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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Review: Madeleine Peyroux, City Halls, Glasgow

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

Hello Babe

Tango Till They’re Sore

Guilty

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

Trampin’ On

Shout Sister Shout

Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky

Agua de Beber

Dance Me To the End of Love

Careless Love

This Is Heaven To Me

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The Sweet Sound of Ben & Gerry!

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!

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Book Review: Wonderful Feels Like This (Allen & Unwin) by Sara Lovestam

 

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.

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Ella in Scotland

Ella Fitzgerald Glasgow prog.jpgThis year, the music world celebrates the centenary of the vocalist known as the “First Lady of Song”, the mighty Ella Fitzgerald – and it is entirely appropriate that Scotland should play host to a number of Fitzgerald tributes and events. Why? Because this is where she made her British debut in 1948; the first of a handful of visits over the years.
 
Born on April 25 1917, Ella Fitzgerald was a decade into her career as one of the most highly regarded singers on the scene when she arrived in Scotland in late September 1948. She had topped the charts and made her name in the late 1930s with the hit record A–Tisket A-Tasket, a swinging rendition of an old nursery rhyme which she went on to sing in the Abbott and Costello movie Ride ‘Em Cowboy. Her most celebrated admirers included Bing Crosby, who had said: “Man, woman and child, Ella is the greatest of them all.”
 
But her debut at the Glasgow Empire on Monday, September 27 seems to have been a non-event.
 
Accompanied by her new husband, the bassist Ray Brown, Fitzgerald had arrived off the Queen Mary at Southhampton a week earlier, to be told that the location of her British debut had been changed from the London Palladium to the Glasgow Empire – because boisterous Hollywood personality Betty Hutton’s Palladium run had been extended. 
 
Fitzgerald said she was worried about her London appearance and welcomed the chance to make her debut in Glasgow instead. But according to the reviews, and judging by Fitzgerald’s own reaction, her debut performance – accompanied by pianist Hank Jones – was a bit of a damp squib.
 
“Enthusiasm was lacking” said one review. “Ella made the mistake of changing her act to cope with request numbers,” said another, “and the result was a fairly ragged presentation.” Among the songs she sang were Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me, A-Tisket A-Tasket, Woody Woodpecker and Nature Boy.
 
Apart from the fact that Fitzgerald was suffering from both a bad cold and a bad case of nerves, there was also the problem that – as was the case with all American jazz musicians at the time – she was appearing as part of a variety programme (below the top-billed Gracie Fields in London, for example, and with the Nicholas Brothers dance team, plus a comedian, in Glasgow) which was designed to cater for all tastes, rather than for an audience of jazz aficionados. And at this point, encouraged by Dizzy Gillespie and her newfound enthusiasm for bebop, she was starting to explore scat singing. Perhaps Empire audiences just weren’t ready for it. 
 
Indeed, after the first show, Fitzgerald told one interviewer that she was a “rebop” (sic) singer. “You know what that means?” she asked. The reporter replied that he understood it to be a modern way of phrasing music. “You’re lucky,” said Fitzgerald. “I doubt if the audience knows. I don’t really know myself what it is. To me it is singing discords. It goes down well in America. I wonder if it will go down well in Britain.”
 
By 1964, when Fitzgerald returned to Glasgow, she was indubitably the queen of jazz; her recent series of classy songbook albums underlining the fact that she was at the peak of her powers. This time, she shared the bill with the Oscar Peterson Trio and trumpet ace Roy Eldridge. 
 
Among those in the audience of the Odeon Theatre on Friday April 3, 1964 were two young singers who would go on to dominate the Scottish jazz scene: Carol Kidd and Fionna Duncan. Kidd recalls:  “She walked on in silence – no announcement, and stood at the microphone with a big smile waiting for Tommy Flanagan to get his music together. Then she decided to go ahead anyway! She went straight into It’s Alright With Me at breakneck tempo, but by God she was spot on with the key. It took Tommy Flanagan a full chorus to catch up with her! She giggled all the way through the song which was obviously not rehearsed. I’ll never forget the impression that made on me – to be so sure that you can carry such a hiccup off and always be in key..
 
