Locals turn on the style at jazz festival opener

Full Swing impress with their big sound. Photo: Chris Brown
Full Swing impress with their big sound. Photo: Chris Brown

Despite the Jazz Festival’s change of date to the end of May there were no worries over the effect of the “old sea haar” on Friday night.

The first jazz “happening” of the festival featured local artistes and truly delivered an “eclectic mix” to kick things off.

The bleachers were out in the Mareel auditorium, and though caberet-style seating may have enhanced the atmosphere, restrained use of the smoke machine and the universal whiff of coffee set the scene.

As the rasps of Doctor Jazz, Jeff Merrifield, introduced “all that jazz” he reminded us of the tonic that this form of unregulated music could be.

The theme of this year’s festival is jazz and literature of the Beat Generation and the concert was dedicated to the late Stan Tracey and the more recently deceased Maya Angelou.

I was brought up in a household with a father who, though hailing from Burns’ country, preferred jazz to Scottish dance music. And locally, ever since the days of the Excelsior Jazz Band and Peerie Willie’s syncopated roots, jazz sits easily with an meandering ear in the music scene.

Opening the show, Mahogany were far from wooden.

Their jazz standards washed over the audience like a comfy chair with a sparky Izzy Swanson on vocals and Helen Tait’s thrilling sax for the tender moments. Not quite reaching the heights of Billie Holliday’s Lover Man, “I feel so bad think I’ll try something I never had” they set the scene for exerts of the “Great American song book” with Norman Willmore.

Norman Willmore shows how adept he is at the keyboard, as well as the saxophone. Photo: Chris Brown
Norman Willmore shows how adept he is at the keyboard, as well as the saxophone. Photo: Chris Brown

Shetland’s jazz tour de force was tickling the piano keys as adeptly as his trusty sax with a fresh look at the intonation of many classics in the form the deep resonance of Jane McLaren’s vocals. Nature’s Boy was especially rich.

Now for the duet of Robert Bennet and Alan McKay, not exactly cool in the jazz sense but laid back in a cornucopia of guitar dexterity.

They exuded a serene mood on the proceedings, Bennet reminding us that it takes “encouragement to be encouraging”. He admitted that he and McKay were not born to be wild but born to be mild.

Full Swing, with an impressive brass section, took a little time to come into their own but this 10-piece outing gave out a lush sound and certainly did get Under your Skin with their rendition of Mac the Knife.

At this stage the imagination was pleasantly flowing and knew no bounds when The Shetland Improvisers Orchestra took to the stage. An unknown quantity, there was truly an “eclectic mix” – a description that will never give them justice. I was told afterwards with all sincerity that “sometimes it works…”

There was a sense of relief that it had on this occasion.

I wasn’t quite sure why Alice in Wonderland had been translated into the Shetland dialect, but heh, life’s all about wonder.

Laureen Johnson’s words took the dialect to new places, as did The Jabberwocky with the English language.

On voyaging home this reviewer was left with the thought, you’re never quite sure what you’ll hear after you leave the house apon an evening. Jazz as ever pushes the boundaries and reminds us what an assorted muse the genre is.

As Peerie Willie Johnson once said sometimes “da silences in atween da notes is as important”.

Merrifield, has delivered a plucky experiment in jazz and literature in our own modest backyard. If Friday’s journey through the musical scales is anything to go by the weekend should be a good one.

Stephen Gordon

• For more reviews see The Shetland Times, 6th June edition.


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