Trumpeter Colin Steele unleashes the beast on the music of Joni Mitchell

Recording an album of instrumental re-imaginings of the songs of Joni Mitchell was a delicate business, jazz trumpeter Colin Steele tells Jim Gilchrist

Friday, 11th September 2020, 5:47 pm
olin Steele PIC: Archie MacFarlane

The trumpet is a beast, really,” muses Colin Steele. “My favourite sound is the open trumpet but it is more difficult to play really lyrically or intimately and every time I perform I’m trying to control the beast, trying for as soft a sound as possible, not too brash, whereas the mute does all these jobs for you.”

The Edinburgh-based jazz trumpeter is talking about his new quartet album, Joni, released next week on the German Marina label, with vividly toned and textured instrumental re-imaginings of the songs of Joni Mitchell, through which you can virtually hear the singer herself, voiced by that muted trumpet.

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With Steele joined by his regular quartet members, pianist Dave Milligan, double-bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Alyn Cosker, there’s a sense of delight and affection for these songs which, says Steele, have soundtracked important moments of his life.

Describing himself as “an obsessive listener,” he listened to the songs over and over again, homing in on the vocals of each one – “every word and inflection she makes, really obsessing where she places notes, how she phrases everything as well as the whole feel. I keep on listening until there’s a moment when I kind of hear space in there to put my own voice as well.”

Right from the opening Blue, unfolded by Milligan’s gorgeous piano before Steele’s trumpet sings in wistfully, the album handles Mitchell’s material with respect and not a little joy. There’s a riverine flow to Hejira, a serene treatment of Down To You with its mellow bass and piano exchanges, trumpet channelling the soul-baring poignancy of A Case of You while Cosker’s cymbals chime Jingle Bells to open the ever plaintive River.

Much of the album was arranged by Milligan, a long-time collaborator with Steele and who, coincidentally, has just launched a fine piano trio album of his own, Momento, currently available on download. Milligan, based in the musical enclave of Pathhead, Midlothian, is well known for straddling – or rather seamlessly integrating – jazz and Scottish folk. Momento is no exception, although it was created through an international project that had its roots in the Edinburgh Jazz Festival when he met Italian bassist and drummer Danillo Gallo and UT Gandhi and ended up touring in Sardinia with them. While there, he used a fortuitous Creative Scotland development bursary to record at the award-wining Artesuono studio in Udine province.Something changed for Milligan in Italy, he says. “There was something in the way that I connected with [Gallo and Gandhi] as a piano trio that felt as if it awakened a part of my musical vocabulary that I didn’t really use.”

Comparing approaches to his own album and the Joni recording, he says: “One of the things we did with the Joni album was to avoid an over-arranged approach, because we had quite a small window in which to record it at Castle Sound in Pencaitland. We’d already played the material at Edinburgh Jazz Festival, so the music was there but not overly arranged, and we decided to just treat the recording as a gig.”

His Italian venture, he says was “more about spontaneity,” with no specific plans for an album, but the result, in the empathetic company of the Italian players, is a polished and characteristically eclectic mix, ranging from mischievously ingenious treatments of Robert Burns’s Parcel of Rogues and the pipe march associated with Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come-All-Ye (the latter laced with township groove) to the quiet elegance of the opening Going Nowhere and a gentle, Satie-esque waltz written for his father, Sandy’s 70th.

Both albums should be rapturously received. In the meantime, inevitably, Milligan and Steele, like their fellow-musicians, are champing at the bit for a resumption of live performance. Steele is discussing another album with Marina – this time of Blue Nile songs, while Milligan has material with various line-ups, from solo to large ensemble, awaiting fruition in what, for the moment, seems another time and place.

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