Sunday 10 October 2010

Back to Llareggub

I wrote in 2008 of my admiration for Stan Tracey and Bobby Wellins, and expressed the hope that I might one day hear them play live the music from Stan's Under Milk Wood suite.

That day came last Wednesday at the Y in Leicester, and I'm proud of my small part in making the gig happen.

I was emailed by one of the organisers of a short Leicester literary festival asking if I knew a band who could play the UMW music to accompany a reading of Thomas's radio play. I jokingly replied that he could always ask Stan & Bobby and quoted a fee (too low as it happened!) which I was sure would be beyond their budget. To my surprise and delight he contacted Sylvia Rae Tracey (who handles Stan's bookings) and booked the quartet (Andrew Cleyndert & Clark Tracey) paying 25% more than the sum I'd conjectured.

It was worth every penny. Having recently heard Stan, Bobby and Guy Barker at the Scarborough festival playing Stan's usual live repertoire of standards, show tunes and blues I knew how committed and driving the band could be at its best, but I suspected that a performance of the UMW music would be special; in the event the two readers had little to do and most of the evening was devoted to music, so inevitably most of the pieces were extended past their recorded length. The performances that night won't displace my recall of the 1965 recording; the purity of Wellins' tone now has a burred edge and Andrew Cleyndert's bass-playing- fine though it is- lacks the late Jeff Clyne's exquisite note choices; listen to his first phrase after the piano introduction to Starless and Bible Black, just before Wellins jumps in to play the melody- at the Y Andrew made an ostinato of his first figure and Bobby paused a couple of beats before entering.

But it was a delight to hear those compositions played so well. As an aside I read a report that audiences during Stan's recent American tour were surprised to hear him playing show tunes, assuming he'd play his own compositions. The writer wondered: did he play them to ingratiate himself with a US audience? - not realising that he's always much more likely to play Body & Soul than Pluck's Gutter. (Francis Davis, in the book from which I stole the title of this blog tells of Muhal Richard Abrams' reluctance to play any of his compositions more than once- he'd rather move on to something new.) In Stan's case something old made new, and I'm not complaining.

I recently heard that Stan's started composing again; I know the details of the new project but I'll keep them under my hat- I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Back to the Erdre

I've written about the Nantes Jazz Festival before (in 2007); I'm returning to the subject because it still does not have the recognition it deserves.

2010 was the 24th year of a festival which has expanded to include 8 main 'scenes' in the city along the banks of the river Erdre, plus other 'scenes off' including concerts in hospitals and a prison. Add to that gigs in neighbouring villages, a record fair and a round table on promoting jazz. And a regatta of sailing boats, old and new. There are food stalls from the francophone culinary world- the big hit this year was the fouée, a Breton variation on pita with sweet or savoury filling, some excellent bieres artisanales and Muscadet, and all the concerts (80+) were free of charge.

The organisers' aim is to present 'tous le jazz' - including music this old jazz snob finds hard to recognise as jazz at all- but that's ok, there's always something of interest going on, and at least the 'did I really pay good money to listen to this?' feeling is absent!

The Scene Nautique is the largest, holding 10000 people and always filled to overflowing; it's a large platform in the middle of the river- the audience sits on the bank facing the band, with the overflow on the other side. It's for big stars - disappointing like Charles Lloyd's Coltrane-lite 2008 performance and last year's phoned-in Ron Carter gig, exciting like the Henri Texier Strada Sextet with Roswell Rudd, and engaging like the Louis Sclavis Trio. This year's stars included the Roy Hargrove Quintet- I wasn't sure I'd come to the festival this year until I saw they were appearing, but I loved their cd 'Ear Food' and I was knocked out 2 years ago to hear the Hargrove Big Band corseted into the tiny Jazz Gallery in NYC. In the event they were great to hear, though all the time you longed to be there with them in the confines of a club. Saturday night was Django night, with Daniel Givone, Romane, Angelo Debarre & Christophe Lartilleux, but by the time we got to the 'scene' it was overflowing, so we had an early night.

We did arrive in time on Sunday to hear Le Gros Cube- a band comprising some of the big names of the regional scene playing the music of Queen (honestly!). No less than 3 singers attempted to invoke the spirit of Mr Mercury, and they and the band were obviously amusing themselves enormously. Much of the huge crowd seemed to be having fun also, but after 2 numbers ( no solos) we made our excuses and left. Not so much 'tous les jazz' as 'pas de tout le jazz'.

The heart of the festival is the Scene Sully, a sloping area holding up to 3000 people, around 1000 seated on chairs whose devilishly uncomfortable seats are still imprinted on my cul. It's worth it though for the quality of the music, from the quiet classicism of trombonist Yves Robert to the Mingus-like Andy Emler MegaOctet. China Moses channeled the spirit of Dinah Washington, Sophie Alour (ex-Rhoda Scott tenorist) played a brave set with just bass and drums which was perhaps a little under-powered, though my colleague had to be restrained from storming the stage when she announced one number as 'When Ah Meuve Ma Beudy.' Well, he's a fan, and he likes her saxophone playing too.

The best music at Sully was the quartet of Helene Labarriere, a virtuoso bassist whose quartet played an uncompromising set of enormous power. The worst was a silly set by the Trio D'En Bas, whose leader played approximate tenor and sang Zappa songs badly, although he apparently didn't realise it.

There's also an Electro-Jazz scene- but my ears can no longer stand p a turned up to eleven so I missed Bristol's Get the Blessing.

To conclude, it was a mixture as always- I'll certainly be back next year when I'm sure there will be something special for the quarter century. See you there.

