Ken Walton: Colin Steele makes his comeback

COLIN Steele once feared his career was over. Happily, he’s back and reunited with 
his fine quintet

Colin Steele has been motivated to make a comeback thanks to the support of 
musicians and fans. Picture: Contributed
Colin Steele has been motivated to make a comeback thanks to the support of musicians and fans. Picture: Contributed

IN the sleeve notes to the Colin Steele Quintet’s fine album of 2005, Through the Waves, its leader explains its title: “The constant developing/perfecting of tunes and the mundane practicalities of being a band leader, as well as trying to earn a living... can feel like swimming against the tide”. The decade since then has seen trumpeter Steele swimming hard to keep his head above some turbulent waters. The good news, however, is that, following that ten-year-hiatus, the quintet goes back on the road at the end of this month and is preparing to record another album.

In Through the Waves and its predecessor, The Journey Home, the quintet was the vehicle for a distinctly Scottish-inflected and lyrically melodic yet powerfully straight-ahead jazz, which gained a glowing critical response nationally and beyond.

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Not that the Edinburgh trumpeter has been idle. His exuberant folk-jazz big band, Stramash, issued a warmly-received album in 2009, and, among other things, he has written music for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Big Band and generated blues and soul-inflected grooves with his Melting Pot band and the Adderley Brothers tribute outfit, Mercy Mercy Mercy!

He has also, however, struggled with devastating playing problems which threatened to silence him. Some years ago, he decided to improve his technique. “I was limited in terms of range but, more importantly, every time I played my mouth was getting badly cut.”

He embarked on what proved to be a disastrous online course with a New York player, who insisted on fundamental changes in technique but blithely assured him this would only take a couple of months. “I threw myself into this,” Steele recalls, “and eight months later it all fell apart. My playing muscles became so confused that my throat would start to spasm if I even thought about playing.”

Cancelling all gigs for the foreseeable future, he was contemplating the collapse of his livelihood when two fellow-musicians rallied to his rescue. One was the trombonist John Kenny, “who was wonderful. I’d go round to his house and he’d talk me through and get me relaxed. But I was still forcing things and after some weeks I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Kenny put him in touch with Mark O’Keeffe, principal trumpet with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. “He offered me as many lessons as I liked and refused to take any money. He didn’t know me or know of me; he just heard it was a fellow-trumpeter in trouble and wanted to help, which was amazing. Without him I really don’t know what would have happened.”

Gradually, Steele regained his chops, and is now reviving the quintet, with his long-time associate Dave Milligan on piano, Michael Buckley on sax, Calum Gourlay on double bass and Stu Ritchie on drums. The tour, presented by Jazz Scotland with funding from Creative Scotland, launches at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre Studio on Friday.

While Stramash was a gleefully overt fusion between jazz players and traditional musicians, the quintet played a uniquely seamless blend of Celtic lyricism and powerfully straight-ahead jazz. Asked whether we can expect more of the same, he replies yes, “still very Scottish, although I’m hearing a slightly different, slightly more classical edge in some ways, although it won’t sound classical.”

Steele is never without a Dictaphone, into which he sings melodies as they form in his head. “The difficult thing,” he laughs, “is listening back to them all. For this tour and recording it’s a matter of listening to all the tunes I’ve been singing into it since last July.

There have been, he emphasises, some positive outcomes from his traumatic episode. “While it was tough, there have been many positive things that have come out of it – being helped by John and Mark, while a lot of people were in touch, just e-mailing and asking why I wasn’t recording or doing concerts.” Steele’s album is even being funded by a fan. “It’s this lovely positivity that has inspired me to get back to work.

“I had been thinking that I’d wait until I was really happy with my playing before doing a new project, but you start to realise there’s always going to be something. So I made the decision to go ahead.

“The trumpet playing’s now better than it’s ever been. Maybe I just had to make that decision to get back to work.”

• The Colin Steele Quintet tour starts at Edinburgh Festival Theatre Studio on Friday with subsequent shows at Falkirk Town Hall, the Cottier Theatre, Glasgow, and the Byre, St Andrews. See