Category Archives: Nairn Jazz Festival

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 ReviewΒ 

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.Β 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 Β 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 – Β a charmingly unaffected, characterful rendition of Sweet Lorraine which was reminiscent of Doc Cheatham’s similarly gentle vocal version.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Overview

Published in the Nairn Telegraph, August 14, 2002

Thank God for the Nairn International Jazz Festival. Thanks to it, I will have enough musical memories to sustain me through the next 12 months until my next trip north to jazz heaven. The festival, which ended on Sunday, provided more moments of sheer pleasure in one week than Scottish fans of swinging chamber jazz can expect to enjoy in a whole year’s worth of concerts elsewhere in the country.

This year’s event summed up everything that makes Nairn special. There was the enthusiasm of the musicians who appreciated the excellent acoustics (if not the unbearable temperature earlier in the week) of the Universal Hall in Findhorn, the laidback feel of the Newton Hotel’s Conference Centre, and, especially, the warmth and attentiveness of the audiences. Among the musicians who were enjoying themselves so much that they played well beyond their bedtimes were veteran clarinettist and saxophonist Bob Wilber, pianist Ray Bryant and cornet legend Ruby Braff.

Then there were the last-minute concerts staged by festival organiser Ken Ramage: two guitar recitals by top American players in a Forres coffee shop and the Saturday night finale, pulled together in a day (following the cancellation by headline act Steve Tyrell), and still managing to attract a more than respectably sized audience.

Of course what matters most is the music, and Nairn served up more treats than even the most optimistic festival-goer could expect, and all in a refreshingly laid-back manner which contrasts with the concert hall formality favoured by so many other jazz festivals these days. Ken Ramage is a talented programmer with a healthy intuition about which musicians will work well together, and he knows that the happier the musicians are, the better the music is likely to be. Which is why, unlike other festival organisers, he often brings over whole bands or arranges for the preferred rhythm sections of certain top soloists to come up north, rather than taking the easy option of simply putting the star turn on with a Scottish trio.

The festival is very much a reflection of Ramage’s personal taste, but it’s also proof that focusing on one area of jazz – the so-called “mainstream” side of things – doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t have diversity and broad appeal. Nairn’s very strength is that it doesn’t try to be all things to all jazz fans. Because of this, it has a strong identity and has established a reputation among musicians all over the world as one of the most desirable festivals to visit. Add to that the warm hospitality, the scenery and, of course, the tropical temperatures (well, Monday and Tuesday’s anyway), and, well, roll on next year…

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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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Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Part 2

Published in The Herald, Monday August 12, 2002

It may not be in quite the same historic league as Benny Goodman’s legendary gig at the Palomar Ballroom, or Louis Armstrong’s Town Hall concert or the Ellington band’s riot-sparking Newport performance, but American cornet star Ruby Braff’s Wednesday night concert at The Newton Hotel for the Nairn International Jazz Festival was undoubtedly one of those nights which will be talked about for many years to come – at least by those who were there.

Before Braff opened his mouth, things didn’t bode well. Looking frail and wizened, and suffering from emphysema, the 75-year-old made it out of his wheelchair and up onto the stage. Propped up by pillows, he looked as if he should be in the local infirmary rather than in front of an all-star band. However, as soon as he began to talk, it was obvious that the notoriously cantankerous star was in good spirits, reducing the audience and the musicians onstage to tears of laughter with his politically incorrect jokes.

Of course, it wasn’t just the priceless patter which made Braff’s concert such a highlight. It was a fantastic night musically – a perfect example of swinging, melodic chamber jazz. Holding court for well over two hours, Braff brought out the best from an already terrific band which featured Scott Hamilton on tenor sax, John Bunch on piano and Jon Wheatley on guitar.

Rather than taking the easy – and more common – all-star concert option of featuring each soloist individually or dividing the band into different line-ups for different numbers, Braff simply had each musician play a share of the melody before everyone took a solo. The results were sublime, particularly the beautiful, laid-back version of Jerome Kern’s Yesterdays, which prompted Braff to comment: “That was like a nice conversation.”

Braff’s playing gave no indication of his breathing difficulties; indeed, the horn seemed to double as an oxygen mask, and as the evening progressed, he played for longer stints, always with that unique, mellow tone. He was surprisingly generous in his praise for his fellow musicians, and was clearly relishing the opportunity to be playing with Bunch and Hamilton again.

In those wee small hours of Thursday morning, it looked as though the highpoint of the festival had just finished, but there were still treats ahead, among them Scott Hamilton’s lunchtime reunion with pianist Brian Kellock. Kellock hooked up with his own band (John Rae on drums and Kenny Ellis on bass) to join American saxophonist Harry Allen for a gig on Friday evening which proved that the United Reformed Church should probably be a last-resort venue for Nairn jazz. Allen and co rose above acoustic problems and turned in a terrific extended set which left the tenor man raving about Kellock’s trio being the best in Britain.

