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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Jazz in the Round

Partisans 2On the last Monday of each month the broadcaster and radio producer Jez Nelson, probably best known as the front man of the BBC’s Jazz on 3, presents live jazz in an environment just about as close to ideal as it is possible to imagine. The series is called Jazz in the Round, and it takes place at the Cockpit Theatre in London NW8, where an audience of about 100 is seated on all four sides of the room while the musicians perform in the centre, on the floor.

If you choose to sit at the front, you can be close enough to lean over and turn the page of the pianist’s sheet music, or to stretch out a leg and operate the guitarist’s foot-pedal. It’s a remarkably intimate environment, and on both my visits I’ve been struck by the positive way the musicians respond to the unusual proximity of listeners who demonstrate a high degree of appreciation and concentration.

Nelson arranges each night in three parts. There’s a group of young musicians to start with, then a solo performer, and finally the headline act. This week the opening set was by a quintet playing the music of the alto saxophonist Tommy Andrews, drawn from their debut album, The Crux (here‘s a taste). Andrews graduated from the Guildhall in 2010 and formed the band the following year; his pieces are impressionistic, quite intricate, and show considerable promise.

The solo set came from the extrovert trombonist Ashley Slater, who has worn many hats since coming to notice with Loose Tubes in the 1980s. His idea of a solo performance was to bring along an iPad loaded with three backing tracks, over which he played (and sang a bit). There was a funky one, and a reggae one, and a townships one. He was generously received, but it didn’t seem quite the right response to the opportunity.

Last came Partisans, the quartet of the saxophonist Julian Siegel, the guitarist Phil Robson, the bass guitarist Thaddeus Kelly and the drummer Gene Calderazzo, formed 18 years ago to play the compositions of Siegel and Robson. This appearance marked the release of their fifth album, Swamp (Whirlwind), which shows them to be still exploring the possibilities available to such open-minded and spirited musicians (here‘s their new promotional documentary).

They played five of the album’s eight varied and carefully detailed pieces, infusing them with the fire and the willingness to tolerate rough edges that can be the difference between a record and a live performance. By enabling the players to face each other all the time, thereby focusing and intensifying the element of conversation, the in-the-round format seemed to open the music up.

If you look at the top of the picture, by the way, you’ll see a woman at an easel, painting Partisans as they play. That’s Gina Southgate, who produces a canvas for each performance. She’s been a fixture since the beginning of the series.

Now coming up to the end of its third year, Jazz in the Round has built a loyal and highly appreciative audience. Here‘s a very nice clip from the first edition, back in January 2012, featuring Black Top: Orphy Robinson, Pat Thomas and Steve Williamson. Orphy was in the audience this week. It’s that kind of gig.

City of Poets

City of Poets 3City of Poets is the name of a quintet led by two musicians from whom we’ll be hearing a lot more: the French pianist Cédric Hanriot and the American trumpeter Jason Palmer. The group is completed by three aces, the tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, the bassist Michael Janisch and the drummer Clarence Penn, and they appeared at the Pizza Express in London last night to perform their current project, a series of pieces titled The Hyperion Suite, jointly written by the two leaders and inspired by a sequence of novels — The Hyperion Cantos — by the science fiction writer Dan Simmons.

Each piece, Palmer told the audience, is based on one of the seven “modes of limited transposition” devised by Olivier Messaien. But the themes and settings he and Henriot devised are instantly beguiling and, although complex, not remotely academic: this is music with its roots in the Miles Davis Quintet of 1963-68, a combination of intellectual rigour, technical brilliance and graceful lyricism.

The solos were uniformly full of substance, and the structures ever-changing. The opener, for instance, began with a bass solo, moved into a classic trumpet-tenor-and-rhythm head, shifted into piano-trio mode, changed to a three-way improvisation for the two horns and the drums, morphed first into a tenor-bass-drums trio and then (with the addition of trumpet) into a pianoless quartet, and went out with what sounded like a variation on the first head.

Of the individuals, the North Carolina-born trumpeter was hugely impressive. If Ambrose Akinmusire is this generation’s Booker Little, Palmer might be the Freddie Hubbard, with the same bright strength but greater mobility and variation of phrasing, timbre and attack. Henriot comes out of Herbie Hancock, on the Bill Evans side: a player who never overplays his hand, but who, late in the evening, produced one solo that built to the sort of rocking climax in which Bobby Timmons specialised during his days with the Jazz Messengers.

