Shetland Jazz Club Reviews

Locals turn on the style at jazz festival opener

Full Swing impress with their big sound. Photo: Chris Brown

Full Swing impress with their big sound. Photo: Chris Brown

Despite the Jazz Festival’s change of date to the end of May there were no worries over the effect of the “old sea haar” on Friday night.

The first jazz “happening” of the festival featured local artistes and truly delivered an “eclectic mix” to kick things off.

The bleachers were out in the Mareel auditorium, and though caberet-style seating may have enhanced the atmosphere, restrained use of the smoke machine and the universal whiff of coffee set the scene.

As the rasps of Doctor Jazz, Jeff Merrifield, introduced “all that jazz” he reminded us of the tonic that this form of unregulated music could be.

The theme of this year’s festival is jazz and literature of the Beat Generation and the concert was dedicated to the late Stan Tracey and the more recently deceased Maya Angelou.

I was brought up in a household with a father who, though hailing from Burns’ country, preferred jazz to Scottish dance music. And locally, ever since the days of the Excelsior Jazz Band and Peerie Willie’s syncopated roots, jazz sits easily with an meandering ear in the music scene.

Opening the show, Mahogany were far from wooden.

Their jazz standards washed over the audience like a comfy chair with a sparky Izzy Swanson on vocals and Helen Tait’s thrilling sax for the tender moments. Not quite reaching the heights of Billie Holliday’s Lover Man, “I feel so bad think I’ll try something I never had” they set the scene for exerts of the “Great American song book” with Norman Willmore.

Norman Willmore shows how adept he is at the keyboard, as well as the saxophone. Photo: Chris Brown

Norman Willmore shows how adept he is at the keyboard, as well as the saxophone. Photo: Chris Brown

Shetland’s jazz tour de force was tickling the piano keys as adeptly as his trusty sax with a fresh look at the intonation of many classics in the form the deep resonance of Jane McLaren’s vocals. Nature’s Boy was especially rich.

Now for the duet of Robert Bennet and Alan McKay, not exactly cool in the jazz sense but laid back in a cornucopia of guitar dexterity.

They exuded a serene mood on the proceedings, Bennet reminding us that it takes “encouragement to be encouraging”. He admitted that he and McKay were not born to be wild but born to be mild.

Full Swing, with an impressive brass section, took a little time to come into their own but this 10-piece outing gave out a lush sound and certainly did get Under your Skin with their rendition of Mac the Knife.

At this stage the imagination was pleasantly flowing and knew no bounds when The Shetland Improvisers Orchestra took to the stage. An unknown quantity, there was truly an “eclectic mix” – a description that will never give them justice. I was told afterwards with all sincerity that “sometimes it works…”

There was a sense of relief that it had on this occasion.

I wasn’t quite sure why Alice in Wonderland had been translated into the Shetland dialect, but heh, life’s all about wonder.

Laureen Johnson’s words took the dialect to new places, as did The Jabberwocky with the English language.

On voyaging home this reviewer was left with the thought, you’re never quite sure what you’ll hear after you leave the house apon an evening. Jazz as ever pushes the boundaries and reminds us what an assorted muse the genre is.

As Peerie Willie Johnson once said sometimes “da silences in atween da notes is as important”.

Merrifield, has delivered a plucky experiment in jazz and literature in our own modest backyard.If Friday’s journey through the musical scales is anything to go by the weekend should be a good one.

Stephen Gordon



An Atlantic Edge Music / Davie Gardner Production - Tuesday 4 February 2014 - Hillswick Public Hall

It‘s a heck of a trek from Sandwick to Hillswick, but I ain’t half glad I made it on a rain-lashed stormy winter Tuesday night to experience a musical phenomenon of rare accomplished distinction.It was well worth the wintery journey to witness an astonishingly brilliant performance by the extraordinary flamenco-tinged guitarist Eduardo Niebla and his accompanist on second guitar Matthew Robertson. This was music to surge the passions and make you feel good with the world.

The evening was kicked off by Brian Nicholson playing as a duo with his son Arthur. Brian is widely recognised as one of Shetland's finest guitarists, whether playing in a traditional music context or material of a jazz-flavoured or more contemporary nature. Just like his father, Nicholson junior has been heavily involved in the Shetland music scene from a tender age and has played in a range of local bands over the years, developing sturdy guitaring and songwriting skills along the way. His neat finger picking and catchy songs earned Nicholson the prestigious Danny Kyle award with a solo performance at this year's Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. It was a joy to see father and son playing so well together. The great thing about what the Nicholsons do is that, alongside their musical dexterity, there is also an underlying sense of the humorous and an implicit determination to make us all happy. In these endeavours they succeed very well. Dressed in their typical Fair Isle sweaters they entertained us enormously.

After some highly accomplished opening traditional tunes such as we have come to expect as a duo, Arthur sang an exceptional song called Go For It, a liltingly lyrical song that I guess may well have been in his Celtic Connections set. Brian had a solo turn offering us the salutary tale Jimmy is a Bachelor, described by the composer as a ‘story of lust and passion in Yell, which may well have sent the house prices soaring there’. His song about what it must be like to be a Blue Whiting swimming off the shores of Shetland was not just a glorious piece of codology, it was an absolute delight as a song.

Then it was time for Eduardo Niebla. And what a revelation he turned out to be. He sat on a chair, a guitar on his knee, and amazed us with the fingering dexterity of a Django Reinhardt, the delicate subtlety of a Ravi Shankar, the driving intensity of a John McLaughlin, all imbibed with the flamenco passion of a Paco Peña. It was that good. This is music blessed by the gods of music and dance and celebration. Niebla conjures magic from his guitar with unbelievable cascades of sound that reverberate inside your head and leave you with an immense feeling of sublime well-being.I booked Niebla some decades ago at our Monkeys jazz club in Essex, when he played as a duo with Antonio Forcione. Then, he was a fresh-faced technical virtuoso playing alongside a musical soul-mate with the same amount of musical mastery. It was a perfect seminar of a performance in how to blend flamenco and jazz into a recital that surprised as much as much as the most elaborate firework display. Now, with the passing of the years, Niebla has matured into a consummate musician with a radiant personality and an inbuilt capacity to give pleasure through his playing.

His first two pieces were entitled India and Brazil and perfectly captured the essence of those two places as well as encapsulating their musical influences. We began to feel we were in for something very special indeed. My Gypsy Waltz was the title track from his new CD and it sweeps along like dancers in full flow on a ballroom floor. Para Margarita was a dedication to his mother and had all the love and devotion that could possibly be expressed. At the end of this piece he played a natural fade out that was sublime and could not have been bettered in a studio. There is a range to Niebla’s work that should not really be allowed with just one man and one guitar. He can do everything with it from driving percussion to the most delicate of finger-picking to the wild extravagances of a one-man ensemble. He played a Bolero of such intensity that Torvill and Dean would have been wildly flipping with their salcows and lutzs hardly able to keep up. And then he played a piece of satirical Italian pastiche entitled Macaroni. Humour as well.

At the end of the concert Niebla invited the Nicholsons back on stage to join himself and accompanist Robertson in a rousing finale piece that set the seal on an evening of pleasing delights. Together they created a big sound around Niebla’s great tune. The Nicholsons were not at all out of their depth. When quality musicians come together in musical appreciation something happens. And we were treated to that something in no uncertain terms as the evening was concluded by a guitar quartet in perfect tune with each other and with the cosmos. After the enormous applause had died down there was a sense of wonderment left in the hall. Grown men who have heard much good music in their lives just smiled at you and nodded in an assumed appreciation of something astonishingly marvellous that had taken place. On top of all that Eduardo Niebla’s a very nice guy who chatted with the audience, smiled an awful lot and was generous in his appreciation of our Shetland music scene.

There’s something profoundly special about seeing a top-notch, world-class artist in the modest surroundings of a village hall in a remote place such as Hillswick. And this night was very special indeed. Let me also add that Davie Gardner should be well proud of himself for getting all this together. A big appreciative thank you from all of us who were there.

Jeff Merrifield - Shetland Times - 7 February 2014


The weather takes its toll
Christmas Jazz Buffet: Mareel 14 Dec 2013

In the struggle to get the uniquely innovative National Jazz Trio of Scotland up to the Shetland Islands, unfortunately the weather won. With Sumburgh airport closed and all flights in and out cancelled, Bill Wells and his fellow players were stranded in Glasgow and unable to appear at the annual Jazz Dinner of Shetland Jazz Club. Wells expressed his own exasperated frustration to me later: “That's obviously a massive disappointment for us, as it has taken no small amount of organisation and effort to prepare for this event, which would have been, for this year, our only performance of our Christmas Album.”

