Elling elegantly elliptical at Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Fest



This year's 40th anniversary Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival (EJBF) was a far cry from the inaugural Edinburgh jazz fest back in 1978, a one day, mostly un-ticketed event, which showcased largely UK traditional jazz bands. Shows took place in pubs and at the popular Edinburgh Astoria Ballroom, best known back then for its association with punk and new wave gigs.

It was appropriate that this anniversary year's ambitious 10-day long event looked back to these trad origins, with the likes of the exuberant New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional Jass Band and Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton's cheeky blues lyrics and strings skills which wowed the audience. The irrepressible Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Scotland's own horn-heavy Swampfrog both attracted a youthful audience with their exuberant latter-day take on the New Orleans sound.

Likewise, it was fitting that this year a number of Scottish jazz veterans appeared at EJBF. At the opening gala concert at The Assembly Hall, among a host of big names, the redoubtable Carol Kidd demonstrated that she remains UK's foremost balladeer, her passionate rendition of Billy Joel's 'And So It Goes' particularly impressing. Guitar maestro Martin Taylor gave a masterclass in lucid understatement, while his deep swinging duet with the multi-talented MC for the evening, Seonaid Aitken on violin, transported this reviewer back many decades to Taylor's early days when he toured with Stephane Grappelli. Ever-evolving Scottish saxman Tommy Smith meanwhile offered spacious and technically flawless dreamscapes.

Nevertheless, the main focus of the festival was squarely towards the future, with a somewhat safe but satisfying range of bands from across the globe, together with and a crop of Scottish rising stars. Though there were many highlights, especial mention should be made of Keyon Harrold's intense and almost belligerently socially aware set at the Speigeltent, while the aptly-named Cross Currents Trio offered a set of breathtaking beauty from Dave Holland's double-bass and Zakir Hussain's percussion, as Chris Potter's sax at times evoked shades of Bulgarian clarinet maestro Ivo Papasov. The Zoe Rahman Trio charmed with her lush, classically-informed lyricism, with clear nods to Rahman's dual Bengali/Irish heritage. Meanwhile, Steve Lehman's fluidity on alto-sax within The Vijay Iyer Sextet's east coast complexity and pugilism, was mesmerising. Even the Kurt Elling Quintet strayed far from its origins, baritone Elling even dipping his toe pleasingly close to Phil Minton territory. And for the late-night party-goers, the likes of Italian Rumba de Bodas, cosmopolitan supergroup Bokante, the Ghanaian K.O.G. and Zongo Brigade all gave ample satisfaction.

A swathe of homegrown bands similarly gave hope for the future. Versatile guitarist Graeme Stephen's trio left the packed audience almost sucker-punched from his concentrated, high-energy set at The Jazz Bar. Another Jazz Bar regular, spirited drummer Alyn Cosker and his band, with a more generous time slot, were happily able to dip extensively into Cosker's latest fusion release, KPF. At the late-night Teviot Row Festival Club, vibrant bands Fat-Suit and Werkha gave the audience something to dance about, while distinguished Scottish jazzers, pianist Brian Kellock and saxophonists Laura Macdonald, Martin Kershaw and Phil Bancroft, each delivered their customary first-rate sets. Meanwhile, pianist Fergus McCreadie, bassist Mark Hendry and 2018 Scottish Jazz Awards 'Rising Star' award-winner vocalist Lucca Manning, and their bands, all demonstrated an ability belying their tender years. All deserve close watch and lend confidence that Scottish jazz is in good hands over the next 40 years of the EJBF.

Fiona Mactaggart 
Photo by Sandy Blair