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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Carol Kidd & Brian Kellock

Carol Kidd & Brian Kellock, The Hub, Saturday July 30th ****

Saturday night’s jazz festival concert at The Hub was always going to be a game of two halves, thanks to the unusual programming which meant that the hugely popular singer Carol Kidd – who hasn’t appeared in Edinburgh since last year’s festival – was only going to perform one set. And so, there was a real sense of expectation about her appearance – especially since it was to be a rare duo set with pianist Brian Kellock whose trio’s bop-oriented opening session didn’t pander at all to the Kidd crowd’s more mainstream taste.

Kidd’s duo with Kellock is quite a different beast to her normal musical double-act with guitarist Nigel Clark. There was a looseness and an edge which comes with collaborating with an alternative, more infrequent, partner, and it seemed a little less controlled than usual. Kellock seems to bring out the mischievous side of Kidd – though at times, amidst her horsing around (something that the rather formal Hub seems to inspire in both of them), it felt, to those of us at the back of the hall, as if we were missing out on some great joke.

Kidd was singing at the top of her game, on a programme largely comprised of old favourites from her repertoire. Also as ever, her voice was at its most beguiling on ballads, notably a sumptuous take on The Man I Love and It Never Entered My Mind (though there’s no point in singing those gorgeous Lorenz Hart lyrics if you’re going to forget the maiden’s prayer/into my hair line). However, it was her dramatic, encore, performance of The Man That Got Away – with Kellock’s trio – that slayed the audience and undoubtedly left everyone wanting more..

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

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Django a la Creole

Django a la Creole with Evan Christopher , The Hub, Wednesday July 25th *****

There must be an awful lot of musicians who are kicking themselves for not having dreamt up the concept for Django a la Creole, the quartet which fuses the gypsy jazz style and line-up with that of the traditional New Orleans jazz clarinet. Why? Because it’s such a brilliant and inspired mix – and one which, certainly on the evidence of Wednesday’s jazz festival concert at The Hub, is utterly seductive and widely appealing.
The members of the band may live in different countries, but over the course of two albums and regular tours they have clearly established a terrific relationship, yet sparks still fly when they play – and, as with the original recordings of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, the atmosphere is of sheer joie-de-vivre.

On Wednesday night, they dished up one thrilling treat after another – from a lovely repertoire that ranges from 1850s New Orleans to Hoagy Carmichael classics. Of course, much of the appeal of this uniformally top-notch band is the gorgeous and downright mesmerising clarinet playing of the flamboyant Evan Christopher who injected drama and New Orleans-style colour into every tune. As with the late, great Kenny Davern, Christopher has a flair for the theatrical (both musically and, rather distractingly, in his stage presence): in Davern style, Christopher played such quieter numbers as Mood Indigo and Solid Old Man in the lower register to begin with before exploding into a soaring flight of fancy, after holding back and almost lulling the audience into expecting that the whole tune would be soft and gentle.

 

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Ken Peplowski Ensemble Plays West Side Story

Ken Peplowski Ensemble Plays West Side Story, The Hub, Tuesday July 26th ****

If Ken Peplowski and Brian Kellock send in notes from their mothers to excuse them from the rest of the jazz festival, it would be perfectly understandable – given the amount of energy and sweat expended at Tuesday night’s concert of the music from West Side Story.

For clarinettist and tenor saxophonist Peplowski, as musical director, the pressure was on to pull off a series of challenging arrangements of Leonard Bernstein’s notoriously tricky and demanding music. (“On second thoughts, I should have told the jazz festival we’d do the tribute to Kid Ory,” he quipped, as he mopped his brow after the exhilarating opener, Prologue.) It’s safe to say that they succeeded – though some of the arrangements worked better than others.

For Kellock, who barely had the chance to pause for brow-mopping, the concert called on him to unleash his inner pianistic demon. “Representing the Jets – Brian Kellock,” was Peplowski’s introduction, and the pianist certainly seemed to be in killer mode, particularly on the electrifying Jet Song; America, where singer Clairdee’s renditions of the verses were broken up by frenzied, feverish attacks on the ivories by Kellock, and I Feel Pretty, one of the numbers which showed everyone off to best advantage and boasted  a terrific solo by Peplowski himself.

Leonard Bernstein’s music is notoriously tricky and demanding, so it was no surprise to find that the Peplowski Ensemble comprised some of Scotland’s best jazz players – notably Stewart Forbes, who turned in a superb alto sax solo on Jet Song, trombonist Phil O’Malley and drummer Tom Gordon.

