Tag Archives: Ken Ramage

Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Overview

Published in the Nairn Telegraph, August 14, 2002

Thank God for the Nairn International Jazz Festival. Thanks to it, I will have enough musical memories to sustain me through the next 12 months until my next trip north to jazz heaven. The festival, which ended on Sunday, provided more moments of sheer pleasure in one week than Scottish fans of swinging chamber jazz can expect to enjoy in a whole year’s worth of concerts elsewhere in the country.

This year’s event summed up everything that makes Nairn special. There was the enthusiasm of the musicians who appreciated the excellent acoustics (if not the unbearable temperature earlier in the week) of the Universal Hall in Findhorn, the laidback feel of the Newton Hotel’s Conference Centre, and, especially, the warmth and attentiveness of the audiences. Among the musicians who were enjoying themselves so much that they played well beyond their bedtimes were veteran clarinettist and saxophonist Bob Wilber, pianist Ray Bryant and cornet legend Ruby Braff.

Then there were the last-minute concerts staged by festival organiser Ken Ramage: two guitar recitals by top American players in a Forres coffee shop and the Saturday night finale, pulled together in a day (following the cancellation by headline act Steve Tyrell), and still managing to attract a more than respectably sized audience.

Of course what matters most is the music, and Nairn served up more treats than even the most optimistic festival-goer could expect, and all in a refreshingly laid-back manner which contrasts with the concert hall formality favoured by so many other jazz festivals these days. Ken Ramage is a talented programmer with a healthy intuition about which musicians will work well together, and he knows that the happier the musicians are, the better the music is likely to be. Which is why, unlike other festival organisers, he often brings over whole bands or arranges for the preferred rhythm sections of certain top soloists to come up north, rather than taking the easy option of simply putting the star turn on with a Scottish trio.

The festival is very much a reflection of Ramage’s personal taste, but it’s also proof that focusing on one area of jazz – the so-called “mainstream” side of things – doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t have diversity and broad appeal. Nairn’s very strength is that it doesn’t try to be all things to all jazz fans. Because of this, it has a strong identity and has established a reputation among musicians all over the world as one of the most desirable festivals to visit. Add to that the warm hospitality, the scenery and, of course, the tropical temperatures (well, Monday and Tuesday’s anyway), and, well, roll on next year…

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Part 1

Published in The Herald, Thursday August 8, 2002

This year’s Nairn International Jazz Festival must have some sort of jinx on it, if its catalogue of problems to date is anything to go by. First, there was the Nairn accommodation crisis – caused by double bookings and the fact that since so many jazz fans had booked rooms, there were few left for the performers – which was resolved by putting most of the musicians in Elgin.

Then there was the nightmare journeys faced by anyone travelling on public transport at the weekend. (One musician endured a ten-hour train and bus trip from Edinburgh.) And yesterday came the announcement that festival organiser Ken Ramage’s personal piece de resistance – the debut of American crooner Steve Tyrell on Saturday night – had been cancelled by Tyrell himself. As if that wasn’t enough, Ramage’s mobile phone has gone AWOL …

Despite all this, the festival swung into action as if nothing was wrong. There is a ramshackle, everybody-pitches-in, quality about this festival, but the bottom line is that everything always works out in the end – and that the music always comes first. Which is presumably why musicians love to come here.

One musician who left, yesterday morning, looking as if he had had the time of his life was Bob Wilber, the American clarinettist and saxophonist who was lured out of semi-retirement by two tempting reunions – with the clarinettist Kenny Davern on Monday night, and with the Hot Club de France-style band fronted by Belgian guitar maestro Fapy Lafertin on Tuesday evening.

Wilber and Davern gave a sensational concert at the stiflingly hot Universal Hall in Findhorn. These virtuoso musicians have known each other for decades and they clearly thrive on opportunities to play together. Their duetting style, formed during the heyday of their group, Soprano Summit, is thrilling whether they’re both playing clarinet or whether Wilber has switched to soprano sax. These guys know each other’s styles so well, and are so experienced, that they produce spine-tingling harmonies as a matter of course.

For the most part they steered clear of standard fare on Monday night, and instead offered such lesser-played numbers a Smiles, Jazz Me Blues and The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.

However, it was during an old Fats Waller warhorse, Honeysuckle Rose, that the camaraderie onstage reached its high point, with Wilber (on soprano sax) and Davern jabbing and jousting to exhilarating effect as they traded breaks. And they were buoyed by the accompaniment of a peerless band featuring the lyrical guitarist James Chirillo, Britain’s top bass player Dave Green, the impressive young drummer Steve Brown and the super elegant American pianist John Bunch who, at 80, is as nimble and stylish a player as ever.

Wilber’s next appearance was in civvies – as a member of the audience at Davern’s lunchtime gig at the The Newton Hotel, Nairn, on Tuesday. This was a wonderfully relaxed session featuring the clarinettist in charge – and at his best. And it was a treat to hear him playing such rarities as Then You’ve Never Been Blue (which he learned from an old George Raft movie) and My Gal Sal, the first few bars of which featured unsolicited audience participation.

