Friday 4 March 2011

Favourite Things 3: Sid Catlett

A teenager in the 60s whose passion for jazz had expanded from UK trad bands to pretty much the whole jazz spectrum (though I never liked Brubeck or Kenton, and I hadn't yet been exposed to the avant-garde) my exploration of the music was rather hampered by my lack of disposable income.

I was happy to listen to the revivalists live, especially when I won a year's free entrance to the club at the Bell Inn on Oxford Road in Reading for knowing Bix's first names. Ken Colyer nights at the Bell I were pretty wonderful, especially the last number when Ken started waving around his metal derby hat mute.

And I listened to the radio of course, twiddling the dial to pick up Willis Conover on the Voice of America. But record buying was a problem. If I'd possessed a middle class acceptance of deferred gratification I guess I could have devised a wish list of essential recordings and saved my money until I could afford them; what in fact happened was that I scurried off to the local record shop as soon as I had the necessary to buy something- often a bargain issue or compilation.

One such, on RCA's Camden label, was Great Jazz Reeds (still available from your on-line record dealer!) It's a knock-out collection, if rather eclectic. Bechet, Pee Wee, Dodds, Mezz- great Ladnier so we'll forgive the hyperbole- Chu, Bud Freeman, Bird...and as the last track, Cadillac Slim by the Chocolate Dandies, with Ben Webster and Benny Carter. Of the ten tracks, that's the one that really excited me at the time, and still does.

Customers often ask me if I'm a collector myself; I always deny it, despite having a sizeable personal music accumulation- I'm simply too disorganised to deserve the accolade. If I had been a collector, I would no doubt have searched for the other sides from this session. As it is, I waited for them to fall serendipitously into my metaphorical lap, in the form of a Swing (France) reissue of tracks by Hawkins both with Michel Warlop and with his All Star Swing Band (Carter & Django), and Carter with an international band (Bertie King, Alix Combelle, Django). Plus, to fill up the 2nd side, the four Chocolate Dandies tracks recorded in NYC for the Swing label.

It would be nice to be able to report that all 4 tracks were masterpieces; nice but untrue. Sweet Georgia Brown has a bright chorus by Buck Clayton and a full-toned one from Carter. Sonny White plays well - Teddy Wilson out of Earl Hines- and Ben Webster growls 2 choruses before a jammed finish. Out of my Way is by Sid Catlett, sung by the composer. He puts down his sticks to take his vocal chorus, and is missed. He has a musical tenor voice, but there's only room for a split chorus between Ben, Al Grey and the final ensemble.

What'll It Be is a riff-based Carter original, with Benny taking the first bridge. Buck and Sonny White split a chorus with riffs behind, before Carter sails in serenely on alto to claim his composer's privilege of a full chorus.

What makes Cadillac Slim special?- it is after all just another Rhythm changes riff tune- by Ben Webster.

Big Sid must take much of the credit; not only does he kick off the side with a brilliant 8 bar intro, but throughout the 3 minutes his fills are beautifully timed to push the soloists and create excitement. Another reason is the way the track's divided between the soloists: after the drum intro there's 24 bars of ensemble, with Ben taking the bridge. He plays a full chorus, the tempo's fast but he resists the temptation to growl. Then he and Carter trade 4s, followed by a Carter chorus. Sonny White gets 24 bars with Al Grey taking the bridge, and Sid kicks Buck into his 24 bar solo- he begins by almost playing the first half of the Salt Peanuts riff. 8 bars of ensemble and out. I judge it to be a completely unpretentious but perfect track. Everybody's at the top of their game, and Catlett is astonishingly good. Thank you RCA Camden.

One question remains; why did a group as musically sophisticated as this one call themselves 'The Chocolate Dandies'? You can read the origin of the name here; what I can't understand is why Carter was still using it in the '40s. Brian Rust (RIP) in his sleeve notes to the Parlophone lp by various '28-'33 groups under this name suggests daringly that it has a 'slightly patronising, certainly period flavour about it' and suggests that those were 'less touchy times'.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Tony Levin

The great bop-to-free drummer Tony Levin died on February 3rd.

A few memories:

A gig he played with a remarkable pick-up band at our club in the early 80s- Ian Carr on trumpet, my friend and jazz educator Conrad Cork on alto, music teacher Ron Reah on piano, free-jazz pioneer and now composer Gavin Bryars on bass and Tony. It shouldn't have worked, and in truth there are some rough patches, but I'm glad it was recorded and still play the cd with pleasure. *

A performance in Birmingham at Tony's club with Evan Parker and a tuba player (Melvin Poore) where Tony and Evan got into what Evan described as 'that Coltrane and Elvin at the Vanguard' thing. We ate afterwards at a Balti place which had a hypnotist and magician who worked the tables, dropping customers to the floor and making money disappear under our nose. Maybe I dreamt the whole thing.

When Evan was teaching at de Montfort University he played a series of duo gigs in the tiny cafe underneath my bookshop - you remember bookshops? There was a disco in the cellar next door and the noise pollution started around 10pm. No problem the night Tony played.

Tony did a short tour last year to celebrate his 70th birthday and one date was in Leicester; first he played with Aki Takase and John Edwards, then with Mujician- Keith Tippett, Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers. I can't fault John Fordham's Guardian review.

And what must have been one of his last gigs- with Peter King's quartet- Steve Melling, Geoff Gascoyne at the Y in Leicester on January 19 this year. It was clear Peter was pacing himself- each set had a piano feature and he sat at the back of the stage when not playing- but Steve Melling was on steaming form and the music was driven and forceful; no sign that Tony was struggling to keep up though he looked a bit frail at the end of the gig.

So the news of his death was a shock; we'll miss him.

* Conrad Cork adds:

This gig almost didn’t happen. A few weeks before it was due, the regular drummer’s wife left him, and he took himself off to be consoled by friends in Bangkok. Fortunately Tony Levin stepped in. Then the day before the gig, it turned out that the promised grand piano was not forthcoming, so there was a scramble to find anything, and anything turned out to be a low quality Wurlitzer electric job.

Bryars barely made it to the gig (minutes to spare) because he came in from Paris where he was in the course of overseeing the run of his opera Medea, produced by Robert Wilson. Bryars and Rhea, incidentally, comprised the entire fulltime staff of the (classical) music department at the then Leicester Polytechnic.

There was no time for rehearsal or prior discussion, and Ian called the tunes and keys as the evening went on.