by Ian Mann
September 24, 2020
Steele takes Mitchell’s songs and makes them his own, putting his distinctive stamp on the music, but without losing its essential spirit.
Colin Steele Quartet
(Marina Records MA 89)
Colin Steele- trumpet, Dave Milligan – piano, Calum Gourlay – double bass, Alyn Cosker – drums
Scottish trumpeter Colin Steele has been a fairly regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages over the years. Famed for his lyrical approach to trumpet playing Steele first came to my attention during the early years of the 21st century thanks to the albums “Twilight Dreams” (2001) and “The Journey Home” (2003), both released on drummer Tom Bancroft’s much loved, but sadly now much missed, Caber label. It’s a great shame that Caber ultimately folded, its recordings and packaging were of a consistently high standard and just fleetingly it looked as if the label might become Scotland’s answer to ECM.
These recordings exhibited a strong Celtic folk influence and the combination of memorable, folk inspired melodies and Steele’s lyrical trumpet style won him considerable acclaim from critics and audiences alike.
As a result of this success “Through The Waves” (2005) saw Steele moving to the German ACT imprint, and although his tenure with the label was brief it did help to bring his music to the attention of an international jazz audience.
Although firmly rooted in jazz Steele’s music has always reflected the influence of the folk tradition of his native Scotland. In 2009 he launched his own Gadgemo record label with the release of “Stramash”, an album that brought these two strands even more closely together. Recorded with an expanded line up the album included contributions from folk musicians such as fiddler Aidan O’Rourke (of Lau fame) and piper Rory Campbell. 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.
Review of “Stramash” here;
Steele then withdrew from the music scene for several years, bedevilled by embouchure and muscular difficulties. After finally conquering his problems he returned in triumph in 2017 with the release of the superb quintet album “Even in the Darkest Places”. Comprised entirely of original material the album revealed that as a composer Steele had never lost his gift for melody and that as a trumpeter his playing had regained the assurance, fluency and the distinctive lyricism of old. It was almost as if he had never been away. Review here;
Also in 2017 Steele released the album “Diving For Pearls”, his first album for the Hamburg based Marina record label. This album revealed another side of Steele’s musical persona. In the early years of the 21st century he was also a prolific studio musician on the Scottish pop and rock scene. One band with whom he worked regularly were The Pearlfishers, the Glasgow based pop/rock band fronted by singer, songwriter, pianist and guitarist David Scott. Active since 1991 The Pearlfishers have amassed an impressive back catalogue, most of which appears on the Marina label. A band with something of a cult following they have been described as “one of Scotland’s best kept musical secrets”.
The idea for “Diving For Pearls” seems to have come from Stefan Kassel and Frank Lahnemann of Marina. Subtitled “Jazz Interpretations of the Pearlfishers Songbook” the album featured ten original compositions by David Scott arranged by pianist Dave Milligan, who has appeared on every Colin Steele solo release to date. The quartet line up was completed by Calum Gourlay on double bass and Alyn Cosker at the drums.
This same quartet now appears on “Joni”, which in many respects can be seen as the follow up to “Diving For Pearls”. Nine Mitchell songs, many of them acknowledged classics, have been arranged by Milligan for performances by the quartet.
Kassel and Lahnemann view both “Diving For Pearls” and “Joni” to be following in a great jazz tradition, wherein an entire recording is dedicated to the music of a single composer. They cite Miles Davis’ “Porgy & Bess” (1958) and Chet Baker’s “Plays Lerner & Loewe” (1959) as honourable predecessors of, and inspirations for, these albums.
The decision to re-interpret Mitchell’s music in a jazz context is a reflection of Mitchell’s own admiration of, and affinity for, jazz. She famously collaborated with bassist and composer Charles Mingus on her album “Mingus”, recorded in 1979 shortly before Mingus’ death. Other celebrated jazz musicians with whom she worked include pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Jaco Pastorius.
Her 1980 live double album “Shadows and Light” featured a stellar band of jazz musicians including Pastorius, Pat Metheny (guitar), Lyle Mays (keyboards), Michael Brecker (saxes) and Don Alias (drums, percussion). The presence of such a terrific band ensures that it remains one of my all time favourite Mitchell albums.
Meanwhile Steele’s liner notes find him expressing;
“My deepest gratitude to Joni Mitchell for her beautiful music, which has been the soundtrack to so many of the most important moments in my life.”
The music of Steele’s Joni Mitchell project was first performed at the 2019 Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. It was subsequently recorded over the course of a single day by engineer Stuart Hamilton at the famous Castlesound Studio in Pencaitland, Scotland, a studio with an international reputation. As well as facilitating a plethora of fine albums by Scottish jazz musicians Castlesound has also hosted rock artists such as Orange Juice, The Blue Nile and even R.E.M.
Steele’s selection is drawn from some of Mitchell’s most famous and best loved albums, beginning with the title track from “Blue” (1970). Introduced by Milligan at the piano the arrangement features Steele’s lyrical trumpet melancholy, a sound influenced primarily by Chet Baker and “Kind of Blue” period Miles Davis. Milligan is also a key figure in an arrangement that includes a second unaccompanied piano episode. 2020 is proving to be a particularly productive year for Milligan who recently released his own digital only trio recording “Momento”, a collaboration with the Italian musicians Danilo Gallo (double bass) and U.T. Gandhi (drums).
