April 20, 2014
Hindsight is a great thing but those who did not have the foresight to take advantage of a very generous offer from Hospitalfield Jazz will now surely regret the oversight. When I tell you that Paul Harrison‘s eight handed jam brought together top hands in Scottish jazz that would serve only to talk down a one-off event destined to live long in the memories of the happy few (in fact quite a few) who were there.
The much respected Scots jazz broadcaster and promoter Alan Steadman often finds himself central to the Caledonian jazz milieu. Fans and musicians have been gravitating towards his particularly inclusive ideas about programming both on air and at the convivial Jazz Room at Hospitalfield Arts for more than thirty years. Last night the magnet of playing among like-minded jazz people drew some stellar players into a loosely arranged exposition of jazz on-the-fly. Or good old-fashioned jamming that is, of course, the elixir of jazz life.
Normally, a freewheeling session with all its risks and uncertainties can unsettle audience expectations and worry everyone about the attendant costs of over-indulgence. The results can, at times, mean musical indigestion. However the players here are too savvy to abandon structure altogether and, in a democratic selection process, many of the contributors chose a Cole Porter composition as the substrate for their endeavours. This meant that melody was on the menu throughout, and it played well to pianist Paul Harrison’s particular strength as a highly modern interpreter of standards.
The night was full of flow in the music, and in the movement in and out of personnel. The piano trio featuring Mario Caribé (bass) and Alyn Cosker (drums) began the proceedings with a reassuring lightness. However, the arrival of Tom McNiven on trumpet gave notice that freedom to roam was there to be exploited to the full. His solos sprang from enquiries into dissonance and fresh thinking on phrasing. It also set the tone for a serious playtime on Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz that offered insights into the creative process.
Phil O’Malley on trombone underscored the earlier point about melody with a sweet voice on the Pick Yourself Up as four became five on a small stage becoming increasingly crowded with an embarrassment of talent. The mix’n’match approach continued with impact player Kevin Mackenzie on guitar springing from the bench to provide richly rounded chords and mature soloing in a guitar trio permutation. He plays smoothly and melodically in an absorbing style that pulls you rather than shakes you up. Charlie Christian may well have been an influence, but his inventiveness banishes any thoughts of mere emulation.
By this time, things were developing apace and a sense of fun increasingly began to fuel their energies. This emanated in no small part from Mario Caribé on bass who cut a central figure at all times, and not simply because he stood centre stage amid the ensuing melee. He has great physicality coupled with quickness of mind and self-evident experience in strength and depth. Along with Cosker and Harrison he is at the core of a rhythm section worth crossing the fields of Angus to hear. Certainly, he was an appropriate sparring partner for a sweaty duo workout with Konrad Wisniewski on tenor sax.
The full band was something to behold and their self-assurance, already firmly anchored in expertise, simply grew stronger. It set the scene for some serious blowing from Wisniewski and Ru Pattison, two contrasting players who nevertheless share the default position of pushing themselves hard and stretching the ideas. Pattison’s arrangement of a Cole Porter tune raised even Harrison’s eyebrows.
It was interesting to hear Alyn Cosker play in a setting like this. He is rarely ever anything except all-out, and is known as one of the gutsiest drummers in jazz. Here, in the intimacy of the Jazz Room, his versatility and the quality of his ideas were there to be enjoyed at uncommonly close quarters. The characteristic breakouts came later, and demonstrated why his combination punches of power and accuracy are routinely devastating.
The laurels of course go to group leader Paul Harrison who seems curiously overlooked even for a jazz musician. His is a seriously influential talent and he has etched new benchmarks in jazz piano with his own music. Yes, there are many great virtuosi in a highly competitive field, but when it comes to the people’s music, personality counts just as much as professionalism.
Harrison guided his all-stars with the light touch of a likeable and dependable coach, and his own playing offered visible reassurance that everyone had made the right choice by agreeing to take part. Once the word is out and the happy smiles in the team photo are widely shared, it wouldn’t surprise me if Harrison’s phone started ringing off the hook with queries about the next game.
Michael S. Clark
Photographs courtesy of The George Duncan Photographic Society