Saturday 12 July 2008

Jabbo & Lorraine

Every jazz fan should go the Village Vanguard at least once in their life; the little jazz club on 7th Ave South in Greenwich Village has occupied the same triangular cellar for 73 years, and its walls have absorbed some of the greatest jazz ever recorded. And, we must assume, unrecorded.
You see the famous awning first, and you can be forgiven for having your photo taken under it, in the place once occupied by John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison & Rashied Ali for the cover of Live at the Village Vanguard Again. You descend the narrow stairs, turn left at the bottom- hand over your cover & minimum, collect your drinks ticket and find a seat among the locals, out-of-towners and tourists from Europe & Japan who make up a typical Village Vanguard audience. On the wall are photos of some of the great jazz musicians who have played here. There's also a sousaphone attached to one wall- I've never found out why, nor located the famous 'Mingus light'. (Read the book for the story.)

It's likely that on your way to be seated you'll pass an elderly woman sitting at her special table to the left of the entrance; you will probably pay no attention to her but you should; she's Lorraine Gordon, owner of the Vanguard since Max Gordon died in 1989; her book Alive at the Village Vanguard is a racy account of her life- her first husband was Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records, and Max, founder of the Vanguard, was her second. (I read his book-Live at the Vanguard) years ago, but it meant less to me because then I only knew the club from record covers. I must find a copy.) Lorraine Gordon's book is a chatty 'as told to' autobiography & a fascinating read, though I would have appreciated more jazz gossip. It is interesting to learn that it was she in her role as publicist for Blue Note who persuaded Max to hire Monk for some gigs at the Vanguard- they were a financial disaster- but I would have like much more of the same. Still she comes across as a formidable independent woman, vehemently opposing the Vietnam war and travelling to Hanoi as part of a Women Strike for Peace delegation. While her husband was alive Lorraine had little to do with the running of the club- you get the impression that he did not not consider it woman's work- but realised when he died that she had to keep it going. She scolds his ghost at the very end of the book-'Don't call me girl Max, I'm a woman.' We owe her a debt of gratitude; it's a perfect setting to hear jazz (apart from the rumble of the 7th Ave subway). The acoustics are great, the piano's fine, the audience are encouraged to listen, not chat. The atmosphere is relaxed, the air a little musty- Lorraine denies vehemently that the place is dirty, and takes to task the 'New York jazz writer' who claimed otherwise. It was Francis Davis, who suggested 'time to change the kitty litter, Max.' As if we care.

In 1980 she met again the trumpeter Jabbo Smith, who she had first heard as a kid in 1938 at the Alcazar Club in New Jersey; he was playing at the Village Gate in a show called One Mo' Time. She later became his sponsor and manager. Which sent me back to my record shelves to dig out some of Jabbo's recordings from the 20s.

It used to be thought there were two Jabbo Smiths- the trumpeter who played on the OKeh 1927 Black & Tan Fantasy with Ellington surely could not be the same same man whose little Rhythm Aces band was promoted (unsuccessfully) in an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Armstrong Hot 5s. The confusion is understandable- the solo on the Ellington side is muted (of course) and rather delicate; the Rhythm Aces recordings show his flashing mercurial side, fast, legato, virtuoso trumpet that seems to contains a pre-echo of Roy Eldridge (who admitted that Jabbo cut him on at least one occasion.) Listen to his opening cadenza on Jazz Battle- beautifully fluid playing. His slow playing lacked the nobility of Armstrong and the reckless melodic ingenuity of Henry Allen, but the 19 Rhythm Aces sides from 1929 are wonderful, exciting, risk-taking music that deserves to be better-known. The records sold badly, and Brunswick quickly dropped Jabbo. He'd retired from music completely by the end of the '30s, but after his success in One Mo' Time he toured and played festivals until a few years before his death in 1991, encouraged and assisted by his new manager.

So that's 2 reasons to be grateful to Lorraine Gordon.

Thursday 15 May 2008

Stan Tracey & Bobby Wellins, national treasures

Last month Stan Tracey's quartet with Bobby Wellins, Andrew Cleyndert & Clark Tracey played a Leicester Jazz House gig at the YTheatre. It was the usual mix: some Monk tunes- Bright Mississippi, In Walked Bud, the inevitable Blue Monk as an encore, some Ellingtonia, some standards- including I Want to be Happy(!) -and a single original whose name I missed (& the only time a piece of manuscript paper was seen on the bandstand.) The many compositions which form the bulk of Tracey's recorded output seldom get an outing at gigs. (Stan expresses incomprehension at the continuing popularity of the Under Milk Wood music, but I'd pay a bonus to hear a reworking of 'Starless & Bible Black'.)

