Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2017: Tom Gordon 7 – Count Basie

Tom Gordon 7: Count Basie, Rose Theatre Basement *****
 
Drummer Tom Gordon has emerged in recent years as the go-to guy for a terrific Count Basie-themed gig. When his specially formed septet played the Edinburgh Jazz Festival a couple of years ago, it was a great concert with a horn section drawn from musicians who had performed in an Ellington tribute the night before.
 
The 2017 incarnation of the 7, as heard in the sweltering basement room of the new Rose Theatre venue, had an entirely different horn section – and, thanks in particular to the inclusion of the irrepressible English trumpeter Enrico Tomasso who is a veritable jazz dynamo, it was even more sensational than the last time.
 
Once Tomasso was unleashed for a solo on the opening number, the Basie theme, One O’Clock Jump, it was clear that we were in for a treat. The energetic trumpeter’s hot solo seemed to light a flame under the rest of the band; one which took hold properly about halfway into the gig when the cool, slick, sumptuous sounds of such classic Basie ballads as Silk Stockings and L’il Darlin’ gave way to a series of fiercely swinging numbers peppered with spicy, punch-packing solos from Tomasso and his fellow front-liners, Phil O’Malley (trombone) and – especially – Ruraidh Pattison (tenor saxophone).
 
Lady Be Good, Royal Garden Blues, Dickie’s Dream and Jumpin’ at the Woodside were all knockouts, with Ruraidh Pattison’s powerhouse, Illinois Jacquet-like, solos bringing the house down and the exciting little riffs cooked up by Tomasso to play with Pattison or O’Malley during solos helping to make this one of the best, most swinging, gigs yet in this year’s festival.
 
* First published in The Herald, Thursday July 20th
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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2017: Birth of the Cool

Birth of the Cool, George Square Piccolo *****

Wow. Sunday evening’s concert at the smaller Spiegeltent could well turn out to be one of the top highlights of this year’s jazz festival for those of us “lucky” enough to be shoehorned into one of the wooden pews by the brigade of battleaxes running the George Square venues.
 
Celebrating the groundbreaking Birth of the Cool series of recordings, the concert reflected not only the iconic tracks laid down by the Miles Davis-led nonet from 1949 (that were eventually released as the seminal, 1957, BOTC album), but also rehearsals and broadcast material recorded by the same line-up during its brief lifespan.
 
If all this sounded like we were in for a potentially po-faced, academic project – and it certainly seemed that way when the headmasterly-looking musical director Richard Ingham was making his opening comments – then those concerns were quickly blasted away by the inadvertent comedy that ensued when a cue was missed for a re-enactment of the band’s first live broadcast. 
 
Instead, we were treated to a blissful hour of the lush, slightly ethereal harmonies featured in the distinctive arrangements and compositions of Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan et al – and it was a rare thrill to hear such classics as Jeru, Moon Dreams, Move and Godchild being played live and with such panache and obvious enjoyment by this superb nine-piece outfit which included several students.
 
The 2017 BOTC band had at its heart an A-list team of Colin Steele (trumpet), Martin Kershaw (alto sax) and Allon Beauvoisin (baritone sax), all of whom were improvising rather than recreating their terrific solos and all of whom were on top form; Steele, in the Miles Davis role, has seldom sounded better. The Cool is born again … 
* First published in The Herald, Tuesday July 18th
Birth of the Cool, George Square Piccolo, Sunday July 16th
* Boplicity
* Venus de Milo
* Jeru
* Move
* Moon Dreams
* Rocker
* Rouge
* Israel
* Godchild
* Deception
* Budo

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2017: Seonaid Aitken – A Night With Ella

Seonaid Aitken – A Night With Ella, Festival Theatre ***

After Alison Burns’s homage to Ella Fitzgerald at the Glasgow Jazz Festival, it was Seonaid Aitken, recently named Best Vocalist at the Scottish Jazz Awards but originally known on the jazz scene as a dazzlingly talented violinist, who had the honour of marking the legendary singer’s centenary for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. 
 
While Burns’s concert was a duo affair, in an intimate venue, Aitken’s, which featured the impressive Groove Merchant Big Band and The Scottish Festival Orchestra Strings, was the Saturday night slot at the Festival Theatre, an occasion which one might – given the jazz festival’s long history of all-star extravaganzas – have expected to boast a number of better-known names, each perhaps focusing on a different aspect of Fitzgerald’s back catalogue.
 
So, no pressure on Aitken then .. However, she pulled it out of the bag in terms of entertaining the audience with her warm personality and covering all areas of Fitzgerald’s career singlehandedly; even managing to justify a violin feature because there’s a violin solo on It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) from Fitzgerald’s Ellington Songbook album. 
 