As you can imagine, with only two hours to go, when this situation was finally realised, the the organisers were thrown into a state of bewilderment and confusion. However, the old Dunkirk spirit set in and with Shetlanders being truly resourceful and resilient, a couple of speedy adjustments to the programme made sure the event would go ahead on schedule. At short notice acclaimed local musicians, Alan McKay and Robert Bennett stepped up to the plate and three of the young musicians who were playing in Norman Willmore’s funk combo at the latter end of the evening agreed to play an extra set of more laid-back improvisations.

With a fantastic array of foods laid out along the back of the hall and tables prepared in cabaret style in the Mareel main auditorium, the doors opened on time. The audience seemed very appreciative of the situation and all the efforts that had gone into rescuing what could have been a disastrous outcome.

The menu was a full and rich one. Along with the canapés and cocktails, Rodrigo Ferrari Nunes on guitar, Joe Watt on bass and Louis Murray on drums played some smooth laid-back funk that was at one highly inventive and most entertaining. We are blessed with some exceptionally fine young musicians on Shetland and these are among the best.

Whilst the food was being served and enjoyably eaten, the Christmas album of Bill Wells and the National Jazz Trio of Scotland was played, so that the group was with us in spirit if not in person. It is music that goes agreeably with fine food, a selection carols and songs that may all sound familiar, but in unfamiliar modes: a supernatural version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and an exquisitely sounding bittersweet version of The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...). Their arrangements throw frosty new light on lyrics usually taken for granted – or perhaps never properly heard. A number of people said how much they liked the music and what a pity they were not able to be here in person.

The nosh was fantastic. Put together by a group of excellent ladies from the jazz club committee, who have esteemed catering backgrounds, there was an array of foods that made you salivate like a Pavlov dog just to look at it. The eating was highly enjoyable, topped off by a superb selection of deserts by James Martin of the Peerie Café. Smiles were abundant around the room.

Then came the icing on the cake, as two unassuming musicians took to the stage, wishing only to be announced as Alan and Robert, and played a set of refined guitar duets that were a model of concentrated composure. They sounded traditional at times, but were highly individual and quietly forceful. Robert said how pleased he was to be playing for the Jazz Club. He had long loved jazz and was grateful for the chance to share our evening. Such a nice man. It reminded me of a quote from Peerie Willie Johnson that I recently heard – “Jazz is the engine that drives all music.” It certainly drove these guys to new heights. You could have heard a pin drop – until the deserved outburst of applause at the end of their set. The earlier frustration dissolved into appreciation of two local musical heroes who came at short notice and gave us musical bliss.

With the hour getting late it was time to get people dancing. DJ Hambone was given the onerous task of getting the first people on their feet. Using an eclectic set of tunes put together by Dr Jazz, that ranged from Stanley Clarke funk to Bix Beiderbecke jollies, the dancers were up in drabs, but a bit confused, until that is the Keith Richard power chords that herald the Stones Brown Sugar were heard and then everyone were on their feet. This proved a suitable warm up for the appearance of Norman Willmore from his earlier pantomime duties, and with Nunes, Watt and Murray, he blasted his way through a set of powerful huffing funk tunes that had a solid group of dancers grinding away with glee. These lads can play and have learned how to use often complex jazz modes to great effect for dancing.

The night was brought to a conclusion with the dancers showing excited appreciation of the undoubted dee-jaying skills of DJ Lyall, a formidable dance maestro, whose music is diverse, but delivered with a positive beat and a strong bass response. Good stuff to end the night on.

Richard and Victoria won the second prize Christmas hamper in the Grand Jazz Club Raffle and Amanda won the 43” Hi-Def Plasma Television Set. And a very good time was had by all, despite the sodding weather!

Jeff Merrifield, Shetland Times 20 December 2013

Bill Welss and two of National Jazz Trio of Scotland
stuck in Glasgow

Alan & Robert step up and save the day

Rodrigo Ferrari Nunes funking it up

The fine array of food
thanks to Dawn, Debbie, Lesley & Jane
- oh, and James Martin's puds!

Review - Scottish National Jazz Orchestra at Mareel - 11 Oct 2013

Debate may continue regarding Mareel’s events programme, and specifically that not every event promoted there is packed to the rafters – but what venue anywhere could boast that?

However, a bumper crowd on Thursday night for Seth Lakeman, a pending sell-out on Saturday for Big Country (with our very own Revellers in support), plus, sandwiched in between, a sell-out crowd for a Friday night of top quality music courtesy of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, with Tommy Smith on saxophone and Brian Kellock on piano, isn’t a bad return, I would suggest.

Jeff Merrifield aka 'Dr Jazz' (the ‘Duracell Bunny’ of the Shetland jazz scene) took to the stage resplendent in white jacket to introduce the evening, billed as The Spirit of Ellington - with Smith and Kellock’s own major arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Jeff enthused about the night to come in his own inimitable fashion. “Wonderful”, “fabulous” and “marvellous” were just three of the superlatives he used. If his exuberance for the music could be turned into euros this man could singlehandedly wipe out the Greek national debt.

“We’re on the last night of our tour, so we’re all very drunk,” joked orchestra leader Tommy Smith, perhaps the finest sax player in the UK today, as the band launched into Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy. This was followed by Sweet Velvet, written for the Queen in 1955 - who Ellington apparently had a bit of a crush on).

More tunes in the Spirit of Ellington followed, ranging from the frantic Daybreak Express to the passionate Prelude to a Kiss, with, from time to time, musical side-dalliances into special arrangements, including Grieg’s classics Hall of the Mountain King and Morning, plus Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

Brian Kellock and Tommy Smith. It takes a big man to fill Duke Ellington’s shoes on piano, but Brian Kellock IS a big man and more than up to such a daunting task. He’s a national treasure and nothing short of a wizard on the instrument.

And the orchestra rarely fell short of mind-boggling, with solo after solo drawing enthusiastic applause from the large audience. Smith has clearly inherited Ellington’s talents as a bandleader. No mean feat, and, yes, that good!

Then it was time to close the first half with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. What followed was a wonderfully protracted version, laden with improvisational dexterity. Smith described it as “an arrangement of an arrangement of an orchestration of an arrangement”. Whatever, it was astonishing.

Smith and Kellock teamed up again early in the second half with such intensity and ferocity it threatened to blister the varnish off the Mareel auditorium. Other tunes, including Ellington’s classic Mood Indigo, were eerily and spine-tinglingly beautiful in their delivery.

The show climaxed with more Ellington standards, winning a richly deserved standing ovation, before the inevitable encore demands were answered with Sepia Panorama and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.

“When we first came here all those years ago we used to sit up playing till around three in the morning with the likes of Peerie Willie,” recalled Smith, “so we’ve only got another 50 tunes to go now!” Everyone seemed disappointed that he was only joking.

So, yes indeed, Dr Jazz it was wonderful, fabulous and marvellous as you quite rightly predicted at the outset of the evening. It was quite simply a fantastic night of music, courtesy of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the most committed promoter in the business – not forgetting the Shetland Jazz Club committee too, of course.

Davie Gardner - Shetland News - 16 October 2013

The Bevvy Sisters short Shetland Tour

Safe to say I’ve used a bit of hyperbole in my time. I’m sometimes a little effervescent in my praise for some of the acts that Shetland Jazz Club has brought to these isles, though most often such acclaim is richly deserved. However, the short tour by the Bevvy Sisters staged by Dave Hammond was an absolute inspiration. They played three gigs in different venues and each one was a little gem, each one most suited to its audience, each one a musical delight.

The Friday night gig in Scalloway Hall was memorable for all sorts of reasons. The Bevvys charmed us with their relaxed manner and their consummate professionalism in the way they handled their material. It was an absolute joy to experience. This is a relatively new line-up of the group, with longtime vocalist Heather MacLeod and one-man band guitarist David Don nelly joining forces with celebrated jazz doyenne Gina Rae, daughter of bass playing legend Ronnie Rae, and a highly entertaining, banjo-wielding songstress impressively named Cera Impala.

Although their chosen style is close harmony vocal, each of the group took on a lead role for several of the songs. Heather MacLeod was sublime in her rendition of Patsy Cline’s Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray, as achingly heartbroken a song as you are ever likely to hear. Gina Rae excelled in a song called Six Degrees (of Separation), not the one recorded by the Script, but a better one from a songwriting Scot, whose name I did not quite catch, but very good it is. And Cera Impala was featured in several low down dirty ditties, but was at her voodoo best on the exciting Junkyard Bands. Guitarist Donnelly is truly the musical backbone of the group, playing his guitar with a vigour worthy of an orchestra. He can invoke all manner of sounds from his instrument and each one is never less than perfection.

This was a performance intended to make you feel good and it certainly achieved its objective. The Bevvys sell every song to maximum capacity and generate a spirit of well-bring that is most exceptional for a musical group. Their rendition of the tragic Leadbelly song Bring a Little Water Sylvie was sheer brilliance, something akin to acapella nectar.

