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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

‘Real Enemies’ in London

Darcy James Argue KPDarcy James Argue’s Real Enemies is a piece for our time, unfortunately. The Canadian composer’s 90-minute suite for his Secret Society big band is a reflection of the creeping paranoia that began in the post-war years of Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and Area 51, and is once again in full spate.

Appropriate voice samples are triggered throughout the piece, but the tone is really set by DJA’s orchestrations for the instrumentation of five trumpets, four trombones, five reeds/woodwinds and four rhythm: the ensemble sonorities are hard, bright, emphatic and precise. Only the fine soloists — I particularly noted David Smith and Jonathan Powell on trumpets, Ryan Keberle on trombone, the altoists Dave Pietro and Rob Wilkerson, and the tenorist Lucas Pino — introduce a note of human vulnerability in the face of the complex workings of the busy machine.

Apart from the two women musicians (trumpeter Naadje Noordhuis and bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton), the members of his New York band wear their own suits and ties. Their expressions throughout the performance are blank, perhaps indicating only a concentration on the demanding score (I caught just one fleeting exchange of grins in the saxophone section). Whether this is an intended effect or not, it certainly enhances the atmosphere: they look like an FBI induction class, circa 1970. The composer’s brisk conducting technique never suggests emotion; the notes do that job.

At the beginning and near the end, the five trumpeters rose from their chairs en masse and stood with their backs to the audience, clustered together around the 9ft Steinway and playing down into its raised lid. Their tightly muted scribbles of sound, and their physical clustering, suggested a discussion of dark secrets: an effect both visually and musically dramatic.

Afterwards you wanted to go home and watch The Parallax View, Executive Action or Three Days of the Condor. DJA would have made a great job of scoring any of those films, which explored the subterfuges of the deep state in the early 1970s. Next, if he’s not sick of conspiracy theories, perhaps he could turn his attention to the Trump/Farage era and the influence of the Koch brothers, Steve Bannon and Breitbart, and Robert Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica.

As John Lewis pointed out in the Guardian the other day, this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival contains an unusual amount of political content, explicit and implicit. Real Enemies is one of the strongest of those statements; its specifics may be date-stamped, but its message is timeless and disturbing.

* The 2016 studio recording of Real Enemies by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is available on the New Amsterdam label.

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Petula Clark, 85

Petula ClarkPetula Clark turns 85 today. When I saw that information in the Birthdays column of the Guardian this morning, I thought immediately of an album called …in other words, recorded in 1962. That record, not her No 1 hit with “Downtown” two years later, is the reason I think fondly of her.

It’s Petula Clark’s jazz album, recorded over three nights at Olympic Studios in Barnes. She’s accompanied by the Kenny Powell on piano, Brian Brocklehurst  on double bass and Art Morgan on drums, plus Ray Davies on trumpet and Bill Le Sage on vibes. The album was probably intended to have a late-night vibe, although the freshness of Clark’s tone and the vivacity of her delivery remove it from that stereotype.

Her story is an extraordinary one, although probably taken for granted today. She began her performing career in 1942, a month before her tenth birthday, entertaining the overseas troops via BBC radio broadcasts. She sang for King George VI and Winston Churchill, and soon became a juvenile star of wartime films. In peacetime she became a recording artist, under the aegis of Joe “Mr Piano” Henderson, her mentor.

So far, so middle-of-the-road. But then, in late 1962, I heard …in other words; a neighbour’s son, a few years older than me, occasionally let me listen to his jazz albums, and this was a new acquisition, nestling among Dizzy Gillespie’s Greatest Trumpet of Them All, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at the Olympia in Paris (still my favourite live album of all time), and the first volume of Jacques Loussier’s Play Bach series.

Petula Clark was never going to be Billie Holiday or Betty Carter. But when you listen to her sing “Just You, Just Me” or “When Lights Are Low”, you hear someone who swings easily and naturally, who phrases beautifully, who controls her vibrato carefully, and who makes up in directness what she lacks in emotional profundity. I suppose there’s not much more depth here than there was in, say, Julie London, but she delivers ballads like Irving Gordon’s “Be Anything” or “There’s Nothing More to Say” (written by Henderson to mark the end of their relationship) with poise and an affecting simplicity.