Aside from the Braff concert, the gig which best summed up the spirit of the Nairn International Jazz Festival was the lunchtime concert by members of the Gully Low Band. Featuring a quartet made up of the magnificent trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, the elegant clarinettist Dan Levinson, virtuoso guitarist Howard Alden and tuba player-bandleader David Ostwald, the first set epitomised the relaxed, informal feel of the best Nairn concerts. This was a rare chance to hear this kind of line-up and their swinging, tasteful performances of such little-played 1920s and 1930s numbers like Diga-Diga-Doo and From Monday On were superb – sheer pleasure.

The relaxed feel of this ensemble was in complete contrast to the more carefully staged and formal atmosphere of the two concerts by the entire Gully Low Jazz Band, on Friday night and Saturday lunchtime. Although this band went down well with audiences, it seemed to lack the joyfulness and spontaneity of the small group sets, and, frankly, leader David Ostwald’s dull announcements were tiresome and unnecessary.

Also more formal and less rewarding than might have been expected was the concert by young stars Benny Green (piano) and Russell Malone (guitar) on Thursday evening. This slick, sharp-suited duo was, unquestionably, a class act but there was a strong sense that they were simply working their way through the material on their album, and that, to them, this was just another stop on the touring itinerary. Which is about as far removed from the one-off, peculiarly Nairn, feel of the Braff concert and the Bob Wilber-Fapy Lafertin gig of earlier in the week.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2001

Published in The Herald, August 14, 2001

It’s been a few years since this reviewer’s last visit to the Nairn International Jazz Festival, but, thankfully, very little has changed. The atmosphere is as friendly and laid-back as ever, and the prevalence of the founder-organiser’s own eclectic tastes – rather than a worthy but half-hearted attempt to cater for every jazz taste – still ensures that this event has a distinctive character.

Nairn is still very much the jazz festival with the personal touch. You only need to watch the crowds filing out of the venue to witness this: people queue up to thank Ken Ramage, the organiser, for the concert and to request that certain bands be brought back. Musicians and audience members mingle at interval-time, and seem to be united in their enjoyment of the festival and its informal ambience. Indeed, it’s not unusual for bandleaders to ask to be invited back as they bid farewell to the audience.

This is precisely what happened at this year’s showcase concert, given by David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band on Saturday. This classy New York-based group went down a storm and seemed to be as delighted by the response they received as the audience was thrilled by the music. Unlike, say, the Nairn All-Stars band, which had appeared two nights earlier, this was a ready-made outfit comprising members who work together regularly and operate less as a group of individuals (although trumpeter Randy Sandke, clarinettist-saxophonist Dan Levinson, trombonist John Allred and pianist Mark Shane are all in demand as soloists) and more as an ensemble. Consequently, they managed to cram several decades’ worth of Armstrong material into a hugely enjoyable couple of sets.

The Ostwald outfit asked for, and received, an instant invitation to come back to Nairn. But it wasn’t the only debuting group looking for a return visit. The Hot Antics charmed Nairn audiences with two afternoon concerts at the weekend. This French band’s winning combination of seldom-played tunes from the 1920s and 1930s plus a good deal of fun and banter – prompted a flurry of requests, not least from the band itself, for a repeat performance at a future event.

The surprise of the festival was Dunstan Coulber, an English clarinettist who led a swing quartet, featuring the versatile pianist Richard Busiakiewicz, on Friday evening. The winner of the Perrier Young Jazz Musician of the Year, Coulber has a soft, fluid, and commanding style which contrasted well with Busiakiewicz’s crisp, elegant playing.

The Nairn audience’s willingness to try out the unfamiliar is a sign of its faith in the taste of the organiser, and he rewarded the loyalty by arranging return visits by old favourites. It was a not-so-old favourite who opened the festival on Wednesday. Jane Monheit, the American singer who made her Scottish debut in Nairn in December, was welcomed back as if she was the prodigal daughter, while Monty Alexander, the Jamaican pianist who has played the festival in the past and who would appear to have been adopted by Nairn as one of its own, seemed to thrive on the friendly atmosphere when he gave a late-night recital on Friday.

Although all the evening events played to a full tent, the stand-out concerts of the festival were the ones which were heard by fewest people. In the intimate, and unlikely, venue of the newly-converted stables of Brodie Castle on Friday afternoon, the peerless American musicians Warren Vache (cornet) and Howard Alden (guitar) – both of whom have been absent from the festival for several years – teamed up with the excellent bass player Ricky Steele for two glorious sets which are bound to become Nairn festival legend.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 1997

Published in The Herald, August 12, 1997

With the late addition to Nairn International Jazz Festival’s opening concert of one man, numerous jazz fans (this one included) were spurred into foregoing a recovery period after the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival in order to travel up north a day earlier than planned.

