Tag Archives: Colin Steele

Colin Steele: Joni, Mary and All That Jazz!

colin steele low res-5004One of the most magical moments at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe came from the bowels of Chambers Street where a room-ful of punters could be heard softly singing Feed the Birds, the beautiful ballad from the Disney film Mary Poppins – to the accompaniment of two of Scotland’s leading jazz musicians as they performed their Poppins-themed show at the Jazz Bar.

This hour-long concert – which united tiny tots, senior citizens, hippies, hipsters, seasoned Fringe-goers, diehard Disney fans and jaded jazzers in song – became one of those shows which grew busier as its run went on. Word of mouth boosted its ticket sales and the memory of how special it was prompted its stars – the duo of trumpeter Colin Steele and pianist Brian Kellock – to be persuaded to revive it for this year’s Fringe, for just two performances.

But Mary Poppins, the jazz version, is just one of a raft of diverse gigs that Steele is preparing for. While other dads might be looking forward to easing off work during the school holidays, Steele is limbering up for the busiest couple of months in his calendar.

The acclaimed 51-year-old jazz musician – and father of three – is bracing himself for a festival season which this year sees him headlining two concerts at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival (and serving as sideman on a further seven) and four shows (each with multiple performances) at the Fringe, plus so many as a sideman that he has already lost count. “Some days I have three gigs,” he says, “so I’m practising like crazy, building up the chops.”

Steele – who has just spent the weekend zooming between the Glasgow Jazz Festival, where he played in up-and-coming singer Georgia Cecile’s band; Loch Lomond, where he is renovating a holiday house, and his hometown where he had gigs at both the Barony Bar and Soderberg – seems to be ahead of the game in terms of building up his stamina for mid July. But it’s not something he takes for granted, having suffered a catastrophic crisis with his playing ten years ago.

Left unable to play, he had to re-learn his craft and he is now much more aware that he shouldn’t push himself too hard. “Nowadays, I know that if it’s not working, then I need to put the trumpet away for a bit. I used to get anxious and push myself too far and it would all collapse,” he explains.

As his busy, cross-country weekend and heavy Fringe schedule illustrate, Steele is an extremely versatile musician who is at home in any number of jazz settings and has absorbed inspiration from a vast range of horn players. He cites Chet Baker – whose, cool, swinging, pared-back “West Coast” sound he channels with ease – as his biggest influence, and names Louis Armstrong, “whose creativity, originality and emotional playing is second to none”, as his favourite trumpeter. It was playing Baker-style jazz that made Steele’s name back in the 1990s, but recently he has played more traditional jazz thanks to his membership of various bands led by the singer Alison Affleck, a tireless champion of early styles of jazz.

[Affleck, Steele and their cohorts may have helped to fuel the revival of interest in traditional jazz in Scotland but it has,unfortunately been pounced upon, rather cynically, by some musicians who seem to view it as a way of landing gigs, rather than because it’s an area of jazz that they are passionate about and well-versed in. Even more disheartening is the fact that jazz festivals are lowering their standards by booking these groups which have jumped on the trad bandwagon.]

Under his own name, Steele has performed and recorded Celtic/folk-influenced jazz with his own band. At last year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival, he acknowledged his past forays into pop by performing a jazz concert of music by the Glasgow band The Pearlfishers, on ten of whose records he had played. The success of the Pearlfishers project – the concerts and a very well-received album – inspired another pop-themed jazz project for this year’s festival: the Colin Steele Quartet Play Joni Mitchell.

“I’ve had a deep love for Joni Mitchell for a long time; I’d always known her music – and I felt her songs deserved to be better appreciated. She’s known primarily as a poet, but her melodies are fab and stand on their own two feet. Plus, there’s already a jazz connection because she worked quite often with jazz musicians – Charles Mingus, Michael Brecker and Jaco Pastorius are just some of the jazz guys she worked with.”

There were other contenders for this next jazz-meets-pop project, however. “Ricky Lee Jones was high up on the list too,” says Steele before returning to the subject of how he convinced himself that the Joni Mitchell idea could work. “Actually,” he explains, “I probably wouldn’t have gone for this Joni Mitchell idea had Brian Kellock and I not done the music of Mary Poppins at the Fringe last year. It’s so far away from jazz – it just shows what you can do. Someone said to me after the Mary Poppins show that if you can make something as fab as that out of Mary Poppins, then you can do anything. It’s all about melody, and if you have a really strong melody, then it will work. Also, Brian can make anything possible!”

Over the last five years, the Steele-Kellock double act has become a fixture on the Fringe; the two longstanding friends and colleagues seeing it as an opportunity to explore themes or songbooks that they hadn’t delved into before, and to harness the anything-goes spirit of the Fringe to up the level of spontaneity and fun. And, of course, to make a feature of audience participation.

