What a Whopper!
A personal view of the Shetland Jazz Festival by Jeff Merrifield

I might be thought to be biased when it comes to reviewing the first Shetland Jazz Festival, but I will try hard to be as objective as possible. It was wonderfully, phenomenally, terrifically and unbelievably fantastic. Each of those descriptive words could have been prefixed by an emphatic expletive to make more impact and would not have been out of place. In evidence I can only refer to the shower of praise and expressions that came from smiling audiences as they left each and every concert.

So let’s go through the rich cornucopia of offerings day by day. The festival kicked off in a decidedly low key way when Brass Jaw and the Nova Scotia Jazz Band braved the cold Friday evening to play to the few folks who turned out or were passing at the Market Square. The music was terrific but the weather was more brass monkey than Brass Jaw. It was all highly entertaining, but just the hors d'oeuvre for the remarkable evening that was soon to follow.

The Town Hall was packed and it looked as if we might have an embarrassment on our hands as we had forgotten to include the musicians free passes in our numbers and there were people who had bought seats could not get them. Oh well, if that was our only problem it was not that bad a one. Honorary jazz club president Norman Willmore said a few opening words and then played some superb alto sax with his friend Max Tyler on piano. They finished with a number they had recently composed and they brought the house down. But more was still to come. Nova Scotia Jazz Band took to the stage and played their delightful brand of classic jazz from the era of Bix Beiderbecke and Mugsy Spanier. Having said that, they do rip into tunes and play them with exuberance that becomes infectious. By the time they reached the moment in the set where banjo player Duncan Finlay had his feature spot, they had the audience in the palm of their hands. Duncan, cornet player Mike Daly, jovial frontman John Burgess on clarinet and tenor, and bass anchor Ken Macdonald will always be welcome back to these shores.

After the interval Brass Jaw took to the stage, arriving through the audience playing their instruments. From then on it was just excitement and amazement as they power-housed through a range of tunes with gusto beyond belief. Three saxes and a trumpet that made sounds the Archangel Gabriel would have been proud of. Paul Towndrow on alto, Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor, Allon Beauvoisin on baritone and the remarkable Ryan Quigley on trumpet. No, they are all remarkable. They play like there is no tomorrow, yet there is an abundance of passion, dynamism and most of all fun in everything they play. This was a joyous concert and the best possible start to our first jazz festival. It was oh so gratifying to stand on the door as the audience made their way out and receive copious praise, like some vicar at the conclusion of a particularly evangelistic service. Maybe there is more to that simile than is evident. The jazz club is on a mission to make jazz more popular and in this respect our evangelism paid off – as indeed it would further do for the rest of the weekend.

Saturday was our most packed day. In the morning a small audience gathered to see the jazz films at the Garrison. I first saw Jazz On A Summer’s Day in 1969 and it has, for sure, stood the test of time. Beautifully photographed by Bert Stern there are stunning performances by Anita O’Day singing Tea For Two at machine gun speed wearing a hat as big as an umbrella, Louis Armstrong doing his perfect impersonation of Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk playing as good as he ever did and the Jimmy Giuffre Trio playing The Train And The River in as haunting a way as imaginable. The final performance in the film brought a tear to my eye as gospel singer extraordinaire Mahalia Jackson sang The Lord’s Prayer . You do not have to be of a religious persuasion to find this a seminally religious experience. This was evangelism for jazz on a major scale. Pity more people did not take the opportunity to see this film. Same with the documentary film about Annie Ross. Made with backing from Creative Scotland this is a warts and all review of the great singer’s life. And boy, was it a hard life. She is getting on in years now and the voice is not as sharp and lithesome as it once was – but she still lights up a stage whenever she appears – she’s a jazz Judy Garland.

The afternoon was split. Part of the jazz committee went up to Busta with the Nova Scotia Jazz Band, the Becc Sanderson Trio and Norman Goudie and Friends. Here's a review of that by Jazz Committee member Chris Horrix:

Jazz on a Summer Afternoon at Busta

Busta House, always innovative and welcoming, was an appropriate venue for Becc Sanderson’s songs – all associated with flowers. With a backdrop of bluebells and primula, Becc treated us to a roller coaster range of songs, from Judy Garland’s Boy Next Door to a driving version of Elvis Costello’s Poison Rose.

Becc’s husband, trombonist Chris Greive – particularly effective in the slow, echoing entry into a Radiohead number – and accomplished guitarist Graeme Stephen provided the impressively flexible background to the songs, with the marquee tent flapping as percussion!

There were some funny moments - when Becc sang the line ‘blowing in the breeze’ in a Billy Strayhorn number, and referred to ‘shadows of dark clouds’ when singing Loudon Wainright. She looked glamorous and suitably windswept, even discarding her voile wrap when a committed jazz fan noted positively that the temperature had risen by 1 o in the middle of the set.

Next on were some of our home grown musicians, led by Norman Goudie. He and his band continued to raise temperatures, commencing with a lively rendition of It Had to be You. It was great to hear Alan and Calum Nicolson on accordion and xylophone, proving that you can swing on just about any instrument.

