Alison Kerr is an award-winning journalist whose passion for jazz ignited her career as a writer. For 20 years, Alison has been a contributor of jazz reviews and features to The Herald newspaper, in her hometown of Glasgow.
Carol Kidd at the 2016 Glasgow Jazz Festival (c) Sean Purser
If there was a stand-out artiste in last year’s star-studded gala concert to mark the 40thanniversary of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival it was undoubtedly Carol Kidd, the irrepressible and internationally renowned Glaswegian singer whose powerful renditions of a couple of ballads brought the house down at the end of the first half and triggered a Mexican wave of sniffles across the auditorium.
The two songs which sent moist-eyed listeners scurrying for reinforcements on the Kleenex front were both new to her repertoire, and were among seven tracks she had just recorded for her new CD, Both Sides Now, which is released this spring. Live, at the concert, they revealed that Kidd has still got it. The voice is as commanding, clear and pure as ever, and her way of bringing a song to life is as spellbinding as it’s always been.
Which is not something you can say of many jazz singers who are pushing 75. Indeed, there are not many jazz singers who their seventies and still have the “chops” that Kidd – who has always been a cut above the competition – has. Although she may have had more than her fair share of woes they haven’t taken their toll on her voice. They’ve only shaped her attitude – and her current attitude is to keep on singing until she knows it’s time to stop.
This, she explains from her home in Majorca, was very much in her mind when she began to think about the new album. “Most of the tracks on it are songs I’ve been listening to over the last couple of years, real gems, and I thought I’d better get round to recording them – I’m not getting any younger. Whereas sometimes you have a theme in mind for an album, or are asked to do it, this one came from the songs – they were the starting point, and they were what got me into that studio.”
One of the Edinburgh stand-out songs was a Billy Joel ballad And So It Goes, which Joel wrote in the early 1980s, and recorded in 1990 and which was recorded a few years ago by Alan Cumming. How did she come across it?
“Well, my daughter Carol is always listening to music on Spotify and we’ll sit together and we go through it looking for ideas. Last February we listened to lots of different stuff and came across this Billy Joel song I’d never heard before – I think it’s one of his best songs.”
It certainly comes over as a perfect fit for the singer who has often delved into the works of contemporary singer-songwriters for material and blended them into her unique repertoire alongside the Great American Songbook stalwarts. So, a typical Kidd concert at any point in the last 30 years might have been mostly standards by the likes of Porter, Gershwin and Rodgers & Hart but with songs by Randy Newman, Eva Cassidy, Sting or Don Henley also represented, depending on what she had been listening to.
But doesn’t the Billy Joel number have a male point of view – this ballad about someone who’s been hurt and risks letting a new love slip through his fingers because he’s scared? “Oh no,” insists Kidd. “To me it’s just life. It applies to everybody, everybody has gone through that – kept too much to themselves and then they get in a situation where it’s ‘Do you want to be with me coz I want to be with you?’ I sang it from my point of view. I was blown away by the response I got when I sang it at the jazz festival.”
Both And So It Goes and the other “new” song introduced in Edinburgh – Something Wonderful, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score for The King and I (“What a song! We came across that when we were listening to movie themes on Spotify ..”) – were performed and recorded as duets with pianist Paul Harrison and could easily have come from any number of Kidd’s previous albums. But you wouldn’t describe this new CD as a jazz record – it is a distinctive mix of pop power ballad, folk, country & western and jazz and features such well-kent names as regular collaborator and former Wet Wet Wet member Graeme Duffin, on guitars, bass and drums and jazz and folk fiddle player Seonaid Aitken.
Kidd says: “Some of the tracks are quite Celtic-y – and I wanted it to be like that. For others, I wanted to have strings. When it came to the title song, Both Sides Now, I wanted a really full-on arrangement. I wanted it to sound wacky and really strange – because life is strange. I wanted the whole background to be strange.”
Had Joni Mitchell’s classic Both Sides Now been a favourite since she first heard it? “Well, when she did it, with just guitar, I liked the song – but she was a young girl then. I wanted it to be me as a mature woman, having lived my life. It’s like Sinatra’s My Way – I’ve been through all of this, all the ups and downs, the highs and lows. And I still don’t have a bloody clue! It had to be the title track because the album is a sort of life story which reflects where I am and how I feel.”
Has Kidd’s way of selecting songs changed as she has aged? Does she now feel that it’s a similar sort of challenge to the one faced by older actresses who decry the shortage of meaty roles for their age group? “Yes! I am very conscious of the fact that I am now older and that a lot of songs don’t suit me any more. I choose songs according to my age. I don’t want to be mutton dressed as lamb! I want to deal with my life as it is now – I can’t sing silly boy-meets-girl songs in my seventies. I need lyrics which are more mature and have more substance.”
