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Ramsey Lewis

We decided at the very last minute to go to the Ramsey Lewis gig at The Old Fruitmarket before the Craig Charles / Federation of the Disco Pimp gig, which we'd booked. So last minute, in fact, that we ended up eating bacon sandwiches, croissants and cherry bakewells for dinner in the car on the way there. My advance planning was not really up to scratch that evening. We were swithering, but it was billed as a concert of his Sun Goddess album which I had a quick sampler listen to online about half an hour before it was due to start and decided it sounded quite funky and interesting, particularly the Earth, Wind & Fire aspect. I also like his most famous pieces, The In Crowd, Wade In The Water etc.. So we took a gamble and went, although G was not so bothered.

It was reasonably busy for the Fruitmarket - there were clearly a lot of big fans in the audience. We arrived just a little way into the first number. It turned out not to be a straight replay of the album, and even the tracks they did do from the album sounded quite different - they were lacking depth and funkiness and production (the latter being unavoidable, obviously). Part of the problem was the sound - apparently Ramsey Lewis himself praised the sound as being excellent at the gig, so either he was just being polite, our idea of good sound is not most peoples, or that was genuinely how he wanted it to sound. There was no depth to it - almost no bass, from the string bass/bass guitar, bass drum or keyboard/synths. I was particularly disappointed by this when the bass payer picked up his electric and played what was probably a fantastic slap-bass line in one of the pieces, but which we couldn't really hear other than a distant sort of rumble. Everything sounded very far away and almost like it was a recording playing through some very large speakers with the bass dial turned down. Perhaps the sound was set up to balance with the piano, I don't know. There was also quite a of hiss from the speakers which became very noticeable in quite bits (of which there were a lot - this also allowed us to hear all the noises from the bar...).

Hmm. The band were good, but it didn't really gel - maybe it did from their position, but not so much from out front. The synth had potential, particularly given what they were billed to play given the advertising, but instead we got mostly synth strings (not so great) and synth brass (awful). For having two levels of keyboards, he didn't feature much in the mix. Ramsey Lewis himself played mostly on the grand piano, only moving to the keyboard a couple of times. His playing was enjoyable, if not what we expected, but it did meander a bit. There was certainly some impressive improvising between him and other members of the band.

I did like the bowed work the bassist did with the string bass, particularly his solos. The guitarist was completely inaudible except when playing his few solos (which were good). The drummer was pretty good too - very tight and crisp, but again, sounding distant and low in the mix.

A lot of the audience obviously thought a lot more highly of it than we did - they were loving it, and there was even a partly standing ovation, if I recall correctly. Other reviewers have liked it better to: here from London Jazz on his Bluesfest London gig a day after the Glasgow gig, and here from Rob Adams at The Herald (along with Leon Russell, and you'll need to register for that one).

It's not a great endorsement of a gig when you come away from it saying, "well, it was OK - I guess at least we can say we've seen [insert performer's name here]."

Quick Post...

I just wanted to say that last night's gig with Federation of the Disco Pimp and Craig Charles was easily the best gig of the festival! I will post in more detail about it and the Ramsey Lewis gig when I have some free time.

Glasgow Jazz Festival: Mulatu Astatke

We were at the Mulatu Astatke gig at Platform (The Bridge) in Easterhouse last night. It may be an out of the way venue for many, but it was pretty busy. Buses had been arranged from and to Mono in the city centre, which brought in most of the audience. Without that option, I suspect it would have been probably only half as busy. Nice one, jazz festival, for arranging that!

It was a bit of a different crowd too - a lot of the jazz festival gigs see a lot of the same familiar faces, but in this case, there were lots of people there whom I would guess are not particularly interested in the more mainstream offerings from the festival, but who were definitely fans of Mulatu Astatke. A lot of the audience were clearly already familiar with his material, although we weren't.

It's a good venue - very flexible. In this instance, primarily standing only, with some seating upstairs - this suited the range of audience present. The whole complex is very nice, with a pool, library, recording studios and performance space amongst other things.

The setup on stage was quite extensive, with a lot of percussion for the drummer, percussionst and Astatke himself surround by an array of instruments. The group also included trumpet, tenor sax/bass clarinet/flute, cello, keyboard, and string bass. An eclectic mix, but it worked. The cello was a very good addition to the horn sound, and he often played as one of the horn section, but as a solo instrument it does not stand up as well (no pun intended!) - it just doesn't project or have the impact or intensity required in that sort of setting. He was very good though.

