Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

Big band Christmas

30 December 2016

Guy Barker Big Band Christmas SpecialThe trumpeter Guy Barker must be well on his way to becoming a national treasure, at least in those parts of Britain where jazz trmpeters are treasured.

He’s played with everybody, of course, from Frank Sinatra to Georgie Fame to Sting, but he’s also a composer and an arranger. I’m particularly fond of his Soundtrack CD (2001) of themes for a couple of imaginaryfilms. I’ve seen him play a couple of times in the last year or so, taking the Bix Beiderbecke role in the Jazz Repertory Compay’s reconstruction of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, and with Mike Westbrook.

But the prompt for this post is his Big Band Christmas show at the Royal Albert Hall in mid-December. When I say, ‘big band’, I mean big: some 40 players on stage, including two drummers, two pianists, two banks of brass and an 18-piece string section. Barker was mostly conducting rather than playing, and the repertoire had a Christmas feel to it. A selection of vocal guests, including Kurt Elling, Wayne Peters and Vanessa Haynes, the vocal group Accent, and the saxophonist Soweto Kinch, appeared from the wings. The singer and broadcaster Clare Teal co-hosted with Barker and also sang some numbers.

guy-and-soweto-kinchOf course, there were some standouts. A fabulous version of ‘All The Way’, more or less a duet between Kurt Elling and the double bass; the recreation of Charlie Parker and Kenny Dorham’s bebop version of ‘White Christmas’, originally performed live on Christmas Day 1948, with Kinch taking Parker’s part and Barker playing Dorham; and Vanessa Haynes lit the place up every time she came onstage, notably on a version of ‘Heaven Help Us All’.

But mostly, the event was about the power of a big band being given permission to swing, in that way that jazz musicians can. You wonder how much time a band of that size has managed to find to rehearse, but the arrangements wer rich and the playing tight. And the musicians also seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Just before the end, just before they tipped some theatrical snowflakes on to the stage from the bridge for the final number, Clare Teal asked if we’d like the show to become an annual event. By then it already felt like a Christmas institution.

Images: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall.


Now’s the time

18 January 2016


I collected a small print of Basquiat’s picture Now’s the time from the framers at the weekend. I’d bought it at the Guggenhein in Bilbao in the summer, when I visited the  exhibition of his works there. It was displayed there with a loop of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, made at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He uses the phrase as a recurring motif in one of the most important passages in the speech (my emphasis):

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

Both Basquiat and King, of course, were drawing explicitly or implicitly on a famous track by Charlie Parker, recorded in 1945. Yes, the image is of Miles Davis, who also played on the session.

In his Parker biography Bird Lives! Ross Russell describes the track.

“Now’s The Time” is catchy and unforgettable, yet difficult to repeat. It has the extra-dimensional quality that distinguishes master works, however small. It is timeless. Its three minutes seem much longer. Ot is perfectly balanced, perfectly logical, haunting, eerie, the finest achievement of the boppers to that point. [p196]

There are other versions, but what for me connects this first recording to the MLK speech is the insistent piano at the the beginning, which demands the listener’s attention in the same way that King demands your attention as he repeats the phrase in that passage.

And one of the things I like about it is that part of that demand comes from the way that King breaks the so-called “rule of three,” and uses the phrase four times. Just when you think he’s going to move on, he insists that you hear it again. One more technical note: the use of a triad implies a completeness in the idea, but King’s rhetorical point is that the Civil Rights movement has not completed its work. He spells this out in the next paragraph of the speech (again, my emphasis):

This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.

“Now’s The Time” was recorded by Parker on 26th November 1945, and as far as the record label Savoy was concerned, this was the session at which the bebop sound clicked. (“The definitive session”, says Ross Russell.) This was despite the chaotic start to it. By Russell’s account, Thelonious Monk was supposed to play piano, but didn’t show, and Argonne Thornton, who happened to be in a nearby cafe, was drafted in. Gillespie was under contract to someone else, so he played uncredited. Miles Davis was nineteen, still at Juillard. Parker was late, and when he did arrive his reeds developed a squeak and a messenger was sent to midtown to get hold of spares.

And it attracted awful reviews. The jazz magazine Downbeat reviewed “Now’s The Time” together with “Billie’s Bounce”:

These two sides are excellent examples of the other side of the Gillespie craze – the bad taste and ill-advised fanaticism of Dizzy’s uninhibited style. Only Charlie Parker, who is a better musician and who deserves more credit than Dizzy for the style anyway, saves these from a bad fate. At that he’s far off form … This is the sort of stuff that has thrown innumerable impressionable young musicians out of stride, that has harmed many of them irreparably. [Ross Russell, p197]

Downbeat’s practice was to rate records on a scale of four down to one: the reviewer refused to rate “Now’s The Time”. But for his part, almost twenty years on, King knew his jazz. A year after the Lincoln Memorial speech he was at the Berlin Jazz Festival as the guest of Willy Brandt, then the mayor of West Berlin, and wrote an essay for the programme:

When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument. It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by jazz musicians.

