Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival: Remembering Alex Welsh

Remembering Alex Welsh, Tron Kirk ****

Anyone who knew Alex Welsh, the Edinburgh-born trumpet star who died in 1982, and who was at Sunday evening’s tribute concert, will have been heartened by how well he is still remembered and how he inspired arguably the best concert of the final days of this year’s jazz festival.

Of course it helped that the septet comprised two members of Welsh’s famous band – the English trombone star Roy Williams and guitarist/banjoist Jim Douglas. The eloquent Williams, an old favourite of Edinburgh audiences, in his introduction to a gorgeous Cole Porter rarity entitled You Are Everything I Love, told the packed house: “It’s wonderful to be doing this – and quite emotional too, because we had some great times. You may have noticed that we were five minutes late starting the gig – that was a tradition of the Alex Welsh band!”

Explaining that it’s only recently that he has come to appreciate how good the band sounded, Williams described the day-to-day reality of playing the same tunes with the same guys every night. Trumpeter Enrico Tomasso, who was just 11 when he met Welsh, paid verbal and musical homage in style: a veritable jazz dynamo, he was in tremendous form throughout – as was the rest of the front line, which included ringmaster John Burgess (clarinet/saxophone) and which made even the oldest of old warhorses sound fresh, energetic and exciting.

Burgess may not have had the firsthand experience of encountering Alex Welsh – he didn’t say – but it was clear that it was his love of the band’s recordings which prompted this project, and so much fun was had by all that we can undoubtedly expect a reunion in the not-too-distant.

* First published in The Herald on Monday, July 27th

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Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival: Jools Holland and His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra

Jools Holland and His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, Festival Theatre *

Well, judging by the experience of Saturday night at the Festival Theatre, it’s easy to see why the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival has made a performance by Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra a near-annual event in recent years. Not because it is the greatest show on earth but because it is one which puts backsides on very, very expensive  seats …

ndeed, musically and in terms of taste and style, Saturday night’s concert was about as far from great as it’s possible for this music-lover to imagine – and that’s from a starting point of being someone who liked Jools Holland from TV.

The entire band was over-amplified; Holland’s piano sounded distorted because the volume was so high. When it came to solos, the saxophones seemed to be set to screechy and the trumpets to stratospheric. Subtlety was sacrificed for theatricality and the audience lapped up everything that was thrown at them. Holland did a bit of his stage-prowling while enthusing about how wonderful his musicians are – much like the tailor who sold the emperor his new clothes.

A string of singers – including Holland’s daughter – brought some variety to the relentless and raucous boogie-woogie repertoire. The long-serving gospel-influenced Ruby Turner wiped the floor with those who had come before, including Marc Almond whose high-octane, pastiche-like, performance of If You Love Me would have Piaf pirouetting in her grave.

* First published in The Scotsman on Monday, July 27th

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Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival: Ken Mathieson Classic Jazz Orchestra

Ken Mathieson Classic Jazz Orchestra – Hot Horns, George Square Spiegeltent ***

A performance by Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra at the Spiegeltent has become an annual event at the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, and it is usually accompanied by this reviewer sitting on the edge of her seat as she thrills to the lesser-played Bix or Ellington tune being lovingly and energetically recreated by the gentlemen of the band.

On Saturday evening, however, the thrills were fewer and further between than usual – despite the participation of English trumpeter Enrico Tomasso as guest star. One of the ways in which the CJO normally gets the spines a-tingling is through the terrific unison playing of members of the top-notch front line, but for much of Saturday’s concert, the ensemble playing just didn’t have the usual pizazz and was actually a bit on the raggedy side. More loose like this than tight like that, as Louis Armstrong might have said.

Nevertheless, the CJO on a slightly off day is still preferable to most alternatives, and there were treats scattered here and there through the concert, among them Dick Lee’s impish clarinet breaks and Phil O’Malley’s eloquent ones on Wild Man Blues, Lee’s funky penny whistle solo on Savoy Blues and Konrad Wiszniewski’s dynamic tenor solo on Swedish Schnapps.

As for Tomasso, he demonstrated once again that when it comes to emulating the style and sound of Louis Armstrong, he is the leader of the pack. No-one Else But You was the first of a run of tunes which burst into life as soon as he came in on trumpet.

* First published in The Herald on Monday, July 27th

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Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival: John Burgess Big Five

John Burgess Big Five, St Andrew Square Spiegeltent ***

How can you keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve heard the all-star ensemble that took to the George Square Spiegeltent earlier in the jazz festival week? That Monday night concert, which boasted a front line that included American stars Warren Vaché (cornet) and Scott Hamilton (tenor sax), was still the talk of the town by Friday evening when the similar, but slightly scaled down, all-Scots line-up led by clarinettist/saxophonist John Burgess took to the St Andrew Square Spiegeltent stage.

But whereas the Monday concert had been edge-of-the-seat stuff, with every number a showcase for one genius or another and the musicians playing to a rapt audience, Friday’s – or at least the first half – was more the sort of gig folk spill into after work, and the music was the ideal accompaniment to a an early evening drinking session rather than something that made you want to hang on to every last note. The Friday-night-in-the-pub atmosphere certainly extended to the back of the tent where there was some distinctly boorish and intimidating behaviour unravelling as the band played on.

