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Five Star Reviews From Edinburgh & Nairn


NAIRN INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL’S PIANO SUMMIT, COMMUNITY CENTRE, NAIRN (published in The Scotsman, August 8th)
It may have been a musician down (pianist John Bunch called off due to illness) and have a tenor sax star lost in transition (Scott Hamilton, whose first flight of the day from northern Norway to Oslo was cancelled), but the Nairn Jazz Festival still managed to pull a magic evening out of its hat on Thursday night. Everything went according to plan; in fact, it went better than could have been planned, because an extra piano materialised towards the end of the hitherto two-piano concert.
This summit meeting involved veteran American wizard Dick Hyman plus younger, German pianists Chris Hopkins and Bernd Lhotzky – in other words, the three pianists who had wowed Edinburgh audiences earlier in the week with their games of musical pianos. For their Nairn reunion, they were joined by the similarly nimble-fingered Rossano Sportiello – and the results were sensational.
Of course, the numbers which involved all four pianists were the most exciting – and the most fun to watch, as a certain amount of contorting and Marx Brothers-like horseplay took place as the musicians arranged sheet music so that two pianists could read it at a time, and arranged arms and torsos so that complex duets were feasible.
Among the highlights of the many different line-ups within this quartet was a beautifully delicate duet by Lhotzky and Sportiello on George Shearing’s Children’s Waltz, Hyman and Hopkins’s hard-swinging Opus 1/2, and Sportiello’s sublime solo version of Wonder Why, which was so romantic that the old couple next to me were moved to hold hands..
*******
NAIRN INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL, COMMUNITY CENTRE, NAIRN (published August 10th)
There’s no doubt about it: this year’s somewhat reduced Nairn International Jazz Festival would have been an altogether lesser affair had it not been for the contribution of American jazz star Dick Hyman. The veteran pianist is so versatile that he played an important part in preventing this year’s event from feeling like a diet version of the usual programme.
On Friday afternoon, Nairn audiences were treated to a history lesson from Hyman, whose acclaimed and epic CD Rom A Century of Jazz Piano is about to be released as a CD box set. His two-hour guided tour of the jazz hall of fame was an exercise in musical time travel: among the many greats he managed to squeeze into concert (which really demands a sequel) were Erroll Garner, George Shearing and Bill Evans.
Just as an impersonator can drop different voices into a conversation so Hyman elegantly conjures up the spirits of his piano heroes, most thrillingly such early pioneers as the ragtime composer Scott Joplin, with whose eternally exciting Maple Leaf Rag he kicked off the afternoon, and stride giant James P Johnson whose Keep Off the Grass Hyman played at such speed that his hands were a cartoon-like blur.
On Saturday night, he was back for a staggeringly energetic festival finale with fellow octogenarian Bob Wilber (clarinet, saxes) – the highlights of which were the oldest numbers, Running Wild, Royal Garden Blues and CC Rider.
Wilber had arrived on Friday to play what turned out to be a superb concert with tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton – who had finally arrived from northern Norway, more than 24 hours after he had set out. Red Bull energy drinks perhaps deserve some credit for his performance (what Wilber’s secret is remains to be seen – he’d been playing till 4am in France earlier that day), but the wildly enthusiastic response of the audience to the Nairn debut of this particular line-up (with the wonderful Rossano Sportiello on piano duties, joining resident bassist Andy Cleyndert and drummer Joe Ascione) no doubt helped power both stars.
******

DICK HYMAN PIANO LEGENDS, THE HUB, EDINBURGH (published in The Herald, August 4th)

If Sunday night’s concert at The Hub is anything to go by, the secret to being a spry octogenarian is to play regular games of musical piano stools. American pianist extraordinaire Dick Hyman may be 82 but that didn’t stop him from joining fellow ivory-ticklers Bernd Lhotzky and Chris Hopkins in a couple of rounds of stool-hopping as the three men worked their way round two grand pianos, while serving up rafters-raising versions of The Sheik of Araby and I Found A New Baby.
Those two thrilling numbers – played with great style as well as humour (the younger players’ mock territorialism over the keys, a bit of business involving who had the longest sheet music etc) were highlights of an exhilarating evening. But they weren’t the only highlights. On faster, stride numbers, a solo Hyman can sound like he’s playing with multiple hands, and his dynamic take on James P Johnson’s classic Carolina Shout was a terrific example of this.
Less flamboyant but equally impressive was his original piece, Thinking About Bix, which captured the beguiling peculiarities of the compositional style of the legendary Bix Beiderbecke as well as evoking his unique cornet playing.

Although Hyman was very much in charge of proceedings, his young cohorts – both first-timers at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – had plenty of opportunities to shine, notably their electrifying duet on Somebody Stole My Gal, and Lhotzky’s duet with Hyman on Harlem Strut.