Basquiat came back to Parker as a subject repeatedly during his short career, as explained in a fine post on the blog The Genealogy of Style. Here’s another picture, made two years before Now’s The Time, which celebrates that 1945 Savoy session.


The Basquiat exhibition had mixed reviews: Griselda Murray Brown in the Financial Times found it “a fine retrospective,” while Jason Farago, reviewing it for The Guardian in Toronto, thought it sometimes patronising and over-interested in celebrity. Brown liked the used of the King recording; Farago hated it. For my part, I realised that I’d skimmed too many glossy magazine articles about Basquiat and his work, and assumed (wrongly, I now realised) that he was a street artist who had lucked into some ’80s New York radical chic. Instead I found work that was both edgy and relevant, unlike the Jeff Koons retrospective running elsewhere in the Guggenheim, which was about as interesting in 2015 as the work of Edwin Landseer.

One final note. King, of course, was assassinated at 39, five years after the speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Basquiat died of an overdose at the age of 27, three years after he made the “Now’s the time” image. Parker, who sold all the rights to the song for $50, cash in hand at the session, died at 34, nine years after the session. For all of them: now was the time.

I.M. Charlie Haden

16 July 2014

I just wanted to say a few words about the bass player Charlie Haden, who died late last week. He was one of the radical spirits of jazz, both culturally and politically. I’ve written here before about his Liberation Music Orchestra, which he formed in the Nixon era and re-formed with every subsequent Republican president. I was fortunate to see them play in 2009. And I’ve also written about his impromptu tribute when news of Obama’s election in 2008 was confirmed.

He’d played with everyone, from John Coltrane and Archie Shepp to Carla Bley, Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett, and, along with the older Charle Mingus, had been instrumental in dragging the bass out of the shadows of jazz. He seemed to be able to fit into any combination of players, from the big band of the Liberation Orchestra, to his long-standing Quartet West, to duetting with Metheny and Jarrett, for which he won awards.

Haden announced himself to the jazz world in 1959 (the jazz annus mirabilis) when he waspart of the band on Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, the path-breaking record that announced free jazz to the world. Haden was 22 when the record was recorded. On a documentary about the jazz of 1959 – Kind of Blue, Take Five and Mingus Ah-Um were all released in the same year – I recall that Haden approached Coleman after watching him play at a club and said he’d like to play with him. Coleman’s response, from memory: “How about now?”

He’d travelled a long way: it would have been hard to predict that the childhood Haden Family country and western performer, from deep in the mid-West, would be such a radical presence in jazz. His father, as it happened, took him to the concert in Omaha where he saw Lester Young and Charlie Parker play. But as ever, it’s down to a restless attitude, a curiosity to keep testing the limits. As he said in an interview in 2005 with the website, All About Jazz:

To me it’s important to play something that’s never been played before. To approach music as if you are playing it for the first time every time you pick up your instrument. To create something that has never been before. To really put your life on the line. I tell my students at Cal Arts that you should be willing to give up your life for your art form. To risk your life for every note that you play and to make every note count.

There’s an excellent guide to some of Haden’s best work at The Artery by the bass player Rick McLaughlin.

Double bass

25 November 2012


I went to see the David Murray Big Band and the Jay Phelps Quartet on the last night of the London Jazz Festival, another reminder, as if one were needed, of how accomplished jazz players are. In among the rest of it there were a few fine bass solos. By chance I’d seen on the Tube the previous day – for the first time – John Fuller’s fine poem about double bass players, capturing the paradox of the bass, the essential awkwardness of the playing and the grace of the sound.

Concerto for Double Bass
He is a drunk leaning companionably
Around a lamp post or doing up
With intermittent concentration
Another drunk’s coat.

He is a polite but devoted Valentino,
Cheek to cheek, forgetting the next step.
He is feeling the pulse of the fat lady
Or cutting her in half.

But close your eyes and it is sunset
At the edge of the world. It is the language
Of dolphins, the growth of tree-roots,
The heart-beat slowing down.

(John Fuller)

The painting at the top of the post is ‘Bass Blues’ by Ann laForge, and is used with thanks. It, and other jazz-themed paintings can be found at her website. Thanks to Jason Heath’s Double Bass Blog for the tip.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

6 September 2012

Charles Mingus’ great musical eulogy for the saxophonist Lester Young shuffled across my iPod on my way to work this week. Although it is an elegy, it is a compelling piece of music, and has become something of a standard, covered by many musicians. Mingus, of course, is one of the towering figures of post-war jazz, and Mingus Ah Um, the record which featured Goodbye Pork Pie Hat was released in jazz’s ‘golden year’ of 1959.

