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Review: Martin Taylor & Alison Burns – Ella at 100

Martin Taylor & Alison Burns – Ella at 100, Strathclyde Suite, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow ****

Maybe it’s fitting that a star who was as unassuming in real life as Ella Fitzgerald should have a low-key centenary year – in Scotland at least. The legendary jazz singer’s birthday celebrations can be contrasted with those organised for that other great 20th Century voice, Frank Sinatra, when he hit the C spot in 2015.

While Sinatra’s centenary in Scotland was a series of big band bashes fronted by such leading singing stars as Kurt Elling, Curtis Stigers and Frank Sinatra Jr, the biggest name on any of the Fitzgerald-themed Scottish concerts is a guitarist ….

But what a guitarist. Martin Taylor, who opened the Glasgow Jazz Festival on Wednesday with his and singer Alison Burns’s tribute, brought the house down in a way that Fitzgerald herself would have done, and in the duo format which Fitzgerald used to memorable effect with guitarist Joe Pass.

His two extended (non Fitzgerald-related) solo segments were, unsurprisingly given his status as an internationally renowned soloist, the stand-outs of the concert: tour-de-force balladeering on Hymne a l’amour (which, he joked, he used to think was a Glaswegian song because his aunty would invariably sing it after a few sherries), a beautiful and characteristically richly textured interpretation of Henry Mancini’s Two For the Road, and a gorgeous bossa version of The Carpenters’ I Won’t Last a Day Without You.

With a warm, lush voice which suited the intimate feel of the venue, Alison Burns impressed in the Ella role, bravely attempting to reproduce some of Fitzgerald’s less energetic improvisations and singing in a style which featured most of Fitzgerald’s trademark “licks”.

A slightly shorter version of this review was published in The Scotsman on Saturday, June 24th

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Liane Carroll: A Sentimental Journey

Liane Carroll picIf there is one ticket that represents exceptional value for money at the Glasgow Jazz Festival then it is surely the one-man show by Liane Carroll on the festival’s opening night, on Wednesday.

Singer-pianist Carroll doesn’t just play and sing; she takes the audience on an emotional journey which might start, end and be punctuated with rib-tickling jokes but includes detours via various levels of gut-wrenching, heart-rending ballads, swinging standards and raucous blues.

Wherever she goes during her show, Carroll takes enraptured listeners with her; there’s no “her and us” about it – it’s very much a shared experience, and one which leaves no emotional stone un-turned. It’s no wonder everyone from Gerry Rafferty, with whom she toured and recorded, to Joe Stilgoe, who penned the title track of her forthcoming album Seaside, has wanted her to sing their songs.

For Carroll, it’s essential to have the audience on the journey with her. “Singing is communicating,” she says, “so I don’t feel I’m up there on my own. I have the audience with me, and we have a laugh together.” That community feeling undoubtedly stems from the 51-year-old’s first musical experiences, when she was encouraged to sing and play in her grandparents’ home in Hastings, where, from the age of six, she lived with her mother. “It was a daft household but very musical,” she recalls, with a giggle.

Carroll’s parents were semi professional singers. “They sang at the Country Club in Eastbourne – that’s how they met. Me mum had sung for a while in the 1950s with the Ken Mackintosh Band. Me nan played the piano, and I took to it early. I was taught by a concert pianist who lived locally. She was a bit of a dragon – she would threaten to snip my hair if I made any mistakes. I really thought she might do it, and one time I wore my hair in a beret so it was out of sight. Me mum said: ‘What are you doing?’ and I explained – and she had a word with her.”

Having heard and liked jazz being played and sung at home, Carroll got hooked on it in her early teens, and her listening tastes changed from the Osmonds (“I was in love with Donnie”) and the Bay City Rollers to big band music, with which she became obsessed. “I saw the BBC Radio Big Band doing a tribute to the bandleader Ted Heath, and then got into Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson… Me mum and nan used to take me to different gigs and then when I was about 16 I started to go by myself. I’d go up to London on the train and stay with a couple of relatives and come back down. It was lovely. It didn’t happen very regularly but it was my treat.”

By this time, Carroll had begun to teach herself how to play jazz. “Towards the end of my grade exams, I really enjoyed playing jazz but it wasn’t really encouraged in those days. It was [she assumes a snooty voice]: ‘Oh well, if you like that kind of thing…’. Which of course just made me do it even more, and practise doing it even more.”

