The venerable Scots radio broadcaster Alan Steadman has been the voice of Scottish jazz for as long as anyone can remember. His Jazz Waves radio show is the longest running jazz programme in the UK, and the jazz club he runs at Hospitalfield Arts Centre has been pulling in a large and loyal crowd for twenty-five years.
1320Radio has reported many times from the venue and it is a place where joyous jazz has been known to break out on a regular basis. Last Saturday night was no exception, and we were there to witness saxophonist Alan Barnes (pictured above) lead a ram-jam jazz celebration of one man’s dedication, endurance and determination.
Steadman has a knack of bringing in all-star line-ups from across the jazz disciplines and attracting artists who prize the freedom to fail – otherwise known as improvising off the back of very little rehearsal. The likes of Alan Barnes (alto & clarinet), Kevin Mackenzie (guitar), Alyn Cosker (drums), Kenny Ellis (bass), Brian Kellock (piano), Malcolm ‘Molly’ Duncan (tenor) and Karen Sharp (tenor) constituted as disparate a group as any, but with great potential to surprise – not least themselves.
And thus it transpired with the opening tune ‘Tenor Madness’ setting the tone as a round robin of opening gambits from each player. The result was slick jazz in short order, and broad smiles breaking out almost immediately. They may have been smiles of relief for all I know, but the sense of liberation was infectious and transferred readily to the capacity audience.
Basie’s ‘Moten Swing’ featured Duncan and Sharp on chummily swinging saxes, and a delightful conversation between Barnes on clarinet and McKenzie on guitar. Their instrumental banter was absorbing, while Kellock’s singular voice on piano was, as ever, witty, fun and expressive. The pianist is one of Scotland’s favourite jazz people, perhaps because of the good-natured, musical fellowship that seems to flow so generously from his seamless, lucid musicianship.
Molly Duncan, who probably doesn’t need to be reminded that he played sax on Pick Up The Pieces, was similarly engaging and soulful whenever he took a lead role, encouraged by a very strong rhythm section guilty only of great drive and tremendous interplay. On ‘You’ve Changed’ the saxes took turns to reveal their distinctive voices in a highly differentiated front line. Barnes plays the jazz of the ages, as if the music is ingrained in his fingertips. His is a voice of long experience that has grown rich, I suspect, much more from years of playing than hours of time-consuming study. Yet, listening to him is like opening an encyclopaedia of the most inspired British jazz and hearing it summarized in a marvellously concise narrative.
Part of that narrative is great talent harnessed to healthy self-deprecation and Barnes cheerfully complied by introducing Mackenzie as “flying in the face of fear” as the guitarist ventured out to take the lead on Coltrane’s ‘Lazybird’. He is fearless of course, with a wonderfully clean tone that is so bright I think he must polish it every morning when he’s shining his shoes. Bassist Ellis and drummer Alyn Cosker were outstanding, but Ellis chose to have an especially good night and he revelled in role of rhythmic carburettor in this rich mix of hi-octane jazz.
The setlist had the feel of a fly-past rather than a tour-de-force of jazz styles as it swooped over Beale Street on the hum-along-able ‘When You’re Smiling’, and banked leftfield to visit Charlie Parker and Wayne Shorter for more visceral fare. ‘My Little Suede Shoes’ was framed as a Cubano art print of a bright, almost garish Bird with Cosker providing “primitive jungle rhythms”, cunningly disguised as emphatic, dynamite drumming. It was a piece that suited Karen Sharp in particular, who brought Getzian observation rather than studied ornithology to the proceedings.
A regular feature at Hospitalfield nights whenever Brain Kellock is involved is an extended solo exposition on piano. I definitely had my ears switched on, but he played so many things in there that I settled for being bewitched, bothered and bewildered, and simply enjoyed the journey.
Kellock, who consistently dazzles in his duo collaborations with Tommy Smith, is one of the most inventive interpreters of jazz standards anywhere, and many may feel that his artistry ought to be more widely recognized. On the other hand, we in Scotland have perhaps gotten used to having him all to ourselves, and we may selfishly want to keep it that way.
Much the same can be said of Alan Steadman, who throughout his career as a broadcaster, promoter and presenter has reported and reflected upon the many changes in jazz, as well as documenting its history in the most illuminating way.
It’s a history that comes very much to life in the passion of performance and Barnes, perhaps unwittingly, testified to this as he introduced the final number, ‘Lester Leaps In’. It is quite futile to debate whether Lester Young, as Alan Barnes proclaimed, was the “greatest tenor player who ever lived”. What matters is that Barnes believes it to be so, and it’s those abiding passions that make rip-roaring celebrations like the Hospitalfield Birthday Bash so inclusive. And there was cake too.
Michael S. Clark