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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Ella and Nelson on Park Lane

Ella with NelsonThirty years ago this month — on July 26, 1984 — I sat down at the next table to Princess Margaret and her entourage in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. Not my usual company, but this was a special occasion: Ella Fitzgerald, making what I’m pretty certain was her final appearance in London, with an orchestra conducted by the great arranger Nelson Riddle.

It was a charity gig, the first of three nights in aid of the NSPCC, hence the presence of royalty and courtiers. But it was clearly something not to be missed, since it united two figures of great significance whose work together in the Gershwin Songbook series of albums — five LPs containing 53 songs, recorded over an eight-month period in 1959 for Norman Granz’s Verve label — remains a landmark of the genre and the era.

Ella brought her own first-class rhythm section: Paul Smith (piano), Keter Betts (bass) and Bobby Durham (drums). The rest of the large orchestra was assembled by Johnny Howard, the British saxophonist, bandleader and session contractor. It included Mitch Dalton on guitar and the young saxophonist Jamie Talbot, to whom I’d been listening in the very different environment of Clark Tracey’s hard-bop quintet.

Dalton had recorded with Riddle in London a few months earlier as part of another band put together by Howard for a Decca album called Blue Skies, in which Riddle’s orchestra accompanied the opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa. When I asked him about the gig with Ella, he responded with a lovely anecdote.

“My one abiding memory of the gig,” he told me, “is of rehearsing the overture — Nelson’s arrangement of ‘The Sheik Of Araby’. I was seated right in front of the conductor’s rostrum, no more than three feet from him. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Great Man had not necessarily committed his all to this particular commission, possibly because it might have been a last-minute (and inconvenient) request to provide Ella with an introduction. Anyhow, I was required to play the banjo in cod ’20s style. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a rhythmic feel which fitted the chart. Each time that we played it down I tried a different approach. During my third attempt to create something passable, Mr Riddle leaned across to me and intoned: ‘Ah, I see that you have an excellent ear for shit when you hear it!’ I’m not sure if his poker face and laconic delivery translate well off the page but I’ve never forgotten that phrase. It certainly encapsulates his modesty. An endearing trait in a genius, I find!”

And a genius he certainly was: a genius of popular music. He was aged 64 then, and taking time out from a tour to promote Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New, the first of three hugely successful albums they made together. He and Ella had recorded their final collaborative album, The Best is Yet to Come, two years earlier, for Granz’s last label, Pablo. Fifteen months after the Grosvenor House shows, Riddle would die as a result of problems caused by cirrhosis of the liver. Ella’s long-term health problems were about to become more serious; in and out of hospital throughout her last years, she died in 1996.

At Grosvenor House, aged 67, she was no longer in full command of the powers of vocal expression and agility that had made her such a great artist. But that didn’t seem to matter too much. Although I wasn’t taking notes that night (in those days, before Live Aid, there was a rather civilised convention that charity concerts were not reviewed), I have a clear memory of a wonderful recital, including a particularly lustrous reading of “Blue Moon”. And Princess Margaret, who liked a bit of night life herself, certainly seemed to enjoy it. 

* The photograph of Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle is by Phil Stern and is taken from September in the Rain, Peter J Levinson’s excellent biography of Riddle, published by Billboard Books in 2001.

Wardell’s last stand

Moulin Rouge 1In the days when I covered the big fights in Las Vegas, I always tried to persuade the newspaper to let me have a rental car. As budgets tightened, that became increasingly difficult. Why would you need to spend the department’s money when the only essential travel expenditure, apart from the plane ticket, was the price of a taxi to and from McCarran airport? If you were staying at, say, the MGM Grand, and that’s where the fight was being held, then it was a hard argument to make. But the key to getting the best out of Vegas, it always seemed to me, involved possessing the means to get away from it.

Not that I actually disliked the place. Disapproved of it, maybe, but I was always fascinated by the dark history of how a desert truck stop became the fastest growing city in the US. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I found myself wishing I’d gone to the Mayweather fight, simply to get a Vegas fix. But had I been there, I’d have been itching to get into a car and head as far away from the Strip as newspaper deadlines allowed — perhaps to the Red Rock Canyon state park, or more probably to the Mexican swap-meet on the north-eastern edge of town, out towards Nellis Air Force Base, a giant open-air weekend bazaar where you can buy anything from a cassette of norteño music to a tyre for your earthmover.

