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.