While it can be dangerous to try and conflate a few examples into a slogan for a national style - "Kind of Tartan", say, or "The New Sound of Presbyterianism" - there's definitely something stirring in the baronial halls and mean tenements of Scottish jazz. In truth, it's been stirring for quite a while, at least since an event called "Clandemonium" at the Outside In jazz festival in 1990, but in 2003 people began to believe at last. Even the musicians themselves - scuffling for gigs as always - may occasionally have felt that history was about to tap them on the shoulder and ask for the lend of a pound.
And when it comes to the credentials for a healthy (ie competitive, divisive, sectarian) jazz scene, Scotland certainly fits the bill. There's an east coast and a west coast, a far north to serve as spiritual homeland, and a strong indigenous folk music scene for that trickle-down effect. Enterprising small record labels (Caber, Spartacus), musical dynasties (the Raes, the Bancrofts), a benevolent promoter (Assembly Direct) and world class soloists (Brian Kellock, Tommy Smith) have also combined to provide a synergy and serendipity that can't be denied. There's even a Leith delta blues shouter, Tam White. All that's lacking - as always in jazz - is somewhere to play and people to listen. Oh, and a whacking great subsidy from the Scottish Arts Council.
Now, Scotland also has a really first-rate modern jazz group, and good groups are far harder to come by than great soloists. Indeed, the trumpeter Colin Steele's quintet is a dream of a band: a kind of Scottish supergroup whose individual stars remain at the service of compelling tunes, sophisticated arrangements and a swinging and sensitive ensemble feel. Steele's second album, The Journey Home on Caber Records, was one of the best discs of last year, from Scotland or anywhere. Last Saturday night at Henry's Jazz Cellar - a basement below an Edinburgh Chinese restaurant that acts as a homely version of the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London - the quintet more than fulfilled jazz's historical role in such venues: providing high art in low places.
While the group's unique selling point might appear to be its combination of elements drawn from Scottish traditional music with modern jazz (something which its drummer John Rae has been doing for years with his own group, Celtic Feet), what really makes the Colin Steele Quintet so distinctive is that the jazz is so cool. That's cool as in the classic, mentholated, Lenny Tristano-esque tendency associated with American players of the 1950s who sounded so white they were almost transparent. In the saxophone playing of Julian Arguelles - an English star now living near Edinburgh - one hears echoes of Warne Marsh or Lee Konitz, while Steele's trumpet style is unusual in owing as much to Chet Baker as it does to Miles Davis. Pianist Dave Milligan (who also arranges) combines unusual chord voicings with a subtly funky, sort of Free Kirk gospel lilt, while bassist Aidan O'Donnell and drummer Rae avoid anything too showy, keeping their heads down and concentrating on the groove.
As a leader, Colin Steele keeps his head down, too. He solos rarely and sparely, but to considerable effect, especially when wheedling notes through the aperture of a mute. If there is a real bobby dazzler, it would have to be Arguelles, who now has a style so distinctive - not least in the intelligence with which he has chosen his influences - that he could found a school himself. When everything the group does flows together correctly; when the cool-school meets Hibernian harmonies and Township or Latin rhythms, it's a very special brew. Unlike Carlsberg, it may not be the best in the world yet, but in contrast to US jazz, where the divorce from popular music has left many composers and musicians all at sea, Scotland still has fresh traditions left to draw on. And who knows? Maybe accordions will come back into fashion. The Jimmy Shand revival starts here.Reuse content