Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival 2019(Various venues, Edinburgh, 12-21 July 2019. Review by Patrick Hadfield)Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival outdid itself this year: the programme was so full of attractive shows that there was no chance of seeing everything I wanted to (and there were many, many concerts for those with different tastes, too). As it was I crammed 15 gigs into nine days. The programming was adventurous: there were many premieres of new music – and new bands. The festival is particularly skilful at bringing together artists from around the world, and letting them get on with it. They are also keen to make the most of Scotland’s burgeoning talent. This combination makes for an exciting festival.
The network of Scottish musicians is close-knit, and they frequently play in each other’s bands: I saw bassist Mark Hendry in four bands, and pianist Fergus McCreadie, violinist Bernadette Kellerman, and drummer Graham Costello in three each. Each band sounded unique: seeing how the musicians work together in different formats, playing each other’s music, is a joy.
Costello was perhaps one of the surprises of the festival. This was the first time is been able to see him play in other’s bands, and hadn’t appreciated what a good drummer he can be outside his own bands. His hard-swinging style drove the PS Sextet, an international collaboration that brought together Costello, David Bowden (bass) and Liam Shortall (trombone) with Enrico Degani (guitar), Mattia Chiappin (trumpet) and Giuseppe Vitale (piano) from Piemonte in Italy. The band only met a few hours before the show – and stormed it. Bowden’s composition Ending Song, a slow, emotional ballad, was particularly effective.
Costello also performed with McCreadie and Hendry in Kellerman’s band, Colourworks, a band playing their first gig as a quartet. Kellerman’s melancholic tunes mixed jazz and traditional music to excellent effect: she played a powerful, moving duet with McCreadie, whose paying was superb. The ensemble pieces also worked well, and Kellerman played a beautiful unaccompanied solo.
Sedna was another new band playing their first gig. Featuring the irrepressible vocalese of Irini Arabatzi, the music was mostly upbeat and optimistic. Co-leader Stephen Henderson provided some excellent drumming, a powerhouse who could tone it down when subtlety was called for. There was one such tune that Arabatzi brought to the band, a beautiful slow Cypriot love song, sorrowful and moving. Most of music was unstoppably optimistic, though, and people would have been dancing had there been space!
There was certainly space to dance for two major shows featuring musicians spearheading the latest jazz resurgence in England. The first was the awarding-winning Sons Of Kemet. A quartet featuring Shabaka Hutchings on tenor, Theon Cross on tuba, and Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick, both on drums. The sound they create is necessarily very rhythmic, the double drum line-up producing a relentless and polyrhythmic beat over which the sax and tuba seemed to joust. It was a very primeval sound, an apocalyptic jazz-dub that was intense and physical. Quite literally awesome.
Moses Boyd Exodus were equally physical – they got the whole venue moving – but more standard in both their line up and their sound. Driven by Moses Boyd’s superlative drumming, Exodus play jazz-funk fusion of a high order. Featuring a soulful front line of Nathaniel Cross on trombone and Deji Ijishakin on tenor, keyboard player Deschanel Gordon also took care of the bass duties, whilst Artur Zaitz on guitar added a touch more funk. Boyd played a couple of remarkable solos – one concentrated on his fast but incredibly subtle hi-hat technique, which proved what an impressive player he is.
There was more dancing at Tom & Okoe’s African Groove Machine, where they succeeded in getting the whole audience on its feet – some feat since it was an all-seated gig! Jointly led by local drummer Tom Bancroft and his one time teacher, Ghanaian Okoe Ardyfio, the band blended jazz and afro-beat, and did exactly what it said on the tin: it grooved. Unfortunately Ardyfio couldn’t make the gig due to illness, his percussive role on kpanlogo and djembe being covered by Thomas Annang and Adie Baako Elias. It was Elias who got the audience to its feet, teaching them Ghanaian dance steps. Trumpeter Claude Deppa, originally from Cape Town, completed the African element of the band, his notes flying high into the upper reaches worth a blistering pace. Martin Kershaw, on alto and tenor, played some great solos, and guitarist Kevin Mackenzie laid down a real afro-beat groove.
A touch more subdued was the Colin Steele Quartet, playing a set comprised solely of tunes by Joni Mitchell. With his trumpet muted and close-miked throughout, Steele was beautifully understated, creating an intimate effect despite the size of the venue. Steele said that he felt Mitchell was as much a poet as musician and he was concerned he couldn’t do her poetry justice, but this performance brought out the beauty in Mitchell’s music. This is down to his crystal clear playing and the simple, sparse arrangements, most by pianist Dave Milligan with Calum Gourlay also contributing one or two as well as playing the bass. Alyn Cosker‘s drums made up the quartet. This was a subtle set that demanded listening.
In a similar vein, there were two piano-and-sax duos, both of which produced some lovely music. The first was the New Focus Duo, a cut down version of Euan Stevenson and Konrad Wiszniewski’s long standing project. They were exploring the relationship between jazz and classical music. This might have been dry and studious, but Stevenson’s piano playing and his arrangements, often humorous, together with Wiszniewski’s stellar tenor and soprano work, took it somewhere else. Hearing All The Things You Are styled as a piece of baroque music, or Take The A Train conceived as a Mozart sonata amused and amazed; and then the pieces settled into full on jazz. Wiszniewski’s solo on Take The A Train had the power of a big band sax section; when he switched to soprano, it was almost a shock to hear such a gentle, romantic side to his playing. Stevenson was also in his element – his playing on arrangements of pieces by Erik Satie and Bill Evans, and the links between them, was exquisite.
Fergus McCreadie and Tommy Smith, performing for only the second time as a duo, also played some standards, as well as some more unexpected areas. Smith chastised himself for always choosing challenging repertoire, and then explained that he was still learning. With a career that stretches back four decades, he is in top form. McCreadie is early in his career, and already feted. Together they played a remarkable set, perhaps the highlight of which was a Yemeni folk tune; when Smith explained how he had to adapt his fingering to achieve the required notes, it was clear the audience was still learning, too. The effect was mesmerising, all the more so following on from such classics as Jimmie Rowles’ The Peacocks. Smith and McCreadie finished withs beautiful version of Duke Ellington’s Single Petal Of A Rose, originally recorded by Ellington for Queen Elizabeth ll; Smith, who recently received an OBE, said he asked the Queen if she remembered the record – and she assured him she did.
In a festival packed with so much music and so many enjoyable – and challenging – gigs, one in particular stood out. In another new project, Graham Costello’s Strata: Expanded coupled the drummer’s quintet with a string quartet, playing a set of entirely new compositions by Costello. Played straight through without pause – and with no time for applause between solos or pieces – the effect was electrifying and hypnotic. Less intense than Strata alone, the strings added a romantic touch; they complemented the quintet perfectly. The music swirls from one instrument to another – Fergus McCreadie’s piano, Joe Williamson on guitar, Harry Weir‘s searing tenor, Mark Hendry’s electric bass and not least Costello’s powerful drumming are all essential for the sound, the focus shifting from one instrument to the next. The strings (Bernadette Kellerman and Emma Pantel on violins, Emma Tomlinson on viola and Alice Allen, cello) added another dimension. At the end of the show, the audience erupted into loud applause and gave a long, heartfelt standing ovation. This really was something else – I sincerely hope Costello gets the opportunity to take Strata: Expanded into the studio.
Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. Twitter: @patrickhadfield.