Steele recalls: “The first Fringe show we did together was My Fair Lady in 2014, then the following year, Brian suggested that we do a Glenn Miller show and it sort of took off from there; it became an annual jamboree. It just worked so well; the audience loved it. We had air raid sirens, singalongs (Pennsylvania 65000 etc) and everybody knew a lot of the tunes. The strength of the melody and the arrangements are so great, and playing that music in a small group gives you so much space. When I’ve played it in a big band, I’ve not been satisfied because you can’t really be creative – and I do like to improvise.”

In 2018, Steele and Kellock retired the Glenn Miller show so they could concentrate on their Mary Poppins one. Its slow sales at the outset suggested that there was some ambivalence that it would work but ultimately it assumed the status of being one of those shows that people kick themselves for having missed because those who were there talk about it as a life-enhancing event.

Steele says: “On the fifth and final day, there was a big group of musicians who came in and they said it was the best, most fun, gig they’d ever seen and I felt that way too. It really was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life – everyone singing Feed the Birds. It was so special. I felt it would be a shame not to do it again.”

In addition to reviving Glenn Miller for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival and Mary Poppins for this year’s Fringe, Steele and Kellock are celebrating two of the original giants of jazz – Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington – in another Fringe show that will have five outings.

What is it about working in a duo that so appeals to Steele?  “There’s a real intimacy and a responsibility that you both have – you can’t take a back seat. It’s lovely to work with someone with such musicality and of course you have to remember that there’s also the beauty of no drummer! There’s so much space because there’s no drummer. Anything can happen in duos. With three or four people it’s more complicated. The duo offers more possibilities, more freedom but also harder work – there’s a lot of sweat going on.

“I’ve no doubt that Brian is the greatest of all Scottish jazz musicians and we’re so lucky to have him and I’m so honoured to play with him. We all feel that. It’s always a challenge: he’s not an accompanist – he’s there for the creativity, he’s always pushing. I’m more reticent, he pushes you into different areas. It’s always scary, always a joy.”

*Colin Steele plays the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on July 15 (Glenn Miller, with Brian Kellock) and 17 (Joni Mitchell with his own group); www.edinburghjazzfestival.com for details. For details of his various Fringe shows, visit www.edfringe.com ; Mary Poppins is on August 18 and 20.

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Review: Leith Jazz & Blues Festival

Leith Jazz & Blues Festival ***

Leith Jazz Festival trio

The Scottish jazz festival season kicked off on Friday in Leith, where pubs, bars and eateries (oh, and even a hair salon) in the area played host to a huge number of free jazz and blues gigs.

Even a cursory glance at the flyer or website for this year’s event couldn’t fail to give the impression that the festival has ballooned in size and become significantly more blues oriented since it was launched, in its current incarnation, back in 2012.

Back then, and for the first few years, a large part of the joy for jazz lovers was getting to hear world-class Scottish names for free while discovering often unfamiliar corners of the Leith’s liquid landscape. It felt like the legendary Edinburgh Jazz Festival Pub Trail of the 1980s come back to life.

This year, there was still a smattering of world-class jazz but there were none of the established classic or trad jazz bands that appeared in previous years, and it was more of a challenge to find familiar names amongst the astonishing 62-strong list of gigs shoehorned into the three days. (Some sort of brief description of each band would have been a big help for punters when perusing the programme.)

On the jazz side of things, unfamiliar names turned out to be unfamiliar for a reason. Thankfully, Friday night offered a series of safe bets, however: trumpeter Colin Steele was on terrific form leading an ace group at the Lioness of Leith pub. Steele’s inner Chet Baker was much to the fore; his pared-back, swinging and eloquent style beautifully offset by Kevin Mackenzie on guitar and Kenny Ellis on bass.

One of the highlights of Steele’s set, the haunting bossa Manha de Carnaval, was reprised a couple of hours later when he unexpectedly sat in on the only available mid-evening jazz session on Friday’s programme – pianist Fraser Urquhart’s knock-out trio gig at the atmospheric Shore Bar (one of the most conducive venues on the Leith circuit).

Manha de Carnaval – The Sequel was an entirely separate entity from the original, featuring as it did some delightful exchanges between pianist Fraser Urquhart and his guitarist dad Dougie, and a dramatic Sketches of Spain-esque ending.

Earlier, Fraser Urquhart had been a member of John Burgess’s trio in the wine bar/eatery Toast. This was a fabulous set of classy, swinging jazz that showed off Burgess’s mighty, soulful tenor sax sound.

Quantity rather than quality was to the fore on Saturday afternoon’s programme – which is why some of the jazz-following contingent launched their jazz trail outwith the festival, at Broughton Street’s Barony Bar where Burgess could be heard in an impressive line-up led by guitarist John Russell.

In the spirit of “you can’t improve on perfection”, there was really no point in going anywhere other than home after hearing the superb duo of West Coast-style altoist Martin Kershaw and ace bass Ed Kelly, a duo which was a highlight of the first Leith Jazz Festival and which is always worth cramming into Sofi’s Bar to hear.