Her accompanists are terrific. Powell gets in some cryptic bebop licks fore and aft of “Just You”, Brocklehurst swings hard, Morgan shows his hard-bop chops on Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “Gotta Have Me With You When You Go”, the great Le Sage excels on “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, and Davies — who later became the leader of the Button-Down Brass, and is the father of the producer Rhett Davies — pops up with solos of an excellence that would do credit to a Ruby Braff or a Joe Newman.

There’s humour, too, in perky versions of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” and “Mademoiselle de Paris”, and most of all in Robert Maxwell’s “George”, a ballad-tempo fragment that might have fallen from the worktable of Dorothy Parker, its entire lyric consisting of these lines: “You and I and George / Were walking through the park one day / And you held my hand / As if to say, ‘I love you.’ / Soon we reached a brook / And George fell in and drowned himself / And floated out to sea / Leaving you alone with me.” It has to be sung straight, without comic inflection, and Clark just about brings it off.

But the track that’s stayed with me most vividly over five and a half decades is Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Can Get Along Without You Very Well”. For this forerunner of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love”, Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time” and Donald Fagen’s “I’m Not the Same Without You”, Clark camouflages heartbreak with exactly the right air of Hepburn-like insouciance.

She was 29 when she recorded the 15 tracks that made up …in other words. Now she’s 85, and still singing. Many happy returns, Miss Clark.

It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful

Paolo Conte ticketIf the EFG London Jazz Festival were ever required to stand up in a court of law and produce a convincing justification for its existence, it could point to its habit of bringing Paolo Conte to the South Bank on a regular basis. Last night the 80-year-old former lawyer from Asti was greeted with applause so warm and prolonged that it practically stopped the show on several occasions and was brought to an end only when the singer drew a forefinger across his throat to indicate that there was no more to give.

While this most Italian of performers was doing his stuff, his footballing compatriots were failing to qualify for next summer’s World Cup finals for the first time in 60 years. For two hours, at least, the many Italians in the audience at the Festival Hall were spared that pain, and the lasting glow probably eased the subsequent anguish.

The show wasn’t very different in substance from the one I wrote about on his last visit, four years ago. Most of the favourites were there, including “Max”, “Sotto le Stelle del Jazz”, “Gli Impermeabili”, “Come Di”, a hurtling “Diabolo Rosso” and a wonderfully restrained “Alla Presa di Una Verde Milonga”. And, of course, “Via Con Me”, with which even the monoglot English could sing along — “It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, I dream of you…  Chips! Chips! Chips!” — and which reappeared as a coda to the evening.

The arrangements made full use of the versatility of his 10 musicians, switching constantly between a full range of saxophones (sopranino to baritone), clarinet and bassoon, accordion and bandoneon, violin, piano, marimba, drums, hand percussion, all resting on the base provided by three acoustic guitars and Jini Touche’s double bass. The short improvised solos were beautifully positioned, and the endings invariably cunning. The stage lighting, which cast equal illumination on all those playing at any given moment while leaving the rest in shadow, was brilliant.

Conte gave us his irresistible sandpapered croon, his brief vocal imitation of a trombone (his first instrument in childhood), and a snatch of kazoo. I don’t know anyone else who can do what he does, blending archaic forms and sounds — hints of Ellington’s Cotton Club band, chanson, Palm Court glide, tango, Hot Club of France swing, dolce vita and spaghetti western — into a genuinely modern music with such originality, such grace, such dignity.