Sometimes this need to reflect where she is in her life means that Kidd has to tinker with existing lyrics in order to make them work for her now. This was the case with the song with which she is most strongly associated –When I Dream. Twenty years ago, her recording of Sandy Mason’s haunting ballad was picked to be on the soundtrack of a Korean blockbuster action movie, the success of which catapulted her to the top of the charts over there, and elevated her to superstar status in Asia. But by last year, she had begun to wonder if she might have outgrown one phrase in it.
The line goes ‘I can go to bed alone and never know his name’ and I thought: ‘Aw come on. I’m too old for that!’ So I changed it to ‘and never speak his name’. So this is the mature version of When I Dream!”
One name that’s missing from the list of singer-songwriters featured on the album is Carol Kidd’s. She has previously recorded a handful of her own songs, most recently the title track of Tell Me Once Again, her acclaimed 2011 duo album with guitarist Nigel Clark – the last studio recording she did. But these days, her regular creative outlet tends to be painting, the art form which brought her back from “the depths” in the years following her partner John’s sudden death back in the early 2000s, and which helped her again when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer five years ago. “That’s twice it’s done it for me,” she laughs.
In 2014, she was invited to stage her first exhibition, in Glasgow, and since then, painting has increasingly consumed her time. “I’m doing more painting than ever,” she explains. “And I’ve sold more paintings than ever just recently. It’s proving more lucrative than singing at the moment, especially since I can’t get many gigs in the winter as the flights from Majorca are a nightmare.”
But for the moment, Kidd is enjoying promoting Both Sides Now and looking forward to trying to get some concerts scheduled with the featured line-up. “I love this record,” she says, “I really love it. My daughter said ‘Your heart is smiling in it’ – and she’s right because I was enjoying making it so much; enjoying choosing the songs myself rather than being told to do them, and enjoying singing songs by songwriters I adore.”
There’s a breath of fresh air on the jazz scene – and her name is Georgia Cécile. If you heard her voice on the radio, you might think you were listening to an older singer, maybe an African-American who has been round the block a few times. Yet the mighty, soulful American-sounding vocals actually emanate from a petite 29-year-old Glaswegian.
Over the last 18 months, Georgia Cécile has enjoyed a whirlwind of success. She has performed at jazz festivals up and down the country, released a single (Come Summertime) and was nominated as one to watch by Steve Rubie, the owner of the celebrated 606 Club in Chelsea where she played last July. In the last three months, her increasingly busy itinerary has included gigs in Arbroath, Aberdeen and – er – Oman, where she was invited to play a 30-minute set for royalty.
But while Cécile may appear to have burst onto the Scottish jazz consciousness from nowhere, she has in fact been slogging away for the last ten years, learning her craft through her studies and on the job. And her roots in jazz reach back to her childhood, which was steeped in the music.
“My grandfather, Gerry Smith, was a piano player in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s,” Cécile explains. “He played in clubs every night of the week, though he was a mechanic by trade. In fact, during the Second World War, while he was working as a mechanic on planes, he met my grandmother in a music shop in Italy. She played accordion, and was doing a desk job over there. He was from London but came back to Lanarkshire with her after the war. They had nine children, and every one had a musical instrument and every one had to sing at family parties.”
From her grandfather, Cécile learned the foundations of her jazz repertoire – the Great American Songbook – but it was her dad’s sister, Ann, who was the primary influence on her singing style and taste, even before she had discovered such favourite singers as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson.
“My Aunt Ann was an amazing singer – a hairdresser by day and she’d sing with her dad at night. I learned a lot from her. She had a really rich, warm tone – like Sarah Vaughan’s – and her vibrato was very distinctive. I tried to imitate that. I was in awe of her. Her delivery was so emotional every time. She could be sitting on the arm of my granny’s settee belting out Body and Soul, with a cup of tea and scone, and reduce everyone to tears. The emotion and the tone and the rich texture of her voice all inspired me.”
Not only did Aunt Ann’s singing helped shape the teenage Cécile’s own singing style, but her taste in vocal jazz on record played a part too. Cécile recalls: “When I was 15, I started working behind the bar in the family restaurant – Smith’s in Uddingston. They always had jazz playing. On a Friday afternoon, Aunt Ann would come in to do a shift and she would put on her favourite CDs. She loved Ella, and Billie as well, and she knew every song. At home, I was immersed in my parents’ music – my dad is a big Stevie Wonder fan – and I also loved older funk records, as I loved dancing too.”
When, at the age of 16, Cécile announced that she was planning to enter the school talent show as a singer, her mum was quite taken aback. After all, up to that point, classical piano had been her main focus.
“I did Eva Cassidy’s version of Over the Rainbow in the talent show and got through to the final. It took a while for me to feel confident and believe I could do it, though. I was always a bit afraid I would fail or be mocked. I was bullied at high school and had to change school and that probably knocked my confidence but I drew on that experience.
