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Review: Curtis Stigers, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Curtis Stigers, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Thursday October 9th ***

On Thursday, the versatile American singer Curtis Stigers returned to Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall for the first time since March 2012 – but it was a different show to the string of duo concerts he has given in the more intimate venue of the city’s Dirty Martini club in the intervening two and a half years, or this year’s full band gigs in Ronnie Scott’s in London. The cosy, confessorial chat and witty banter of the smaller venue concerts were less in evidence, but Stigers made the most of having his quartet onstage with him to ramp up the energy and the volume – with not altogether pleasing results for some of the audience.

Stigers is a terrific live performer, very personable and a great storyteller – in speech and song. He doesn’t coast; he invariably packs an emotional punch with his often gut-wrenching delivery of lyrics. But, for much of Thursday’s show, it was nigh-on impossible to hang on his every word, as one would usually. Why? Because every other word was obliterated by overpowering drums and bass. Not only that but – to further distract the would-be (and usually) rapt listener – the wooden pews in the “good seats” near the sound desk were shaken whenever the bass and drums were over-loud. Oh, and there was also a near punch-up in the stalls between a heckler and his own heckler.

None of this is any reflection on the musicians, but it certainly marked the concert out as considerably less of a treat than expected.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday October 13th

I

I Keep Goin’ Back to Joe’s

I Don’t Wanna Talk About It Now

That’s All

You’re All That Matters To Me

Hooray For Love

Valentine’s Day

Things Have Changed

II

Love Is Here To Stay

You’ve Got the Fever

The Way You Look Tonight

My Babe

I Wonder Why

Jealous Guy

You Don’t Know What Love Is

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Songs for Soppy Cynics (and Swinging Lovers)

CurtisCurtis Stigers wears his heart on his record sleeve. The versatile American singer who, two years ago, released his darkest album to date – a collection, as he put it, “of sad songs or songs about sex” – has gone to the other extreme with his new CD Hooray for Love, an all-out, old-fashioned celebration of romance. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking “Ooh, Curtis must be happy” as soon as I saw the the title of the new album – so is the Stigers who comes to Edinburgh indeed as happy and loved-up as the record suggests?

“Well, yeah,” say Stigers who, for all his drawl speaks ten to the dozen. “That was the whole idea. I set out to make an album that mirrored where I am as a person as well as the last record mirrored where I was when I made it. And that record was obviously f***ing depressed.  And so I felt like it was time both for me and my fans for the antidote so I went looking for ten beautiful love songs. I really wanted to make an album of love songs; an album that was just unabashedly, unapologetically romantic.

Whereas Let’s Go Out, the previous CD, featured contemporary singer-songwriter material, this new album comprises swinging, jazz takes of classics from the Great American Songbook alongside some original songs which sound as if they might also have been written in the same era. “I threw out a lot of the rules I had made for myself, like ‘Don’t record songs that have been recorded a million times’ and ‘Never record a song that Sinatra is known for’.”

Stigers’s joyful experiences singing with the John Wilson Orchestra in the landmark 2010 MGM prom and subsequent movie-themed concerts inspired the inclusion of the a couple of the songs – Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight (“the sweetest and, I think, one of the smartest love songs ever written”) and the Gershwins’ Love is Here To Stay.  Performed in a catchy, loose, simple arrangement reminiscent of small-group, 1950s jazz recordings featuring the likes of Harry “Sweets” Edison and Ben Webster, it’s the opening track, and it sets the intimate, laid-back mood of the album. “Ah,” agrees Stigers, “that era is definitely what we were going for, and one of the two or three albums that we really looked at and I kept at the back of my mind was the After Midnight sessions with Nat ‘King’ Cole – that has Sweets on it. It was Nat basically coming back to the small group, swinging sort of thing that he had stepped away from to become a pop star.”

