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Colin Steele Quintet - Even in the Darkest Places Rating: 4 out of 5 A triumphant return for Colin Steele. “Even in the Darkest Places” makes for highly accessible and hugely enjoyable listening and represents one of the most heart warming releases of the year.

Colin Steele Quintet

“Even in the Darkest Places”

(Gadgemo Records GAD002CD)

This new album from the Scottish trumpeter and composer Colin Steele, his first for eight years, marks a welcome return from a highly distinctive musician who at one point appeared to have been lost altogether from the British jazz scene.

Steele’s recent story is a remarkable one. In 2011 he attempted to improve his playing technique but the changes that he made were to prove disastrous and left Steele totally unable to play. While the decision to attempt to change was a laudable one, the idea was that he would expand his tonal range and avoid the cut lips that were proving increasingly problematical, the overhaul proved too radical and led to throat muscle problems which rendered him incapable of playing at all.

In desperation Steele turned for advice to the classical trumpeter Mark O’Keeffe, principal trumpet with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Under O’Keeffe’s guidance, generously given free of charge, Steele gradually returned to public performance with one of his first engagements being a residency at a pizza restaurant. Here he was heard by fan, Robin Durie, who asked Steele why he hadn’t released an album for a while. On hearing the trumpeter’s tale of woe Durie generously offered to finance Steele’s next recording project and his generosity is acknowledged both in the album notes and in the music of the track “Robin Song”.

Steele first to came to prominence in 2001 with the release of his début album “Twilight Dreams”, released on drummer Tom Bancroft’s ill fated Caber label. It’s a great shame that Caber ultimately folded, it’s recordings and packaging were of a consistently high standard and just fleetingly it looked as if the label might be Scotland’s answer to ECM.

Like the début Steele’s 2003 follow up “The Journey Home”, also released on Caber , attracted a good deal of public and critical acclaim and the trumpeter signed to the Munich based label ACT for the release of “Through The Waves”, an album that brought Steele to the attention of the international jazz audience.

Steele’s tenure with ACT proved to be brief and “Stramash” (2009) appeared on the trumpeter’s own Gadgemo record label. Nevertheless “Stramash” was Steele’s most ambitious work to date, a skilful fusion of jazz and folk elements featuring contributions from musicians from both disciplines with fiddles, whistles and pipes added to the usual jazz instrumentation.  Under Steele’s guidance the unlikely combination of instruments worked surprisingly well. Traditional music has always been in Steele’s musical DNA and the links between the jazz and folk scenes in Scotland have always been close, particularly so in Edinburgh, with musicians regularly traversing the borders between the genres.

Following his long lay off Steele is less closely connected to the folk scene than he was previously but his love of melody is still apparent throughout this new album. In many respects it’s as if he’s never been away, Steele’s writing and playing remain utterly distinctive and tangibly ‘Scottish’.

“Even In The Darkest Places” features seven new originals, all composed by Steele and arranged for quintet by pianist Dave Milligan, who has appeared on all five of Steele’s albums. The new album also features the talents of Irish saxophonist Michael Buckley and the Caledonian rhythm pairing of bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Stu Ritchie. 

The album commences with the tuneful cadences of “I Will Wait for You”, a melody that Steele had been harbouring in his head for years. Introduced by Milligan at the piano, sensitively supported by Gourlay and Ritchie, the piece reveals Steele’s trumpet tone to be remarkably unaffected by his travails, his sound remains wholly recognisable. The first solo goes to Buckley on thoughtful, warm toned tenor followed by Steele on trumpet, his tone rounded and almost flugel like. But it’s not just about mere prettiness, the music later acquires a considerable rhythmic drive which underpins a sparkling solo from Milligan and some soaring trumpet and sax melodies from Steele and Buckley.

“Looking for Nessie” was inspired by a trip Steele took to Loch Ness with his young family. There’s a child-like charm about the piece which is introduced by the sound of Milligan’s unaccompanied piano and which again puts the focus unashamedly on melody. There’s an agreeable quirkiness about the folk inspired melodies and the horns of Steele and Buckley blend together well. Gourlay takes the first solo, his tone full but his playing melodic and dexterous. He’s followed by Buckley’s sinuous but playful sax solo and there’s some delightfully breezy ensemble playing throughout.

The twelve and a half minute “Suite for Theo” is dedicated to Steele’s youngest son and was originally written for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Big Band. Although missing out in terms of large ensemble dynamics the piece also works well in a small group context, thanks in no small part to the sheer melodiousness of Steele’s writing. The piece evolves organically and episodically and includes elegant and lyrical solos from Steele on trumpet and Milligan on piano. There’s also an atmospheric passage of solo percussion from Ritchie that links the reflective first half of the piece with the celebratory and more exuberant second section, featuring some exhilarating ensemble playing and a joyous saxophone solo from Buckley.

