Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival

Euan Stevenson & Konrad Wiszniewski

Teviot Row

Keith Bruce

five stars

IF it sometimes seems that Edinburgh’s jazz festival struggles to make itself heard above the din of the capital’s hectic summer, its occupation of Fringe and Festival venues devant le deluge, as it were, works well, with this student union debating hall perfectly suiting the New Focus duo of pianist Euan Stevenson and Konrad Wiszniewski on soprano and tenor saxophones.

This programme, exploring The Classical Connection, was not, Stevenson insisted, “a lecture recital”, but actually that pedagogical approach was key to its success. Using a skilful selection of original compositions, introduced with refreshing honesty about the blatant “borrowings” within them, and bespoke arrangements of jazz standards, the pair played a carefully-constructed programme that made clear the debt that jazz owes to classical music, both in the roots of improvisation in the music of Bach and Mozart, and in the thorough classical education of many of the immigrant-family songwriters responsible for the Great American Songbook.

Treats includes Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are in Baroque style, Ellington and Strayhorn’s Take the A Train as a Mozart Sonata, and Wiszniewski’s reading of Chelsea Bridge owing as much to Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy as Ben Webster.

This singular journey through the 20th century ended in the company of Erik Satie and Bill Evans and a set of compositions and arrangements by Stevenson that stole shamelessly from the Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes to convincingly argue that the French composer had been mining the musical material that would later be called “jazz” half a century before the term was coined.

In other hands this could so easily have become a lot of pretentious twaddle, but there was never any danger of that with Stevenson and Wiszniewski, because they are both musicians with an instinctive desire to communicate. Not only was the verbal explanation kept short and pithy, but the musical points were always very succinctly made as well. The audience in the well-filled auditorium went home royally entertained, and probably a little better educated as well.