The band really looked like they were enjoying themselves throughout the gig, and Mulatu Astatke seemed like a really nice guy, and genuinely happy to be there playing for us. Seeing the band enjoying themselves makes a huge difference from an audience's point of view.

The music was a mix of influences, definitely African, but also heading into funk, with a bit of jazz mixed in. A lot of it was single chord grooves and solos (after that and the Tommy Smith gig, I think we've had our fill of one chord solos for about a year!), with a lot of rhythmic interest. I was starting to wonder if it would all sound rather samey after the first few numbers, but then more variation started to appear, including a latin-influenced number with at least four chords... There was a fascinating piece towards the latter half of the gig featuring bass clarinet, which was excellent - some really juicy notes there. The bass clarinet, trumpet and cello played rhythmic interjections in unison throughout that piece as the main line - it was quite different from the other material, having being written by Astatke.

Two of the pieces at least were among his most well known works, judging by the audience reaction - they were the most funk-influenced, and had an infectious groove. The band were good at building up the atmopshere and excitement, expecially in these pieces. The structures of the tracks was also conducive to this. Speaking of structures, one of the pieces towards the end was definitely in tribute to James Bond, featuring the classic James Bond ascending/descending chord progression and break to unision rhythmic feature, but in this case slightly modified. It worked well!

Of all the pieces, the second last was my least favourite, which included a bass solo / drum feature. I liked the drums well enough, but a lot of what the bass player was doing was tricks that were just not musical. Not every special effect if worth doing. It ended up sounding like a lot of random noise created by abusing the instrument. However, plenty of other people seemed to like it.

That aside, it was a very good gig, and I'm very glad I went. I was indeed pleasantly surprised.

Glasgow Jazz Festival Opening Night

But first, the pre-opening night, which included the Scottish Jazz Awards at the Tron. I wan't there this year, and so far have only been able to glean the following information from Brass Jaw and Jazzwise magazine:

Album of the Year: Brass Jaw (Branded)
Contemporary Ensemble of the Year: Brass Jaw
Jazz Educator of the Year: Tommy Smith
Best Festival: Glasgow Jazz Festival

And the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra also won something, but I don't know what. Hopefully someone will actually post the official results at some point.

Speaking of the always amazing Brass Jaw, they were the first gig of the festival at 6pm in the Recital Room (City Halls) last night (check out this pre-festival video of them playing the Beatles classic, Drive My Car outside the City Halls...). They were preceded by a drinks reception with the Provost, which was not overly exciting when you don't know anyone there well enough to mingle! However, that's the time I got there from work, so that was that.

By 6pm, most people were sitting in the room ready for the gig, but in a surprise move (although not perhaps so surprising given the band) Brass Jaw started playing (Comin' Home, Baby) in the foyer, shepherding the remaining stragglers in front of them as they entered the room. Great tune!

The set consisted primarily of material from their new album Branded - get it if you haven't, it's great! The pieces live are more exciting, often slightly faster, and containing sections of occasional free jazz, which is quite fascinating. There was a nine year old boy at the gig with his mum - he seemed to be liking it a lot, although he did fall asleep somehow towards the latter half of the set (it was a one-set gig). The gig closed with a rendition of Sunny, which the guys had played earlier in the week at the opening of the new Riverside Museum. Ironic, considering the near constant rain, cloud and cold we've had for two whole months now.


I then had 3hr 45min to kill before Tommy Smith's gig at Stereo. I couldn't find out definitively if it started at 10:30pm (as the booking system and venue claimed) or 11pm as the festival programme said. I also didn't know how long Ryan Quigley's trio gig with Justin Currie in the Recital Room would last - if it was an hour, it might just work out to go to both, but there is a 10min walk between the venues. So, in the end, I didn't see Ryan's gig, which is a shame, because I'm sure it was excellent. There were other earlier gigs I could have seen, but I was pretty knackered (we were up before 5am to get to work) and had to get dinner as well, so I settled myself in a quiet corner of Hogwarts Waxy O'Connors, got food and read my book.

As it turns out, the gig in Stereo started at 11pm. I'm glad it's summer and it's light most of the night, because Stereo is down a back lane near Central Station, and the lanes in the city are not very safe. There have been a number of rapes in the city centre in recent months. However, I got there fine - there were quite a few people around, and they have bouncers outside Stereo keeping an eye on the lane anyway.

The gig was downstairs (which smelled rather sweaty) and was pretty much standing only - it's more a sort of club night venue. The audience, by the looks of it (quite a wide age range too), mostly wanted to sit down - it wasn't a dancing sort of gig at all. The turnout was pretty good for 11pm on a Wednesday, although the room wasn't full by any stretch of the imagination.