“Robin Song” is dedicated to Steele’s financial benefactor Robin Durie and is a gentle and melodic tribute, a charming piece featuring the leader’s mellifluous trumpeting, Gourlay’s equally melodic bass, and a flowing solo from pianist, arranger and ‘right hand man’ Milligan.

“Independence Song” represents Steele’s plea for an independent Scotland with its mix of Celtic horn melodies and gospel tinged piano with the excellent and supremely versatile Milligan the featured soloist.   

The beautiful “There Are Angels” is dedicated to those who helped Steele through the bad times and retains the melodic focus that characterises the album as a whole. Steele’s trumpet exchanges lines with Buckley’s soprano and the trumpeter’s solo features some of his most eloquent playing of the set. He’s matched by the supremely lyrical Milligan as Ritchie turns in an immaculate performance with some deft and delicate brushwork.

The album concludes with the fifteen minute “Down to the Wire”, another piece originally written for the Edinburgh Jazz festival Big Band. The composition is divided into three sections, the first of these introduced by the plaintive sound of Buckley’s soprano in dialogue with Milligan’s piano. Here the focus is very much on traditional folk melody and this opening movement represents a kind of ‘folk-jazz concerto’ with Buckley’s lilting, keening soprano the featured solo instrument.
The mellifluous central section features Milligan’s piano lyricism and Steele’s warm fluency on trumpet. The leader’s unaccompanied horn then ushers in a rousing blues based final section that includes some of the most vigorous playing of the set. Milligan delivers a lively and expansive solo bolstered by Gourlay’s rapid bass walk and the brisk bustle of Ritchie’s drums. Steele’s own solo features some bravura high register trumpeting that must have represented an enormous technical challenge in the wake of everything he has gone through. Finally Buckley moves back to tenor for a solo featuring his most garrulous playing of the set. There are also some razor sharp ensemble passages. Great stuff and a wonderful way to round off an exceptional “comeback” album.

“Even in the Darkest Places” represents a triumphant return for Colin Steele. His playing has regained the assurance, fluency and distinctiveness of old and as a composer his gift for melody has clearly never deserted him. He is brilliantly supported by an excellent quintet with Milligan playing a particularly prominent role in the album’s success.

“Even in the Darkest Places” makes for highly accessible and hugely enjoyable listening and represents one of the most heart warming releases of the year. 
     
 

Even in the Darkest Places

Colin Steele Quintet

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

4 out of 5

Even in the Darkest Places

A triumphant return for Colin Steele. “Even in the Darkest Places” makes for highly accessible and hugely enjoyable listening and represents one of the most heart warming releases of the year.

Colin Steele Quintet

“Even in the Darkest Places”

(Gadgemo Records GAD002CD)

This new album from the Scottish trumpeter and composer Colin Steele, his first for eight years, marks a welcome return from a highly distinctive musician who at one point appeared to have been lost altogether from the British jazz scene.

Steele’s recent story is a remarkable one. In 2011 he attempted to improve his playing technique but the changes that he made were to prove disastrous and left Steele totally unable to play. While the decision to attempt to change was a laudable one, the idea was that he would expand his tonal range and avoid the cut lips that were proving increasingly problematical, the overhaul proved too radical and led to throat muscle problems which rendered him incapable of playing at all.

In desperation Steele turned for advice to the classical trumpeter Mark O’Keeffe, principal trumpet with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Under O’Keeffe’s guidance, generously given free of charge, Steele gradually returned to public performance with one of his first engagements being a residency at a pizza restaurant. Here he was heard by fan, Robin Durie, who asked Steele why he hadn’t released an album for a while. On hearing the trumpeter’s tale of woe Durie generously offered to finance Steele’s next recording project and his generosity is acknowledged both in the album notes and in the music of the track “Robin Song”.

Steele first to came to prominence in 2001 with the release of his début album “Twilight Dreams”, released on drummer Tom Bancroft’s ill fated Caber label. It’s a great shame that Caber ultimately folded, it’s recordings and packaging were of a consistently high standard and just fleetingly it looked as if the label might be Scotland’s answer to ECM.

Like the début Steele’s 2003 follow up “The Journey Home”, also released on Caber , attracted a good deal of public and critical acclaim and the trumpeter signed to the Munich based label ACT for the release of “Through The Waves”, an album that brought Steele to the attention of the international jazz audience.

Steele’s tenure with ACT proved to be brief and “Stramash” (2009) appeared on the trumpeter’s own Gadgemo record label. Nevertheless “Stramash” was Steele’s most ambitious work to date, a skilful fusion of jazz and folk elements featuring contributions from musicians from both disciplines with fiddles, whistles and pipes added to the usual jazz instrumentation.  Under Steele’s guidance the unlikely combination of instruments worked surprisingly well. Traditional music has always been in Steele’s musical DNA and the links between the jazz and folk scenes in Scotland have always been close, particularly so in Edinburgh, with musicians regularly traversing the borders between the genres.