I was always a little sad that Vegas’s eye for future profit had led it to blow up the past behind it. I was there just in time to see the old Sands, for example, still in operation; on my next visit, the former Rat Pack playground was just another vacant lot, waiting for redevelopment. That sensational example of ’50s modern resort architecture — slogan: “A Place in the Sun” — was torn down in 1996. It seemed very short-sighted. If they’d been smarter, the city fathers would have preserved one of those old hotels as a living memorial.

Such thoughts were on my mind when I got in the car on a hot afternoon one day about 10 years ago and headed for Vegas’s Westside, the remote black section of town. I was looking for whatever was left of the Moulin Rouge, opened in May 1955 as the town’s only non-segregated casino hotel. This was a time when black entertainers performing on the Strip were barred from staying in the establishments that employed them; famously, after Sammy Davis Jr went for a swim in the pool at the New Frontier, the management had it drained. Not surprisingly, the Moulin Rouge was a great success.  Some of the great stars of the era played there, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, and among those who headed across town to enjoy the shows and the relaxed ambiance were Frank Sinatra, Tallulah Bankhead, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Gregory Peck. They were greeted by the former world heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, who had been given a small ownership stake by the project’s white backers.

After six months, however, the place was suddenly closed, overnight, without warning or explanation. The croupiers, the cocktail waitresses and the dancers were paid off. The belief has always been that the Mob didn’t like the idea of customers being drawn away from their places on the Strip, and took appropriate action.

I’d heard that, half a century later, it was still standing, so I drove around the Westside, where some of the streets were still unpaved and the visitor felt a world away from the neat and ever proliferating suburban estates housing most of Vegas’s well heeled incomers. And when I found my way to 900 West Bonanza Road, there it was: the low buildings and its high landmark tower still intact, and most of all the giant neon sign, 60ft high and a classic of its type.

I drove in through a gate in the wire fence, parked the car and approached a group of workmen. They told me that it had been used as welfare apartments for some years, and that it had gone through a period when it was notorious as a kind of crack supermarket. Now, following a bad fire a couple of years earlier, it was almost deserted. The workmen told me that plans were under way for it to be refurbished and reopened, more or less as per its original incarnation.

A few calls confirmed that such optimistic plans did indeed exist. The building had already been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but that turned out to be a meaningless gesture. Further fires, a failed foreclosure sale and pressure from vested interests persuaded the local authorities to issue a demolition permit, and the most significant parts of the property were torn down in 2010. The giant sign, designed by Betty Willis, a local woman, was removed to the city’s Neon Museum, where 150 such relics are preserved.

All this came to mind the other day when an album called Way Out Wardell came through the post. This is a CD reissue, on Ace Records’ Boplicity imprint, of an LP — originally on the Modern label — made up of two recordings from two 1947 concerts, at Pasadena Civic Auditorium and the Shrine in Los Angeles, both featuring the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray with a couple of all-star groups including Erroll Garner on piano, Howard McGhee on trumpet and Benny Carter on alto saxophone, under the banner of Gene Norman’s “Just Jazz” concert series. It was Carter who, eight years later, was hired as the musical director of the Moulin Rouge, and his big band was the main attraction during the gala launch week.

On the opening night, Wardell Gray was present and correct in the reed section. At 34, born in Oklahoma City but raised in Detroit, and a Los Angeles resident since 1946, he was a player with a substantial reputation. He had made his recording debut in 1944 with Billy Eckstine, appeared on Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” date, and become a favourite sideman of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. The two-part 78 of “The Chase”, his duel with his friend and fellow tenorist Dexter Gordon, a recreation of their marathon battles in the clubs of Central Avenue, had been a hit in 1947. His career stalled a little in the early ’50s, perhaps thanks in part to the acquisition of a heroin habit, but he was still playing clubs and making the occasional record date when he took Carter’s call and headed for Vegas.

On the Moulin Rouge’s second night, however, he didn’t turn up. The band waited, knowing that his habit had rendered him not entirely reliable, but eventually went ahead without him. The next day his body was found in the desert on the outskirts of town. It was assumed that he had died of an overdose, either accidental or administered as a “hot shot” by a dealer to whom he owed money, but the police investigation was cursory at best and no one was ever able to come up with an explanation for marks of blows to his head or exactly how the body might have found its way to its last resting place.