Things improved in the second half which featured some majestic and pared-down trumpet from Colin Steele on Someday You’ll Be Sorry and Everybody Loves My Baby, and a lovely, lyrical clarinet feature from John Burgess on I’m In the Market For You, which he dedicated to his hero, the famous Edinburgh clarinettist Archie Semple, plus some characteristically inventive drumming from John Rae who, along with Campbell Normand (piano) , was not the musician advertised in the festival programme.

* First published in The Herald on Monday, July 27th

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Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival: Elaine Delmar

Elaine Delmar, Tron Kirk *****

It’s a long time since the English jazz and cabaret singer Elaine Delmar gave a concert north of the border – so her Wednesday evening appearance at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival was a real treat, and one which was reinforced by the fact that her band (unnamed in the festival programme) comprised Jim Mullen (guitar), Paul Harrison (piano), Paddy Bleakley (bass) and John Rae (drums).

Delmar is a class act; a commanding, majestic singer with an impressive range which she negotiates with elegance and taste, plunging from her highest notes to her lowest with unshowy ease on Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues, one of the highlights of Wednesday’s concert. Her magnetic smile, the way she gently swivelled as she sang – to be able to see and be seen by all areas of the audience – combined with her playfulness and the warmth she exuded were reminiscent of the great Maxine Sullivan.

Among the many stand-outs of this 90-minute set, which should have carried a three-line whip for Edinburgh’s many singers, were a moving interpretation of the Edith Piaf ballad If You Love Me, with Jim Mullen providing sensitive accompaniment; an unusually, and delightfully, slow duo version of Tea for Two (the number which has undoubtedly earned more royalties than any other this jazz fest), with Paul Harrison; a gorgeous and laid-back S’Wonderful which seemed to evoke Fred Astaire’s recording with the Oscar Peterson group, and It Was Just One of Those Things which boasted one of the funkiest of Harrison’s funky solos of the night. A selection of songs from Porgy and Bess were the just icing on a very classy cake.

* First published in The Herald, Friday July 24th

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Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival: Tom Gordon Basie 7

Tom Gordon Basie 7, Festival Theatre Studio ****

One of the recurring themes of this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival has been the lack of information in the programme – both the brochure and the website, even at the eleventh hour – about the line-ups of bands specially put together for their festival concerts. Which means it can be a bit of a lucky dip for punters who take a chance – on Friday’s set by the Richard Pite Hot Five, for example, which turned out to have such stellar talent as trumpeter Ryan Quigley in its front line, or Sunday’s set by the John Rae Experience, which had an unadvertised Brian Kellock (the same unadvertised Brian Kellock who had played with singer Anita Wardell on Friday) in its ranks.

Just as with those bands, nobody other than the leader of the “all star” Tom Gordon Basie 7 got a namecheck in the festival bumf and, again just as with those earlier gigs, drummer Gordon’s could have been better attended. His band turned out to comprise a front line mostly made up of musicians from Sunday night’s Ellington celebration: trumpeter/vocalist Georgina Jackson, trombonist Gordon Campbell, saxophonist Stewart Forbes and guitarist Duncan Findlay.

The septet served up a delightful couple of sets which elegantly evoked the sumptuous sound of small group Basie, with Euan Stevenson doing a great job in the Count’s role. As with Sunday’s Ellington show, the Basie one benefitted from the lovely, breathy vocals of Georgina Jackson, especially on a gorgeous L’il Darlin’ and God Bless the Child, and the uptempo numbers were terrific, with Tom Gordon powering the band from the back of stage and the horns swinging in perfect synch.

* First published in The Herald, Thursday July 23rd

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Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival: Ellington 1945

Echoes of Ellington/Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra: Ellington 1945 ****

The Echoes of Ellington and Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestras joined forces on Sunday night to celebrate a pivotal period in the history of the Duke and his band.

Drawing from a vast pool of compositions that date to the years on either side of 1945, Echoes’ leader/clarinettist Peter Long and a top-drawer band (decked out, it has to be reported, in two-tone dinner jackets that looked like they were either escapees from a 1970s gameshow or rejects from a Brotherhood of Man tribute band) played such a long concert that even the most devoted ducal devotee was at saturation level a couple of numbers before the end.

Still, until Ellington fatigue set in, everyone – onstage and off – had a great time. Among the many highlights were the big, familiar ballads sung by Georgina Jackson – I’m Beginning to See the Light and I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart, both of which were a first-time treat to hear being performed by full orchestra plus vocals. He Makes Me Believe He’s Mine – a completely unfamiliar (to everyone in the audience, judging by the blank expressions when Long asked who knew it) song with words and music by Billy Strayhorn – was another sumptuous stand-out.

But the biggest thrills were when this band – which included such terrific players as Enrico Tomasso and Ryan Quigley (trumpets), Calum Gourlay (bass), Nick Dawson (piano), Ian Bateman and Gordon Campbell (trombones) and Colin Skinner and Jay Craig (saxes) – let rip on such uptempo numbers as Stomp, Look and Listen, It Don’t Mean a Thing and, especially, the Duke’s extended Take the A Train.

* First published in The Herald, Tuesday July 21st

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