Spike Wells (Wellins' drummer) wrote in 1978 : 'first and unforgettably there is the unique sound, pinched and fragile with an occasional slow vibrato which conveys a remarkable range of feeling from pathos to meanness, to mockery. Then there is the oblique approach to harmony: a strange choice of route through one progression, a seemingly naive negotiation of the next, sending the horn snaking around the changes on starkly original lines with a sardonic interspersing of earthy blues licks. Thirdly, one is struck by the total rhythmic facility, leading to outrageously witty displaced accents and the transplantation of whole phrases across the bar line.' I can't better that.

And Tracey's rich chording, sudden darting percussive runs, dramatic tremolos, bottom-end rumblings and Monkish stabs combine in a unique piano style- synthesising elements of Monk & Ellington to be sure- but unmistakably 100% Tracey.

Hear them live if you can; failing that add the 1965 Under Milk Wood recording to your collection, plus the more recent Tracey & Wellins Play Monk, and, if you can find it, the New Departures album, where Wellins' Culloden Moor conjures a bleak landscape as beautifully as Jimmy Knepper on Gil Evans' Where Flamingos Fly (on Out of the Cool.)

The combination of Tracey & Wellins is a classic, but my favourite single Tracey album remains Captain Adventure, with Art Themen, Dave Green and Bryan Spring, recorded live at the 100 Club in London, 10 years after Under Milk Wood. Themen is a more restless ballad player than Wellins, and the band is driven hard by the magnificent Bryan Spring- listen to the moment on Cee Meenah, after Tracey's barrelhouse introduction and Themen's soprano entry when Spring unleashes a clattering fill that raises the hairs on my arms and propels Themen into some of his most abstract playing. The 45 minutes of the lp issue pass too quickly, leaving you wanting more- and now there is more, because Tentoten Records has released The Return of Captain Adventure, a 2 cd set comprising the original album and the rest of that November night's gig. And miraculously, it's all killer, no filler.

The photos are by Chris Maughan, used with permission

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Joe Boyd & Coleman Hawkins

I recently read Joe Boyd's autobiographical 'White Bicycles- Making Music in the 1960s' (Serpents Tail). Boyd's best known for his involvement with Nick Drake, the folk-rock scene and for founding Hannibal Records, but he has some interesting and amusing things to say about the sixties jazz world. I thoroughly recommend it.

As ayoung man he worked for George Wein at the Newport Jazz Festival- his anecdote about Wein's encounter with Elvin Jones is worth the price of the book alone- & later in London arranged recording sessions for Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana and the other exiles from South Africa. But it's his involvement with Coleman Hawkins that sparked most memories for me.

Part of his work for Wein was acting as tour manager for among others the Coleman Hawkins Quintet, with Harry Edison, Sir Charles Thompson, Jimmy Woode & Jo Jones. Boyd has some great stories which I won't repeat because I want you to buy the book, but he doesn't mention that during the tour the band recorded 2 BBC Jazz 625 programmes in London. (The tour only gets a passing mention in John Chilton's Hawkins biography.)

In 1964 I used to buy the Melody Maker on the way to school; it was still just about worth the cover price to a jazz-lover. One day I read a short piece announcing that the BBC recording would be taking place the next day at Wembley Town Hall. We arrived ticketless after hitch-hiking from Reading but there was no trouble getting in- the hall was only half full.

Hawkins played magisterially that night; I learned from Boyd that his cognac consumption was already impressive, but he had yet to slide into his terminal decline. And I was really taken with Jo Jones' feature on Caravan- his sticks moved with such grace & his smile was so wide.

The programmes recorded that night were for a while available on VHS; I'd love a DVD copy if only to find out if the music was as good as I remember it. There's not even any of it on Youtube. As a reminder of how well the old man could play in the final years of his career I looked out some albums from that decade.

In 1960 Hawkins recorded a session for the Crown label with a boppish band: Thad Jones, Eddie Costa, George Duvivier, Osie Johnson. As Scott Yanow mentions in his AllMusic review, the themes- all credited to Hawkins on my lps, though Yanow suspects Jones & Costa may have written most- have familiar-sounding changes but resist attribution (aside from 'Shadows,' which resembles 'Under a Blanket of Blue', which Hawkins had played on a Keynote session in 1947 with Buck Clayton & Teddy Wilson, and recorded again in 1961 on The Hawk Relaxes.) Yanow describes the session as 'slightly short of essential' but it's been a favourite of mine since I bought the 2 lps on Eros (yes, another cheap label) in the '60s- one called 'Coleman Hawkins & His Orchestra', the other 'The Hawk Swings'- the two have recently been reissued on one cd as 'Moodsville' by the Barcelona-based Fresh Sound label.