That song, however, summed up the issue that any jazz aficionado might have had with this tribute. Its singer didn’t swing. Aitken has a beautiful voice, and she swings like mad when playing her violin – but when she’s singing lyrics, she is terribly sedate and sings the songs very straight. The stand-out of the evening was her recreation of Fitzgerald’s iconic scat solo on How High the Moon – where she did a superb job of letting rip and going with the swinging flow of the fantastic big band behind her.
* First published in The Scotsman, Monday July 17th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2017: Swing’it Dixieband Play Disney

Swing’it Dixieband Play Disney, Rose Theatre ***

Saturday lunchtime’s concert at the Rose Theatre, a brand new venue which used to be a chapel, was certainly a popular choice with audiences. Not only did it offer shelter from the rain and wind, but it also provided some child-friendly jazz in the shape of the young Norwegian/English band Swing’it Dixieband which was offering a programme of music from Disney films and other animated movies.
 
This exuberant seven-piece group, which bounded on stage dressed in the trad jazz uniform of black and white plus straw boaters, also proved popular with young ladies – and this was possibly the first time that an out-of-town hen party has included an Edinburgh jazz festival gig in its itinerary. 
 
Led by a charismatic if slightly cocky Norwegian singer and trumpeter, who sounded like Joe Stilgoe when he sang and had an impressive, swinging trumpet style, the band’s charm, enthusiasm, humour and energy carried them through the hour-long gig and endeared them to the crowd to the extent that they probably brought their own audience to the Mardi Gras in the Grassmarket, which was their next port of call. Especially impressive was the clarinettist whose slightly squawky tone brought the great Pee Wee Russell’s (and the less great Woody Allen’s) to mind.
 
They may not have delivered particularly great jazz versions of Disney tunes but it was a treat nevertheless to hear the likes of Everybody Wants to Be a Cat (from The Aristrocats), Whistle Stop (from Robin Hood) and Cruella De Vil (from 101 Dalmations) being performed live – and the youngsters present went particularly nuts for the calypso sounds of Under the Sea.
* First published in The Herald, Monday July 17th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2017: Rose Room Orchestra Fantastique

Rose Room Orchestra Fantastique, George Square Spiegeltent ****

In recent years, gypsy jazz bands with a Hot Club-inspired line-up have become as much a feature of jazz festivals as trad and Dixieland jazz groups and the most exciting ones are those in which the violinist and the lead guitarist are on equal musical footing (the Tim Kliphuis Trio, with Nigel Clark on guitar, springs to mind), or the band is doing something a bit different with the classic gypsy sound (Evan Christopher’s Django a la Creole, for example). 
 
Rose Room, the Glasgow-based quartet which boasts violinist extraordinaire Seonaid Aitken as its star, ticks neither of the above boxes on its own – but, on Friday, it brought in special guests to turn what could have been an enjoyable but unremarkable gig into something more becoming of a jazz festival opening night. Saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski injected a welcome dose of edginess to proceedings which, thanks to the jaunty, cheery tunes and Aitken’s 1930s BBC radio dance band singing style, often sound cosily retro, while the addition of The Capella Quartet to a series of tunes from Rose Room’s regular repertoire put a different spin on the music, and added depth and class.
 
Indeed, The Capella Quartet provided one of the highlights of the evening – a beautiful, unusual arrangement of Moonlight in Vermont which managed to just about block out the thumping, pumping beat emanating from the tent-next-door’s soundcheck. Blues in My Heart – possibly the jolliest blues I’ve ever heard – also stood out because it featured Aitken’s lovely vocals with a funky accompaniment from guitarist Tom Watson, playing chunky chords, and Wiszniewski at his downright raunchiest.
* First published in The Scotsman, Monday July 17th

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Review: Jesper Thilo, Jacob Fischer & Anders Fjelsted, Copenhagen Jazz Festival

Jesper Thilo, Jacob Fischer & Anders Fjelsted, Bartof Station, Copenhagen *****Jesper Thilo 2-2

I spent a couple of nights at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival last weekend, attending a couple of evening gigs and catching bits and pieces of the jazz events scattered throughout the city during my one full day there.

I watched punters of all ages learn to jive in one of the main squares, heard some trad jazz on the Nyhavn canal (Down By the Riverside sounded particularly apt), and ran screaming (well, I might as well have done – nobody would have been able to tell if I was screaming or if I was a singer!) from two free venues where squeaky bonk of both the instrumental and vocal variety were the order of the day.

