You’ve got to hand it to that larger than life character Jeff Merrifield (AKA Dr Jazz) and his fellow Shetland Jazz Club cohorts: they’ve certainly got the local jazz scene on the ‘up’.
Not only do we now have the privilege of regularly hosting some of the leading names on the UK and international jazz scene, but thanks to them Shetland now also boasts it’s very own jazz festival; the content, quality and diversity of which already matches (or often surpasses) almost any other event of its kind throughout the UK.
That’s the background to why we find ourselves in the Lerwick Town Hall on Friday night to kick off the second – hopefully now annual - Shetland Jazz Festival.
Admitting to being “knackered already” Dr Jazz himself is nevertheless clearly bristling at the prospect of it all. “Jazz is a broad church of styles,” he says “and you’ll witness that here tonight.”
He’s right about that and no mistake. Young Shetland band Troppo Funk come screaming out of the blocks with their blistering blend of funk, jazz and soul, shattering the natural ambience of the normally sedate town hall and threatening to do the same to its historic stain glass windows.
Age should not define talent of course, but these relatively young guys, led by the musically irrepressible Norman Wilmore on sax, are simply amazing – indeed I’d go so far as to say they are perhaps the best group of contemporary young musicians ever to emerge from Shetland; a bold statement perhaps – but equally hard to refute.
With the dust settling again, local singer Alison Kay Ramsay restores the natural ambience of the surroundings and delights everyone with her smooth Gershwin laden set. Surrounded by some of Shetland’s finest jazz musicians she’s clearly nervous – but both she and her voice gain in confidence as the set progresses. Indeed this musically diverse young lady grows in confidence with every gig she does. One to watch for sure.
Next we are introduced to Trio Red, a simply stunning ensemble featuring regular Shetland visitor Tom Bancroft on drums, Tom Cawley from London on piano andNorwegian bassist Per Zanussi (introduced as “half fruit, half kitchen appliance” by Bancroft). They are, in turns, challenging and accessible - master musicians and improvisers in true jazz style.
Their tune titles are equally as imaginative as their music. Boy Meets Boy Meets Girl Meets Girl; Opportunity Lonely Woman and The Mole of History Takes a Bow....and Trips. You have to laughingly wonder what’s going on in composer Tom Bancroft’s head at times. Astounding is the only word that applies however.
“The nearest thing to jazz royalty” is how Merrifield introduces distinctive Scottish jazz vocalist Fionna Duncan. Slightly bloodied, but certainly not unbowed, by the fact she’s clearly suffering from a bad cold (jazz musicians are obviously not put off by such mere inconveniences) Duncan impressively delivers what can only be termed a thoroughly engaging and entertaining set, at times steeped as much in the blues tradition as the jazz one.
“I’ve been singing this since God was a boy” she quips – much to the delight of the audience - as she introduces another ‘classic’. She’s as much a terrific interpretator of songs as she is a singer, and with a stellar band line-up featuring award-winning double bassist Ronnie Rae (at a sprightly 75 years old) Tom Bancroft on drums and Scotland’s explosive pianist extraordinaire Brian Kellock on board, she simply can’t fail and, as always, she delivers and then some!
It’s certainly been the wonderful evening that was promised at the outset, with perhaps the most gratifying element of the whole event being the sheer number of young faces in the audience, clearly engaged and enjoying every moment
So given this, and the sterling efforts of Shetland Jazz Club in a wider context, it’s clear we’re not only in for another terrific weekend of music, but Shetland would also appear to have a very healthy jazz future indeed.
THE ORGANISERS of this year’s Shetland jazz Festival have been praised by one of the UK’s most outstanding jazz musicians.
Speaking after an extraordinary concert in Mareel on Saturday night that won standing ovations from an enthusiastic audience, Tim Garland said festivals such as this could not be staged without the passion of its organisers.
The composer and saxophonist had brought his hugely successful Lighthouse trio to Shetland, as well as the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland (NYJOS), a group the Grammy winner regularly works with.
NYJOS are no strangers to Shetland, as it is the youngsters of this hugely talented big band who had the unexpected honour to play the very first concert in Mareel back in August last year.
Garland recalled how he got a phone call from Shetland’s own Jeff Merrifield who had seen his work with the NYJO during a television broadcast of the Proms.
Garland had performed once or twice in Merrifield’s jazz club in Essex in the early nineties, and Shetland’s Dr Jazz was quick to renew an old friendship.
“It was back in 1993,” Garland mused,” but I always remembered him because he is such a memorable character.
“It is great to see him again after so many years and in a completely different part of the country, doing his thing.”
A deal was quickly struck, and Shetland Jazz festival had a headline act that would be the envy of many jazz festivals up and down the country.