What did her schoolmates think of this obsession – or was playing and listening to jazz a closet activity? “On the whole, I think it was pretty much accepted,” says Carroll. “A few people thought I was a bit weird not wanting to go to discos, but I didn’t have much confidence about going to discos and I did prefer jazz. I wasn’t that sociable; I wasn’t one of the alpha girls, the popular girls. As I got older, I made lots of friends and they used to enjoy me playing a bit of jazz on the piano at the school assembly – the school liked to have someone playing as people were coming into the hall, and I liked the chance to show off! I wasn’t bullied about it or anything, and I wasn’t shy – I’ve never been shy! I just wasn’t in that set of girls who were popular.”

The singing quickly followed; indeed it was her eventual second husband, bass player Roger Carey, who first got her up to sing on gigs. Asked who her favourite singer was when she was growing up, and Carroll responds immediately: “Vic Damone. He was amazing, a lovely singer. He had it all – the voice, the rhythm and the phrasing – and he did lots with the Count Basie Orchestra. Of the female jazz singers, Sarah Vaughan was my favourite though of course I enjoyed Ella Fitzgerald as well. But I’ve always had diverse tastes: growing up, I used to listen to Laura Nyro – she had a big impact on me when I was about 14 – and I’ve been doing her songs ever since. My husband introduced me to Todd Rundgren’s music, and I really love him too…”

It was only after a very short marriage, from her late teens into her early twenties – “not a pleasant time” – that Carroll really got stuck into performing. “I had been living in York during that period and came back down to Hastings with my one-year-old daughter, and got a residency playing piano at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne.”

Since then, she has worked in all sorts of bands – both in terms of musical genre and size – and notched up numerous awards, among them two prestigious BBC Jazz Awards in the same year (2005). Although she is constantly adding new strings to her bow, and gaining ever more acclaim, Carroll still has the weekly residency at her local wine bar, Porters, that she has been doing – “when I’m around” – for 26 years, and leads her trio, which features her husband on bass.

Does working with your husband only work because you both have other projects? “I think so! It really does,” laughs Carroll. “We did work together all the time at one point and that got a bit much. We’ve been together 28 and a half years, and we’re just getting there now. It’s always been a work in progress; it’s lovely now.”

In the last decade or so, Carroll has become a regular visitor to Scotland – more in her capacity as a guest teacher than as a star turn, in the popular vocal jazz workshops organised by her friend, the Pathhead-based singer-songwriter Sophie Bancroft.

But this week, it will just be the audience at Wild Cabaret that Carroll has for company. “It’s a nice change to do a solo gig, it’s more spontaneous. Sometimes I chat too much between numbers – it used to be out of nervousness but now it’s just who I am. I know I talk too much, and I know it’s bollocks – but it’s happy bollocks, and it’s true!”

* Liane Carroll performs at Wild Cabaret on Wednesday; details from www.jazzfest.co.uk. Her next Scottish workshop with Sophie Bancroft is the Cromarty Vocal Jazz Workshop, April 1-3 2016. For info, email sbancroft@btinternet.com. Her new album Seaside is out in September.

First published in Scotland on Sunday, June 21

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Jacqui of All Trades

Jacqui DankworthJacqui Dankworth is in a class of her own. Not only is she the offspring of jazz royalty (her father was saxophonist, bandleader and composer John Dankworth; her mother is the formidable vocalist Cleo Laine), but the disarmingly unaffected singer and actress has a career that must be widely envied, not least for its eclecticism and variety.

In her visits to Scotland in the last year alone, Dankworth has performed in an opera at the Edinburgh International Festival, sung songs from family movies and cartoons with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and headlined one of the most successful concerts at the British Vocal Jazz Festival, within the Fringe.

For that concert, she was reunited with her occasional singing partner, Edinburgh-based Todd Gordon, and the pair bring their hugely popular Frank & Ella show to the Glasgow Jazz Festival this week. It’s proved to be a winning combination, and, since the two stars  – whose close friendship offstage accounts for the warm atmosphere on it – clearly get a kick out of performing together, it’s more double than tribute act. Indeed, as Dankworth points out: “I don’t sing like Ella but obviously I grew up listening to her. She was a one-off. It’s not a tribute show; it’s just acknowledging her and singing some songs that she sang.”

