Tag Archives: Dan Levinson

Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Part 2

Published in The Herald, Monday August 12, 2002

It may not be in quite the same historic league as Benny Goodman’s legendary gig at the Palomar Ballroom, or Louis Armstrong’s Town Hall concert or the Ellington band’s riot-sparking Newport performance, but American cornet star Ruby Braff’s Wednesday night concert at The Newton Hotel for the Nairn International Jazz Festival was undoubtedly one of those nights which will be talked about for many years to come – at least by those who were there.

Before Braff opened his mouth, things didn’t bode well. Looking frail and wizened, and suffering from emphysema, the 75-year-old made it out of his wheelchair and up onto the stage. Propped up by pillows, he looked as if he should be in the local infirmary rather than in front of an all-star band. However, as soon as he began to talk, it was obvious that the notoriously cantankerous star was in good spirits, reducing the audience and the musicians onstage to tears of laughter with his politically incorrect jokes.

Of course, it wasn’t just the priceless patter which made Braff’s concert such a highlight. It was a fantastic night musically – a perfect example of swinging, melodic chamber jazz. Holding court for well over two hours, Braff brought out the best from an already terrific band which featured Scott Hamilton on tenor sax, John Bunch on piano and Jon Wheatley on guitar.

Rather than taking the easy – and more common – all-star concert option of featuring each soloist individually or dividing the band into different line-ups for different numbers, Braff simply had each musician play a share of the melody before everyone took a solo. The results were sublime, particularly the beautiful, laid-back version of Jerome Kern’s Yesterdays, which prompted Braff to comment: “That was like a nice conversation.”

Braff’s playing gave no indication of his breathing difficulties; indeed, the horn seemed to double as an oxygen mask, and as the evening progressed, he played for longer stints, always with that unique, mellow tone. He was surprisingly generous in his praise for his fellow musicians, and was clearly relishing the opportunity to be playing with Bunch and Hamilton again.

In those wee small hours of Thursday morning, it looked as though the highpoint of the festival had just finished, but there were still treats ahead, among them Scott Hamilton’s lunchtime reunion with pianist Brian Kellock. Kellock hooked up with his own band (John Rae on drums and Kenny Ellis on bass) to join American saxophonist Harry Allen for a gig on Friday evening which proved that the United Reformed Church should probably be a last-resort venue for Nairn jazz. Allen and co rose above acoustic problems and turned in a terrific extended set which left the tenor man raving about Kellock’s trio being the best in Britain.

Aside from the Braff concert, the gig which best summed up the spirit of the Nairn International Jazz Festival was the lunchtime concert by members of the Gully Low Band. Featuring a quartet made up of the magnificent trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, the elegant clarinettist Dan Levinson, virtuoso guitarist Howard Alden and tuba player-bandleader David Ostwald, the first set epitomised the relaxed, informal feel of the best Nairn concerts. This was a rare chance to hear this kind of line-up and their swinging, tasteful performances of such little-played 1920s and 1930s numbers like Diga-Diga-Doo and From Monday On were superb – sheer pleasure.

The relaxed feel of this ensemble was in complete contrast to the more carefully staged and formal atmosphere of the two concerts by the entire Gully Low Jazz Band, on Friday night and Saturday lunchtime. Although this band went down well with audiences, it seemed to lack the joyfulness and spontaneity of the small group sets, and, frankly, leader David Ostwald’s dull announcements were tiresome and unnecessary.

Also more formal and less rewarding than might have been expected was the concert by young stars Benny Green (piano) and Russell Malone (guitar) on Thursday evening. This slick, sharp-suited duo was, unquestionably, a class act but there was a strong sense that they were simply working their way through the material on their album, and that, to them, this was just another stop on the touring itinerary. Which is about as far removed from the one-off, peculiarly Nairn, feel of the Braff concert and the Bob Wilber-Fapy Lafertin gig of earlier in the week.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2001

Published in The Herald, August 14, 2001

It’s been a few years since this reviewer’s last visit to the Nairn International Jazz Festival, but, thankfully, very little has changed. The atmosphere is as friendly and laid-back as ever, and the prevalence of the founder-organiser’s own eclectic tastes – rather than a worthy but half-hearted attempt to cater for every jazz taste – still ensures that this event has a distinctive character.

Nairn is still very much the jazz festival with the personal touch. You only need to watch the crowds filing out of the venue to witness this: people queue up to thank Ken Ramage, the organiser, for the concert and to request that certain bands be brought back. Musicians and audience members mingle at interval-time, and seem to be united in their enjoyment of the festival and its informal ambience. Indeed, it’s not unusual for bandleaders to ask to be invited back as they bid farewell to the audience.

This is precisely what happened at this year’s showcase concert, given by David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band on Saturday. This classy New York-based group went down a storm and seemed to be as delighted by the response they received as the audience was thrilled by the music. Unlike, say, the Nairn All-Stars band, which had appeared two nights earlier, this was a ready-made outfit comprising members who work together regularly and operate less as a group of individuals (although trumpeter Randy Sandke, clarinettist-saxophonist Dan Levinson, trombonist John Allred and pianist Mark Shane are all in demand as soloists) and more as an ensemble. Consequently, they managed to cram several decades’ worth of Armstrong material into a hugely enjoyable couple of sets.

The Ostwald outfit asked for, and received, an instant invitation to come back to Nairn. But it wasn’t the only debuting group looking for a return visit. The Hot Antics charmed Nairn audiences with two afternoon concerts at the weekend. This French band’s winning combination of seldom-played tunes from the 1920s and 1930s plus a good deal of fun and banter – prompted a flurry of requests, not least from the band itself, for a repeat performance at a future event.

The surprise of the festival was Dunstan Coulber, an English clarinettist who led a swing quartet, featuring the versatile pianist Richard Busiakiewicz, on Friday evening. The winner of the Perrier Young Jazz Musician of the Year, Coulber has a soft, fluid, and commanding style which contrasted well with Busiakiewicz’s crisp, elegant playing.

The Nairn audience’s willingness to try out the unfamiliar is a sign of its faith in the taste of the organiser, and he rewarded the loyalty by arranging return visits by old favourites. It was a not-so-old favourite who opened the festival on Wednesday. Jane Monheit, the American singer who made her Scottish debut in Nairn in December, was welcomed back as if she was the prodigal daughter, while Monty Alexander, the Jamaican pianist who has played the festival in the past and who would appear to have been adopted by Nairn as one of its own, seemed to thrive on the friendly atmosphere when he gave a late-night recital on Friday.

Although all the evening events played to a full tent, the stand-out concerts of the festival were the ones which were heard by fewest people. In the intimate, and unlikely, venue of the newly-converted stables of Brodie Castle on Friday afternoon, the peerless American musicians Warren Vache (cornet) and Howard Alden (guitar) – both of whom have been absent from the festival for several years – teamed up with the excellent bass player Ricky Steele for two glorious sets which are bound to become Nairn festival legend.

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