The story was explored at some length back in 1995 in Death of a Tenor Man, one of a series of atmospheric and entertaining crime novels by the American musician and author Bill Moody, whose fictional protagonist is a jazz pianist and amateur detective called Evan Horne. Moody grew up in Southern California but lived for some years in Vegas, where he taught English at the university as well as playing the drums with bands on the Strip, and the local colour is authentic.

So many jazz musicians perished as a direct or indirect result of the heroin plague of the 1950s. Gray’s demise has always seemed one of the most poignant, particularly since the town in which he died was built largely on the laundered profits of a narcotics trade pioneered by the likes of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, the principal founders of modern Las Vegas. Which is just one of the reasons why I find it hard to warm to the place.

As with Chet Baker, it’s impossible now to assemble the individual components of Gray’s tragedy into a definitive account. So we’ll never know the truth. But Way Out Wardell finds him at full strength, playing for enthusiastic audiences. Maybe this is how he sounded — confident and full of ideas — on that opening night at the Moulin Rouge, before the curtain came down.

Parallel voices

parallel  moments  blueFrom the very first notes of “Longing”, the opening track of Parallel Moments, a new album by the saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and the pianist Marilyn Crispell, there’s an awareness that that you’re in the presence of something special. MacDonald’s sound carries such poise and pathos, Crispell’s chords are so sensitively voiced and weighted. The arc of the piece, as they increase the intensity before releasing the tension, is simply perfect. I don’t think I’ve been so moved by the interplay between an alto saxophone and a pianist since Carlos Ward and Carla Bley duetted (with the help of a string quartet) on “Desireless”, from Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite, back in 1973. “Longing” is here, if you want to try it.

Each of the four surfaces of the CD’s mini-gatefold sleeve carries a detail of a painting by MacDonald. The one on the inner spread, as seen above, is my favourite. I like what I imagine to be the symbolism of it: the strokes of cerise and ochre represent the players, while the white is the intangible third element created by their collaboration. But you don’t need to bother with such a clumsy interpretation. It’s my guess that if you respond to the painting in any way, you’ll like the music: a kind of abstract expressionism in search of unobvious beauty.

MacDonald, who is Scottish and lives in Edinburgh, has collaborated with many leading European and American free jazz musicians and writes music for film, theatre and dance. Crispell, who was born in Philadelphia, came to prominence in the groups of Anthony Braxton in the 1970s and has made many noteworthy albums, including Nothing Ever Was, Anyway (ECM, 1997), in which she interpreted the extraordinary compositions of Annette Peacock.

Their collaboration on these 10 pieces, which range in length from under two minutes to 11 minutes, is a thing of constant and unfolding wonder. On a track such as the lengthy “Conversation” they make highly personal adaptations of the sort of instrumental techniques associated with Cecil Taylor and Evan Parker, including bright upper-register splashes of great precision from Crispell and involuted rapid-fire flurries from MacDonald, to create a completely satisfying dialogue. Minimal resources, but a vast scope of emotion — and, pervading the whole album, a rarified and very precious lyricism.

* Parallel Moments is released on the Babel label.

Jarrett & Haden revisited

Keith Jarrett:Charlie HadenI like Keith Jarrett best when he’s forced to deal with vulnerability. Sometimes it’s his own, as in the exquisite solo album called The Melody at Night, With You, which he recorded at his home in 1998 when his store of energy was still depleted after two years of musical inactivity caused by a persistent condition called chronic fatigue syndrome (he talked about it to me the following year, and you can find the interview here). In the case of his new album, Last Dance, it’s that of Charlie Haden, his long-time friend and musical partner.

Jarrett’s virtuosity is undeniable. No doubt it was hard-won, and it has led him to some interesting places, but I prefer it when he has to think about music from another perspective. To me, that’s when his real musicality becomes apparent: when the essence, rather than the surface, is all there is.

Last Dance is the second release from sessions he and Haden conducted in 2007, when they played standard tunes together in the relaxed environment of Jarrett’s home studio in New Jersey. The first, titled Jasmine, was released four years ago and, like The Melody at Night, With You, found a large and appreciative audience (beguiled not least by a brief but glowing reading of Joe Sample’s “One Day I’ll Fly Away”). I think Last Dance is the better of the two.

Haden, who suffered from polio as a child, has encountered further health problems in recent years, including a couple of conditions, tinnitus and hyperacousis, related to his hearing. His playing is no longer as strong as it was when he strummed that famous solo on Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’” in 1959 or plucked the beautiful melody of his “Song for Che” on the classic Liberation Music Orchestra album 10 years later. When I listened to Jasmine on its release, I thought the signs of debilitation were evident: if his lines beneath Jarrett’s improvisations, were clear, they seemed to lack vitality.

