European Jazz Workshop Big Band (*)
(Festival Theatre Studio, Edinburgh, 21 July 2022. Live review by Mark McKergow)
This astounding performance by young musicians from across Europe produced 75 minutes of disciplined, varied and exciting music without any visible scores, arrangements or written parts. The quality of the music-making bodes extremely well for the future.
The project is led by sax maestro and Glasgow Conservatoire jazz course leader Tommy Smith. Five music schools (in Parma, Hamburg, Glasgow, Oslo and Nürnberg) send a quartet of young jazz musicians to work together for two weeks (one preparatory week in April, and one now in July). They rehearse and perform in many combinations and settings, and also hang out and go to see gigs together (they were at John Scofield’s Edinburgh show this week). Each quartet gives its own performance (four of the quartets were featured at Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar on Wednesday over two shows), and then the entire ensemble comes together for a full-scale performance.
The evening began with a short and satisfying set from the Glasgow quartet, performing four pieces written by the four members. The opening number bassist Laurie Moore allowed Rachel Duns to show her full tenor sax sound off to good effect, with Dawn Coulshed showing pinpoint accuracy in her vocal intonation alongside the tenor. Duns’ piece The Sun featured interlinking lines for sax and voice, and Coulshed’s beautiful ballad with the working title Not What, was a highlight with impassioned vocals, rich harmonies and super tenor and bass solos. Drummer Kenny Lyons’ number The Reckoning flowed along in 7/8 with not a beat out of place.
“When I proposed that the large ensemble perform without scores or parts, the other professors were unconvinced” says Tommy Smith. “The key is listening, being disciplined and being brave and courageous.” This was not, however, simply an exercise in free blowing; the musicians had clearly worked together beforehand and the music wended its way through different sections with a great degree of in-the-moment flexibility. “Anyone can take a lead at any time” says Smith. Sometimes these leads were obvious (a water-bottle thrown in the air which sparks a shift when it hits the ground) and other times more subtle (tiny finger gestures and arm scoops). The piece was entitled Project Earth: Blah Blah Blah in a clear nod to Greta Thunberg’s youthful advocacy on the climate emergency.
The music began gently with finger drumming, bass, the odd vibes note chiming out. It was immediately clear that there was a great deal of listening going on, as long chords began to emerge. Then a thrown water-bottle led into the first solo, a strong trumpet contribution from Kristina Fransson, with plenty of space around it. The music grew with solos from Finn Starmer (violin) as the three vocalists began to make their presence felt with a combination of sounds and phrases – “Another day – could it be the same?…”. The drummers set up a big back-beat with rather ambiguous time (two in a bar?) with a vocalised solo from Regina Heiss and also the first of several vibes passages from Åsmund Skjeldal Waage.
Now the music receded again, leaving the soprano sax of Paul Scheugenpflug totally alone and exposed in a spacy solo, played with beautiful intonation and a great sense of command not just of the instrument but of the whole space – a standout moment. This kind of music requires an investment of concentration from the audience as well as the musicians, and the crowd were rapt in silence at these quiet moments. Laurie Moore picked up the pace on double bass before a rippling piano figure by Lukas Langguth ushered in a section in 7/8 with Kenny Lyons’ sprightly drumming to the fore. This developed into a drum section with all four drummers (and all four drumkits!) working together in a pulsing and mutually supportive way.
And, at 40 minutes in, we have a solid unambiguous 4/4 beat! It’s a great tribute to these musicians that this took such a while to arrive – there is so much else to explore. And so when it does arrive, there is the chance to be joyous and exuberant – the music took an Afrobeat feel with Tom Fischer’s jangling electric guitar laying it down under a strong scat vocal from Regina Heiss and guitarist Karl Madis Pennar donning sunglasses and gyrating at the back of the stage. The band seemed to be enjoying it so much that an apparent cue to move on went unheeded. The end did come, with an elbows-out passage between vibes and tenor sax (Pietro Vecchi) leading into another breathtaking soprano sax solo passage, this time infused with the blues. The band joined in, and for a moment or two we could have been listening to a straight-ish big band arrangement.
The music shifted again, with Karl Madis Pennar emerging to conduct the audience in short and long note contributions as the pace picked up into a heavy funk (Hannah Skjerdal on bass guitar playing a key role), with vocals intoning “Where have you been?…” The funk built up, with finally everyone for themselves and great guitar/soprano four bar swapping. “I was waiting my whole life” led to an acceleration and huge climax – which might have been the end, but wasn’t. In a moving coda vocalist Cecilia Preste intoned very slowly and brokenly “Tomorrow everything is over…” which was picked up by the whole ensemble singing “Tomorrow…”. And end. Cue huge applause from the audience.
In his introduction to the evening, Tommy Smith referred to the piece as ‘a journey’, which he had now heard several times and was always very different. Anyone who has attempted to play this kind of open, flexible, spontaneous music will know how challenging it is to keep things interesting for even 10 minutes, preventing it either sounding like squeaky gates or simply becoming a cacophony. That this large group managed to keep it engaging, surprising and fulfilling for a full 75 minutes is an outstanding tribute to them, their discipline and their co-operation in the moment.
(*)The European Jazz Workshop musicians– full listing:
FROM CONSERVATORIO A. BOITO, PARMA
Pietro Vecchi (reeds – tenor sax)
Igor Fornaciari (guitar)
Leonardo Badiali (drums)
Cecilia Preste (vocals)
FROM HOCHSCHULE FÜR MUSIK UND THEATER, HAMBURG
Finn Stamer (violin)
Karl Madis Pennar (guitar and sunglasses)
Timon Krämer* (bass)
Rafael Müller (drums)
FROM ROYAL CONSERVATOIRE OF SCOTLAND, GLASGOW
Rachel Duns (reeds – tenor sax)
Dawn Coulshed (voice/piano)
Laurie Moore (bass)
Kenny Lyons (drums)
FROM NORGES MUSIKKHØGSKOLE, OSLO
Jomar Jeppsson (drums)
Kristina Fransson (trumpet/Ableton)
Hanna Skjerdal (bass)
Åsmund Skjeldal Waage (vibes)
FROM HOCHSCHULE FÜR MUSIK, NÜRNBERG
Lukas Langguth (piano)
Paul Scheugenpflug (reeds – soprano sax)
Regina Heiss (vocals)
Tom Fischer (guitar)
*did not appear with the large ensemble – indisposed.