What really put the smile on Wilber’s face was his second and last concert as a player – on Tuesday night at Findhorn, with Fapy Lafertin’s Quartet. Before he went onstage, Wilber was enthusing about Lafertin being the world’s leading exponent of the “gypsy” jazz style of guitar playing made famous by Django Reinhardt, and reminiscing about his own face-to-face meeting with Reinhardt in Nice in the late 1940s. He obviously loves the Hot Club’s music and to play it with such a class act was clearly a great treat.

And the Lafertin outfit – two guitars, bass and violin (played by the fiendishly talented Dutchman Tim Kliphuis) – was just as delighted to have the chance to renew its acquaintance with Wilber, with whom they last worked in 1996. The results were a knockout, with Wilber absolutely in his element – hunched over his horn and dancing about as if he was in a New Orleans parade – and egged on by the dazzling, though far from flamboyant, virtuosity of Lafertin.

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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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Nairn Jazz Festival 1996: Ruby Braff/Scott Hamilton

Published in The Herald on August 20, 1996

Ruby Braff/Scott Hamilton, Nairn Jazz Festival

Another successful Nairn Jazz Festival came to a close on Sunday night with the kind of fabulous all-star concert which fans haven’t seen in a long time – unless they were lucky enough to be at some of the Nairn events earlier in the week. Once again, promoter Ken Ramage gambled on expensive big names, but once again it paid off with a capacity crowd and music of the highest calibre.

Cornet star Ruby Braff and tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton were the main headliners, but this excellent six-piece outfit also featured classy piano man John Bunch, guitar genius Bucky Pizzarelli and Brits Dave Green (bass) and Allan Ganley (drums). Unlike some of the jazz festival concerts we’ve seen recently at Edinburgh, this one was leisurely, civilised and good-natured.

Braff, who had apparently lived up to his reputation as a difficult and highly strung customer at Thursday night’s concert, was all smiles and hilarious wisecracks. His playing throughout was every bit as polished as it sounds on record, but twice as funky. The presence of his old pals Bunch and Pizzarelli no doubt contributed to his performance: it’s unlikely that he would have been half as relaxed in the company of a Scottish pianist and guitarist.

As for Hamilton, he and Braff formed a mutual inspiration society within this great band, egging each other on most memorably on Sunday, Just One of Those Things, and a cheeky Jeepers Creepers. New Nairn-comers Bunch and Pizzarelli were also dazzling in their virtuosity; the self-effacing pianist’s elegant style a joy to experience live after years of listening to his recordings.

I’ve found my notes on this concert. Here’s the list of numbers played.. During the first half, Braff complained about the heat under the lights and asked, good-naturedly, if they could be extinguished. “An electrician could do it,” he quipped. After a 40-minute interval, the second half was played in near-darkness, with moths swirling round the bells of Braff’s and Hamilton’s horns – like the cigarette smoke in Herman Leonard’s famous photos of Lester Young’s sax.

* Just You, Just Me

* Rockin’ Chair

* Poor Butterfly

* Cherokee (Scott Hamilton & rhythm section)

* Easy Living (rhythm section)

* Indiana

* Just One of Those Things

* The Days of Wine and Roses

* Skylark (Scott Hamilton & rhythm section)

* Jeepers Creepers

* Yesterdays (without Scott Hamilton)

* Sunday

* Take the A Train

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Nairn Jazz: Gene Harris (1994)

This is an interview/review published in The Herald on November 30, 1994.

Funky Gene’s. The title of Gene Harris’s new CD says it all. And they don’t come much funkier. Not in Nairn anyway. But, unlikely as it may sound, Nairn and Mr H have a thing goin’ on. Last weekend the American pianist paid his second visit in two months to the wee town whose healthy and regular diet of major jazz artistes — courtesy of local fruiterer/promoter Ken Ramage — often puts the rest of the country to shame.

Harris had such a good time when he played Nairn in September that he was only too keen to take up the invitation to come again. Three not insignificant factors in his readiness to accept were guitarist Jim Mullen, bass player Dave Green and drummer Allan Ganley.

”These guys are cream of the crop in Great Britain. I hadn’t worked with any of them before my first night in Nairn (my first night in Scotland), and I certainly wasn’t expecting the high quality of talent that I got. I was amazed and pleasantly surprised, 99% of American jazz musicians are sons of bitches ’cause they believe that just because they’re American they’re the best in the world. That’s a lie.”

Michigan-born Harris, however, is regarded by many as one of the best exponents of his instrument and is in demand all over the world. During his lifelong musical career he has rarely been out of jazz work (although he did make a brief foray into the world of disco music in the 1970s); as leader of various trios (the first being the Blue Note-recorded Three Sounds) or bigger outfits like the all-star Philip Morris Superband. In Nairn, he summed himself up quite simply: ”I’m just an old funky blues player at heart.”

But to categorise Harris as a blues player is to underestimate his versatility. True, he has the emotional intensity of a blues man. His playing on Saturday was passionate — oftimes verging on the melodramatic: I Thought About You began as a poignant, reflective piece but became angry and resentful. Georgia began in the same way, but it developed into a rollicking boogie woogie — the style which, through the recordings of Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, first inspired Harris to take to the keyboards himself.