I have no such problem with Last Dance. Whether it’s me, or whether Jarrett and Haden (or the executive producer, Manfred Eicher) selected tracks for the first release that expressed a certain mood, I can’t say. But the programming of the new album — including lengthy explorations of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship”, Monk’s “Round Midnight”, Richard Rodgers’ “It Might As Well Be Spring” and Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, with a change of pace on Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels” — creates an ambiance that, while no less reflective, seems to possess a greater degree of intellectual vigour.

For evidence, compare the two versions of Gordon Jenkins’s “Goodbye”, one on each album. It’s probably my favourite song, as I wrote here last year, so I always listen to it with special interest. Whereas the reading on Jasmine didn’t move me greatly, and still doesn’t, this alternative take seems absolutely perfect, drawing out the finest eloquence from both men (and Haden in particular). Maybe it’s a matter of context: the choice and sequencing of tracks. Maybe it’s just a mystery. Whatever it is, Last Dance is a wonderful album. A small masterpiece, in fact.

* The photograph of Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden is from the sleeve of Jasmine and was taken by Rose Anne Jarrett. Jasmine and Last Dance are on ECM Records.

For art’s sake

Rene Urtreger 2The French pianist René Urtreger, who celebrates his 80th birthday next month, was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet that recorded the celebrated soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold in 1957. He had become a frequent collaborator with Lester Young, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and many others during an era when his native Paris provided American jazz musicians with a warm welcome. Until now, however, his only appearance in Britain had been in the 1970s, when he visited London in his rather different capacity as Sacha Distel’s musical director.

Last night he and the other members of his trio — the bassist Yves Torchinsky and the drummer Eric Dervieu — performed in a small downstairs ballroom at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. They were playing to celebrate the opening of a new show, at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in Carlos Place, next door to the hotel, by the abstract expressionist painter Sean Scully, who was born in Dublin and brought up in South London, and now lives in New York and Bavaria. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a work titled Kind of Red, inspired by Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue: a series of five large paintings, in oil on aluminium, conceived as a single unit (you can see them on the gallery’s website, here).

Given the nature of the work’s origin, and Scully’s love of music (as a teenager he ran a blues club over a pub in Bromley High Street, and later named one of his paintings after John Coltrane’s “Dakar”), Timothy Taylor wanted something special to provide an unusual end to the conventional sequence of a private view followed by a small dinner. It seemed right to call on someone with a connection to the inspiration behind the paintings. The way Miles went about recording the music for Lift to the Scaffold – in particular the paring away of harmonic material — exerted a profound influence, two years later, on the concept of Kind of Blue. And Urtreger is now the only surviving member of the group that recorded the soundtrack to Malle’s noir classic.

His story is a fascinating one, revealed in an extensive interview with Pascal Anquetil in last January’s issue of the French monthly Jazz Magazine/Jazzman. To me the most striking single detail was his account of how, having waited day after day as an 11-year-old at the Gare de l’Est for the return of his Polish-Jewish mother, deported by the Nazis, only to discover that she had perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he responded a handful of years later to the discovery of bebop: a music without overt sentiment.

But not, of course, without feeling, as we discovered last night in his fluent, thoughtful versions of “Old Devil Moon”, “So What”, “The Duke” and a handful of bop themes. “I suffered during my youth from a shyness that led me to imagine that I wasn’t at the same level as my (musical) partners,” he told Anquetil. “Today, that’s over. I’ve reached an age at which I have nothing to prove, and everything to give.” Last night’s audience, in which gallerists and collectors were joined by Bryan Ferry (like Scully, a former art student in Newcastle) and several of the painter’s friends, including the former champion boxer Barry McGuigan and the poet Kelly Grovier, accepted the gift with warmth and gratitude.

* The photograph of René Urtreger was taking during the sound-check at the Connaught. His most recent solo piano album, Tentatives (Minium, 2006), is highly recommended, and there will be a new album by the trio this summer. The Kind of Red exhibition opens today, June 11, and is on show until July 12 at 15 Carlos Place, London W1. Thcatalogue is published by the Timothy Taylor Gallery. 

