Live review

Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival

Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival
(Various venues, Islay, 13-15 September 2019. Review and photos by Patrick Hadfield)

The Islay Jazz Festival, sponsored by Lagavulin and produced by Islay Arts and Jazz Scotland, is a rather special event. Being on a island, you have to really want to be there: you can fly, but most people take the ferry. Which means the ferry marks the start of the festival, as audience and musicians bump into each other and chat. Since both audience and musicians return year after year – this must have been my tenth visit, at least – the festival has a real community spirit: you see the same people at different gigs, and share views – as well as learn of wonderful shows that one has missed. With 18 gigs over three days, spread across the island, it isn’t possible to see all one would want to.

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The organisers make the most of what they’ve got: musicians feature in several different shows, often in unique combinations. And because space is limited, they make use of some very different venues. The RSPB nature reserve at Gruinart hosts a gig each year in its visitor centre, and this year also saw shows in a Georgian drawing room as well as community halls and spaces within distilleries. With whisky being a major feature of the island, there was a welcoming dram of Lagavulin at most gigs.


The music for me started late on the Friday night with a young band from Glasgow, Mezcla, led by bassist David Bowden. A lively blend of electric jazz and featuring Rachel Lightbody as guest vocalist for the evening, they blew up a storm. Lightbody’s wordless vocals conveyed lots of emotions, adding a touch of melancholy to the mostly upbeat grooves. Michael Butcher on tenor played some very powerful solos, most notably on Bowden’s composition Winter Walk.

Bowden led a project celebrating 60 years since the release of Charles Mingus’s famous album Mingus Ah Um, featuring several musicians from Mezcla together with a couple of new faces. This was a potentially risky project – Ah Um is considered a classic, and it would be easy to mess up old favourites or simply recreate the album. Bowden got the balance right, playing the tunes pretty straight but letting the soloists improvise rather than preserving the record in amber. It was a joy to hear familiar favourites live. Butcher particularly sparkled on Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Mingus’s tribute to Lester Young, but all the musicians excelled. I think I had a broad grin on my face from Bowden’s opening notes on Better Git It In Your Soul right through to the album’s closing track, Jelly Roll.

Opening for Mingus Ah Um was pianist Dave Milligan, playing a solo set that blended jazz and folk sounds seamlessly. Mixing an eclectic collection of others tunes – it can’t be often that the Beach Boys and Robbie Burns share space in the repertoire – with originals and one impromptu improvisation (“I can’t tell you much about that,” Milligan apologised) – Milligan’s set was full of understated reflection, and the effect was rather magical.

Like the Mingus Ah Um show, the late night slot on Saturday featured musicians paying their dues to a master from the past: this time it was trumpeter Colin Steele leading a sextet in appreciation of Miles Davis. Concentrating on pieces from Davis’s Kind Of Blue together with a other classics such as Milestones, these tunes are so well known that it would be easy to fall into cliche, but the musicians did the music justice. Alto player Martin Kershaw was on lively form, playing some intense, fiery solos. They closed with a blistering account of Walkin’, just right for sending us strolling out into the blustery Islay night.

Steele and Kershaw were joined by guitarist Graeme Stephen for what the trumpeter described as “the hangover” slot. Despite the three of them performing together many times, this was the first time they’d appeared as a trio. It was a relaxed, intimate affair. The trio played a selection of standards and lesser known tunes with an effortless swing and superlative solos.

Presenting a festival on an island feature creates all sorts of logistical problems, as the audience, musicians and all sorts of gear – including chairs for the audience to sit on – navigate the charming but narrow single track roads on their way between gigs. I was volunteered to give Stephen a lift to the next gig, which we barely made on time: at least I knew they couldn’t start without me. As it was one other member of the band was even later!

This was a show by Mario Caribe‘s new band, Fret. Taking inspiration from Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires, this is an electric quartet playing melodic, loud, jazz-funk and groove. A lively sound, Stephen was joined by Kevin Mackenzie on guitars, with Alyn Cosker on drums. Caribe’s electric bass playing is very different from his acoustic style, but his sleeping and popping were entirely fitting. Like Bass Desires, Fret have an optimistic sound.

David Bowden of the Fergus Mcreadie Trio and Laura Jurd

Perhaps the most interesting combination of musicians put together by the festival was the pairing of the Fergus McCreadie Trio with trumpeter Laura Jurd – matching the young stars of the Scottish and English scenes. This was the second time they’ve played together, six months after the first as part of the Aberdeen Jazz Festival. They played pieces by both Jurd and pianist Fergus McCreadie. Both include elements of traditional musics in their compositions and their styles combined seamlessly into an imaginative balanced whole. McCreadie’s bandmates, bassist David Bowden and Stephen Henderson on drums, were a perfect match for the pianist’s reflective playing and Jurd’s lyrical trumpet, which took on the pipe-like airs of the west coast Scotland.

The festival was brought to a close by Graham Costello‘s Strata, another band that’s part of Glasgow’s exciting scene. This was the fourth performance I’ve caught by Strata in the last 12 months, and it didn’t match their best shows – but it is perhaps unfair to judge them by their usual very high standards. They have a powerful, intense sound, contrasting with the more optimistic styles of other bands during the festival. The focus is on soundscapes rather than solos, but nonetheless there were some impassioned solos, particularly from saxophonist Harry Weir, guitarist Joe Williamson and McCreadie once more on piano.

After three days of such good music, perhaps I was feeling jaded: all jazzed-out.

Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. Twitter: @patrickhadfield.

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