Nairn International Jazz Festival

by Ferdinand Maylin

Sunday evening; we leave the car parked amongst mature Lime and Scots Pine trees and stream with others towards the hotel. It is very warm and pleasant, the sun is still strong and the smell of pine is heavy. Looking to our left, across the championship golf course, which runs down to the white sandy beach, we can see blue water. Yachts pass and Dolphins frolic. What a beautiful setting for a Jazz Festival; but this is not California, this is the Highlands of Scotland, and we are in the small seaside town of Nairn on the Moray Firth for its 13th International Jazz Festival.

Local green grocer Ken Ramage was delivering fruit and vegies to a hotel in Inverness one day, when he heard an American Jazz Band playing. This rekindled a desire for the music he loved, and he decided to do something about it. So this modest business man started this festival, delighting many and leaving him with a permanently worried look as he searches constantly for sponsors. His first Jazz man? Ruby Braff: his second? Scott Hamilton. Nairn is now well placed on the circuit and Americans do like coming here ­ both Braff and Hamilton are back yet again.

To start the week we have Rebecca Kilgore, backed by the secure and always musically satisfying Dan Barrett, with Eddie Erickson on guitar, Joel Forbes, bass; and Canadian Brian Ogilvie on tenor sax popping in and out. The Conference Center of the hotel fills quickly; the audience is middle class,middle aged (and upwards) and very Jazz savvy. Not for the first time my wife mentions that we are about the youngest here ­ and we can remember Bambi's mother getting shot - this aspect is very worrying. A friend just returned from the Edinburgh Jazz Festival reports the audience is just the same, does this mean in twenty years there will be no audiences?

The Jazz starts with "I Want To Be Happy", which summed up the evening perfectly. A list of standards were presented in shameless, seamless bliss.Rebecca is not a Jazz singer, the Jazz she leaves to the others. But she swingsdelightfully, her timing is impeccable, she is also blessed with a lightness oftouch and a voice of enormous grace and charm. Dan Barrett's mellow trombone backed sensitively, keeping his jacket well buttoned to stamp his authority. Eddie Erickson played a full guitar that well covered the lack of a piano, adding some "attitude" with his horse play, and a blistering "Maple Leaf Rag" on the tenor banjo. Brian Ogilvie blended well and offered the odd solo on clarinet. If I tell you that three of the numbers had the word "Dream" in the title you get the idea of the evening. By the second set the audience were captivated and would not let them go.

A change of venue for the next gig. Along the Moray coast to the Universal Hall of the Findhorn Foundation, which lies along side the Bay of Findhorn. This was billed as the "Summit Reunion", they keep having them. Bob Wilber, soprano sax; Kenny Davern, clarinet; James Charillo, guitar; John Bunch, piano; Dave Green, bass; Steve Brown, drums.

A full house was there to greet the six well-dressed musicians ­ who went straight into "Exactly Like You", which from the outset established a statement of class. Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber were magnificent ­ Davern always going that extra mile, taking the clarinet into areas that clarinets seldom go into. It was a pity that when he played pianissimo (quietly) the band did not go with him. James Chirillo (a handsomely turned out young man) brought a murmur of approval from a lady sitting next to me; he played his ranging, well-rounded solos with ease. What can one say about John Bunch? 81 years young, impeccable and statesman-like in style, his sensitive coloring when supporting solos sublime, when required his fingers moved like quicksilver. Dave Green on bass and Steve Brown on drums (who I thought a little loud in the first set) backed splendidly. As the night before, by the second set a gelling between musicians and audience seemed to take place; a sheer enjoyment that swung both ways. The heat was intense. The audience wilted, the band, who were wearing a lot more than we were, carried on regardless, with such a stiff upper lip they might have been British ­ air conditioning is not a thing that is known in Scotland. Again it was a night of standards ­ the finest moments were Davern and Wilber sparring on their instruments; jousting each other to a standstill in friendly combat. Despite the heat they were cheered from the platform.

