Category Archives: Nairn Jazz Festival

Nairn Jazz Festival 1996: Ruby Braff/Scott Hamilton

Published in The Herald on August 20, 1996

Ruby Braff/Scott Hamilton, Nairn Jazz Festival

Another successful Nairn Jazz Festival came to a close on Sunday night with the kind of fabulous all-star concert which fans haven’t seen in a long time – unless they were lucky enough to be at some of the Nairn events earlier in the week. Once again, promoter Ken Ramage gambled on expensive big names, but once again it paid off with a capacity crowd and music of the highest calibre.

Cornet star Ruby Braff and tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton were the main headliners, but this excellent six-piece outfit also featured classy piano man John Bunch, guitar genius Bucky Pizzarelli and Brits Dave Green (bass) and Allan Ganley (drums). Unlike some of the jazz festival concerts we’ve seen recently at Edinburgh, this one was leisurely, civilised and good-natured.

Braff, who had apparently lived up to his reputation as a difficult and highly strung customer at Thursday night’s concert, was all smiles and hilarious wisecracks. His playing throughout was every bit as polished as it sounds on record, but twice as funky. The presence of his old pals Bunch and Pizzarelli no doubt contributed to his performance: it’s unlikely that he would have been half as relaxed in the company of a Scottish pianist and guitarist.

As for Hamilton, he and Braff formed a mutual inspiration society within this great band, egging each other on most memorably on Sunday, Just One of Those Things, and a cheeky Jeepers Creepers. New Nairn-comers Bunch and Pizzarelli were also dazzling in their virtuosity; the self-effacing pianist’s elegant style a joy to experience live after years of listening to his recordings.

I’ve found my notes on this concert. Here’s the list of numbers played.. During the first half, Braff complained about the heat under the lights and asked, good-naturedly, if they could be extinguished. “An electrician could do it,” he quipped. After a 40-minute interval, the second half was played in near-darkness, with moths swirling round the bells of Braff’s and Hamilton’s horns – like the cigarette smoke in Herman Leonard’s famous photos of Lester Young’s sax.

* Just You, Just Me

* Rockin’ Chair

* Poor Butterfly

* Cherokee (Scott Hamilton & rhythm section)

* Easy Living (rhythm section)

* Indiana

* Just One of Those Things

* The Days of Wine and Roses

* Skylark (Scott Hamilton & rhythm section)

* Jeepers Creepers

* Yesterdays (without Scott Hamilton)

* Sunday

* Take the A Train

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Nairn Jazz: Bob Wilber (1995)

Review published in The Herald, June 1, 1995.

Bob Wilber, Parkdean Holiday Park, Nairn

Nairn did it again on Tuesday night: showed up the rest of the country in its commitment to one-off inter-festival jazz concerts. The name to be added to the town’s already impressive list of successes is that of British-based American clarinetist/saxophonist Bob Wilber.

Wilber is a paradoxical figure. His precise, professional appearance, while reflected in the polished nature of his arrangements, is really a foil for the passion and energy of his playing style. The academic (visual) image is underlined by one of his instrumental choices – his celebrated curved soprano sax which, at about half the length of the straight soprano sax, looks like an extra-large pipe.

The curved model was used to best effect on Wilber’s breathtaking marathon through Hindustan, but the straight soprano was favoured with more numbers. As promised, it made an altogether different sound from its wee brother: bolder, more commanding, and more elegantly fluid. That sound was showcased on two ballads – the stunning Indian Summer and Wilber’s own exquisite Reverie.

Although Wilber’s clarinet was the most exercised instrument of the evening, it was the least inspiring – but only because of the competition. Its lilting performance on What a Difference A Day Makes, however was a contender in the knock-out stakes.

Impressive, too, was the rest of the band, with Dave Cliff’s guitar input in particular, perfectly complementing Wilber’s playing. The quartet appears to be jinxed. Before the gig, it was announced that Wilber’s regular pianist, Mick Pyne, died last week – Brian Dee proved a worthy substitute – and midway through the evening the band’s superb bass player, Dave Green, had to be ambulanced off to hospital, but the band played on.

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Nairn Jazz: Gene Harris (1994)

This is an interview/review published in The Herald on November 30, 1994.

Funky Gene’s. The title of Gene Harris’s new CD says it all. And they don’t come much funkier. Not in Nairn anyway. But, unlikely as it may sound, Nairn and Mr H have a thing goin’ on. Last weekend the American pianist paid his second visit in two months to the wee town whose healthy and regular diet of major jazz artistes — courtesy of local fruiterer/promoter Ken Ramage — often puts the rest of the country to shame.

Harris had such a good time when he played Nairn in September that he was only too keen to take up the invitation to come again. Three not insignificant factors in his readiness to accept were guitarist Jim Mullen, bass player Dave Green and drummer Allan Ganley.

”These guys are cream of the crop in Great Britain. I hadn’t worked with any of them before my first night in Nairn (my first night in Scotland), and I certainly wasn’t expecting the high quality of talent that I got. I was amazed and pleasantly surprised, 99% of American jazz musicians are sons of bitches ’cause they believe that just because they’re American they’re the best in the world. That’s a lie.”

Michigan-born Harris, however, is regarded by many as one of the best exponents of his instrument and is in demand all over the world. During his lifelong musical career he has rarely been out of jazz work (although he did make a brief foray into the world of disco music in the 1970s); as leader of various trios (the first being the Blue Note-recorded Three Sounds) or bigger outfits like the all-star Philip Morris Superband. In Nairn, he summed himself up quite simply: ”I’m just an old funky blues player at heart.”

