”

It was only after a very short marriage, from her late teens into her early twenties – “not a pleasant time” – that Carroll really got stuck into performing. “I had been living in York during that period and came back down to Hastings with my one-year-old daughter, and got a residency playing piano at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne.”

Since then, she has worked in all sorts of bands – both in terms of musical genre and size – and notched up numerous awards, among them two prestigious BBC Jazz Awards in the same year (2005). Although she is constantly adding new strings to her bow, and gaining ever more acclaim, Carroll still has the weekly residency at her local wine bar, Porters, that she has been doing – “when I’m around” – for 26 years, and leads her trio, which features her husband on bass.

Does working with your husband only work because you both have other projects? “I think so! It really does,” laughs Carroll. “We did work together all the time at one point and that got a bit much. We’ve been together 28 and a half years, and we’re just getting there now. It’s always been a work in progress; it’s lovely now.”

In the last decade or so, Carroll has become a regular visitor to Scotland – more in her capacity as a guest teacher than as a star turn, in the popular vocal jazz workshops organised by her friend, the Pathhead-based singer-songwriter Sophie Bancroft.

But this week, it will just be the audience at Wild Cabaret that Carroll has for company. “It’s a nice change to do a solo gig, it’s more spontaneous. Sometimes I chat too much between numbers – it used to be out of nervousness but now it’s just who I am. I know I talk too much, and I know it’s bollocks – but it’s happy bollocks, and it’s true!”

* Liane Carroll performs at Wild Cabaret on Wednesday; details from www.jazzfest.co.uk. Her next Scottish workshop with Sophie Bancroft is the Cromarty Vocal Jazz Workshop, April 1-3 2016. For info, email sbancroft@btinternet.com. Her new album Seaside is out in September.

First published in Scotland on Sunday, June 21

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I Cover the Waterfront, Part 2

Leith 2Leith Jazz & Blues Festival, Saturday June 7, various venues ***

Saturday’s weather proved ideal for the first full day of the fourth Leith Jazz & Blues Festival: the sun shone and the forceful winds proved handy in powering punters from venue to venue – especially helpful this year when some of the venues in this expanding festival were relatively far flung.

The evening belonged to singers – indeed, the night’s proceedings were pretty much carved up by three well-known Edinburgh vocalists, and it was impossible to get round all three – but before that, the place to be was new venue The Scotch Malt Whisky Society where even standing room was at a premium for the festival debut of Trio AAB which served an uplifting blend of funky beats, catchy tunes and a dash of musical anarchy in the sort of gentleman’s club surroundings that Bertie Wooster would not look out of place in.

Trio AAB’s was an attentive audience which had clearly come specially to hear the music; over at Sofi’s Bar, the gently swinging bass-guitar duo of Ed Kelly and David Series didn’t have such luck – and struggled to be heard over the chatter of regulars. It was the same story with the evening gigs that took place in restaurants – rather than pubs or bars. Diners were there to dine; the music was incidental unless you managed to secure a seat within listening distance of the band.

At Credo, singer Becc Sanderson was good-natured despite her soft voice and Steve Hamilton’s classy keyboard playing being pretty much drowned out by the ambient dining and chatting noise. Fellow singer Lorna Reid and the afore-mentioned David Series fared better at the Italian restaurant Anfora – partly due to the lay-out of the place and the fact that their repertoire comprised more uptempo material and songs, notably her country-style Killing the Blues, on which they both played guitar.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday June 9Leith 1
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I Cover the Waterfront, Part 1

ElbJazz 2Last weekend I was in Hamburg, on a press trip which tied in with the Elbjazz Festival, a festival quite unlike any I had ever previously attended. Which was both a good and a bad thing! On the positive side, it’s a festival which makes terrific and exciting use of its venues and locations. But it’s also, it seems to me, a festival which caters more for those seeking to dip their toes in the waters of jazz – rather than for the diehard jazz fan such as myself. As the name suggests, the epicentre of the festival is the River Elbe and getting to gigs involves boat rides, riverside strolls and exploring the vast indoor and outdoor spaces of the Blohm & Voss shipyards.