“I moved to Uddingston Grammar. It was an amazing school, a nurturing school. In sixth year we did a musical production – Grease. I was Frenchie. I wanted to be Sandy but they said I had too much sass!”
After studying law at Strathclyde University for a year (“God knows why!”), Cécile dropped out in order to pursue a career in music. “I wanted to study it full time; I wanted to work on my voice, on my craft. I had started to write songs and wanted to learn vocal technique so I went to Napier University.” Cécile studied the Estill method of voice training – which teaches the science of how the voice works; the understanding of which enables students to produce different textures and tones. “It blew my mind,” she says.
The BA Hons Popular Music course required students to perform the repertoire in different contexts so she began gigging in Edinburgh as part of her studies. By this time she had she met Glasgow-based jazz pianist and composer Euan Stevenson and although they were initially introduced so she could sing the songs he had been writing with a collaborator, he and Cécile soon began writing together, inspired by their shared love of such great songwriters as Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach.
Ten years after they first met, she reckons that they now have a catalogue of over 100 original songs – though some haven’t been heard outside Stevenson’s living room. “It’s been a really organic process right from the start. We seem to have a sort of musical telepathy. We’ve grown on the same path together.”
How would she describe their music? “Our original melodies have a real jazz flavour, but with contemporary lyrics. They’re about what’s in my life now, but when we play them on gigs in between jazz standards they sit alongside them well.
“My songs often start as poems, similar to writers like Don McLean who use poetry in their lyrics. And when Euan and I come together at the piano, we transform the words, using harmony and melody to paint the lyric. Melody is everything to me, in both the songs I write and the songs I choose to sing – like recently I performed a song by Duke Ellington called I’m Afraid which has one of the most beautiful melodies in any jazz standard I’ve ever heard. It has the perfect balance of fragility and strength, familiarity and surprise! It’s spine-tingling stuff.”
For someone whose confidence took a while to emerge, how did she get to the point where she holds her own on stage? “Well, the whole stage presence thing has taken a while to conquer. We did a lot of stage craft at uni but I learned mostly from watching others, I spent hours on YouTube watching live concerts and I gleaned lots of great little nuggets of info, such as get rid of the mic stand as it’s a barrier between you and the audience. Also, I record every gig I do and critique my performance afterwards – and there is always something that I want to improve on.
“When I bring my songs to audiences, my ultimate intention is to ‘send people’ some place. The level of story telling and authentic emotion is what I love most about the great pioneers of this music. It’s like turning on a tap when I’m truly connected to the song – something can flow through me in every note. As a singer, having good technicality is important of course, but for me, if the intention of love and connection isn’t there, then you’re missing the point.
“Essentially, I want our music to be accessible and focus on quality and good old-fashioned songwriting. So much is throwaway now. I like artists whose records still sound so good 30, 40 years later. I think we’ll still be listening to Amy Winehouse decades from now. Timeless pop music – that’s what jazz is. It doesn’t date.”
* Georgia Cécile plays the Aberdeen Jazz Festival on March 21 and 22. Visit www.georgiacecile.com for more details.
Mike Hart, who has died at the age of 84, founded the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – Scotland’s first such event – and, in so doing, consolidated the city’s status as an epicentre of classic, traditional and mainstream jazz. The jazz festival he created may have evolved and mutated over the four decades since it began, but it has kept Hart’s kind of jazz at its core.
An only child born in Inverness, Hart moved to Edinburgh when his father (a former engineer) set up an antiques business later run by his mother. After a brief, unhappy spell in boarding school in England, Hart was educated at Edinburgh’s Royal High School, a breeding ground for trad jazz musicians in the late 1940s when that genre of jazz was enjoying huge popularity. The teenage Hart took up drums and by 1949, was playing in a local band, Gavin’s Gloryland Jazz Band, led by trumpeter Jimmy Gavin.
One night, around the same time, in the West End Café, Hart was invited to sit in with the band led by clarinettist Sandy Brown, a maverick and now legendary figure. As Hart told Graham Blamire, the author of Edinburgh Jazz Enlightenment – The Story of Edinburgh Traditional Jazz, “I nearly fell over but immediately accepted”.
So began Hart’s association with Brown, and the trumpeter Al Fairweather and the pianist Stan Greig who also played in the band. With them, Hart went to London in 1952 where their gigs include the Big Jazz Show at the Royal Albert Hall.
After completing his National Service in the RAF, Hart returned to Edinburgh in 1954 and played banjo in trumpeter Charlie McNair’s band. Before long, he had established his own outfit, Mike Hart’s Blue Blowers, and in 1956 he co-founded what would become one of Edinburgh’s longest-running bands, the Climax Jazz Band which featured Jim Petrie on cornet and which would take Hart into the recording studio for the first time. The late 1950s saw the birth of two more popular bands which he co-led, Old Bailey and his Jazz Advocates and the Society Syncopators.