The Ella side of the operation, says Dankworth, means that pretty much anything from the Great American Songbook goes, as she sang everything during her long and prolific career – and in many instances, the record-buying public know more than one Fitzgerald recording of a song, since many live performances were been released on LPs.

“It’s strange because obviously Frank Sinatra had a lot more songs that he made the definitive versions of,  and hits that he was strongly associated with – like My Way and New York, New York – but that isn’t necessarily the case with Ella Fitzgerald. Hers was a different kind of career really. With Sinatra, it was almost more about him in a way than the songs. With her, she was serving the song.”

Although Dankworth may have had free rein to choose pretty much any standards she fancied – since Fitzgerald undoubtedly recorded them all – she did have to include two which are strongly associated with the legendary singer: Every Time We Say Goodbye (“though it was only a hit here – not in the States”) and How High the Moon, which became a Fitzgerald party piece due to her downright dazzling scat solo.

When it’s put to her that the other Ella’s with whom Todd Gordon has worked might have shied away from the mind-blowing acrobatics of Fitzgerald’s How High the Moon solo, Dankworth laughs and says: “It took me a long time to learn that solo. It feels easy now but when I first started learning it I thought how am I ever going to do this?! I learned it for Todd.”

Strangely, although Dankworth never met or heard Fitzgerald live (the teenage Todd Gordon did,  though, at the Usher Hall in the 1970s) she can boast of having spent an evening in the company of Gordon’s concert alter ego, Frank Sinatra. It was 1984, and Dankworth had recently graduated from Guildhall’s drama department.

She recalls: “I was on a 73 bus and as it passed the Albert Hall, I saw mum’s name because she was opening for Sinatra. I decided I should go and see her. They were all going out for a meal afterwards, and she said: ‘I’ll ask Frank if I can bring you along.’ So she rang his dressing room, and he said it was fine. I said: ‘Mum, I’d love to come but .. ..look at me!’ I was wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt.”

“Mum said: ‘Look, grab some earrings and we’ll get you jouged up a bit.’ So I sat looking slightly bedraggled on this table with the owners of all the casinos in Monte Carlo and the guy who was responsible for bringing Liza Minnelli over to Britain, plus this songwriter who’d had a big hit in the 1960s – I can’t remember his name. They were wearing their Versace and I was in a T-shirt and denims. It was a mad night.” And that was even before the songwriter made the Frank faux pas of bringing up the subject of a Mafia murder which was in the news. Dankworth remembers freezing in her seat. “I thought ‘oh God, get me out of here’. It was the longest three seconds of my life.”

A much more pleasant memory is that of Sinatra’s performance earlier that evening. “His presence onstage was astounding,” she says. “He sang every lyric as though he meant it – especially Ol’ Man River, which would normally be a bit odd, but he made it work. He made me cry..” And did she get to talk to him? “Well, not really. I just shook hands and said it was a pleasure to meet him.”

At that stage in her life, Dankworth had not yet even begun to try to make her mark as a singer; acting was her passion and for 15 years she made her living as a jobbing actress, having first discovered her flair for drama while at boarding school. Her musical gifts first revealed themselves during her schooldays too – and she played violin, flute and sang. “The music teacher thought I was talented. He wrote these incredibly difficult musicals and my mum remembers feeling gob-smacked when they came to hear me sing in these musicals because it was really difficult music, and I was nine or ten.”

It was only in her thirties that the naturally shy Dankworth began to focus on singing. “My passion was acting and it was when I met my first husband and he said ‘Let’s form a band’ that I got into doing more music, but when I started singing a lot I found it very difficult. It was easier when I was acting as I had to be someone else.  In fact, I remember having this conversation with Paloma Faith once and I asked her how she was able to be so outrageous onstage. She said: ‘Jacqui, I’m so shy, if I were just me up there everyone would feel shy and embarrassed’ so in a way she has a persona that gets her through. She’s approaching her stage persona in the way an actor would approach a part – and I identify with that.”

* The Frank & Ella Show/Todd Gordon & Jacqui Dankworth is at the City Halls on Friday. Visit www.jazzfest.co.uk for details and ticket links, or call 0141 353 8000.

* First published in Scotland on Sunday on June 22nd

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Review: Bobby Wellins Quartet

Bobby Wellins Quartet, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, Sunday June 30th  ****

If the Glasgow Jazz Festival organisers thought that they were cruising on the home stretch by the last 24 hours of the event, they clearly had another thing coming when, on Sunday morning, word came through that British piano great Stan Tracey was cancelling his appearance at the closing Fruitmarket concert that night. Ill health forced the octogenarian to reluctantly pull out, but the rest of the band – bassist Andrew Cleyndert, drummer Clark Tracey and prodigal Glasgow son, tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins – came north.

