Music review: Edinburgh Jazz Festival Opening Weekend

From exuberant scatting to The Beatles via New Orleans, the opening weekend of this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival had it all, writes Jim Gilchrist

Saxophonist Laura Macdonald

The opening events of this year’s Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival included included a “Celebrating Women in Jazz” round-table discussion featuring eight female singers and instrumentalists, chaired by the festival’s Agnese Daverio. The tone was generally positive while acknowledging that women often still have to “overprove themselves” in a male-dominated jazz world.

No-one, however, had to prove anything when two of the participants, Laura Macdonald and younger fellow-saxophonist Helena Kay, fronted a twin-horn quartet with bassist Mario Caribe and drummer Doug Hough in a Laura Macdonald Presents programme (****).

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Filmed in the airy light of Stockbridge Parish Church, they opened with the far from uncertain-sounding Indecision, Macdonald’s alto sax sounding a feisty introduction before being joined by Kay’s mellow but deliberate tenor. They followed with another Macdonald tune, Whispers, the two horns swapping lines easefully, continuing in languidly lyrical form in The Prayer.

The show also saw Macdonald duet with pianist Zoe Rahman, whose cascading introductions ushered in a floating sax tone in Duplicity, and in the sublime Land of Beauty. Palpably delighted to be sharing a stage with other musicians after a year and a half, they moved on to Rahman’s mellifluous tribute to her Irish grandmother, Conversation with Nellie.

If MacDonald and Rahman seemed well keyed into each other, so too did multi-award-winning vocalist Jacqui Dankworth and her husband, American singer-pianist Charlie Wood (****), streaming from Assembly Roxy and opening with a purposeful It Takes Two to Tango, punctuated by rolling stride piano.

They complemented each other deftly, from the exuberant scatting and joyfully harmonised conclusion of It Don’t Mean a Thing to Wood’s soulful holler and dramatic vocal sparring in the Sixties standard Windmills of Your Mind, to the softly delineated heartbreak of Bring in the Clowns and the almost ridiculously tuneful 59th Street Bridge Song – old chestnuts deftly reinvigorated.

Also time-travelling back to the Sixties, with funky panache, were Brass Gumbo (****), a New Orleans-style band who romped their merry way through The Beatles’ back catalogue, with saxophonist Tom Pickles, trumpeter Charles Dearness and trombonist Patrick Kenny accompanied by drummer Jamie Graham and sousaphone player Rory Clark – who not only provided a funkily muttering bass line but doubled as a melody leader, as in their opening Come Together. Their arrangements of what for most of us are indelibly imprinted songs were convincingly thought out, with one of the Fab Four’s most complex recordings, Strawberry Fields, working surprisingly well, its psychedelic coda erupting into a blowing free-for-all before morphing gently into the lovely Because.

The acclaimed alto-saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch cut something of a shadowy figure, lurking under a sunhat, in his Assembly Roxy collaboration with Edinburgh’s lively Playtime collective (****) of tenor saxophonist Martin Kershaw, guitarist Graeme Stephen, bassist Mario Caribe and drummer Tom Bancroft. Kinch’s playing, however, could take on pungent assertiveness, as in Trade, when not playing in unison or sparring with Kershaw, who came out with some eloquent reedwork of his own. Kershaw’s tune, Bin Monster, was suitably gutsy, the two horns elbowing off each other and Stephen providing some muscular guitar work.

Vintage jazz specialist, singer Ali Affleck (****) swung us zestily back to the music’s roots with her Hot Town Tigers including reedsman Ewan Bleach, trumpeter Enrico Tomasso and New Orleans pianist Joplin Parnell, the vibe set by the opening Cooking Breakfast with the One I Love, trumpet sounding perkily as dancers swung languidly. In contrast was the soulful, velvety glide of Mood Indigo, while A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight yanked jazz’s pedigree back to the 19th century – and with gusto.

The Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival runs until 25 July, see https://www.edinburghjazzfestival.com/

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