First published in The Scotsman on Monday, June 10th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2017: Alison Affleck’s Copper Cats

Alison Affleck’s Copper Cats, George Square Spiegeltent ****

“And Now For Something Completely Different” could have been the title of the early evening concert given by Alison Affleck’s Copper Cats on Friday. Unlike any other gig in the jazz festival programme, this hour-long show drew almost exclusively from the early jazz and blues era – and did so from a woman’s point of view, giving a rare airing to songs by such pioneering women as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Leading the charge on Friday and shaking the dust off the early jazz repertoire was Edinburgh-based American singer Alison Affleck, whose informative and sassy introductions to the songs ensured that the audience was receptive and entertained even before she began singing. 
 
Despite her fairly stylised, slightly theatrical mannerisms, Affleck brought an authenticity to such ancient numbers as Downhearted Blues and A Good Man is Hard To Find. Her natural American accent played a big part in this, along with an obvious inclination towards blues-singing. But where she particularly excelled on Friday was as a musical storyteller. St James Infirmary and The Black-Eyed Blues were stand-outs because Affleck didn’t just churn out the lyrics; she used them to bring the characters mentioned in these songs to life, and to create atmosphere and drama. 
 
Of course, she couldn’t have done all this as enjoyably without a good band playing with her; her piano-less quintet – boasting the crack team of Colin Steele (trumpet) and Dick Lee (clarinet) – did a terrific job of keeping the music swinging in suitably hot style.
 
* First published in The Scotsman on Monday July 24th

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2017: Remembering Chet – and Gerry

Remembering Chet – and Gerry, Rose Theatre ****
 
The deservedly popular tribute group Remembering Chet – a swinging trio with Iain Ewing (vocals) and Colin Steele (trumpet) reflecting the twin facets of the late, great Chet Baker’s music-making, and Euan Stevenson (piano) accompanying them – has been a staple of the last few Edinburgh Jazz Festivals. For this year’s event, on Saturday lunchtime, the band added a new dimension by bringing baritone saxophonist Billy Fleming in to the mix, thus allowing them to broaden the programme out to include some of the classic numbers Baker recorded with Gerry Mulligan in the 1950s.
 
It certainly gave the group – which, Ewing explained, he had been about to retire – a new lease of life; Fleming’s graceful baritone forming a formidable front line with the ever-eloquent Steele trumpet, notably in their unaccompanied climax to Bernie’s Tune, one of the compositions famously recorded by Baker and Mulligan’s radical piano-less quartet but here benefitting also from Euan Stevenson’s elegant keyboard skills.
 
Ewing, as ever, kept his patter lighthearted and often very funny to offset the melancholy that characterises the greatest hits from Baker’s back catalogue as a singer. As Steele headed offstage to sit out one ballad, Ewing quipped: “Colin’s away to mainline in the toilets. We are a Method Chet Baker tribute band. I, of course, represent Chet Baker after he died.”
 
As for those melancholy songs, Ewing – like Steele on trumpet – did his usual terrific job of stylishly channelling the Baker hallmarks – wistfulness, a soft, gentle tone, simplicity and vulnerability – while avoiding sounding like an impersonator. The many highlights included I Get Along Without You Very Well, which featured an exquisite, Satie-esque accompaniment from Euan Stevenson.
 
* First published in The Scotsman on Monday July 24th

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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 2016: Remembering Chet Baker

Remembering Chet Baker, City Art Centre ****
 
It may sound like the title of a show, but Remembering Chet Baker is the name of the Scottish trio which, for the last four years, has been celebrating the music and musical style of the jazz icon who died prematurely 28 years ago. As they hinted during Monday afternoon’s performance, there’s not much point in celebrating Baker’s life or him as a person: he seems to have hurt everyone in his life and, by all accounts, was really not a very nice human being.
 
That, combined with the inescapable fact that Baker was a master of melancholy famous for such mope-fests as the misery-laden ballads The Thrill is Gone and You Don’t Know What Love Is could have made one suspect that this would not be the cheeriest way to spend a Monday afternoon. However, nothing could have been further from the truth – thanks to the fact that singer/presenter Iain Ewing punctuated proceedings with cheeky patter, and kept the mood light.
 
Both Ewing and trumpeter Colin Steele, who was on top form, have clearly been influenced by Baker’s lyrical, pared-back style and gentle, soft tone – but, refreshingly, neither attempts to mimic him or recreate his solos. It’s as if both musicians have been so steeped in Baker’s recordings that they can give the standards associated with him a lovely, Baker-esque, flavour, without resorting to impersonations.
 
Among the specific highlights were the classy, upbeat opener There Will Never Be Another You, which featured the first of a series of gorgeously understated solos by Steele; pianist Euan Stevenson’s elegant, Satie-like accompaniment on I Get Along Without You Very Well, and the two instrumentalists’ electrifying duet on All the Things You Are.
* First published on HeraldScotland, Wednesday July 20th

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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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