Introduced as one of the best jazz trios in the world, Garland on sax, Gwilym Simcock on piano and Asaf Sirkis on drums and percussion needed no time at all to prove why they attract rave reviews from around the globe.
Their groove-based tunes had an unsurpassed clarity and precision, while giving plenty of room for every individual artist’s virtuosity to shine. Intoxicating!
Sirkis’ work on the UFO-shaped Hang drum, which he managed to integrate into his custom built drum kit, was undoubtedly one of the highlights.
Garland, who regularly works with legend Chick Corea, said the Shetland festival showed all signs of becoming a unique event.
“It is a cool thing coming to Shetland. People think ‘Where is that again?’
“I know the folk scene is strong up here, but the jazz festival has every chance to thrive. I really wish Jeff and the crew all the best,” he said.
The final two concerts of the second Shetland Jazz Festival were held on Sunday at the Tingwall hall and Lerwick Town Hall.
Planning next year’s event, again likely to be held in February, is already under way.
17 February 2013
Let me tell you how it feels to have helped organise a festival of jazz like we had over the last weekend, seven gigs that came together, often reaching sublime pinnacles, seven parts that added up undoubtedly to more than the sum of the whole. I’ll tell you how it feels, marvellous!
As a sort of hors d’oeuvre to the feast that was to follow, the ever-confident sax player Norman Willmore accompanied me on a reading of the celebrated Ginsberg beat poem Howl!
It is a complex and difficult piece, often stream of consciousness about heavy subjects such as mental illness and homosexual relationships in a time when such relationships were regarded as mental illness. Yet Willmore grasped the power of the piece and gave it a soundscape to match the passion, the damaged lives, the joyous nature of human bonding. There were two shows, the first in the evening had a small yet appreciative audience, but the late night second journey through these troubled ideas had a full audience of mostly young people. It amazed me how attentive and involved in the piece they were, a group of 21 st century young people listening to the ravings and furies of a 1950s beat poet. Just like sax player Willmore got it, the young audience got it and there was a buzz of excitement at the end, maybe like the first reading in the City Lights Bookstore of New York, not because of the power of the controversy as then, but by the sheer power of the poetry.
The Gala Concert at the Town Hall on Friday night was the first in a trio of scintillating evening headline gigs over the weekend. It began with a vigorous performance by the young Shetland band Troppo Funk with Norman Willmore’s sax prominent and Joe Watt’s guitar putting down angular sound patterns underneath him. It reminded me a bit of James Blood Ulmer with Ornette Coleman, but I think the guys arrived at the sound themselves rather than copying anyone in particular. Not everyone in the audience was impressed, its not everyone’s cup of tea, but most were totally blown away. Jazz is indeed a broad church and there was something for every taste in this gig. Next up was Alison Kay Ramsay and a band with some of Shetland’s finest jazz musicians including Helen Tate on saxes. This was a delightful set of familiar songs sung with charm and a slightly vulnerable edge that brings to mind Billie Holliday. Alison is a much underrated talent but this outstanding set showed her considerable capabilities.
Next on stage was Trio Red fronted by the irrepressible drummer Tom Bancroft. The brilliant pianist Tom Caley from London and Norwegian bass virtuoso Per Zanussi, who had just flown in from Stavanger with his bass in a big box, made up the trio and they were astonishing. Their recently released CD First Hello to the Last Goodbye set the jazz world alight. Because they live so far apart there are not many live gigs, so this was a rare opportunity to hear a group who really do have something to say and do so with passion and panache.
The irreplaceable and adorable Fionna Duncan was on next with hubby Ronnie Rae on bass, the effervescent Brian Kellock playing some remarkable piano and Tom Bancroft guesting on drums. As I said on the night, Fionna is as near to jazz royalty as you can get and she really deivers a song as if it was the most important four minutes of your life. The audience hung on to her every word and her excess of charisma even allowed her to make a feature out of her cold. The way she even made a disintegrating tissue a part of her act was as endearing as it was a ploy to win us over and reel us in. Her rapport with Brian Kellock in particular, but with all the musicians is a joy to behold. She graced us with some familiar and not so familiar songs from the songbooks of the great composers and the highlights for me were her renditions of Gershwin’s I Was Doing Alright and Harold Arlen’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.
And whilst all this was going on, Muddy Bay and the Deep Sea Rollers were rocking the rafters to a small but perfectly formed audience in Bixter, together with Maggie and Brian. I gather that this was a most enjoyable and entertaining session. It had been a great night which spilled over, as did most nights, into a jam session in the infamous Bop Shop, which became a real feature of the festival doubling as a festival office and a hang out for after hours music making. Jim Iveson’s old fishing tackle shop has certainly found a new lease of life for the promotion of jazz music.
