Niki King – The Songs of Duke Ellington, 3 Bristo Place, Friday July 25th ***
Singer Niki King brought her stylish Ellington show back to Edinburgh (it was part of the British Vocal Jazz Festival during last year’s Fringe) on Friday night. The local singer can clearly do no wrong as far as her many loyal followers are concerned but this concert was very much a game of two halves – and for the first half (and on the iconic Mood Indigo later on), it looked as if Ellington, and devotees of the Duke, were the losers. Why? Because she avoided singing – even just once in each song – the melody that the legendary composer wrote. And not only that, but she killed the mood of such ballads as I Got It Bad and I Didn’t Know About You with shouty climaxes; a total contrast to the sensitive accompaniment from her band, notably the elegant Euan Stevenson on piano.
The Duke was accorded more respect by King on a couple of second half ballads which compensated significantly for the earlier trauma: Something to Live For and, especially, Sophisticated Lady – a powerful, simply sung, duet with Stevenson – were stand-outs, as was a thrilling Caravan, introduced by a dynamic drum solo by Alyn Cosker.
* First published in The Scotsman, Monday July 28th
Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: Jazz Toons & Screen Classics, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, Sunday October 27th ***
Heeding the publicity’s suggestion to bring the offspring to Sunday evening’s concert by the SNJO turned out, fairly early on, to be another yet example for the ‘Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time’ chapter of the parenting memoirs. After all, a programme of music from such family favourites ranging from classic cartoons to movie blockbusters played by a young, dynamic band sounded just the ticket for music-mad youngsters. And indeed, when SNJO director Tommy Smith announced the titles featured in the opening medley, it was the nine-year-old critical support team beside me whose “yaaaaas!” turned heads at the mention of Superman.
The main problem was the arrangements: if you didn’t warm to Pino Jodice’s reworkings of the tunes then you’d pretty much had it for the evening, as he was responsible for most of them. The most enjoyable numbers were the ones in which the melody didn’t get swamped by the arrangement, and which stayed closest to the original versions – Mahna Mahna, from The Muppets (complete with hilarious Animal impersonation by drummer Alyn Cosker), The Flintstones and, especially, the Star Trek Theme.
That last-mentioned featured the dazzling vocals of guest star Jacqui Dankworth and went down so well that it was repeated as an encore later, after a glorious Somewhere Over the Rainbow, one of only a handful of songs in which Dankworth’s sublime voice was showcased rather than seeming to be in competition with the overbearing arrangement being played by the band.
First published in The Scotsman, Tuesday October 29
Bobby Wellins/SNJO, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Saturday October 29th ****
You’d be forgiven for thinking that by night three of a four-concert tour, 75-year-old tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins might be flaggging – but that was far from the case when he and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played on Saturday night.
This was a tour-de-force performance – and not just in the actual playing; but in the composition of the music too. The focal point of the evening was Wellins’s Culloden Moor, originally written back in 1964, but only now arranged, by Florian Ross, into a suite for the full band.
It proved to be an utterly compelling piece of music: evocative, dramatic and harnessing the haunting quality that is a key characteristic of the Wellins sound. The atmospheric and eerie opening and closing movements suggested the influence of the arranger Gil Evans, but it was the section entitled The March – which kicked off with everyone in the band stomping their feet before swinging into action, and peaked with an extended, show-stealing, snare drum solo (by Alyn Cosker) – that pinned punters to the edge of their seats. The overall effect was absolutely elecrifying, reminiscent of the opening track of one of the great Duke Ellington suites of the 1950s: hell, this was Anatomy of a Massacre.
How to follow that? Well, it might have been better not to: the Caledonian Suite of the second half certainly had its moments – notably The Tartan Rainbow and The Wind That Shakes the Barley – but Culloden Moor was the talking point of the night, and the music that most of us would have liked to have had ringing in our ears as we went home.
First published in The Scotsman, Monday October 31st.