Matt Bianco at the International Jazz Festival Bansko (Bulgaria) and Nisville Jazz Festival (Serbia). by Elaine Crouch


So last Thurs I set the alarm for 4:30am to make an 8am flight from Heathrow to Sofia in Bulgaria.We eventually arrived in the winter ski resort of Bansko (I’d actually been skiing here before) around 6pm at a hotel rated 5* (described by one of our entourage as ‘70s council estate chic). There was a jazz festival going on a mile down the road, but no-one around to give us any info or timings other than an indecipherable program in Bulgarian. So we took the boring option of dinner and a drink at the hotel. It was still hot so drinks by the pool were nice, albeit with a speaker in every plant pot playing low grade library smooth jazz….

On Friday we had a midday soundcheck in a pleasant open air town square (it was roasting hot) and the local crew were very amenable and capable. I stayed on with Mark Reilly for a press conference like a scene with the president out of Homeland (interpreters and all that!) although the questions weren’t so challenging….

Our show was scheduled for 10:15, but the previous act overran massively and we went on very late. The show was great. The fact it was filmed for TV and that we hadn’t played for a while kept us on our toes - the vibe was excellent although when it’s being recorded you’re always conscious of the mistakes! The crowd was good and enthusiastic.

It was late by the time we got back to the hotel, and we had to leave at 8am the next morning.

The Bulgarian-Serbian border is known for being a drag, but 4.5 hours! Our 310km journey from Bansko to Nis took 10 hours! And it was killer hot. Mercifully we had aircon in the van.

When we arrived in Nis, we were greeted by a nice young girl (turned out to be only 16 years old) who had been entrusted with managing our stay. We were told that we had to go immediately to the soundcheck, 2 min walk away. So without any chance to recoup, we walked 20 min to the gig, carrying our things in the heat. Once we were there, we sat listening to another band soundcheck for 30 mins in a hot, sticky, noisy tent and had a warm beer. Our soundcheck went reasonably, but there were a few technical issues. We were keen to get some food (we’d had nothing all day and it was now 7pm) so we were taken another 2 min walk that took 20 mins to a local restaurant, which sadly was terrible. Greasy soup, salty dry chicken and cold chips. And very ropey wine. So we got out of there as fast as possible to have an hour at the hotel before having to trundle back to the gig.

Again the previous act overran and our 11.15pm show was more like 12:30am. We were all so tired it was an auto-pilot job - in front of about 8000 people and again televised.

Afterwards, everyone else had returned to the hotel bracing themselves for a 7am leave, when Mila (our host) told me and Martin Shaw that our departure time had been moved forward to 5am. This was 2am and we were still at the gig. We doubted we could get that message to the others, who’d left already. Also I expressed concern that this would be terrible if the driver was late……

So after 2 hours sleep we were up and ready to leave. The driver wasn't there. He had overslept....

We were still so early at the border (which we had to cross again to get back to Sofia airport) that it was relatively quick this time. That meant we arrived at the airport about 10am for our 2:20pm flight.

It was fun bumping into the David Dower Trio at Sofia airport. Other than that just an awful lot of hanging around. Eventually got home around 5:30pm UK time on the Sunday evening utterly exhausted. Oh the glamour!

Notes From New York - April 2018 by Elaine Crouch

On a five day break to New York with Judith O'Higgins, this is what we heard:

Friday / Saturday
Walt Weiskopf Quartet at Smalls Jazz Club
Walt Weiskopf- tenor
Peter Zak - piano
Ugonna Okegwo - bass
Jason Tiemann - drums
Perfectly balanced sound, seemed totally acoustic.
Very involving tunes and arrangements, super tight band led with great authority. Killing tenor playing. This is my favourite original music on the jazz scene today.
To me it was on a par with the Cedar Walton Quartet I heard with Bob Berg on my first ever visit to Ronnie Scotts in the 1980s. How funny to meet Martha Walton two days later!
This band was so good I went twice...

Sat Brunch
Grant Stewart at the Harlem Tavern
We heard three sets of standards and jazz evergreens with Grant on great form playing beautifully crafted melodic lines thoroughly in the tradition. A slightly weird setting of super heated covered outdoor area in front of Harlem sports bar and not a listening gig, but could still focus properly on the music.

Sin Fronteras at Fat Cat Music
Insanely rowdy venue with pool and ping pong tables, chess, card games and fearsome beer drinking. It was hard to focus on the over amplified music, though the band was clearly quite virtuosic and played an adventurous repertoire for the setting including a darkly reharmed Nature Boy and some odd meters.

