Martin Kershaw Octet: Poets, Assembly Roxy ****
As per its title, saxophonist and clarinettist Martin Kershaw’s latest large-scale composition for his octet, commissioned by Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, was informed by the many poets who have inspired him, ranging through time and temperament from Virgil and John Milton to Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas.
While Kershaw explained these influences, there were no specific sections dedicated to any one poet and it was left for us to decipher which might be inspired by whom: did that stately, hymn-like brass, perhaps, reflect Dylan Thomas’s And Death Shall Have No Dominion? Perhaps I’m just too literal-minded.
Speculation apart, this was engaging, at times glowing music, with Kershaw’s standard quartet of pianist Paul Harrison, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Doug Hough bolstered by trumpeter Sean Gibbs, alto saxophonist Adam Jackson, guitarist Graeme Stephen and Liam Shortall on trombone.
Kershaw led, switching between clarinets and soprano and tenor saxes, the music shifting continuously in mood, leaving plenty of leeway for individual soloing, such as a beefy alto sax break from Jackson or Shortall’s trombone solo met by chorusing horns. There were glittering keyboard excursions from Harrison and limber guitar from Stephen before returning horns cruised smoothly to a close.
There was contrast, too, during the first half when the basic quartet performed some of Kershaw’s shorter pieces, this time their poetic affiliations declared in his introductions. Two Larkin-inspired pieces (this year being his centenary), included the tenor sax glide of Slow Dying, while a striking, almost pastoral soprano sax solo paid tribute to Sylvia Plath. The easeful swing of Long Way to Go, meanwhile, gave Hugh MacDiarmid a smoother ride than one might have expected for the auld iconoclast.