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Reviews / Jazz fest: a terrific weekend of music

Brian Kellock, Tom Bancroft, Fionna Duncan & Ronnie Rae - all photos: Chris Brown

You’ve got to hand it to that larger than life character Jeff Merrifield (AKA Dr Jazz) and his fellow Shetland Jazz Club cohorts: they’ve certainly got the local jazz scene on the ‘up’.

Not only do we now have the privilege of regularly hosting some of the leading names on the UK and international jazz scene, but thanks to them Shetland now also boasts it’s very own jazz festival; the content, quality and diversity of which already matches (or often surpasses) almost any other event of its kind throughout the UK.

That’s the background to why we find ourselves in the Lerwick Town Hall on Friday night to kick off the second – hopefully now annual – Shetland Jazz Festival.

Admitting to being “knackered already” Dr Jazz himself is nevertheless clearly bristling at the prospect of it all. “Jazz is a broad church of styles,” he says “and you’ll witness that here tonight.”

Alison Kay Ramsay and friends.

He’s right about that and no mistake. Young Shetland band Troppo Funk come screaming out of the blocks with their blistering blend of funk, jazz and soul, shattering the natural ambience of the normally sedate town hall and threatening to do the same to its historic stain glass windows.

Age should not define talent of course, but these relatively young guys, led by the musically irrepressible Norman Wilmore on sax, are simply amazing – indeed I’d go so far as to say they are perhaps the best group of contemporary young musicians ever to emerge from Shetland; a  bold statement perhaps – but equally hard to refute.

With the dust settling again, local singer Alison Kay Ramsay restores the natural ambience of the surroundings and delights everyone with her smooth Gershwin laden set. Surrounded by some of Shetland’s finest jazz musicians she’s clearly nervous – but both she and her voice gain in confidence as the set progresses. Indeed this musically diverse young lady grows in confidence with every gig she does. One to watch for sure.

Trio Read are Tom Bancroft on drums, Tom Cawley on piano and bassist Per Zanussi.

Next we are introduced to Trio Red, a simply stunning ensemble featuring regular Shetland visitor Tom Bancroft on drums, Tom Cawley from London on piano and Norwegian bassist Per Zanussi (introduced as “half fruit, half kitchen appliance” by Bancroft). They are, in turns, challenging and accessible – master musicians and improvisers in true jazz style.

Their tune titles are equally as imaginative as their music. Boy Meets Boy Meets Girl Meets Girl; Opportunity Lonely Woman and The Mole of History Takes a Bow….and Trips. You have to laughingly wonder what’s going on in composer Tom Bancroft’s head at times. Astounding is the only word that applies however.

“The nearest thing to jazz royalty” is how Merrifield introduces distinctive Scottish jazz vocalist Fionna Duncan. Slightly bloodied, but certainly not unbowed, by the fact she’s clearly suffering from a bad cold (jazz musicians are obviously not put off by such mere inconveniences) Duncan impressively delivers what can only be termed a thoroughly engaging and entertaining set, at times steeped as much in the blues tradition as the jazz one.

“I’ve been singing this since God was a boy” she quips – much to the delight of the audience – as she introduces another ‘classic’. She’s as much a terrific interpretator of songs as she is a singer, and with a stellar band line-up featuring award-winning double bassist Ronnie Rae (at a sprightly 75 years old) Tom Bancroft on drums and Scotland’s explosive pianist extraordinaire Brian Kellock on board, she simply can’t fail and, as always, she delivers and then some!

It’s certainly been the wonderful evening that was promised at the outset, with perhaps the most gratifying element of the whole event being the sheer number of young faces in the audience, clearly engaged and enjoying every moment

So given this, and the sterling efforts of Shetland Jazz Club in a wider context, it’s clear we’re not only in for another terrific weekend of music, but Shetland would also appear to have a very healthy jazz future indeed.

Davie Gardner

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021