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Posts tagged ‘Ronnie Scott’s’

Sarah Tandy at Ronnie Scott’s

Sarah Tandy at RS 1

The first time I heard the pianist Sarah Tandy in person, with Camilla George’s band at the Vortex, I was struck how far she went inside the music. As she improvised, mind and body seemed completely engaged at an unusually deep level. I’ve heard her a number of times now —  with Maisha, with her own trio and with the quintet with which she launched her debut album in London last night — and that impression remains just as strong.

Her keyboard technique is pretty impressive. She was a prodigy in the classical field — a finalist in the BBC’s young musician of the year competition — before turning to jazz while studying Eng Lit at Cambridge. As an improviser, therefore, she can make her hands do pretty well anything her mind suggests. In jazz, this is not invariably an advantage. But what Tandy does at all times, however fast her fingers are flying, is to convey a sense of soul and lyricism. It was no surprise to me when she mentioned, during a conversation a couple of years ago, that she admires Wynton Kelly, a pianist whose ability to convey joy through his playing was second to none.

Last night she led a band consisting of Sheila Maurice-Grey on trumpet, Binker Golding on tenor, Mutale Chashi on double bass and bass guitar, and Femi Koleoso on drums. That’s the line-up heard on her album, Infection in the Sentence, which is released at the end of this week by Jazz re:freshed. When she asked Ronnie Scott’s if she could launch the album at the club, she was shocked to be offered two 45-minute sets. “The album’s only 50 minutes long,” she told the audience, “so we’re going to have to get creative.”

It’s hard to imagine them being anything else. Tandy’s tunes were consistently stimulating — particularly the extended opener, “Under the Skin”, which included a ferocious section of very fast straight-time blowing and ended with a delicate fade. For “Timelord” she switched to electric piano, locating an irresistible late-night/big-city groove. Her rousing arrangement of “Afro-Blue” was more Mongo Santamaria (who wrote it) than John Coltrane (who made it famous); a packed house loved it, responding to the relaxed interaction between the musicians, and to the sense that although the music is serious, it’s still fun to play like this.

When she had a residency for her trio at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston, I used to wait for her to play “Everything Happens to Me”, the Matt Dennis/Tom Adair ballad first recorded by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey in 1940, an exceptionally beautiful and poignant song with which she seemed to have a special rapport. She didn’t play it last night, but she did open the second set with her own “Half Blue”, a graceful solo piano piece which demonstrated the qualities of touch and voicing that help to make her so special.

She also loves to hit a groove, and there was a lot of that last night. It never lacked subtlety, thanks to the endlessly inventive Koleoso — who blends Billy Higgins’s floating grace with Alphonse Mouzon’s brusque power, adding flourishes of his own — and the excellent Chashi, who manipulated his bass guitar on a couple of tunes with the purring authority of Marcus Miller.

A motif of both sets was the way pieces often ended with a long, carefully improvised collective diminuendo tapering to silence; so much more dramatic than a crash-bang-wallop coda. And at the end of the night the groove changed, with Maurice-Grey singing “You Are My Sunshine”: not the way Ray Charles or Sheila Jordan and George Russell did it, but with a New Orleans second-line feel. A terrific night, and a launch that should give impetus not just to a single album but to an important career.

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. 

Allen Toussaint takes requests

Allen ToussaintSomething magical happened at the very end of Allen Toussaint’s solo show at Ronnie Scott’s last night. A very enthusiastic fan in the front row, who had been permitted to sing most of the lead vocal on “Brickyard Blues” earlier in the set, invited Toussaint to play “On Your Way Down” — a song that appeared on his album Life Love & Faith in 1972 and was unforgettably covered by Little Feat on Dixie Chicken a year later — as his encore. The great man complied, and immediately led us into territory we had not visited in the preceding hour and a half.