The uncommon tenor

Lou GareLou Gare held his tenor saxophone aslant, like Lester Young, whose light-fingered articulation and disdain for the obvious he shared. Gare was born in Rugby but it was in Plymouth in the early 1960s that he first played with the band of the young Mike Westbrook, alongside the even younger John Surman. In London in 1965 he became a founder member, with Eddie Prévost, Cornelius Cardew and Keith Rowe, of AMM, one of the seminal groups of the first generation of British free improvisers. Lou was on their debut album, AMMMusic, recorded at Sound Techniques in Chelsea and released by Elektra Records in 1966. Six years later, with the group reduced to a Gare-Prévost duo, they performed at Harvey Matusow’s International Carnival of Experimental Sound event in London, their set released initially in part on an Incus EP as AMM at the Roundhouse and then in full on a Matchless CD under the same title.

In the 1970s Gare moved to Devon, where he worked as a teacher of Aikido, a modern Japanese martial art. There he played with the pianist Sam Richards in the band Synchronicity; he was also reunited with Westbrook, joining the latter’s locally based Uncommon Orchestra. This piece of film is from their performance at the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter in December 2014. Gare is featured throughout a 12-minute piece called “D.T.T.M.”, adapted from a section of Westbrook’s suite On Duke’s Birthday and dedicated to the trombonist Danilo Terenzi and the drummer Tony Marsh. It’s a quietly phenomenal performance, devoid of rhetoric but bursting with invention, the soloist’s thoughts unfurling at his own pace and expressed with a lovely laconic warmth. I don’t think I’ve heard a more subtly dramatic example of a tenorist working with a big band since Wayne Shorter emerged from the swirling mists of Gil Evans’ “The Barbara Song” in 1964.

Perhaps inspired by the example of Sonny Rollins, Gare was also a wonderful unaccompanied improviser, as he demonstrated on a Matchless album titled No Strings Attached in 2005 and in this clip from 2013. When he died on October 6, aged 78, British jazz lost a voice of quiet but resolute originality.

On a Monday night in Berlin

Andreas Schmidt bwIf you’re ever at a loose end in Berlin on a Monday night, my advice would be to head for A-Trane, the jazz club in Charlottenburg, where Andreas Schmidt, a pianist, composer and teacher at the city’s Jazz Institut, holds a weekly free-admission session featuring a changing cast of friends and students.

Last night he began his set with a quintet featuring two young tenor saxophonists, Nicholas Biello and Marc Doffey, the bassist Oliver Potratz and the drummer Ivars Aratyunun, playing a deceptive simply Schmidt original, “Closing Partners”, on which the instrumental combination and the all-round deftness and intelligence brought to mind Tony Williams’s first two Blue Note albums, Life Time and Spring, which teamed the tenors of Wayne Shorter and Sam Rivers.

Of the two saxophonists at A-Trane, Doffey had the lighter sound while Biello’s tone was darker and his delivery more intense. It was a lovely combination, and it worked equally well on the other number they played together, an abstraction of “All the Things You Are”, quite exquisitely supported by the rhythm section, before leaving the stage to other combinations for the rest of the evening.

Schmidt is a fine pianist, the salient features of his playing located somewhere between the Paul Bley of the mid-’60s and the Chick Corea of Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. You might get an idea of his approach if I say that his first album was made (in 1995) with Lee Konitz, and a later one comprised a duo with Gary Peacock. His music is cerebral, but on the evidence I’ve heard it never lacks wit and humanity.

Just two tunes by this ad hoc quintet, then, and a barely half an hour of music, but this was the sort of serendipitous encounter that, however much you loved jazz before, makes you love it even more.

‘Astral Weeks’ in Camden Town

Astral WeeksIf your name isn’t Van Morrison, it takes some kind of courage to tackle Astral Weeks, one of the sacred texts of the late ’60s. No one has ever really explained how the singer, his American musicians and Larry Fallon, the arranger and conductor, and his producer, Lewis Merenstein, came up with the unique blend of idioms that make the album so distinctive. Jazz, folk, rock and blues are all in there, but so thoroughly metabolised that the eight songs create, for the length of a long-playing record, an idiom of their own. In his lyrics, too, Morrison plunged head-on into a new world of poetic spirituality.