What was clear from the outset was that these musicians have played together so long and know each other so well that they are completely tuned in to the workings of each others’ minds. On the stand-out number, a cheeky My Funny Valentine, the ever-inventive Cleyndert seemed to finish Wellins’s phrases – such is their rapport.

You might think that a replacement pianist would struggle to fit immediately in, but Glasgow-based Paul Harrison – said to have been personally selected by Tracey as his dep for the night – did just that. And with considerable style. His Funny Valentine solo turned into a elegant duet with Cleyndert: it was as if they were operating as a unit. On Lover Man, taken at a brisk tempo and imbued with a Latin feel, Harrison stole the show with a dynamic, colourful solo which was nothing short of dazzling.

Earlier, Paul Towndrow (soprano saxophone) and Steve Hamilton (piano) had revealed that theirs is another class double-act. Their short set featured a string of original numbers, though the undoubted highlight was a gorgeous interpretation of a classic ballad, The Very Thought of You.

First published in The Herald, Tuesday July 2

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Review: Georgie Fame & the Three Line Whip

Georgie Fame & the Three Line Whip, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, Saturday June 29th ****

Oooh, he’s a right charmer is Georgie Fame. He fairly oozes charisma and humour in his very conversational and funny stage patter. So much so that, at Saturday night’s sell-out concert at the Glasgow Jazz Festival, nobody gave a damn that the floor of the Fruitmarket was positively littered with names that Fame had dropped there.

Before he’d even got to half time, everyone from Eddie Cochran (with whom he appeared at the Glasgow Empire in 1960) to Humphrey Lyttelton, whose colourful collection of trousers (on the evidence of the raspberry pink pair being sported on Saturday) he appears to have inherited, had been name-checked; often – in the case of the rock ‘n’ rollers – to cheers from the adoring crowd.

This really was a Fame-hungry audience; one which spanned the generations from Fame’s age group (he’s 70) right down to twentysomethings. And the savvy star made sure he made reference to great musician acquaintances that would appeal to both ends of the age spectrum, from the 1950s teens who would remember him dodging the cast-iron ashtrays hurled at Billy Fury at the Empire to the young people impressed by being in the presence of someone who knew Hendrix and the Animals.

And the music? Well, it was party time most of the evening with Fame – whose voice sounded ageless and whose energy was infectious – swinging out his greatest hits on the Hammond organ, accompanied by his sons on guitar and drums.

First published in The Scotsman, Monday July 1

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Under Milk Wood – Again

Under_Milk_Wood

It’s 20 years since I covered my first jazz festival – the 1993 Glasgow Jazz Festival, and 20 years since the  Old Fruitmarket was opened as the main venue for that same festival. This year’s event opens and closes with musicians who played in the Fruitmarket in its first festival. Here’s the article I wrote in 1993 about a couple of them….

To begin at the beginning. In 1965 the English jazz pianist Stan Tracey wrote and recorded with his quartet his Jazz Suite: Under Milk Wood, inspired by Dylan Thomas’s eponymous radio play. Now, 28 years later, what various critics have described as the best British jazz record ever made has just been reissued on CD on the jazz label, Blue Note. [2013 note: it’s now available on the Trio label.]

According to the original sleeve notes, Tracey played over to himself the dramatised recording of Under Milk Wood before he began to compose his themes. So how much of a resemblance does the Jazz Suite bear to the Thomas play, and does it really matter?

Being completely unfamiliar with both the Under Milk Wood works seemed to make me uniquely qualified to listen to it for its own merits before trying to make sense of its connection with the play.

As performed by Stan Tracey (piano), Glasgow’s own Bobby Wellins (tenor saxophone), Jeff Clyne (bass) and Jack Dougan (drums), the suite is a collection of eight tracks – each distinctive in character but linked by a bluesy feel and some of the best playing I’ve ever heard.

The opening two tracks are wonderful: the first is the instantly hummable Cockle Row, a groovy number that introduces the splendid Tracey/Wellins partnership. Starless and Bible Black is a complete contrast, laidback and beautiful.Wellins’s breathy sax breezes over a repeated series of haunting minor chords on the piano, bearing echoes of Eric Satie.

