The Shetland JAWS Festival (that’s ‘Jazz and World Sounds’, not a whole festival around a series of shark-related films of diminishing quality) was in full swing on Wednesday night in the busy Lerwick Town Hall, writes Alex Garrick-Wright.
Formerly the Shetland Jazz Club, JAWS- by definition- has a considerably more varied musical palate than its predecessor, and as a result it was a little bit harder to know what to expect; simple, conventional jazz was unlikely to be the order of the day.
The Town Hall is always a grand and impressive venue, both acoustically and visually, and it was good to see so many seats filling up in eager anticipation of a night of Jazz And World Music.
Introduced by Jeff ‘Doctor Jazz’ Merrifield as “living up to expectations”, the first of the double-bill was soloist Melanie Harrold, a singer-songwriter who has been performing for over 35 years.
Her main instrument was her strong, dynamic voice, which evidently hasn’t suffered a bit from being constantly put through its paces for three decades. She backed this up with some gentle guitar and keyboard, although former seemed to work with her powerful voice better than the latter.
She belted out a considerable number of bluesy, soulful songs that seemed to really capture the audience’s attention, even moving them to sing along towards the end.
Warm and friendly with the audience, Melanie’s confidence and ease on stage attested to her long career in front of crowds all over the world.
The highlight of her set was when she abandoned both guitar and keyboard, and sang an upbeat, jazzy tune at full volume while using her stomach as percussion, keeping a quick rhythm by slapping it boisterously like a human drum. “You don’t get that at the folk festival,” quipped Jeff.
As this year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of legendary Irish poet WB Yeats (on the 13 June, to be precise), JAWS had lined up for the second half the unusual but extremely talented Christine Tobin Ensemble, whose album Sailing to Byzantium (from which all their songs were taken, bar the encore) is based on Yeats’ poetry.
The set, as with the album, began with a reading of Lake Isle of Innisfree by Gabriel Byrne, whose deep Irish brogue backed by soft piano set the tone for what was to come.
With the combination of a cello, a double bass, a guitar and a piano (and, of course, Christine Tobin herself on vocals), there was little chance of them being ordinary.
It was soon obvious that all the instrumentalists are incredibly adept at their craft, each one getting their fair chance to break into impressive and beautiful solos. While they began with rich, almost continental sounding jazz, things swiftly moved on.
It’s actually quite hard to describe the Christine Tobin Ensemble’s sound in any way other than ‘wonderful’; there were eastern-sounding pieces that were vaguely sinister; upbeat and folky songs with dramatic turns; smooth and sultry jazz; and even extremely creepy free-form jazz in places.
Maybe ‘wonderful’ will have to suffice as a description. One very moving piece, Apocalyptic, was based on the poem Second Coming, which Yeats wrote in the aftermath of World War One, which the Ensemble gave terrific effect to with a fittingly violent and jarring musical assault.
The audience were captivated by this musical bounty, and the hall was ringing with applause after every song.
In all, the Christine Tobin Ensemble’s pairing of WB Yeats’ poetry with a very varied selection of jazz gave the whole thing a marvellously dreamlike quality. They said it was their first trip up to Shetland. Let’s hope it’s by no means their last.
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