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'Jock Stein - A Love Supreme'
Scottish jazz has given up on US stars and is nurturing its own, says John Fordham Thursday March 27, 2003

 'Whisky, Sean Connery, men in skirts, Ewan McGregor. That is what people outside the country know about Scotland. All pretty positive things, of course. I don't know if we can put Scottish jazz up there with them, but we are certainly going to try." That was Tom Bancroft's intention when he started the Edinburgh-based jazz label Caber five years ago. And the proof of his success can be seen this week, when Caber visits London for its five-night festival at the Pizza Express Jazz Club.

Featuring gigs from the Perrier award-winning young singer Niki King, lyrical trumpeter Colin Steele (Scotland's answer to Chet Baker), the raucously subversive folk/jazz band Celtic Feet, and Bancroft's own quirky jazz-and-improv threesome, Trio AAB (which involves his twin brother Phil), the festival is more than just a showcase for a remarkable array of talented individuals. It is a glimpse of a flourishing Scottish jazz scene that has changed beyond recognition over the past decade.

Scotland has long made a contribution to jazz out of all proportion to its size. About half the chairs in Henry Hall's BBC radio big band of the late 1930s (famously directed by American saxophone star Benny Carter) were occupied by Scots. And the list of famous players runs across generations and genres, taking in trumpeters Tommy McQuater, Alex Welsh and Jimmy Deuchar, trombonist/comic George Chisholm, clarinettist Sandy Brown, saxophonists Tommy Smith, Tommy Whittle, Joe Temperley and Bobby Wellins, singers Annie Ross and Carol Kidd, guitarist Jim Mullen - to mention a few.
But the 1990s were a particularly invigorating period for Scottish jazz, something for which Bancroft is in no small part responsible. The 36-year-old drummer composes and leads ensembles large and small - all while running the Caber label.

Caber's first CDs emerged in early 1999, but the seeds were planted by the unruly John Rae Collective a decade before. "The collective had been a blip on the jazz radar around the late 80s, and people were starting to hear about it," Bancroft recalls. "In 1988 it was about to put out an album for a respected Glasgow folk label. The company folded almost on the release date, so the blip went off the radar again." As the internet and ever-cheaper desktop computer recording technology opened access to the business through the 1990s, Bancroft set about convincing the Scottish Arts Council that funding the recording of new local jazz could help to build audiences for live gigs across the country and beyond.

Caber got the go ahead in the summer of 1998, and the following January it enthusiastically, but somewhat unstrategically, released its first seven albums simultaneously. At first, there was a deafening silence. Then Brian Kellock, a brilliant, seemingly straight ahead pianist whose music subtly warps out of shape, began to attract attention. So did Trio AAB, which grippingly suggested what Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane might have sounded like if they had been teleported to Leith at a formative age. Their CD, Cold Fusion, became a 1999 album of the year on Radio 3.

Then came Celtic Feet, who brought fish suppers and football into jazz announcements ("And now a tune called Jock Stein - A Love Supreme," John Rae will say), and scattered knees-up reels, squeezeboxes, fiddles, saxes and pipe-like laments through the jazz repertoire, proving how much warm and witty new music could be made out of old.

The label quickly became a landmark on the UK jazz map. Now the company has struck a deal with the charitable Jerwood Foundation to produce an album series under the title Jerwood Jazz Progressions. Not only will new Scottish jazz names, such as saxophonist Martin Kershaw, teenage pianist James Cairney, bassist Aidan O'Donnell and drummer John Blease surface by this route, but Scotland's most promising graphic designers and photographers have also been recruited from the colleges to furnish the album artwork.

The success of Caber has grown out of two crucial changes that occurred in the 1990s. Previously, talented Scots played at home too infrequently to be closely observable as role models. But the exodus south has ended, and a younger generation of players is finding inspiration in Scottish rather than transatlantic sources.

Rae, Bancroft and Tommy Smith's thirtysomething generation is now finding that it has a posse of creative teenagers and twentysomethings coming up - many of whom they have themselves taught and guided. Smith, for instance, has founded an excellent National Jazz Orchestra for Scotland, personally funds a youth orchestra, and is lobbying everyone from educators to government ministers in pursuit of his biggest dream yet, a Scottish jazz academy.

Smith is the country's biggest jazz celebrity of the past 20 years, a vital local status symbol and living proof that a jazz career can make practical sense. And yet his early career wasn't rooted in the local scene. He was lifted out of the Westerhailes streets to Boston's Berklee School at 17, toured with American vibraphone star Gary Burton at 19 and became the first UK jazz musician ever to record for Blue Note at 21 - thus unintentionally convincing some younger Scots that the American route was the only way to go. Since the mid-90s, however, following a period living in the US and Paris, Smith has committed himself completely to Scotland and making the jazz scene there more vivid than ever.

Assembly Direct, the Edinburgh touring and promotional organisation, tells the same story. Five years ago, the organisation's director Roger Spence switched company policy, cutting back on buying "off-the-shelf international tours". "We've promoted 600 concerts over the past year, the vast majority of them Scottish," he says. "Ten years ago we were getting audiences of 17,000 to 18,000 a year - now it's 55,000 a year.

"This is a small scene," he continues. "It doesn't have the economic power to keep buying American tours. What's been appreciated here in recent years, and what is becoming apparent inside and outside Scotland now, is that we're growing our own stars." And if Bancroft has anything to do with it, plenty of them will be part of Caber.

· Caber Music's festival is at the Pizza Express Jazz Club, London W1, from Wednesday. Box office: 020-7439 8722.


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