The gig, as Tommy Smith announced at the start, was one set of two hours - this is quite a long time to listen without a break, and certainly stretched my sleep-deprived attention span. It started with tracks from the album, Karma, which I enjoyed a lot. I particularly like the more celtic-influenced tracks. There was then a piece called 25 (presumably because it's the 25th anniversary of the festival?), in five attacca movements - this was tougher to listen to, being more abstract and featuring more extended solo sections. I think it was composed by Tommy Smith, but I don't recall if he explicitly said so - we weren't given much info on it at all. It was accompanied by a strange video montage back projected on a giant screen behind the band (which, during other pieces, showed lots of variations and modifications of the band playing from a number of discreetly placed cameras). The video aspect was generally interesting, but occasionally got too flickery for my liking. After this piece, the band went back to album material, plus two encore pieces not from the album - one was an arrangement of one of the pieces from the SNJO's "World Of The Gods" project with the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers (which is on tonight, Thursday, night in the City Halls).

The quality of musicianship was excellent - naturally, I was in awe of the six string bass playing from Kevin Glasgow - amazing! Steve Hamilton and Alyn Cosker were excellent as always, and Tommy Smith's control of the instruments was beautiful.

Overall, the gig was pretty good, and I liked hearing the album material live, but I think I was too tired for the extra piece, 25, and the extended solo sections in many of the pieces, plus, I don't like standing for ages. I'd say it was also too long (both in terms of not having a break, and in the time of night it finished). People were trying to be enthusiastic for an encore, but more because they felt obliged - I think most people just wanted to get home to bed, or to a seat, by that point! The length issues reminded me a bit of the SNJO concert at the Queen's Hall last year which was really too long and half the audience had left before the last couple of pieces as a result to get trains/buses or because they had work the next day. I think good music benefits from good programming and timing - poor programming and timing can spoil otherwise good music in people's perceptions.

Anyway, sorry to be negative! Tonight, we'll probably go to Mulatu Astatke at Platform out in Easterhouse(!) - from the stuff I've heard on YouTube, I'm not hugely enthusiastic, but G is very up for it. Perhaps I'll be surprised!

BBC SSO: Vaughan Williams

On Saturday, we went to see the BBC SSO at the City Halls - they were playing Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and Symphony No. 2: A London Symphony (or as the composer called it, Symphony by a Londoner) both by Ralph Vaughan Williams (early 1910s), and in contrast, Concerto for Jazz Trumpet by Scottish Composer Iain Hamilton (1958).

The concert was free, part of a weekend of free concerts by the orcehstra - something probably only a BBC orchestra can afford to do. As such, and it being a Saturday night, it was very busy, which is good to see. The weekend was a set of taster concerts almost, encouraging us to come to their regular season concerts, which includes, over the next three years, a Vaughan Williams cycle covering all his major orchestral works. I'm planning to attend plenty of these, since he's one of my favourite composers, and one whose music I haven't heard live very often. As the conductor (Andrew Manze) pointed out, he's not always the most popular of composers for orchestras to perform, and is often criticized for being "too English" in his compositional style. Which I say is a pretty silly criticism - what's wrong with that exactly? His style is very unique - it's not English like Elgar or Purcell, and is beautifully harmonically complex and rich. There is also a lot more variety in his symphonies than the casual listener might expect if they were only acquainted with The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and Fantasia on Greensleeves, for example.

Symphony by a Londoner is a very varied piece - you're never quite sure where he's going with it, and when a theme might re-emerge. There are distinctly recognisable elements, such as the chimes of Big Ben, various Cockney/folk songs, and imagery of sunrise and sunset over the Thames, but a lot is less clearly descriptive. The first movement did appear to contain recurring instances of "'ave a banana!" - possibly not deliberate and possibly induced in our minds by watching too many Bill Bailey sketches!

Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis was absolutely beautiful - it was better even that I expected live. I hadn't realised the string orchestra is split into the main body and a slightly detached quintet (I think it was a quintet, I couldn't see properly) further back. It created a very interesting effect, distinctly noticeable, which I've never heard on a recording - it probably wouldn't be easily captured in a recording after all. The richness of sound was fantastic, and that from someone who is not a fan of strings! These strings were lovely, particularly the solo viola and string basses - so much depth! The hall is a big part of it as well - the acoustics in the City Halls is very rich and sonorous, and eenhances an orchestra, unlike the GRCH where the sound just disappears. In this hall, you are enveloped by the sound - wonderful.