So when Orphy Robinson and the Third Eye All Stars presented the album at the Jazz Café last night, there was an element of risk. Morrison himself performed it in its entirety on a tour in 2009, but it was his right to do so, and he brought it off quite satisfactorily, although he couldn’t quite summon the magic that had occurred during three rushed days in the late summer of 1968, when he worked with musicians he didn’t know in a line-up that adhered to no known formula. The idea of someone else taking on this precious and delicate creation and trying to invent variations on its wild, hypnotic swirl of emotions seemed foolhardy, to say the least.

As it turned out, there was no need to worry. The 10-piece Third Eye band — Robinson on vibes and percussion, singers Joe Cang and Sahra Gure, flautist Rowland Sutherland, cellist Kate Shortt, Justina Curtis on electric piano, acoustic guitarists Mo Nazam and John Etheridge, bassist Neville Malcolm and drummer Mark Mondesir — chose not to attempt a radical reinterpretation of the material. They played it straight, content to infuse the music with their own freewheeling spirit.

A couple of solos — Sutherland on “Cyprus Avenue” and Robinson on “The Way Young Lovers Do” — brought the house down, while Malcolm and Mondesir did a fine job of following the template established on the original by Richard Davis and Connie Kay, who had no idea who Morrison was when they turned up for the sessions but found themselves devising a new application for their jazz chops in service of the grumpy little Irishman who barely spoke to them.

Neither Cang nor Gure attempted to imitate Morrison. They just sang the songs with a respect that did not prevent them from injecting their own energy into this hallowed material. I had never imagined that I would want to hear anyone singing “Madame George” other than its creator, but Cang — after successfully calling for quiet as the guitars strummed the intro — delivered it in a way that, like the whole evening, did no disservice to a high-wire masterpiece.

Art Ensemble at Cafe Oto

AEC Cafe OtoAmid the strangest weather in 30 years, with sand from the Sahara and dust from Iberian wildfires turning the air in London dark red at lunchtime on the hottest October 16th since records were first kept, there was another surprise awaiting the audience for the second of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s three sold-out nights at Cafe Oto this week.

We had bought tickets expecting the regular four-piece line-up of the current AEC: co-founder Roscoe Mitchell (saxophones) and long-time member Famoudou Don Moye (drums and percussion) plus trumpeter Hugh Ragin and double bassist Junius Paul. What we encountered was the band extended to a septet by the presence of Mazz Swift (violin and vocals), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Silvia Bolognesi (double bass, the only one not visible in the photograph above). It was a special treat.

As you would expect, the unbroken 80-minute performance was a mixture of the prepared and the spontaneous, moving easily through contrasting ensemble passages which gave way to solos from each of the participants. The extra string players never felt like a bolt-on extra: they were fully integrated into the ensemble, playing equal roles in the composed passages, in the textured backgrounds and in the long, boilingly intense collective improvisation which prefaced the sign-off with the familiar descending cadences of “Odwalla”.

Mitchell played an astonishing sopranino solo during which he manipulated rapid sequences of harsh cries against a sustained whistling sound. Ragin alternated between regular and pocket trumpets, four-valve cornet and flugelhorn with unfailing relevance. Paul’s wonderfully emotional solo and his fast walking 4/4 with Moye in one passage evoked the spirit of the late Malachi Favors. On the opposite side of the stage, Bolognesi responded with an improvisation making energetic use of the bow. Swift sang with restrained warmth and she and Reid both left, in their solos and in the ensemble, the impression of instrumentalists of great character and inventiveness, virtuosos of unorthodox techniques and startling effects that contributed to the overall scheme. Throughout the set Moye reminded us of what wonderfully subtle and propulsive drummer he is.

The two sustained standing ovations that greeted the end of the set and the brief hymn-like encore were the equal of anything I’ve heard at Cafe Oto. It was an unforgettable end to a day marked by natural wonders.

