Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival 2011

21 Sep 2011 in Argyll & the Islands, Festival, Music, Showcase

Various Venues, Islay, 16-18 September 2011

LAGAVULIN, Laphroaig, Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Ardbeg: not just the litany of legendary single malts treasured by whisky-lovers worldwide, but also the locations, in both distilleries and village halls, for most of the concerts making up the Islay Jazz Festival.

Jointly promoted by Jazz Scotland and Islay Arts Association, and currently sponsored by the pungently peaty Lagavulin – of which a complementary 16-year-old nip was offered to audiences at every gig – the festival this year marked its 13th outing, with not a whiff of that number’s customary ill luck.

Swedish singer Viktoria Tosltoy

Swedish singer Viktoria Tosltoy

Quite the contrary, in fact, with attendances among the busiest ever, and many visitors declaring 2011’s edition the best yet – no small accolade, given how the event’s unique blend of attractions, for jazz fans and musicians alike, have matured into an international reputation that belies its modest scale, a stature underscored by the BBC’s presence over the weekend, recording several shows for broadcast on both Radio Scotland and Radio 3.

This time drawing primarily from the contemporary Scottish and Scandinavian scenes, the Islay programme was as ever a model of high artistic quality allied to ingenious economy, with permutations from a corps of around 30 musicians lining up a total of 16 different acts, from soloists to septets. The multiple deployment of individual players makes a virtue of necessity by knitting them more collectively into the festival as a whole, capitalizing on the network of close relationships among Scottish jazzers in particular, while enabling them to enjoy displaying various strings to their bow.

The range of venues co-opted by the festival likewise adds value, not only via the distilleries’ intriguing mix of history, tradition and functionality, but also with Islay’s RSPB centre, where early arrivals could enjoy a guided birdwatching walk before the show, or the aptly-named Outback Gallery, a converted steading away up in Islay’s north-west corner, decked with diverse artworks and five minutes’ stroll from a beautiful deserted beach. Scattering concerts around the island, too, throughout the afternoon and evening, builds in opportunities to admire its splendid scenery, abetted by weather that substantially defied an unpromising forecast.

The first of Friday’s two concerts in the former maltings at Lagavulin distillery featured Swedish-born, Russian-descended singer Viktoria Tolstoy – great-granddaughter of iconic novelist Leo – accompanied by her regular sidemen Jacob Karlzon (piano), Hans Andersson (bass) and Rasmus Kihlberg (drums). While initial impressions of her voice seemed a close aural match to her willowy Nordic appearance, as her set progressed it revealed an impressively broad stylistic and expressive spectrum, taking in sultry Latin slinkiness in a cover of Prince’s ‘Te Amo Corazon'; languid sensuality in ‘Butterfly’, from her recent Letters to Herbie album; artful off-kilter passion in Esbjörg Svensson’s ‘Equilibrium’, and dusky, velvety soul in adapted Russian folk song ‘Little Pretty’.

Particularly notable among her band’s similarly strong and versatile support were Karlzon’s precisely chiselled yet freewheeling solos, foreshadowing his exhilarating headline performance – again flanked by Andersson and Kihlberg – on Sunday afternoon, which roved with expansive authority between dreamily delicate lyricism, dynamic drama and ebullient muscularity.

Tom Bancroft (photo credit

Tom Bancroft (photo credit

Back at Lagavulin, Tolstoy’s performance was followed by the debut outing of drummer Tom Bancroft’s new outfit Trio Red, also featuring English pianist Tom Cawley and Norwegian bassist Per Zanussi, performing mainly its leader’s own compositions, plus such varied borrowings as a mellow, breezy version of Charles Mingus’s ‘Jump Monk’ and a lovely interpretation of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Last Goodbye’, whose prevailing melancholy was offset by subtly affirmative undertones.

Bancroft’s idiosyncratic sources of inspiration were reflected in his pieces’ titles, prefaced by explanatory anecdotes that not only injected a shrewd note of comedy into the proceedings, but also gave an entry-point for appreciating the music. Thus ‘Boy Meets Boy Meets Girl Meets Girl’, for instance, vividly evoked the emotions and sensations of initial amorous attraction – across all possible gender combinations – while ‘Don’t Let Your Heart Get Broken Like Rickie Lee Jones’ was at once a gorgeous homage to a favourite musician and a tender father-daughter admonition.

Despite the ambitious, exploratory breadth of the players’ three-way conversation, its effervescent sense of the excitement Bancroft professed at launching the project, together with an adroit synthesis of the engaging and the challenging, lent it an openness that proved anything but forbidding.

A similar balance of adventurous creative mettle and more general accessibility characterized much of the weekend’s programme, including Saturday night’s terrific, often thrillingly tumultuous performance from pianist Brian Kellock, at Islay’s Gaelic cultural centre Ionad Chalium Chille Ile. Backed with corresponding verve by bassist Kenny Ellis and drummer Alyn Cosker, his set took exultant flight from material by the likes of Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver and Dizzy Gillespie, plus a few Broadway classics, to deliver as comprehensive a display of densely packed, masterfully articulated jazz pianism as you’ll hear anywhere.

Earlier the same day, Brass Jaw served up a lunchtime to remember at the aforementioned Outback Gallery, aligning alto, tenor and baritone saxes with trombone in ingenious arrangements of standards, pop tunes and originals, by turns fiercely funky and richly sonorous. In the late-night slot at Bowmore Hall, renowned Edinburgh soul/blues vocalist Subie Coleman led a hand-picked band including trumpeter Colin Steele, keyboardist Paul Harrison and saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski, in freshly rendered yet resonantly faithful covers of songs by Cream, Gil Scott-Heron, Etta James and Shirley Bassey that delighted the listening and the dancing crowd alike.

Multi-instrumentalist Fraser Fifield – switching between bagpipes, whistles, soprano saz and cajon – and guitarist Graeme Stephen provided yet another contrasting highlight come Sunday teatime, with their boldly conceived, superbly synchronized and deftly dovetailed deconstructions of traditional and folk-derived tunes, further enriched by digital delays, echoes and loops. The final hurragh at Bruichladdich Hall came courtesy of Mario Caribé’s six-man tribute to crossover pioneers the Jazz Crusaders, reprising both their 1960s soul/bop and 70s funk-based repertoire with lashings of style, swagger and scorching solos.

© Sue Wilson, 2011