Orson Welles and Lady Day

Pierre Briancon coverTwo of the most interesting jazz-related books of recent years have an author in common. He is Pierre Briançon, a French journalist who lives in London and works as a senior financial commentator for the Reuters wire service. The first book, San Quentin Jazz Band, written in French and published by Editions Grasset in 2008, tells the story of some of the musicians who ended up in the eponymous California prison in the late 1950s and early 1960s, on a variety of drug-related charges. They included the saxophonists Frank Morgan and Earl Anderza, the trumpeters Dupree Bolton and Nathaniel Meeks, and the pianist Jimmy Bunn; it’s a pretty amazing and important piece of work, shining a light into the corners of the lives of some of the talented men who fell victim to what amounted to a plague.

While planning the book, Briançon came across the piece I’d written about the hitherto mysterious Bolton for Granta in 2000. (With the aid of a private investigator, I’d established for the first time that he was actually dead — and unearthed his birth and death certificates, plus other pieces of evidence from his life, including photographs from an old girlfriend.) Pierre and I met and shared information, and I was quickly impressed by his seriousness and willingness to do the necessary digging. During his research in the prison’s archives he uncovered a great deal of new information. It still surprises and disappoints me that no one has seen fit to publish an English translation of this remarkable work, written with an acute sensitivity to the social forces of the time.

His new book, written in English, is called Romance in the Dark. A novel, it is an imagined account of the relationship between Billie Holiday and Orson Welles, one that is mentioned by Holiday in her highly unreliable autobiography and appears to have begun in 1941. Briançon starts his narrative inside the head of the trumpeter Shad Collins, who is driving a New York City taxi cab one day in 1972 when his memories are triggered both by a chance remark from a passenger and the sight of the poster for the lamentable Lady Sings the Blues. He reminisces about witnessing that initial encounter between the singer and the director, a few days after he and Lester Young had recorded a handful of sides with Holiday, including “Romance in the Dark”. The meeting occurred at the Chicken Coop club in Harlem, at a party following the premiere of Welles’s production, with his Mercury Theatre company, of Richard Wright’s Native Son, which starred the Chicken Coop’s owner, the actor Canada Lee.

Here’s a paragraph from that opening chapter, to give you the flavour:

Billie was something else. Shad loved her, as a best friend. Used to call him Lester junior, even though she didn’t call the other Lester Lester. Prez was what she always called him. But Shad was born Lester Rallington Collins after all, didn’t even remember where the Shad came from except that Lester – Prez – had been the first to call him that, when he’d joined the Basie band and they became buddies. Had stuck ever since. Prez, that’s a man who would have done anything for Billie. Shad never knew whether they’d had a fling, never dared to ask. They weren’t the kind of people you’d question about it. Probably not. Once, as the band was chilling after a concert at Kelly’s Stables, one of the boys had tried to make a joke about it. Prez was cleaning his horn, shot him a glance you’d never forget. Silenced the dude right there and then.

Briançon brings other witnesses back to life to the page, including the philanthropist Caresse Crosby, the actor Everett Sloane, the dancer Ruby Helena, Billie’s husband Jimmy Monroe, the screenwriter Cy Endfield, the gofer Shorty Chirillo and the pianist Joe Springer. Their voices are heard in the form of interviews, diaries, unpublished autobiographical manuscripts — and, in the case of J. Edgar Hoover, in the form of FBI files on Welles’s professional and personal relationships with black people and his possible communist sympathies.

The book ends with the very noirish scene of the drummer Roy Harte (later a co-founder of Pacific Jazz Records in Los Angeles) scoring cocaine for Holiday in a Havana bar in 1943. Nineteen years old, befriended by the singer in New York, he is now accompanying her and her friend Greta Knox, an actress, around the clubs of the Cuban capital. Here, as everywhere, the level of historical and circumstantial detail is again impressive, contributing to the pungent period flavour and the inconclusive but nevertheless compelling story. By the time I’d read a few chapters, I’d completely stopped worrying about what was real and what was invented.

Briançon is looking for an English publisher. Meanwhile he’s put it up on Amazon in the form of a Kindle edition, which will cost you £2.99. The text is as it came off his keyboard, with the occasional little glitch and minor error that an editor would sort out (for instance, Richard Wright appears at the first mention as Robert Wright). But you can make allowances for that, as I was happy to do, in order to enjoy this valuable addition to the genre that includes Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful. I think it’s something special.