(First published in The Scotsman, Thursday July 28th)

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Berlin, Broadway and Buenos Aires – Morten Gunnar Larsen & Stale Ytterli

Berline, Broadway and Buenos Aires – Morten Gunnar Larsen & Stale Ytterli, The Hub, Monday July 25th ****

There was a poignant start to Monday’s jazz festival concert at The Hub, when the Norwegian pianist Morten Gunnar Larsen (right), referring to events in his and and singer Stale Ytterli’s country on Friday, announced the specially chosen opening song. Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, a beautiful ballad with moving lyrics (“Sometimes it seems that God’s gone away”) was perfectly judged- and the perfect introduction to this class double-act which looked, in formal attire and shiny shoes, as if it had stumbled into the wrong festival.

It was a most unusual jazz festival gig in more ways than the merely sartorial. Although many of the songs Ytterli and Larsen performed were written by composers who were influenced by the jazz scene (Weill, Gershwin), or were part of it (Eubie Blake, Lucky Roberts), or whose music became standards (Kern, Porter), most of the concert was upmarket cabaret. Ytterli has a beautiful voice, and his performances of Blake’s Memories of You, and Weill’s Mack the Knife and Bilbao Song were wonderful – though his theatricality, combined with German vocals, on an OTT song by Frederick Hollander, did recall the singing Hitler audition scene from The Producers.

In most cases,Ytterli sang the songs in their original language, following a brief translation, and although it brought authencity to the performance, the language barrier proved a bit of a distraction. Larsen’s delicate, loose-fingered pianistics, however, needed no translation and were a delight – especially on Je ne t’aime pas which compressed a history of jazz piano into one solo.

(First published in The Scotsman, Wednesday July 27th)

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Django a la Creole

Django a la Creole, The Hub
****
The Django Reinhardt strand of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival came to an end on Saturday evening with a knockout performance by one of the most exciting Django-inspired groups. Django a la Creole has a Django-style line-up of – two guitars, bass and clarinet – but its accomplished lead guitarist, David Blenkhorn, doesn’t try to sound like the great gypsy jazz pioneer. And nor is its repertoire your typical Django one: this band, as the name suggests, dishes up its tunes with a variety of exotic flavours and rhythms. Some of the tunes were written that way; others benefit from the “Creole” treatment.
Of course, the band’s trump card is the American clarinet virtuoso Evan Christopher whose passion for the New Orleans style of Sidney Bechet and Barney Bigard fuses beautifully with the Django set-up. On Saturday, he was in great form, whether playing finger-busting duets with Blenkhorn on Riverboat Shuffle, I Know That You Know and Feerie or seducing listeners with his passionate playing on such intoxicating Caribbean-tinged tunes as Tropical Moon and Passaporte ao Paraiso.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Curtis Stigers

Curtis Stigers, The Hub
****
Friday night was ladies’ night at the jazz festival – at least it was for many of the punters who had gone to hear former pop star Curtis Stigers and his band. Stigers has something akin to the Michael Buble effect on middle-aged women – thanks to the killer combination of Chet Baker cheekbones, a great line in torch songs and some borderline saucy patter.
With a craggy voice which sounds as if he’s borrowed it from an old, Afro-American bluesman (who forgot to put his teeth in), Stigers’s singing is something of an acquired taste. However, by the time he reached his third song, even the most cynical among us had acquired it – thanks to a spellbinding interpretation of the ballad You Don’t Know What Love Is.
Stigers is a consummate storyteller who brings lyrics to life and doesn’t get in the way of their meaning or the emotion within them. That stand-out ballad – along with his equally superb encore, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning –  were further enhanced by John Snider’s pared-down trumpet solos. Like the Stigers bone structure, these were pure Chet Baker.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Les Doigts de l’Homme

LES DOIGTS DE L’HOMME, THE HUB
***
With their witty pun of a name, Les Doigts de l’Homme are, evidently, a playful bunch out to entertain as much as impress. On Wednesday night, they were greeted like long lost copains by a crowd which had undoubtedly heard them last year and been won over by their Gallic charm. “We’re back by popular demand,” explained the leader. “That’s what I read in the programme. So are you the popular demanders?”
For the first-time listener, this four-piece band (three guitars and bass) seemed to be more about style than substance as it wheeched through super-fast versions of Blue Skies and Ol’ Man River, as if to prove how quickly les doigts of these particular men could operate – and possibly to compress the very late-starting first half so that it didn’t overrun.
Over at the Queen’s Hall, there was no point in organisers hoping that the gig wouldn’t overrun. With a star-studded band, in the form of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, playing a programme of Count Basie music, there were lots of musicians to be featured and, in the second half, the ego of singer Dennis Rowland to be accommodated. And boy did he like the sound of his own speaking voice.
His slow-drawled announcements suggested that he thought this was his show, and his limelight-hogging body language – even during instrumentalists’ solos – was beyond annoying. Joe Temperley, who was conducting the band, was almost frozen out. It’s testimony to the musicians’ self-restraint that none of them biffed him when he stuck his face into theirs as they soloed. Luckily, his singing helped make up for the irritation – and, despite him, the band swung beautifully.

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