We Need To Give Glasgow’s Jazz Scene The Respect It Deserves

Graham Costello offers a primer on this exciting, and highly unique, jazz redoubt...

Glasgow has always been a music city.

Home to some of the country's top venues, its spawned entities as rich and diverse as Mogwai and Optimo, Hudson Mohawke and Belle and Sebastian, The Ninth Wave and Teenage Fanclub.

Right now, though, Glasgow is home to some of Europe's most exciting and adventurous jazz musicians. Sure, jazz has always been a potent element of the city's nightlife, but the past few years have seen a number of musicians, groups, and collectives forging something substantive and new.

Graham Costello sits at the forefront of this. Essentially viewing jazz through the prism of a noise musician, his new album 'Second Lives' is a tour de force, an astonishing piece of work that obeys no rules aside from its own.

Out now on Gearbox, it's part of a flurry of releases in 2021 alone that indicate Glasgow's ability to compete with London, Bristol, and Manchester, offering a vivid, and unique take on the endless possibilities that remain within jazz as an art form.

Here, Graham Costello – and a few key collaborators – write for Clash about Glasgow, its jazz scene(s), and name a few releases to check out.

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GRAHAM COSTELLO (drummer/bandleader)

My perspective of the Glasgow Jazz scene is maybe a bit different. I came from the Glasgow DIY scene initially, playing and touring lots of noisy music.

I started studying jazz at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2012 and at that point I didn't quite see as much community in the jazz scene compared to the other scenes I was involved in. At that point, people would come together for gigs at different local bars, but there ultimately weren't really any bands. It was really when my peers and I started graduating from the RCS and forming bands maybe four to five years ago that things started to change. From our perspective, this collaborative community of artists didn't quite exist yet as it is now, so we created it ourselves. The awesome thing is, we all play in each other’s band too!

From my own perspective, I formed my band STRATA in 2016 to be a fusion of my DIY rock background and my jazz/minimal influences. I started a monthly residency with STRATA in 2017 at one of the city’s most-loved indie venues Bloc, with two goals: firstly, to merge scenes and expose people who I knew would like this music, but who wouldn't go to stuffy 'jazz' gigs; secondly, to often share the bill with an artist who was totally different from us and usually from a different scene.

This started to expose more people from the other scenes to our music and 'jazz scene', and vice versa. It was all about building a community that wasn't just jazz, but so much more and it's still growing to this day.

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Now there is so much variety in the scene with bands like AKU!, corto.alto, kitti, Nimbus Sextet, Animal Society, and so much more. All with their own influences and sounds.

DJ/producer and radio host Rebecca Vasmant in particular has also been very important to the scene in recent years, really beginning to help share the music outside of Scotland and introduce the wider UK audience to the Glasgow scene. Now with more new bands and artists emerging, it really does feel like a very exciting time for the Glasgow scene and it’s only a matter of time before the UK and international community fully discover it.

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LIAM SHORTALL (trombone)

Working as a musician in Glasgow right now is for sure very exciting.

When I first moved here in 2012, I was 16. I had moved from a small town in south Scotland to Glasgow, to study at the RCS. There wasn’t a huge amount going on in terms of original music amongst the younger generation of jazz musicians. Sure, there was loads of jam sessions and opportunity to play, but it didn’t really seem like Glasgow was bursting with the same original music that it is nowadays.

I’m not entirely sure what changed, and maybe it was just my own perspective, but now there are definitely a shit load of artists and bands making unique and inspiring music locally. The output of music in Scotland is surprisingly very diverse, there’s obviously a lot of Scottish folk influence on improvised music up here. But also loads of other types of ‘jazz’ emerging, from hip-hop, soul, electronic, latin, funk, punk, heavy jazz etc.

It’s super fun being a part of it, and a part of STRATA, where a lot of the experimentation and exploration for new sounds is going on. Each of us in the band are part of our own individual sub-scenes, and there’s a lot of cross-pollination going on between us all. I think it’s in that space where the most exciting and fresh music is happening. Everyone that knows about the Glasgow music scene, knows. But there are still a lot of people in the UK and beyond that are unaware about what’s actually happening up here.

I think within five years there will be a greater focus on Glasgow as one of the bigger playing cities amongst the UK jazz/music scenes, the level of musicianship and creative output is already there, it’s only really a matter of people getting exposed to what’s going on. (Get hip!)

