Tag Archives: Leith Jazz Festival

Review: Leith Jazz & Blues Festival

Leith Jazz & Blues Festival ***

Leith Jazz Festival trio

The Scottish jazz festival season kicked off on Friday in Leith, where pubs, bars and eateries (oh, and even a hair salon) in the area played host to a huge number of free jazz and blues gigs.

Even a cursory glance at the flyer or website for this year’s event couldn’t fail to give the impression that the festival has ballooned in size and become significantly more blues oriented since it was launched, in its current incarnation, back in 2012.

Back then, and for the first few years, a large part of the joy for jazz lovers was getting to hear world-class Scottish names for free while discovering often unfamiliar corners of the Leith’s liquid landscape. It felt like the legendary Edinburgh Jazz Festival Pub Trail of the 1980s come back to life.

This year, there was still a smattering of world-class jazz but there were none of the established classic or trad jazz bands that appeared in previous years, and it was more of a challenge to find familiar names amongst the astonishing 62-strong list of gigs shoehorned into the three days. (Some sort of brief description of each band would have been a big help for punters when perusing the programme.)

On the jazz side of things, unfamiliar names turned out to be unfamiliar for a reason. Thankfully, Friday night offered a series of safe bets, however: trumpeter Colin Steele was on terrific form leading an ace group at the Lioness of Leith pub. Steele’s inner Chet Baker was much to the fore; his pared-back, swinging and eloquent style beautifully offset by Kevin Mackenzie on guitar and Kenny Ellis on bass.

One of the highlights of Steele’s set, the haunting bossa Manha de Carnaval, was reprised a couple of hours later when he unexpectedly sat in on the only available mid-evening jazz session on Friday’s programme – pianist Fraser Urquhart’s knock-out trio gig at the atmospheric Shore Bar (one of the most conducive venues on the Leith circuit).

Manha de Carnaval – The Sequel was an entirely separate entity from the original, featuring as it did some delightful exchanges between pianist Fraser Urquhart and his guitarist dad Dougie, and a dramatic Sketches of Spain-esque ending.

Earlier, Fraser Urquhart had been a member of John Burgess’s trio in the wine bar/eatery Toast. This was a fabulous set of classy, swinging jazz that showed off Burgess’s mighty, soulful tenor sax sound.

Quantity rather than quality was to the fore on Saturday afternoon’s programme – which is why some of the jazz-following contingent launched their jazz trail outwith the festival, at Broughton Street’s Barony Bar where Burgess could be heard in an impressive line-up led by guitarist John Russell.

In the spirit of “you can’t improve on perfection”, there was really no point in going anywhere other than home after hearing the superb duo of West Coast-style altoist Martin Kershaw and ace bass Ed Kelly, a duo which was a highlight of the first Leith Jazz Festival and which is always worth cramming into Sofi’s Bar to hear.

First published in The Scotsman on Monday, June 10th

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Review: Leith Jazz Festival 2014

The Ugly Bug Ragtime ThreeFree 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

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Review: Leith Jazz Festival, June 16-17, 2012

Leith Jazz Festival, various venues, June 16-17, 2012 ****

Like a phoenix rising from distinctly soggy ashes, the Leith Jazz Festival was revived over the weekend after more than a decade. And even the damp weather didn’t rain on the parade of the publicans who found their establishments packed out for (at least) the daytime gigs which ranged from hard core blues to 1920s classic jazz. For those who remember the old pub trail of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, nipping from one hostelry to another, often catching the first set in one pub before zipping along the road to catch the second set in another was a lovely nostalgia trip.

All the names on the bill were local – but they included some of the best on the Edinburgh scene, from pianist Brian Kellock, who was the unofficial artistic director of the event, and whose regular Sunday session at The Shore was a focal point of the weekend for many festival-goers, to the reliably excellent Swing 2012, which specialises in laid-back, Hot Club of France-inspired jazz, and who played on Sunday evening at The Granary.

Indeed, for the jazz aficionado, Sunday was THE day to get the walking shoes on. And the place to be in the early part of the afternoon was Sofi’s Bar where the alto saxophonist Martin Kershaw – a musician you’d rarely get to hear for free – and bassist Ed Kelly held an audience spellbound as they dished up a fantastic, full concert.

Kershaw, a supremely eloquent and lyrical player, was in terrific form, and was well matched with Kelly. Among the many highlights were an exquisite reading of the Antonio Carlos Jobim heartbreaker How Insensitive (which hinted at the Stan Getz influence on Kershaw’s upper register playing), a bouncy All The Things You Are and a hard-swinging take on Charlie Parker’s Marmaduke. Horace Silver’s Song For My Father was a lovely nod to Father’s Day.

The Compass proved not to be the best venue for singer Lorna Reid and her intimate duo gig with guitarist Graeme Stephen. While Kershaw had an attentive audience, she had to contend with noisy diners who were not there to hear the music and didn’t care who knew it. Nevertheless, those who did listen were rewarded with some lovely songs served in a tasteful, elegant style by the soulful-sounding Reid and her like-minded accompanist.

A late set by the wonderful Diplomats of Jazz – an Edinburgh institution which, like Swing 2012, used to feature on the old jazz festival pub trail – was the ideal way to round off the weekend. Decked out in their dinner suits, the Diplomats may have had to contend with the football on the TV at the other end of the Constitution Bar, but they did so in style: their exuberant playing on Crying for the Carolines and Sorry was a joy to behold.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday June 18, 2012

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