While his jazz career was bubbling away, Hart – who married his first wife, Moira, in 1960 – supported himself and his family via a number of jobs, including agricultural feed advisor, sail boat skipper in France, variety club producer and tour manager (for the likes of Jimmy Shand and Andy Stewart) and, ultimately, from the mid-1970s, running a successful antiques business with his mother, to whom he was very close.
By this time, he had re-formed and re-launched the Society Syncopators as Mike Hart’s Society Syncopators – and it was this band which Hart took on foreign tours on many occasions, notably to the Dunkirk Jazz Festival, where it was named European Amateur Jazz Champions 1979, and to California’s Sacramento Jazz Jubilee which it visited ten times.
Keen to stage something similar in Scotland, Hart spent a great deal of time with the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee’s director, Bill Borcher. Fionna Duncan, who sang with Hart’s band, recalls: “Bill had a sort of ‘war room’ in his house where he plotted out the programme, moving bands and audiences from one venue to the next using models!” This type of planning manifested itself in the way the Edinburgh Jazz Festival was structured during Hart’s tenure.
Hart brought together a number of local bands plus a couple of well-respected soloists from England and staged a mini festival in a ballroom in the capital in 1978.Its success inspired him to seek sponsorship for the first Edinburgh Jazz Festival which took place in 1979, and featured a variety of semi-professional bands from here and abroad.
But it was in 1980 that Hart began to operate the policy which helped define the festival (re-named the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival): he began to hire individual jazz stars, many of them veterans of the great American bands of the 1930s onwards, who had been sidemen in their youth but were now happy to be more in the spotlight. Such now-legendary players as Teddy Wilson, Doc Cheatham, Harry Edison and Milt Hinton all visited the Edinburgh Jazz Festival during its first decade.
Into the mix, Mike Hart added younger players who were part of the mainstream revival. All these musicians would stay for several days, if not a whole festival, at a time and would be mixed and matched in different line-ups, often featuring Scottish talent in the rhythm sections. Many of today’s leading Scottish players – among them pianist Brian Kellock and bassist Roy Percy – cut their teeth at the EIJF, invariably alongside big name Americans.
When the jazz festival became a limited company, Hart assumed the role of Artistic Director, and later Founding Director. In 1995, he was awarded an MBE for his services to jazz, and he also received a citation from the City of Sacramento in recognition for his work.
Always a figure who cut a dash and who had something of the old-fashioned adventurer and bon viveur about him, Hart threw himself into other passions beyond jazz. He was an accomplished deep sea fisher (a photo of him and the 180lb Blue Fin Tuna which he caught during a trip to Madeira with author and deep sea fisherman Trevor Housby is featured in Housby’s best-selling book). He also enjoyed sailing and racing his wooden keelboat, then he got hooked on flying, learning to fly a single engine Cessna aircraft and gaining his private pilot’s licence in 1985. That passion gave way to driving and owning a Triking wheeler sports car and attending events for enthusiasts. Jazz remained the constant while other interests came and went.
Graham Blamire says: “Mike would never have claimed to be an innovative or particularly original jazz musician but he was a fine player, both as a member of the rhythm section and in his solo work. He could be a volatile and demanding individual with whom to work, but he had vision, energy and determination and, when he wanted, a great deal of charm. He was a major influence on Edinburgh Jazz for a very long time, a leading figure in some of Edinburgh’s best bands, and he left his mark on jazz at an international level through his creation of the EIJF, which will be his enduring memorial.”
Hart, who was twice married and divorced, is survived by his children Susan and Michael, and three grandchildren.
* Michael Warner Hart, founder and original director of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, jazz musician; born Inverness March 23, 1934; died Edinburgh December 11, 2018.
This obituary was first published in The Herald on Wednesday, December 26 2018
Old Bailey & the Jazz Advocates, 1965, at the Manhattan Club. Thanks to Hamish McGregor (clarinet) for the photo.
Tim Kliphuis Trio, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Sat December 1st ****
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra didn’t have a monopoly on the classical goings-on in the Concert Hall on Saturday night; upstairs, in the elegant former restaurant space, a trio was performing Bach, Brahms and Vivaldi pieces which it has recorded with orchestras for Sony Classical over the last few years.
The Tim Kliphuis Trio doesn’t merely “swing the classics”, however. Kliphuis (violin), Nigel Clark (guitar) and Roy Percy (bass) started out as a superior gypsy jazz group and their renditions of the classics are very much shaped by their roots in the swinging, life-affirming spirit of the music of the great Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt.
