THE SPIRIT will be with Courtney Pine and Zoe Rahman at islay’s jazz festival, writes Jim Gilchrist
The reason I play jazz is because there aren’t any boundaries,” says saxophone virtuoso Courtney Pine. “I play jazz because it is open-minded and because leading exponents of the art – Miles Davis for instance – played it because it allowed them space to develop and grow and go different ways.”
We’re discussing his current and widely acclaimed album, Song (The Ballad Book), in which Pine and pianist Zoe Rahman create glowingly fresh but also lyrically reflective interpretations of jazz standards. They’ll be performing material from the album when they appear next weekend at that inspired colloquy of music and malt, the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival.
But, he adds, since the album came out in March, the music on it, including such staples as Amazing Grace, Thad Jones’s A Child is Born and Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday, has been evolving considerably through the pair’s live appearances.
Now 51, Pine’s impact on British jazz over the past three decades has been immense, not least through his venturesome collaborations with other genres such as hip-hop, reggae and other music of his Jamaican heritage, and European folk music, and his contribution to both jazz and the black community in Britain has been recognised by an OBE and subsequently a CBE. Yet he admits that he finds working in a duo format quite challenging: “Zoe’s a fantastic player and is very experienced in duets, but I’m not, so it’s a voyage of discovery for me. It’s totally different to what I’ve done in the past and very stretching.”
Rahman, from a British-Bengali background and winner of a Mobo (Music of Black Origin) Award for her 2012 album Kindred Spirits, came on board Pine’s Europa band project a few years ago and they’ve toured together frequently since.
Another important development for Pine over the past few years means that he’ll be bringing just one instrument to Islay, and that’s the bass clarinet, which he plays exclusively on The Ballad Book and also on the earlier Europa album, although he reverted to soprano sax for 2013’s House of Legends tribute to his Caribbean lineage. Something of a Cinderella among reed instruments, the bass clarinet, a hefty and decidedly hard to play beast, is currently enjoying a groundswell of interest among jazz musicians, not least Pine, who deployed its astonishing range of tones on The Ballad Book, from rumbling didgeridoo growls and porcine grunts to the luminosity he achieves in A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.
“It’s such a supreme instrument,” he says, “and I like the fact that it’s a path that hasn’t really been charted. If you play tenor sax you have to learn Giant Steps and Body and Soul and St Thomas; there’s a certain repertoire you have to go through. But the bass clarinet – what is there in terms of its heritage? It’s kind of known as the Peter and the Wolf sound in orchestras, but there’s so much more to it.”
So far as future projects are concerned, he has several in mind for the long term, but is currently preparing to bring his House of Legends band back to Ronnie Scott’s for the third year, and he’d also like to tour the Ballad Book project with Rahman in cathedral venues, recording the results. “Something happens when you play something like Amazing Grace in those places. We just played in Brecon Cathedral and it was so moving for me as a musician, so there could be a live follow-up to The Ballad Book, not in reaction to sales or audiences, but because of what the project has done to energise me.”
In the meantime, he and Rahman will have to make do with “spiritual” premises of a different kind – Lagavulin Distillery, to be precise, where they play one of their two Islay festival gigs (the other is in Ionad Chaluim Chille Ìle). They join an engagingly diverse line-up at this year’s event, ranging from the European chamber jazz of pianist Enrico Zanisi, who made an impact with his first Scottish appearance at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival this summer, to such major UK jazz figures as alto saxophonist Alan Barnes and guitarist Jim Mullen.
Other festival guests include folk jazz fusion 12-piece Fat Suit, swing jazzers Rose Room, Konrad Wisniewski and Euan Stevenson’s New Focus Quartet, bassist Mario Caribe’s band and Islay’s own 95 Roots.
Also, a pop-up concert, featuring the New Orleans sounds of Brass Gumbo, is promised for Bowmore pier – predicated, of course, by that inevitable island rider, “weather permitting”.