thu 12/12/2019

theartsdesk at the 2014 Glasgow Jazz Festival | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the 2014 Glasgow Jazz Festival

theartsdesk at the 2014 Glasgow Jazz Festival

Happy, hard-swinging variety on the Clyde

Zara McFarlane and band at the Rio club, GlasgowPhoto by David Welsh

Saturday commuters sprinting for the 17.33 to Ardrossan find themselves dodging an obstacle course of swing-dancing young couples, soundtracked by a pensionable trad jazz band. A shifting crowd of about 100 pause in their journeys at Glasgow Central station to enjoy Penman’s Jazzmen, skilful Scottish veterans comfortable with each other and the demands of this century-old New Orleans music.

Four days into 2014’s Glasgow Jazz Festival, its existence will have been news to many of the Glaswegians entertained by this enterprising street gig. More obviously momentous events are signposted around the city. A superstore flogging merch for July’s Commonwealth Games dominates George Square, with its statues of Victorian Scottish heroes from James Watt to Walter Scott almost permanently crowned by pigeon shit. A Scotland Yes campaign office for September’s independence vote has a stirring Sunday Herald editorial in its window. The Union, it declares, is an “auld song” 300 years in the singing, which has reached its last verse. For those walking on from George Square, deeper into the ancient and bohemian Merchant City district, the 28th Glasgow Jazz Festival still holds its own. Without the budget and star-power of its leviathan London equivalent, it does shoestring wonders instead in showcasing jazz’s vast range at its most entertaining. And the bands rise to meet the up-for-it attitude of the crowds in one of the great music cities.

I arrive on Thursday for Dr. Bjorn Heile’s lecture on Jazz on Screen, which opens up a lost world where priceless clips of Duke Ellington and co. were churned out as test card-style filler for Fifties US TV. This rapid primer in jazz’s past glories braces me for present-day British trailblazers the Neil Cowley Trio, pictured above right by Tom Barnes, who headline that evening in the wrought-iron splendour of City Halls’ Old Fruitmarket. Viking-bearded bassist Rex Horan wrings his hands after they’ve blurred high on his instrument’s neck for “Fable”, as thrilling crescendos combine dance music’s inevitable rush and jazz’s organic intrigue. Awkward scheduling means missing most of another rising British band, Sons of Kemet, in atmospheric basement club the Rio. Like Cowley, they have visual as well as musical presence, as sax and tuba and two drummers face each other to play sinuous, sometimes thunderous melodies.

Jazz’s ability to explore great songwriting is one festival theme, as Ireland’s Christine Tobin takes on Leonard Cohen in his 80th year. The Scottish summer sun and high white beams of City Halls’ Recital Room make Cohen’s dark emotional frailties harder than usual to find. Tobin’s lithe vocal strength does, though, smuggle “Take This Waltz”’s bittersweet rapture between the sunbeams.

Glasgow's Leo Condie, pictured left, sings Jacques Brel at the Rio on Friday. His awkwardness between songs finds an outlet as his body twists and voice quavers with frustration and grand compensatory fantasies. He applies angular campness and tragic grandeur to Brecht, Scott Walker and Neil Hannon, too. On “Breakfast”, by Dundee’s Associates, Condie’s voice hits sky-cracking heights of defiance which would have made their late singer Billy Mackenzie proud. Todd Gordon and Jacqui Dankworth’s The Frank and Ella Show is meanwhile offering a more familiar songbook in the Grand Hall, with the help of the Scottish Swing Orchestra. Both singers remember the restrained dignity tonight’s models Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald could give their music, never sinking to mere impersonation. “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” has me in Pavlovian tears, and “The Lady Is A Tramp”’s boisterous worldliness will never get old. Some of the crowd, in their sixties and up, stamp the floor to the big band pop roar of their youth. Serving these loyal fans of jazz’s near neighbour, swing, helps make this a rounded festival.

Saturday’s Jamaican theme, spotlighting the black British jazzers who have broken the scene open to West Indian sounds since the Eighties, is an unbroken delight. Trombonist Dennis Rollins’ Velocity Trio cover “Money” with a swaggering soul-jazz groove wholly foreign to the Pink Floyd original, but lapped up by Mod-minded Glaswegians down in the Rio. Courtney Pine, pictured right, in his second year of touring his House of Legends tribute to multiple Caribbean styles, as usual underplays the simple beauty he is capable of for super-speed improvisation. Sometimes his band almost shake apart from the strain of the constant rain of notes, but Pine’s engaging force of personality still wins everyone over. Disappointingly few return to the Old Fruitmarket for Jazz Jamaica’s late-night show of big band reggae, but dozens of them are dancing so hard, it doesn't matter. Hard-blowing saxophonist Binker Golding is on a double-shift, legging it upstairs from Zara McFarlane’s Rio gig, where he was almost as stellar as the singer. McFarlane has a relaxed vocal charisma and great band that her spare new album If You Knew Her doesn’t fully convey, and the crowd roar her back, minus her double-booked sax.

A fast Saturday cab-ride also squeezed in Bill Wells’ National Jazz Trio of Scotland’s launch for new album Standards Vol. III, across the Clyde at the Glad Café. A recent winner of Scottish Album of the Year with Aidan Moffat, Wells’ relation to jazz is tangential and certainly unofficial, but it’s standing room only at this boho outpost.

Sunday lunchtime finds me in the atmospheric, dark-wooded Tron Theatre Bar listening to the local Tom MacNiven/Phil O’Malley Quintet playing warm, Fifties-style bop. Back at City Halls, British free jazz improvising giant Evan Parker is celebrating his 70th year with a solo show, where high flute-like skirls are met by sounds from elsewhere on his soprano sax like the rest of an orchestra tuning up. He’s still playing as my train leaves a festival that could reach out to touch its city more, but is doing many things right.

Dennis Rollins’ Velocity Trio cover “Money” with a swaggering soul-jazz groove wholly foreign to Pink Floyd


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