This festival may be stuffed to the gunnels with concerts, but it’s not exactly well-endowed with the sort of jazz I love best – easygoing, swinging instrumental jazz. So I was thrilled to find that there was some taking place on my free night – and I knew it was going to be good because Jacob Fischer, whom I’ve heard many times in the UK, was on guitar, playing with Jesper Thilo, the seventysomething Danish tenor saxophonist I mostly knew about through his association with my favourite American sax player, Scott Hamilton.

Thilo and Fischer’s Saturday night gig by far exceeded my expectations and, frankly, restored my faith – and my smile – after a day of failing to find anything to pique my passion; most of what I had heard was music that made me think that if it had been what I was first exposed to as a teenager, I would never have gone on to become an aficionado…

Playing in the extremely hospitable Bartof Station, a lovely bar/cafe with a big comfortable music room and a quirky, retro decorative style, Thilo and Fischer, along with bass player Anders Fjelsted, dished up a three-set programme of standards and not-so standards – all served with warmth and good-natured humour. (Not that I understood a word of what was said beyond the song titles!)

Right from the off, this little band was cooking. On the hard-swinging opener, The Way You Look Tonight, Fischer was all smiles as the man he had introduced as “the king of the tenor sax” powered through the tune, revealing a style that is driving and forthright and at the opposite end of the sax spectrum from the exponents of a more wishy-washy, wistful and sentimental sound.

Switching to clarinet midway through the groovy Watch Your Step, Thilo seemed to up his game further, providing an exciting climax to that number with a hot style of playing which completely belied his stately demeanour. The clarinet thrills returned in the second set, with a sensational, fiercely swinging After You’ve Gone which came across as a dialogue – a rather frenetic and exhilarating dialogue – between Thilo and Fischer, with whom he clearly has a terrific rapport.

That rapport was evident throughout but was particularly obvious in All The Things You Are which Fischer kicked off in slow, contemplative (and cryptic) style before the lyrical bass of Anders Fjelsted and the driving sax of Thilo joined in. Fischer and Thilo’s mischievous little game of musical tag, as they split from playing in unison and began to snake around each other in counterpoint, was another in a long list of crowd-thrilling highlights of the evening.

A fair share of those were provided by Fischer in his finger-busting solos – always elegantly and imaginatively constructed. And the icing on the cake was the addition of Scottish pianist Brian Kellock, fresh from another gig across town, for a couple of numbers in the final, Gershwin-themed, set.

Jesper Thilo 4-2

I

The Way You Look Tonight

Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me)

Gone With the Wind

That’s All

Watch Your Step

II

All The Things You Are

After You’ve Gone

Stars Fell on Alabama

Sweets For the Sweet

III

The Man I Love

How Long Has This Been Going On?

Embraceable You

Lady Be Good

Love Is Here To Stay

encore: I Got Rhythm

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Review: Martin Taylor & Alison Burns – Ella at 100

Martin Taylor & Alison Burns – Ella at 100, Strathclyde Suite, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow ****

Maybe it’s fitting that a star who was as unassuming in real life as Ella Fitzgerald should have a low-key centenary year – in Scotland at least. The legendary jazz singer’s birthday celebrations can be contrasted with those organised for that other great 20th Century voice, Frank Sinatra, when he hit the C spot in 2015.

While Sinatra’s centenary in Scotland was a series of big band bashes fronted by such leading singing stars as Kurt Elling, Curtis Stigers and Frank Sinatra Jr, the biggest name on any of the Fitzgerald-themed Scottish concerts is a guitarist ….

But what a guitarist. Martin Taylor, who opened the Glasgow Jazz Festival on Wednesday with his and singer Alison Burns’s tribute, brought the house down in a way that Fitzgerald herself would have done, and in the duo format which Fitzgerald used to memorable effect with guitarist Joe Pass.

His two extended (non Fitzgerald-related) solo segments were, unsurprisingly given his status as an internationally renowned soloist, the stand-outs of the concert: tour-de-force balladeering on Hymne a l’amour (which, he joked, he used to think was a Glaswegian song because his aunty would invariably sing it after a few sherries), a beautiful and characteristically richly textured interpretation of Henry Mancini’s Two For the Road, and a gorgeous bossa version of The Carpenters’ I Won’t Last a Day Without You.

With a warm, lush voice which suited the intimate feel of the venue, Alison Burns impressed in the Ella role, bravely attempting to reproduce some of Fitzgerald’s less energetic improvisations and singing in a style which featured most of Fitzgerald’s trademark “licks”.

A slightly shorter version of this review was published in The Scotsman on Saturday, June 24th

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