On Saturday, some of the classical numbers – such as the Allegro in G from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos – sounded as if they had always been jazz tunes, opening with riffs played in unison by this impeccably in-synch trio, before erupting into solos that spotlighted the breezy virtuosity of the individuals.
Showmanship and drama also played a part, with the first set’s electrifying closer – Winter, from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – breaking the speed limit and bringing many members of the audience to their feet. (That number was one of many on which it was a difficult to hear Nigel Clark’s dazzling guitar-playing without straining. The acoustic in the room meant that whenever he played a delicate, quiet ballad or was being accompanied on a solo by both of his colleagues, he was in danger of being completely drowned out.)
The classical pieces were beautifully balanced by a handful of French and American numbers from the 1930s, notably the ballad Ou es tu?, once sung – as Kliphuis explained – “by Edith Piaf, Jean Sablon, Maurice Chevalier and ..”
“Kenneth McKellar?” interjected Percy helpfully.
* First published in The Herald on Wednesday December 5th
Anybody who was at the City Halls last June to witness Madeleine Peyroux’s return to Glasgow after a decade’s absence will remember that it was an extraordinarily moving experience; the sort of five-star concert experience that doesn’t come along very often. The American singer-songwriter with the sultry, bluesy voice held the audience in the palm of her hand and there was a strong sense of solidarity when she made reference to the political situation in the States and took the mickey out of its president.
Little wonder, then, that Peyroux remembers her one Scottish gig of 2017 clearly when we speak on the phone to discuss her next Scottish date – in Edinburgh later this month. But what is a surprise is just how much of an impression that June day in Glasgow made on her, and how it played a part in the way she approached her new album, Anthem, which is the catalyst for her current European tour.
Reminded of that concert, the 44-year-old immediately responds: “That was a memorable visit to Glasgow. It changed me. It was a big part of my growing up. Before the concert, I met some Glaswegians out on the street and they started telling me about their personal lives – two blokes, two fans, told me about some very serious tragic things that they had gone through. It was very generous of them; it was a real human connection and it made me think very deeply about how I’ve got to be open to that all the time. I have to assume that people want to talk about the hardest things; I shouldn’t shy away from it. I should be open to these conversations.”
It’s little wonder that anyone who has followed Peyroux’s career or is familiar with her recorded output through which run recurring themes about alcoholism, homelessness, falling foul of the law and romantic disappointment should feel that she is approachable and ready to listen. This is the woman who began her performing life as a busker on the streets and metro lines of Paris and who told The Herald in 2009 when she was promoting her first, painfully honest, album of original material that she had “spent a lot of time with sadness”.
So how did the Glaswegian experience impact on Anthem? “I realised that the conversation needs to be on a personal level.” The conversation to which Peyroux refers is about the current political situation, a subject which may have united her with her Scottish fans but which is a thorny topic in her homeland. The seeds for the album were sown during the 2016 US elections when Peyroux was touring the length and breadth of the States, getting a sense of her country and trying to find ways to connect with audiences who don’t necessarily hold the same views as she does.
Does she have to watch what she says about Trump in the States? “Yes. The new record was definitely inspired by concerts where I found that I wasn’t able to talk about issues properly and couldn’t find the repertoire that reflected what was in the air – especially in 2016. I’ve realised that it’s not necessary for me to say anything more about him. He gets enough attention and he thrives on any sort of attention he gets.
“The conversation needs to be on a more personal level so I decided to embrace speaking through the music only. The songs here are based on what’s happened – there’s Lullaby which was inspired by the image of a refugee in the ocean, and Down On Me was inspired by the financial paradox one finds oneself involved – one can’t get back on the horse if one falls off. Songs are meant to speak, and these are deliberately not preachy.”
The record is a group of stories of different people’s experiences and presents an intimate view of politics – through the prism of the personal. “The idea of writing new songs was at the back of my mind at the same time as I was invited to be part of a songwriting session where five of us were stuck together for a few days at a time in LA over a course of a year. It got to the point that I was really excited and wanted to record the songs right away; they felt so connected to what was going on. We recorded it last fall.”
The sessions were the brainchild of Larry Klein, the acclaimed producer with whom Peyroux had collaborated on four albums, including her 2004 breakthrough chart-topper Careless Love and, most recently, her 2013 foray into country music, The Blue Room. Peyroux found it particularly exciting to be writing the songs with musicians, “instruments in hand”, and hearing the songs – which span the musical genres from Marvin Gaye-like We Might As Well Dance to the bluesy funk of Down On Me – come to life.
Unlike her masterful 2009 album Bare Bones, which Peyroux wrote mostly with one collaborator per number, the songs on Anthem were mostly been born out of these afternoon jam sessions. She says: “I was the catalyst for those songs and I used the skills of partners, such as David Baerwald, to finish them.”