*****

DICK HYMAN EUROPEAN ALL-STARS/KEN MATHIESON CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA, THE HUB, EDINBURGH (published in The Herald, August 6th)

Following his piano extravaganza of Sunday night, Dick Hyman returned to The Hub on Tuesday evening for a concert which showcased his equally prodigious talents as an arranger and a bandleader who can whip even the most ragtag bunch of star soloists into a tight, working unit. Some of the musicians on Tuesday night’s bill had quite possibly never met before, let alone played together before, which undoubtedly added to the excitement of the music – as well as underlining bandleading Hyman’s skills.
Mind you, with the likes of Alan Barnes (saxes and clarinet), Dave Green (bass) and John Allred (trombone) in his septet, Hyman had at his disposal some superb players, several of whom looked as if they were getting a real kick out of playing such rarely performed numbers as a thrilling Dooji Wooji (Hyman revealed that he’d once asked the bass player Milt Hinton was this meant, only to be told “Better you not know..”).
Alan Barnes must sometimes rue the fact that he’s so versatile because it often means that he does back-to-back shifts on the bandstand. Tuesday night was no exception, as his turn as a European All-Star followed fast on the heels of his first guest appearance with the Classic Jazz Orchestra. Their programme of Benny Carter music might have benefitted from an interval but it was a treat nevertheless to hear this top-class band dish up such cracking Carter numbers as Symphony in Riffs from the 1930s and Katy-Do from his Kansas City Suite. Barnes’s superb work on alto (on the latter tune especially) was the icing on the cake.

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The News From Nairn

Quality, not quantity, is clearly the ethos of the Nairn International Jazz Festival, if this year’s line-up is anything to go by. The festival may not be quite as long as usual, and there may be fewer concerts, but organiser Ken Ramage has nevertheless put together a programme which will make many jazz-lovers salivate – and which could well lure festival-goers up north rather than to the Edinburgh event which, this year, runs concurrently with Nairn’s.
Although the festival is shorter than usual and there is only ever one concert on at any given time, there is still a packed, focused, programme, and it’s one which offers something for everyone. Ramage is undoubtedly proudest of securing the Scottish debut of the glamorous thirtysomething Italian singer Roberta Gambarini, who has been making a name for herself in the last few years thanks to her amazing scatting. She is giving two concerts – on Monday 3rd and Wednesday 5th.
Another coup for the festival is finally managing to welcome American piano wizard Dick Hyman to Nairn. Like guitar ace Martin Taylor, who makes his festival debut on Tuesday 4th, he has been invited many times but until relatively recently, the Nairn Jazz Festival clashed with a festival of American music of which Hyman was the musical director. He relinquished that job a couple of years ago, and so was able to take up the invitation to Nairn, a festival which, he says, he has heard all his friends enthusiastically talking about.

The digitally dextrous Hyman – who was Woody Allen’s musical director on numerous films including Radio Days, Everyone Says I Love You and Zelig – is a chameleon of the keyboard, able to play in the style of all the jazz greats and one of his Nairn concerts (on Friday 7th) will offer a unique chance to hear his own take on jazz history. He will also be sharing the stage – and the Steinway – with three other virtuoso pianists (Bernd Lhotsky, Rossano Sportiello and Chris Hopkins) at the International Piano Summit on Thursday evening, and with his old Soprano Summit band-mate Bob Wilber, on Saturday 8th.

Wilber, the veteran soprano saxophonist and clarinettist who was mentored by none other than jazz legend Sidney Bechet, is, along with Brian Kellock and Cyrus Chestnut (piano), John Allred (trombone) and Joe Ascione (drums), one of many return visitors to this year’s festival. In addition to his closing concert with Dick Hyman, he guest-stars with festival favourite Scott Hamilton, the great tenor saxophonist, for a reunion on Friday 7th. Hamilton’s two festival gigs – the other is on Thursday 6th – feature him in the supremely classy company of his one-time regular pianist John Bunch.

It’s 20 years since Hamilton’s quintet (with Bunch) released the album, Scott Hamilton Plays Ballads, which cemented the tenor man’s reputation as a great romantic player, and there will be many aficionados keeping their fingers crossed for a reprise of such sublime numbers as Dream Dancing and In a Sentimental Mood..

With cornettist Warren Vache unable to come to Nairn this summer, the festival turned to Wendell Brunious, a trumpeter who made an impression – and not just because he was by far the most nattily attired musician in attendance – when he made his debut here, as part of the Frank Wess band, in 2007. New Orleans-born Brunious is in residence for most of the week, playing with Rossano Sportiello and Andy Cleyndert (bass) on Friday 7th and John Bunch, Andy Cleyndert and Joe Ascione (drums) on Saturday 8th. His duties during the festival also extend to introducing a film: even the youngest jazz fans – or potential jazz fans – are catered for with a special screening of The Aristocats, the 1970s Disney movie which is most memorable for its terrific Everybody Wants to Be a Cat number.

Brunious starts his week with a couple of concerts with a trio led by the Russian pianist David Gazarov, who makes his Nairn debut with a solo set on Tuesday 4th – one of a series of intimate morning gigs in The Classroom bistro. Expect a mix of classical music and jazz, as Gazarov – like Dick Hyman – is expert at both.

