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.