An exception to that was All My Heroes, an unblinkered but touching homage to some of the 20thCentury pop icons who have died in the last few years – “All my heroes were failures in their eyes/Losers, drunkards, fallen saints, and suicides.”
Peyroux explains: “The day after one of our former poet laureates died, David came in to the session bemoaning the loss and said ‘Let’s write something about that.’ So the song was inspired by all these great people we’ve been losing like David Bowie, Prince, Robin Williams, and also I had lost a dear friend, so it felt like the natural time to try to address this feeling of loss. So it was David’s idea and it changed form several times.” Indeed, Robin Williams was one of the heroes Peyroux said, back in 2009, “made my life bearable when it was unbearable.”
It was, appropriately, a recently deceased hero of Peyroux who provided the title number – one of only two non-original tracks on the CD. Despite being a fan of Leonard Cohen, whom she knew originally as the father of a classmate from the American School in Paris, for years – and having previously recorded two of his songs – Peyroux hadn’t heard Anthem until Klein, who thought it fitted in well with how they were feeling about the political situation, brought it to her. She quickly became obsessed with it and with working out how she wanted to perform it.
“The stand-out line in the song,” says Peyroux, “is – ‘There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in’. It has this power of hope. He’s saying: ‘Look at how terrible this is and then live through it and come out the other side.’ It’s really become a personal anthem, and I felt that it tied together all the stories on the record so it had to be the title song.”
* Anthem (Decca) is out now. Madeleine Peyroux is touring the UK this week, including Edinburgh Festival Theatre on Sunday November 25. For tour details, visit www.madeleinepeyroux.com
* First published in The Herald on Saturday November 17
If ever there was a living embodiment of get-up-and-go, it’s Alison “Ali” Affleck, the Scots-born American jazz singer and bandleader who – in less than a decade – has established herself as a popular fixture on the Scottish music scene, and one of the busiest singers in the business.
While others struggle to get gigs, Affleck – whose name is synonymous with early New Orleans jazz and blues – is juggling several bands and has so many projects on the back (and front) burners that she must have a super-size Aga in her office.
At this weekend’s Islay Jazz Festival, the ebullient thirtysomething singer is playing virtually back-to-back gigs with the up-and-coming Tenement Jazz Band, a six-piece outfit from Edinburgh, and with regular collaborators Colin Steele and Graeme Stephen. This comes just a fortnight after she completed a Fringe run comprising not one but three distinct shows, as well as a handful of one-nighters.
Affleck’s obvious capacity for cramming a great deal of activity into a short amount of time makes the stories of her adventures before she returned to Scotland in her late twenties much less like tall tales than they would otherwise have been. After all, in the first fifteen minutes of our conversation, we have covered five countries where she’s resided, two college degrees, one fiancé and several encounters with one Barry White.
Wait, what, rewind – THE Barry White?! “Yes!” laughs Affleck. “I looked after his dogs. I used to work as a vet nurse in California. I went to community college there and one of the courses I did there was vet medicine. I ended up working in a practice for a while, and one of the clients was Barry White. He happened to need help with his dogs – jet black Alsatians, a father, mother and son called Bear, Isis and Sokar.
“I got on well with them so I would groom them, take them out and then return them to his house. He was a nice guy, not the sharpest tool in the box though – his PA’s used to say: ‘We think for Barry so he doesn’t think for himself.’ Sadly, we never discussed music. I was only in my early 20s – and not as ballsy as I am today!”
Barry White’s California mansion was a far cry from Affleck’s hometown of Dundee where she was born and raised. Her talent for singing was evident from an early age, especially to her mother – who had wanted to be an opera singer. “My granny’s side of the family is musical,” says Affleck. “In fact, we are related to the Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba – somebody researched our family tree and it turned out that she’s my great, great, great aunt.”
Her singing talent was also very obvious to her primary school teachers. “I became aware of the power in my voice when I was admonished by my teacher for not taking part in something we were doing. She said: ‘You’re not singing. If you had been singing, we would have heard you above everyone else!’ ”
During this period, Affleck was mostly singing Scots songs and performing for family and friends. She won the prestigious Leng Medal, awarded in Dundee schools for children performing Scots songs and keeping the tradition alive.
Through her grandmother, who had an impressive record collection, Affleck first heard the such iconic jazz singers as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald for the first time but it was only when she was living in San Diego in her late teens – “I went there to study photography” – that she got into jazz singing as a result of a newfound interest in swing dancing.
By the time she moved to New Orleans three years later, she was well on her way to being a jazz obsessive. “I got really feverishly into researching the songs I was learning,” she says. The music that really grabbed her, and with which she is most strongly associated, is that of the early jazz singers – the original jazz and blues vocalists who blazed a trail in the 1920s and 1930s but are often now overlooked. “I have massive affection for these pioneering women, particularly Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, and I love the storytelling nature of the songs they sang.”