“Just to see her standing there in front of me took my breath away. I cried all the way through it. Her scat was just a joy because we never knew when she was going to run out of phrasing but she never repeated herself – not once!”
 
Duncan, meanwhile, was struck by how shy and self-conscious Fitzgerald appeared onstage. “She just just didn’t look comfortable at all – until she was singing. As soon as she sang, she was a different person. I was bowled over by her singing. I’d always been a fan; I loved how she grabbed the melody.”
 
It may have been a momentous occasion for many in the audience, but media coverage of Fitzgerald’s appearance seems to have been non-existent. That there were no interviews or photographs in the local press seems to fit in with Fitzgerald’s reserved personality. And a performance at the Apollo in Glasgow exactly ten years later drew as little coverage. Only one interview pops up and that was secured by a bold Daily Record reporter who bypassed her “people” and nabbed her when she returned to her hotel in Southport just before she came north to do her Apollo gig.
 
“Sure I’ll talk, honey,” she told him, over a slimline tonic. “I hear people saying I don’t give press interviews – and that kinda puzzles me. Because while I’m on tour I never see the press. I guess someone gets to them before they can get to me. There has never been anyone so great that they didn’t need the press. If you think that, then you have nothing left to accomplish.”
 
Asked about her repertoire and how it had changed, she said: “I’m always striving for something new, and nowadays we’re playing a lot of material by the young generation of composers. People like Carole King and Bacharach.”
 
Indeed, in Edinburgh the following year it was with Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life that she serenaded one adoring young fan. Singer Todd Gordon was a 16-year-old devotee of Fitzgerald when he heard she was coming to Scotland for Glasgow and Edinburgh dates with Count Basie’s Orchestra (at the Kelvin Hall and Usher Hall respectively).
Having heard her at the Apollo, he resolved to go one better the next year – so he turned up at the Caledonian Hotel, where she was lunching before her two Usher Hall performances, and presented her with 20 pink roses.
 
Gordon recalls: “Towards the end of the first concert, when Ella came to say thanks to the musicians, she added: ‘I’d also like to thank a young fan who gave me flowers earlier today. I haven’t been able to see you. Are you here?’” As Gordon waved from the organ gallery, a spotlight shone on him and Fitzgerald invited him to come onstage with her. After she had sung her song and Gordon was making his way back to his seat, she said: “Wasn’t that sweet? He spent his little bread on me – when he could have spent it on Elton John!”
 
Gordon, like Fionna Duncan, found Fitzgerald to be very shy but also “very motherly”. He adds: “She really put me at ease.” So much so that he went back to see her the next time she visited Edinburgh – when she was appearing with pianist Jimmy Rowles’s trio and the BBC Concert Orchestra in a concert later released as an album – in July 1981. This time it was the distinctly less impressive King James Hotel – rather than the elegant Caledonian – where this jazz legend was staying. 
 
Perhaps this is where Fitzgerald was more comfortable. After all, she seems to have been quite a homely person, “a simple soul” – as Jean Mundell, another Edinburgh-born singer who spent a little time with her, remembers. 
 
This, after all, is the woman who – at the end of her first-ever week performing two shows a night in Britain – took the time to hand-write a letter on Central Hotel notepaper to a couple who had, presumably by giving up some ration coupons, helped to make her visit to Glasgow more comfortable. This rare letter, which turned up on an auction website a couple of years ago, thanks Beth and George for “a lovely time”. Intriguingly, it adds: “It isn’t everyone who will give up there (sic) points so nicely, you see I’m a housewife also and I know what it meant.”
 
* Tina May & Brian Kellock are visiting Greenock, Glasgow, West Kilbride, Arbroath and Inverness with an Ella Fitzgerald & Oscar Peterson tribute show from May 10; http://www.tinamay.com
* Alison Burns & Martin Taylor – 100 Years of Ella Fitzgerald is at the Perth Festival on May 17
This article was first published in The Herald on Friday, April 21st.

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