Rose Room Orchestra Fantastique, George Square Spiegeltent ****
Jesper Thilo, Jacob Fischer & Anders Fjelsted, Bartof Station, Copenhagen *****
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.
The Way You Look Tonight
Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me)
Gone With the Wind
Watch Your Step
All The Things You Are
After You’ve Gone
Stars Fell on Alabama
Sweets For the Sweet
The Man I Love
How Long Has This Been Going On?
Lady Be Good
Love Is Here To Stay
encore: I Got Rhythm
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
Madeleine Peyroux, City Halls, Glasgow, Sunday June 4th *****
After a decade’s absence from Glasgow, the American singer-guitarist Madeleine Peyroux made a triumphant come-back on Sunday, to the delight of an adoring audience which hung on her every last word and note. Accompanied by just guitar and bass, she performed songs from across her career, and although she has moved through the genres in the 13 years since her first major album, she has clearly taken fans with her on the journey – and she still infuses everything she sings with a bluesy, slightly tortured, soulfulness.
Sunday’s concert benefitted from the fact that the City Halls’ Grand Hall is half the size of Royal Concert Hall and the Usher Hall, where she has previously played, and it was therefore possible to create the sort of intimate atmosphere that complements and enhances her confessorial style.
Now in her forties, Peyroux appears much more relaxed onstage, quietly holding court from her chair beside, rather than in front of, her band-mates. Indeed, Sunday’s gig revealed her playful, humorous side as she mocked Donald Trump, pretending that he was on the other end of the phone as she sang Kansas Joe McCoy’s Hello Babe, with the memorable line “you ain’t gonna worry my life no more”, and wisecracking “I ain’t got no healthcare either” during a gorgeous, swinging version of I Ain’t Got Nobody, one of several numbers which featured lovely backing vocals from Jon Herington (guitar) and Barak Mori (bass).
Other stand-outs included Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Agua de Beber (what a treat to hear Peyroux do bossa!), Randy Newman’s Guilty – one of the “drinking songs” dedicated to Peyroux’s father – and J’ai deux amours, whose line “mon coeur est ravi” (“my heart is ravished”) seemed to sum up the Sunday night experience.
- First published in The Herald, Tuesday June 6th
Getting’ Some Fun Out of Life
Tango Till They’re Sore
If The Sea Was Whisky
Our Lady of Pigalle
I Ain’t Got Nobody
Bird On a Wire
It’s Getting Better All the Time
You Can’t Catch Me
Don’t Wait Too Long
Don’t Cry Baby
J’ai deux amours
Shout Sister Shout
Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky
Agua de Beber
Dance Me To the End of Love
This Is Heaven To Me
This fantastic clip, featuring three numbers and a terrific line-up headed by sax giants Gerry Mulligan (baritone) and Ben Webster (tenor), was recently posted on YouTube by the Duke Ellington Society and has been delighting those of us who stumbled across it on Facebook. So I thought I’d share it here – enjoy!
As a jazz lover who had to give up watching Whiplash about ten minutes into the film, I approached Sara Lovestam’s novel Wonderful Feels Like This with a certain degree of trepidation. How were my favourite music genre and its characters going to be represented in this book? Would they – unlike that cringe-worthy movie – bear any relation to the music and people I love?
The answer turned out to be yes – though it took a while to feel reassured. Why? Because some of the descriptions of the music seem slightly affected and because so much of the novel doesn’t seem to have been translated into something that reads naturally. I almost did a Whiplash and gave up after reading “Steffi is becoming happy jazz”. And that’s the opening line. Even a friend’s explanation that the Scandinavians refer to traditional jazz as “happy jazz” doesn’t make that sentence sound right. It does, however, increase the sense that this is a book for younger readers – although it’s billed as grown-up fiction.
Unfortunately, that line is not the only one that doesn’t scan. They pop up throughout Laura Wideburg’s translation of Lovestam’s book. It’s like a supposedly wittily worded jazz song that’s been written in English by a Scandinavian; some of it just doesn’t work and quite a few bits jar. However, despite the strangeness of such phrases as “his jazz was sick”, there is much naïve charm to be found in this story of a young girl who finds both a new friend and the hope for a new life through her growing interest in jazz.
Steffi Herrera may feel like the odd one out at home and be the victim of bullies at school, but she finally begins to feel that she has a place to go when she becomes friends with an old man at the care home in her small Swedish town, thanks to their shared love of 1940s jazz. For the teenage Steffi, jazz – learning to play her instruments, listening to the music and hearing her new friend Alvar’s story about how he came to be part of the Stockholm jazz scene during the war – is a means of escape from her current grim reality and provides hope. For Alvar, when he was only a little older than Steffi is now, jazz and the city provided an alternative to the small-town life in which he would otherwise have found himself trapped.