The great excitement of the Scalloway show came when two terrific bursts of lightning blew the stage lights and the PA. Did that end the show? Certainly not. Our intrepid Bevvy quartet just came down off the stage and performed right in the middle of the audience. It was the sort of magic that had characterised their entire performance and it made a memorable night all the more so.

The next night the performance was in the Islesburgh Centre and Sunday afternoon was in the Tingwall Hall. Both audiences were given the special Bevvy treatment and they obviously much appreciated what was being offered. In their show these talented songstresses mix huge portions of heartbreak, joviality, grit, fascination, glamour, sweetness and a heap of good old wholesome sassiness, all presented with a hefty dose of potent Scottish spirit. Their beautifully-harmonised, triple-layered voices and wide-ranging repertoire won fervent acclaim from all those who came to see them and who were left wanting more. Their banter with the audience is a joy to behold and would be the envy of most top class comedians.

Just a word about the local acts who supported the Bevvy Sisters. At Scalloway on Friday Beef Cleaver played the first set. There’s not an easy way to describe this highly original group save to say they present a unique blend of dark, atmospheric soundscapes and quirky, expressive lyrics. They are admirers of American heavy metallers Down and usually play as a full metal band, but on the night they played an acoustic set, and none the worse for that. Vocalist Claire Marie sang with a powerful presence. Think of Nico in her Velvets days mixed with the powerhouse style of Grace Slick, floating around the stage like Sevie Nicks. Marjolein Robertson underpinned the whole thing on bass, Jamie Hatchbar and Peter Keay shared the guitar credits and contributed some lovely interplaying segments and well-crafted solos. Beef Cleaver played a most fascinating set, the highlights for me being an extended version of Black Island and the Jefferson Airplane classic White Rabbit. Definitely a band to watch.

At Islesburgh on Saturday, Norman Willmore and Max Tyler entertained us with some superb jazz from their ever growing repertoire. The three other members of Troppo Funk arrived after fulfilling roles in another band supporting Stiff Little Whatnots at the Mareel. With a full compliment the band really took off. I’ve not heard them for a while and they really have come on a pace. Joe Watt strutted about the stage conjuring jagged notes from his guitar, whilst Stormin’ Norman huffed and puffed and often dragged notes screaming from his sax. Hayden Hook looked and sounded almost demonic on bass, but was a sheer delight to listen to, and Lewis Murray drove the all thing with aplomb from his drum chair. Their work-out on Chris Potter’s complex and difficult piece The Wheel was a pleasure to hear. Sadly, Troppo Funk will need to lay low for a while as some members go off to their deserved jazz studies at various European Conservatoires. Maybe they will be able to get together in holiday times and keep one of the best young bands that Shetland has seen in some sort of existence.

What I found gratifying was how well the young people in the local bands interacted with the Bevvys. There was an obvious mutual admiration that reached full manifestation when Joe Watt, who supported on Saturday, came back to see the Bevvy Sisters again on Sunday - and brought his mum! Now that’s jazz.

Jeff Merrifield - Shetland Times - 2 August 2013

Dr Jazz at 70

BBC Radio Shetland's jazz presenter
has a birthday bash and celebrates a life in jazz
with one of his all-time favourite performers

Town Hall 10 March 2013 7.30pm

Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble

Gilad Atzmon saxes
Frank Harrison keyboards
Yaron Stavi bass
Eddie Hick drums

plus small groups from the
Shetland Improvisers Orchestra

When we sat in the Mareel and heard Tim Garland’s Lighthouse Trio at the festival, there was a general understanding that this was the pinnacle of performance, a truly enlightening experience, and we thought we would never see the like of it again. Just one month later, sitting in the Town Hall, Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House ensemble once more blew our minds and took us to heights of unimaginable musical rapture. However, there was an added ingredient here – entertainment. Gilad is a master showman with a hyperactive personality and knows very well how to give an audience a good time as well as musical thrills.

The group were playing tunes from their latest album Metropolis on the World Village record label. Atzmon is renowned for his virtuoso, high-speed, post-bop attack. This concept album explores more sober alternative territory, where nearly every song is a ballad and even the occasionally faster-paced tunes emit an aura of relative calm. Atzmon’s concept is to dedicate his pieces to individual cities, conjuring an atmosphere evocative of the essential flavour of these various places. Here we begin in Paris, with Atzmon putting down his sax in favour of a new interest in the accordion and he elicits a truly Parisian sound. Although he has long resided in London, that’s one of the obvious cities missing from this repertoire. He skirts from Berlin to Buenos Aires to Tel Aviv, and from Scarborough to ‘Somewhere in Italy’.

Support was a series of duos from members of the Shetland Improvisers Orchestra. Norman Willmore and Hayden Hook played with their usual majesty and gave us six minutes of beautifully played improvisation. It is a good discipline and these two are getting particularly good at it. Next up Jill Slee Blackadder and Clare Aldington performed on a voice and recorder piece that reached transcendent levels of sounds, gorgeously enhanced by Stevie Hook special effects. It was another exceptional moment. I even played a bit of cornet myself in a little duet with pianist Lewis Hall, who has really taken to the improvisational style and never fails to impress his listeners. Gilad thinks he is a rare talent with a promising future.

It was indeed a sublime concert and I will long treasure it in my memory as it was also to celebrate my 70th birthday. Atzmon could not let that go without some musical references and some extensive jolly banter with me from stage to audience. For me it was a joyous, wondrous experience and I hope those who were there enjoyed and appreciated the uniqueness of those magic moments.

The next day Atzmon moved to the Islesburgh Centre to present one of his improvisation masterclass workshops. There were sixteen or seventeen people there and they had the musical education of their lives. He shared with us his philosophy of music as well as some profound technical tips. He began by outlining his concept of ‘continuance’ and ‘dissonance’, where patterns are often repeated to create interesting soundscapes, but if those soundscapes are not interrupted occasionally by factors of dissonance then they become pedestrian and even boring.

On a practical level, he had those attending try out musical journeys such as ‘call and response’ or ‘repeat what was played’. He got the best out of the youngest and the eldest participants. Not least of all his qualities, he inspired people.

Gilad said to me afterwards, “Was that okay?” “More than,” I replied. “I gave my all,” he said, “I don’t know any more.” What more could anyone ask for?

Directly following the workshop, Atzmon gave a talk based on his latest, best-selling book, The Wandering Who? Gilad Atzmon, it is safe to say, is obsessed with the whole notion of Jewish identity politics, indeed identity politics per se. He grew up in a strict Jewish household, pro-Israel, pro-Zionist. He learned that his grandfather had been a member of the infamous Stern Gang, who practiced sabotage and what we would now call terrorist attacks against the British occupying forces. Like all good Jewish boys, he joined the army to loyally fight for the cause. It was only when he was taken to guard a camp of Palestinian prisoners that he realised Israel was now responsible for setting up the exact sort of concentration camps that had so horrified the world in the wake of Adolph Hitler’s megalomania.

He has become one of the leading writers, researchers and message bringers in matters of the Middle East and Identity Politics. As well as gaining the support of many of the world’s leading thinkers and philosophers on these matters, he has garnered many opponents and vociferous enemies. His wife, Tali, fears for his life. There is one particular group at the moment that is trying to get promoters of Orient House Ensemble to cancel their gigs. They tried to get me to cancel these last weekend events. They do this by spreading slur, rumour and unproven innuendo of a particular nasty nature. If evil be in the eye of the beholder then there is little doubt these are evil people.

His talk covered these topics in an intense, yet strangely entertaining way. It is his inspirational ‘hyperactive personality’ that caries him through. When he debated with the audience he showed a willingness to listen, but an overwhelming determination to stick to his own well-thought out and well-honed attachments.

I described him in a previous article as a ‘Renaissance Man’. Having spent all weekend with him, I realise he is certainly that, but with an all-consuming passion that never allows him to let up. From waking to sleeping he is talking politics, examining positions, conversing with great academics, answering critics. At every meal, on every journey, on an idyllic trip round Wild Shetland with Jill Slee Blackadder, he cannot escape from his convictions and reasonings. It may be obsessive, but it is certainly dedicated and keenly felt.

Jeff Merrifield
Shetland Times
16 March 2013




Jazz fest: a terrific weekend of music

Brian Kellock, Tom Bancroft, Fionna Duncan & Ronnie Rae - all photos: Chris BrownYou’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.”

Alison Kay Ramsay and friends 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 and Trio Red are Tom Bancroft on drums, Tom Cawley on piano and bassist Per ZanussiNorwegian 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.

Davie Gardner
Shetland News

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.
Tim Garland at Mareel on Saturday night - Photo: Dave Hammond

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.

The Editor
Shetland News
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.

Jeff Merrifield
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


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.

