Saturday 29 December 2007

Favourite Things (1)

A customer and friend suggested I should write about some of the records closest to my heart, and I'm happy to oblige. So this is the first of an occasional series; it's not in any way meant to be a 'best of' listing nor an 'essential records'- these are simply performances I would not want to be without.

Sidney Bechet: The Bechet/ Spanier Big Four

I started to listen to jazz during the British trad boom in the '60s, and much of my musical education came from listening to Peter Clayton's BBC radio jazz programme. I soon graduated to bebop & beyond (and Charles Fox) but I think it must have been on the radio that I first heard the New Orleans clarinet & soprano saxophone player Sidney Bechet.

Bechet's style was direct and imperious, and I found it thrilling; the wide, flaring vibrato that many thought excessive seemed to me to give his music an almost operatic drama; he would often try to dominate the ensemble, wresting the lead from the trumpeter, and he usually succeeded, though Wild Bill Davison faced him down on the Blue Notes they made together in the '40s.

In general he did not get on well with trumpet players; his relationship with Louis Armstrong was particularly difficult, and though the records they made together in 1923 under Clarence Williams' name are wonderful, and would be more wonderful still save for the presence of Eva Taylor, their 1940 reunion is a real disappointment. And there's a great story in John Chilton's Bechet biography concerning an Armstrong concert where Bechet was also booked to play. Bechet did not turn up, pleading illness, but was later seen jamming in a club. Armstrong's mob-connected manager sent him a note suggesting that in future he should stay out of smoky dives for the sake of his health!

Listening to the recordings Bechet and Bunk Johnson made together for Blue Note, I get the impression that Bechet held himself back, playing only clarinet rather than the more aggressive soprano sax, knowing that Bunk was scarcely playing at full strength. But the Bechet/Spanier sessions, recorded just before the reunion with Armstrong in 1940, are a rare example of Bechet choosing to cooperate with, rather than struggle against a trumpeter- or in this case cornet-player.

There are 10 sides, including 2 alternate takes, mostly around 4 minutes each; they were recorded for HRS, a pioneering independent jazz label- read the HRS story here, and issued on 12" 78s. The page also gives a link to Dan Morgenstern's excellent notes on the Bechet sessions, though he is kinder to the rather pedestrian guitar and bass work of Carmen Mastren and Wellman Braud than I would be. But it's the interplay between Spanier's forthright but relaxed cornet lead, open and muted, and Bechet's complementary sax and clarinet lines which is important, and even if Bechet had - like many other jazz improvisers- some set phrases he tended to repeat, the intensity of his playing makes them appear newly-minted. And here for once Bechet works with the lead instrument, not dominating or deferring. Listen to Sweet Sue- it opens with solo breaks, then a beautifully balanced ensemble. Bechet solos on soprano with Spanier playing quietly behind, then returns the complement during Spanier's solo. He then switches to clarinet playing chalumeau behind the guitar solo. More ensemble with Bechet still on clarinet, then back to the breaks and out. A remarkable variety of textures for a quartet, and great timeless jazz.

I first came across these sides on an Ember lp- A Tribute to Sidney Bechet, which had room for all 10 sides, but omitted One Hour and the 2 alternates in favour of 2 tracks from another HRS session featuring Rex Stewart, Lawrence Brown & Barney Bigard on leave from Duke's band. This strange decision is made worse by the claim in Bix Curtis' sleevenotes that 'this is the 1st time all the tracks have been issued on one album in this country'. The sides have been issued countless times on lp and cd, and are easy to find.

And they are proof, if such were needed, that jazz soprano playing did not begin with Coltrane or Steve Lacy.

Wednesday 26 December 2007

Cecil Payne

A friend just rang me to ask if I'd heard of the death of bebop baritone player Cecil Payne at the end of November. Last year we had been in New York together, and I'd read that Payne was playing at the Kitano Hotel, a swanky mid-town joint which had started featuring jazz regularly.

Frankly, I was surprised to learn that Payne was still alive, and decided that the chance to hear him live was not to be missed, despite the fact that I'm not keen on the mid-town clubs- they're too plush and the beer's too expensive, and I resent the practice of adding your cover to the drinks bill, charging tax on it, and (I suspect) assuming you'll add a tip based on the total.
I persuaded my friend (not much of a jazz fan) to come along, hoping he would not resent a evening spent listening to an 80+ -year-old baritone player. To my delight he later told me it was the highlight of his stay.

