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Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 2 March 2012

Courtney Pine – or since this was the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Professor Courtney Pine, CBE – was in town to give a masterclass to students on the RCS jazz course, and to play a well-attended lunchtime concert in the RCS’s Fridays at One series.

His band for the day was, for the most part, the trio of Paul Harrison on piano, Mario Caribé on bass and Alyn Cosker on drums, all of whom are tutors on the RCS jazz course.

The set was made up a series of jazz standards, but that didn’t mean their approach was always predictable. They opened with a long, fairly free, version of “Naima”, which was almost like Coltrane’s “I Want to Talk About You” in reverse: it started with a long saxophone cadenza, then moved through an improvisation for saxophone backed by the group, before finally ending up with the melody.

Pine played soprano saxophone throughout – in a question and answer session with the audience, he revealed that he planned to concentrate on this instrument for the next couple of years – and his technique was phenomenal. It wasn’t just the speed he could play with that impressed, although that was often dazzling, as in a breakneck version of “Donna Lee”, but his ability to play at the extreme top end of the register without simply resorting to squealing, and the way he could produce unusual sounds which made musical sense. On a couple of occasions he came out with staccato lines which almost sounded like a pizzicato string instrument.

It wasn’t all flash, though: one of the highlights for me was a fine bluesy version of “Stolen Moments”. Another highlight came when Tommy Smith joined the band and they played a “Green Dolphin Street” given over mainly to a saxophone duet between Pine and Smith. It might not have been flawless, but it was frequently inspired.

On the last piece of a long set, the trio made way for a student group of Peter Johnstone (piano), Brodie Jarvie (bass), and John Lowrie (drums), who performed admirably on a very fine run through of “Blue Monk”.

As well as playing, Pine talked to the audience about jazz, and his enthusiasm for the music was contagious. He pointed out that it was probably the most direct music there was, as the player performs an idea as soon as it occurs to him (or her), and the audience hear it the moment it’s played; and that truly great jazz depends not just on you playing in a way that makes you sound as good as possible, but also in a way which simultaneously makes your bandmates sound as good as possible. He came across as a genuinely cool guy and I was disappointed not to be able to stay on and hear the masterclass he was giving later in the afternoon.