The Ileach reviews Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival 2023

Sandy Taylor & Chris Abell from the independent Islay newspaper The Ileach write:

Once again the island gets bemused by a community of jazz lovers invading in mid-September, driving in a focussed way from Ionad Chalium  Chille Ìle (ICCI) to Bruichladdich Village Hall, to Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Gruinart, the Rhinns and round again in hot pursuit of the various jazz bands that have graced Islay with their presence.

This particular year was special- and something of a watershed. The 25th Islay Jazz Festival - a quarter century which should be a huge source of pride to those who initiated it:  particularly Stuart and Celia Todd and Fiona Alexander whose last Festival this was - she is handing over to Coralie Usmani as organiser from next year.

And once again we will attempt to give a taste of what is was like, pointing out that this article is a result of our own personal tastes, with apologies to the bands we  didn’t get to see. We did our best to see most of the musicians at least once.
We started on Friday with the incomparable kitti at ICCI. An incredible backing band: Coralie Usmani and Seonaid Aitken on violins and Irini Demetriadou on cello were most of a string quartet on one side of the stage, while a powerhouse of jazz in the form of Emma Smith on Bass, Graeme Stephen on guitar, Alan Benzie on piano and Tom Bancroft on drums occupied the other. 

This glorious wall of sound was led by Seonaid, who had written all the arrangements, as well as being up for giving Stephane Grappelli a run for his money on violin. kitti  is proudly from Paisley, a stunning ballad singer with a fabulous voice, and her show was a series of Scottish classics, a breath-taking tour from Burn’s “My love is like a red red rose” to Dougie MacLean’s “Caledonia” which book-ended a show of emotion, melody and heart. 

Between these two we had “What’s love got to do with it” (co-written by Scot Graeme Lyle) belted out in proper Tina Turner style, with songs from Rod Stewart, Emili Sande, Jerry Rafferty, Annie Lennox, Primal Scream and the most amazing take on Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Sunshine of your Love” (Jack Bruce was Glaswegian of course), which we would never have thought to see live; and how alive it was. Tom Bancroft did his very best to emulate Ginger Baker, but on a much smaller drumset. Burns might well think he’d found himself in very good company indeed.

We were definitely in the mood for the Jazz House Party at Bruichladdich Hall, even though it was past our bedtime. The usual cheery wait in the dark  (no rain and no midges) and then numerous musicians on the thankfully strengthened stage ready for an Islay classic “we have never played together before” party jam session. Adam Usmani on keyboards called the shots from one side of the stage,  Alan Benzie on the other strutted his funky keyboards. In between, Sebastian Rochford drove out the most complex beats; Ewan Hastie, who looked as if he’d just arrived off the late ferry, matched every move on his bass; kitti, on vocals, Laura Jurd on trumpet and Matt Carmichael on sax. A Jazz party indeed – with special praise for Adam for getting the audience – all of it – up on its feet and dancing.

Saturday and we stepped it up to three gigs, all of them totally fabulous and all part of a new Islay tradition of  long-form free improvisation. First up ‘Birds of a Feather’  at RSPB Gruinart (including bad bird jokes from Mario Caribe and good soup and sandwiches from Islay High School). 

Mario, Seb Rochford, Laura Jurd  and Graeme Stephen had been given the task of improvising on a theme of ‘Birds’. Miraculously, they came up with a sound picture of birds slowly awakening, taking off and calling over Gruinart marshes, water flowing, and then a rather threatening sense of doom (perhaps weather or climate change) before settling down again to roost. The second set was also an improvisation, less bird-like but more of a piece. The band had become used to one another and it showed. Laura Jurd authoritative on trumpet; Graeme Stephen full of subtlety on guitar; Seb Rochford a revelation on drums (how can drums produce a bubbling brook sound?) Mario, who seemed to be a re-energised ‘Spirit of the Festival’, superb on bass.

Then the Round Church in Bowmore to see Tommy Smith on solo saxophone, an anticipated highlight with a large audience. More free improvisation and absolute perfection from “one of the finest saxophonists of his generation”. This was a performance so far beyond the quotidian that it opened a window onto a different type of place. It was actually, really, out of this world. Hints of famous melodies- Amazing Grace, Somewhere over the Rainbow, Alfie –deconstructed, reconstructed, Pibroch and Fugue – completely absorbing. Tommy Smith, standing in the Round Church in his own personal ray of sunshine and playing beyond relativity and into the absolute. A master at work.

Some hours in the sunshine and then the ICCI again to see Laura Jurd, playing her own tunes and leading a band of Scotland’s finest - Matt Carmichael on sax, Stephen Henderson on drums, Ewan Hastie on bass and Fergus McCreadie on piano. 

This time the improvisations were shorter, but more complex, with lots of moving parts: slide rule trumpet over the hyperactive duelling of piano and drums, a precise and fluid sax, bass underpinning the whole. It felt as if there was a lot of counting going on; all of them exploring quite how far one can go with sound and complex rhythms – spiky and chitinous, intense and very interesting.

Sunday started at Ardbeg with a solo gig from Fergus McCreadie on piano:  an ‘exclusive’, and Ardbeg was full. Two half hour sets of meditative, immersive improvisation. Sound pictures – and very Scottish ones. Semi-remembered folk tunes, misty valleys, heather covered hills, rocks, a few fireworks interspersed. Both halves of the concert started with a very simple phrase of a few solo notes, becoming more and more complex and alive like a whole world waking up across the keyboard, before returning quietly to their original selves. At the end the amazed and enthusiastic audience was thanked by Fergus for “indulging” him to do something he really enjoyed. And we did. Very much.

The Scottish folk/Jazz crossover continued at Laphroaig, with Fraser Fifield on ‘low whistle’, with Paul Harrison on Wurlitzer piano - which performed as both a bass line and a keyboard - and Tom Bancroft on drums. They played tunes from Fraser’s  ‘Secret Path’, his latest album. Folk-like melodies with jazz improvisations, and something more traditional - our first drum solo of the festival.

We felt this had been one of the best jazz festivals we’ve attended, and we finished   on a very high note indeed with Fergus McCreadie, Mario Caribe and Sebastian Rochford, a piano trio playing music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Fergus was introduced by Stuart Todd as “The person I consider to be the finest young jazz musician playing in Scotland today, accompanied by two Scots greats, playing the music of the best composer of the last 120 years”.  No pressure then Stuart. 

Of course it lived up to its promise. Three superb musicians who were really enjoying themselves, no counting involved, playing direct from the heart. Just very, very good. And saying something vital about the spirit of jazz. Three brilliant musicians through whose skill, love and veneration the music of two of the jazz greats of the past lived and breathed in the here and now for our enjoyment and wonder.    

Thus does the best of the past chosen by the best of the present flow forward into the future. 

This feels like a promise for next year. No pressure then Coralie.