Wednesday 29 July 2009

Keith Jarrett- celebrity

At the Royal Festival Hall in London last Saturday we were warned several times, by posters fixed to the doors, by a disembodied voice over the pa & most genially by John Cumming of Serious during his announcement that we were to turn off our mobiles and refrain from taking photos- fair enough. Similar warnings occur at most concerts, but the slightly pleading tone here carried the subtext: we don't want to upset Keith. At a London concert last year some miscreant had approached the stage to take a snap; his punishment was to be condemned by Jarrett to banishment before the gig could resume.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable concert by a brilliant trio, referred to throughout as 'The Standards Trio', though there was no doubt the pianist was firmly in charge, playing a nicely varied set of standards both familiar and (to me at least) obscure; in particular Jack De Johnette's playing was superb, beautifully shaded and appropriate to the mood of each piece - when Jarrett fell into one of his lengthy vamps De Johnette's drumming ensured tedium never resulted. And when Jarrett left some space Gary Peacock's scampering fills were beautiful.

Jarrett's playing showed his many virtues- a beautifully varied touch that moved from delicacy to barnstorming, a vivid melodic imagination, a formidable technique and a good sense of swing.

My reservations are about the organisation of the concert rather than its content; the first set was 3 pieces in 35 minutes- Jarrett seemed keen to get through the set list and depart, cutting short two of Gary Peacock's solos, the second a few minutes more. After a lengthy standing ovation the trio played the first of 4 encores; the pattern was this: the trio leaves the stage to standing ovation, returns, bows, leaves again. Applause continues, trio returns, plays encore, ovation, leaves, returns, leaves, plays. The encores were nicely chosen, each shorter and quieter than its predecessor. But I became increasingly dissatisfied with the game Jarrett was asking us to play: you want more, but I'll only give it to you if you prove how much you love me. I demand your adulation.

It made me respect him less, and I kept recalling a solo piano gig by Martial Solal I'd heard at Kings Place in London a few weeks before. The octagenarian had played a piano repertoire much more hackneyed than Jarrett's- I Got Rhythm, Caravan, Satin Doll- a piano bar tinkler's set in fact- transforming them with his unequalled combination of technique (more than a match for Jarrett's) and taste into something very special. His playing was both spontaneous and completely assured- a little phrase from Bebop appeared in one song, reappeared and was developed in the next. Towards the end of the second set he pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and studied a list of tunes. And when he returned for the first encore joked: I've found a new list.

I would have gladly stayed longer, and regretted the passing of the after-hours club. Solal: a rich couscous, Jarrett: sushi.

Sunday 7 June 2009

Bill McHenry in Brooklyn

This post was planned as a diary of a week of jazz in NYC in May; returning to it in September I've decided to delete the majority and concentrate on the most interesting gig of the week. The diary can wait until next time.

Thursday 21: One my my earliest posts mentioned my liking for the music of saxophonist Bill McHenry; since hearing him with pianist Ethan Iverson at Jazz Standard on one of my 1st visits to NYC I've tried to catch him whenever I'm in the city (& helped organise a short UK tour for him a few years ago). I emailed him before flying & found that his quartet- with Duane Eubanks on trumpet- had a gig at the Tea Lounge in Park Slope, Brooklyn (not listed in any of the jazz press.) It was the most interesting and challenging music I heard all week.

They played all new material- Bill told me he'd been working on it for weeks, but I think it was the first time Duane and the the rest of the band has seen the music; it was I guess a rehearsal for his week's gig at the Vanguard. Despite his somewhat approximate readings of some of the heads- not surprising given the serpentine nature of some of Bill's melodies- Duane Eubanks played confidently in a Cherry-like style that suited the music perfectly.

His music is sometimes bleak and unsettling; the intensity of his improvising is remarkable, long-held notes alternating with rapid runs played with a tone that's hard with a crumbly edge, and with rare but effective growls and cries; sometimes he held the tenor straight out in front of him like Rollins, sometimes tucked it into his side like Gonsalves. He addressed the microphone like a matador approaches a bull, leaning forward to attack, then crouched almost to his knees, then moved the mike around on the the stage area as if finding the perfect spot. And all this with no sense of contrivance. Is the music inside or outside?- hard to say on a first hearing- like Ornette he uses written heads that set the mood of the improvisations that follow; when he gets round to recording this new material it will be clearer, but perhaps not relevant- in an interview last year he told Jazz Times“The stuff around me might be a lot different but the way I deal with melody and harmony is not going to be that different, whether it’s on a structure or not on a structure. It’s based around what kind of notes and what kind of ideas I think sound good. And the clearer conception you have of that, then the less effect a structure will have on you.”

An exciting, exhilarating, thought-provoking evening.

Thursday 7 May 2009

The Jazz Museum in Harlem

You don't need to be a Futurist to find uncomfortable the idea of a jazz museum. Despite the attempts to redefine the role of the institution- a quick Google search brought me: Reinventing the Museum, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift by Gail Anderson & Making Museums Matter by Weil Se- I don't feel inclined to consign West End Blues or Ghosts to what Marinetti called 'museums, graveyards' Jazz is too alive, too lively (pace Frank Zappa & Edward Vesala), too unofficial. Anyway, haven't Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Centre got that covered already?