Though his music was as harmonically complex as any bopper's, rhythmically Hawkins belonged to an earlier era; it's the power & urgency of his playing that makes him sound entirely at home in this context (as he did on his session with Monk & Coltrane, and the duet album with Rollins.) The whole band plays well; Thad Jones warm-toned and mercurial, Costa especially pleasing when he rumbles around in the lower register- his promising career was cut short by a car accident 2 years later. I especially like the long 'Stalking', where Costa's spare comping (on vibes and piano) helps to highlight the warm rock-solid walking bass of Duvivier and the relaxed swing of Johnson. But above all it's the gruff tone and authority of the tenor that impresses throughout.

Sunday 20 January 2008

Favourite Things (2)

I was a teenager when my brother brought home a copy of John Coltrane's 'Coltrane Plays the Blues.' We played it over and over- it took time to understand what was going on, but gradually the music became more familiar; I still played it a lot because it had become a favourite, and when I decided to start a jazz appreciation club at school, I made an approximate copy of the cover for my poster as a kind of manifesto- we wouldn't be listening to any Acker Bilk records.

That cover!- a simple collage on a purple ground,signed M Norman, with the title in lower case and the Atlantic fan at the bottom right- it was so hip, so modern; I loved it.

Blues to Elvin begins with a two-note bass figure doubled by the piano, and answered by a repeated piano phrase. Coltrane enters with such a simple phrase, three notes, a pause, four notes, then constructs a calm, beautifully idiomatic blues solo- no sheets of sound here- which manages to avoid any tired blues clich├ęs. Tyner's solo keeps the mood, single-note lines until the chorded last chorus, raising the temperature a little before Coltrane re-enters with a more impassioned statement, reaching for high harmonics at times, but still keeping his phrasing relatively simple. Then the music subsides and is suddenly ended.

No prizes for guessing that Blues to Bechet has Coltrane on soprano. The sleevenotes by Joe Goldberg suggest that he 'hauntingly evokes Bechet' but neither tone nor phrasing bear that out. He just sounds like Coltrane on soprano playing the blues, and that's good enough for me. The track begins with a snare roll, then Coltrane enters with a phrase that's too basic to bear the weight of the epithet 'theme'. There's no piano, so you can hear more clearly than on the first track the superb Elvin Jones, relaxed and urgent at the same time, and the 'just right' bass of Steve Davis, mostly just walking. Coltrane gradually builds the tension, the phrasing becoming more sinuous, then simpler again and out, ending as it began with a snare roll. No-one else solos.

Blues to You is the track that bothered me most on first hearing. Once more no piano, once more no real theme, but what a difference! The first two tracks are both taken at a slowish lope, this one hurtles along with Coltrane stretching blues tonality to the limit on tenor. I'd never heard so abstracted a blues before, and at first it sounded as if player and instrument were involved in a wrestling match. And with Elvin effectively duetting with Coltrane- Steve Davis is really expendable on this track- there's a constant barrage of sound. Elvin takes some fours and a whole solo chorus, but they didn't come where I expected them; it was as if Coltrane just decided to stop playing.It was scary and exciting, and though I didn't really understand it, it amazed and intrigued me.

I didn't mean this to turn into a track-by track description, so I'll just say that Mr Day has some furious blowing over a bass ostinato and repeated piano pattern and a richly chordal solo by Tyner, and the closing Mr Knight again starts with a bass ostinato; when Elvin enters with a quiet drum figure you know it's going to be a great performance- a modal mid-tempo blues with Coltrane producing a cliche-free solo. Tyner's solo is beautifully relaxed and exciting.

I've left until last my favourite track from the second side, Mr Syms, where Coltrane again plays soprano. We're back with the gentle lope of Blues to Bechet, but whereas that was a straight 12-bar, Mr Syms stretches the form- it's a blues with a bridge (blues avec un pont- Bechet's sparring partner Mezz Mezzrow used to call it). The theme is 48 bars long, with a 12-bar blues as the A section, and a bridge whose melody is close to Summertime. Tyner plays a beautifully relaxed solo, just one chorus, then Coltrane plays the bridge, and the 12 bar A section once.

The cd adds 'Untitled Original' from the same sessions, but the 6 tracks of the lp sound pretty close to perfect to me.

Thinking of Blues to Bechet reminds me of a cd I heard last week for the first time, though it was issued in 2006; it's by a young saxophonist who I'd never heard before: Hugo Siegmeth. It's is on the German ACT label- Red Onions- Celebrating Sidney Bechet. Siegmeth wisely avoids the soprano, sticking to tenor and clarinet, playing songs from the length of Bechet's career. The description of the music on the ACT website is very good, so rather than repeating it I'll just point you here