McCaslin delivered several well-turned solos in the post-Shorter mode favoured by the majority of today’s young tenorists, and Janisch again showed his pronounced gifts of thoughtfulness and invention. I don’t understand why he switched for two tunes to the bass guitar, dialling in a distracting echo effect during his solos, but otherwise he was immaculate.

As for the phenomenal Penn, as sensitive and propulsive a drummer as you could wish to have in your band, he did something remarkable: nearing the climax of a McCaslin solo, he began a broken-rhythm figure on the snare drum, increasing its volume and stuttering intensity (the effect was like that of one of Art Blakey’s tidal-wave press rolls, refracted through smashed glass) until suddenly landing in intuitive unison with the saxophonist, like a pair of Olympic gymnasts nailing a dismount from the uneven bars with perfect synchronisation.

Full of such moments of delight and surprise, the evening was recorded for release on Janisch’s Whirlwind label. I can’t wait to hear it again.

* In the lo-fi photograph (left to right): Cédric Hanriot, Donny McCaslin, Mike Janisch and Jason Palmer.

Soft tissues

Artchipel Orchestra 3If you happen to be in Italy, and you get a move on, you can probably still buy the September issue of the monthly magazine Musica Jazz, which has a cover-mounted CD: Ferdinando Faraò & Artchipel Orchestra Play Soft Machine. For several reasons, this is a good thing to own.

Faraò set up the orchestra four years ago, with an unusual mission: to reinterpret the work of British jazz and jazz-rock composers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After making a start on Mike Westbrook, Fred Frith, Dave Stewart and Alan Gowen, he moved on to the Soft Machine. Most recently, in June, the orchestra’s guests at the Fasano festival were Keith and Julie Tippetts. Their leader obviously sees something he likes in the music being made in London during an all too brief era when young rock and jazz musicians worked freely together and anything seemed possible.

The CD that comes with Musica Jazz concentrates in particular on the compositions of the late Hugh Hopper, the Softs’ bass guitarist from 1968 to 1973. Five of Hopper’s tunes — “Facelift”, “Kings and Queens”, “Noisette”, “Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening” and “Moustrap” — are among the seven tracks on the 55-minute CD, which was recorded in a Milan studio last December. The other two are Faraò’s “Facelift: Prelude”, an atmospheric introduction to the set , and Robert Wyatt’s classic “Moon in June”, concluding the album in a loose but well organised interpretation featuring Filippo Pascuzzi and Serena Ferrara, two of the ensemble’s four singers.

Faraò and his fellow arranger, Beppe Barbera, aren’t making carbon copies of the originals here. They’re devising revisions that bring unusual resources to bear on the material, exposing facets of beauty that we might not have imagined to be present, even in embryo. To “Kings and Queens”, first heard on Soft Machine’s 4 in 1971, they bring the vocal quartet, a bass riff doubled by Simone Mauri’s bass clarinet, and colouristic interventions by Flavio Minardo’s sitar, Eloisa Manera’s violin and Paolo Botti’s viola. “Dedicated to You…”, which dates from 1969, is successfully rearranged for acapella voices in a treatment inspired by the Delta Saxophone Quartet’s version.

This band has improvisers of substance, too, as we learn from the thoughtful contributions of Germano Zenga’s tenor saxophone, Felice Clemente’s soprano and in particular Massimo Falascone’s unaccompanied alto on an expansive reading of “Noisette”, which Hopper wrote in 1969 and which first appeared on the Softs’ Third in 1970.

I’ve been listening recently listening to Hopper’s solo album, 1984 (released in 1973), and to Canterburied Sounds, the four-CD set of archive material recorded between 1962 and 1972 in mostly informal situations by the various early members of the Softs, and released in full last on the Floating World label. The Artchipel Orchestra’s album presents another perspective on the work of a fascinating musician, and deserves a proper commercial release.

(Addendum: See Alessandro’s reply for information on how to get hold of the relevant issue of Musica Jazz.)

* The photograph of Ferdinando Faraò and the Artchipel Orchestra was taken by Angela Bartolo at the Ah Um festival in Milan in 2011 and is taken from the band’s website: https://sites.google.com/site/artchipelorchestra/

 

 

Gerald Wilson 1918-2014

Gerald Wilson PortraitsThe news of Gerald Wilson’s death this week at the age of 96 reminds us of the sheer scale of his career: he wrote his first arrangement in 1939 (for Jimmie Lunceford) and was still making fine records with his own large ensemble well after the turn of the millennium. In between times he produced an enormous amount of worthwhile music, as is recounted in a good Los Angeles Times obituary by Don Heckman here. But three albums that he made with his own big band for Pacific Jazz in the early ’60s — You Better Believe It!, Moment of Truth and Portraits — have always been particularly precious to me, for the way they blend the influences of Duke Ellington and Gil Evans with a receptiveness to then-current developments in modal jazz and the avant-garde, and for the presence of a bunch of smoking soloists.