Helen Sung Quintet at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola
Monk tribute w Dr Eddie Henderson (trumpet) and John Ellis (tenor)
They played a version of Bye Ya with challenging changing meters that took a bit of working out! This is on one of Helen Sung's CDs in case any time signature boffins want to check it out...
We had a great afters hang in a dodgy Irish bar with Martha Walton, Sylvia Cuenca, Helen Sung
and Luca Santaniello

The 11th St. Bar
When we walked in to the 11th St Bar, I was excited to see Jerry Weldon. He sat in and sounded AMAZING. His sound was incredible - it filled the room with an effortless fat authority like you can imagine Dexter would have done in his prime early 60s era. His lines swung hard and on the standard repertoire everything was just perfect. What a treat! I feel rejuvenated and thrilled to be a jazz musician again. There’s nothing quite like a trip to New York to feed the musical soul!

Mike LeDonne Groover Quartet w Vincent Herring at SMOKE Jazz Club
This gig's a weekly institution usually with Eric Alexander. Vincent was depping (subbing as they say here!) for Eric, with an enormous book presumably of LeDonne originals on a stand in front of him. They didn’t use this much. Peter Bernstein and Jason Tiemann (him again!) swung hard, and they played a rip force “Rhythm” changes (over 400bpm I reckon) with many alto and organ stop choruses, and no flagging!

There was a jam session in the last set with a great young alto player, Danny Raycraft One to watch out for...

New project with Max Ionata by Elaine Crouch


I'm pleased to announce a new project and collaboration with fellow tenor player Max Ionata. Named after the 1994 album from Roy Hargrove of the same name that featured 5 US tenor saxophonists, 'Tenors of our Time' will be a swinging straight ahead mix of originals and standards and includes Ross Stanley on organ and Luca Santaniello on drums. There’s an album in the pipeline and some UK dates in May. More news and details coming soon...

Darius Brubeck in Szczecin, Poland by Elaine Crouch

Due to bad UK weather conditions we had two flights cancelled and our plans of making it out a day early to be less fraught were scuppered.

Left Brixton at 6:45am for a 9am flight from Heathrow on Eurowings. We were met at Berlin Tegel Airport and had a 2 hour car journey over extraordinarily bumpy roads to Szczecin. The city had that grey, solemn kind of Cold War look to it and it was about -5 degrees. Our hotel (Dana) was no exception from the outside, but inside was absolutely beautiful in an old fashioned no expenses spared kind of way - lots of chandeliers and heavy furniture.

It was 3pm and all we knew about our itinerary was that we were playing that night. So we did what touring musicians do and seized the opportunity to eat. The menu was fantastic and we had rare steaks and Polish red wine. By the time we’d finished we had been contacted and told we’d be taken in 20 minutes time to the venue. Nicely exhausted now, we changed into our suits and went to the spectacular Philharmonic Hall.

Soundcheck was challenging because we like to set up close and play very acoustic. However the support band was already set up and soundchecked and we were asked not to move anything before our set. The support group was about a 12-piece band including vocals, electronics, strings..... monitors everywhere and the drums miles away with swathes of damping taped to the snare.

Soundcheck finished at 7 and showtime was 8. We assumed we’d be on around 9. Backstage was a futuristic labyrinth like the Battlestar Galactica..... and yet there was pretty much zero hospitality other than bottles of water.

It was 10:30 before we went on in the end. The audience clapped in the right places but it was rare anyone cracked a smile until we suddenly got a standing ovation at the end! Afterwards we were locked out of our dressing room and the whole process of waiting to go back to the hotel was very Spinal Tap and seemed interminable.

I got to bed at 12:30 knowing I had to leave at 3:30am. Oh the glamour.

The Darius Brubeck Quartet in Sicily by Elaine Crouch

We did this the civilised way and caught an afternoon flight on Friday, arriving at Palermo airport on a beautiful sunset and in perfect time for dinner. Our host, Francesco, took us to a local restaurant where we did the set menu; ante pasta, pasta, main (all seafood) washed down with a carafe or two of the house wine. Afterwards we checked out a couple of the local bars that were busy and friendly, notable for the complete absence of lairy drunkenness.

The next day we had a good walk about. I went for a run around the harbour and to the Foro Italico. We had a 4pm set up and soundcheck at Sicily's oldest theatre - Real Teatro Santa Cecilia, built in 1693.

We had a beautiful dinner beforehand, Sicilian red wine, espresso and grappa. Perfect to energise us for our two well attended shows. The early set was the older folks and the later one well attended by the younger generation. The sound was good and we played two totally different sets with the exception of the compulsory Take Five that has everyone lurching for phones and iPads to video it. They always stop just after the head (the moment I start soloing!) - I’ve got used to it now but I used to find it most disconcerting....

The hotel was well appointed in the old town. The area was busy and noisy, and the air feels quite thick with pollution. By Sunday morning I had a better idea of the local geography and managed to find a running route to the Foro Italico via cobbled back alleys, whilst listening to radio commentary of England v New Zealand T20 cricket (a curious juxtaposition of cultures!)