Following his long lay off Steele is less closely connected to the folk scene than he was previously but his love of melody is still apparent throughout this new album. In many respects it’s as if he’s never been away, Steele’s writing and playing remain utterly distinctive and tangibly ‘Scottish’.

“Even In The Darkest Places” features seven new originals, all composed by Steele and arranged for quintet by pianist Dave Milligan, who has appeared on all five of Steele’s albums. The new album also features the talents of Irish saxophonist Michael Buckley and the Caledonian rhythm pairing of bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Stu Ritchie. 

The album commences with the tuneful cadences of “I Will Wait for You”, a melody that Steele had been harbouring in his head for years. Introduced by Milligan at the piano, sensitively supported by Gourlay and Ritchie, the piece reveals Steele’s trumpet tone to be remarkably unaffected by his travails, his sound remains wholly recognisable. The first solo goes to Buckley on thoughtful, warm toned tenor followed by Steele on trumpet, his tone rounded and almost flugel like. But it’s not just about mere prettiness, the music later acquires a considerable rhythmic drive which underpins a sparkling solo from Milligan and some soaring trumpet and sax melodies from Steele and Buckley.

“Looking for Nessie” was inspired by a trip Steele took to Loch Ness with his young family. There’s a child-like charm about the piece which is introduced by the sound of Milligan’s unaccompanied piano and which again puts the focus unashamedly on melody. There’s an agreeable quirkiness about the folk inspired melodies and the horns of Steele and Buckley blend together well. Gourlay takes the first solo, his tone full but his playing melodic and dexterous. He’s followed by Buckley’s sinuous but playful sax solo and there’s some delightfully breezy ensemble playing throughout.

The twelve and a half minute “Suite for Theo” is dedicated to Steele’s youngest son and was originally written for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Big Band. Although missing out in terms of large ensemble dynamics the piece also works well in a small group context, thanks in no small part to the sheer melodiousness of Steele’s writing. The piece evolves organically and episodically and includes elegant and lyrical solos from Steele on trumpet and Milligan on piano. There’s also an atmospheric passage of solo percussion from Ritchie that links the reflective first half of the piece with the celebratory and more exuberant second section, featuring some exhilarating ensemble playing and a joyous saxophone solo from Buckley.

“Robin Song” is dedicated to Steele’s financial benefactor Robin Durie and is a gentle and melodic tribute, a charming piece featuring the leader’s mellifluous trumpeting, Gourlay’s equally melodic bass, and a flowing solo from pianist, arranger and ‘right hand man’ Milligan.

“Independence Song” represents Steele’s plea for an independent Scotland with its mix of Celtic horn melodies and gospel tinged piano with the excellent and supremely versatile Milligan the featured soloist.   

The beautiful “There Are Angels” is dedicated to those who helped Steele through the bad times and retains the melodic focus that characterises the album as a whole. Steele’s trumpet exchanges lines with Buckley’s soprano and the trumpeter’s solo features some of his most eloquent playing of the set. He’s matched by the supremely lyrical Milligan as Ritchie turns in an immaculate performance with some deft and delicate brushwork.

The album concludes with the fifteen minute “Down to the Wire”, another piece originally written for the Edinburgh Jazz festival Big Band. The composition is divided into three sections, the first of these introduced by the plaintive sound of Buckley’s soprano in dialogue with Milligan’s piano. Here the focus is very much on traditional folk melody and this opening movement represents a kind of ‘folk-jazz concerto’ with Buckley’s lilting, keening soprano the featured solo instrument.
The mellifluous central section features Milligan’s piano lyricism and Steele’s warm fluency on trumpet. The leader’s unaccompanied horn then ushers in a rousing blues based final section that includes some of the most vigorous playing of the set. Milligan delivers a lively and expansive solo bolstered by Gourlay’s rapid bass walk and the brisk bustle of Ritchie’s drums. Steele’s own solo features some bravura high register trumpeting that must have represented an enormous technical challenge in the wake of everything he has gone through. Finally Buckley moves back to tenor for a solo featuring his most garrulous playing of the set. There are also some razor sharp ensemble passages. Great stuff and a wonderful way to round off an exceptional “comeback” album.

“Even in the Darkest Places” represents a triumphant return for Colin Steele. His playing has regained the assurance, fluency and distinctiveness of old and as a composer his gift for melody has clearly never deserted him. He is brilliantly supported by an excellent quintet with Milligan playing a particularly prominent role in the album’s success.

“Even in the Darkest Places” makes for highly accessible and hugely enjoyable listening and represents one of the most heart warming releases of the year. 
     
 


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