Wilson wrote music that swung hard, but he never disengaged his brain or his imagination — Portraits includes tracks dedicated to Aram Khachaturian, Ravi Shankar and Eric Dolphy — and he provided a stimulating framework for such hand-picked improvisers as the trumpeter Carmell Jones, the trombonist Lou Blackburn, the altoist Jimmy Woods and the tenorists Teddy Edwards and Harold Land.

Here’s a clip from the episode of Frankly Jazz, a Hollywood TV show sponsored by Pacific Jazz, that featured Wilson’s band. It shows them performing a snatch of “Blues for Yna Yna”, the hit tune from You Better Believe It! (on which it featured the organist Richard “Groove” Holmes), before going into Wilson’s storming arrangement of Miles Davis’s “Milestones”, from Moment of Truth. The leader picks up his trumpet to kick off a solo sequence that also features Buddy Collette on alto, Blackburn on trombone, Edwards on tenor and Jack Wilson on piano. The drummer is Mel Lewis, the bassist is Jimmy Bond and other recognisable faces include the altoist Joe Maini and the baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz.

If you want more, here’s Wilson’s original version of “Viva Tirado“, also from Moment of Truth, with Joe Pass on guitar and Carmell Jones on trumpet. It’s how one part of LA sounded in 1963. Still pretty hip, if you ask me.

* The photograph of Gerald Wilson is from the cover of Portrait and was taken by Woody Woodward.

Strings attached

Bird with strings 2Charlie Parker’s album with strings was the record that persuaded Gilad Atzmon to become a jazz musician. “Now I wish I’d never heard it,” the Israeli-born, London-based alto saxophonist and bandleader announced at Ronnie Scott’s last night, giving his listeners a reminder of the sort of sardonic humour not regularly heard at 47 Frith Street since the club’s founder died in 1996.

Supervised by Norman Granz in 1949, and also featuring oboe, French horn and harp along with a five- or six-piece string section, the Bird with Strings sessions broadened Parker’s audience but were despised by critics. You can see why: on the face of it, this is the equivalent of covering a monastery refectory’s fine, plain oak table with a fancy lace cloth. And there’s no Bud Powell or Dizzy Gillespie or Max Roach to interact with the greatest improviser of his age. But the weird thing is how great the records sound today: Parker, who never spoke ill of the project, soars above the background, his inventions dizzyingly crammed with substance and always propelled by that extraordinary life-force.

Atzmon was performing some of the pieces from those recordings with his quartet, the Orient House Ensemble (Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on bass and Chris Higginbottom on drums), and the Sigamos Quartet (violinists Ros Stephen and Marianne Haynes, viola-player Felix Tanner and cellist Laura Moody). Stephen’s arrangements update the work done on the original sessions by Jimmy Carroll and Joe Lipman, making effective use of the pared-down resources and creating a strong bond between the two sides of what is in effect a double quartet. They recorded some of them in the same format on Atzmon’s album In Loving Memory of America in 2009, and the following year Atzmon and Stephen joined Robert Wyatt on For the Ghosts Within, where the ghosts included the spirit of Bird with Strings.

At Ronnie’s they featured “Everything Happens to Me”, “April in Paris” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, all of which featured Atzmon’s pungent sound and urgent triple-time flurries, with Harrison’s delicate soloing providing the occasional oasis of calm reflection. Unlike those pieces, which remained close to the approach and mood of the Parker recordings, “If I Should Lose You” contained noir-ish sound effects from the string quartet while “What Is This Thing Called Love” came retrofitted with a trip-hop beat and deadpan string riffs. Several of Atzmon’s own compositions also varied the mix, including one called “Moscow”, from a recent album devoted to portraits of major cities, its hint of bombast capturing the sometimes oppressive ambiance of the Russian capital.

They finished with a piece that is, as Atzmon observed, one of the most beautiful of all jazz-associated tunes: David Raksin’s “Laura”, composed for Otto Preminger’s 1945 movie but transformed four years later into a vehicle for Parker’s genius, and the perfect way to end an enormously enjoyable evening of homage and rebirth.