Jeff Merrifield
Shetland Times
21 December 2012


Tommy Smith Live at Mareel




22 September 2012
Now at the Mareel!


Julian Arguelles - saxes
Gareth Lockrane - flutes
Euan Burton - bass
Ernesto Simpson - drums
Phil Robson - guitar

Phil Robson (guitar/composer), Julian Arguelles (saxophone), Gareth Lockrane (flutes), Michael Janisch (bass) & Ernesto Simpson (drums). Born of a commission from Derby Jazz in early 2011, this exciting new band launched their debut CD  Phil Robson - The Immeasurable Code (Whirlwind Recordings Ltd) and was featured at the Purcell Rooms in November as part of The London Jazz Festival, acquiring a 4 star review in the Evening Standard.  The material, (composed by Robson) is based around a concept of communication methods - ancient to modern. ‘I can only describe this group as unmissable’ London Jazz Blog

22 September at 8pm - Supported by MAHOGANY
Originally scheduled for Town Hall but now in the MAREEL
Twelve date British tour in association with Jazz Services
Tickets: £11 (concs and members: £9.00)
From Shetland Box Office: - 01595 745555




Dorian Ford Trio - The Bill Game
A NEW format for playing jazz is to be explored in Shetland later this month by pianist Dorian Ford and his trio.
The trio will feature in two concerts at the end of this month playing the music of Bill Evans, the US pianist-composer
noted for the unique sound world he created during the hey-day of US jazz in the 1960s and 1970s. The music of Bill Evans
will be lovingly recreated by Dorian Ford and presented in all its simplistic beauty by an all star trio.

Bigton Hall
Friday 27 April 2012 8pm

Shetland Town Hall
Upper Hillhead
Saturday 28 April 2012 8pm
with Dorian Ford piano, Mick Hutton bass, Tom Skinner drums
£8 - 01595 745555 -


Sunday 29 April - 6pm - open workshop session on free improvised music by Raymond MacDonald
leading to the formation of the Shetland Improvisers Orchestra and a gig at the festival.
Open to all - Islesburgh Centre 6pm - 10pm - free in every way.

Fionna Duncan: Jazz Dinner

She came, she sang, she conquered. Fionna Duncan returned to these isles after many years and completely blew our socks off.

The town hall was resplendant last Saturday night for Shetland Jazz Club’s special Christmas jazz gig and dinner where a hundred and twenty people were presented with a slap-up spread by the exceptional Bo Simmons. Rarely does the feast share the billing with the music but in this instance we were treated to a complete evening of succulant music and food. Cocktails and canapes, a distinctive turkey feast and a trifle discribed as heavenly and living up to the billing; this had indeed been a fine evening up to now but would the music live up to the meal? No danger. Fionna Duncan had come to make an impression after so long and she certainly did.

From the off we were treated to musical pleasures with songs from such diverse sources as Bessie Smith, Frank Sinatra and the great American songbooks, not always the obvious choices but slightly unusual songs. Fionna has a voice to die for, as heavenly as the trifle, steeped in a distinguished singing career that she is currenly passing on to a new generation of Scottish singers. She is a singer within a jazz tradition, but her vocalising cuts through all barriers and this was just good music. She was ably accompanied by pianist Brian Kellock, a star in his own right and as good as it gets when it comes to piano playing, and Ronnie Rae who has played over many years with some of the most outstanding jazz players and a wider range of musicians from Scotland and beyond.

The three of them were also such nice people to look after, full of the joys of life and a real tonic to be around. I will long have the image in my mind of my little kitten, Huva, running across the living room floor with Brian Kellock’s sock in her mouth. It caused a hoot for everyone. That such good music comes from such people is testament to their own particular open outlook on life, an inspiration in itself.

Ronnie Rae & Fionna Duncan

I heard it said by some people that they did not want to come to this dinner gig because they did not like jazz. It’s a funny thing this antipathy towards the word. People are listening to jazz everyday on their radios, on television and as film soundtracks. Almost the whole of popular music is derived in some form from jazz. I’m moved to have a special Dr Jazz programme on BBC Radio Shetland that explores this idea of what jazz is and why some people seem so scared of the word. In the safe arena of Fionna Duncan and her two exceptionally-talented colleagues the jazz was accesible, meticulous in its execution and to be enjoyed by anyone who experienced it.

I have never had so many appreciative comments during and after a gig, and so our first Christmas Jazz Feast was just that. For sure we will do it again – if the people who did all the hard work to make the gig a success are up for it. Chris Horrix and Tracie Leith made the room look like a banqueting hall, ran the bar and staged a successful raffle; Stevie Hook and Amanda carefully looked after the sound; Dave Hammond set the lights and loads more; the young people who served the tables, most of them musicians – it is people like these who have made the Shetland Jazz Club zing again and we now have a very wonderful new year of jazz music lined up, including the first Shetland Jazz Festival in June. Don’t be at all put off by the word jazz – just come along to enjoy great music from some of the most talented people in Scotland and elsewhere. For now, Fionna Duncan, Ronnie Rae and Brian Kellock set us up for a perfect Christmas and a provided a beautiful end to 2011.

Jeff Merrifield: Shetland Times 16 December 2011

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

Alchemy is the bringing together of elements to create something magical and precious. With fireworks exploding away outside, a little bit of that alchemical magic happened in the Islesburgh Centre last Saturday evening.

The elements that Shetland Jazz Club conjured together that night were a young band under the name of Tropo Funk, a band of slightly older players under the name of the Jazz Gang, and Steve Hamilton, the astonishing keyboard player from Tommy Smith’s Karma. First up were Norman Willmore and his friends in Tropo Funk. They had only got together in October and this was their second gig, but they played with the assertive maturity of a seasoned ensemble and really ripped into a set of funky standards and originals. This is certainly a band with a future, though the fact that some of the band live in Aberdeen might limit their Shetland appearances. This was quality music, delivered with an assured positive attitude and was much appreciated by a delighted audience.

Next up were Helen Tait and her friends in the Jazz Gang. They are seasoned Shetland players but do not play much at present as they do not have a keyboard player. Hence the jazz club had brought in Steve Hamilton to guest with them. They too played an assured set of standards and brought back some of the enjoyment of jazz music that had been apparent when they gigged regularly many years ago. They seemed to appreciate Hamilton’s presence and he did not let them down, underscoring their playing with a tight chordal base and contributing some fiery solos. Again the audience were delighted with the riches presented to them. But the best was yet to come.

After the interval was when the true magic happened. All the above elements were put together, with the addition of Dave Marsh from Aestaewast and a couple of other percussionists, for a jam session that really threatened to take the Islesburgh roof off. Steve Hamilton had worked with the musicians in the afternoon and welded them, young and older, into one powerhouse of a jazz unit. Three numbers, the soulful Blue Monk, the latin beat Blue Bossa and the mighty Work Song, were blasted out in true fireworks style, with some exciting individual solo contributions and a great enjoyment of each other. This was a spontaneous band, yet a band that sounded as if it had been playing together for years. Thankfully Dave Hammond captured some of this magic for a future DVD, but even that will not recreate the true magic of those who were there to witness it live. This was home-grown Shetland music at its very best. We’ll do it again sometime.

Jeff Merrifield: Shetland Times 11 November 2011

Becc Sanderson Trio

Celebrity or talent? Compare and contrast – on Saturday 24 September the X-Factor winner Matt Cardle played a sold-out Clickimin Centre, whilst a veritable songbird called Becc Sanderson played to a couple of handfuls of people in the Islesburgh Centre. That I would hold is a consequence of celebrity. With all those weeks of primetime television behind him and the hype it creates in the tabloid press, Matt Cardle has it relatively easy to fill much larger auditoria than Clickimin. He seems like a nice chap and from what I saw on the telly he sings reasonably well, so good luck to the man. However, backed with our limited jazz club resources of a £38 advert in Shetland Times, a few mentions on local radio, a brace of articles in the news media and some Facebook activity, the few privileged folk who responded to that and came to Islesburgh were rewarded with a quite exceptional song cycle, where every word was sung to perfection and where decades of refinement had delivered a voice to be cherished. The former was the celebrity, the latter was the talent – but please, give me the talent every time.

Becc Sanderson was born in Australia and told us that her early development was as a torch singer in a band. As an example of this she performed a version of Cry Me A River that fair took the breath away. It was not just sung, it was performed so that every nuance of the words were squeezed out and delivered as a delightful experience to be savoured. Gosh, just thinking about it now recalls the wonderful sensation of being there and hearing it. Am I being over-the-top? Not at all, I’m being quite restrained. I’m sure that all those who were there, and at Bigton the night before, will agree with me that this performance was quite sensational. Not only that, we were treated to two hours of this wonderful stuff.