John Jack 1933-2017

John Jack 100 Club 1Jazz never had a more faithful friend than John Jack, who died on September 7 and whose life was celebrated at the 100 Club yesterday, following a committal at the Islington and Camden/St Pancras crematorium. Among those musicians and poets queuing up to pay tribute by through performance were Mike Westbrook and Chris Biscoe (pictured during their duet), Evan Parker and Noel Metcalfe, Jason Yarde and Alexander Hawkins, Steve Noble (with Hogcallin’, one of John’s favourite British bands), Pete Brown and Michael Horovitz. Many others were present, along with scores of faces familiar from countless nights in dozens of clubs down the years, all of us having trouble believing that we won’t be seeing John again with his beloved Shirley at their usual table in the Vortex.

It occurred to me the other day that John probably heard more great music than the rest of us put together, and he knew the value of it. I met him on my first night in London, one Monday in the autumn of 1969. Earlier in the day I had reported for work at the Melody Maker and was told to go and review Westbrook’s band at the 100 Club. It was one of many great Monday nights there over the next few years, and John was a fixture. Maybe those sessions were a continuation of the work he’d done while running the Old Place in Gerrard Street for Ronnie Scott and Pete King between 1965 and 1968, offering a home to the new developments led by the generation of Westbrook, Chris McGregor and John Surman.

“The last of the Soho anarchists” was how the humanist celebrant, Jim Trimmer, described him during the committal ceremony. John was that, and more. He had been a roadie for the Vipers skiffle group; he had tried his hand as a painter; he had worked at the 2 Is, where British rock and roll was born; he had spent time at the Beat Hotel in Paris; he had been a founder member of CND; and much, much more, long before I ever met him. While working at Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop he took a flat opposite, in Charing Cross Road, and there he stayed for the rest of his life — on the side of that lovely street that wasn’t torn down by developers.

I was privileged to be one of his pallbearers, along with Matthew Wright, Mike Gavin and Glyn Callingham, all three of whom had known him when they worked at Ray Smith’s jazz record shop in Shaftesbury Avenue, where John ran his Cadillac Records operation from the basement. His co-worker in that venture was the wonderful Hazel Miller, who had known him longer than any of us and sat alongside Shirley in the chapel. On a beautiful bright day up in East Finchley, it felt like the end of an era.

* Here’s John Fordham’s fine summary of John’s lifehttps://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/24/john-jack-obituary

Sandburg/Wilson

Carl Sandburg 2

Carl Sandburg

It’s National Poetry Day, and since I have a weakness for the much abused hybrid known as jazz and poetry that goes back to schooldays, this is a good excuse — if one were needed — to write about Matt Wilson’s new album, Honey and Salt, in which he sets the words of the poet Carl Sandburg to music.

Some people don’t like the star system of reviewing, but it was while reading the August edition of Down Beat in Ray’s Jazz Shop the other day that a five-star lead review sent me across the floor to search out a copy of Honey and Salt. It turned out to be a good tip.

Wilson, a fine drummer familiar in many contexts, whom I last heard with Liberation Music Orchestra, recruited an excellent band for this project: Ron Miles (cornet), Jeff Lederer (reeds and harmonium), Martin Wind (acoustic bass guitar), and Dawn Thompson, who plays guitar and sings on a handful of the 18 selections, plus an interesting group of readers better known as instrumentalists: Christian McBride, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Rufus Reid, Joe Lovano and Carla Bley. Oh, and the actor Jack Black.

Sandburg (1878-1967) won two Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry, and a third for a biography of Abraham Lincoln. He was from Knox County, Illinois, as is Wilson. Sandburg’s first cousin was married to Wilson’s great-great-aunt. While researching an essay on the poet during his college days, Wilson discovered Sandburg’s interest in jazz.

The poems are dry, pithy, witty and humane, some of them with a powerful resonance in the new century. Here’s one called “Choose”: “The single clenched fist lifted and ready, / Or the open asking hand held out and waiting. / Choose: / For we meet by one or the other.” And here’s one of his best known, called “Fog”: “The fog comes / on little cat feet. / It sits looking / over city and harbor / on silent haunches / and then moves on.” Wilson includes Sandburg’s own recording of “Fog”, accompanying the poet’s gentle voice with mallets on tom-toms.