* The photograph of Charlie Parker with his string players is taken from Gary Giddins’s book Celebrating Bird (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987), where it was used by permission of Maely Daniele Dufty and the Bevan Dufty Collection. 

Marius Neset / Trondheim Jazz Orchestra

http://youtu.be/watDRZJLB6U

It was a liberating moment for large jazz ensembles in general when Carla Bley and Charlie Haden decided, while putting together the first Liberation Music Orchestra album in 1968, that big bands no longer had to operate according to a policy of strict precision. The informality of the amateur bands assembled for Balkan weddings, Sicilian funerals or Andalucian saints’ day parades seemed more appropriate to the spirit of jazz than the militaristic discipline associated with, say, the Buddy Rich Orchestra. It was something that Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus had always known, but they were thought to be exceptions to the rule that if you have four trumpeters, they should start and finish a phrase as if they were four mouthpieces attached to a single instrument, rather than the voices of four individuals.

Something similar happened in rock music when the Band came along. The voices of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm were distinct from each other, each with its own tone and grain. This cross-textured quality set their harmonies apart from those of, say, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons, who aimed to produce a unified, homogenised choral sound.

I was thinking about that while listening to the saxophonist Marius Neset and the 11-piece Trondheim Jazz Orchestra perform pieces from their recent ACT album, Lion, at Ronnie Scott’s last night. These conservatory-trained Norwegians are phenomenal technicians, and the compositions Neset has provided for them are complex and challenging, to say the least, but the collective attack of the ensemble has nothing to do with nanosecond exactness and everything to do with the human element of a dozen people playing together. That humanity was the overriding impression left by an hour and a half of exceptional music.

The breadth and subtlety of Neset’s writing for this usual ensemble (two trumpets, trombone, tuba, three saxophones, accordion, piano, bass and drums) demonstrates that he is a musical thinker of great qualities, with a gift for unexpected combinations of instrumental timbres that is handed down from Ellington and Gil Evans (the opening of the ballad titled “Raining”, for instance, was ravishing). His long, often discursive pieces left plenty of room for solos by each of the musicians, all of whom made handsome use of the opportunity. Eivind Loning’s trumpet multiphonics, Eirik Hegdal’s rampaging baritone saxophone (imagine John Surman after swallowing a bag of rusty nails), Jovan Pavlovic’s delicate accordion and Espen Berg’s discreet piano — occupying a clearing that suddenly appeared in the middle of the otherwise densely eventful “Weight of the World” — were outstanding. The individual highlight of the whole night, however, was a long, long bass solo by Petter Eldh, whose energy and inventiveness seemed inexhaustible; somewhere inside my head, his sprung rhythms were still unwinding themselves the next morning.

I don’t think Neset himself is a great improviser yet. He has all the equipment, but in the arc of his solos and his mannerisms — the horn comes out of his mouth and his left hand flies off the keys at regular intervals, while his blond hair flops rather fetchingly as his body flexes in ecstasy — he’s less like a conventional jazz musician than a lead guitarist in a prog-rock band, whose playing always has to build inexorably to a climax guaranteed to lift listeners from their seats. Which, in his case, it does. But once a night is enough. After that it begins to feel predictable. At 29, however, he has time on his side.

The New Yorker vs Sonny Rollins

Sonny RollinsI grew up reading Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker, admiring the work of a writer who, with infinite sensitivity and imagination, used words to evoke the sound and humanity of jazz and of the individuals who played it. Balliett died in 2008, aged 80; whenever I open his Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, I learn something about how to listen and how to write.

So it was with horror that I read the other day, on the New Yorker‘s website, a spoof interview with Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophonist. Under the headline “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words”, someone calling himself Django Gold invented an interview in which the musician trashes his own life and work in the most caustically dismissive terms. Here it is.

A lot of people were upset, leading to the insertion of the italic paragraph indicating that the piece was intended to be a work of satire. But damage had been done, and not all of it can be undone by hurried clarifications. On their respective blogs, the trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the critic Howard Mandel expressed their anger with considerable eloquence.

I associate myself with their sentiments. Whether or not Rollins is one of your favourite saxophonists, few have worked with greater dedication to extend a command of both instrumental technique and the idiom’s inner workings. In this connection it’s still worth reading Gunther Schuller’s ground-breaking essay “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation”, published in the first issue of the short-lived Jazz Review in 1958. Whatever its intention, Django Gold’s piece insults a great and much revered artist.