I heard Pentangle’s version of the tune as a teenager before I really knew who Mingus was (they also did a fine cover of Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song) though I did know the name from the Merseybeat poet Adrian Henri. So I was primed, at least, when I saw a “cut out” copy of Mingus Ah Um going for a song in a discount jazz shop in Cambridge.

Anyway, the Pentangle version was built around a duet between their guitarists, John Renbourne and Bert Jansch, which they used to perform together before joining Pentangle:

A few years after that I came across what seemed an unlikely cover by Jeff Beck (on his record Wired). It seemed unlikely since Beck had only just finished with the hard rock power trio Beck, Bogert and Appice (think Cream: no, think Mountain) but again, although he plays it very differently from Jansch and Renbourn he brings something to the song (you’ll be redirected to youtube to watch this for copyright reasons):

And then there is Joni Mitchell. She wrote some plangent lyrics for a version of the song that was included on her record Mingus, which Mingus himself collaborated on. The record has a bizarre moment in which Mitchell and her band sing the jazz musician ‘happy birthday’ but can’t remember how old he is. The record is also blessed with the sublime playing of Mitchell’s sometime bass player Jaco Pastorius. Unfortunately there are no copies of this on youtube, but here’s the American singer, Lenora Helm, singing Joni’s words to Mingus’ tune:

Jazz bagpipes

12 April 2012

One of the most remarkable jazz duets I’ve ever heard is between the saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the jazz bagpipes player Rufus Harley, playing a 14-minute version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. I first came across it years ago on an LP called The Cutting Edge, recorded live at Montreux, which I’d bought as a heavily discounted ‘cut out‘. (in the days of vinyl records and cardboard sleeves, distributors would make a physical cut to the sleeves of their deleted records to make sure that shops couldn’t pass them off as full price records).

I was astonished: I’d spent much of my childhood in Scotland, which has too high a population of bagpipes players for its own good, and where the instrument is associated mostly with skirls and dirges. Hearing Rufus Harley swing low on the bagpipes was a revelation to me.

It seems that The Cutting Edge has turned into a modest classic in the meantime; it’s one of those CDs that seems to stay in print, albeit at a budget price. But I hadn’t realised until recently, when I saw it on BBC4’s ‘lost’ film of Rollins at Ronnie Scott’s Club in 1974, that there was also footage of Rollins and Harley playing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. (And, of course, there’s a version to be found on YouTube, seen at the top of this post).

Everyone knows about Sonny Rollins; he is a colossus of the saxophone, after all. But I had to look up Rufus Harley, who appears in the Ronnie Scott’s film resplendent in a yellow tartan. He was of African and Cherokee descent, brought up in Philadelphia, and learnt trumpet and saxophone as a teenager. He became interested in the bagpipes after seeing the Scots regiment Black Watch playing them at John Kennedy’s funeral (Harley was 27 at the time), and had to travel to New York to find a second hand set, there being none in Philly. He was the first person to adapt the instrument to the rhythms of jazz.

The yellow kilt in the film – a MacLeod tartan – was given to him by a Scots family after they had seen him play on television (every bagpiper needs a tartan, right?). But he played cultural games the other way around. Bagpipes are hugely noisy, and as one profile explains:

“I started playing the pipes, and the neighbor would call the cops on me,” Harley recalled. “So I see the cops coming, and I stop blowing the pipes.

“The cops would come to the door and say, ‘I’m sorry, but we have a complaint that there’s bagpipes being played here.’

“Then I tell the cops, ‘Do I look like I’m Irish or Scottish to you?’

“I got away with it for a long time.”

One of jazz’s originals.

I.M. Philip Madoc

7 March 2012

A few years ago I saw the Welsh actor Philip Madoc, who has died this week, performing Under Milk Wood with Stan Tracey’s quartet at the Brecon Jazz Festival. Tracey’s composition – now more than 40 years old – is one of the outstanding moments of British jazz; Tracey seems to be tuned in to both the tone and story of Dylan Thomas’ play. The performance at Brecon was simple enough: Madoc read some extracts from the play in between (sometimes during) the music, bringing both alive with his sonorous Welsh voice and underlining the connections between play and music. I thought the record of the performance had been deleted, but it seems I was wrong. It is an interesting version of Tracey’s Under Milk Wood Suite and a fitting memorial to Philip Madoc.

The sleeve of the recording of the collaboration between Stan Tracey and Philip Madoc is from Trio Records, and is used with thanks.

