Birth of the Cool, George Square Piccolo *****
Tag Archives: Colin Steele
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
Free jazz can mean two things. It can connote jazz that’s wholly, wildly, improvised – and it can mean amateur hour. And that’s where this year’s Leith Jazz Festival turned out to be the exception that proves the rule. Why? Because over the course of two and a half days, it offered punters the chance to hear not just good jazz, but also world-class jazz – and all for the price of a pint (or three).
Returning to the festival for its third year, alto saxophonist Martin Kershaw must have had deja vu as he took to what passed for the stage area in Sofi’s on Saturday. His duo gig there with bassist Ed Kelly was one of the highlights of 2012, and the follow-up was just as memorable – though this time it had the added appeal of a canine floorshow as it coincided with the monthly meeting of local dog owners and their pooches.
Kershaw and Kelly dished up a wonderful afternoon of cool, classy swinging jazz, with an especially slow Manha de Carnivale and the beguiling, Stan Getz-associated, ballad With the Wind and the Rain In Your Hair among the highlights.
A second helping of Kershaw’s airy, eloquent sax was a must on Sunday at the Isobar where the 1950s West Coast sound was evoked by him, trombonist Chris Grieve and guitarist Graeme Stephen, a sublime sounding combination which – appropriately enough, given that Leith’s twin city is Rio de Janeiro – worked especially well on a couple of bossas.
The Isobar also played host to another of the weekend’s stand-outs: a duo gig by trumpeter Colin Steele and guitarist Lachlan MacColl. The joint was jumping so much that MacColl’s douce guitar playing got lost in the lively ambience, but Steele certainly made himself heard, not least on an especially funky Blues March and an uptempo, boppish All the Things You Are – the second of three outings for the Jerome Kern classic that the Isobar witnessed over the weekend.
For anyone who fondly remembers the old Edinburgh Jazz Festival pub trail, the Leith event is its 21st century incarnation. The spirit seemed to prevail most strongly at the Saturday afternoon gig by The Ugly Bug Ragtime Three (pictured above), a clarinet-bass-banjo/guitar trio recently hatched by leader John Burgess.
If only there had been more breathing space in the packed-out Malt ‘n’ Hops pub, there would almost certainly have been an outbreak of slow dancing along to the Uglies’ gorgeous, gently swinging How Come You Do Me Like You Do. Ah well. Maybe next year … the festival is still young.
* First published in The Scotsman, Monday June 9th
Jerry Forde New Phoenix Jazz Band, Palazzo Spiegeltent, Edinburgh, Friday July 26th ***
The talented Martin Foster should take some considerable satisfaction in the fact that his place in the advertised line-up of the Jerry Forde New Phoenix Jazz Band last night was filled by not one but two saxophonists (baritone and alto). As one of the A-list front line of this reborn sextet, Foster would have been a draw, alongside trumpeter Colin Steele and clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Dick Lee. But even with two deps in Foster’s place, the band still didn’t premiere The New Century Jazz Rag which had been flagged up in the festival programme.
Nevertheless, they did deliver on the theme of music from across the decades of jazz, and it was a treat to hear Colin Steele – not usually a player one hears in this kind of group – getting his chops around tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Johnny Dodds and Louis Armstrong. Indeed, Steele revealed an Armstrong influence in his playing which was by turn exuberant, majestic and playful and stood out especially on Symphonic Raps, That’s My Home and Oriental Man. On Thelonious Rag, he played with a Louis-like swagger.
The more loosely arranged numbers, notably Riverside Blues, were most appealing but the evening’s two stand-outs both featured a young singer, Christine Adams, who blew the audience away with her beguiling and quirky interpretations of the Billie Holiday song Endie and My Sweetie Went Away (last heard on these shores crooned by the much-missed Marty Grosz).
* First published in The Scotsman, Saturday July 27th
Trumpeter Colin Steele has no fewer than three Edinburgh Jazz Festival gigs in the next week, followed by a residency at the Jazz Bar during the Fringe. Hardly headline news you might think, given how well established he is on the Scottish music scene. But it is actually pretty remarkable: six months ago Steele was unable to get even a single note out of his horn, and four months ago the most he could muster was Three Blind Mice.
The 43-year-old Edinburgher, who made his name on the jazz scene in his twenties, and went on to become known for his crossover work fusing other forms of music with jazz in his playing and writing, has been through hell in the last year – and at one point had to face the”terrifying” possibility that he might never play again.
Rewind to last summer, and Steele was prominently featured in an Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra concert. What nobody knew at the time was that he was struggling to re-learn how to play the trumpet, which he had never been properly taught – and this involved un-picking years of bad habits.