The Concerto for Jazz Trumpet came between the other two pieces and was something of a non-event by comparison. It was a cute enough little piece, but didn't really go anywhere - it seemed quite random. The soloist, Tine Thing Helseth from Norway, had a beautiful tone and played it almost note-perfectly, but it wasn't very jazzy. She blended with the orchestra, rather than leading, and it was stylistically more clasical than jazz, even though the composer had intended it to be played in the style of various well known jazz trumpeters of the time.

So, a great concert for the Vaughan Williams, in a great hall. We're looking forward to some more in the Vaughan Willaiams cycle, and also in September a full screening of Hitchcock's Psyhco with live scoring from the orchetra, followed the next day by a concert of music by Bernard Herrmann!

What To See!

So much good music to choose from at this year's Glasgow Jazz Festival - and for some reason, an awful lot of it scheduled to overlap, particularly some of the bigger names from out of town. The audience for the jazz festival is not huge, so why schedule such overlaps? Surely it would be better to have as few overlaps as possible, particularly for out of town performers whom people don't have much opportunity to see. For instance, Thursday night of the jazz festival:

Dennis Rollins
SNJO
Mulatu Astatke
Gilad Atzmon
Terence Blanchard

plus four other gigs. If the events we more spaced out, perhaps the audiences would be bigger. Maybe it can't be spread out for logistical reasons.

Anyhow, we've already booked for several gigs, and will probably go to several others. The big question is - to take or not to take Friday as a holiday as well as Thursday! We have an annoying system whereby we have to use a whole day's holiday for a Friday, even though Friday is a half day long. Hmm. Still considering it.

The shows to catch this year, for me, are:

Brass Jaw (as always!)
Ryan Quigley Trio & Justin Currie (will be an interesting comparison with the big badn equivalent from previous years)
Tommy Smith's Karma (excellent CD)
Terence Blanchard (anything New Orleans is a draw for me!)
Ramsey Lewis (we're expecting The In Crowd of course, but might surprised by the actual content)
Craig Charles & Federation of the Disco Pimp (highlight of the festival for me - but then, I am also a Red Dwarf fan :D, as well as funk, soul and FotDP!)
Ryan Quigley Big Band (gutted I can't go - Motown!)
Courtney Pine (something a bit different, and bass clarinet is velvety)

The Jazz Summer School is on again this year, with the usual excellent set of tutors. They are looking for more bass players and drummers, so there's still time to sign up. It's around £290 for the five days, and also includes free entry to gigs at the City Halls complex (Old Fruitmarket, Recital Rooms, etc.) subject to availability, so it's a pretty good deal.

Enjoy!
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Unrelated, there is a free BBC SSO concert this Saturday in the City Halls, the programme being:

Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (Ralph Vaughan Williams)
London Symphony (Ralph Vaughan Williams)
Concerto for Jazz Trumpet (Iain Hamilton)

I love Vaughan Williams - this is one not to miss, and an excellent orchestra in an excellent venue. Much better acoustic than the Royal Concert Hall, which always seems rather quiet when non-amplified music is played, even full symphony orchestras.

Parliamentary Jazz Awards

Big congratulations to Brass Jaw who won Jazz Ensemble of the Year, and Brian Kellock who won Jazz Musician of the Year at last night's Parliamentary Jazz Awards in London!

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O_O

This is the strangest band I've ever heard - The Shaggs. Their father had his fortune read, and was told his daughters would become the greatest girl band in America, so he took them out of school, forced them to practice all day every day in the basement for 5 years, then made them record an album, which was derided by all (the very few) who heard it. The girls had heard almost no other music in their lives - their father banned it when they were growing up - and essentially had to invent their own take on music. Their father died of a heart attack not long after (fortunately for the girls...) who immediately disbanded and went on to live relatively normal lives. But some twenty years later, they were "rediscovered", and hailed as something unique and amazing by musicians such as Frank Zappa ("better than the Beatles!") and Carla Bley. You can make your own mind up.



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Brass Jaw

I managed to catch the first half of last night's Brass Jaw gig at the Glasgow Art Club, in the couple of hours slot between work, a trip to IKEA Edinburgh and bed. Shame on me, but it's the first of the Bridge Jazz Thursday night gigs I've actually made it too - Thursdays are not a good day for me in terms of availability! Nice space for a venue - I've not been there before. Pleasantly old fashioned (which I like a lot) with wooden beams in the high roof, lathe & plater walls (with bits falling off to add to the charm) and art hung all around the room. There is even natural light from the glass roof, which was very pleasant.

