Tuesday 10 July 2012

Memories of Lol

I never intended this blog to become a list of obituaries and try to resist the temptation to comment on each passing. I felt I had nothing to add to the many heart-felt tributes which followed the shockingly-premature death of Abram Wilson but when I received an email from Hazel Miller of Ogun Records with the news that Lol Coxhill died last night I immediately felt the need to record my memories of this great jazz original.

When I graduated from trad to mainstream as a teenager and became a regular at concerts by US stars at the Odeon Hammersmith there was often a balding man playing soprano solo in the underpass leading to the cinema; his music sounded strange but intriguing in a serpentine way. Lol later grew tired of talking about his busking years but that subterranean music insinuated its way into my consciousness and persisted in my memory.

Then there were the years of the Bracknell Jazz Festival; Lol was hired as the announcer but found plenty of opportunities to play, standing at the corner of the stage while the bands were setting up. His annual mock-reluctant recital (with sound-effects) of 'Murder in the Air' was always greeted with a Mornington-Crescent-like cheer from the crowd but his music was always serious (even when filled with humour).

When we started Leicester Jazz House one of the first bands we booked was Dave Green's Fingers, a remarkable quintet with Lol and Bruce Turner on saxophones, Michael Garrick & Alan Jackson. Lol told me his job was to disrupt the music whenever Bruce and Dave got into a groove. Lol sang My Funny Valentine but we forgave him.

Later we heard from Anthony Wood (ex-editor of the Wire) that he was organising a tour for the Recedents- Lol, Mike Cooper, Roger Turner. We didn't think we'd get a big audience (in the event it wasn't bad) but booked them anyway. Lol stayed with us overnight and over breakfast I asked how the the tour was going; his reply?:  That was it!

At a later concert with Roger Turner at the City Gallery the musicians got into a huddle during the interval; I overheard someone telling Lol it was strange to see free musicians rehearsing and planning a set list. 'We weren't deciding what to play, just what not to play.'

For a few years we ran an annual gig as part of the De Montfort University Cultural EXchanges week- a (free-of- charge) talk in the afternoon then a solo gig in the evening. Remembering Lol's wit and loquacity we invited him two years ago and were delighted he agreed. To our surprise he was very ill-at-ease during the afternoon session, answering almost monosyllabically. We struggled to keep the conversation going and were relieved when he announced he'd play for a bit; the music was great as ever but we only we wanted him to give the audience a taster- we did want them to come back and buy tickets for the evening gig!

The lack of ease- anxiety even- persisted during the evening performance but his music was as inventive and original as ever, with twisting melodic shapes you'd hear no other saxophonist attempting.

My biggest disappointment is failing to persuade Lol to reconvene the Melody Four (Tony Coe & Steve Beresford) for a Leicester gig. I no longer have their lp 'Love plays such funny games' so I'm playing Lol's album 'Before my time' instead. There's a version of Burgundy Street Blues  with the late Paul Rutherford on euphonium and Dave Green on bass, then I'll turn it over for Buddy Bolden's Blues. I won't play What a Friend We Have in Jesus ...not today.

Monday 28 May 2012

NYC notes May 2012

I spent a week in New York City earlier this month; here's my diary.

Tuesday May 8: I'm staying in an apartment on W 13th between 7th & Greenwich, booked, despite my earlier NYC apartment debacle, through Craigslist. I've become adept in spotting the crooks (who still seem to comprise 80% + of the vacation rental advertisers.) Sara and I had circled each other warily before each decided the other was harmless but I was still a little anxious until I had collected the keys,  climbed the 3 flights of narrow stairs and let myself in to a beautifully- decorated (buddhist chic) studio.

Spike Wilner (pianist and owner of Smalls) was playing a 6pm solo set but all I wanted to do was sleep- but not before strolling down 7th Ave South to Bleecker for what's become an arriving-in-NYC ritual- a pizza and a pint of Sierra Nevada at John's (recently acclaimed the best restaurant in the West Village by the Village Voice.) The small pie's too big for one jet-lagged traveler (no slices at John's) so 2 slices go in a bag for lunch tomorrow.

Wednesday May 9 ...in which your diarist learns an important lesson. I'd of course scanned Hot House and other what's on guides to help plan the musical side of the trip. One gig stood out-  a concert of solos & duos by Craig Taborn, Amina Claudine Myers & Vijay Iyer to be held at the Harlem Stage on 135th St & Convent Avenue that night, part of the Celebrating Cecil Taylor festival - I already knew I would miss the great man himself - he was to play 2 gigs after I left the USA.  I'd looked on line weeks before and noted that there was a $5 booking fee for a $10 ticket. I railed at the injustice of the charge and decided to visit the venue and save the 5 dollars. And of course it was sold out. And of course I'd have happily paid for a $15 ticket!

And inevitably I paid  far more than $15 dollars that night for 2 gigs in the Village.

The first was Jerome Sabbagh's quartet at Cornelia Street Cafe- a cd launch. I'd not heard Jerome before but knew he was an associate of the wonderfully left-field guitarist Ben Monder so I was expecting good things. Big disappointment; the quartet- Sabbagh tenor, Pete Rende, keyboards,  Simon Jermyn, electric bass;  Rudy Royston, drums - played the themes without enthusiasm- lots of bass ostinatos with some electronic twidding for contrast , and the leader's simple phrasing left me wanting a bit of  passion & complexity to spice up what was a dull set.

