FESTIVAL ROUND-UP: 2018 Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival

Fergus McCreadie
Photo by Patrick Hadfield

Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival
(Islay, Scotland.14-16 September 2018. Round-Up and photos by Patrick Hadfield)

Islay is an island off the west coast of Scotland, famous for its birdlife and its whisky. For the last twenty years, for three days each September the geese and barrels are joined by jazz fans from the island, across Scotland and throughout Europe, gathered for a remarkable festival. The island's relative remoteness make it special: both musicians and audience have to really want to get there, most travelling by ferry to join the appreciative islanders. Without regular music venues, the promoters - Islay Arts and Jazz Scotland - and their volunteers are adept at turning unlikely locations into intimate spaces: community halls, distilleries and an RSPB nature reserve visitor centre all played host to exceptional gigs. There's something about Islay that draws superlative performances from musicians, and the audience - both visitors and locals - have a real sense of community: one sees the same people at gigs throughout the weekend, and many people come back year after year (this was my eighth visit). The organisers mix and match musicians, creating new and surprising ensembles just for the festival.

Soweto Kinch (foreground) with Nick Jurd
Photo by Patrick Hadfield

Friday night saw Soweto Kinch play an impassioned set with bassist Nick Jurd and drummer Jonathan Silk at Lagavulin, sponsors of the festival. Aided by an array of pedals and a recalcitrant Mac which declined to play at one point, he sampled his own playing to loop riffs and play with prerecorded samples, creating a choir of saxophones. Despite the technology, the music felt personal and organic: Silk, playing this music (largely taken from Kinch's latest album Nonagram) for the first time, worked with the recorded beats, adding a real sense of swing. The samples acted as a starting point for the musicians to improvise. Kinch also rapped two numbers, the heartfelt Forecast, during which he got the audience to chant the chorus, "What's it all for?", and a freestyle number in which he demonstrated his quick imagination as he worked in words suggested by the audience.

Lagavulin, the distillery which sponsors the festival (and provides a warm welcome at each gig), was also the venue for Graham Costello's STRATA, who played a set on Saturday lunchtime. I'd seen this band play during the summer, and had been so impressed that I thought I might be disappointed this time. Not a bit of it: for ninety minutes, this band of young musicians - they're students or graduates of the jazz programme at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland - gave their all, playing intense, intricate music; their musicianship is highly accomplished. A mixture of jazz, prog-rock and classical forms, with a bit of folk thrown in for good measure, they've synthesised a powerful but subtle music. They played straight through, without any announcements - so I've no idea what they played, or which of them composed what. Harry Weir's ecstatic, wailing tenor and Fergus McCreadie's repetitive, rhythmic piano over Joe Williamson's textured guitar build up an emotional ferocity, driven by Graham Costello's polyrhythmic drumming; Liam Shorthall brought depth with his trombone. A superb start to the musical day.

Pete Johnstone and Mario Caribe
Photo by Patrick Hadfield


The young musicians from STRATA made appearances in other bands across the weekend. Shorthall was part of Mario Caribe's lively New Mambo band. Caribe has played every Islay Jazz Festival bar one - he clearly has an affinity for the island. (Someone shouted "welcome home!" as he came onto the bandstand.) I'm not a fan of latin jazz - or so I thought. But in the hands of Caribe, the rhythm was infectious: this late night show was immense fun. The band - including Pete Johnstone on piano and Mike Butcher on tenor, together with Shorthall students of Caribe's from the RCS ("People ask me why I teach... It's so my students can get me gigs", quipped Caribe) - were exuberant and hugely entertaining.

McCreadie played several gigs in various bands across the weekend. His own trio played some beautifully understated piano music, much of it from their recent CD Turas, together with new, yet to be named pieces. His piano playing is engaging and introspective, exploring ideas and melancholic moods. Though comparatively quiet, the trio are emotionally powerful - after the gig, one member of the audience explained how one of the new pieces had brought tears to her eyes.

McCreadie also played in the Stephen Henderson Quartet, augmented to a quintet for one show only with the addition of Graeme Stephen on guitar. But it was his guest appearance with saxophonist Tommy Smith that really impressed. This duo, opening for Smith's quartet, played some exquisite standards: Ellington's Single Petal of a Rose stood out, achingly beautiful. The Tommy Smith Quartet, playing music written or inspired by John Coltrane, played an exhilarating set of high powered, energetic music. They're a formidable force, driven by Sebastiaan de Krom's drumming and Pete Johnstone's forceful piano. Tommy Smith seems to get better and better: part of the international jazz scene for over three decades (and the educator behind the RCS's jazz programme), his saxophone playing was a tour de force.

With so much talent on hand, it says a lot that neither the Tommy Smith Quartet, nor STRATA, nor Soweto Kinch played my favourite gig of the festival. That was instead a show at the Outback Gallery, named for its remote location at the end of several single-track roads, on the north-west coast of Islay - next stop west is Newfoundland. Reedsman Martin Kershaw explained that he was asked who, if he could choose anyone, he'd like to play with: and so this one-off gig found him playing with percussionist Corrie Dick and Graeme Stephen in a wholly improvised set. Kershaw played alto and soprano saxophones, but mostly bass clarinet - a haunting, mournful sound. Dick's drumming was humorous and creative, using various implements on his drums to create rhythms. Stephen utilised a variety of pedals to sculpt his sound. The music was engrossing, moving from abstract to melodic, shifting in inventive and imaginative directions. They held the audience enthralled for fifty minutes before drawing the piece to a close. Then, with a few minutes left, they played a straight blues, Kershaw on alto, proving they could swing with the best. It was a truly special event.

Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. Twitter: @patrickhadfield.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you Patrick for your round-up of Islay Jazz Festival 2018. Could not agree more on many points. Some of the most memorable were the Strata, the Outback Gallery gig with Kershaw, Dick and Stephen, Fergus McCreadie play with Tommy Smith, and Laura MacDonald with Luca Manning, Mario Caribés New Mambo. Thanks again go to the very high quality musicians, festival producers, all organizers, volunteers, sponsor, locals, audience. Islay is a special place with a special jazz event that has attracted me there about 10 times of 20. Twenty years is a generation of new musicians. Every success for the next generation of top jazz musicians, too!

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    1. Thank you - I'm glad you think I caught the mood!

      Islay is a special place, and I think the location adds a lot to the festival, as I hope I put across.

      I've not seen Luca Manning, but he is one of the names that friends keep recommending. I must make an effort!

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    2. Thanks Patrick, this is a great round-up of the festival. Sounds wonderful!

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