The first hour was made up of mostly standards from the above named Cry Me A River to the song that Doris Day made famous in Calamity Jane, Once I Had A Secret Love. There was Cole Porter and the haunting Henderson and Dixon classic Bye Bye Blackbird, all delivered in the succulent way that Becc Sanderson packages her songs. The musical combination is unusual as well: voice accompanied by trombone and guitar, brilliantly played by Chris Grieve and Kevin Mackenzie respectively, where the three intertwine and intermix to create a cocktail of sound that is at once delightful and challenging, invariably on the edge, but always delivering. By the interval everyone was blown away and were walking around with big smiles on their faces. But the even better was yet to come.

The second hour took us on the musical journey of the Passion Flower, the name of her show that she recently performed at the Edinburgh Festival and the name of her album, which like the music is lovingly packaged, like a gift. All the songs in the Passion Flower set have something connected with flowers in their title, from the Billy Strayhorn song that the album is named after to two Radiohead numbers, Last Flowers and Lotus Flower to the Edith Piaf classic La Vie En Rose.

The Radiohead numbers were fabulous journeys of invention, with the trombone played through sound effects and a bass amp to create a weirdly awesome accompaniment to the splendidly delivered vocal. These were classic performances of contemporary music. Then there was Tom Wait’s agonisingly anguished Trampled Rose, where the words were extruded like tangled bracken, and Elvis Costello’s Poisoned Rose that attempts to unravel the feelings at the end of a relationship. These were powerful songs. The Piaf song that closed the show was sung with all the passion and feeling of the original, but with the bittersweet twist of a truly delightful singing voice.

Lesson over – but, boys and girls, this was an extraordinary talent we saw, an exceptionally rare performance. When Becc Sanderson returns to Shetland again, as part of our inaugural Jazz Festival next spring, we will all recognize how to promote her better. Those that saw her this time will tell all their friends, we will be able to better convince people because we now know, and the celebrity (on Shetland, anyway) will be a tad closer to the talent.

Jeff Merrifield: Shetland Times 30 September 2011

Becc Sanderson


Tommy Smith's KARMA

Tommy Smith has been so immersed in encouraging the next generation of jazz musicians, overseeing the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s programme and touring with bassist Arild Andersen’s trio that he has neglected his own career. Five years have passed since his last album, Forbidden Fruit, was released but somewhere amongst a workload that sees him often directing operations by email from whichever airport he’s passing through, the saxophonist has found time to compose an entire repertoire for a new band in a style that marks a significant departure.

KARMA actually features two of the Forbidden Fruit line-up in pianist-keyboardist Steve Hamilton and drummer Alyn Cosker. The arrival of bass guitarist Kevin Glasgow, however, sees the music applying more rock and funk-derived rhythms underneath a melodic approach inspired by folk music from around the globe but with a definite Scottish accent.

Several of these pieces take the folk ballad form and there’s concision both in their writing and execution that added to the brisk sense of energy and dynamism within the band. Smith also seems to have drawn inspiration from SNJO’s recent and imminent activities, with shades variously of his World of the Gods suite on Sun, complete with Japanese wooden flute intro, of Steely Dan in his rhythm section arrangements, and of Weather Report in Good Deed’s richly textured tenor and synthesiser lines.

The result overall is music that’s immediately appealing and allows the musicians scope to demonstrate their considerable virtuosity within well defined structures.

Review by Rob Adams in the Glasgow Herald

Lerwick Islesburgh Centre: Tommy Smith's KARMA
27 Aug 8pm Doors 7.30 - Full bar facilities
Tickets from Shetland Box Office: 01595 745 555


Nova Scotia Jazz Band at St Ninians

Nova Scotia Jazz Band

Shetland Jazz Club has been so lucky in the array of talented jazz musicians brought to these islands, but this last weekend took the biscuit. The Nova Scotia Jazz Band plays a style of classic jazz that is at once highly accessible and profoundly likeable, whilst at the same time complex and beautifully structured. Led from the front by the larger than life John Burgess, who exudes confidence and personality, the band delivers on every level. Burgess himself alternates between clarinet and tenor, the former as biting as any kletzmer player and the second as rich as the great classic tenor players such as Coleman Hawkins or any of the Ellington sax section.

Trad jazz this is not, this is music of the great classic jazz period of Bix Beiderbeck and Mugsy Spanier, but with a clarity of playing that makes it distinctly modern and relevant. The young people in the audience found this music as pleasing as the older ones and there is nothing staid or old fashioned about their sound. This is music of today, of a remarkably high standard with four musicians, each at the top of their game. As well as Burgess, the cornet of Mike Daly had been flagged up as ‘the best kept secret of Scottish jazz’. Well, the reality lived up to the hype and we were privileged to hear a cornet player whose every solo was fluid, lyrical, perfect of tone and hugely enjoyable. His haunting rendition of New Orleans brought to mind the eminent miseries of that beautiful city and its perpetual jazz music tradition.

Duncan Findlay played banjo as if he had ten fingers on each of his hands, with solos of scintillating brilliance, each one a joy to behold. Bass player Ken MacDonald played with a sweet singing sound, seldom heard in this form of jazz. He can swing and drive as good as any of them and his rhythm section co-ordination with the banjo of Findlay meant that a quartet without drums becomes not only viable, but also unique in the way it rolls out the music.

Good sized, enthusiastic audiences were present at the Bigton and the Islesburgh Centre gigs and I am sure those who attended will concur with me about every word in the above. This was a band of high quality and there were many calls for them to return to Shetland. There were big smiles on the faces of those who saw the Novia Scotia Jazz Band. Those who didn’t missed an absolute treat.

Jeff Merrifield, Shetland Times, 20 May 2011


Stu Brown's Raymond Scott Project

10.30 on Saturday morning and the Council Chamber, cleared of the councillor’s desks and microphones, is full of young people ranging in age from 9 to 19 all enthusiastically drawing, embarking on the making of their own animated film. After some initial ideas exploration, the young people watched a short film by the celebrated Scottish-Canadian animator Norman McLaren, which was set to a piece of music by Oscar Peterson and where the scratches, splodges, lines and twirls applied directly to the film were made to match the music perfectly.

The young people were taking part in the Stu Brown Raymond Scott Project, with their own animated film being shown, with live musical accompaniment, as part of an evening concert featuring the music of Raymond Scott, which had been used in cartoon films from Bugs Bunny to The Simpsons. Stu Brown and his animation colleague Allen McKeown showed the young people how to make animation strips with about ten frames on each, which they then used to make their own designs and drawings ready for the photographing and filming process. The finished film was to be set to a piece of Scott music with Turkish overtones and a zany tune scheme. The ideas the young people came up with were inspired by this piece of music, but they were encouraged to be freewheeling in their thinking. For two hours, the young people were furiously engaged in this productive activity. It was a joy to behold such dedicated involvement, with everyone making their own contribution to a single film project.

7.30 on Saturday evening and an audience is gathering at Lerwick Town Hall for a concert by the Stu Brown Sextet playing the music of Raymond Scott and to see the animation film made by the young people in the morning session, now edited and ready for its first screening. The room is set out with a huge screen on one side and the band on a small stage on the other side. The evening started with a short documentary film about Raymond Scott made by his son. We learn that Scott had not written music particularly for cartoons. The original Scott Quintet had played and recorded in the 1930s, but it was not until 1943 that Warner Brothers bought Scott’s publishing output and started using it extensively in the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes series of cartoons, mixed in with opera, brass bands and other odd bits of music and sounds.

The first set by the Stu Brown Sextet gives us the full volcanic flavour of Raymond Scott’s music. With titles like Square Dance for Eight Egyptian Mummies and New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House, the music is precise and anarchic at one and the same time. At times it is reminiscent of early Duke Ellington, the Cotton Club jungle music stuff, and at other times one is reminded of Spike Jones, who was best known for ripping through popular songs at breakneck speed, with satirical zest and little lyrical respect. Actually, Scott’s music is far more respectful than Jones and the Stu Brown musicians play it in a precise and meticulous way. There are few solos and most of the music comes straight off the charts, yet it sounds spontaneous and fresh, certainly with a toe-tapping feel and a musical swing.

The second half began with the first showing of the film made by the young people. Like the Norman McLaren film they had watched earlier, their film had been edited to fit perfectly with the music and as the images the young people had made danced across the screen, so the crazy, madcap, Turkish-inspired Looney Tune was played live by the band, sprinkling that additional piece of magic to complete the experience. It was an excellent few minutes of film and music coming together. We will now try to get the animated film made by the young people into the special Co-operative Film Festival in the autumn.

The rest of the music in this set was made up of more 1930s stuff, notably At an Arabian House Party and Powerhouse, with its simulated train sounds, plus music transcribed from some of Scott’s later experimental electronic pieces. These were fascinating, with the electronic music feel and yet still cartoony in execution. Stu Brown announced the playing of a ballad – called Suicide Cliff. It was all great fun and it was no surprise when the band was called on to play an encore. Nice people, excellent and unusual music, let’s hope it is not too long before the Stu Brown Sextet bring their Raymond Scott music to Shetland again.

