Music preview: The magic of Islay Jazz Festival

From the free flowing whisky to the spectacular setting and venues, the Islay Jazz Festival exerts a magical hold on performers and audience, writes Jim Gilchrist
The Lagavulin Distillery, Islay, where some of the concerts will take placeThe Lagavulin Distillery, Islay, where some of the concerts will take place
The Lagavulin Distillery, Islay, where some of the concerts will take place

It could be something out of a Compton Mackenzie plot. Take one Inner Hebridean island, some 25 miles by 15, graced by magnificent scenery and no less than eight working distilleries – a litany of such magic names as Ardbeg, Bunnahabhain, Laphroaig and Lagavulin, in which time is ticked off by the gentle drip of distillate, to create some of the greatest single malts on the planet. What else could such a munificently endowed island possibly need? Well … what about jazz?

Next weekend sees the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival once again occupy the sort of places jazz doesn’t normally reach – village halls, a bird reserve, a Gaelic college and, naturally, distilleries, featuring top-level performers from the Scottish jazz scene and beyond.

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This year’s diverse artists in sometimes eccentrically diverse venues include the singer Jacqui Dankworth, of the renowned jazz dynasty, making her first appearance on Islay, along with her husband, the Memphis singer and pianist Charlie Wood. They’re at Lagavulin distillery, the festival’s headline sponsor for the past seven years, while, just up the coast, another shrine to single malt, Ardbeg, hosts the effervescent pairing of saxophonist Tommy Smith and pianist Brian Kellock. Smith meanwhile, fresh from launching his acclaimed John Coltrane tribute album, Embodying the Light, will 
play a rare solo gig in the unique acoustic of Bowmore’s famous Round Church, with echoes of his memorable Into Silence solo recording of 16 years ago, made in the Hamilton Mausoleum.

Also at Lagavulin, swing singer Seonaid Aitken, named “Best Vocalist” at this year’s Scottish Jazz Awards, marks the centenary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth with guest blues singer Sam West as well as appearing at the Rhinns Hall with her gypsy jazz outfit Rose Room. Meanwhile, the Edinburgh-based Australian singer Becc Sanderson and her trio play the Port Mor Centre at Port Ellen. Among other guests are guitarist Kevin MacKenzie’s trio at Laphroaig and two of Scotland’s finest young pianists, Alan Benzie and Fergus McCreadie, featuring at Islay’s Gaelic college, Ionad Chaluim Chille Ile, and the RSPB Centre at Loch Gruinart, respectively.

Helping kick off the weekend at Lagavulin distillery is the stripped-down creativity of the trumpet, guitar and bass trio of Colin Steele, Graeme Stephen and Mario Caribe, while, later on Friday night, Caribe joins accordionist Phil Alexander for a world-music and Latin-jazz-based programme. Trumpeter Steele returns to close the festival at Bruichladdich, leading a septet celebrating the influential Fifties and Sixties albums of Miles Davis.

An old hand at this festival, Steele readily admits that Islay – not to mention its most famous product – have helped shape his music. “I think it’s the whole experience. First of all you’re leaving the mainland on that two and a half hour ferry ride, which is beautiful. You’re just transported into a different world and obviously the venues are unique, all completely different from one another, and you always seem to be looking out over the sea.”

His tune Paps of Jura was inspired by such a view: “I wrote that literally on the ferry as we were arriving in Islay.” Indeed, this writer can recall emerging from a rumbustious gig by Steele’s jazz-folk fusion big band, Stramash, in the capacious Bunnahabhain filling shed, to be confronted by that same prospect.

Most of the music for his Stramash album, he recalls, was composed during a week he spent leading up to the festival, alone with his muse as well as some local produce. “The amount of inspiration was absolute madness,” he recalls. “The second I stopped composing I’d go out for a walk and look at the beautiful scenery and get battered by wind and rain then two minutes later it would be blazing sun and I’d go back in and write some more music.”

The plenitude of single malt helped “far more than might have been healthy. Being by myself, I ended up staying up all night. I’d treat myself to really nice food – smoked salmon and steak – and I’d be eating dinner at 5 o’clock in the morning.” The direct inspiration, then, of the suitably rollicking Stramash tune Steak and Whisky, 5am.

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Whether or not they anticipate similar total immersion in the island’s intoxicating ambience, the prospect of steak and whisky in the wee small hours elicits a chortle from festival first-timers Jacqui Dankworth and Charlie Wood. “As long as it’s not before the gig,” says Dankworth, who, as the daughter of Cleo Laine and the late John Dankworth, can be considered British jazz royalty. “I wonder if we can have a tipple while we’re there,” she says – a wildly rhetorical question, one can’t help thinking.

Dankworth has a recording out later this year in a pairing with classical guitarist Craig Ogden, but she and Wood have been performing as a duo for some years now, and last year released an album, Just Me, Just You, some of which will find its way into their Islay set, combining jazz standards with covers of material by the likes of James Taylor and Carol King. Wood’s solo set will draw partly on a record he has made with his London band, due for release next year and titled To Memphis With Love, featuring his own songs as well as standards by the likes of BB King and Al Green.

No strangers to Scotland, the pair appeared in this year’s Edinburgh International Jazz Festival and return to the capital for their Christmas Wingding show at the Queen’s Hall on 20 December, which will feature their band plus Scottish guests as well as students from the City of Edinburgh Music School.

Meanwhile, the peat reek of Islay beckons the two of them. Asked whether duet performance involves a different sort of discipline from larger ensembles, Wood doesn’t think so. “Our voices are not that similar but they go together really well. It’s really just a combination of the two of us doing what we do.”

The Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival runs from 15-17 September, see