In cheerful mode, Harris displayed a remarkable lightness of touch — his fingers barely skimming the ivories as they scurried up and down the magnificent Bosendorfer grand piano (especially hired from Edinburgh) — and a facial expression reminiscent of another great jazz pianist/entertainer, Fats Waller. But it was the romantic numbers that drew the most enthusiastic reaction from an already-converted Nairn audience on Saturday. Harris played Misty with fingers positively dripping sentiment, but it was his Sweet Lorraine — less sickly and therefore more enjoyable — which was the real highlight of the evening.

There can be no doubt that Harris will be back in Nairn. Which is great for Nairn jazz fans and those who can be bothered to make the three and a half hour, Β Β£29 train journey from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Inverness. But until someone in the central belt starts to book these big jazz names when they’re touring over here, they’re just going to keep flying over our heads.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 1994

By way of tribute to Ken Ramage (who died earlier this month), the founder and organiser of the wonderful Nairn Jazz Festival – and the promoter of many non-festival concerts, I’m going to run all my Nairn articles (or as many as I can find), starting with this, my first review from Nairn – of my first time at the Nairn Jazz Festival, published in The Herald on August 11, 1994. I’m not sure where or how I wrote this as it was pre-internet. It was probably phoned-in to copytakers, a now-extinct species!

You had to be there really, but you can take my word for it that the audience for jazz is alive and flourishing in the north of Scotland. Consider the remarkable initiative of Nairn fruiterer-cum-jazz promoter Ken Ramage who decided – only three months ago – to build a festival around an exclusive Scottish appearance by the Ray Brown Trio.

Only the promise of a night of world-class music would drag the mainstream jazz fan away from residency at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, but Ramage could not have selected a better group to launch his own event than the one which took the stage in the grounds of the Golf View Hotel on Tuesday night. With an all-American, all-star, front line of cornettist Warren Vache, clarinettist Kenny Davern, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and trombonist Joel Helleny, plus a stellar British rhythm section in the shape of the Colin Purbrook Trio, it could only be a winner.

The band swung its way through numbers like Bernie’s Tune and Sweet Georgia Brown, but it was in the various groups within the group that the individual musicians truly shone. Jerome Kern’s Pick Yourself Up showcased the dulcet cornet tones of Vache, while Joel Helleny – making his first Scottish appearance – introduced the 300-strong audience to his poetic playing with a stunning Polka Dots and Moonbeams. The two brassmen were featured on a poignant You’ve Changed.

Much the same could be said of Hamilton and Davern who locked horns and competed for the notes in the dog whistle register during their splendid version of Blue Monk. Elsewhere, Hamilton’s bluesy, growling tenor on It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, and his lulling Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square provoked cheers – as did Davern’s beautifully restrained solo number, Sweet Lorraine.

The Vache-Davern-Hamilton triumverate is always a pleasure to hear, but add Joel Helleny and a trio as compatible as Purbrook’s and we really had one helluva line-up. They will be a tough act to follow, but then so is singer Carol Kidd. She appears at the Marquee tonight accompanied by her regular trio of Dave Newton (piano), Dave Green (bass) and Allan Ganley (drums).

For many, however, the highlight of Nairn’s jazz festival will be the booking that set the ball rolling – the Ray Brown Trio. Bass player Brown started out with the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker Quintet before working with, and marrying, Ella Fitzgerald. His name will also be remembered from Norman Granz’s legendary Jazz At the Philharmonic concert series, or from his stint with Oscar Peterson’s most celebrated trio. On Sunday Brown’s band features Benny Green, a young pianist in great demand worldwide, and another Peterson regular – drummer Jeff Hamilton.

Here’s the complete list of numbers played by Vache, Hamilton, Davern, Helleny etc:

* Sometimes I’m Happy (SH)

* Polka Dots and Moonbeams (JH)

* Pick Yourself Up (WV)

* A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (SH)

* Sweet Lorraine (KD)

* It Don’t Mean a Thing (whole band)

* Bernie’s Tune

* In a Mellow Tone

* You’ve Changed (WV & JH)

* On Green Dolphin Street (trio)

* Blue Monk (SH & KD)

* Sweet Georgia Brown

I didn’t hear the rest of the Nairn Jazz Festival – I got a lift down to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival with Vache, Hamilton and Davern who were all appearing at the Gala Concert at the Queen’s Hall the day this review was published!

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Newsflash

It is with great sadness that I have to report that Ken Ramage (second from the right), the founder and organiser of the festival that put the sleepy seaside town of Nairn on the jazz map, Β died suddenly today. Our thoughts are with his partner Roslin, and their children Kenneth and Jennifer. A full appreciation will follow anon. If you have any stories to share about the Nairn Jazz Festival or its maverick founder, please email them to me or post them as comments. For me, Nairn will not be the same without the jazz which Ken brought to it. And some of the best musical memories I have are from the heyday of the festival ..

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