Live reviews

Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival 2023

Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival.

(Various venues in Edinburgh, 14-23 July 2023. Live Review by Patrick Hadfield)

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Tommy Smith and Arild Andersen performing as a duo. Photo credit Patrick Hadfield

The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival put on over 110 concerts across ten days, requiring careful planning to see as much as possible. Clashes were inevitable, with the occasional bag of chips grabbed while hurrying between venues to provide necessary refuelling.

The festival highlighted the talent to be found in Scotland. One of the things EJBF excels at is bringing together new line-ups, pitching musicians together to see what will happen. As ever, the faith in jazz musicians’ ability to create new and interesting music was amply rewarded. I managed to see twelve shows, none of which disappointed; these, though, are the ones which stand out.

Zoe Rahman. Screengrab from EJF livestream by Paul Macdonald

Zoe Rahman played two concerts with new combinations of musicians. In the first, she was the guest of Playtime, a regular jazz night in Edinburgh now threatened with closure, featuring Tom Bancroft (drums), Martin Kershaw (sax), Graeme Stephen (guitar) and Mario Caribe (bass), all of whom featured in other concerts during the festival, too. The Playtime format is that each musician brings a couple of pieces for the ensemble to play – a space to experiment and see what happens. The result is always interesting. Rahman’s pieces were from her just-released album, The Colour of Sound, and the tunes brought her lively, highly rhythmic piano playing to the fore. Pieces brought by Caribe and Stephen were also very memorable, giving the whole band space to improvise.

Rahman’s second gig was the following night, and featured her regular trio of Alec Dankworth on bass and Gene Calderazzo on drums, together with Helena Kay and Laura MacDonald on tenor and alto respectively. Rahman explained how she and MacDonald had played together many times in the past – indeed, they were students at Berklee together – and Kay recently joined Rahman’s regular octet, in which she plays alto rather than tenor. The music featured The Colour of Sound, and it brought out some lively solos from all players. Dankworth and Calderazzo’s familiarity with the tunes let them stretch out and exercise, and Rahman let the pieces flow. Kay’s distinctive tenor brought forth some great solos; their recent, welcome return to Scotland has made them a focus of the Edinburgh scene.

Georgia Collins. Photo credit Patrick Hadfield

Matt Carmichael has played with Norwegian pianist Liv Andrea Hauge several times following a cultural exchange which saw Carmichael working and writing in Oslo, and Hauge in Glasgow. Most recently Hauge featured in special quintet brought together by EJBF for a series of spectacular shows last autumn. This time, Hauge brought her trio to Edinburgh, and Carmichael featured as a guest. The trio, featuring Georgia Collins on bass and August Glännestrand on drums, played very open, impressionistic music. As well as more abstract sections, though, they could also work up a real groove. Carmichael’s folk-influenced saxophone playing fitted in easily, adding another level to the soundscape. Hauge added another voice, literally, as she sang haunting, wordless harmonies to her piano playing.

Colin Steele‘s reformed Stramash also brought a folk flavour to the festival. It’s fifteen years since Stramash last played in Edinburgh. Adding violins, viola, cello and pipes and whistles to Steele’s quintet, and with arrangements by Dave Milligan bringing out the folk elements already in Steele’s compositions, this music made one want to smile, cry and dance. All at the same time. The band produced a joyful exuberance from start to finish. Steele said that he hoped it wouldn’t be another decade before they could play again, and there are hopes they may play some gigs in the New Year . Let’s hope it’s a dancing venue next time!

Mario Caribe and Phil Bancroft. Photo Patrick Hadfield

Saxophonist Phil Bancroft, a crucial element of Stramash, played his own gig with a trio of his brother Tom Bancroft on drums and Mario Caribe on bass. Playing a set of standards, which he said he only now felt able to do justice to, from the opener of Love For Sale to the final, powerful rendition of Walkin’, Bancroft took much loved and familiar tunes and made them fresh and vibrant. His passion for the tunes and the stories behind them, as well as anger at the prejudice and discrimination faced by the artists who originally created such classic material (and which people of colour still face), showed as Bancroft brought the pieces to life. His solo improvisation around Monk’s Mood had the audience captivated.

The Arild Andersen Trio found themselves a man down when Thomas Strønen encountered travel problems and couldn’t make the gig. Still, the first time I saw Andersen play was in a duo with Tommy Smith, nearly twenty years ago on Islay, so as exciting as their gigs as a trio have been, this duo felt to me like a return to the source.

Smith and Andersen are so at ease with each other that their gigs feel relaxed and chilled, even as they deliver thrilling improvisations. In a set featuring mostly compositions by Andersen and pieces derived from Norwegian traditional tunes, with a couple of standards thrown in – a rousing rendition of Bacharach’s Alfie and a beautifully romantic Prelude To A Kiss – the duo seemed to explore lots musical avenues. Andersen was playing without the pedals and loopers he’s used previously, which may have limited the rhythmic patterns he could use but added to the purity of the sound. Andersen’s playing was exhilarating.

Smith, too, was on excellent form. He played tenor throughout, aside from a haunting improvisation on a Japanese bamboo flute which opened the second set, his saxophone shining and growling. Together, it seemed the audience would have followed them wherever they’d choose to take us.

The scene in the Grassmarket. Photo EJBF.

The Fergus McCreadie Trio had a residency over several nights, appropriately at the Pianodrome, a venue created from recycled pianos. In this small, intimate space, their sets were recorded in the hope of creating a live album. For all the success and plaudits their studio albums have garnered, it is as a live band that they really excel. The evening I attended was no exception, although they seemed to take a little longer to really get into their stride than other recent performances I’ve been fortunate enough to see.

The Pianodrome is seated in the round, and by chance bassist David Bowden had his back to me, as did his bass speaker, making the bass less clear than might have been hoped. The rest of the sound was immaculate. Playing a new piano – a long way from its wrecked cousins which made up the seating and staging – McCreadie’s forceful improvisations built tension upon tension. Stephen Henderson proved himself to be one of the most imaginative, sensitive and exciting drummers around.

It was announced before the show that they’d play a single set with no interval; the trio took this to heart, playing straight through without pause. As one tune merged into the next, there was no space for applause – the audience didn’t want to be left behind. They saved it all for the end, giving the band a long ovation and forcing two encores.

Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. He is on Mastodon.

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