And it was a delight; we were a little nervous when an old frail man with thick plastic glasses was wheeled onto the bandstand and his instrument was hung round his neck. The rest of the sextet, including to my great pleasure Harold Mabern on piano, assembled, and we were treated to an hour of high quality bebop. Payne's tone was secure, and though his breath came in shorter bursts his phrasing was nimble, and he did not hold back at all- he soloed as much as anyone, and took a ballad feature. It's a night I'll remember.

I know him best for his fine albums on Muse ('Yes, I think I remember that label' he told me when I thanked him after the set) and am surprised that they don't sell better; I'm playing his 'Bird Gets the Worm'- with Tom Harrell, Duke Jordan, Buster Williams and Al Foster, recorded 1976- as I type this, and find I have 3 copies in stock currently! And at least as many of his album of Charlie Parker music (with Clark Terry) issued originally on Charlie Parker Records, and reissued in the UK on countless bargain labels. When I was a teenager in the '60s those labels were all I could afford- Summit, Eros, Society (Ember were a bit more expensive)- and there was so much great music on them- the Parker Savoys, Duke Jordan's 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses', lots of Lester. Now of course I know I would be richer now if I had saved up for Blue Notes, but then I was happy to get my weekly fix.

But I digress; Cecil Payne was perhaps the first baritone player to play convincing bebop, and his big gruff tone was instantly recognisable. I was pleased to read that younger players had coaxed him out of retirement, and that he had received support from the Jazz Federation of America-,,2219447,00.html

Sunday 2 December 2007

New York Notes

I was in NYC at the beginning of November for the record fair run annually by the listener-supported radio station WFMU. It's a big affair with hundreds of dealers, and I kid myself each year that if I buy wisely enough it will pay for the trip. And the present state of the dollar means that if I can buy for a dollar and sell for a pound, I'm happy. I'm even happier when I get to hear some good music.

It was not an outstanding year at the fair, but I picked up some good stuff, including labels like Muse and Xanadu which don't seem to be highly regarded in the US (perhaps they are too familiar) but are well-liked in Europe and Japan, probably because they were not distributed widely outside the US. They don't go for high prices, but they sell. (They also contain some great late-bop- Barry Harris, Charles McPherson, some off the most engaged Sonny Stitts.)

Muse also issued a few free jazz albums - freebop really, which is a term I know I overuse, but it describes well the range of music I love the most, with melodic freedom and a loose but steady jazz beat. A favourite Muse issue is drummer Barry Altschul's 'You Can't Name Your own Tune'(Muse MR5124) with a great band- Sam Rivers, Muhal, George Lewis (blessedly electronics-free), Dave Holland. Intense, driving music, full of surprises.

I'd planned to hear Houston Person at the Rose Centre, but when I saw that Barry was playing at one of my favourite NYC venues, the Cornelia St Cafe, I changed plans. (The night before they had featured a band playing Krysztof Komeda's music- I found out too late.) Barry's band comprised Paul Smoker (trumpet), the unknown-to-me Hayes Greenfield, alto, George Schuller, bass. Two sets of originals, and you won't be surprised to learn that they inhabited Ornette's sound-world. It was a knockout. The revelation of the night for me was the bass-playing of George Schuller, who I guess I must have heard before without really hearing - he played big fat Haden-esque notes, with no sliding or scampering- perfect.

Other highlights of the trip included: white-whiskered Ted Curson perched on a stool like a black Buddah and blowing with great fire with a young band at the Wholefoods Market on Houston & meeting the 75-year-old Yusef Lateef at the same venue, playing flute and reciting devotional poetry at the launch of his (ghosted and sadly dull) autobiography. I'd assumed that the former William Evans had adopted an Islamic name for the political reasons that inspired many hard bop and free jazz musicians; I learned from the autobiography that he had converted in 1948 and was a member of the Ahmadiyya community, which- presumably- has no problem with Lateef playing wind instruments, which are haram to many Muslims. He is certainly devout enough to have refused (gracefully, standing to make a bow) to shake the hand of a woman who bought a copy of his book.

I also went for the first time to Smoke, a club on Broadway at the southern edge of Harlem, to hear drummer Bill Stewart's quartet with David Kikoski on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass, and Seamus Blake on tenor. It was the first set of their second night at the club, and the room was full- I had to perch at the bar. The 1st half of the set was played without the bassist, who was held up in traffic. Stewart had brought a set of originals with him, but until Burno arrived, they jammed on the blues and rhythm changes. Playing such familiar material allowed Kikoski to fill in the missing bass part with a walking left hand, and they stormed through the changes with real fire.