Next evening, same venue. The Fapy Lafertin Quartet with Bob Wilber. This group were a revelation. It was clear they were not American; the Europeans seemed to dress like members of the French Underground. Straight away the music of Stephan Grappeli and Django Reinhardt came alive, playing a mixture of New Orleans Jazz, swing and ragtime with great skill and pace. Young Dutch violinist Tim Kliphuis gave a dazzling virtuosi performance, matched by the guitar of Fapy Lafertin carrying the banner of his fellow countryman Django Reinhardt. Bob Wilber could be parachuted into any group and enhance it immeasurably (I was listening to him play Brahms and Beethoven on my way to the gig), a gracious and courteous man giving credit where it was due, he blended in superbly. Though, as some numbers drew to a close, the eye contacts grew more intense as they headed towards a frantic finish - I kept my fingers crossed they would all stop together. Of course they did.Scott Hamilton

Ruby BraffBack to Nairn and we have had to wait until Wednesday to hear a trumpet ­ actually the cornet of Ruby Braff (photo at left), with Scott Hamilton (photo at right), tenor sax; John Wheatley, Guitar; John Bunch, piano; Dave Green, bass; and Steve Brown, drums.

A frail looking Braff took the stage very gingerly (we did not know at the time but he had a chest infection which would cause him to cancel his next gig), he has a certain presence about him ­ you felt that he would not suffer fools gladly and if you did not sit up and pay attention you would be for it. We were safe, it was the Beatles that took the full brunt of his fury - he did not appear to like them and said so. He was kind to us though, and completely opposite too his peppery outburst was his sweet, smooth, eloquent cornet, playing in the low register he favors. Hamilton delivered and expanded with full solos, Bunch playing like a man sixty years younger, such vitality ­ the band seemed to play to the strengths of Braff - the first four numbers were very slow ­ there was a chance the elderly audience might have nodded off, but just in time we hit "Dinah" with a lot more pace. The second set was much livelier ­ Braff deciding he had a little more in the tank than he thought as he crafted his solos with impeccable taste.

Thursday night it was Ray Bryant. This amiable Philadelphian stopped abruptly when he saw the piano ­ as though he had never seen one before. It soon became obvious that he had. He is a man that knows how to please an audience; starting with a classical style cadenza he built tension and expectation ­ then at a fast lick into "Take The A Train". He does not like to stay in one place; we went on a Jazz piano feast, through boogie woogie, swing, bebop, spirituals, blues, some of his own work, all with powerful authority and flawless technique, Then suddenly, a classical performance of Schumann's "Traumerei," this, he said, was for all those requests to "Play something classical," though no one had said a word. Then an utterly masterful performance of "Georgia On My Mind." By the second set the audience were spellbound; there seemed to be an enrapturing effect that freed the mind, no opinions, no attitudes, music can be so powerful - it can bind us all. I am sure this is how human beings should be. He went out with a monstrous performance of "Saint Louis Blues." Many felt the need for a standing ovation.

The room was emptied, the piano tuned, (I imagine the hotel foundations were checked as well) and back we went again to hear Benny Green, piano; and Russell Malone, guitar.

Russell MaloneI feel the scheduling could have been better; putting two pianists of such quality back to back is not a good idea. Benny gave us a different style entirely, more fluid and lightly textured, intricate ­ and ­ he did not play standards. He plays regularly with Russell Malone, this soon became obvious, with tricky stylistic passages played in unison at great tempo. Playing a more modern repertoire they were very much in touch with each other, reacting sensitively to each other's different shade of play. Russell Malone (photo at left), who wore a very loud tie, plays with a virtuosi style ­ his performance of a guitar piece called "Jingles" was quite electrifying; I have never heard single notes on a guitar played so fast. I tried to work the speed out against the metronome mark (in my head, of course!), but he went off the scale. A wonderful performance from both of them.