Jeff Merrifield, Shetland Times, 12 March 2011

Derek Nash and David Newton

From the BBC New Year Hootenanny with Jools Holland and Kylie Minogue to Bigton Village Hall in just over a month may seem like some sort of long strange trip, but it was one that saxophonist extraordinaire Derek Nash made with consummate ease. Nash has been a regular in the sax section of Jools’ Rhythm and Blues Orchestra for several years now, with his smiling face and blistering solos. Joined on a short trip to Shetland by multi-award-winning pianist David Newton, the pair gave us an evening of jazz that will long live in the memory. The atmosphere was electric as the good people of Bigton immediately warmed to these excellent jazz practitioners, who provided them with a varied programme of jazz standards and more contemporary pieces. We were treated to the same smiling persona, more powerfully fiery solos than even Jools gets and a coruscating piano genius playing the greatest of complementary parts.

Nash played tenor sax, alto sax and a soprano bent to look a little like a toy saxophone. This gave him an additional mixture of textures and qualities to play with and which he exploited to the full. He posed the question as to how he managed to get three saxes on Flybe. Answer: he brought his partner Beverley with him. She carried one on, he carried the other and the bent baby soprano went into the hand luggage. Cunning blighters, these jazzers!

Such is the nature of the jazz musician, it would be easy to think that this duo has played together week in and week out for years. In truth, they only do single numbers of gigs a year in this format, but they spark off each other in the most joyful of ways, listening, quoting each other and having the best of jazz times. Their enthusiasm for music was contagious and the Bigton crowd whooped and cheered each tune and each solo. By the end of the two sets the pair had completely captivated their audience and were called back for encores. You can always evidence how good a gig has been by the number of CDs sold. This evening everything the two musicians had brought with them was promptly snapped up for further listening. One of the happiest gigs I can remember.

I feared the following evening, in the more sombre setting of Lerwick Town Hall, might not be quite so electric. It did take a little more effort from the two players to set the packed audience alight, but by the fourth number the response level of the audience was becoming louder and more frequent and we were entering the same joyful territory as we had experienced at Bigton. The most astonishing thing about these two musicians is how they can take a tune apart, explore every nuance of its structure, throw it in the air and blast its chord changes into oblivion, all with a happy appreciation of what each other is doing. Both of them listen intently to the other and then make an appropriate response. This was jazz playing at the top of its game. The large audience were won over and people left the hall with smiles as wide as Derek Nash. Oh, and the last box of CDs was quickly sold.

Support at each of the concerts was by Norman and the Folding Deckchairs, who very much impressed the two main guests. The group were without drummer and were joined by a young percussionist called Lewis, who brought a new colour and sound to the group. It was a testament to our home grown young talent that they were able to take the stage and hold their own in such company.

The interplay between a tune, its chord structure and the fun you can have with these elements was explored at a workshop in the afternoon, where a group of largely young people learned some of the innermost jazz secrets from the experienced Nash and Newton. The way to treat the playing of a bad note is to play it again three times, so listeners will think it was deliberate, was just one piece of simple advice. The main lessons were about confidence and playing to please yourself. One young man played his first solo in public and his smile was broader than that of Derek Nash. This was a weekend I did not want to end.

Jeff Merrifield - Shetland Times 11/2/2011

Lulo Reinhardt

Great-nephew of the legendary Django Reinhardt, Lulo comes from a long family line of guitarists and is now considered the foremost authentic and distinctive musical voice in Gypsy music today. Critics and fans agree that it is not solely because of his links with his great-uncle Django, it's more about Lulo's unique musical genius, and his ability to make it appear so utterly effortless. He has developed a way of playing that is a fusion of styles, including flamenco, Latin, and Brazilian jazz.

This is Lulo's second visit to Shetland and he's sure to be the big attraction of the week.

In Shetland 24 November for a Town Hall Concert. Sorry, event not reviewed.

John Etheridge - an extra Peerie Willie Guitar Festival gig

Saturday evening in da Big Kirk and John Etheridge presents the assembled gathering with an object lesson in guitar technique, showing us how to squeeze the very best out of a tune and how to use technology to optimise a creative pursuit. When you’ve had long-term musical relationships with the likes of Stéphane Grappelli, Nigel Kennedy and John Williams, I suppose it’s natural to expect that you know your way round a tune, but Etheridge knows how to take a tune apart, take it on a musical journey and then put it back together again. And he doesn’t stick to the obvious. We were shown African delights, with beautiful melodies from Cameroon composer Francis Bebey and South African émigré Abdullah Ibrahim . Seldom before have I heard those spangley guitar sounds, so characteristic of African music, played so well by a non-African musician.

Another technique that Etheridge employs to great effect is the playing of a bass line simultaneously with the melody line. I’m sure it takes two-brain thinking to carry this feat off, but it is very enjoyable to watch. Then he takes this idea to another level when he produces a guitar strung with two bass strings at the top and four guitar strings down below. The effect really becomes evident then and we were even treated to a bass solo in the middle of one number.

On several numbers Etheridge employs the use of a tape loop box to lay down a basic backing effect and then plays over it. However, he uses this effect to the greatest extent for the finale of his solo set, when he sets up a complex multi-layered extravaganza that moves through all manner of melodic invention, recalling at times the musical styles of Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and Karleinz Stockhausen, and building to a fantastic crescendo.

John Etheridge returned to the stage with pianist Harris Playfair and treated us all to a very spirited rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown as a tribute to Peerie Willie, this concert being part of the tribute season to the great Shetland man. Etheridge had played with Peerie Willie and Aly Bain on a previous visit to Shetland in the early 1990s, so it was fitting to see the two musicians on this concert bill romping through a jazz standard in the exuberant style that Willie so often adopted.

Next on stage was the Harris Playfiar Trad Big Band, thirteen young Shetland musicians who had been working with Playfair over a number of days to produce a distinctive blend of traditional Celtic music and the swinging rhythmical elements of jazz. These young musicians played their socks off and were particularly effective on a series of melodies built up in waltz time. Their next piece took the concept to a whole other level when they mixed, at the suggestion of some of the young players themselves, the Sonny Rollins theme Oleo with a Zephyr reel. It started off sounding a little weird, but ended up as a full-blown amalgam of the potent jazz and the rhythmical reel. Superb! I cannot praise enough the work that Harris Playfair has coaxed out of these young musicians and the results were a delight to the ear.

To top the evening off, John Etheridge returned to play with the trad big band and presented us with the biggest treat of all, with all the assembled musicians playing a triumphant homage to all those brave souls who push musical boundaries the world over. The guitarist’s solo was all we might have anticipated from his playing during the rest of the evening, but he did not over-shadow these young players and all the disparate parts blended into a magnificent whole. They swung like billy-o and they sent us off into the brisk, cold night with this excellent music still ringing in our ears. What a gig! What a night!

Jeff Merrifield 30/10/2010 Shetland Times

Peerie Willie Guitar Festival 2010

The Shetland Guitar Festival kicked off in fine style last weekend with two visiting guitar geniuses and a plethora of local guitar talent. My weekend began with a trip to Whalsay, where jazz guitarist Jim Mullen performed a diverse set with a dazzling display of playing styles. His earthy version of We Shall Overcome was given a New Orleans treatment, then there were several jazz standards immaculately played in his unique thumb playing style and a medley of Irish and Scottish traditional tunes, with the guitar sometimes imitating a bagpipe drone. A small but appreciative audience were also entertained with a vibrant feelgood set from the Norman ‘Girsie’ Goudie Allstars. At the same time guitar ace Ian Bairnson and Brian Nicholson, Maggie Adamson & the Hot Club de Fladdabister were entertaining an equally appreciative audience in Sandwick Social Club.

Saturday’s gig was at Lerwick Town Hall and saw the meeting for the first time in many, many years of the two guest stars, each an acknowledged legend in their own respective spheres. For Lerwick-born Ian Bairnson it was a triumphant return to his homeland, made even more poignant by his early close relationship with the man who this guitar festival celebrates, the late Peerie Willie. He began with a sublime acoustic set that featured some tunes he had once played with Willie. In honour of his mentor he played The Skye Boat Song and Over the Rainbow, where his playing was pared down to the bare essentials and with a lovely use of grace notes and harmonics. Explaining how gospel fills a space in the middle of blues and jazz, he gave a marvellous rendition of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free (the old Barry Norman theme tune for his film review programme) segueing into Swing Low Sweet Chariot. He then showed us some of the dazzling electronic tricks he can produce from his guitar, with loop boxes, echo and delay techniques. His versatility in these areas, coupled with a superb musical ability showed why he is in such demand for stage and recording work with top artists. His version of the Weather Report classic Birdland was a truly magnificent performance, one that had Jim Mullen speechless with admiration. Jim Mullen’s own set was all played on the Aria guitar that he has used for several years now, developing further his unique style of playing using his thumb to play in place of a plectrum. He took us on a musical journey, from the jazz standard I Can’t Get Started through to that great song from of the Pinocchio animated film When You Wish Upon a Star. It was a delightful set of unpretentious quality, arising from his many years at the forefront of British jazz.