Friday night, Blohm & Voss shipyard

Friday night, Blohm & Voss shipyard

I loved the maritime feel of the festival and the way it makes use of the locations to enhance the festival experience. Over lunch on Saturday, the charismatic Tina Heine, the founder and director of the festival, explained how much thought she puts into matching artists with venues – which this year ranged from St Catherine’s Church, part of which dates back to the 13th Century, to the Hafenmuseum, a museum of shipbuilding.

St Catherine's Church, Hamburg

St Catherine’s Church, Hamburg

She said: “Every artist I look at, I think about what the perfect setting would be. Sometimes you can accelerate the musical experience through the venue, and the artist can find inspiration in it too.” The shipyard has been at the heart of the festival since it began six years ago. “Blohm & Voss is there every year. Other venues change. How many stages we have at the shipyard depends on what’s happening there. This year everything is on the south side of the Elbe. In Hamburg we never get bored of being on the waterfront. Even if you’ve been here 20 years, like me. ”

Outside the Hafenmuseum, Saturday evening

Outside the Hafenmuseum, Saturday evening

Heine is a restaurateur – she owns an elegant-looking bar-restaurant called Hadley’s in Hamburg – whose love of contemporary and experimental jazz inspired her to branch out from staging weekly concerts in her own establishment to conceiving a major jazz festival which would embody her ethos of “cool venues and good food and good wine”. Indeed, Hadley’s had a satellite stall at the shipyard, one of many  stands selling some of the best fast festival food I’ve come across – along with wine, served in wine glasses! “I don’t drink my wine from plastic cups,” says Heine, “so why should I expect others to? We’ve never had a problem. People hand back the glasses to us.”

Outside the Hafenmuseum, Saturday evening

Outside the Hafenmuseum, Saturday evening

Unfortunately, this year’s event was a bit on the damp and chilly side but the weather certainly didn’t dampen the spirits of the 15,000 festival-goers who seemed to relish the opportunity to explore the shipyards and hear the likes of Dee Dee Bridgewater, on an outdoor stage, singing songs about another great port as she performed her New Orleans songbook on the first night of the weekend. A little later on, there were ten rows of people trying to get indoors to hear Stacey Kent guest with Quatuor Ebene string quartet.  ElbJazz 3A little later, the crowd had vanished and it was possible to get into the concert – right at the back, where a lot of people were listening on a sort of platform from which (unless you were at the front) you could see nothing. I gave up and went for a stroll outside. A little later still, I showed my press band and managed to get into the seated, ground-level area nearer the stage. I heard about 15 minutes of the set which I thoroughly enjoyed. I wished I’d heard more. During our conversation the next day, Tina Heine enthused about the fact that over 80% of the people who come to the festival say that they are not jazz fans. She doesn’t sell tickets to individual concerts; it’s all done on a first-come, first-served basis as far as getting a seat or a view are concerned. What, I asked, if you were a big fan of a particular artist and wanted to ensure that you had a decent seat to hear him or her from?

A glimpse of Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg's impressive new concert hall, which opens in Jan 2017

A glimpse of Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s impressive new concert hall, which opens in Jan 2017

“No chance!” was Heine’s frank reply. “If we did dedicated tickets then that would go against my whole idea of the flow of people going from one concert to another that’s completely different.” This is a lady with a firm idea of how her festival should be. Punters leaving concerts en masse 15 minutes before the end so that they can get into the next one on their schedule is fine with her, and that movement and freedom is why you can only buy one or two-day tickets, rather than individual concert tickets. It also means that festival-goers don’t have to fork out for the boat and bus shuttle trips involved in getting to the different venues on the river – it’s all included, which makes that side of things more straightforward especially for the tourist!

She said she had also resisted the idea of having stages themed according to music genre. She is firmly anti-segregation within the numerous types of music that now come under the jazz umbrella. Which is fine for those who aren’t passionate about particular genres, but not great if you are. (And if you are, there tend also to be some styles which you just can’t stand!) Mind you, if – like me – you’re a fan of classic and mainstream jazz, you probably wouldn’t find too much in the Elbjazz programme since it is more weighted in favour of contemporary jazz and fusion, as befits its founder’s personal taste. My conclusion? I need to get my own jazz festival too!

* www.elbjazz.de

All photos © Alison Kerr

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