Strangely, the same thing had happened at a gig in Nottingham shortly before I left for NYC. Pianist Kirk Lightsey, who visits the UK frequently, doesn't particularly like playing standards, and does like to play with English bassist Steve Watts and drummer Dave Wickens. (And who wouldn't?) Steve had to pull out at very short notice, and rather than substitute a bassist who didn't know Lightsey's music, they decided to manage without, adding a saxophonist who had recorded with Lightsey recently. It was close to being a disaster.

They kept to the set they had prepared, and Dave Wickens had obviously chosen to patter around on the drum kit rather than drive the band- a reasonable decision. Unfortunately the saxophonist was woefully unprepared, and the burden of holding the whole thing together fell to the pianist. Kirk is a formidable and hardworking player- you may have heard him with Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon or the cooperative band The Leaders (with Arthur Blythe)- and someone whose sheer pleasure in playing communicates itself well to the audience. By the end of the first set he was dripping with sweat from the effort, but there was a bass-shaped hole in the music.

Which made me admire David Kikoski even more.

Thursday 18 October 2007

Watch out for Empirical

Together with 3 friends, I run a jazz club in Leicester; we put on around 12-14 gigs a year, mostly in a nice old Edwardian theatre owned by the YMCA. John, a jazz drummer (who once interviewed Miles Davis, Roy Haynes, Chick Corea- but that's another story) does the accounts; Chris, an arts management teacher handles the grant applications and takes photographs, Nick- another jazz drummer and saxophonist- does the bookings and publicity; I stand at the back and sell cds, and we all do our fair share of worrying that no-one will turn up to be in the audience.

There have been plenty of gigs where we have lost money; in fact it's far easier to count the ones where we made a profit, but in all the years that Leicester Jazzhouse has been in existence, I can think of only one gig that I regret promoting because of the quality of the music. (No, of course I won't.)

I'm glad to say the really memorable ones have been more frequent; some obvious ones: Lee Konitz with John Taylor, Dave Green & Trevor Tomkins, the night with Sheila Jordan & Harvie S(wartz) when the pa broke down and so she sang without, Elton Dean's Newsense with Roswell Rudd, Evan Parker with Tony Levin.... (& the solo gig where Evan played Monk tunes)

and some less obvious: Gilad Atzmon's first gig outside London, Will Vinson, and 2 nights ago a young band called Empirical, fresh from winning the EBU award for new bands at the North Sea Jazz Festival- see

I first heard them in Nottingham at Jazz Steps at the Bonington Theatre (the only venue I know where you can stand in the bar and look down at swimmers in the pool below.) I do a cd stall there also, so attend most of their gigs. To be honest, when I saw the band photo in the programme I anticipated hearing another identikit hard bop band; by the end of the evening I knew we had to book them. (And book them quickly; I'm sure they will soon be charging more than we can afford!)

There has been one change in personnel from the band I heard in Nottingham (and which made their debut cd on Courtney Pine's Destin-E label) but no change of direction; their roots are in hard bop- 3 of them are graduates from Gary Crosby's Tomorrow's Warriors- but crucially they have been inspired by the music of Ornette Coleman, and their Colemanesque combination of abstraction and dancing melody makes their music both intriguing and immediately engaging.

Some of their themes are perhaps a little too complex- they are young enough to sort that later-but they negociate them with a crackling confidence and with none of the 'head in the dots' stance you see at so many gigs. They play with an infectious enthusiasm and delight & look far too young to be as good as they are, showing an endearing ingenuousness when they announce a song 'inspired by David Attenborough's Blue Planet- we're all really into that.'

Catch them if you can.

Friday 12 October 2007

Saturday 29 September 2007

Jazz by the Erdre

I discovered the Nantes Jazz Festival- Les Rendez-Vous de L'Erdre- by accident last year. I was planning a solitary holiday in France, and there was only a limited period of time when I could take the break. I wanted time to read and relax, but if there was some jazz, all the better. Turning to Google, I entered the dates, added Jazz Festival France, and up popped Nantes. The programme was very tempting- Henri Texier, Roswell Rudd, Mingus Dynasty....even more tempting was the fact that all 80+ concerts were free, there would be a record fair, and street food from every francophone nation would be on sale.

Of course I returned this year, wondering why the festival wasn't better known outside France, even outside the region. We heard no English voices, saw few cars from outside the region (you can tell from the number plate).