Sunday’s Garrison Theatre show took on a different form, described as An Evening With… the weekend’s guest artists were each interviewed and played a short set after their interview. The evening started with a stage full of young people all playing guitar under the steady guidance of Brian Nicholson. Smoke on the Water and Teenage Kicks were the order of their day. Then organiser Bryan Peterson interviewed Jim Mullen – and a very proficient interviewer he proved to be. We learned that Glasgow-born Mullen had played in local bands when he was growing up, starting off on tea-chest bass and eventually graduating to guitar. As a young man he moved down to London and found fame and fortune in the Pete Brown band Piblokto. This rock’n’roll life style took him all over Britain, to Europe and America. But jazz was his ultimate passion. Whilst in New York he absorbed the playing of some of the world’s leading jazz artists at first hand in the city’s famous jazz clubs. Back in Britain, he hooked up with a ferocious sax player named Dick Morrissey and formed one of the most successful British jazz groups of all time – Morrissey Mullen. As a promoter at that time, I can tell you that if you wanted to fill your jazz club you booked Morrissey Mullen as often as you could. Dick Morrissey had several years fighting off the dreaded cancer before passing away in 2000. Since then Jim has had several bands and played with jazz musicians from around the world. He currently has a quartet called The Great Wee Band, with Henry Lowther on trumpet, Dave Green on bass and Stu Butterfield on drums – a group we must get to Shetland some time.

Bryan then interviewed Shetland’s own guitar superstar Ian Bairnson. As a child, Ian had learned from watching and sometimes accompanying Peerie Willie. When, for family reasons he had to leave Shetland, he did not want to go, but in Edinburgh he continued to practice guitar in the ways he had learned from his mentor. When, eventually, he moved down to London, he was already an accomplished player and soon joined a newly formed band called Pilot. The rest, as they say, is history. Several successful albums and hit singles, including a chart topper, and then Pilot sort of transmogrified into The Alan Parsons Project, with more successful albums and a huge cult following that goes on to this day. Ian’s reputation as a guitarist had grown widespread in this period and he was called on to play in recording and stage projects with the likes of Paul McCartney, Mick Fleetwood, Sting, Beverley Craven and jazzers Stanley Clarke and Steve Gadd. We learned he had not only played on Bucks Fizz records, but had also written some of their songs, and that the guitar solo on the Kate Bush hit Wuthering Heights is not Dave Gilmore, as many think, but Ian Bairnson. The lump in the throat part of the evening came when he played along to a Peerie Willie recording of Lady Be Good, just as he had done as a child.

To bring the evening to a close, all the guitarists who had played during the weekend came to the stage. Brian Nicholson, Norman Goudie, Ian Bairnson and Jim Mullen all shared their reminiscences of Peerie Willie, either directly or, as in Jim Mullen’s case, by reputation. Then we were treated to a once-only four guitar rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown – a memorable and fitting climax to a great weekend. And that’s not the end of it. The Peerie Willie 2010 events continue with John Etheridge on 23-25 October, Lulo Reinhart on 24 November and the Michael Janisch quintet on 17-19 December. Lots and lots of great guitaring to come.

Shetland Times 24 September - Jeff Merrifield

Norman & the Folding Deckchairs CD

Norman and the Folding Deckchairs have been around for some time, popping up at all manner of Shetland Festivals and jazz gigs and playing their particular melodic brand of mainstream to modern jazz. Now the group releases its first CD and reviewer Jeff Merrifield finds it a most merited debut indeed.

The band does have a distinctive style, due in no small part to the expert playing of their front man, saxophonist Norman Willmore, who has developed his own highly distinctive sound, unusual in such a young player. His tone is maturing and his ability to weave around a melody is becoming more prominent with each passing month. The improvement in his playing over the last year has been spectacular, in my view and I hope in those of others who have seen him grow in confidence and ability.

The same goes for the musicians around him, in particular the bass playing of Ellen Smith, which now has a richness and maturity that underpins the group and helps give it its distinctive sound. Her vocal on Fly Me To The Moon is delightfully understated and an innovative rendition of the song. The other feature of this CD, that helps bring variety in tone and texture, is the use of five different pianists, Bobby Sutherland, John Peterson, Max Tyler, Joe Morrison and Norman Willmore himself. Sutherland is particularly effective on All Blues (credited to ‘Jeremy Price’ – but I am sure this is a Miles Davis composition, from the album Kind of Blue), where he lays down a modal structure to enable Willmore to sail sweetly over and around the melody. John Peterson swings like mad on the Oscar Peterson inspired Oscar for Oscar and Willmore’s piano playing on Waltz for Autumn is nothing short of beautifully accomplished by any standards.

All in all this debut release is an excellent smorgasbord of delightful tracks, some deeply meditative, some swinging merrily, all played with a confidence and maturity that belies the ages of these fine players. If you want to purchase a copy of this Norman and the Folding Deckchairs CD get in touch with Shetland Jazz Club ( and your request will be passed on. Or you can buy it from the band, who are playing at next weekend’s Shetland Blues Festival on Friday 3 September (7.30pm) British Legion Hall, where you can no doubt hear them play their excellent rendition of Deckchair Blues. (See the Shetland Blues Festival website for full details of all festival gigs -

Jeff Merrifield 27/8/2010 Shetland Times


Musical Magic

A little musical magic was conjured into being at a couple of Shetland venues over the last weekend. Playing what is probably best described as chamber jazz, saxophonist Rob Hall and pianist Chick Lyall enthralled audiences in Bixter Hall and Lerwick Town Hall with original music that was at times highly expressive, free and fluid, beautifully romantic, exquisitely technical and always most pleasing to the ear.

The music draws on classical, contemporary jazz, Celtic and Nordic influences to deliver memorable musical sketches of depth and imagination and it came as no surprise to learn that both musicians have accomplished complementary employment as classical performers.

Rob Hall plays tenor and soprano saxes, the quite unusual sopranino sax, almost like a toy instrument, which plays an octave above an alto sax, and his first love, clarinet. He told us that he champions the playing of modern jazz on clarinet, not common by any means, as well as promoting the sopranino as a credible musical force. On all four instruments he has an awesome level of control as well as expression. Chick Lyall plays with such single-mindedness and concentrated attention that the listener is drawn into the pianist’s intensely sensitive musical journey, gently coaxed to share and enjoy the experience. Comparisons have been made elsewhere to the work of Jan Garbarek and Keith Jarrett and this listener would not argue with that or regard it as an over-the-top exaggeration.

The duo largely played music from the repertoire of their last two albums on the contemporary/improvised label FMR, The Beaten Path and the recently released Rhyme and Reason. The title track from the first album begins with a piano section, which has a ponderous, yet lyrical quality, not too dissimilar from the music of Béla Bartók, but which acquires a sublime quality when the clarinet enters and weaves an intricate pathway in and around the piano’s progressions. The duo also played the title track from their most recent album, Rhyme or Reason, a more forthright and up-tempo excursion into their musical collaboration, with Hall’s soprano saxophone soaring above some solid and insistent chordal progressions from the piano. By contrast, Pied Piper was a delightful frolic on sopranino sax that adequately demonstrated the impish qualities of that instrument. There were also interludes of spontaneously free form improvisations, where devoid of a notational base the musicians are free to play their own thing, but where listening is just as important as playing. These were also delightful and enjoyable.

There was something of a religious feel to much of the music and so it came as no surprise when Rob Hall announced a new work written over Easter and named after that feast day. Here he played tenor sax and the music was so delicate, so intricately woven, with silence and space as equally important as musical statement, that it engulfed and enthralled the audience to such an extent you could literally have heard a pin drop.

At Bixter, the duo played a first set of standards, where their musical talents were garnered in other directions from their usual playing, though equally enjoyable. At Lerwick an accomplished support set was provided by a young trio of Bobby Sutherland on drums, Max Tyler on piano and Norman Willmore on alto sax. Norman has become much more wholesome and attacking in his solos, a good sign, and he was called back at the end of the concert to play a version of Miles Davis’ All Blues with Rob Hall and Chick Lyall, to the great delight of the audience, many of whom urged the organisers to haste the return to these shores of these two fine musicians.

The concerts were organised by Shetland Arts in conjunction with Shetland Jazz Club and the Hall/Lyall duo also worked with local students and school children in music workshops. So maybe they have left something of that musical magic behind them, eh?

Jeff Merrifield 21/5/2010 Shetland Times


Review: Lyn’s Une CD by Alyn Cosker

Renowned jazz drummer Alyn Cosker comes to Shetland this weekend with concerts at Lerwick Town Hall on Friday (5 th) and Bigton Hall on Saturday (6 th) – Jeff Merrifield of Shetland Jazz Club reviews his new CD.