Despite such reservations, let's praise the Jazz Museum in Harlem both for its attitude & its location; although the museum does not yet exist, for now there's a visitors' centre on 126th St - just a couple of rooms with a small library, a cd collection and a small gallery of photographs. If it were just a building, it would be worthy but unimpressive, but it's far more than that. The museum- see declares itself concerned as much with future of jazz as with its past and its range of activities supports the assertion.

Their Harlem in the Himalayas sessions bring 1st class concerts to the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art on W17th St ( your ticket gets you admission to the exhibitions too). The acoustics are so good in the subterranean theatre that all the gigs are presented without pa. I've heard the Marcus Strickland quartet and the Charles Davis quartet there, and recent gigs have included the great Henry Grimes in a duo with Marc Ribot, and Billy Bang with William Parker.

Jazz for Curious Readers has talks by and interviews with jazz writers as diverse as Ira Gitler, George Lewis, Nat Hentoff, Garry Giddins and Stanley Crouch, while Jazz for Curious Listeners is currently examining classic albums- Speak No Evil as well as Armstrong Plays WC Handy, with Common's Like Water for Chocolate later this month.

And Harlem Speaks presents conversations with musicians- I was lucky enough to be there for the discussion between Cedar Walton and drummer Kenny Washington, whose knowledge of the postwar jazz scene was comprehensive enough for him to be able to prompt Cedar over details he'd forgotten. There were some very funny Art Blakey anecdotes- asked about Blakey's bandleading style he replied: Military- and fond memories of Kenny Dorham, who gave Cedar the nickname 'Steep'- short for 'Steeplehead' because of his high forehead. The audience - mostly Harlemites I'd guess- contributed also; a discussion of how David Newman got his nickname was interrupted authoritatively by: Because he had a big fat ego, that's why- from a woman behind me.

There's more- free concerts in the parks, Saturday panel discussions, an education programme for young people- and most of the museum's activities are free of charge & well-supported. And where better than Harlem as a location?- the site of so much jazz history in the city that still presents more jazz nightly than any other. (My next post will describe a week in NYC last month.)

There's not so much live jazz in Harlem now- the Lenox Lounge, the reopened Minton's, Bill Saxton's Place- but this could change if the jazz museum does move into a building on Harlem's main drag- 125th St- as reported here.

Incidentally, while leafing through a 1972 issue of Down Beat (while updating my website- who says men can't multitask?) I noticed a news piece about a New York Jazz Museum about to open in midtown- does anyone know what happened to that project? There's nothing in the Down Beat online archive. In any case, the Jazz Museum in Harlem appears too well organised, too well-grounded to repeat its fate. If they get the funding...

Wednesday 8 April 2009

Liam Noble

Our jazz club in Leicester uses a second, more formal 'recital room' venue mostly for solo piano gigs- there's an excellent Bosendorfer grand. We've been working our way through our favourite UK pianists- Steve Melling, Dave Newton, Mark Edwards, John Donaldson, Gwilym Simcock, Zoe Rahman, Alcyona Mick, Kate Williams, Tom Cawley, Jonathon Gee, Jason Rebello, Tim Richards. When arranging the gigs we often find that it's the first time they've been asked to play 2 full sets of solo piano- something of a challenge. It's been a successful series, musically and in terms of audience numbers.

The most recent gig featured Liam Noble, who we first came across in the Bobby Wellins Quartet that recorded 'The Best is Yet to Come' on Jazzizit - there's also a quite abstract cd of solo piano on FMR called 'Close Your Eyes.' It's this mix of lyricism and abstraction, together with his intriguing chordal voicings that makes Liam's playing so interesting. (An audience member asked if he consciously worked out the voicings- his reply was that he thought of them as parallel lines of melody). He played some Monk, some Ellington, some Brubeck and ' When you wish upon a star' which he must have learned from/ for Bobby Wellins (Wellins played it at a Jazz House gig a few weeks ago with Kate Williams- the most affecting live ballad performance since I heard Art Pepper play 'Over the Rainbow').

But I digress: the reason for the Brubeck songs was that Liam's just released a trio cd - just called 'Brubeck' that received a 5-star review from John Fordham in the 'Guardian' - one British band leader told me 'you have to be dead to get four stars from Fordham' - so that's quite an achievement. You can hear complete tracks at The cd has persuaded me that Brubeck wrote other interesting tunes than 'In your own sweet way' and 'The Duke'. Hasn't changed my mind about Brubeck's piano playing though.

A propos of nothing in particular....some years ago the big Leicester concert hall- De Montfort Hall- had a change of management and for a short while promoted some big jazz names, including the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Someone in the education dept thought it was a good idea to have short introductory talks before the concerts, and offered me the gig (and £30 + 2 free tickets). My plan was to present what I thought was a balanced assessment of Brubeck's strengths and weaknesses, mention the disgrace that he was the first jazz musician to get his face on the cover of 'Time', play a few quartet tracks, plus Desmond with Jim Hall, Morello with Phil Woods, Miles playing the 2 songs mentioned above.

A few minutes into the talk- no-one had walked out when I repeated the 'He swings like a centurion tank' comment- I heard some american voices on the other side of the partition, laughing, eating & drinking- and I realised that it was the band... Although I had no idea if they could hear what I was saying I must confess that I spontaneously revised the talk a little, adding a little coda praising Brubeck's continuing commitment to improvisation and omitting the comment that I always fast-forward through his solos.

I'd given away the comps, so didn't get to the gig.