Saturday featured an afternoon set of improvised pieces from the Shetland Improvisers Orchestra and an array of special guests. The ensemble grows in confidence at each and every gig. A piece called A Round of Duos, where each member of the group plays a duet in turn with a neighbouring musician. To add spice to this technique John Morris, a New York dancer and choreographer who now lives in Shetland, performed improvised dance in and out of the duets. It was a stunning dance performance, strong on form and pace, deriving inspiration from the musical forms flowing around and between the dance movements. Another highlight was a hearty rendition of a piece inspired by a Kevin Ayers song but which takes it to another level. Entitled It begins with a Blessing and it Ends with a Curse the piece is built around a strong rhythmic beat and grows or subsides according to the dynamics of the players. A duet between vocalist Jill Slee Blackadder and recorder player Clare Aldingtom was absolutely stunning and was most warmly appreciated. There were guest appearances from Trio Red who played a completely improvised short set with the same sort of dynamic as their set the previous evening but allowing them to be more ambitious and liberated. A bass duet between Per Zanussi and Ronnie Rae was unique, given the location of the two musicians, and their performance was greeted with howls of approval from a truly appreciative audience. This was musical excellence personified from two musicians who really enjoyed each other. Tom Bancroft and baritone sax player Graham Wilson joined the group for a wild rendition of Robbie Burn’s Tam O’Shanter, delivered with heartiness by Dave Hammond and with charm by Marjoleine Robertson plus improvised accompaniment from the orchestra. It wa’ stirrin’ stuff.
Tim Garland was the featured guest at the Mareel that evening, working in the first half with young musicians from the NYJOS Collective on pieces he had written and arranged. Similar to work he had done with NYJO, the southbound one, for a BBC Prom at the Albert Hall, Garland worked with the orchestra on several pieces of music from his own past repertoire. It was beautifully arranged and played, demonstrating how he has absorbed lessons in jazz arrangement from the likes of Chic Corea and John Dankworth. The young people rose to the occasion and there were some great solos integrated within the precise ensemble playing. Garland joined the orchestra for two final pieces the last one being a superb arrangement of that well-known tune that was used by Barry Norman on his film review show, Billy Taylor’s gospel inspired I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free) and the band played it with a supreme gusto. In the interval Norman Willmore had assembled young musicians from Dumfries, Aberdeen and Shetland to play a very fine set in the bar. This was a prelude to their Sunday appearance in Tingwall.
After the interval the music moved to another level entirely. Tim Garland’s Lighthouse is Gwilym Simcock on piano and Asaf Sirkis on percussion with Tim on a variety of reed instruments. That said all three are at a genius level of playing and to see them fair takes your breath away. Simcock’s fingers fly over the piano keyboard like demented ants. At one point he was playing a full Celtic backing riff with just one hand and doing all sorts of interesting things with the other. He astounded us all. Equally Asaf Sirkis is a player you just cannot take your eyes off. A featured number on the Hang drum, a sort of flying saucer-looking steel drum with other rhythmic parts, absolutely brought the house down. He did drumming and percussion things that appeared unlikely and impossible, but he did such things over and over again. Garland’s playing is consummate and all-embracing. He swoops and soars, is subtle and forceful, melancholic and enriching. Put the three together and they are an unbelievable musical force. I lost count of how many people told me they had just had the best musical experience of their lives. It was truly transcendent music. Asaf wants to come back with his own trio and for sure we will arrange that later in the year.
That takes us to Sunday, which began with a lunchtime gig at the Tingwall Hall. It was a lovely spring day as a large audience filed in and were treated to some excellent home-grown music. Well, almost home-grown, as Norman Willmore had brought Liam Shorthall and Alistair Payne from Dumfies and Finlay Jamieson from Aberdeen. They were joined by Max Tyler, Hayden Hook and Rodrigo Ferrrari Nunes to form a band with a driving rhythm section and a powerful brass section. They powered their way through a full hour of music, anything from Duke Ellington to angular modern jazz pieces. When the audience demanded an encore some members of the group looked blank, but Willmore whispered “It’s a blues in C” and they launched into a fabulous ten minute journey round the twelve bar format that was a strong as any jazz standard.
We staggered to the next venue, the Town Hall, which featured an evening of Jazz in the Hot Club Style. Maggie and Brian opened the proceeding with a mixture of gypsy music, galloping rags and a beautiful rendition of Over the Rainbow that moves from a feel of Eva Cassady to the swing world of the hot club style. It is a tour de force and Maggie plays it with all the ease and élan she has become renowned for. Alison Kay Ramsay sang us more songs from her growing repertoire, with Brian on guitar and Norman Goudie on bass. One again she held the audience enchanted with her vulnerable and keenly-felt vocals, again reminiscent of Lady Day. When they were joined by Maggie the group was magically transformed into the Hot Club de Fladdabister and we were really into the hot club style.