The arrangements are unfailingly inventive, and the playing of the individuals — particularly the always brilliant Miles — is outstanding. The readers are all terrific, and to Bley falls the privilege of delivering, without accompaniment, the marvellous “To Know Silence Perfectly”: “There is a music for lonely hearts nearly always. / If the music dies down there is a silence / Almost the same as the movement of music. / To know silence perfectly is to know music.” On this evidence, their acute awareness of tone and cadence and expression makes jazz musicians great readers of poetry.

‘The Nightfly’ at Milton Court

The Nightfly at Milton CourtEven though it meant missing the first set of Michael Gibbs’ 80th birthday concert at the Vortex, the idea of hearing Donald Fagen’s first solo album played by the new intake of students on the jazz course at the Guildhall School on Monday night was impossible to resist. The Nightfly is a wonderful album, made by a man in early middle aged in the era of Reagan looking back at how things felt as the era of Eisenhower shaded into that of Kennedy, in that brief period of illusory optimism when prosperity and progress seemed to be the prevailing forces, before the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights marches and the Vietnam protests took over. I thought it might be interesting to see how it sounded in the era of a president whose name I don’t even want to type out on this blog.

Also I wanted to hear a bunch of young players. And first, as an hors d’oeuvre, came a succession of seven small groups under the supervision of their tutors — Tom Challenger, Yazz Ahmed, Gareth Williams, Gareth Lockrane, Robbie Robson, Barak Schmool and Stuart Hall — playing short pieces based on ideas suggested by the album, each group having the benefit of a mere three hours’ preparation. All were interesting, but my ear was caught most readily by a lovely Mingusian variation on a phrase from “New Frontier” played by Challenger’s septet and by Williams’s sextet arrangement of “Ruby Baby”, which soured the harmonies in a George Russell-ish way and provided space for cracking solos by the altoist saxophonist Albert Hills Wright and the trumpeter James Beardmore.

Introducing the evening, Scott Stroman, a professor in the jazz department since 1983, had reminded us: “These guys didn’t even know each other last week” — the start of the academic year. It hardly seemed possible. There were also fine individual contributions from the fiery tenor saxophonist Asha Parkinson, the astonishingly eloquent pianist Jay Verma, and the assured drummer Zoot Warren.

After the interval came the main course. Malcolm Edmonstone, the head of the Guildhall’s jazz programme, had transcribed and arranged the entire album for a group of 57 students, including 13 singers who shared the lead around and fleshed out the close harmonies, and a load of pianists, guitarists, bassists and drummers who alternated the rhythm section roles.

Under the precise, assertive and invigorating baton of Giles Thornton, the band soared through “I.G.Y.” on Mark Fincham’s confident bass lines, articulated the strut of “Green Flower Street” with crisp power, absolutely nailed the sublime hip-swinging arrangement of “Ruby Baby” (with Parkinson’s tenor again making its mark), glided through the yearning “Maxine”, hustled through “New Frontier” (although there doesn’t seem to be a chromatic harmonica player in the class of ’17), locked into the fingerpopping groove of “The Nightfly”, and sauntered and shuffled through “The Goodbye Look” and “Walk Between Raindrops”.

When you think about it, these young musicians were pitting themselves against the achievements of Marcus Miller, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, the Brecker brothers, Greg Phillinganes, James Gadson and the rest of the crew of first-call virtuosi assembled by Fagen back in 1982. The result was joy and exhilaration all the way, delighting the large audience of friends and family assembled in the concert hall at Milton Court.

(And I made it to the Vortex for the second half of Mike Gibbs’ birthday celebration with his 14-piece band, a glorious series of glowing set-ups for soloists like the trumpeter Percy Pursglove, the altoist John O’Gallagher and the guitarist Mike Walker. It was nice to think that some of this year’s Guildhall students will be carving out similar reputations before too long.)