With her powerful, gutsy vocals and obvious skills as a storyteller herself, Affleck is well qualified to revive or take on the songs that these strong black women introduced almost a century ago. But she doesn’t do it in an imitative way, nor are they performed as novelty numbers; she puts them in context with a bit of background information and brings out the humour, feeling and drama in them in a way that makes them feel current, fresh and timeless – even in the case of some of the most familiar songs that have been on the trad jazz repertoire for decades.
Of course, it helps that Affleck also has a gift for surrounding herself with the best musicians. Returning to Scotland after a long residency in the States and an impressive amount of travel, Affleck was lucky to land in Edinburgh just as new opportunities were flourishing for would-be singers. Whighams, a wine bar and restaurant in the west end, had just launched its jazz club and weekly sessions in which singers could have the chance to sing with the house rhythm section, and Affleck, who had finally decided to focus on music after dabbling in numerous academic courses and jobs, became a regular.
“It was great for me,” she recalls. “It gave me an instant way to meet people. The Jazz Bar’s Tuesday night jam session was way more intimidating!”
Also lucky was the fact that Edinburgh has a relatively high concentration of terrific jazz musicians who can play in the style which Affleck loves. Through Whighams, she met regular collaborators Dick Lee (clarinets and saxes), Colin Steele (trumpet) and Roy Percy (bass), who have been “a great support – especially whenever I’ve thought of packing it in”. Lee was in the first band she formed – Vieux Carré – and both he and Steele play with Affleck in her Copper Cats, while Steele is one of her Gin Mill Genies.
Indeed, Affleck seems to have a knack for hatching new bands on a regular basis. “It’s true!” laughs. “But it’s through necessity. I’ve always found that if I want to do something, I have to be proactive. I realised that if I wanted to do the music that I want to do, I would have to make the band.
“The problem I have is that there are so few really top musicians that can play this sort of stuff well, and have the time to do it. I’m trying to forge a career but I’m hitting a wall because the guys I work with here can’t come on tour for one reason or another – and they play in other bands as well as with me. So I do feel a wee bit stuck. I’ve always been able to find a way, and if someone can’t do a gig I can usually find a dep but it means I have to adapt. And if I have to compromise in my performance, I always feel deflated afterwards.”
Affleck’s way of dealing with these frustrations is to take practical steps – and build a new band. The latest one is an all-female sextet named the Red Hot Rhythm Makers, which is not even a year old. It seems entirely apt that Affleck, who plays washboard and concertina, should galvanise a group of women to play the music of the original female pioneers – and it’s a refreshing new direction as trad and classic jazz have long been male-dominated in Britain.
“It’s turned out to be a really nice experience,” says Affleck. “Not only does it mean that I have another band I can do gigs with but the dynamic in an all-woman band is very different – in a positive way. We share the load more: everybody adopts roles, for example, one of the girls offered to be the cashier. I’ve never had this before! Every time we get together I really enjoy the camaraderie. It’s hilarious: everybody apologises to each other whenever they make a mistake – that never happens when guys mess up!”
So what’s next for this particular pioneer? “Well, the Gin Mill Genies have just put out a new live CD, Pioneer … Queen… Goddess … Diva – Birth of the Blues, and the Copper Cats are releasing a new studio recording. I’m writing some original material, and I’m working on a Billie Holiday-themed show which will feature Martin Kershaw playing on the songs she did with Lester Young. Oh, and there’s a new monthly trad residency at the Jazz Bar which I’m heading up. Those are the main strands I’m working on just now …”
Affleck pauses for a split second, before adding: “But I’m always looking for new collaborations …”
There was a very strong sense of déjà vu about Saturday night’s concert by Scottish singing star Carol Kidd’s jazz festival concert. As with last year’s performance, it took place in the main Spiegeltent in George Square and she was once more accompanied by a trio headed by pianist Paul Harrison.
As anyone who attended the 40th Anniversary Jazz Gala which launched the Edinburgh Jazz Festival the previous weekend will have observed, the 2018 Carol Kidd is at the top of her game again. At that all-star concert, the pixie-ish singer stole the show with a couple of heartbreakingly moving ballads – new additions to her repertoire – and she repeated those triumphs at her own gig, threatening to reduce listeners to blubbering wrecks with her perfect, crystal-clear renditions of Billy Joel’s And So It Goes and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Something Wonderful (from The King and I). She made every note, and every word matter – and she had her rapt audience hanging on every syllable.
The other stand-out ballad was an old Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg favourite, Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe, which Kidd sang so exquisitely that the effect was spine-tingling. On this, as with the afore-mentioned new ballads, she was accompanied – though perhaps not always to her best advantage – by just Paul Harrison.
