1ST JUNE 2004
VITAL SIGNS CD REVIEWS
Guardian CD Review
Kevin Mackenzie's Vital Signs
Mackenzie played guitar for the John Rae Collective in the late 1980s, then went on to join Trio AAB, the Scottish Guitar Quartet and form Swirler, his own jazz funk outfit. The nine-piece Vital Signs reflects two sides of Kevin's own guitaring activities. Its front line is divided between a jostling spread of what must be loosely termed jazz saxophones and folk fiddles.
Phil Bancroft (tenor) and Martin Kershaw (alto) are key figures on the ever-strengthening Scottish jazz scene whilst Chris Stout and Aidan O'Rourke have a similarly important position in the highland folk realms. Simon Thoumire's concertina bolsters the Celtic traditional side, and the jazz ranks are completed by Chick Lyall (piano), Tom Lyne (bass) and Caber label director Tom Bancroft (drums).
Friday May 28, 2004
Edinburgh drummer John Rae's Collective, an unflinching mission against blandness and sentimentality, has done much to help the Scottish contemporary-jazz renaissance. But if Rae's ensemble has ensured that a Celtic/ African-American music has now become a familiar sound, it has also given its graduates the confidence to develop their own interpretations of it.
Kevin Mackenzie, the imaginative electric guitarist with Trio AAB, has gone further even than Rae in hiding the joins between Scottish folk music and post-Ornette/Coltrane jazz. With Another New Horizon, a project for a jazz sextet with folk fiddle and accordion, Mackenzie demonstrates a composer's ear and vision that equals his improvising skills - and at times even exceeds them in some really memorable themes.
These folk-jazz delineations are an over-simplification, just to paint a vivid picture of the music's basic ingredients. The reality is that all of the players are constantly crossing over, expressing an affinity for both styles, intermarrying with sympathy and understanding. Mackenzie's pieces have been written as a result of winning the Creative Scotland Award (a feat which now seems to have been achieved by most members of his band). It's administered annually by the Scottish Arts Council, and supports the development of specially-tailored projects.
Mackenzie pens some intricate themes; his opening "Cypriot Skies" arrests its funky-strutting progress with halting break-ups. Phil Bancroft is in bullish mood, beating up against the band's persistently hard riffing. He becomes sleazy on the title track, licking against a burred edge. Then, Bancroft's emotional charge is soon cooled by stringed salve, the fiery mood receding.
The vigour of Vital Signs is immediately apparent. The dogged strings create a swirling sense of urgency, lending a soundtracking atmosphere. "Lost Again" turns towards the free and formless, imparting an agitated aspect. Fiddles squeal and grate, groaning as they bustle onwards. "I Saw U" reverts to the funk feel that ends up being the dominant rhythmic attack of this set. "By Myself" is a restful exception, full of extended drum rumbles, singing fiddles and tenderly-picked guitar. Sometimes, Mackenzie can be surprisingly conventional in terms of his chosen amplifier sound: warm and mellow, with a liquid tone. The leader saves his biggest shot until the end, though, "Winkel's Rose Garden" cranking up to reveal his edgier rock influences.
Reviewer: Martin Longley
As with Rae's Celtic Feet, Mackenzie gives folk accordionist Simon Thoumire a significant place, and has intentionally set up an unusual front line in which two jazz saxes (the agile Sanborn-like altoist Martin Kershaw with the evocative pipe-lament Coltraneist Phil Bancroft on tenor) balance two high-profile violinists, Chris Stout and Aidan O'Rourke.
Considering the vivacious lyricism and sometimes dark reflectiveness the instrumentation and Mackenzie's imagination spark, there are perhaps too many retreats into funk, but the passages in which riffy jazz-horn writing mingles with fiddle-dancing are beautifully resolved.
The writing for strings suggests classical chamber-music rather than folk at first, before excellent pianist Chick Lyall's flying runs and emphatic trills burst into it. Mackenzie takes a back seat for a long time, surfacing first as a rhythm player behind Bancroft's snorty, Brecker-like tenor.
A delectable quiet violin reverie swells into a roar from Bancroft's horn again; a kind of free-Mahavishnu episode turns into another exquisite ballad, and a skewed semi-blues betrays the closest thing to formulaic jazz-funk playing the session gets into. It tails off a little in the later stages, but Another New Horizon achieves exactly what it says on the tin.