I'd hoped to meet up with the formidable Gérard Terrones at the festival- he runs the wonderful Futura-Marge record labels- but we missed each other. We caught up in Paris and I stocked up on his recent cds, then went to hear the Franck Avitabile Trio at Sunset- as a jazz club promoter it was encouraging to see a club completely full for the gig, though as an audience-member I would have preferred not to sit with my arms pinned to my side while breathing into Franck's collar. He's been compared to Michel Petrucciani and Martial Solal; although he lacks Petrucciani's steely touch and Solal's free-flowing melodic imagination. But he has a lyrical power of his own, and Henri Texier and Aldo Romano were predictably superb.

Sunday 4 July 2010

An Englishman in New York- a cautionary tale

I prefer not to stay in hotels when visiting foreign cities.

Hotels, at least the ones I can afford, are mostly under-lit, overheated, cramped and impersonal. No doubt I could pay more and stay in better-lit, well ventilated and spacious places, but I prefer to spend my cash in other ways- jazz clubs, concerts, books, restaurant meals – and used to be happy to treat my hotel room as a box with a bed, nothing more. But I’ve realised that, with the help of the internet, it’s not hard to find alternatives.

So in recent years I’ve stayed in apartments in Budapest, Krakow, Paris and Barcelona- all humble places but offering more space, facilities and privacy than any hotel room, and at comparable cost.

A few years ago a friend introduced me to Craig’s List, an online classified ads service covering the major US cities and including vacation rentals. So for my last trip to New York I found a room in an apartment house on E 3rd St owned by a religious organisation that did good works around the city; a modest room modestly priced, and including a ‘make-your-own’ breakfast in a communal kitchen-cum-sitting room. The rooms were decorated ecumenically with pictures of Jesus, Buddha and Hindu deities, but the owners did not proselytise and the religious music they played in the breakfast room in the mornings was quite soothing.

And it was in an interesting neighbourhood- the East Village- made more interesting by the presence of the New York Chapter of the Hell’s Angels next door. ‘Please do not sit on our neighbors’ bench’ read the sign in out hallway. As if we’d dare.

The previous year I’d found- also through Craig’s List- a 2-bedroom apartment on Suffolk St (just south of E Houston on the Lower East Side) for myself, my daughter and her man. It was owned by an artist and was decorated with his paintings and his thoughts on art, life & commerce- on the walls and ceiling. We never got to meet Zito- he moved into his friend’s place whenever he had tenants & was by his own admission ‘not a morning person’- but we communicated adequately by message and text. The apartment was certainly a more individual experience than any anonymous midtown hotel. Just down the street once stood the anarchist café where Emma Goldman first met Alex Berkmann. And just round the corner is Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes.

During my first trips to NYC I never ventured out of Manhattan- there was just too much to experience on that small island to think of visiting the other boroughs. More recently I’ve been exploring Brooklyn, so decided to find some accommodation in Williamsburg (a hip Brooklyn neighbourhood) for my next trip- planned for the first week in July.

A room in the apartment of a young couple in the fashion business, 2 subway stops from Manhattan, seemed ideal. My own entrance, use of the kitchen and bathroom, and a great coffee shop down the road. No deposit required.

A week before my flight they emailed me to say they had been offered work in LA and sorry, the room was no longer available. Time to consult Craig’s List again, quickly.

This is where this post changes direction – no longer in praise of NYC apartment living, more caveat emptor.

The standout offer was for a studio apartment at 105 E 9th St- advertised with photographs- and yes, it was available for my dates. Please sign this 3 page agreement. Please send a 50% deposit by Western Union only, and to the owner’s daughter in Virginia. Alarm bells should have rung, but I was anxious to secure the

apartment, and sent the money. I was emailed that the money had been received, and the booking was confirmed. I wrote to ask how I would recognise the apartment when I arrived at the building; no reply. I looked on Street View and saw there indeed was an apartment building at 105, with a keypad at the entrance, so wrote to ask what numbers I should enter; no reply. Still my flight was booked, and surely everything would be clear when I arrived.

Clear it certainly was; none of the tenants in the building know anything of my apartment- owner, and there were no studio apartments in the building. It had been a con, elaborate, professional. I booked a couple of nights in a nearby hotel to give myself some time to think, but by the end of the first night I’d decided to come home as quickly as possible- the shine had been rubbed off the holiday with a vengeance.

The airline took pity on me and only surcharged me $105.

How was I conned so easily? Leaving aside the saying containing the words ‘no’, ‘fool’ and ‘old’ and the fact that I needed to book somewhere in a hurry, I’ve concluded that the honesty of the jazz community is to blame. (Poor joke, I know.)

Each year hundreds of customers send me cash in advance, trusting that I’ll be honest and send them the goods they’ve ordered. Each year I send out hundreds of packets with invoices, trusting my customers will pay up. No-one has ever been let down. An expectation of honest dealing develops; I’m not ashamed of my naivety, but furious at this breach of trust.

Some advice and practical matters: never send money by Western Union to someone you don’t know- they have none of the anti-fraud procedures of Paypal. And please don’t book an apartment (in NYC or elsewhere) from (who may well not exist) aka Unique-Suite Vacation Rental or from Wendy Accurso, 12 Aunt Lilly Lane, Annandale VA 22003 (who presumably does exist, because you have to take valid ID to the Western Union office to collect cash.)

I intend to pursue these crooks as far as I can, with Craig’s List, Google, Western Union and the Annandale VA police department. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Since making the original post I've learned that this is a large, well-organised scam covering several US cities and involving several individuals- or more likely one individual using several names and email addresses. I'm clearly not the only person who's been conned- not that I feel any better for that.

I've alerted Craigs List- no reply to date.