“It seemed like the thing to do – to take a step back towards happy and towards a little more, I guess, of a mainstream jazz approach. As well as the King Cole album, I was thinking about those early Doris Day records before she got too pop, too cute and smarmy; those great pop records from the 1950s where it was fantastic jazz musicians playing great songs with a great singer, and there were solos but they weren’t long solos. That was the other thing: I really wanted to pay attention to the song first, and whilst there are some solos, I really stood on my musicians; I was grinding my heel into them as they were playing, saying: ‘No – simpler!’, ‘No – closer to the melody!’, ‘Let the song do the work!’ ”

It’s not only the mood and material of Hooray for Love which are reminiscent of those earlier albums; the sound evokes that era as well. Stigers explains: “When I mixed the record I really tried to not go for modern hi fidelity but go for more of an old-fashioned fidelity. There’s a difference between the way jazz records sounded in the 1950s to the way they sound now. I didn’t want it to sound retro; I just wanted it to sound cosier and more intimate. Jazz records these days you can hear the drums so well. You can hear every texture of the drums… I don’t really give-a-damn what the drums sound like – I want them to keep the beat; that’s what drums do. And I could be thrown in jazz guy prison for saying that but the truth is that’s not the issue with an album with a singer and great songs. The issue is the great songs and the voicings – and everything else is there to support that. So that’s what we were really going for.”

The mood really couldn’t be more of a contrast to the last record or the repertoire we’ve heard in Stigers concerts in recent years: he’s gone from the cynical to the soppy. He’s come out of a painful divorce and found a new love, and he can’t hide his delight. Even the title Hooray for Love came from the sign-off on an email from a friend congratulating him on his new romance. Thankfully, his performance at Ronnie Scott’s earlier this year showed he hasn’t completely sold out on his fellow cynics – he still sang Dylan’s Things Have Changed and other songs from the last album.

Chuckling, Stigers points out: “I’m still cynical. The fact that I’m a romantic is the reason that my cynicsm is so thick. Let me explain that. I think because I open my heart – as the song says ‘I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast’. And that’s who I am. I believe in love, I believe in romance. And when you get your heart stomped on, as an open-hearted romantic, it’s pretty easy to take on a defensive edge. But underneath it all, I love love songs and I love love. So this was my chance to show the non-cynical side.”

And just to highlight the fact that the sad cynic is still there, he has concluded the album with You Don’t Know What Love Is, the bleak, Chet Baker-associated ballad which has been a bit of a showstopper at Stigers gigs in recent years.  “I just couldn’t help myself! It’s a love song but it’s a dark song. It’s a song about love that one way or another can’t be fulfilled. It’s a sad song. It also seemed like that sort of cautionary tale at the end, you know? Love, love, love, love, love – but don’t forget what might happen!”

* Curtis Stigers plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on October 9. Hooray for Love (Concord Records) is out now. For tour dates visit www.curtisstigers.com

First published in The Herald, Friday October 3, 2014

 

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Kaiser Bill Invented Jazz!

Kaiser Bill Invented Jazz!, Queen’s Hall, Tuesday July 22nd ****Kaiser Bill Invented Jazz!

It could all have gone so spectacularly wrong: a concert based on an unlikely – but catchily titled – premise  featuring a band of musicians whose names weren’t available last week, plus a music director who only arrived in Blighty a day or two earlier. Over its 36-year history, the Edinburgh Jazz Festival has notched up its share of casualties when trying to pull off extravaganzas like this – but Tuesday night’s turned out to be a victory, even if it didn’t quite prove its point about the Kaiser being a jazzer.

The concert was the brainchild of trombonist Dave Batchelor and it’s to him and, undoubtedly, to his experience as a BBC radio producer that credit should go for the unusually stylish presentation, which blended expertly selected readings (by actors/singers Crawford Logan and Sandy Batchelor), with music from the years preceding and during the war being played by a seven-piece band and accompanied by entertaining period dancing. While all this was going on, images of everything from sheet music of the songs being performed to photographs of the most famous “madams” from New Orleans’ celebrated Storyville, the undisputed birthplace of jazz, were beamed on to a screen above the stage.

It went down a storm with the audience which clearly got a kick out of the rare opportunity to hear music exclusively from this often neglected period – not just early jazz but the popular music of the day; a beautiful duet of John McCormack’s First World War hit Somewhere A Voice is Calling – performed by Sandy Batchelor and pianist Conal Fowkes – was particularly affecting, inter-cut as it was with a moving reading of a poignant Oswald Sitwell memoir.

