It’s that time of year again as the crocuses and snowdrops heroically break though the topsoil in search of spring sunshine. They are already a common sight already along the road to Hospitalfield Jazz in Arbroath, as local temperatures begin to rise recklessly into actual double figures. Rose Room on the other hand bring a warmth all of their own to an especially inclusive brand of swing-era jazz. Last night the central heating came exclusively from some of the cheerfully evergreen music of the 30’s and 40’s.
Gypsy jazz, or café jazz, is a term that usually conjures up images of a louche Django Reinhard lazily dangling a cigarette from his lips while idly picking out a devastating lick with his two magical fingers. There is some footage of his Hot Club Quintette around and they are almost casually virtuosic, as if genius is something to be reluctantly produced between important games of cards. In truth, they dealt in hot jazz and recordings testify to a deadly serious commitment to the dominant art form of the age. Rose Room are contemporary keepers of this flame and strike a wonderful balance between incendiary playing and unashamed, good-natured entertainment.
They usually line up with Seonaid Aitken on violin and vocals, Tom Watson on lead guitar, Tam Gallacher on rhythm guitar and Jimmy Moon on upright bass and they make for a cosy quartet. Last night, they were joined by Konrad Wisniewski on soprano and tenor saxophone who turned up the heat by several degrees and added amazing new patterns to the Rose Room interior décor. The man from the SNJO, New Focus and Brass Jaw also revealed a side of his playing I hadn’t heard before. He always plays with a smile on his face, but last night he seemed overjoyed to be in the midst of so much biddable melody. It brought out some of his most free-flowing, mellifluous soloing and placed the stamp of modernity upon a jazz form that is perfectly capable of escaping its own illustrious past.
Nevertheless, Rose Room badge their repertoire with an authenticity that is less to do with reproducing old music than re-invigorating new audiences with its carefree spirit. Seonaid Aitken is an amazing violinist, and rises with facility to everything the post demands. She does the right thing by not trying to remind us of Grappelli, and instead makes us forget about him. She is astounding pretty much most of the time, but she clearly revelled in her call and response exchanges with Wisniewski. As a vocalist, she brought magic realism to the mise en scène of a country house between the wars, where young people listened to dizzily romantic songs on a stylish new gramophone.
Standards like ‘Deed I Do, Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me and If I Had You are often dealt with as points of departure for playing some jazz. Rose Room restore the songs to an extremely believable context that we mostly understand now from old movies or period dramas. At times the suspension of disbelief is so great that I thought I saw Miss Marple in corner of the room quietly taking tea and cake. Certainly, a frantic dash through Limehouse Blues and a fast taxi to Chinatown, My Chinatown (with Watson on lead vocal) made me think of Charlie Chan in hot pursuit of stolen laundry. Aitken even dons the persona of a gauche girl cautioning a would-be suitor that It’s A Sin To tell A Lie, and rescues a cute song from the shackles of mere pastiche.
Tam Gallacher places his tongue firmly in his cheek singing Sheik of Araby, but wisely eschews the wearing of a keffiyeh for added effect. That would be taking things too far, and might even cause offence. His contribution on rhythm guitar throughout is an energetic feat of stamina, accuracy and endurance, and he combines powerfully with Moon on solidly reliable bass, while contrasting effectively with Watson’s lighter touch.
Rose Room with Konrad Wisniewski are a musical treat of a very special vintage, and Hospitalfield Jazz deserves wider acclaim for reminding everyone that jazz music really is a lot of fun. It’s even more fun when the performances close out in dazzling style with tunes like Dark Eyes, a Russian folk song given some serious swing and a furious finish. Rose Room, featuring Aitken and Wisniewski, seem to have more notes in them than the Royal Bank of Scotland, although an unkind person might say that wouldn’t be difficult. However, it’s a rich mix, a grand night and a salutary reminder that a Saturday night without TV isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Michael S. Clark