Much of his performance — including a medley of the hits he wrote for Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman and Lee Dorsey in the early ’60s, and other classics such as “Shoorah, Shoorah”, “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley”, “Yes We Can”, “Southern Nights” and “What Do You Want the Girl to Do” — had been genial, expansive, discursive, showcasing his wonderfully witty and flexible New Orleans-bred piano playing. There was also a sweetly elegiac rendering of Jesse Winchester’s heartbreaking “I Wave Bye Bye”, which Toussaint recorded for the tribute album to the singer-songwriter last year, and a gorgeously plain “St James Infirmary”, as heard on his most recent album, The Bright Mississippi (2009).

But the encore was something different. For a couple of minutes we were transfixed by a 76-year-old master’s journey to the essence of the music with which he has lived his life: to the heart of the blues, of which “On Your Way Down”, with the sober elegance of its contours and its wry reflection on the human condition, is one of the very greatest examples.

A weekend with Booker T

Booker T

It was a warm evening, and the air conditioning had packed up. An hour before midnight last Friday, Ronnie Scott’s Club was like a sauna. “That’s when it started to feel authentic,” Booker T Jones would say later. “Just like the places I used to play.” But the air-con failure wasn’t the only good omen.

When there’s a Hammond organ in the house, the best place to be is as close as possible to one of its Leslie speakers — those pieces of wooden furniture, the size and shape of a small refrigerator, containing rotating horns which, at the flick of a switch, provide the instrument with its distinctive and heart-stirring whirr and churn.

It’s a lesson I learnt during my teenage years, when the clubs were small and the stages were low and you could get up close to the likes of Georgie Fame, Graham Bond and Zoot Money. So I was extremely pleased when the maitre d’ at Ronnie’s led me to a seat at the side of the stage, a few feet away from one of the two Leslies hooked up to Booker T’s B3. What would normally have been a rather indifferent vantage point suddenly seemed like the best spot in the house.

Booker T Jones is one of my all-time heroes. Like many, I remember the thrill of hearing “Green Onions” for the first time; its special magic has never faded. And its B-side, a sinuous slow blues titled “Behave Yourself” (originally intended as the A-side), hinted at other dimensions of musicianship. As the years passed I discovered that every note he recorded was worth hearing. All the original MGs’ Stax albums, from Green Onions in 1962 to Melting Pot in 1971, contained something wonderful — and I’m very fond of the two reunions that followed Al Jackson Jr’s tragic death, Universal Language (Asylum, 1977) and That’s the Way It Should Be (Columbia, 1994), with Willie Hall, Steve Jordan and James Gadson replacing the peerless Jackson at the drums. Booker went on to prove, with Bill Withers’ Just As I Am in 1971, Willie Nelson’s Stardust in 1978 and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s Deep River in 1992, that he is a producer of marvellous sensitivity. He remained a wonderfully sympathetic sideman, too: for the proof of that, just listen to “Sierra”, a gorgeous song from Boz Scaggs’s 1994 album, Some Change.

So he’s someone I always look forward to seeing, and on Friday — at the second of four nights (and eight shows) on Frith Street — he delivered a 75-minute set that ranged through his entire history, from that imperishable first hit (recorded when he was a 17-year-old high school student) and the MGs’ great “Hip Hug Her” through Stax/Volt favourites like “I’ve Been Lovin’ You Too Long”, “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Hold On, I’m Comin'” to pieces from his recent albums: “Hey Ya” from Potato Hole, “Walking Papers” and “Everything is Everything” from The Road From Memphis, and “Fun”, “Feel Good ” and “66 Impala” from the new one, Sound the Alarm. His three-piece band, recruited from the Bay Area, supplied plenty of energy and all the right licks. He sang a bit, in a range-limited voice, and played guitar on a few of the tunes. But when he let the Hammond and the Leslies rip on an encore of “Time is Tight”, the speaker horns spinning faster inside those plywood cabinets, I was somewhere close to heaven.