The festival covers Friday-Sunday night of the 1st weekend in September; the 2007 programme included Ricky Ford, the Paris Big Band, the Sclavis/Texier/Romano trio and the remarkable Japanese ensemble Shibusa Shirazu.

Ricky Ford played harder, tougher than I'd heard him before, in a Coltrane-inspired set. Unfortunately the trio with him was led by a drummer of such crass insensitivity that there was no rapport with Ford. Christian Vander- « Drum hero » mondialement reconnu, compositeur, chanteur, batteur fondateur de Magma- according to the website, obviously thought he was emulating Elvin Jones, unfortunately without any of that great drummer's taste and discernment. (One odd moment: Ford leaned away from the mike at one point in the middle of a chorus and caught a breath- many in the audience immediately started to clap as if the solo was over.) It makes me wonder how many jazz listeners understand/ can hear song form during an improvisation. Perhaps I should take along some copies of Conrad Cork's 'Harmony with Lego Bricks' -see

The musical highlight of the festival was the Sclavis/Texier/Romano trio, a working band who really did listen to each other. Louis Sclavis mostly played soprano and bass clarinet, managing
neither to sound like Coltrane on the former nor Dolphy on the latter. Sophia Domancich played a beautiful duo set with drummer Simon Goubert, and French-resident organist Rhoda Scott cooked up a storm with an all woman band, all previously unknown to me- Sophie Alour (sax) Lisa Cat-Berro (sax) Julie Saury (dms).

We missed the Paris Big Band- by the time we reached the riverside 'scene' where they were playing every seat was taken, there was a huge standing crowd, and we were tired- from a distance they sounded good!

But the real spectacular highlight was the performance by Shibusa Shirazu, a 30+-strong troupe involving musicians, dancers, a painter and a 20-foot floating dragon. I'm not sure I can find the words to describe the performance, which began with a dancer in a loincloth unfurling a banner, followed by Tokyo 'bar girls' in orange and green wigs, mock-Hawaiian dancers waving giant bananas, a male singer in what looked like a large nappy and short dressing-gown, a young woman flautist with white angel wings who leaped around and sang (whatever she's on can I have some please?), butoh dancers and a 20-piece band who played wild improvisations over a thunderous rock beat. The two guitarists both thought they were Hendrix, one tenor player had listened to a lot of Gato Barbieri, the other to Rollins, and there were exciting solos by two trumpet-players. Then along came the dragon, controlled by two men in rowing boats, expertly steered down the Erdre in front of the stage.

You probably wouldn't buy the cd, and at 2 hours it was maybe 15minutes too long, but what a spectacle! You can get a taste of it at
But really, you had to be there.

At at the record fair, I came across a copy of Komeda's 'Astygmatic' on vinyl, which I had failed to find in Krakow. So I guess I'll go again next year, especially if the moules-frites, oyster and Muscadet stall is there again.

Friday 7 September 2007

Richard Cook 1957-2007

With the death of Richard Cook at the tragically early age of 50, the jazz community has lost one of its most articulate and broad-minded advocates.

Author of books on Blue Note Records and the recordings of Miles Davis as well as an encyclopedia of jazz, editor of Jazz Review, instigator of the Polygram UK jazz reissue programme, co-author (with Brian Morton) of the essential Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, his enthusiasms were individual and wide-ranging- it's hard to imagine any other jazz magazine daring to put Bing Crosby on the cover, as Jazz Review did in an early issue. I hope the magazine and the Guide survive without him, but he will be a very hard act to follow.

He used to be a regular at the (now-discontinued) Wimbledon Record Fair selling off surplus vinyl. When I bought a few (very reasonably-priced) albums from him and thanked him by name he seemed a little surprised to be recognised; I wish now I had told him how much I admired his writing.

Monday 20 August 2007

Why start a blog?

I won't claim to have any original insights; even the title of this blog is borrowed (from Francis Davis- one of the most interesting jazz commentators). But as someone who's listened to a lot of recorded jazz , attended (& promoted) a lot of gigs and bought & sold a lot of jazz on vinyl and cd- see I thought my random jottings might be of a little interest to someone. Hubris perhaps.

I was inspired by a blog I happened upon when looking for some information on a favourite saxophonist of mine, Bill McHenry- see which is so well written and insightful & put the thought into my head that it might be worth trying something similar.