Rollins, who turns 84 next month and has not been in great health lately, was given the chance to express his feelings in a video interview with Doug Yoel. It’s half an hour long and sometimes repetitive, but stick with it. Looking back over a career that began in the late 1940s, Rollins says he remembers articles proclaiming “Jazz is dead” in magazines every five or 10 years throughout that time. “Jazz has been mocked, minimalised and marginalised throughout its history,” he says. Now Django Gold and the editors of a magazine’s website have done their bit. Jazz is still a part of New York, but evidently no longer an important part of the New Yorker.

Zen archer

Charles Lloyd 1There’s a poignant moment during Arrows into Infinity, a new biographical film about Charles Lloyd, when the saxophonist recalls a conversation by the bedside of his old friend and colleague Billy Higgins in 2001. The great drummer, who is close to death, declares that they’ve got to keep working on the music. “He’s like 90lb,” Lloyd says. “I said, ‘Are you going to get off this bed and come back and play with me?’ He said, ‘I didn’t say I’d be there, but I’ll always be with you.'”

Lloyd is a spiritual man, which accounts for his absence from music for several years in the 1970s. In conventional career terms, his withdrawal made no sense. His late-’60s quartet, with Keith Jarrett on piano, had sold plenty of records and made connections beyond the usual jazz audience; they had played the Fillmore and toured behind the Iron Curtain. He had appeared as a guest on recordings by the Beach Boys (Holland, 15 Big Ones, MIU) and the post-Morrison Doors (Full Circle). Nevertheless he chose to drop out, in response to the music industry’s unwelcome expectations. “They wanted me to become a product,” he says in the film. “And to become a product, I would have to be predictable. I wasn’t looking for fame or fortune. I was looking for the zone, the holy grail of music. That was my salvation, because I had heard it and I knew what it was. That was my saviour. It was the light.”

He moved from Malibu to Big Sur, married an artist named Dorothy Darr, and established a different sort of life, his performing for a while largely restricted to playing the oboe at readings by his neighbours Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder. Not until 1980 did the French pianist Michel Petrucciani pay him a visit and entice him back to the public stage. Since then he has re-established himself as an important figure, recording a series of albums for the ECM label, where he was teamed first in a quartet with the pianist Bobo Stenson and then with other partners including Higgins, the guitarist John Abercrombie, the pianist Geri Allen, the tabla master Zakir Hussain and the singer Maria Farantouri.

His current quartet features Jason Moran (piano), Ruben Rogers (bass) and Eric Harland (drums), young men who clearly relish their interaction with a veteran whose sound and ideas become more exquisitely distilled with each passing year. It’s a fine band, a perfect setting for his breadth of vision. Here they are at a French jazz festival in 2011, giving Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No” a rather different treatment.

Born in Memphis in 1938, Lloyd listened to Lester Young and Charlie Parker as a teenager and played R&B with Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Parker before leaving for Los Angeles. I first heard him as a key member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet of 1962-63, one of my favourite groups of the time. Lloyd wrote virtually all of the group’s material, which — like his own tenor-playing — took its inspiration from John Coltrane’s innovations and marked a fruitful change of direction for Hamilton, away from chamber jazz and towards something more robust. The distinctive flavour of the quintet’s sound came from the guitar of Gabor Szabo, who loved drones and could summon the effect of a sitar, a koto, an oud or a saz, blending particularly well with Lloyd’s flute. They made three albums as a quintet — Drumfusion for Columbia, Passin’ Thru for Impulse and A Different Journey for Reprise — and one as a quartet, Impulse’s Man from Two Worlds, which also included the first version of Lloyd’s “Forest Flower”, which became a hit for his own quartet a few years later.

The recordings with Hamilton are all available on CD, and Passin’ Thru remains one of my favourite albums of the era, not least thanks to the powerful grooves sustained by the phenomenal young bassist Albert Stinson. Here’s a track called “El Toro”, which shows why Stinson was good enough to sub for Ron Carter with Miles Davis and would surely have become a major figure on his instrument had he not died from a heroin overdose while touring with Larry Coryell in 1969, aged 24.

