One 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.