Less satsifying were the numbers which featured the full line-up; a line-up which, as last year, sounded like it would benefit from the addition of a guitar for a warmer, less dry sound. That said, le tout ensemble sounded terrific on the R&B song You Don’t Know Me which opened the show, and on a dramatically executed I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.
Curtis Stigers & Martin Taylor, Teviot Row, Edinburgh *****
Anyone who heard Curtis Stigers – the American singer-saxophonist with the Mount Rushmore features and the craggy, soulful voice – when he played a series of duo gigs at Le Monde in 2012-2013 will have had his second Edinburgh Jazz Festival appearance of this year circled in their programme since it was announced. Why? Because not only was he coming back for his first duo gig here since then – but also because he was going to be teamed with British guitar star Martin Taylor.
This may have been Stigers’s and Taylor’s first full concert together, but – as they explained – they met years ago, and the idea of a duo gig has been gestating ever since, with a shared love for the legendary Tony Bennett-Bill Evans recordings providing inspiration both in terms of repertoire (their 2018 version of Days of Wine and Roses was a particular joy) and as a prime example of the art of the jazz duo.
Right from the off, it was clear that the full-house audience at Teviot Row – great acoustics, great sightlines, fiendishly uncomfortable heat – was in for a treat. A terrific storyteller, Stigers clearly relishes this sort of intimate setting, and the opportunity it affords him to get to the core of a song and lay bare its heart – especially when he has such a suitably sensitive musical partner.
It’s no surprise, then, that it was the ballads – notably their exquisite takes on All The Things You Are, My Foolish Heart, I Fall In Love Too Easily and There’s Always Tomorrow – which best showcased the results of this successful summit meeting.
First published in The Scotsman on Saturday July 21st
You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To
Days of Wine and Roses
My Foolish Heart
Willow Weep For Me
All The Things You Are
They Can’t Take That Away From Me
I Fall In Love Too Easily
Comes Love (with Alison Burns, vocals)
Why Did I Choose You (Martin Taylor solo)
I Won’t Last A Day Without You (Martin Taylor solo)
Teviot Row, this year’s base camp for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, was the scene for a show featuring the festival’s pick of the jazz talent that has recently erupted out of Glasgow. But it will be a testament to their youth if the musicians who performed didn’t feel like stretcher cases after their appearances on the stage in the airless auditorium – usually the university’s debating hall – on Saturday night. The heat was unbearable, the atmosphere sticky and suffocating; all the moreso because there was no break until 80 minutes into the concert.
This didn’t seem to bother the dazzling young pianist Fergus McCreadie whose talent and trio were the main focal point of that long first half, and who electrified the audience with a series of atmospheric numbers which recalled the style of the American pianist-composer Dave Grusin.
Like the Mark Hendry Octet, which played rich, multi-layered pieces after the break (and was listened to, by the casualties of the first half, from the bar), this was original, contemporary material very much catering to a specific jazz sensibility.
Much more accessible were singer Luca Manning’s trio of songs, accompanied by ace pianist Alan Benzie, which kicked off the proceedings. Manning’s breathy, vaguely Chet Bakerish, vocals combined with his evocative way of telling a story were especially well showcased in the Steve Swallow song City of Dallas.
The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival swung into action on Friday, with a special concert as its showpiece event. It’s 40 years since an embryonic version of the festival first took place and, on Friday, it revisited its old gala format with a sort of jazz variety show bringing together Scottish jazz stars who have notched up appearances in every full decade of its life.
Pianist Brian Kellock’s relationship with the jazz festival dates back to even before his official debut there, in the 1980s. On Friday, reunited with drummer John Rae, his trio was in high spirits – though it was the languid Ballad For Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters that stood out.
Tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith, who also cut his jazz teeth in the festival’s first decade, joined Kellock for a trio of tunes – notably a gorgeous Without a Song and a Sweet Georgia Brown that sent sparks flying – which highlighted their rapport and showed how attuned to each other’s musical thought processes they are.
It was disappointing that Martin Taylor, one of the leading jazz guitarists in the world, got a little lost in the mix kicking off a second half which was to be dominated, time-wise, by a gypsy jazz group which only came on the scene a few years ago. Taylor’s meander through Henry Mancini’s bittersweet ballad Two For the Road was a mini-masterclass in the art of solo guitar.
It would have been even more of a treat to hear him play with singer Carol Kidd (pictured above, with pianist Paul Harrison) but she had done her bit, bringing the house down at the end of the first half with two stunning ballads – by Billy Joel and Richard Rodgers – which served as appetite-whetters for her concert next Saturday.
Nobody got more of the spotlight, however, than singer/violinist Seonaid Aitken, who was in her element hosting the show on the jazz festival’s behalf, duetting with its stars and leading her band, Rose Room, through the longest set of the night.
An edited version of this review appeared on HeraldScotland on Monday, July 16th