Cornettist Warren Vache (left), who had battled to be audible amid the chaos of Wednesday’s Usher Hall concert and whose Thursday set with Scott Hamilton suffered as a result of overwhelming heat and (justifiably) inflamed tempers, was to join singer Carol Kidd for her Friday-night concert. This was too enticing and inspired a musical match to miss.

Vache and Kidd have a great deal in common: both are capable of styling songs in the most subtle and imaginative ways and both regularly delight audiences with exquisite performances of ballads. Hell, they even have a favourite song – I Can’t Get Started – in common. The prospect of hearing them balladeering together was mouthwatering. The reality, however, was monumentally depressing.

All hopes for a meeting of two like musical minds were dashed as we waited and waited for Vache to be invited on stage. This world-class cornetist was totally marginalised by Carol Kidd, who was to keep him hanging around until the end of the show before inviting him on to the marquee stage, and introducing him as someone who ”had played with Rosemary Clooney”.

Vache was patronised, sidelined and allowed to play on only three numbers in total. A disgusting waste of his unparalleled talent As it was, Vache had the honour of playing on one Kidd ballad. In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning hinted at what might have been, but it was followed by two raucous, uninspired songs during which the drummer was featured more than Mr Vache.

Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the busy marquee in the grounds of the stately hotel Boath House were altogether more uplifting experiences. Vache was teamed up – as he was at this event last year – with the veteran pianist Ralph
Sutton for two concerts of duets. The cornetist made up for lost time, with a virtuosic , powerhouse display of swinging, soulful and lyrical playing. The atmosphere was electric, and the affection and rapport between Sutton and Vache were unforced and very evident.

Vache stalked the stage as he played, periodically leaning into Sutton’s piano, and was clearly more at ease than he had been in any other recent gig. The choice of numbers was perfect (Home, Old Folks, I Want a Little Girl), and every one was a thrill; Sutton’s classy but warm pianistics provided the perfect balance with Vache’s eloquent cornet.

Highlights – and there were many – included Sutton’s brilliant boogie woogie on St Louis Blues, his lightning-fast stride on I Found a New Baby and his evocative interpretation of Bix Beiderbecke’s In A Mist. Again, the Beiderbecke connection continued with a spellbinding, heart-melting Vache-Sutton duet on Singin’ the Blues.

Indeed, if – as Hoagy Carmichael famously said – Beiderbecke’s sound was like a girl saying yes, then Warren Vache’s is the boy asking . . . in the most romantic way. Witness his beguiling playing on Sleepy Time Down South, Nobody Knows, I Can’t Get Started and the divine This Is All I Ask.

Sutton and Vache were a tough double act to follow, but young pianist Benny Green did an impressive job on Sunday night. While the first half of his trio’s concert perhaps overdid the self-indulgent abstraction, the second offered more soulful, lyrical musings, with a sumptuously slow The Very Thought Of You, an extended blues, and Stolen Moments being the most memorable numbers.

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Nairn Jazz: Jessica Williams (1995)

Published in The Herald, March 6, 1995

Jessica Williams, Brodie Countryfare, Nairn

Jessica Williams is like no other jazz pianist. It’s not just that she’s female, and there are so few prominent women jazz instrumentalists. Nor is it that she’s extremely tall (the stool was adjusted to its lowest level before she began). Rather, it’s the absolute unpredictablity of her playing.

A Williams audience is not allowed to be complacent. Recognising the tune does not mean you can settle back and stop thinking. Quite the opposite: this is edge-of-the-seat stuff which demands concentration. It is utterly impossible to second-guess how this first-rate technician is going to manipulate the melody and swing the moods.

The first set of her concert on Saturday night was dazzling, both musically and visually: her huge, elastic hands produced crashing, clashing chords one minute; and finicky flurries of triplets the next. What was missing in the early stages, however, was a sense of genuine emotion: the tunes, though extremely impressive, failed to bridge the emotional gap between performer and listener.

Clearly more relaxed after a near-euphoric reaction to the first half, William loosened up, lightened up, and warmed up (literally — she was suffering from the cold weather) with Dave Brubeck’s Summer Song — the kind of ballad that’s so haunting you try to remember it all the way home.

Nice Work If You Can Get It revealed a sense of playfulness in her pianistics: there were the Wallerish strides on the one hand and the Monk-like discords on the other, not to mention the use of the strings. But the best was saved for encore-time: a sumptuous and supremely moving interpretation of My One And Only Love, played latterly in the style of a hymn.

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