Headlining this gig was Nigel Clark, one of Europe’s top guitarists, taking his inspiration from the jazz of Django Reinhardt and the classic songbooks of the Broadway composers. It is a winning combination and he plays familiar tunes with expert dexterity and fingering that is hard to believe when you think you see it. He played a very relaxed but very memorable set with the silky sound of his special Spanish nylon strings giving a smooth feel to the emerging music. For a finale Clark invited the others back on stage for some wholesome hot club playing and what a joy it was. It culminated in a fabulous rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown that really made the toes tap and the hands clap. It was a superb and perfect ending to a wonderful second jazz festival.
Whether there are more such festivals will depend on the funders rather than on that small group of members who enthusiastically put this festival together. If their enthusiasm and the response of the audience is a measure of it, then this jazz festival should become an annual event.
Director of Shetland Jazz Festival
The Great Grand Christmas Jazz Dinner
15 December - Town Hall
Featuring Brass Jaw playing special Chrissy Jazz + support
and Bo Simmons scrumtious gourmet Christmas food
JAZZ DINNER ANOTHER GOURMET SUCCESS
Shetland Jazz Club’s Christmas Jazz Dinner was another event full of succulent portions. The food was marvellous, the music was astonishing, the ambiance was incomparable and the Town Hall lived up to its growing standing as the very best venue in town.
Billy Sandilands and Matthew Lawrence had done their civic duty and laid out the hall to look magnificent. Chris Horrix, Lesley Roberts and Tracey Leith had provided that extra sprinkle of decorative magic that helps make a good event even better. Dave Hammond erected some tasteful lights, Stevie Hook and Amanda installed the sound, and we were ready for the off.
Greeted with a glass of brandy and sparkling wine people arrived and were eventually seated. As a fabulous selection of canapés was passing around the room, local group Mahogany took to the stage in the most unassuming of ways. “Just pretend we are not here, and get on and enjoy yourselves”, was vocalist Izzy Swanson’s direction – and it set the tone for the event. The music, the food, the chat all resided alongside each other for the rest of the evening like some nourishing Gestalt. Mahogany worked their way through a delightful set with their Andrews Sisters-style vocals and some great blowing from Helen Tait. The headline group Brass Jaw were sitting at a front table genuinely enjoying it all, particularly the excellent Mahogany rendition of Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).
By now we were nearing the end of the main course ( Turkey stuffed with a prune and apple stuffing with cranberry and orange sauce, white cabbage and dill seed, glazed carrots and potatoes with garlic, rosemary, cooked in stock – or a parsnip, gruyere and tomato bake vegetarian option) and two of the guys who had been helping serve tables, Hayden Hook and Norman Willmore, took to the stage and blew an immaculate short set of brilliantly played pieces along with Brazilian guitarist Rodrigo Nunes. This injection of contemporary jazz artistry was as surprisingly enjoyable as it was impromptu, and was much appreciated by the audience. Then Norman took off for another gig, Hayden cleared up more plates and Rodrigo melted back into the audience.
As the baklava and plain yoghurt was being set round and consumed with great pleasure, Brass Jaw took to the stage. They were at the end of an incident-packed national tour during which tenor sax player Konrad Wiszniewski had managed to severe a tendon in his hand (in a domestic accident) and put himself out of action for a few months. His place on the latter part of the tour had been taken, and most ably taken, by trombonist Michael Owers, previously here with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in our summer festival. This line-up offered a whole new texture to the ensemble, rather strangely giving the impression of a big band rather than simply a sax section. They largely played music from their award-winning album Branded but also threw in some Christmas arrangements that helped enhance the sprit of the occasion. Ryan Quigley’s trumpet playing on many of these Christmas treats was exceptional, even for a musician with such an exceptional reputation. Alto sax player Paul Towndrow blew his socks off, Michael Owers greatly enhanced the proceedings with some outstanding trombone playing and baritone sax ace Allon Beauvoisin was his usual chirpy self, providing much of the rhythmical underscoring but also playing some brilliant solos. The highlight for me was their phenomenal rendition of the Thelonious Monk tune Mysteriso, a sheer delight from start to finish.
There was an encore, of course, and then the whole thing was over. It was a bit like waking up from some delightful dream and bathing in the warm glow. As the audience drifted away into the wet winter night, the musos arranged to continue and the party moved to the new Bop Shop, which looks like becoming the regular après-ski for all jazz events in future. The storm of the previous night, which might well have stopped Brass Jaw getting here, was now forgotten and the talk was of the good things that had helped make a great night.
Merry Christmas to everyone from Shetland Jazz Club and we hope to thrill you with in the New Year with another action-packed festival.
21 December 2012