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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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I Cover the Waterfront, Part 2

Leith 2Leith Jazz & Blues Festival, Saturday June 7, various venues ***

Saturday’s weather proved ideal for the first full day of the fourth Leith Jazz & Blues Festival: the sun shone and the forceful winds proved handy in powering punters from venue to venue – especially helpful this year when some of the venues in this expanding festival were relatively far flung.

The evening belonged to singers – indeed, the night’s proceedings were pretty much carved up by three well-known Edinburgh vocalists, and it was impossible to get round all three – but before that, the place to be was new venue The Scotch Malt Whisky Society where even standing room was at a premium for the festival debut of Trio AAB which served an uplifting blend of funky beats, catchy tunes and a dash of musical anarchy in the sort of gentleman’s club surroundings that Bertie Wooster would not look out of place in.

Trio AAB’s was an attentive audience which had clearly come specially to hear the music; over at Sofi’s Bar, the gently swinging bass-guitar duo of Ed Kelly and David Series didn’t have such luck – and struggled to be heard over the chatter of regulars. It was the same story with the evening gigs that took place in restaurants – rather than pubs or bars. Diners were there to dine; the music was incidental unless you managed to secure a seat within listening distance of the band.

At Credo, singer Becc Sanderson was good-natured despite her soft voice and Steve Hamilton’s classy keyboard playing being pretty much drowned out by the ambient dining and chatting noise. Fellow singer Lorna Reid and the afore-mentioned David Series fared better at the Italian restaurant Anfora – partly due to the lay-out of the place and the fact that their repertoire comprised more uptempo material and songs, notably her country-style Killing the Blues, on which they both played guitar.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday June 9Leith 1
Leith 3

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