26 June 2017

EIFF: A 5* Review for Electric Contact: A Jazz Tribute to Tom McGrath

Three Thomases – Tom, Tommie and Tam – got the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s retrospective tribute to the late, great Tom McGrath off to a belter of a start on Friday night.

Tom McGrath, himself, was the source of  the words and the inspiration for the tunes – all were compositions by jazz artistes he brought to Scotland; Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra interpreted the tunes; while Tam Dean Burn spoke and yowled and crooned those words over and in and amongst the notes.

McGrath’s early poems, matched with music by the likes of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, were interspersed with anecdotes and quotes from interviews, biographical notes and even a report of his trial for entering the Tower of London from the International Times (which he edited for its first 12 editions) by his friend John Hopkins.

It’s hard to think of a more fitting tribute and introduction to the coming performances, films and lectures which make up the retrospective. Here was enough biography to engage with McGrath’s life, combined with free-flowing jazz from one of the top big bands anywhere and, of course, words.

Oh those words. Big, involving, silly, rude, simple, complicated words that spluttered with dissonance and their own jazz rhythms. Words in a West Coast vernacular, words that wrapped you up in the warming cotton wool of their meaning, vast in their simplicity, and left you wondering what, quite, you had just witnessed.

Part of that sense of bewildered wonderment is down to Tam Dean Burns’ delivery. No stranger to spouting words to music on a stage – he fronts the Robert Burns quoting, Iggy Pop inspired Bum-Clocks – he looked genuinely in awe at the idea of sharing the stage with Tommy Smith.

Smooth Brilliance

Here was a lad who had not just got the keys to the sweetie shop, but had discovered he could make up his own sweeties too.

One member of the band told me afterwards that they had had just three hours rehearsal with Tam – he and Tommy had discussed suitable music in their repertoire and then they had just gone in from there, with Tommy acting as conductor, adding Tam in to the mix, like a new soloist but one who couldn’t see the music.

The result was certainly a brand new mix of smooth brilliance from the Jazz Orchestra and their stellar solos, with a sense of spontaneity to the way the poetry meshed in with the deep, chocolate tones of Burn’s speaking and singing voice.

Some mash-ups must have been obvious, a wry comment on the railways in McGrath’s British Wail came pitched over the driving steam train-rhythms and wailing horn of Duke Ellington’s Daybreak Express. The laconic, seemingly drifting groove of Miles Davis’ All Blues was an obvious piece over which to infuse the narrative poem Black Spot.


Others evolved naturally. The one non-scored piece was an abstract clattering – almost a moan – from the piano as Tam Dean Burn bent his voice around the charged and desperate Junky’s Song inspired by McGrath’s experimentation and involvement with the drug in the ’60s.

And in this piece, perhaps above all else in the evening’s brief hour and a half, you got a sense of what this whole effort from the EIFF under the curation of Niall Greig Fulton is all about. It is a poem of truth, one which succeeds because it neither mythologises the habit nor rejects it out of hand, but seeks to reflect the darkness, the bitterness and tragedy wrapped up in the highs and elation of addiction.

So this strand in the film festival is an attempt to come to terms with the scope of McGrath’s life. To frame it without mythologising it, to understand it and look at how in 69 years he did not just reflect Scotland’s cultural adventures, but helped forge them and drive them off into places as yet unexplored.

Without a doubt, the coupling of Tam Dean Burn with Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra to deliver a jazz and poetry tribute to Tom McGrath, is one which must be repeated. And soon.

Review by Thom Dibden for the EIFF and All Edinburgh Theatre.com – June 2017

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