Nova Scotia Jazz Band came on to deliver the final set, and the audience were soon tapping toes to their modern take on classic jazz, with stunning solos from Mike Daly on cornet, Duncan Findlay on the banjo, the string bass of Ken Macdonald and the sweet sax of John Burgess. It may have been one of their coldest gigs ever, but one of the warmest receptions.

There was a full marquee for this venue with jazz fans demonstrating their commitment – it was a cold day, but well warmed not only by the hot drinks provided by Busta House for the folks who couldn’t get a seat inside the marquee, but also by the hot jazz provided by Becc’s trio, the Nova Scotia jazz band and our own redoubtable Norman Goudie and his Friends.

Chris Horrix

I stayed in Lerwick, essentially because I was playing in the first performance of the Shetland Improvisers Orchestra. Now, let me be perfectly frank about this project. As a devotee of free improvised music, the main reason I initiated this series of free workshops leading to a performance was so I could get a chance of a blow. I don’t get many opportunities to play this kind of music so it was for very selfish reasons that this was set up. Raymond MacDonald, now professor of music at the University of Edinburgh and who helped develop this project, said there was no better reason for doing it than my personal desire to participate. I had been to the last Glasgow Jazz Festival particularly to look at a showcase of Scottish bands that we might book. The Nova Scotia Jazz Band came from that source, but so did this idea. I saw the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra twice and asked Raymond MacDonald and George Burt, who had founded that group ten years earlier, if they would come to Shetland and help set up such a group here. My review of this is therefore from the point of view of a participant and, for me, it was (expletive deleted) incredible. A great rollicking sound house to be a part of, capable of subtle noises of incredible delicacy and loud roaring waves of sound that troubled the soul. The big revelations in the group were the powerful free form drumming of Norman Willmore, for ever the star on whatever instrument, and the absolutely beautiful singing of Jill Slee Blackadder that had knocked us all for six from the very first time we heard her. The group has moulded very well and there are plans for a concert at a free music festival somewhere in the world and to bring out the music recorded here on the Future Music Records label. MacDonald and Burt then played a set of their own musical offerings that featured alto playing where circular breathing comes as the norm and guitaring that sparks and spins in all directions. They have dynamics that are to be savoured, from the quiet subtleties of low intensity to great waves of sound that rip apart like lightning strikes. The highlight for me was a free form country inspired thing by George Burt. It had incredible energy and was great fun.

 

Just before this, in the afternoon, I had the privilege to be in the audience for the Jazz Circus performance, where the Shetland Community School of Ballet, the Singing Saturdays and the Shetland Gymnasts had put together a magnificent performance. Music was provided by the very busy Norman Willmore, Max Tyler and Douglas Stevenson.. The overall direction was by Matthew Lawrence with help from John Morris and Andy Ross. The ringmaster was expertly portrayed by Kevin Briggs. Some sixty or so performers in the most beautiful costumes, with singing and dancing and gymnastic gyrations all to ragtime and jazz music. It was great. I loved it, the kids in the audience loved it, the mums and dads loved it, everyone loved it. What a triumph! What a great community event!

The evening was something else. The Clickimin Centre was almost full and all of the audience were in for a feast of music that was truly inspiring. Becc Sanderson was on first. She, too, is on an evangelical mission, to promote the regenerative powers of the torch song. She calls her show Passion Flower and all the songs are about flowers with all their associations of love and death and beauty. She has a range of songs from Edith Piaf to Radiohead that she has reinterpreted and calls New Torch Songs. The audience was wooed and she got a truly rapturous reception. When she had played here last year she played to only a handful of people, now she played to a much bigger audience and they were captivated.

Then came the main course. The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra kicked off with the Culloden Moor Suite , written and performed by their special guest Bobby Wellins. This was a serious piece of music, with the beauty and peacefulness of the moor contrasted with the bloody noisiness of battle. The highlight came when drummer Alyn Cosker came to the front of the stage with a snare drum and starting from a simple military paradiddle built up a great crescendo of drum sounds that was like an army preparing for battle – all on the one drum. This led to the warring section with splintering brass, a roaring sax section and all the noise and fury of the fighting. Most of the solos were by Bobby Wellins and he excelled in form, in content and in the powerful passion of his playing. This was a piece of music it was indeed a privilege to hear and I am so glad we were able to present one of its rare performances here at our first Shetland Jazz Festival.

The second part of the SNJO concert was made up of classic big band pieces from Duke Ellington, Oliver Nelson, Bobby Wellins and from Tommy Smith, the director of the group. The solos from the various band members were all impeccable, especially from Tom MacNiven and Ryan Quigley on trumpets, Kevin Garrity on trombone and Tommy Smith on tenor. But it was the overall band sound that was truly great. A trumpet section that flashed, a trombone section that powered and a sax section that provided that gentle lyrical quality that characterises big band jazz. All this was achieved with consummate musicianship and expertise. Steve Hamilton on keyboard, Callum Gourlay on bass and Alyn Cosker on drums supplied a steady foundation for the rest of the band to build upon. Recent winners of the Parliamentary Jazz Awards as the best jazz group in Britain, this was a band at the top of its form. Brilliant.

