When a drummer takes temporary leave from an established band, the absence can sometimes make people think harder about the importance of that individual’s contribution. Roy Haynes wasn’t a downgrade in any sense when he depped for Elvin Jones at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1963, but it may have strengthened a recognition of what Elvin had brought — and would bring again — to the John Coltrane Quartet. Ditto Jimmie Nicol’s short stay with the Beatles on a tour of Australasia in the summer of 1964, replacing Ringo Starr, who was having his tonsils removed. (When George Harrison was given the news, he threatened to pull out too: “If Ringo’s not going, then neither am I. You can find two replacements.”)
I thought of those examples while reading this week that Charlie Watts won’t be with the Rolling Stones on their forthcoming US dates. He’s undergoing surgery for an unspecified condition. It’s worth recalling that Charlie was already a Rolling Stone when Haynes replaced Jones and Nicol replaced Starr; as far as I know he has missed not a single one of the band’s live appearances since joining them in January 1963.
Charlie’s adventures outside the band have always been worth following, from the extraordinary big band he brought to Ronnie Scott’s in 1985 to the adventurous and fascinating percussion project with his friend Jim Keltner in 2000. For the last month or so I’ve been listening to an album that happens to be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year: Long Ago & Far Away, in which his quintet — Gerard Presencer (trumpet and flugel), Peter King (alto), Brian Lemon (piano), Dave Green (bass) –– and the singer Bernard Fowler are joined by the London Metropolitan Orchestra to perform arrangements by Lemon, King and Presencer of 14 standards from the American songbook.
These are great songs, and they’re handled with the appropriate respect. The opener, George and Ira Gershwin’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, is even treated to its proper out-of-tempo introduction (what used to be called the verse): “How glad the many millions / Of Annabels and Lillians / Would be / To capture me / But you had such persistence / You wore down my resistance / I fell / And it was swell…”
Fowler, a long-time Stones backing vocalist who has also recorded with Tackhead and Little Axe, pitches his vocals perfectly, somewhere between Bobby Short and Luther Vandross, with a pleasant tone and a well controlled vibrato. His voice rests easily on arrangements which tend to the lush and romantic but never get close to kitsch. The rhythm section is elegantly discreet (you’re hardly aware of Watts’s presence, which is how it should be) and the horns decorate the music perfectly, Presencer with a tone almost as gorgeous as the late, great Joe Wilder’s and King adding a dash of bitters to the smooth cocktail.
No, these fine versions of “Good Morning Heartache” and “What’s New” aren’t going to replace those by Holiday and Sinatra. But the whole thing runs together seamlessly, the arrangers the opportunity to liven things up with “In the Still of the Night”, which borrows its momentum from the version Gil Evans arranged for Charlie Parker, the group joined by the congas of Luis Jardim and the horns playing what sounds like a transcription of part of Bird’s original solo before King peels off into a variation of his own. “I’m in the Mood for Love” is delivered straight until Fowler gives us an extract from King Pleasure’s famous vocalese version of James Moody’s solo, in unison with Green’s pizzicato bass. For me, the only slightly unsatisfactory moment derives from the decision to take Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” at ballad speed rather than at the insouciant medium-up tempo that best sets off its sophisticated irony.
I was going to write about this album anyway, with a recommendation to those who don’t know it to file it alongside Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely and Holiday’s Lady in Satin, to be played in moments when those two harrowing masterpieces seem too intense. Let’s wish him all the best with the operation, in the hope that we see him back on the bandstand — whether in a stadium or a boîte — before too long.
* Charlie Watts’s Long Ago & Far Away was released in 1996 on the Virgin label. The photograph is from the accompanying booklet, and was taken by Jack English.