East Neuk Festival channels the bohemian spirit of 1920s Paris

Two people pass each other on the steep, thronged streets of Montmartre, Paris’ bohemian enclave, during the 1920s. One is a man in his fifties, sprucely dressed and sporting a bowler hat and a goatee; the other a teenager with a violin under his arm – he might even be busking with it. They probably don’t know each other, but each will leave his own distinctive mark on 20th century music.

Euan Stevenson
Euan Stevenson

Such is the premise for a concert next Friday in Anstruther during the East Neuk Festival. The brainchild of festival director Svend McEwan-Brown, Satie and Grappelli will celebrate the music of two very different but equally innovative Parisian musicians, when the Dutch swing violinist Tim Kliphuis, an acclaimed exponent of Hot Club-style gypsy jazz, will lead his trio in the music of Stéphane Grappelli while Scots pianist Euan Stevenson will put his own stamp on the music of Erik Satie, the composer he regards as classical music’s first minimalist.

While Stevenson will play solo the first half of the gig and Kliphuis’s trio performs in the second half, the Glasgow-based pianist reckons they may well join forces at some point. At the time of our interview, however, he hadn’t yet met the violinist, although he has played in the past with Kliphuis’s co-musicians, bassist Roy Percy, and guitarist Nigel Clark. “There’s talk of us maybe coming together at some point in the concert and I’d very much like to,” he says.

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He has in mind one of Satie’s Gnossiennes as a potentially fruitful piece for group improvisation: “If you play it like a slow blues or a medium-tempo Hot Club-style, it would work. It starts to sound very jazzy.”

Listeners to BBC Radio Scotland’s Classics Unwrapped earlier this month had a taster, when he played Gnossienne No 2 in the studio. A still-evolving work-in-progress, as Stevenson described it, it was Satie all right – ambulatory, ruminative, with a haunting magic that seemed to hang in the air.

Satie’s Gnossiennes are quite Middle Eastern sounding, and Stevenson points out that Satie might well have been influenced by Oriental and other non-European music performed during the World’s Fair in 1889: “That would explain his use of non-diatonic scales,” he says.

“You hear it in Duke Ellington’s music as well. Ellington did a lot of travelling, when he could have heard these Middle Eastern scales. It also might have come from Satie’s sensibility, although in jazz Satie’s most obvious influence would be with Gil Evans and Miles Davis – you hear it particularly in their Flamenco Sketches. It’s got that ambulatory feel of a Satie composition and slow-moving modal harmonies.

“That was one of Satie’s innovations; he rejected Wagnerian romanticism and went for this sound. I believe he was the first minimalist.”

While the simplicity of Satie’s music would seem to offer the jazz improviser ideal material to re-shape, it can also offer challenges, Stevenson adds. “In some ways they’re perfectly sculpted pieces in their own right and there are some days when I don’t really feel the need to deviate from what’s there, while on other days it sparks a creative flow that I’m very willing to go with and it becomes a re-composition based on Satie’s material.”

Stevenson further explores the jazz-classical interface during next month’s Edinburgh International Jazz Festival when, with saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski, the other half of their acclaimed New Focus duo, he presents Classical Connection, which he describes as a light-hearted lecture-recital, “in which I basically draw parallels between the evolution of classical music and the evolution of jazz”.

He’ll be playing other gigs during the Edinburgh event, not least with the fast rising young Glasgow singer Georgia Cécile, with whom he has been co-writing material. In the meantime, however, between his Satie explorations and Kliphuis’s fiery gypsy jazz, the energetically bohemian spirit of Montmartre will be unleashed in the unlikely-sounding precincts of Anstruther Town Hall on Friday.

For further details, see www.eastneukfestival.com and www.euanstevenson.com