Trumpet + rhythm

Nick Malcolm QuartetBe it Chet Baker with Russ Freeman on Pacific Jazz or with Dick Twardzik on Barclay, Booker Little on Time, Joe Wilder on Savoy, Tony Fruscella at the Open Door, The Musings of Miles, Lee Morgan’s Candy, Freddie Hubbard on Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles or Tomasz Stanko’s Soul of Things and Suspended Night, the line-up of trumpet, piano, double bass and drums has a great attraction for me. There’s something clean and uncluttered about it. That certainly struck me again last night, while listening to the Nick Malcolm Quartet at the Vortex.

Malcolm teaches trumpet at Wells Cathedral School and he has a lovely bright, rounded tone that any student would do well to emulate. He also has an outstanding rhythm section: Alexander Hawkins (piano), Olie Brice (bass) and Ric Yarborough (drums). The gig was part of a short UK tour arranged to coincide with the release of their second album, Beyond These Voices, on the leader’s own Green Eyes label, which was recorded with the band’s earlier drummer, Mark Whitlam, and also features guest appearances by the outstanding vibraphonist Corey Mwamba.

The quartet began with a piece yet to be recorded, a long slow blues anchored by a deep, sinewy bass line with a clever rhythmic twist. Malcolm started conservatively but balanced his phrases quite beautifully, while Hawkins found the common ground between Monk and gospel music with some rousing two-handed phrases. I wanted to hear it again straight away.

There would be other new compositions alongside material from the album (and its predecessor, 2012′s Glimmers). Brice and Whitlam underscored the ingenious arrangements with enthusiastic precision, always attuned to the occasional need for silence but deploying, when appropriate, a momentum that encouraged the trumpeter and pianist to loosen up as the set progressed. Malcolm incorporated growls, flutters, microtones and other effects into his lines, occasionally unfurling long, seamless legato phrases reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler and on one occasion, while playing an unaccompanied interlude, blowing directly at the open lid of the club’s Steinway, the sound reflecting down to produce sympathetic tones from the piano’s strings. Hawkins, freed from the responsibility of leadership, seemed to enjoy himself enormously, unleashing a homage to Erroll Garner on a boppish piece called “There’s Lead in Their Pencils” and elsewhere deploying his range of techniques with such elan that his hands disappeared into a blur.

The only non-originals were interesting choices: the sombre title piece from Andrew Hill’s 1999 septet album Dusk and Ornette Coleman’s bouncy “Checkout Time”, from Love Call (1968). Both proved to be ideal material for this line-up, the latter inspiring Hawkins to a brilliant extended solo consisting of one unbroken single-note line from his right hand while the left lay completely idle, creating a sense of spaciousness that was both unusual and quite typical of a thoughtful ensemble whose consistently compelling work deserves wider attention. Not “trumpet and rhythm” at all, of course, but a highly evolved mechanism in which four voices create a sense of perfect integration.

Jim Godbolt has the last word

Jim Godbolt funeralJim Godbolt’s funeral took place on a winter’s day in Finchley, north London, last year. A group of old friends lugged their instruments through the snow to give him a proper British jazz enthusiasts’ version of a New Orleans send-off. Goldbolt was a British jazz enthusiast of the early type, his characteristic responses formed by the wider world’s dismissal of the music he loved. Those whose encounters with him never got beyond the superficial tended not to see below the sardonic, suspicious surface.

His two-volume History of Jazz in Britain (1919-1950 and 1950-70) is invaluable. But it was through his two works of semi-authobiography, All This and 10 Per Cent (1976) and All This and Many a Dog (1986), that he gave us an amusing and perceptive account of a jazz fan’s precarious life on the music’s margins, where he functioned as a promoter, manager, booker, writer and editor. So precarious, in fact, that he had a spell reading meters for the gas board. In one of his books he created a character whom he described as “a snarling anti-social inverted snob with a chip on his shoulder”; it was, he later admitted, a self-portrait.

He was 90 when he died. We’d had our disagreements now and then and I suppose I’d always thought of him, in the phrase used by moderns to disparage traditionalists, as a bit of a mouldy fygge. But he wasn’t, really. He just liked what he liked and had got used to mounting a sort of passive-aggressive defence of it. And he managed to edit the house magazine of Ronnie Scott’s with distinction for more than a quarter of a century, a job that required him to engage with the sort of modern stuff heard in the club. His diary pieces were a kind of jazz version of a cross between J.B. Morton (“Beachcomber” of the Daily Express) and Michael Wharton (“Peter Simple” of the Daily Telegraph), which means they were full of fantastical invention, characterised by an ingrained pedantry and a deep scepticism directed at anything remotely fashionable. Like their author, they were cranky and sometimes infuriating but often very funny.