But all was not over. A trio of intrepid exploring musicians had been staying at Saxa Vord in Unst for the previous five days, putting together a series of tunes based on the landscape and environment of the most northerly Shetland island. The group is NeWt and consists of Graeme Stephen on guitar, the Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year, Chris Greive on trombone, played through a bass amplifier with sound effects, and Chris Wallace on drums. They are a quirky freewheeling ensemble of artistic genius – and this gig proved it. Their music can be subtle and delicate or brash and violent, but it’s always interesting. Their hour-long set, recorded live for release on CD, was accompanied by live images from their Unst experiences, and was live-streamed around the world (as had been the SNJO sets) and there were reports of likes from as far afield as New York. Many people stayed the whole course of the Clickimin jazz festival experience, which had begun at 7pm and finally ended around ten past midnight. NeWt were given a standing ovation for their enduring creativeness in producing such music over just five days. And our very packed day was over – except for the stage and technical crew, who had a long night ahead of them taking everything down. Often overlooked for the invaluable work that they do, I would like to say here how grateful we all were for their magnificent efforts. Well done, guys.

Sunday was Olympic torch day, when the magic flame was brought to Shetland. Our own festival events began at Tingwall Hall, where Steve Hamilton worked with a group of local jazz musicians loosely termed the Shetland Jazz Collective. Helen Tait, Norman Goudie and the young musicians of Troppo Funk have been very supportive of this project, where a number of sessions have been arranged over the last few months with well-known pianists. At Tingwall they put together a number of jazz standards ready for a public performance. This gig was laid back and very pleasant – Sunday lunchtime jazz with buffet food and a pint or two. The second half of this gig was in the capable hands of the Bespoke Quartet – Steve Hamilton on piano, Tom MacNiven on trumpet, Callum Gourlay on bass and Alyn Cosker on drums. It was great to have such top-class musicians playing in a hall in Tingwall. They played a really strong set of standards and originals that allowed each of them to display their own excellent musicianship. There are plans to have regular Jazz Collective sessions, possibly in the new Mareel, under the name of First Sunday Jazz .

The evening saw our final gig of the festival in the form of the Olympic Suite . This was to celebrate the torch arriving in Lerwick and was based on the music of the five continents of the Olympic rings. I’d booked the highly-respected and often-controversial saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and his Orient House pianist Frank Harrison to take charge of this. Gilad is renowned for combining diverse music in complex arrangements – Israeli with Palestinian, German with Eastern European and so on. Here was a bigger challenge, but he’s a big man and I knew he would be well up to it.

Gilad and Frank began the concert with the music of Asia and the Middle East. They played a range of things that included Arabic and Klezmer, but also a French piece that Gilad jokily passed off as Algerian. He is ever the jester and had his pianist imitating the movement of a camel at one point. But his expertise of clarinet is beyond question and he always plays with a controlled passion. Next up were Aestaewast with their inimitable brand of drum and dance pieces from the African continent. A community group they have learned the music of Africa and Afro-Cuban cultures and regularly play gigs around Shetland. They played a distinctive short set that showed off their musical prowess in these areas and then Gilad joined them for a rip-roaring finale to their set. Then Troppo Funk took to the stage and produced a powerful set of North American style tunes that raised the audience response up a degree or two. They played their young socks off and gave us some of the best music in the festival. Their last number was played with Gilad on sax and this really took off and brought the first half to a roof-raising crescendo. It was a very smiling interval.

The second half was opened by Chris Stout and Brazilian Theory. This music is almost impossible to singularly define, blending the purest traditional music with wildly diversifying influences including jazz, Brazilian and a myriad of styles drawn from around the world. It is totally unique. They played a mind-blowing set where they brought together all these elements in a way that appeared effortless but must have taken hours of refinement. Add to that Frank Harrison and Gilad Atzmon and the brew became infectious. Chris Stout had said he was looking forward to working with Gilad and this meeting of musical giants was worth the price of the ticket admission alone. This was a great set in a terrific concert. Gilad and Frank took care of the Oceania section, which opened with some authentic South Sea island music from the David Fanshawe collection. And then we came to the Europe section that had been scheduled to open the evening but which had to be moved to allow fiddle player Maggie Adamson to attend a civic function. Maggie had been one of the Shetland torch carriers earlier in the day and she now arrived on stage to play with Brian Nicholson and Friends carrying the Olympic torch.

It nearly brought the house down, so loud was her reception. The group played their way through a set of Django-inspired songs as made familiar by the Hot Club de Fladdabister. They were joined for a final playing of Django’s Nuages by Gilad and the concert ended on this wonderfully sweet note. Except most of the musicians that had played in the evening came back on stage for a massed finale – Billie’s Bounce by Charlie Parker. It was so good the audience asked for more and a version of Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk was hurriedly put together to great acclamation. And that was it. The end of the Olympic Suite and the end of the First Shetland Jazz Festival. There was one things that was self-evident. We will all do it again in the next year. See you all then.

Jeff Merrifield