Another personal favourite is Penpals, with its catchy theme, funky beat, and changing moods – happy to sad, then back again, like an exchange of letters. But for me the loveliest example of this ensemble’s work is the track based on the play’s title, Under Milk Wood.

The melody – far more optimistic this time, but tinged with yearning – is carried by Wellins, clearly under the influence of that other great Stan, the late Mr Getz. Tracey’s piano is flawless, a perfect complement to the evocative lyricism of his sax man.

The play itself was a revelation. Having absorbed the Tracey suite, I was all set for a sad romantic melodrama. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood covers a day in the life of a lively Welsh village peopled by characters with such inspired names as Organ Morgan (the organist), Willy Nilly (the postman), and the fisherman, No Good Boyo. Despite the apparently everyday nature of the town in question, all – including its name, Llareggub – is not what it seems.

We know this because we are privy to the thoughts  and fantasies of the superficially normal villagers – like Mrs Ogden-Pritchard, who sleeps between the ghosts of her two nagged-to-death husbands and makes them chant in unison household rules such as “I must blow my nose in tissue and burn it after.”

I listened to the 1963 BBC radio dramatisation of Under Milk Wood, narrated by Richard Burton – probably the same version that inspired Stan Tracey, and it would be easy to see why. With its oddball characters and rich range of voices, its vivid tableaux of village life and poignant black humour, there is enough in this superb play to inspire a few more recordings.

And so to the connection between the Dylan Thomas and Stan Tracey masterpieces. No doubt Tracey was moved by the play to write some music for a jazz quartet, but there was little in the dramatisation that reminded me of the music. The only specific evidence of the link is the titles of the individual compositions: Tracey’s LP is really a collection of highly personal impressions of phrases (“starless and bible black”), characters (No Good Boyo) and places (Llareggub).

It could equally have been called Eight Eccentric Aunties from Edinburgh. But who cares, when the results are so outstanding?

(First published in The Herald, Friday July 2 1993)

* Under Milk Wood is the subject of a Classic Album Sundays listening session at the City Halls Club Room on Sunday June 30 at 6pm, and the Stan Tracey Quartet, featuring Bobby Wellins, plays the Old Fruitmarket at 8pm that same night. Visit www.jazzfest.co.uk for full details.

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Glasgow Jazz Festival: Warren Vache & Brian Kellock

Blimey, that’s it. I can die happy. I’ve just enjoyed the most sublime seventy minutes of my recent life.. thanks to American cornettist Warren Vache’s duo gig at the Glasgow Jazz Festival with the Scots piano wizard Brian Kellock.

This pair haven’t played together as a duo in almost a decade, which could explain why sparks flew during the concert, notably on a fast My Shining Hour and an equally speedy End of a Love Affair; both numbers distinguished by Kellock’s incendiary playing – outlandish, inventive and flamboyant. It acted as a touchpaper for Vache’s solos which were nothing short of dazzling, particularly on an unaccompanied section of End of a Love Affair.

However, it was the ballads that will live on in the collective memory. I’ll Be Seeing You (possibly the first live version of it that I’ve ever heard) was lifted first by Kellock, with his delicate, gentle and achingly lovely solo which was the essence of minimalism, and by Vache’s similarly poignant solo, an improvement on the original melody.

On a playful Tea for Two, the pair were so utterly in synch in their thinking and so complementary in their playing that it was difficult to believe that they hadn’t been playing it together for years. Mind you, that applied to all the tunes they played – though they wouldn’t have sounded as fresh and thrilling if they had been tried and tested.

The highlight of the evening was a heart-meltingly gorgeous interpretation of Irving Berlin’s ballad What’ll I Do? I have to confess that it was my request – and it exceeded expectations. Vache dished up the most beguiling and tender solo, and Kellock, in a supporting role, gave it the perfect setting. It truly was a thing of rare beauty – I just wish someone had recorded it.

Monday, July 4 

Over the weekend,  I was asked for some of the titles of numbers that were played on Thursday so I’ve decided to start publishing a complete list of tunes played at each concert I go to.

* You and the Night and the Music

* What’ll I Do? (request)

* Tea for Two

* My Shining Hour

* I’ll Be Seeing You

* End of a Love Affair

* The More I See You

* Body and Soul

* Skylark (request)

* blues

* We’ll Be Together Again

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