Sunday, 17 July 2011

Glaswegian Kisses...

Over the years I've been to Glasgow International Jazz Festival many times, though I haven't paid it a visit now for at least a decade. A few fallow years with little of interest, coupled with the constant stream of quality music presented locally at The Sage, has made the festival somewhat superfluous in the overall scheme of things. Happily that has now changed, as memories of all those previous trips north came flooding back during our visit to the 25th anniversary edition of the festival.

Looking through the festival brochure, I must have driven Louise crazy as I recalled evenings spent listening to the likes of Max Roach, Bill Frisell, Tony Williams, Paul Motian, Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner, Nils Petter Molvaer, Chico Freeman, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the Mingus Big Band. Did you know that I once saw Idrees Muhammad playing with John Hicks and Steve Grossman in Glasgow? Back in the 90's it was almost an annual pilgrimage, and I was often accompanied by the late Chris Yates and son Stephen. We 'discovered' rising stars like Joshua Redman, Robert Mazurek and Jacky Terasson before they were famous, and the unique ambience of the Old Fruitmarket always seemed to offer up something to savour. Significant and formative experiences in my jazz education, to others I guess my memories will be little more than a gratuitous list of names, but Louise certainly approved of our favourite watering hole, the Babbity Bowster, which was just as I remember it.

The last time I was up there was to hear a scintillating Pharoah Sanders in the Old Fruitmarket, which I don't think was even part of the festival. Since then, this most unusual and character-full venue has had a massive overhaul, and if I'm not mistaken the main stage has moved to the opposite end of the hall. There's now a whole complex of music stages in the City Halls, and the Merchant City is really thriving. Tinderbox, home of some of the best fresh coffee either of us have ever tasted and fresh continental cakes including divine friandes, was just around the corner. Even before hearing a single note of music had been heard, it was great to be back!

The lure of Tomasz Stanko was the irresistible force that had initially drawn me back to Clydeside, and with several other events taking place over the same weekend a plan quickly came together. It was a shame that we'd missed Mulatu Aststake, Tommy Smith's Karma and Kit Downes's trio earlier in the week, but taking in the entire event would have been too much of a stretch. Stanko was originally billed in an intriguing double header with Lee Konitz, though serious ill health prevented the venerable saxophonist from appearing. Left fronting Florian Weber's trio 'Minsarah' alone, out of Konitz's adversity Stanko produced an almighty triumph! This was undoubtedly one of the greatest gigs I've ever seen, the great trumpeter in complete command of his unique voice as he floated through through many of his best known pieces. Minsarah were new to me, though I've been aware of Weber for a couple of years. This free-wheeling trio enveloped the music as if it were their own, and in many respects Stanko's great legacy does indeed belong to every contemporary European artist. Stanko's status as one of the greatest living jazz improvisers was emphatically underlined in this near perfect performance.

Following hot on the heels of Stanko, in the rather more intimate surroundings of the Tron Theatre, was another top drawer European dish. Edition Records certainly have a class act on their hands with 'Meadow'. John Taylor, Tore Brunborg and Thomas Strønen collectively and individually held the audience rapt with their delicate improvisations. Playing entirely acoustically, their close listening and sensitivities to nuance were impeccable. Brunborg, surely the most considered and calculating improviser I've seen for a long time, stuck entirely to tenor. It was good to hear his more extrovert side emerge from time to time, and although very much under the spell of Garbarek I can think of musical touchstones that are far, far worse. 

Speaking of Garbarek, he was in fine voice with the Hilliard Ensemble at Durham Cathedral last week. With licence to improvise, he literally walked-the-talk up and down the central knave. His well-established connection to Eastern musical influences made him very much at home with the Armenian liturgical roots of much of the material. Like Stanko or Frisell his biggest asset is that unique musical voice, and no matter what musical company he may keep that voice always stays true. Cynical doubters of this project, perhaps unimpressed by its crossover appeal, need to re-examine their position quickly!

The other Glasgow gigs were in many respects there to pad out the main events of the weekend, though there was something good to take from each. Leon Russell's deep south boogie was fine in small doses, whilst Ramsey Lewis's run through the bulk of his Earth Wind & Fire produced gem 'Sun Goddess' (1974) was an unqualified success. Courtney Pine's 'Europa' was a great show, combining crowd pleasing entertainment with a strong cast of gifted artists including Zoe Rahman and Omar Puente. Ridiculously young guitarist Andreas Varady showed that he'll have a great future ahead of him if he survives puberty, and during his relaxed afternoon set his regular quartet was joined by Ryan Quigley on a slowed down 'Giant Steps'. 

I've got a neat pile of CDs to review at the moment, including the latest Gary Burton ('Common Ground') which marks a stunning return to form,. The new Tonbruket disc consolidates Dan Berglund's post E.S.T. direction of travel away from the jazz mainstream, whilst Laszlo Gardony's latest shows what an under-rated player he continues to be. I can't quite make my mind up about John Escreet's densely formed fusion, though with Wayne Krantz in the group it can't be too bad. As far as live music goes, we'll pass on tonight's Newcastle gig by Paul Dunmall, so next up for us will be a London break taking in Soweto Kinch's Joe Harriott tribute and Keith Jarrett's 'Standards' trio...

Fred Grand