Drugs were another reason why Lloyd dropped out. “I hit a wall and I couldn’t really function,” he says. “At a certain point I began to suffer musically and I began to suffer spiritually. I had to go away.” His studies in philosophy and religion got him through it, with the help of Dorothy Darr, who has produced and directed Arrows into Infinity with Jeffery Morse, gathering historic TV and concert footage from the ’60s (London, Newport, Antibes, Tallinn etc), film of recent performances with the current quartet, and of duets with Billy Higgins, giving us a chance to enjoy again the drummer’s matchless sense of swing and unforgettable smile. There are interviews with Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Robbie Robertson, Jim Keltner, Don Was, Zakir Hussain, Geri Allen and many others — including, amazingly, Lewis Steinberg, the original bass player with Booker T and the MGs, who knew the young Lloyd in Memphis. There’s also a delightful sequence of Lloyd playing pool with Ornette Coleman; the two were friends in LA in the ’50s.

Lloyd himself, however, is the most interesting witness to the journey that took him from Howlin’ Wolf to Zakir Hussain. The film tells a fascinating story of survival and self-realisation in which his gentle wisdom is as impressive as his music.

* The photograph of Charles Lloyd is from the booklet accompanying Arrows into Infinity, which is released by ECM.

 

Vibes man

Bobby HutchersonThe last time I saw Bobby Hutcherson, during a short season at Ronnie Scott’s in 2009, I came away convinced that he is the finest living ballad player in all of jazz. It was a Saturday night, the club was packed, and not every member of the audience could have been relied upon to recite the titles of his early Blue Note albums in sequence. Barely seeming to touch the vibes as he spun out glorious melodic variations on “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”, “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and other beautiful songs, he held the place in a spellbound silence purely through the beauty of his turn of phrase. A similar subtlety informed his performance of several John Coltrane tunes drawn from his then-current album, titled Wise One — after one of those tunes — and released on the Kind of Blue label.

The ulterior motive for my presence that night was to persuade Hutcherson to talk to me about the trumpeter Dupree Bolton. He was courteously reluctant at first, but eventually gave way and presented me with a long and colourful account of their association back when the vibes man was a teenager and still at school while playing in a band with Bolton, Frank Morgan and Elmo Hope at the It Club in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. When I get around to writing my book about Dupree (a promise to myself, if to no one else), that story will find its way into the public domain.

His playing has always been important to me. Andrew Hill’s Judgment!, on which he played in a quartet completed by Richard Davis and Elvin Jones, is probably my favourite Blue Note album of all. His contributions to Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond and Destination Out!, Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Grant Green’s Idle Moments and Street of Dreams and his own Happenings — one of the great Sunday-morning albums — and the superlative Oblique, all recorded for that same label in the mid-1960s, are records I wouldn’t be without, largely thanks to him. But almost anything with his name on it, whether he’s stroking the contours of a ballad or feeling his way out on to a musical precipice, has always been worth hearing.

That night when I went to see him at Ronnie’s, emphysema was forcing him to leave the stage every 10 minutes or so to take a hit from his oxygen tank. It had no effect whatsoever on his playing, which was of the very highest quality. He’s 73 now, and the respiratory condition has apparently taken foreign travel off the schedule, but it has not stopped him playing occasional club dates in the US and making some extremely fine records.

The latest of them is called Enjoy the View, and it finds him back home on the revived Blue Note label, under the supervision of its new president, Don Was. Anyone fearful that Was’s background might compromise the jazz content of the label’s new releases can stop worrying now: this album is nothing but jazz, coming from a lovely and completely uncompromised place somewhere between the more adventurous and the more conservative examples of his earlier Blue Note output.

Hutcherson is joined by the organist Joey DeFrancesco, the alto saxophonist Dave Sanborn and the drummer Billy Hart: it’s a line-up from heaven, playing a bunch of originals (by all participants except Hart) which combine fine grooves with the sort of acute melodic and harmonic angles likely to provoke thoughtful improvisers into producing their best work. I can’t really pick out an individual contribution because they’re all exceptional, although perhaps I should say that this is the best I’ve ever heard Sanborn play, and detail inside Hart’s propulsive drumming will astonish those who’ve never listened to him properly.

Recorded at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood by Frank Wolf, the album has a clarity, depth and warmth that, even on CD, evokes the matchless sound Rudy Van Gelder bestowed on all the legendary sessions held for Blue Note at his place in Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: a special quality for which the label became famous.

I read a review in an American publication that awarded this album three stars (out of five) and dismissed it as run-of-the mill-stuff. I can’t buy that. This is a very good Bobby Hutcherson album, which means it’s as good as it gets. Here’s one of the gentler tracks, a Hutcherson composition called “Montara”, so you can decide for yourself.

* The photograph is from the cover of Bobby Hutcherson’s For Sentimental Reasons, released in 2007 on the Kind of Blue label, and was taken by Jimmy Katz.

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.

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