I M Harry Beckett, 1935-2010

24 July 2010

The trumpeter Harry Beckett, who died a couple of days ago, was one of the great players who kept British jazz alive in the dog days of the 70s and 80s, when even the incomparable Stan Tracey considered throwing it all in to become a postman. He played with everyone – Jon Turney reminded me of his central contribution to Mike Westbrook’s big band suite Metropolis, an extract from which can be found online, and he was in  with Stan Tracey’s earlier Big Band and Ian Carr’s Nucleus, as well as playing with Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, and the Brotherhood of Breath. He was always open to new ideas – he played with Weekend, for example, the influential band which brought together producer Simon Emmerson, jazzmen Larry Stabbins and Simon Booth, and Alison Statton of the Young Marble Giants, and is phenomenal on their track The View from Her Room. He was in the band which Annie Whitehead pulled together to perform a collection of Robert Wyatt’s songs, Soupsongs. His final dub-influenced record was produced by Adrian Sherwood and released on On-U. I have a soft spot for his Latin-influenced 1975 record Memories of Bacares, where his clean sound and seductive phrasing, together with Brian Miller’s electric piano and Daryl Runswick’s bass, brings to life a bright Mediterranean sea and a warm shore.

[Update: John Fordham wrote an obituary in The Guardian.]

We want Miles

5 January 2010

Anyone who’s interested in jazz knows that the shadow of Miles Davis falls right across the jazz world of the second half of the 20th century – but it takes a visit to “We Want Miles“,  the retrospective at the Cite de la Musique in Paris, which I had the chance to visit just before Xmas (it runs to 17th January) – to remind you how big and long that shadow is.

He was, famously, playing bebop with Charlie Parker and Gillespie at the age of 18, and recorded The Birth of the Cool before his 23rd birthday. Kind of Blue, the biggest selling jazz record of all time, came a decade later. By the end of the 60s, with In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, he remade jazz (with a little help from his producer, Teo Macero) as it collided with rock music.

Part of his secret was that he only worked with the best. In the early part of his career, these included (as well as Parker and Gillespie) Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Lester Young, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane. By the time of Kind of Blue, he had become the elder statesman, picking up the best young talent, such as Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Jack de Johnette, and Marcus Miller. The list goes on.

And with the best arranger as well; Gil Evan’s role in the early recordings from Birth of the Cool to Miles Ahead is influential. It’s possible to hear Davis’ 60s and 70s sound as a way to create in his electric work the same depth that Evans achieved through his careful orchestration. It helped that Miles was, as he would tell interviewers, “blessed with perfect time”.

One of the revelations of the Paris exhibition is also one of the simplest exhibits: a timeline of his whole career showing all the musicians he collaborated with (my not very good photographs are below). The larger the name, the closer the collaboration. There have been some events at Cite de la Musique to mark the exhibition, and as people such as Marcus Miller have come in to play, they’ve been signing the wall, a kind of living exhibit. I’m hoping that when it goes to Montreal in April, the wall and signatures will go as well, rather than just being repainted in the new location. There’s music everywhere in the show – including a great video of a concert at Parc de Villette, right by Cite de la Musique – but somehow it is the camaraderie of the collaboration, crystallised by the autographs of his musical partners, that brings Miles, and his vast creative enterprise, to life.

Even if you can’t get to the exhibition, the website’s worth a visit (good pictures and a good selection of music, with commentary in English). And there was an interesting article in The Guardian about why Davis liked Paris.

I took the pictures, and they’re published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Jazz drummers

23 June 2009


There’s a showbiz joke, probably put about by guitarists, about the groupie who was so dim she went home with the drummer. But the joke is about rock drummers, and as we know, jazz drummers are a different creature entirely. They can do in their sleep things which rock drummers can only dream of. This, at least, was my train of thought while I watched Dave King, the drummer with the trio The Bad Plus, as they opened for the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra at the South Bank on Saturday.

King was an astonishing presence on stage, completely at the heart of the band’s sound, sometimes driving it along with a complex mix of rhythms and sounds, sometimes amplifying the mood by adding particular percussive effects, sometimes doing all of this at once. The musicians’ position on stage underlined the importance of all three members of the trio, all at the front, rather than the rhythm section supporting the pianist from the back.

In jazz, unlike rock, drummers are honoured – as in the affectionate (and tongue in cheek) tribute by Pete Atkin and Clive James, recently reissued, “Wristwatch for a drummer“:

The Omega Incabloc Oyster Accutron 72
Without this timepiece there’d have been
No modern jazz to begin with
Bird and Diz were tricky men for a drummer to sit in with

Max Roach still wears the watch he wore when bop was new
Elvin Jones has two and Buddy Rich wears three
One on the right wrist, one on the left
And the third one around his knee.

Jazz drummers have led bands and recordings – and still do (one thinks of Seb Roachford and Polar Bear). Not surprising that drummers such as Bill Bruford and Charlie Watts returned to jazz after doing time in rock bands.

The clip below shows Dave King doing a breathtaking solo introduction to The Bad Plus’ version of Smells Like Teen Spirit, where he manages, deliberately, to be out of time with himself.