* The Nairn International Jazz Festival runs from August 3rd-8th. For tickets, call 01309 674221 or buy in person at Nairn Community Centre, Kings Street, Nairn. For full details, visit http://www.nairnjazz.com or email info@nairnjazz.com

 

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The Mouse That Roared: An Introduction to Nairn Jazz

It’s a balmy Sunday evening and over 300 jazz fans are taking their seats in the conference room of an elegant seaside hotel. The place is buzzing. Many of the audience members haven’t seen each other since the last jazz concert, a few months ago, and there’s a great deal of anticipation about the return visit of the favourite American jazz musician about to appear onstage.
You might think that I’m about to tell you all about some Mediterranean jazz festival or an American jazz party, but this is actually the build-up to a concert at the Newton Hotel in Nairn, the picturesque Scottish seaside town which, over the last decade, has put itself firmly on the jazz map. Like something out of an Ealing comedy, the highly personal and often eccentric Nairn International Jazz Festival is now a player on the world-stage of jazz.
The festival was founded by Ken Ramage, a local greengrocer with a passion for the music. In the early 1990s, he decided to stage a series of jazz concerts featuring such big names as the American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and the Scottish singer Carol Kidd. These proved so popular that Ramage, inspired by the classic documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which was filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, boldly went on to develop the Nairn International Jazz Festival.
Like Newport – which was also, famously, the setting for the well-loved Hollywood musical High Society – Nairn, with its big old houses, stunning views across the Moray Firth and beautiful surrounding countryside – is a splendid location for a festival. It only took a few years for it to emerge as a mecca for the creme de la creme of the jazz world who routinely descend on the wee town every August for the annual festival, and at various times in between, for one-off concerts and weekend events.

As Ken Peplowski, the clarinet and saxophone star, tells an audience which has just been blown away by his dynamic, exciting performance: “We love coming here. There’s such an amazing scene here. Sometimes I tell people, and they don’t believe me. Then they come, and they realise it too.”

The day after his sell-out concert at the Newton, Peplowski is waiting at reception for a lift to his next gig: a late morning concert at a restaurant where, in true Nairn style, the audience’s tickets include their elevenses. There’s just one problem: his bass player, London-based Andrew Cleyndert, isn’t around. A couple of inquiries later and Peplowski learns that Cleyndert was whisked off earlier to do an extra gig: at, of all places, the local nursery.

Only in Nairn would this very typical sort of last-minute addition to the itinerary be cooked up. Many a time, during the festival, word has spread through audiences that there’s to be an extra concert or that somebody has started a little jam session somewhere. It’s all part of the event’s charm.

As is the fact that Nairn is very much the jazz festival with the personal touch. You only need to watch the crowds filing out of the concerts to see this: people line up to thank Ken Ramage and to request that certain bands or musicians be invited back. As often as not, the musicians are the first to request a return visit – and Peplowski’s requests start on Sunday evening and continue through to the workshop he gives pupils at the local secondary school on the Monday afternoon.

The late cornet star Ruby Braff came to Nairn several times – and, in fact, played his last-ever gig there. Like many of his fellow musicians, he was treated to trips to Loch Ness and Cawdor Castle during his stay, but it was the dolphins in the Moray Firth which particularly appealed to him. Legendary bass player Ray Brown found the golfing opportunities (the Newton Hotel looks out on to the splendid West Golf Course) as much of an incentive as the musical ones. Other jazz musicians have managed to cram in visits to nearby Brodie Castle – which has been a venue in past festivals – to their schedule, as well as visits to distilleries.

Ruby Braff was also one of a number of musicians who head for Nairn before anywhere else in Scotland, and who have effectively been adopted by festival-goers as one of their own. Since the festival has always been a reflection of Ramage’s personal taste, there has long been a degree of favouritism towards pianists – the late Ralph Sutton and Gene Harris loved coming to Nairn – and singers who, as often as not, Ramage first heard on Michael Parkinson’s radio show.

The characteristic which, more than any other, puts Nairn jazz in a class of it own is its laid-back, friendly atmosphere. Musicians and audience members mingle before concerts, after concerts and during the intervals: there’s no attempt at the segregation which is now the norm at jazz events. John Bunch, the veteran American pianist, loves the fact that “the musicians get to hobnob with the fans”. Indeed, the musicians usually stay at the same hotels as the punters, and it’s really quite surreal to see great American jazz men emerging from the newsagents on the High Street, or to hear them extolling the virtues of the local chippie’s curry sauce.

For cornettist Warren Vache, “the most rewarding feature of the Nairn Jazz Festival is its intimacy”. Vache, who has been a regular visitor since the early days, says: “The concert venues are generally smaller, allowing more contact with the audience and this sometimes makes for very special music. I remember doing a duo concert with Ralph Sutton several times in Nairn, and it always seemed as though we were performing for friends in a sitting room.”

And in case you think you need jazz aficionado credentials to get a kick out of Nairn, bear in mind that large chunks of the audience are local folk who have discovered jazz as a result of the festival. Prepare to be converted ….

* A preview of this year’s Nairn International Jazz Festival (Aug 3rd-8th) will be posted next week, but if you can’t wait, visit www.nairnjazz.com for information.

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