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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 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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