The two characters’ stories unfold throughout the book as Steffi hears about Alvar’s Stockholm years during her regular visits to the care home. These parallel tracks of the book mostly complement each other well apart from the formulaic way in which most passages from the present day end with a line which is then repeated – often rather gratuitously – in the opening section of one of Alvar’s reminiscences. The first few times it works well, but it soon becomes an irritant. It also seems a little unrealistic that the old man should tell his story to his visitor in such a structured way, so that she only learns about his marital status, for example, in their last visit of the book. Alvar’s story is akin to a wartime jazz soap opera to which Steffi tunes in for regular instalments.
Where Wonderful Feels Like This comes into its own is in the way Lovestam deals with the subject of bullying: what it feels like to be picked-on all the time at school, how Steffi handles it, and how having a life outside school which her peers don’t know about helps her to cope. There’s also some moving insight into dementia and how it affects those around the person suffering from it.
But overall, this is a loving, quietly charming – if often irritating – portrayal of jazz as a music which salves the soul of a misfit, brings her friendship and a sense of camaraderie and connects the future with the past.
- First published in the Sunday Herald, April 30th.
Bobby Wellins, who has died at the age of 80, was not only Scotland’s first great jazz tenor saxophonist but also an icon of British jazz whose influence would have lived on even if he had never played again after 1965, when he featured on the iconic album of Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite.
Remembering Alex Welsh, Spiegeltent St Andrew Square ****
For the second consecutive year, the evening slot on the last day of the jazz festival– or as bandleader John Burgess called it “the fag-end of the festival” – became a jovial celebration of the music of the much-loved Scottish trumpeter and legend of British jazz who died, aged 52, in 1982.
Sunday’s concert reunited the line-up from last year, and was led by the afore-mentioned clarinettist/saxophonist and amiable host Burgess whose jokey patter added to the festive atmosphere. Indeed, from the energy expended by the entire seven-piece band in the opening number, it seemed as if the musicians had started the party without us: they were already on fire when they launched into a rousing Rose Room – there was no gradual build-up. No sooner had a clarinet-wielding Burgess played along with the front line on the melody of Rose Room than he was blowing the sax on the first solo. This was a high-octane concert from the get-go.
Particularly impressive – as ever – was the human dynamo Enrico Tomasso, who, at his best is an irrepressible bundle of musical energy when he’s playing this sort of Chicago-style jazz – and whose solos seemed to explode out of him, notably on an exhilarating After You’ve Gone. Burgess was being facetious when he described him as “quite simply the finest in his price range” but Tomasso is undoubtedly the best when it comes to contemporary trumpeters with the Louis Armstrong influence to the fore.
And, of course, there were also terrific contributions from the great, ever-nimble and ever-lyrical trombonist Roy Williams, who, as a veteran of Welsh’s band, brought the stamp of authenticity to the proceedings.
Diplomats of Jazz, City Art Centre ****
For several years, it was a tradition for this reviewer to request a ticket for the Friday afternoon gig at the Royal Overseas League – and to be told that it had sold out days before and there were no spare tickets. So it was great to see in this year’s programme that the ever-popular Edinburgh band the Diplomats of Jazz were playing their annual Jazz Festival gig at this event’s new venue, the City Art Centre’s fifth floor, which clearly holds a larger audience than the ROL.
It’s no wonder the Diplomats have such a strong following and can easily pack out venues even at a time of year when there are plenty of out-of-town bands around to choose from. They are wonderful purveyors of classic jazz which they play with good humour and style. And it’s always a delight to hear the combined sound of cornet, clarinet, banjo and sousaphone.
Last year, the band’s cornet-playing leader Jim Petrie had a not-so funny turn during their gig and had to be taken to hospital, but he was looking and sounding good on Friday – though his cornet had less of a work-out than his gravelly vocals, and he was suffering from the intense heat from the stadium lights on the stage.
Despite their discomfort, the fully dinner-suited quartet served up an hour’s worth of swinging tunes. Among the catchy highlights were East Coast Trot and Yearning, both of which showcased this band’s top-notch ensemble playing as well as some terrific clarinet solos by Bob Busby, whose spiky-round-the-edges sound brought the great Sandy Brown to mind.
First published on HeraldScotland on Sunday July 24th
Diplomats of Jazz, City Art Centre, Edinburgh, Friday July 22nd
She’s Funny That Way
New Orleans Shuffle
Baby Won’t You Please Come Home
East Coast Trot
Give Me a June Night, the Moonlight and You
Crying’ For the Carolines
Swing That Music