Review: The Glasgow Jazz Festival Online

You could have subtitled it “The Loneliness of the Lockdown Pianist” as, beleaguered by Covid-19, the 34th Glasgow Jazz Festival ran as a sadly depleted but determinedly enterprising virtual-only entity from 17 to 21 June. The usually crammed Blue Arrow Club hosted live-streamed solo recitals by three generations of Scottish pianists – Fergus McCreadie, Brian Kellock and Euan Stevenson.

Euan Stevenson
Euan Stevenson

These live recitals – plus another Blue Arrow set from singer Georgia Cécile who had at least the company of pianist Fraser Urquhart – shared the online bill with earlier recordings including a couple of excellent documentaries, Seonaid Aitken hosted a dedicated edition of Radio Scotland’s Jazz Nights, while jazz DJ Rebecca Vasmant bopped amid LPs and pot plants in her front room.

Alone in the darkened venue, except for cameraman and sound engineer, there was a touch of the hermetic, in all its senses, as McCreadie remained wordless, stooped over the keyboard to perform his distinctively Scots-accented, place-inspired compositions. Much of it was, presumably, from his trio’s forthcoming second album, Cairn, due for release next year, unfolding hypnotically into a rich, riverine flow or taking on the gently ambulatory motion of Ardbeg.

In contrast with McCreadie’s hunched intensity, Brian Kellock, again eschewing spoken introductions, looked utterly at ease as, following an introductory flourish, he ranged through some classics, giving irrepressible life to Puttin’ on the Ritz, the more leisurely balladry of Something's Gotta Give and an animated exploration of Thanks for the Memory.

Also delving rewardingly into the great American songbook was Georgie Cécile, “best vocalist” winner at last year’s Scottish Jazz Awards, and accompanied by pianist Fraser Urquhart. There were Gershwin classics, Love Walked Right In and Do It Again, while Urquhart provided a luminous conclusion to Cécile’s warmly sensual delivery of Johnny Mercer’s Dream.

There was also the sassy You’ll Always Be Right for Me Cécile co-written with collaborator Euan Stevenson, and it was Stevenson himself who provided the third piano recital, steering between Belle Époque Paris and jazz epicentre New York as Blues for Erik, one of his engaging improvisations on Erik Satie’s enigmatic Gnossiennes, took on swing and slid slyly into Duke Ellington’s Caravan.

Jazz and classical also met divertingly in two of the films presented by the virtual festival. Birds of Paradise documented the esteemed US jazz composer Carla Bley’s 1992 visit to Glasgow, capturing her rehearsing an eponymously titled festival commission with a prodigious big band including such luminaries as trombonist Gary Valente and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, along with the Romanian classical violinist Alex Bãlãnescu.

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“It might be a total failure; I don’t know if Alex will survive,” she declared dryly, touching on the sometimes difficult relationship between the two genres, though the result was ultimately a triumph.

Also messin’ with the classics, to glorious effect, was the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, filmed in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall in 2014, giving Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” 9th Piano Concerto the time of its life, led by director and saxophonist Tommy Smith and with guest pianist Makoto Ozone, who arranged and played the concerto with inventive brilliance as the band responded with virtuosic gusto.

An important influence on Smith was Bobby Wellins, a superb saxophonist and improviser, so it was appropriate that SNJO’s Mozartian fling was preceded by Dreams Are Free, Gary Barber’s moving documentary about Wellins, who died in 2016, charting his achievements, as well as his decade in the wilderness of addiction, from which, happily, he emerged, going on to record, among much else, his eloquent Culloden Moor Suite with the SNJO.

So far as the festival’s bold excursion into streaming went, however, it was these solo pianists, invoking tunes amid darkness, as if in a séance, that stuck in the mind. Having traipsed gleefully from Liszt to Oscar Peterson, it was Stevenson who spoke for us all, signing off with “Hope to see you all live before too long.”

In the meantime, the festival’s recitals, though not the documentaries, remain accessible online via https://myplayer.uk/jazz

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