But to categorise Harris as a blues player is to underestimate his versatility. True, he has the emotional intensity of a blues man. His playing on Saturday was passionate — oftimes verging on the melodramatic: I Thought About You began as a poignant, reflective piece but became angry and resentful. Georgia began in the same way, but it developed into a rollicking boogie woogie — the style which, through the recordings of Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, first inspired Harris to take to the keyboards himself.

In cheerful mode, Harris displayed a remarkable lightness of touch — his fingers barely skimming the ivories as they scurried up and down the magnificent Bosendorfer grand piano (especially hired from Edinburgh) — and a facial expression reminiscent of another great jazz pianist/entertainer, Fats Waller. But it was the romantic numbers that drew the most enthusiastic reaction from an already-converted Nairn audience on Saturday. Harris played Misty with fingers positively dripping sentiment, but it was his Sweet Lorraine — less sickly and therefore more enjoyable — which was the real highlight of the evening.

There can be no doubt that Harris will be back in Nairn. Which is great for Nairn jazz fans and those who can be bothered to make the three and a half hour,  £29 train journey from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Inverness. But until someone in the central belt starts to book these big jazz names when they’re touring over here, they’re just going to keep flying over our heads.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 1994

By way of tribute to Ken Ramage (who died earlier this month), the founder and organiser of the wonderful Nairn Jazz Festival – and the promoter of many non-festival concerts, I’m going to run all my Nairn articles (or as many as I can find), starting with this, my first review from Nairn – of my first time at the Nairn Jazz Festival, published in The Herald on August 11, 1994. I’m not sure where or how I wrote this as it was pre-internet. It was probably phoned-in to copytakers, a now-extinct species!

You had to be there really, but you can take my word for it that the audience for jazz is alive and flourishing in the north of Scotland. Consider the remarkable initiative of Nairn fruiterer-cum-jazz promoter Ken Ramage who decided – only three months ago – to build a festival around an exclusive Scottish appearance by the Ray Brown Trio.

Only the promise of a night of world-class music would drag the mainstream jazz fan away from residency at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, but Ramage could not have selected a better group to launch his own event than the one which took the stage in the grounds of the Golf View Hotel on Tuesday night. With an all-American, all-star, front line of cornettist Warren Vache, clarinettist Kenny Davern, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and trombonist Joel Helleny, plus a stellar British rhythm section in the shape of the Colin Purbrook Trio, it could only be a winner.

The band swung its way through numbers like Bernie’s Tune and Sweet Georgia Brown, but it was in the various groups within the group that the individual musicians truly shone. Jerome Kern’s Pick Yourself Up showcased the dulcet cornet tones of Vache, while Joel Helleny – making his first Scottish appearance – introduced the 300-strong audience to his poetic playing with a stunning Polka Dots and Moonbeams. The two brassmen were featured on a poignant You’ve Changed.

Much the same could be said of Hamilton and Davern who locked horns and competed for the notes in the dog whistle register during their splendid version of Blue Monk. Elsewhere, Hamilton’s bluesy, growling tenor on It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, and his lulling Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square provoked cheers – as did Davern’s beautifully restrained solo number, Sweet Lorraine.

The Vache-Davern-Hamilton triumverate is always a pleasure to hear, but add Joel Helleny and a trio as compatible as Purbrook’s and we really had one helluva line-up. They will be a tough act to follow, but then so is singer Carol Kidd. She appears at the Marquee tonight accompanied by her regular trio of Dave Newton (piano), Dave Green (bass) and Allan Ganley (drums).

For many, however, the highlight of Nairn’s jazz festival will be the booking that set the ball rolling – the Ray Brown Trio. Bass player Brown started out with the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker Quintet before working with, and marrying, Ella Fitzgerald. His name will also be remembered from Norman Granz’s legendary Jazz At the Philharmonic concert series, or from his stint with Oscar Peterson’s most celebrated trio. On Sunday Brown’s band features Benny Green, a young pianist in great demand worldwide, and another Peterson regular – drummer Jeff Hamilton.

Here’s the complete list of numbers played by Vache, Hamilton, Davern, Helleny etc:

* Sometimes I’m Happy (SH)

* Polka Dots and Moonbeams (JH)

* Pick Yourself Up (WV)

* A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (SH)

* Sweet Lorraine (KD)

* It Don’t Mean a Thing (whole band)

* Bernie’s Tune

* In a Mellow Tone

* You’ve Changed (WV & JH)

* On Green Dolphin Street (trio)

* Blue Monk (SH & KD)

* Sweet Georgia Brown

I didn’t hear the rest of the Nairn Jazz Festival – I got a lift down to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival with Vache, Hamilton and Davern who were all appearing at the Gala Concert at the Queen’s Hall the day this review was published!

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Ken Ramage

To view my newspaper obituaries of Ken, please click on the links below:

The Herald, published Thursday September 8

The Scotsman, published Friday September 9

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Newsflash

It is with great sadness that I have to report that Ken Ramage (second from the right), the founder and organiser of the festival that put the sleepy seaside town of Nairn on the jazz map,  died suddenly today. Our thoughts are with his partner Roslin, and their children Kenneth and Jennifer. A full appreciation will follow anon. If you have any stories to share about the Nairn Jazz Festival or its maverick founder, please email them to me or post them as comments. For me, Nairn will not be the same without the jazz which Ken brought to it. And some of the best musical memories I have are from the heyday of the festival ..

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