“Momento” is reviewed here;
Next up is what is arguably Mitchell’s best known song, “Both Sides Now”. Widely covered it has proved to be a popular item with jazz artists, including bassist Lars Danielsson, who performed a stunning solo version of the piece at Wigmore Hall during the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival.
Milligan’s masterful arrangement brings a Celtic lilt to the song in a performance that combines lyricism and beauty with a more dynamic approach, thereby symbolising the various dichotomies and dualities of Mitchell’s lyrics. Steele abandons any inhibitions as his trumpet begins to soar following the atmospheric intro. There’s also an irresistible joyousness about Milligan’s increasingly percussive piano solo. Steele then reprises the famous melody, adding jazz flourishes along the way. Gourlay and Cosker add flexible and intelligent support, with the drummer demonstrating flashes of his nascent power following his sensitive performance with the brushes on “Blue”.
“Hejira”, dating from 1976 is the title track of one of Mitchell’s most obviously jazz influenced albums. Gourlay’s bass is prominent in the early stages as he and Cosker, deploying brushes, establish a gently undulating groove that underscores Steele’s plaintive, Baker-like trumpet lyricism. Gourlay then takes over for a fully fledged bass solo, melodic and dexterous. Steele then stretches out further, followed by Milligan with an expansive piano solo as Cosker switches to sticks and the music gathers momentum, before finally subsiding once more.
Gourlay temporarily takes over the arranging duties for another of Mitchell’s best known and most loved songs, “A Case Of You”. Once more his bass plays a prominent part in the proceedings, again combining with Cosker’s drums to provide the backdrop to Steele’s trumpet musings, these ranging from the lyrical and melancholic to something more forceful and dynamic. Steele and his colleagues are adept at reflecting the ebb and flow of Mitchell’s songs, their interpretations, though often beautiful, transcending beyond mere prettiness to make effective use of contrast and dynamics.
Milligan’s arrangement of “I Had A King” allows the group to stretch out in a more obviously ‘jazz’ fashion with expansive solos from both Steele and Milligan, accompanied by the vigorous support of Gourlay and Cosker. Nevertheless that crucial element of lyricism remains, and a certain Celtic flavour too.
Unaccompanied trumpet introduces “Down To You”, which also features Gourlay’s melodic double bass solo. This is followed by more expansive and forceful excursions from Steele and Milligan, plus something of a feature for the powerful Cosker as the performance again embraces a wide range of dynamics.
A muscular bass and drum groove introduces “California”, which embraces a joyous, ‘down home’ feel, in the style of Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup”. Besides Steele’s trumpet explorations the performance also includes a rollicking piano solo from Milligan and a powerfully plucked bass solo from Gourlay.
Cosker’s unaccompanied cymbal introduction, with its “Jingle Bells” allusions, reflects the Christmas theme of “River”, another of Mitchell’s most famous songs. Steele has spoken of “literally singing her lyrics into the trumpet”, and this statement seems particularly appropriate here. Steele and the quartet perfectly capture the bitter-sweet mood of the song and their predominately lyrical treatment of the piece, incorporating solos from both Steele and Milligan, expresses something of the peculiar melancholy that only Christmas can evoke. Cosker’s distinctive cymbal work continues to play a prominent role throughout the piece, notably in this dialogue with Milligan towards the end of the pianist’s solo.
Gourlay’s deeply resonant bass ushers in the concluding “Tin Angel”, joined by the shadowy timbres of Steele’s trumpet as the pair engage in a consistently absorbing duet. Although it came as a surprise to find Milligan and Cosker sitting out entirely the piece makes a highly effective album closer, with only the lonely sound of Gourlay’s bass left at the end.
As he did with the Pearlfishers material Steele takes Mitchell’s songs and makes them his own, putting his distinctive stamp on the music, but without losing its essential spirit.
“Joni” is immediately recognisable as a Colin Steele album and fans of the trumpeter will understandably love this record. The playing by all four musicians is exceptional throughout, and the fact that the album was recorded in a single day speaks volumes for their very natural rapport. Milligan and Gourlay deserve credit for an exceptional set of arrangements, which are heard with pinpoint clarity thanks to the pristine mix achieved by Hamilton and producer Steele.
The usual accusations of bloodlessness will doubtless emerge but Steele has developed a highly recognisable sound that is all his own, a quality that is praiseworthy in itself. It’s a sound that has won him an international following, and understandably so, but one that remains innately Scottish. When you factor in the intelligent use of dynamics within Milligan’s arrangements this is music that for all its beauty is actually a good deal more robust than it might initially appear.
As one of the world’s most covered songwriters one supposes that Ms. Mitchell won’t actually have heard this tribute to her work recorded by a quartet of Scottish jazz musicians. But given her affinity for the genre, one suspects that if she did she would actively approve.
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