On Saturday afternoon he returned to the club for a question-and-answer session in front of an audience, showing himself to be a thoughtful and genial man. Sitting at the Hammond, he played snatches of “Green Onions” and “Ain’t No Sunshine”, and just a handful of bars from each was enough to send a thrill through his listeners. Among the things we were told was that Ray Charles’s “One Mint Julep” was the record which led him to conclude that the electric organ would shape his destiny. And there was an interesting answer to a question from my friend Martin Colyer (check his blog: http://www.fivethingsseenandheard.com), who wanted to know how he had come to play bass guitar on Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in 1973. As part of his explanation, Booker told us that he had first been recognised in the Memphis music community through playing bass in the house band at the Flamingo Room on Beale Street, and at that stage — despite his proficiency on keyboards, oboe, clarinet, baritone saxophone and trombone — it was as a bass player that he originally expected to make his career.

Four years ago, when the magnificent Potato Hole came out, I interviewed Booker for the Guardian (it’s here, accompanied by Eamonn McCabe’s fine photograph, taken the same day). Meeting your heroes for the first time is always a perilous business, but I came away from the encounter feeling I now admired the man as much as the musician.

Some bits of the interview didn’t make it into the paper, for reasons of space, so here, for the first time, are his remarks on a couple of topics. First, I asked him whether, as a teenage musician with an inquiring mind in the clubs of Memphis, he’d been familiar with the generation of gifted local modern jazz players that had included the saxophonists Frank Strozier and George Coleman, the trumpeter Booker Little and the pianist Harold Mabern. His answer was unexpectedly illuminating.

“I did,” he said. “They were two or three years ahead of me. Same town, same neighbourhood. I knew who they were. We went through the same doors. But I reached a day, one day, I don’t remember exactly when it was, that I had to ask myself, ‘Can I do this? Will I, in my lifetime, be able not only to play the music but live the lifestyle? Is that who I am?’ I realised, no, it’s not who I am. That’s who Jimmy Smith is, or John Coltrane. I don’t have the resolve, I don’t have the discipline. But even if I did, is that me? No, because I also like to play piano and guitar and trombone and I like to arrange and I also like country music and classical music — so I’m somebody else. I’m not that. And I stopped the pursuit at an early age.

“It broke up some friendships that I had, but I knew it was the right thing for me to do. A very close friend said to me, ‘What are you doing, man? How can you go over to Stax and play that stuff? Is it the money?’ If I’d been hanging out with a Sonny Stitt, that’s what he would have said to me. It was like a club, almost. I talked to Herbie Hancock about it, and to the bass player Stanley Clarke, and I know I couldn’t have done it. I’d have been able to get the technical chops, with practice, but I couldn’t have lived the lifestyle.”

So instead of another Memphis bebopper, we got a man capable of creating something like the arrangement of Willie Nelson’s “Georgia On My Mind”, its wonderful simplicity capped by a coda in which the rhythm and strings are joined by a horn section, vamping gently through the fade-out. He was delighted when I mentioned it as a special favourite.

“I’m so glad you said that,” he responded, “because it took so much time and money to put that on, but I could not get away from the inclination to do that. We went through the whole song with just the band and some strings, but at the very end I just needed to do that. It was expensive — a full complement of horns, and I don’t think we did any other songs at the session. It was an indulgence. At the time it wasn’t a big-selling record. It was a little bit of a struggle and I really appreciate that you like it.”

Even when he adds a horn section to the budget, however, the idea of excess is completely alien to Booker T’s temperament. He is a musician whose presence guarantees a measure of restraint and economy, the hallmarks of all those wonderful MGs records. “I don’t think it could have been any four guys,” he said of the band with whose name his own will be forever linked. “The one thing we had in common was a commitment to making the music simple and funky. It never got so complicated that it was inaccessible to most people. Not to say that complex music isn’t accessible or beautiful, but one way to access beauty is through simplicity.”

On the way out of Ronnie Scott’s on Friday night I bumped into Bryan Ferry, who was with three of his four sons and their girlfriends. He had taken them to listen to a musician he himself had first seen on the legendary Stax/Volt tour in 1967. Now that’s my idea of good parenting.