The next evening we changed our seats to pews and moved into the United Reform Church down town. We were to hear the baritone sax of Joe Temperley, but he had to return to the States at short notice. The last minute replacement was the tenor sax of Harry Allen backed by the Brian Kellock Trio. This Scottish outfit is sought out by visiting stars as one of the outstanding groups any where in the world (their CD has just been voted by the BBC the best in Britian). The acoustics took a bit of getting used too ­ and the tinny piano had a spoiling effect, but the quality could not be denied. Allen and Kellock setting off at a dazzling pace with "Just The Way You Are". Allen's tenor was smooth, flowing, inventive and forceful. Playing only standards they swept through the numbers "Embraceable You" brought the best out of Allen, playing with a delicate touch and sweetness; the timbre of the instrument entering the walls of the 150 year old Church (built yesterday by Scottish standards). Kellock's playing sparkled with inventiveness against the ­ at times ­ bewitching sound of the tenor saxophone. Pity about the piano. I asked Harry afterwards how long they had together for a rehearsal. He looked at me, raised an eyebrow and said, "We shook hands." He went on to say that some people like to have a programme, but he liked to call the tunes as he went along. So not only did they not rehearse, they did not even know what they were going to play!

No time to waste, into the car and a dash to Findhorn to see the Gully Low Jazz Band. David Ostwald, tuba and leader; John Allred, trombone; Jon-Erik Kelso, cornet; Howard Alden, guitar; Dan Levinson, clarinet; Mark Shane, piano; Joe Ascione, drums.

This band of New York based all stars is very proud of its weekly spot at the Birdland Jazz Club ­ "not noted for traditional Jazz bands," David Ostwald tells us with some satisfaction. This bright and breezy outfit opened with "Strike Up The Band," they like Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke numbers, swinging along with effervescent joyfulness ­ as a good trad band should.

John Allred played a very mellow and tricky trombone, Dan Levinson was equally good on clarinet, I found the cornet of Jon-Erick Kelso (whose idol is Ruby Braff), though very inventive, a little unfriendly when using the attacking style. Mark Shane on piano has an unnervingly correct posture for a Jazz player (as opposed to Benny Green who appeared at times to ride the piano side-saddle), but his execution of traditional Jazz playing was absolutely perfect. Howard Alden's guitar seemed oddly out of place, his solos did not sound right with such a traditional line up. The Confederate Army had tubas and cornets but they did not have electronic guitars. A banjo would have been perfect ­ and Howard does play one. David Ostwald oom-pahed on the tuba with cheeky splendor, and Joe Ascione is one of the best on drums. They played with great verve and spirit; in fact they seemed to enjoy themselves so much I began to wonder if they should be paid.

Steve Tyrell, the Columbia singing star was booked for the Saturday night, but his wife was ill and he had to return home. This meant a cobbling together of players that could be got hold off at short notice; and Warren Vache on cornet was brought in to lead them. John Allred, trombone; Howard Alden, guitar; Brian Kellock, Mark Shane, piano; Jon-Erik Kelso, cornet; Dan Levinson, clarinet; David Ostwald, tuba; Ken Ellis, bass; Joe Ascione, drums.

Playing smaller sets, then coming together for a major jam, it was a great way to go out. Warren Vache was a good presenter; humorous and quick ­ you needed to be to hold together an impromptu performance and make it look natural. He is a powerful, fiery and expansive cornet player; full of inventiveness and good sound. Again a night of standards; veering from traditional to modern and back again.

"You cannot go wrong," Warren Vache told us, "By thinking of Louis Armstrong as God." Finally taking the roof off with "Saint Louis Blues."

I don't know if they are still getting royalties but there was not one day that we did not have a Hoagy Carmichael or Duke Ellington number. As Ruby Braff said, "We play their music all the time and they never call us ­ they are worth more dead than we are alive!"

What a week!

by Ferdinand Maylin


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