Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival Online ****
Thanks to Covid-19, the 43rd Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival became a diminished but inventive online four-day event, kicking off on Thursday with a compilation of interviews from the Scottish Jazz Archive. The interviewees fondly recalling early jazz experiences – veteran singer Fionna Duncan’s epiphany on hearing the formidable clarinettist Sandy Brown, Tom Lawrie describing jazz balls at Edinburgh’s Oddfellows’ Hall with one Sean Connery on the door as bouncer – could never have envisioned the vibrant diversity of Scottish jazz in its 21st century incarnations, or dreamt that its live performance could be so eclipsed by a virus.
The music on offer, meanwhile, ranged from performances from previous festivals or elsewhere to specifically recorded “live” sessions from locked-down solo artists. Pianist Dave Milligan, for instance, who straddles jazz and folk genres, after apologising for his piano waiting for a tuner, gave an enjoyably easeful recital, much of it gently ambulatory, while the Burns song Parcel of Rogues emerged unscathed from his decidedly non-18th-century exploration.
Fellow pianist Steve Hamilton, too, was in relaxed front-room mode, including an unhurried but savoured treatment of Ellington’s African Flame and The Lamp Is Low, an endearing setting of Ravel’s Pavanne for a Dead Princess to a gentle bossa rhythm.
In contrast, the rumbustiously creative Playtime collective of reedsman Martin Kershaw, guitarist Graeme Stephen, bassist Mario Caribe and drummer Tom Bancroft, uprooted their regular slot at Edinburgh’s Outhouse to assemble – socially distanced, of course – in the more spacious Pathhead Village Hall, with guests saxophonist Laura MacDonald and singer Gina Rae and surprising success sound-wise.
“It’s still strange playing to an empty room, but we know you’re out there,” Bancroft remarked, hopefully, as they ranged from the funky wah-wah of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground and lovely, drawn out sax lines from MacDonald in Martina Almgren’s Land of Beauty to a Keith Jarrett tribute which sailed with elegant power through Spiral Dance.
Then there was Glasgow’s vigorously Protean hotbed of young jazz talent, with inventive musician-composers such as drummer Graeme Costello, pianist Fergus MacCreadie and bassist Mark Hendry shapeshifting between configurations. The studiously pared down chamber jazz of Hendry’s Fractus quintet included possibly the longest solo bass fade-out ever, as well as wordless vocalising from Irini Arabatzi and Bernadette Kellermann’s understated violin at times riffing in unison with Matt Carmichael’s tenor sax, while gradual cranking up of tension gave way to some eloquent sax break-outs.
Carmichael and others aforementioned also cropped up in the crammed (pre-lockdown) Sauchiehall Street flat sessions of one of trombonist Liam Shortall’s projects, the uproariously genre-defying corto.alto, which was rather like gate-crashing a party jumping with funkily rasping brass.
Mature beyond their years may be a cliché but it does sit with the duo of vocalist Luca Manning and Fergus MacCreadie, joined by saxophonist MacDonald in last autumn’s launch gig for Manning’s debut album, When the Sun Comes out. Delicately empathetic piano and complementary sax interjections framed the emotional transparency of Manning’s delivery, whether in his own, soaring Our Journey, the classic swing of If I Knew Then, or the unadorned poignancy of Joni Mitchell’s Two Grey Rooms.
One of the weekend’s final sets returned to classic jazz, with guest Konrad Wiszniewski’s tenor sax and Seonaid Aitken’s violin sizzling together over snappy fretwork as gypsy jazz outfit Rose Room celebrated their tenth anniversary with gusto, albeit in an otherwise empty Blue Arrow Club.
There was so much more, one could risk screen fatigue. It didn’t always satisfy, but one of these four stars up top is for determined effort in testing times. While all the performance arts are bereft at the moment, the inherent spontaneity of jazz particularly craves audience vibe.
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