Recording with Tomasso Starace in Turin parts 2 & 3 (January 2018) by Elaine Crouch

The Mad Dog Social Club is a groovy subterranean, cave like cocktail bar, accessed through an unmarked doorway at street level. Apparently it’s the only regular gig in Turin for Jazz unsullied by such frippery as commerciality. The gig was fun after a day in the studio. We played a mixture of tricky originals and easy standards to an appreciative audience. It was all the more therapeutic for the excellent Mescal Negroni cocktails!

It meant a late-ish night, though, so waking up in the dark for a third day in a row hurt....

Considering our lack of sleep and the breakneck tempos we were attempting, the second day in the studio went well and we were done by 6pm.

A chilled evening off and back home via Milan airport the next day. 

Getting roasted on some tricky charts at Carlo Miori's Music Studio With Tommaso Starace's new quartet project in Turin (see video).

8am pickup, in the studio til 6:30pm and then a gig at a club called The Mad Dog Social Club. Mad Dogs and Englishmen, eh?

Ironically it’s an icy 3 degrees here while apparently a balmy 12 in the Brixton Riviera....

Photo by Carlo Mogavero


Matt Bianco goes Dutch - Part One (January 2018) by Elaine Crouch

Matt Bianco goes Dutch - Part One

Our flights on Thursday from Heathrow to Schipol (Amsterdam) were cancelled, rebooked, delayed, etc due to allegedly the worst winds in Holland for 100 years. We made it just in time to go straight to our gig in Hoofddorp at a stand up rock venue that reminded me a bit of the Jazz Cafe.

Mark Reilly, Clarissa Land (doing her first gig with the band), Martin Shaw, Rob Barron, Geoff Gascoyne and Sebastiaan de Krom gave it their all and after a long day we finally got to the hotel. The bad news was we’d have to leave at 6:30 sharp the next morning for a radio show.

The next morning arrived all too soon. We all made the call on time except Martin, whose fancy new iPhone 8 had failed to take note of the hour time change from UK!

We’d finished the show before dawn! (You can see it’s dark outside on the video)

We went from there straight to the next hotel in Den Bosch. What a beautiful town. So after a disorientating siesta and a walkabout it was time for another soundcheck. This venue was an elegantly converted old church and very reverberant as you would expect. The hospitality was magnificent. We had snacks on arrival, pre gig drinks, dinner, after show drinks and pizzas.....

Here's a video recorded at the radio show:

Matt Bianco goes Dutch part 2 and recording with Tomasso Starace in Turin (January 2018) by Elaine Crouch


The great thing about touring Holland is that nowhere's more than 2 hours drive away. It’s also a pleasure to MD a band that’s so cooking. It was more like a four day holiday than a tour! The last gig especially was tremendous fun.

The only thing that didn’t go so well was the exit plan to get to my next gig in Turin...

So I left the warm hotel we were staying in with Matt Bianco in Hilversum, Holland, at 6:50am to head for the local train station - a freezing, rainy 10 minute walk away. No human beings to buy tickets from, just machines requiring “coins only”. Who carries €9 in coins? Anyway, I found one that accepted credit cards. In fact it unnervingly swallows your credit card.

I found the appropriate platform in time courtesy of Google maps, not thanks to any helpful sign posting. Sadly my train was delayed over and over, so the next one to the airport left from a different platform (apparently a very clear announcement had been made in Dutch). By the time I made it to Schipol Airport it was 'last call' for my flight and there was a sign saying “18 minutes to the gate”. I was wearing my Paul Smith leather soled stage shoes and I might as well have been trying to run on an ice rink with my sax on my back. I was the last person on the flight, everyone looking visibly miffed at me trundling on at the 18th hour...

Once at Turin I had instructions to catch a bus into town. The ticket machine didn’t work. After some comedic dithering about I just had a feeling the lottery vendor might sell bus tickets, and lo and behold....!

So I then had to find the bus, and when that arrived the driver didn’t get out to open the hold for people's cases, so I found myself in charge! Anyway, it all worked out and I got into town.

Tomasso Starace and drummer, Ruben Bellavia, met me at the stop and showed me to a nice little apartment up 106 steps (like starting at the bottom of the Northern Line) where I’d be staying for 3 nights.

We went from there to the Italian Premises Rehearsal Studio and spent 4 hours slaving over Tommaso's tricky themes, broken up with a little light relief in the form of 'Trinkle Tinkle' and 'Bebop'.

The guys dropped me back at the flat later so I bought some delicious take out ravioli from a pasta shop and a fine Primitivo to wash it down. Could only find a teaspoon to eat it with, but more importantly there was a bottle opener and a wine glass!