Stars head to Islay for Jazz Festival

Optimism may manifest itself in many forms. Perhaps the least likely, however, is the stratospheric fusion of contemporary jazz and prog-rock generated by Swedish drummer Magnus Öström and his band.

Magnus Ostrom is making his first visit to Islay

Five years ago, Öström was, as he once put it to me, “in the eye of the hurricane”.

As the drummer in e.s.t. – the Esbjörn Svensson Trio – Öström was one third of perhaps the most celebrated band in European jazz, their powerfully creative amalgam of jazz, classical and rock elements attracting stadium type audiences. Then Svensson, the pianist and Öström’s friend since childhood, died in a Scuba diving accident.

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It was a while before Öström felt able to contemplate music-making again, but two years ago he released his first album under his own name, Thread of Life, its sweeping, electronically enhanced soundscapes infused with a majestic melancholy, and titles such as Longing and Weight of Death exuding a palpable sense of loss.

He and his band played a warmly received set at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in 2011 and now return to Scotland for the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival on 13-15 September, complete with a new album, Searching for Jupiter, which, while retaining the band’s spacy-sounding jazz-prog-rock credentials, reflects a rather brighter outlook.“The sound is maybe a bit lighter than the last album,” says Öström, speaking from his home in Stockholm. “It’s more forward looking than the last one, which was looking at the past. This one is about where I am now, with more positive energy in the music.”

Öström acknowledges his band’s rock influences: “I was deeply into jazz-rock when I was a teenager.” The outfit he’s bringing is the one on Searching for Jupiter – guitarist Andreas Hourdakis, bassist Thobias Gabrielson and a new pianist. “Our new keyboard player, Daniel Karlsson, plays more grand piano and not so much keyboard and synthesisers, so the sound is maybe a little more acoustic, but with electronics all the same.”

This writer has only heard one track from the new album so far, but if the ominously tolling piano chords and pummelling drums in Hour of the Wolf are anything to go by, Searching for Jupiter maintains a quota of good old Nordic angst.

It will be a first visit to Islay for Öström, who confesses to occasional partaking of a single malt: “We were talking about perhaps playing there with e.s.t. but it never happened, so I was really happy when Fiona [Alexander of organiser Jazz Scotland] contacted me. I’ve heard so much about the place.”

The Swedish band’s gigs at Lagavulin and Bruichladdich village hall are just part of this unique festival’s matching of internationally renowned musicians with unlikely sounding venues which, apart from the island’s distilleries, include the Gaelic college, a chocolate factory and an RSPB nature reserve.

This year’s bill also includes the lyrical improvising of ECM superband Trio Libero, featuring saxophonist Andy Sheppard, drummer Sebastian Rochford and bassist Michel Benita, while a rising name on the UK jazz scene, pianist Kit Downes, also appears in trio format with bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer James Maddren.

More traditional stride, boogie and ragtime playing come from American pianist Stephanie Trick, who joins with Scottish Dixieland specialists the Nova Scotia Jazz Band.

Other home-grown talents include a chamber jazz trio formed for the festival by regular guests trumpeter Colin Steele, guitarist Graeme Stephen and bassist Mario Caribe.

Islay’s own vocalist Sheena Swanson fronts a band of local musicians, there is classic blues from the harmonica-guitar duo of Sandy Tweeddale and Tim Elliott and Blues N Trouble, while sax and Hammond organ fuelled funk is generated by Grooveyard.

If there’s no likelihood of you catching the Islay ferry, back on the mainland, the noted New York pianist John Colianni, teams up with Scots jazzers Kevin MacKenzie on guitar, Jay Kilbride on double bass and Alyn Cosker on drums for a run of gigs next month.

Islay Jazz Festival, 13-15 September,

John Colianni trio ( play Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar on 4 September; Glasgow Arts Club on 5 September; HM Frigate Unicorn, Dundee on 6 September; Wighams Jazz Club, Edinburgh on 8 September.