Now his final memoir, titled All This and Slowly Deteriorating Fast, has been issued by Proper Records in an interesting hybrid format: a 240-page book shaped like a CD, with a disc of some of Godbolt’s favourites (from Bogus Ben Covington via George Webb’s Dixielanders and Mick Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band to an excerpt from Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite). In the text he revisits some of the episodes covered in the earlier volumes, from the perspective of a man who knows that he is closer to the end than to the beginning, but the elegiac tone is spiced with typical tartness. There is a substantial amount of elaborate score-settling, much of it savagely amusing: “My enemy had a heart transplant operation, at which one normally shows sympathy, but in this case my concern was more for the doctor than the patient as he must have had a hell of a time looking for the afflicted organ.”

I suppose Godbolt was one of the last of a breed of British jazz fan whose deep and enduring allegiance to the music was formed at a time when it was at best patronised and at worst despised by the arbiters of culture. Those of us who came along later will never know quite how that felt.

Three of a kind x 5

"On Sacred Ground"  The Bad Plus perform Stravinsky's Rite of SpThe piano trio is the string quartet of jazz: a perfectly balanced structure, compact in scale but seemingly infinite in its possibilities. I’ve been mildly obsessed with it for the past few years, fascinated not just by its extraordinarily multifaceted history, from Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell via Herbie Nichols and Ramsey Lewis to the Necks and In the Country, but by the way it has so spectacularly mushroomed in popularity in recent years, resourcefully adapted by young musicians to express anything they feel like saying. The latest crop of piano-trio album releases is a good illustration of the scope the format offers, and the rewards it brings.

First among equals must be the interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by The Bad Plus, the American group known for bringing elements of classical technique and structure to the format of the jazz trio. Ethan Iverson, the pianist, Reid Anderson, the bassist, and David King, the drummer, began working on their arrangement of the piece, originally written in 1913 for a Diaghilev ballet, while engaged as artists in residence at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina four years ago, inspired by the composer’s own version for two pianos.

When I’ve seen The Bad Plus, I’ve been impressed by the vigorous muscularity of their collective attack. They don’t lack subtlety or a sense of intellectual inquiry, but the sheer force is what hits you first. That certainly suits The Rite of Spring, whose jaggedly emphatic, almost barbaric syncopations, echoed in Nijinsky’s choreography, were surely what aroused the anger of the first-night crowd at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées just over 100 years ago. And The Rite suits the musicians perfectly. Improvisation isn’t the point here: this isn’t Jacques Loussier doodling on a Bach prelude. What they bring to the piece is a jazz-derived working method and a set of instrumental timbres and techniques that enable us to look at it from another perspective. If the individual playing is magnificent, the totality — enhanced by Anderson’s sparing and always effective use of electronics — is superlative. Here’s an extract.

In a note accompanying the version conducted by the composer with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in 1962, Stravinsky described his reaction to that tumultuously historic first night but then added: “I remember with more pleasure the first concert performance… the following year, a triumph such as few composers can have known the like. Whether the acclaim of the young people who filled  the Casino de Paris was more than a mere reversal of the verdict of bad manners a year before is not for me to say, but it seemed to me much more.” Those young people, and Stravinsky himself, would surely have admired this latest interpretation, released by Sony Masterworks.

Phronesis are one of Europe’s most stimulating young trios: the bassist Jesper Hoiby, the pianist Ivo Neame and the drummer Anton Eger gobble up time, changes and melody with a ferocious appetite for discovery. All three contribute pieces to Life to Everything (Edition Records), their fifth album, recorded at the Cockpit in London during last year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. In terms of awesome trickiness and unpredictability, this is the state of the art; only occasionally do I have the uneasy feeling that this music might, with the wrong kind of encouragement, head off in the direction of prog-rock. Here’s a two-minute film from that gig which perhaps shows what I mean. But they deserve the whoops they elicited from their audience last November.

Very different in tone is Le Vent, the second ECM album by the trio of the Swiss pianist Colin Vallon. Assisted by Patrice Moret on bass and Julian Sartorius on drums, Vallon explores a series of pieces notable chiefly for their pensive lyricism. It would be easy to dismiss this as superior mood music, the soundtrack to a day spent watching raindrops gather on the window of some European café, but Vallon is after something more profound, always calibrating the touch and weight of his phrases with great emotional precision, abetted by the sympathetic and imaginative work of his colleagues. Most of the dozen pieces were written by the leader, but here’s a track composed by Moret, called “Juuichi”.

