Free 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