Translate Caskstrength!

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Lagavulin and the Smooth Moves. Islay's tremendous Jazz Festival

Before I start this piece, I will just point out, that I do like Jazz -  well... some bits of it, being that it is a wildly diverse canon of music.  From the classic Columbia records released by Miles Davis, to the big band-be-bop experimentalism of the late Don Ellis, Jazz has entered many facets of my life in the past.  For a short time, I worked closely on a number of film and theatre soundtracks, and being heavily influenced by the likes of Lalo Schifrin, John Barry and Ennio Morricone the dynamic, jet age styling that these composers often took was like a whole new world of music for a young guy in his early 20's.

Since then, I've built up a tasty collection of records. However, something still chills me a little when I think of seeing Jazz in a live context.  Most modern Jazz bands, whilst superbly proficient, are pretty bloody boring at the end of the day.   When the purpose of a Jazz concert is to service the egos of the band members rather than the enjoyment of the audience, something has gone very wrong indeed.

And to be fair, I was kind of expecting a bit of this when I attended the recent Islay Jazz Festival.  Endless noodling saxophone solos do nothing for me and for that matter, I would imagine, a large proportion of music fans.  So I was pleasantly surprised when looking at the bill for the festival, sponsored for a second year by Lagavulin.

After catching up with the renovations to Caol Ila distillery and a look round the Port Ellen Malting we found ourselves on a wonderfully bracing trip to the Lagavulin peat bogs for a cutting session with Mr Lagavulin himself, Iain McArthur. When Iain says 'run for the car!' you know that there's one hell of a storm about to break-  so with extremely soggy trouserings, it was time for a warming dram of 16yo at the old Malt Mill hall and the first Jazz gig of the weekend- the Neil Cowley Trio.

Described as 'Jazz music for Radiohead fans', I wasn't sure what to expect -  more endless, tuneless noodling? (i'm not really a fan of the modern uptheirownarse Radiohead) Fortunately the trio kicked off with some excellent syncopated riffs, a blast of humour and above all else, a little bit of soul-rather like the Radiohead of old, before Thom Yorke decided to get all sulky and grow a ponytail.

Perhaps the biggest revelation of the day though was the the Malt Mill itself.  Having been lucky enough to attend a few events at the hall over the past few years, I was taken back at just how good the acoustics of the room are.  The grand piano sounded absolutely sublime and it would be wonderful to see this building used for the purposes of recording a proper session at some point in the future, especially given the reverence of its namesake whisky.

As one would expect, with Lagavulin sponsoring the event, for the second year running, the distillery had prepared a special bottling for the event.  This year's single cask comes from 1997 and is a refill sherry cask (1894) selected by the aforementioned Iain McArthur. Last year's bottling performed better than an impassioned Ella Fitzgerald at Montreux so the sequel had a lot to live up to.

Lagavulin - Jazz Festival Edition- Single Cask Bottling - 54.5% - Distilled 1997

Nose: Initial perfumed notes nestle alongside classic Lagavulin peat smoke, with spicy liquorice, fresh lime, Lockets throat sweets, a touch of menthol and some sweet fruits.  With a dash of water, that familiar Laga carbolic note develops.  Unmistakable and superb.  Are there any ropey casks at all at  this distillery?

Palate: Light acacia honey, citrus notes, sweet malt, carbolic notes and green bananas.  With water, the bananas start to ripen up and the smoke begins to swirl.  This dram is probably not as heavily sherry- influenced as last year's bottling, but the classic Laga notes are just rubber stamped all over this.  More of a short burst of inspired brilliance from Miles Davis than a three hour snooze fest from Courtney Pine. 

Finish: Fresh, with citrus notes, some lengthy smoke and a stab of medicinal peat at the very end. 

Overall: Yet again, another masterstroke of a bottling.  Lagavulin falls into that category of being able to turn out inspired whiskies, alongside their solid, core releases seemingly without having to try too hard.  You'll never see a Lagavulin dressed in Sauternes, saddled with the remnants of an tired old rum cask or something equally un-Lagavulin -  there's just no need to experiment when you have a spirit as good as this. 

So back to the Jazz then.  Ah yes, our next act -Swedish sensations, the Fredrik Kronkvist Quartet.  Dressed in the uniform of the modern day jazzer -  flat cap, soul patch chin beard and a vaguely hip-hop'esque jeans and trainers combo, Kronkvist is undoubtedly ridiculously talented (he also played some sensational Jazz flute the day after.... did I really just type sensational Jazz flute?) The problem is that in my book, talent can only get you part of the way there.  The gig, whilst technically proficient, was a little like watching Dr Gunther von Hagens painstakingly dissecting a plasticised cadaver.  You wondered how deep his Jazz scalpel would slice with extended solos cutting right to the bone, full of dissonant notes, awkward phrasings and time signatures that left me trying to nod along looking cool and part of the scene - but feeling like I was sitting an A-Level in pure maths. Kronkvist's saving grace was his astonishing drummer.  Every bit a mind-numbingly talented musician, but effortlessly precise and in possession of some of the best dynamics i've ever seen.   He built up his solos with the panache of a seasoned performer, thrilling the audience seemingly without even breaking a sweat.  A joy to watch and worth the ticket price alone.  
This is what happened to the man who listened
to too many extended sax solos

After some much needed contemplation time down at the Cross of Kildalton (which, whatever the weather is hands down the most peaceful place I have ever visited) our group transferred to the final Jazz show of the day -  a double header at Ardbeg with ragtime pianist Keith Nichols followed by Swedish singer Miriam Aida (accompanied by Fredrik Kronkvist and his pianist) 

Despite having an all-too-short set, Nichols transported the audience back to the golden age of the Jazz piano - Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington et al with the showmanship and energy of a man a third of his age. Although this style of swing jazz is so often overlooked in favour of a more modern style, the brilliance of performers like Keith Nichols and his contemporary, Brian Kellock, will no doubt keep it kicking and screaming, far from being put out to pasture just yet.  

To close, the sultry sounds of Miriam Aida, undoubtedly the most glamourously dressed woman ever to visit Islay with a voice to match.  Paying homage to Nina Simone throughout the set, an understated accompaniment from Kronkvist and his pianist gave the Old Kiln Cafe a smoky, misty eyed authenticity - close your eyes for a second and you could be sat in the comfy leather-bound booths at the Green Mill Lounge in Chicago, stubbing out a Chesterfield and sucking back a bone dry Martini.   

And that's the beauty if the Islay Jazz Festival -  despite my fear of when Jazz tries to outdo itself and sounds like its falling backwards down the stairs,  this festival offers a well balanced outlook on the Jazz loved by many music fans today -  with reflections from almost a century ago to the most cutting edge chops of today.  

In the words of the famous Jazz critic, Louis Balfour -  'Grrrrreat'.