GoGo Penguin are a young Manchester trio — Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (bass), Rob Turner (drums) — whose music would fit in just about anywhere. They enjoy finding a groove, and they adore a nice chord cycle. You can feel the enthusiasm and the sense of self-discovery. V2.0 is their second album, released on the Gondwana label, and it will make them more friends. There’s not much depth to the music yet, but it will be interesting to see where they go. Here’s their film of a track called “Hopopono” (and I can’t help being amused by Illingworth’s resemblance to the young Manfred Mann, who would probably be doing something very much like this if he were GoGo Penguin’s age today).

Not surprisingly, some of the most adventurous piano trio music is coming out of Norway, and Moskus follow the example of In the Country, whose albums on Rune Grammofon and ACT I love. Moskus are Anja Laudval (piano), Fredrik Luhr Dietrichson (bass) and Hans Hulbækmo (drums), and their new album, Mestertyven, is their second for the Hubro label. Like its predecessor, 2012′s Salmesykkel, it’s distinguished by a mixture of seriousness and humour. They enjoy undercutting a simple tune with the occasional strange noise from the percussion department, but they never let silliness take over and some of the more intense pieces are exceptional. In the clenching phrases of the brief “Yttersvigen”, for example, you can hear how far one line of this music has come in a more or less straight progression from Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian taking “Milestones” apart at the Village Vanguard back in 1961. You’ll find “Yttersvigen” among their Soundcloud tracks here.

So there we are: five very different ways of approaching a format that was once dismissed as fit for nothing but the cocktail lounge. The story of the piano trio goes on, seemingly without end.

* Darryl Pitt’s photograph of The Bad Plus performing The Rite of Spring for the first time at Duke University in March 2011 is taken from Do the Math, Ethan Iverson’s fine blog: http://www.dothemath.typepad.com

Blown away in Dalston

Louis Moholo 1Listen to them play their hymn-like ballads, township dances, venerable standards, riff tunes, pop songs. Hear them move from one to the other in seamless but brilliantly negotiated transition, sometimes splintering the elements of one before introducing and blending in pre-echoes of the next. Experience the sensation of being blown away by the waves of emotion, whether overwhelmingly ecstatic or exquisitely refined. And most of all, perhaps, listen to the Louis Moholo Moholo Quartet to understand how, in this music, the individual and the collective can simultaneously attain equal importance: a most elevated state of being.

They returned to Café Oto in Dalston this week and once again there were long stretches of time during the evening when I found myself wondering why I would ever bother to listen to anything else. That’s not a response that withstands interrogation, but you probably know what I mean: on a really great live music occasion, that’s how it gets you. In this case it was justified by the sheer inclusiveness of the music made by Louis and his colleagues: Jason Yarde (saxophones), John Edwards (double bass) and Alexander Hawkins (piano). It seemed to contain just about everything you could ever want to hear. Again, a sort of illusion; but what a noble and magnificent one.

This is a band that forces you to drop whatever guard you had up when you arrived, and almost everything they played in their course of two long sets was a highlight. The bits I particularly remember included a surging version of Pule Pheto’s “Dikeledi Tsa Phelo”; a wonderful deconstruction of “If I Should Lose You”, composed by Ralph Rainger for the 1936 remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s Rose of the Rancho; a gorgeous irony-free version of “What a Wonderful World”; and one of the greatest of all modern jazz ballads, Dudu Pukwana’s “B My Dear”. The audience’s response was as wholehearted as the music.

All four musicians seemed to be operating at a level where personal freedom and group interdependence achieve a perfect unity. The way they negotiated the transitions made it very hard indeed to believe that they have played only a handful of gigs as a unit, with Moholo and Hawkins keeping a particularly sharp eye on each other as visual and verbal cues were exchanged. Yarde, who started both sets on a black-lacquered baritone saxophone before moving up the registers to alto and soprano, was consistently impressive, channelling the spirits of Bird and Dudu through his broad-grained sound. And what a treat it was to hear the mighty Edwards slip into passages of driving, huge-toned 4/4, walking his lines like Paul Chambers or Leroy Vinnegar.

You need big chops and big ears to play like this, and an even bigger heart.

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