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There isn’t a Glasgow ‘sound’ exactly – and that’s what I feel is so cool about the scene. There are so many great musicians in this community, most of who have played together in a band at one time or other, who all make really different music. The only thing the groups have in common is how fresh and unique the music is! It all feels authentic, everyone is inspired by everyone else’s music, but no-one is jumping on a bandwagon or emulating anyone else.

Strata is a good example – every member leads their own band, and each group is so unlike the others! I’d recommend checking out AKU, a sax/bone/drums trio led by Harry, our sax player. I don’t really feel like I can do it justice with words, but it’s immensely fun – fiery, with tons of epic grooves and catchy hooks, with a great sense of humour, and really unique.

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I feel that the jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has been vital in the development of Glasgow’s jazz scene. For one thing it has been a supportive environment that has enabled young musicians to experiment and collaborate. The jazz degree assigns a lot of focus to composition, and I think that’s one of the reasons that we have so many great composers and bandleaders in Glasgow.

Keep an eye on the RCS jazz course and you’re bound to find another one of Glasgow’s up and coming artists.

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HARRY WEIR (tenor sax)

The jazz scene in Glasgow has really come alive in the last three to five years. From the humble beginnings of mainly uni students playing at various sessions around the city, many of the regular faces from these gigs decided to form their own bands and projects. Fat-Suit was the first band to not only do well as a new jazz outfit in Scotland, but they were also the group that really grabbed the attention of audiences.

A lot of jazz guys have put together their own groups and we now have a wide variety of crossovers with every new project. Be it the neo-classical industrial sounds of STRATA, the experimental bombastic nature of Animal Society and AKU!, the folky influences of Fergus McCreadie and Matt Carmichael’s music, the mixture of world music from Mezcla or the nu-jazz/hip-hop stylings of corto.alto.

Another significant step towards a richer, more vibrant scene has been the growing number of collaborations with the different music scenes in the city, with many of the leading lights in the jazz scene now working with funk, hip-hop, DIY rock and modern soul artists. There are plenty of sprinklings within bands like Tom McGuire & the Brassholes, CROOQ, Kitti, The Black Denims and Joesef to name but a few. A lot of us have realised just how important it is for us to collaborate with talents in all fields in order to keep the music progressing. 

Bottom line, if you are looking for interesting, exciting new music, Glasgow is the place to be.

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I think for me one of the most special places in Glasgow for music is the corner in Finnieston where The Ben Nevis and The 78 sit.

On a normal Sunday night, the best jazz musicians in the country turn up to the 78 with no plan, and the best folk musicians arguably in the world turn up to the Ben Nevis with no plan, and from 9-12 there’s world class music happening spontaneously in two outlets right next to each other. Both pubs are full of musicians hanging, playing, sometimes moving between the two. It takes a lot of trust between musicians to play a gig together with no set plan and this really captures the essence of what makes the scene great – it’s a lot of musicians playing together who really trust and respect one another.

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STEVIE COSSAR (sound engineer)

I came into the Scottish jazz community by accident, without an invite, nor the formal qualifications or any sort of experience of working with jazz with the exception of the odd touring band in small venues around Glasgow and Edinburgh.

My background was in strictly no-frills Avant Garde lo-fi rock and pop. Oddly enough, I came to discover what appeared to be, from a sonic perspective, a disciplinary thread that ran in parallel between both of these worlds.

Letting the kinetic reality of a performance and the raw visibility of the compositional structure lead the way, I was able to transfer and level up my skillset quite considerably.

The more people I interact and work with (I'm at least 13-20 years older than these players), the more I realise something very special is occurring. A huge wave of determined, self-organised and unafraid musicians and composers who are not distracted by their image or reputation. They're more punk than they think. They're doing more to push the boundaries and bridge the gaps between and within genres and techniques than any comically sad and narcissistic indie scene I've seen blow through Scotland in my time.

The main thing I notice is the amount of laughter during my work. I'm being challenged and it's not easy work. There's generally loads of folk coming and going throughout a gig or session and all of them have unique quirks and needs. It shouldn't be this much fun; but it is.To me, that's the essence of creativity. Amusement. If you can keep amusing yourself through music, you have something to share.

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'Second Lives' is out now.

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