It was pretty busy - most of the seats were taken. There was a table of four or five seats reserved for the Glasgow Jazz Festival which was still unoccupied when the gig started, so two people sat down there. A little way into the set, some people asked them to move because it was reserved, and two other people sat there, who were presumably meant to be there. The remaining chair were left unoccupied for the rest of the time I was there at least. There were some folk out in the hall who chatted through a lot of the gig rather than coming in to watch - perhaps the seats were for them...

Anyway, the music was great - their live sets always blow me away. The interactions between the band memebers clearly comes of long familiarity and friendship, and the free sections are quite fascinating. Allon was having issues with his bari, which was refusing to speak properly at points, which meant they finished the first set earlier than intended and played a longer second set. These things happen - there are so many bits to go wrong on a saxophone! No-one in the audience minded. A spare was duly obtained just in case the fix didn't hold. It reminded me of a gig of theirs I saw in the City Halls Recital Room where Paul's F# stopped working and repairs had to be improvised mid-set then as well.

I wish I could have stayed for the whole thing, but I was up at 5:25am today again for work, as usual, plus, I've acquired a tickly cough that refuses to go away at the moment, and I was trying very hard not to cough through the first set as it was. More sleep, that's what I need.

Upcoming

Some good stuff coming up in the next couple of weeks / months.

This Thursday, the awesome Brass Jaw are playing at the Glasgow Art Club (185 Bath Street) from 8pm - tickets £6/£5 on the door. Here is a taster to whet your appetite!



I think Ryan's trumpet solo is going straight over the microphone and bouncing around the room in this recording.

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The following Thurday, Michael Janisch is playing the same venue (same time and price also) with his latest group of UK and US folks, including Jason Palmer (trumpet), Paul Booth (sax), Leonardo Genovese (piano) and Colin Stranahan (drums).

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Next Friday, 29th, Norwegian group Katzenjammer are playing in King Tut's - can't wait! This is the sort of thing we're talking about, although all their tracks are unique in style:



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Next month, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra are touring, playing Torah with Tommy Smith as the soloist (he's also the composer) and Beauty & The Beast with saxophonist Bill Evans from the USA as soloist [his website is a weird fusion of jazz and folk/bluegrass]. Should be an excellent combination! I've seen Torah before, but not Beauty & The Beast. The tour dates are:

19th May - Greyfriars Church, Lanark
20th May - Queen's Hall, Edinburgh
21st May - RSAMD, Glasgow
22nd MayCaird Hall, Dundee

Each concert starts at 7:30pm, with a pre-concert talk with Tommy Smith and Bill Evans at 6:45pm.

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Speaking of Tommy Smith, he is touring with his Karma group - the London gig is next week, but the other dates are later. The CD is excellent - I highly recommend it. Reminds me of the styling of Beasts of Scotland in several places, but is heavier and more funk oriented. I'll post about it in more detail at some point. The group includes Steve Hamilton (piano), Kevin Glasgow (electric bass) and Alyn Cosker (drums). The tour dates for that are:

28th Apr - Pizza Express, London
24th Jun - Blue Lamp, Aberdeen
25th Jun - Islesburgh Centre, Shetland
29th Jun - Stereo, Glasgow
30th Sep - Cambridge Modern Jazz Club Hidden Rooms, Cambridge
2nd Oct - Herts Jazz Club, Welwyn Garden City
4th Oct - Band On The Wall, Manchester
5th Oct - The Goodfellowship Inn, Hull
7th Oct - Wakefield Sports Club, Wakefield
8th Oct - Capstone Theatre, Hope University Creative Campus, Liverpool

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Finally, and possibly the one I'm most excited about seeing, check out this line-up that's playing in Perth on Sunday 24th July:

Steve Cropper
Donald "Duck" Dunn
Eddie Floyd
Lester Snell
Steve Potts


!!!

How awesome is that! A line-up including three members of the Stax house band (Booker T & The MGs) a classic Stax singer / songwriter perhaps most famous for Knock on Wood, and a staple Memphis keyboard player noted for working with Isaac Hayes! If you have any interest in classic soul music and the Stax label in particular, this is not a gig to miss!

We visited the re-created Stax recording studios when we were in Memphis back in October last year and it was great to be in such a place and see the history of it. I must put up some pictures from that trip sometime (i.e. when I get round to processing them properly).

This gig is, as far as I can find out, a one-off UK gig for the group. Perhaps more dates will emerge nearer the time. It is part of Perth's Southern Fried Festival, a celebration of American folk and roots music. The festival also includes The Blind Boys of Alabama on Fri 22nd July, who we saw a year and a half ago at the London Jazz Festival. They were very good.

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