When a musician uses a publicity picture of himself with his kit set up in the ocean waves, like some erstwhile King Canute holding back the tide or perhaps with even stronger allusions to playing on water (if not walking on it), he had better be damnwell good. Well, if this CD is anything to go by, Alyn Cosker is not only good, he is brilliant! He’s brought together some of the best names in Scottish jazz, including Tommy Smith, Davie Dunsmuir, Paul Towndrow and one of the truly legendary pianists Jason Rebello. The result is some of the most stunningly innovative British jazz I have heard in many a long moon. This is music to savour.

The album opens with a track called Oh Dear and we discover how Cosker, as a drummer, leads the band, not only rhythmically but also musically. His drums become a pivotal part of the music, playing counterpoint to the melodies as well as driving things along in a funky and groovy style. Other funk-styled features are the other up tempo tracks Twitter and Bisted and Straight Through Boogaloo. But Cosker can also conjure musical magic out of his superbly crafted ballads, Don’t Forget Me, with a solo of sheer beauty from Tommy Smith, and Unannounced, a truly memorable tune, like one of those themes for a movie you would love to write, in a vein reminiscent of those Bill Evans and Miles Davis ballads, with stupendous playing from Jason Rebello, excellent bass work from Ross Hamilton and Aly Cosker showing how drums can also be the most sensitive of instruments.

The title had me wondering and I was just about to Google to find out if Lyn’s Une was some mystic piece of Celtic folklore, when I read the notes to the title track. It seems that when loading the tune into a computer programme, Cosker’s father miss-typed leaving an A off the first word and a T off the last one. We’ve all done it. Cosker felt the title with the missing letters was better – and the tune lives up to it.

My favourite track is Bheki, written in memory of Bheki Mseleku, a South African pianist and saxophone player who had something of a tragic life. Cosker had played with Bheki before he died, aged 52 years young, and this track is a most fitting tribute. When I was running a jazz club down in Essex some years back I booked Bheki on one of his early gigs in this country. He was a great pianist despite having two fingers with joints missing from a go-kart accident and a poor South African health system under apartheid. He was diabetic and bipolar and when he returned to South Africa the health care had not got much better. In another tragic twist of fate, Bheki’s house was burgled and thieves stole the sax mouthpiece that Alice Coltrane had given him, the very mouthpiece that John Coltrane had used when recording A Love Supreme. Bheki Mseleku is a musician much missed by many and I do hope that Alyn Cosker plays this memorial tune as part of his sets in Shetland.

Alyn Cosker comes to Shetland straight from the Celtic Connections in Glasgow, where this last weekend he was featured with Wolfestone, one of the world's foremost Celtic rock bands. The Alyn Cosker Quartet can be seen live at Lerwick Town Hall on Friday 5 February and Bigton Hall on Saturday 6 February – both concerts start 7.30 and also feature Norman and the Folding Deckchairs. There are tickets available - on the door or from 01595 745555. There are also various workshops and a jam session on Sunday afternoon in the Lounge Bar in Lerwick.

Jeff Merrifield 2/2/2010 Shetland Times


My Name is Albert Ayler

Shetland Jazz Club secretary Jeff Merrifield reviews My Name is Albert Ayler by the Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin, given its Scottish premier showing at Shetland Museum last Saturday evening.

There is something about the creative spirit that drives the most gifted beyond their own limitations, often exposing flawed human traits and inexplicable behaviour. There is a common acceptance of the notion that the dividing line between genius and madness is indeed a slim one. Vincent van Gogh, Antonin Artaud, Edgar Allen Poe, all highly creative individuals, contributing an illustrious body of work, yet considered a little off the wall. Jackson Pollock had the dubious double of being artistically castigated and considered beyond the offbeat. Free jazz musician Albert Ayler was another such person and his story is revealed in Kasper Collin’s highly regarded film essay.

Albert Ayler with his brother Donald on trumpet in a scene from the film

I was lucky enough to grow up alongside the creative development of modern jazz. In the early fifties Charlie Parker was the shining genius to some, the wrecker of jazz music to others. Then came Coltrane, with his powerful tone and free-flowing ideas. Many jazzers found him scary. Ornette Coleman was described by Johnny Dankworth as “not playing jazz but making noise” when he emerged on the scene. As a young lad of 17, I got the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet album, with Coleman’s quartet in the left speaker and Eric Dolphy’s in the right. These two ensembles played freely, independently and simultaneously – and it was great! On the cover of the album was a large picture by Jackson Pollock – and it all made sense. Where Pollock was claiming nothing more for his painting than what it was – paint on canvas – so the free musicians were stripping away all attributes of their music – we were to appreciate just the sounds. When I took A Level Art I did a project linking music to painting and used the abstract expressionism of Pollock to illustrate my case. I got an A+. And I guess I was then ready for Albert Ayler.

The first Ayler album I acquired was called May Name is Albert Ayler and I played it until the grooves bled. More recently I was gifted by a dear friend a box set – truly a beautiful box with all manner of Ayler memorabilia inside – photos, posters, facsimile articles, petals from his favourite flowers – and nine CDs of unreleased material. Watching Kasper Collin’s film, also called My Name is Albert Ayler, in the Shetland Museum on Saturday night, I was reminded of this box set. Collin’s film is a bit like this box – a collection of fragments taken from here and there – interviews old and new, photos, the little archive footage that exists, contemporary source material. It is all put together to gradually uncover a feeling for a man who was driven by a passion for his music and a determination to pursue his chosen musical path against all odds. You come away from this film with a feeling that you have just had an intimate conversation with a close friend, where he has revealed his innermost personal thoughts.

It is not an easy film, but Albert Ayler was far from an easy subject. Best of all was to discover that John Coltrane suggested that Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman should play at his funeral. Bet that was some gig. Coltrane and Coleman are now considered inspirational sources for modern jazz players, but Ayler still remains largely unknown and enigmatic. Yet those who came into contact with him, as this film shows, were full of admiration for him and his music, full of love for the man, however weird he appeared. There is joy and there is sadness. I will long remember the film’s opening and closing images of Albert Ayler’s father searching for his own son’s final resting place amongst rows of impersonal grave-markers and having great difficulty finding it.

I should say I was mainly responsible for bringing this film to Shetland, but I do hope fifty or so others who saw it were as moved as I was. Those I spoke to afterwards said they had been touched. We have Kasper Collin and his lovingly made film to thank for that.

Jeff Merrifield 28/2/2010 Shetland Times

Mind-blowing Jewish Jazz

IT NEVER snows, but it blizzards. In just a few days at the tail end of last week we had two world class musical acts performing in Shetland, not to mention an extraordinary sounding dance show at the Garrison.

I missed the Ukrainian soprano at Busta and the prospect of driving to Lerwick from Hillswick on Sunday for an 8pm jazz concert at the town hall on Sunday night after a too busy weekend didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

But Isreali Gilad Atzmon – billed as one of the world’s greatest sax players, but who no one I knew had heard of - sounded like he would be worth the effort.

Wow! What a night. If I was feeling tired heading into town, I was high by the evening’s end.

Atzmon is more than a master of his instruments – he played the tenor sax and the clarinet last night. He is a magician, but one brimful of passion, humour and generosity who filled the town hall with his brilliance and personality.

You don’t expect to encounter one of the best nights of jazz music you have ever heard in a folk-soaked corner of the world like Shetland, but Atzmon’s performance was mind blowingly powerful from the start to the extraordinary climax of Orient House, when I was in danger of having an out of body experience from the intensity of his playing.

Pianist Frank Harrison accompanied him beautifully, weaving the perfect backdrop. Most extraordinary of all though was the unexpected support Atzmon called to join him up front under the stained glass windows and portraits of past provosts.

First Jill Slee Blackadder, who we normally associate with her weekly environmental report in the Shetland Times, treated us to a marvellous soprano voice, improvising around Atzmon and Harrison’s mellifluous playing.

Then 13 year old former Junior Young Musician of the Year Norman Willmore blew the house down trading jazz licks with Atzmon. It brought a tear to the eye.

It was hard to believe not one note of Sunday night’s performance was rehearsed. These impromptu sessions emerged from a masterclass held in the afternoon, shortly after Atzmon flew into the isles, when about 20 local folk turned up to learn the art of improvisation.

It was a rare treat, and one brought about thanks to Gilad’s friendship with Essex playwright Jeff Merrifield, who moved to Shetland last year to find time to write his play “Hit Me!” about Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and joined Shetland Jazz Club.

Jeff sounds like he’s staying up north, so let’s hope his old pal graces us with another visit. If he does I trust there will be a bigger venue available, because once word gets around about Sunday night’s gig there will be a lot more than a hundred folk wanting to lend him their ears.

Pete Bevington, 17 February 2009, The Shetland News