First published in The Herald, Thursday July 24th

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Review: Carol Kidd & Brian Kellock

Carol Kidd Sings Gershwin with Brian Kellock, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Thursday May 31 *****

Well, well, well… Actually – superb, superb, superb would be more apt. Carol Kidd’s duo concert at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on Thursday night couldn’t have been more of a pleasant surprise. Hell, it was a sensation. I had always suspected that the Carol Kidd-Brian Kellock duo could be something wonderful – but its first outing, last year at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, was not all I’d hoped, and last week’s quartet concert in Perth – in which Kellock played – wasn’t a patch on the previous gig I had heard Kidd play (in October, with guitarist Nigel Clark).

What linked last year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival concert and last week’s Perth gig was the presence of Brian Kellock, who, it seems, brings out a childish streak in Kidd between numbers. Their horseplay had been a drawback and a distraction in Edinburgh last year – and there was more of the same in Perth. Kidd often jokes around onstage (usually the same jokes involving not being able to remember what’s happening next, not being able to see without her specs and pulling a few Jimmy Krankie faces as she tries to squint at her song sheet – and as she “accidentally” swears). Of course, only those of us who have been to every one of her gigs in recent years would be tiring of all this – it might have been funny the first time but I can’t remember that far back…

Last year in Edinburgh I was driven to write about that aspect – and also the other irksome characteristic of many a recent Kidd concert: her habit of reimagining or rewriting the lyrics. Sometimes it’s obvious that she has just momentarily forgotten them, but some of the mistakes are now clearly engrained in her mind. (As a friend of mine said after listening to her recording of Moon River, where did she get the “moon raker” line from?)

I only had 200 words to play with for my Herald review and didn’t want to waste them on the lyrics issue – especially since it didn’t bother the majority of the audience – but  I noted that not a single song emerged with its lyrics completely intact.

Kidd trampled over the carefully chosen words of such poets as Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, Sammy Cahn and E Y Harburg. To those of us who adore Skylark,  such eloquently expressed phrases as “where my heart can go a-journeying” or “faint as a will o’ the wisp, crazy as a loon” are as integral to the song as the melody- and it’s a major distraction when you hear them being changed. Not only that but sometimes the meaning of a song is compromised when the lyrics are mangled. It only takes a “you” and “I” to be used in the wrong place …

Kidd’s Perth version of Time After Time might have had all the right words – but, as Eric Morecambe said, they were not necessarily in the right order and the effect was that the meaning of the song was altered. I have to say, I feared for my enjoyment of future Kidd concerts and was in two minds about going along to the duo gig on Thursday.

But ..  in Edinburgh on Thursday, there were considerably fewer crimes against lyrics and less (sky) larking about, and that – combined with the fact that Kidd had clearly recovered from the throat problems which had been apparent to those of us who go to hear her whenever we can – made a huge difference.

And this time the duo achieved its potential. It was a thrill to witness it. From the opening song of the show, A Little Jazz Bird, it was obvious that Kidd was in better form than the previous week. It wasn’t until towards the end of the first half, however, that it really gelled – but, boy, when it did .. The duo’s take on Summertime was so powerful, so spine-tingling that it didn’t only blow the audience away; it also took the performers by surprise.

Kellock’s sparse Satie-esque accompaniment was utterly mesmerising – hypnotic, even, with its repetitive left hand rhythm and steadily increasing dramatic tension.  (It sounded so thought-through I was amazed when he later said that it had been entirely spontaneous.) It was the touchpaper for Kidd who took off with a commanding, passionate and emotionally devastating performance.  It was no wonder they decided to call half-time after it; everyone in the room  – onstage and off – was left somewhat shell-shocked. There should have been counselling available.

The second half was a series of triumphs culminating in a thrilling I Loves You Porgy, the other Porgy and Bess ballad which Kidd – who understands that “it’s a harrowing story, not a romantic ballad” – has very much made her own, and her sexy, smouldering and gutsily powerful The Man That Got Away, on which Kellock was electrifying.

All worries about her “losing it” – which I had been wondering about last week in Perth – were allayed. This performance proved that she is still light years ahead of any other female jazz singer I’ve heard singing live.

