In advance of his eleven gigs (and counting) at this year’s Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, pianist Brian Kellock gave an interview with The Herald’s jazz and folk critic Rob Adams in which he said two things which were in abundance in his opening gig with the first lady of Scottish jazz and former vocalist with The Clyde Valley Stompers Fionna Duncan: “I love responding in the moment to a lyric, especially when the phrasing being sung isn’t exactly as it was written” and “Audiences react to spontaneity – if it’s working – because I think they feel part of what’s happening onstage”.
Featuring a selection of new songs and “some old roasters”, the opening track I’m Having A Good Time by the legend that was Alberta Hunter set the tone for the evening and confirmed that at the grand old age of, erm, think of a number, double it and add ten, Fionna Duncan is still a class act: “I’m having a fiesta while I’m living / ‘Cause tomorrow I may die / That’s why I’m having a ball today / And I ain’t passin nothin’ by”.
Though her energy, range and belt voice is not what it was, this intimate gig on the opening night of the festival was a celebration of not what you lose but what you gain by ageing, particularly as a vocalist: emotional depth, life experience and a searing honesty which cuts through the flim-flam and focuses on the nitty-gritty of what matters: love. Longing for it, searching for it, finding it, cherishing it, losing it, missing it and longing for it all over again.
And the humorous storytelling in between numbers, combined with Fionna Duncan’s heartfelt delivery, direct engagement with the audience and obvious chemistry with Brian Kellock whose piano playing was, as ever, bold, bewitching and brilliant, would have pleased her late mother who warned that it’s “better to have a good wee yin than a bad bad big yin.” And with eleven songs in just over an hour in the intimate setting of the Piccolo tent at George Square, that’s exactly what this life-affirming gig was.
Three songs stood out. The opening. Baby Won’t You Please Come Home which was a hit for the Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith almost a hundred years ago! And the closing number For All We Know, recorded by another of Fionna Duncan’s idols Billy Holiday, which the self-effacing grandmother (sorry, first lady) of Scottish jazz admitted she had never performed before because she “never had the bottle to sing it”.
Well, judging by the audience’s warm and lasting applause, the cork has been popped, the bottle has been drained and a new case of bubbly has no doubt been ordered for their five must-see gigs at The Jazz Bar during the Edinburgh Festival. Here’s hoping they take Alberta Hunter’s advice and have “a ball”!