Steele explains: “When I learned trumpet at school, it was just a matter of getting a sound and getting on with it – but I never did anything correctly. Later on, I always practised more than anybody else practises but I never really improved, and nobody liked to tell me I was doing stuff wrong – fundamental stuff like taking a really deep breath before playing.”
Of course it didn’t help that Steele’s primary influence was Chet Baker. “He had this very light, soft sound – and that was what I was aiming for. I found I could emulate it by taking very shallow breaths but there was no finesse, and no underlying power. If I had to play a high note, I didn’t know how to.”
Steele tried, unsuccessfully, to address the problem in his early twenties. It wasn’t until last summer that he decided to have another go. “After every gig my mouth would be cut to shreds – and it would only be by about late afternoon the next day that it would have healed enough for me to play. Last year I noticed that it was taking longer and longer to heal.
“The other issue was that because I felt that I was hurting myself when practising, practising itself became sort of self-defeating. If I had a gig at night, I felt I couldn’t practise as I’d knacker myself so I was frustated because I wanted to play.”
As a pre-emptive strike, before anything else went wrong, Steele began to look for a teacher. He settled initially on Adam Rapa, an American trumpeter, who gave him some lessons via Skype, prescribing the same sort of radical change Steele had tried in his twenties.
This time, Steele persevered, but being tutored over the internet, with the tutor unable to see at first hand what he was doing, proved, ultimately, disastrous: he ended up with a whole new problem, of his throat closing up when he went above a certain note. During a gig in December, his throat went into excruciating spasms . “By this point I couldn’t play the old way or the new way. It all fell apart and I had to cancel gigs.”
It was two weeks before Christmas, and Steele – a father of three, two of whom are under ten years old – not only had no work, but also no idea whether he’d be able to work again. “I was terrified I’d never get it back,” he admits, “and although I did wonder what I might do if it didn’t work out, I couldn’t really come up with anything. The last thing I did was study accountancy at university until I was 19, but I took a year out when I got offered the chance to join Hue and Cry, and I never returned.”
At this point he reached out to John Kenny, an experienced and highly regarded trombonist and teacher with whom he had worked many times – and he began to deal with the throat problems, while Steele was also working on his breathing and his posture. Meanwhile, he wasn’t earning. Did he work out how long he could afford to give himself to re-learn the trumpet?
“No, because if you start giving yourself deadlines then you put yourself under pressure and then things are going to go wrong the second you panic. I needed to be able to play in a relaxed way – so it was a matter of digging deep into credit cards for a while, remortgaging, keeping the head down and not panicking.”
However, panic – and grim despair – did set in. “It took six weeks for me to blow one note,” explains Steele. “I was so excited that I expanded that very quickly, and got so carried away that I hurt my throat again, and went right back to the beginning: I couldn’t play. I did think ‘maybe this is never going to work’. I’d pushed it too far too fast. It was devastating. I felt like I was facing losing my identity.”
Despite being depressed about this catastrophic setback, Steele, who admits to being a stubborn character, started all over again. And exactly six weeks later, he managed to play a note without any side effects. Needless to say, this time he proceeded with extreme caution.
Realising that Steele needed to see someone more regularly, John Kenny put him in touch with the BBC SSO’s principal trumpeter Mark O’Keeffe who agreed to take him on – and, like Kenny, refused to take any payment. At their first session, O’Keeffe asked Steele to play Three Blind Mice, and immediately identified his problems. “He gave me loads of incredible advice. Everything he said made perfect sense, and it wasn’t radical change he was suggesting – it was a natural approach. I would go in with an issue and within five minutes he’d have explained the whole thing and I’d be doing it correctly – after 20-odd years of doing it wrong.”
Steele’s progress from this point was “shocking – I felt even from the first day that I was getting 10% better every day”. After three weeks, he played I Loves You Porgy and O’Keeffe said: “That was beautiful.” And that, says Steele, “was the best compliment I’ve ever had. I felt that I was finally at the beginning of something.”
“Another great supporter,” he says, “was Bill Kyle [who runs The Jazz Bar]. He was one of the first people I confided in last December, and every month he would phone me to see if I was ready to come and sit in.”
Steele’s “second chance” at the trumpet coincided with the Fringe programme being finalised so when Kyle called him three hours before the programme deadline and said that a five-gig slot had become available, he grabbed the opportunity to realise a project he’d long hoped to do: a duo with pianist Brian Kellock. And, as luck would have it, he was back in action in time for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival programme too.
Having turned the corner, Steele has just got better and better – and is now “over the moon” with his sound. “I think it’s better now than it was before all this. It’s stronger and warmer and much, much closer to the tone I’ve always wanted to have. Chet may have sounded as if he was taking shallow, very light breaths – which is what I used to do – but he didn’t play that way. And now I don’t either …”
* For details of Colin Steele’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival gigs visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com. His duo is at The Jazz Bar from August 6-11.