So much so that she could be forgiven for disingenuously claiming that it was in response emailed requests that she was including a number of non-Gershwin songs (coincidentally, almost all of them ones that she had performed in Perth) in this Gershwin programme…

I

A Little Jazz Bird

Time After Time

How Long Has This Been Going On?

Skylark

Love Is Here To Stay

The Man I Love

A Foggy Day

Summertime

II

Can’t Help Lovin’  That Man of Mine

I Got Plenty of Nuttin’

Come Rain or Come Shine

T’Ain’t Necessarily So

Why Did I Choose You?

I Loves You Porgy/I’s Your Woman Now

encore: The Man That Got Away

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The Art of the Duo, Part 1

The following is an article I wrote in 2004 and have been meaning to post on the blog for a while because I still feel (in fact, I feel more strongly than ever) that one great duo is worth several good bands.  It’s timely because another potentially great duo – of singer Carol Kidd (featured in the above video with regular partner in duets, Nigel Clark) and pianist Brian Kellock – is appearing at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh on Thursday, May 31.

When it comes to good taste and elegance, it’s often said that less is more. It’s little wonder then, that some of the classiest jazz in Scotland in recent years has emerged from concerts featuring just two musicians.

I have been reviewing jazz concerts for 11 years, and although I’ve had my fair share of memorable musical experiences, I can safely say that almost all the times when I’ve noticed my spine tingling have been during duo sessions. This
is a format which reveals the greatness of great musicians, which lays bare the essence of their playing and offers you, the fan, the chance to hear them playing as true to themselves and their style as is possible. Other players just get in the way.

When the guitarist and singer Marty Grosz and the clarinettist/saxophonist Ken Peplowski get together they don’t need anyone else; they set each other off beautifuly without additional accompaniment. They are just frustrated that they don’t get the chance to work as a duo more often.

It’s the same with the cornettist Warren Vache and the guitarist Howard Alden. These American musicians are the very best on their instruments, and to hear them duet is the kind of treat for which some of us would forfeit a couple of jazz festivals.

“I love playing this kind of gig,” says Vache [who, since this article was written, has tingled my spine when playing duets with pianist Brian Kellock and guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and Dave Cliff]. “Why? Because first of all, I know who I’m working with. Very often in my experience as a travelling soloist, I go over as the flyer in the trapeze act and I work with a different catcher every night – and sometimes they drop you. But when I work in a duo, it’s generally with someone I know very well. For me, improvised music should be like a conversation. The hardest thing is getting six musicians to think about the same thing in the same way for two point five minutes. With a duo, there’s less complication and there can be a deeper and more playful conversation.”

That’s a view shared by Alden. “The duo is one of my favourite settings,” he says. ” It’s the most intimate, most exposed and the most like chamber music. It’s different to other types of concert because it requires your full attention all the time. There’s no chance to relax – you have to take responsibility for every aspect of both the harmony and the time and try to make it a conversation between two instruments rather than a soloist playing with an accompanist.

“Playing in a duo keeps you on your toes and takes you in directions you wouldn’t necessarily go otherwise. When you have a bass player and a drummer, it tends to fall into a certain format. With a duo, you’re freer to do pretty much anything you want – and if you have someone like Warren who can think so fast on their feet, you can do almost anything and be assured that the other guy is going to be there with you or force you in a different direction.”

Warren Vache (cornet) with Dave Cliff (guitar), Nairn Jazz Festival, 2006

Vache also relishes the challenges which arise from the duo context. “You find yourself coming face to face with your own cliches by about the third song,” he explains. “We all have little tricks that identify us, and little ways of getting around the harmony that become patterns we often don’t recognise. If you’re playing in a duo, there’s nothing else to distract your attention from the mirror you’re holding up to your playing. You see those patterns and they being to bore you. So by about the fifth time one of those comes up, you say – ‘Damn, am I playing that again?’ And you have to force yourself to let go of the comfortable and look for something different. So it pushes you.”

Of course, as Vache points out, it’s equally difficult for the guitarist since the guitarist or pianist in a duo concert has to be both an accompanist and a soloist. “How they balance between those functions is a great deal of what intrigues me,” he says, “and Howard is one of the world’s best at it.”