I'll write about music I've heard, records I wouldn't want to be without, and the mysteries of record dealing. And not too many obituaries, I hope.

Saturday 18 August 2007

Memories of Max

I only once had the pleasure of hearing Max Roach live , at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester when his quartet with Odean Pope did a Contemporary Music Network tour. After the gig, in which Max charmed us all with his solo 'Papa Jo' party piece, which finished with him playing the hi-hat with a cloth, a few of us were allowed into his dressing room, carrying lps for him to sign.

The guy in front of me had one of those Italian Deja Vu near-bootlegs with the black covers; 'We never got paid for this album' said Max, but graciously signed it anyway. I'd taken along the Hat duo album with Archie Shepp- the Long March; he looked up at me questioningly: 'Do you like this?' and signed it: Thank You. Max Roach 10/15/89.

It's one of the many Max Roach records I'd not want to live without, together with the Bird/Diz Koko session, the recently discovered 1945 Town Hall concert, the Massey Hall concert, Saxophone Colossus, the Freedom Suite, pretty much everything by the Roach/Clifford Brown quintet. And the trios with Bud Powell Herbie Nichols & Sonny Clark. In fact it's just occurred to me that if I could keep records featuring one drummer only, it would be Max.

Dizzy Gillespie once said : Kenny Clarke was the godfather, Art Blakey was the hurricane, Max Roach was the poet.

Saturday 11 August 2007

Memories of Paul Rutherford 1940-2007

For a while Paul taught at De Montfort University; one lunchtime he gave an impromptu solo trombone concert to students and a few of us who'd got to hear of the gig. In his Guardian obituary John Fordham describes his style as 'glancing, elusive' and that sums it up well- little snatches of melody coming at you from all angles, short passages of multiphonics. After 2 longish sets the applause was loud and sincere, then Paul said: I think I'll play a bit more. In the bar afterwards I asked him to name his favourite trombonist; he replied Honoré Dutrey (& and now I'll never know if he was putting me on.)

The last time I heard him was when Leicester Jazz House promoted Elton Dean's Newsense (ie the new edition of Ninesense) at the Y Theatre. There were problems; the BBC recorded the gig and had to drill a big hole in the outside wall to accommodate cables; the theatre decided to hang on to all of the BBC location fee which we had hoped to keep a slice of, and the piano tuner failed to turn up, which did not exactly please Keith Tippett- we finally got him there at half time. But all this was forgotten when in the second set the trombone section: Paul, Annie Whitehead and Roswell Rudd was let loose.

Paul was a proud man, well aware of how important a musician he was, and angry that he did not receive the recognition he deserved; he would point out that although Albert Mangelsdorff was credited with introducing multiphonics to trombone improvisation, he himself was there first. He was an unreconstructed Leninist, refusing to accept that his hero had any part in the degeneration of the 1917 revolution into tyranny.

Fordham reports that Paul's last job was as a doorman in a working men's club; shame on us.

Thursday 9 August 2007

Krakow July 2007

Having previously visited Tallinn and Budapest, I thought I'd add Krakow to my portfolio, especially as the Summer Jazz Festival was on. I got to see the excellent guitarist Jarek Smietana at the Pod Baranami jazz club, and the Rashied Ali Quintet at Radio Krakow. The Ali band played pretty straight ahead freebop- band-members unknown to me apart from the bassist Joris Teepe. The front line was exciting if a little incoherent- I kept thinking of Lester's question: Can you play me a song? The last number they played was from The Wizard of Oz: If I Only Had a Brain (played with Giant Steps changes and renamed If I Only Had a Gig!)

Vinyl pickings were thin; before leaving I'd left a message on asking if anyone knew of vinyl shops there: no replies. I found one shop, with a few hunded lps of various kinds and a few cds locked away in a cupboard. I bought a few albums (of course) paying in most cases more than I should have done. Mostly US musicians recorded in Europe- festivals etc- and a nice Namyslowski record. They'll appear in the November listing (yes, the September & October lists are already full- the results of a very good collection I bought in Cardiff a few months ago.)

Piotr the shop owner was pessimistic about the Polish record industry: It's a mess! and characterised all the other record shops in town as 'rubbish', but Music Corner near the huge market square had a good collection of Polish jazz cds, including all the Komeda and Stanko albums I'd naively hoped to find on vinyl! (Piotr said he had some 'special records at home' but when he mentioned the price he wanted for them I decided not to take him up on his offer.)

So I was left with a few zlotys to spend on Bison Grass Vodka.