And does he feel more vulnerable in a duo? “Oh, yes,” says Vache. “It takes balls to play the trumpet in a duo because all the pimples in the air in your sound will come out and the concentration is takes to make that part of the music is enormous. You have to make the imperfections part of the music. It’s pleasurable but it’s a lot harder work because there is nowhere to hide. Not only that, but you have to play more often: you can’t just sit there and smile while the drummer obligingly plays a ten-minute solo – there is no drummer.”

With his soft, seductive tone and lyrical style, Vache always seems especially at home in the duo setting.

“When I’m with a larger band I have to play in a way that directs the band – sometimes I feel like a guy in uniform standing in front of a circus band waving my arms trying to get everybody’s attention. Here, I can play in a much more intimate way which, frankly, I prefer. I think it’s closer to my personality.”

* Check out Vache in duo mode with pianist Brian Kellock on my YouTube channel, GirlfridayJazz – here’s a taster: 

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Curtis Stigers

Curtis Stigers, Queen’s Hall, Sunday July 31st ****

Anyone who wondered why the Edinburgh Jazz Festival included Curtis Stigers in its programme for the second year running only needed to experience one minute in the Queen’s Hall on Sunday night to find the answer: he is almost ridiculously popular here. The venue was stuffed: they were hanging off the balcony – when they weren’t dancing along with the energetic Stigers who bopped around the stage like Chuck Berry duckwalking with a saxophone.

It’s easy to see the appeal. Stigers has a charismatic stage presence (which appeals to both sexes) and a self-deprecating sense of humour. And, of course, he has a unique sound – a soulful, rough-edged, lived-in and (we now know, because he ‘fessed up) Scotch-soaked voice which he used to memorable effect on a jazzy version of Bob Dylan’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and on the haunting ballad part of Round Midnight, which was stunning in its simplicity, featuring Stigers’s hypnotic vocals accompanied just by his occsionally very elegant pianist.

Unfortunately, the mood was spoiled when the rest of his polished band came in and ramped up the volume and the tempo. Indeed, several of the songs were spoiled by their OTT delivery – notably John Lennon’s Jealous Guy.

Putting over a story is Stigers’s greatest strength so it was a treat to hear his own composition You Got the Fever – with his Raymond Chandler-esque lyrics – and Tom Waits’s San Francisco Serenade, two of many tunes that also featured on last year’s programme; a fact that mattered not a jot to the audience of Curtis converts.

(First published in The Herald, Wednesday August 3rd.)

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra Plays Woody Herman

Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra Plays Woody Herman – The Four Brothers, Queen’s Hall, Thursday July 28th  ****  

American clarinettist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski’s five-day stint in Edinburgh came to a spectacular and exhilarating conclusion on Thursday when he assumed directorship of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra for a programme of music from the Woody Herman bandbook.

In the hands of some musicians, staging a programme of music from a famous big band could be akin to giving a live history lesson, but the quick-witted and charismatic Peplowski injected so much fun into the proceedings, and directed the band with such enthusiasm, that the whole concert was hugely entertaining. The schtick, between numbers, was Peplowski the stand-up at his best.

He neatly put one heckler in his place by commenting that the “first big band this guy heard was Beethoven’s”, and introduced drummer Stu Ritchie as “the winner of the 2011 EJF Robert Shaw look-alike award,” adding “we’re particularly proud of him because he won in both the ‘drunk’ and ‘sober’ catgegories”.

Peplowski was clearly energised by the reception he received both from the audience and the musicians with whom he had obviously enjoyed working through the week. This was a tight, polished band and the ensemble playing was terrific – Hallelujah Time and Bijou being stand-outs.

There was a tendency in many of the horn solos to blast and squeal, but some non-blasters and squealers stood out, among them Colin Steele, who contributed an eloquent muted solo to Opus de Funk, and Jay Craig whose baritone stole the show on Four Brothers. Pianist Dave Milligan was also in great form. Peplowski, disappointingly, wasn’t featured much, but he did turn in a magnificent extended solo clarinet version of Body and Soul.

(First published in The Herald, Monday August 1st)

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