I decided one was all I needed  so I strolled up 7th Avenue to Smalls to hear the Brandon Wright Quartet- Brandon Wright - tenor, Boris Kozlov - bass, Helen Sung - piano, Donald Edwards - drums. I confess the leader was a name new to me, but I had heard Helen Sung and Boris Kozlov in the Mingus Big Band at Jazz Standard on my last visit and had been impressed by their forceful playing;  Helen is an a resonsive and provocative accompanist and an exciting soloist whose occasional Cecil-like clusters are immensely refreshing. And Kozlov- well, he plays bass in a band under the watchful eye of Sue Mingus! Dynamic drumming too, and the leader, who Fred Wesley called 'a young white cat who sounds like an old black man'- meant as a compliment I'm sure since Brandon displays it on his home page- provided all the drive and inventiveness I'd so missed from JS. Two sets of hard-swinging post-Coltrane jazz.

Thursday May 10 The day was spent touring the Manhattan record stores with my friend David- a voracious collector from Philly-  plus a brief visit to Brooklyn. In the era of Ebay and popsike it's near impossible to find treasure-trove bargains in record stores but between the NY Jazz Record Center (where I was introduced to Fred Cohen for the first time), the 3 branches of Academy Records and a few small shops in the East Village I bought around 50 albums. They will be on the new arrivals list I'm sending tomorrow- contact me if you'd like to see my lists.

Back to Cornelia Street that night to hear Allison Miller's quartet- another album release gig, but this time it was a double vinyl album- Live at Willisau. The band's called Boom Tic Boom, which is nice onomatopoeia for her restless and occasionally explosive drumming style; she's another name new to me- it was the presence of the great reeds player Marty Ehrlich which brought me to the gig. He was superb- especially on alto, playing just on the edge of abstraction with a blazing tone.

Friday May 11  A couple of weeks before my trip our club Leicester Jazz House had put on a gig by the New York Standards Quartet with tour organiser, animateur, mover & shaker Michael Janisch replacing the regular bassist. I already knew how good he is, but I was blown away by David Berkman (piano), Tim Armacost (ten/sop) and Gene Jackson (drums) none of whom I'd heard live before. Talking to Tim after the gig I mentioned I'd be in NYC and he recommended I went to a gig at Zinc by Emilio Solla y La Inestable de Brooklyn. 'Great tunes, and I'm in the band.' I'd already planned to hear Billy Harper at Smoke- 102 streets uptown-  but I reckoned I could just fit it in. I'm glad I did. I'm no great fan of Latin jazz (there's often too little angst for my taste) but Emilio's tunes and arrangements were superb. 'It's as if Gil Evans had been born in Argentina and studied with Kurt Weill' was my immediate assessment. Tim was the stand-out soloist but the whole band- John Ellis, tenor, flute and bass clarinet,Tim Armacost, tenor, soprano and alto flute, Alex Norris, trumpet, Ryan Keberle, trombone,Meg Okura, violin,Victor Prieto, accordion, Emilio Solla, piano,Jorge Roeder, double bass, Eric Doob, drums played brilliantly, and the voicings and instrumental combinations were superb. The band has a residency at Zinc once a month but have not recorded yet.

Then a quick dash for the 2 train to get me to Smoke for what I was sure would be a highlight of the week- Billy Harper's Quintet. It was not to be. Though Harper played beautifully with that characteristic 'cry' in his tone, the band- Francesca Tanksley - piano, Freddie Hendrix - trumpet, Clarence Seay - bass ,Aaron Scott - drums were efficient but unmemorable. And at the end of each number Harper asked the audience if we had any questions- one time adding ' I feel there's another question coming' after answering the one about the handsome leather tabard he was wearing. I held back from asking the query on the tip of my tongue- English reserve I guess. I couldn't help comparing his set to the unexpectedly excellent music I'd heard earlier, and a watery and overpriced Jambalaya added to my disappointment (though the food at Smoke is generally very good.) At the end of the one-hour set we weren't invited to stay for the next.

Saturday May 12 As soon as I heard that Sheila Jordan and Cameron Brown were playing Cornelia St Cafe (yes again) I emailed begging them to reserve me a seat- they normally only accept reservations by phone but I asked them nicely.

I've asserted in the past that Sheila is the greatest living jazz singer; nothing about her two sets that night made me alter that opinion. The National Endowment for the Arts seem to agree- they just gave her a Jazz Masters Award. She was born, as anyone who's heard 'Sheila's Blues' will surely know, on November 18th 1928- Micky Mouse's birthday- and in her long black coat and black hat she looked every bit the old lady she undoubtedly is. The coat came off, the hat stayed on, and when she realised no-one was coming to announce her remarked 'I love the Village, it's so laid back' then launched into two wonderful life-affirming hours of jazz standards, show tunes- a great Fred Astaire medley, some Oscar Brown songs and a lovely version of Don Cherry's 'Art Deco.' She's a bopper at heart but was a friend of Don's. Never possessed of a big voice (indeed she made a record called 'Little Voice!) she now occasionally struggles for a high note; what makes her so great is her musical imagination, improvising ability and emotional profundity. And her humanity.

Cameron Brown is her perfect bass partner; she's worked and recorded in the past with Arild Andersen and Harvie S(wartz), but Cameron's note choices, phrasing and attentiveness were jideal. There's a great interview with him in the May issue of the NY Jazz Record where he talks about his work with Archie Shepp, Don Cherry (and Sheila of course).

I was delighted she remembered the gig with Harvie in Leicester when she sang without PA (it was buzzy) and now have her London Jazz Festival concert (with Kurt Elling) to look forward to. See you there- I'm the guy in the front row with the big grin.

Sunday May 13 I was flying home on Monday so I was determined to fit in as much as possible.
I'd not been to Cafe Loup before, but as it's just along W 13th from the apartment I decided to try their jazz brunch with Bob Kindred (tenor), John Hart (guitar) and Santi Debriano (depping for Steve La Spina) (bass). I asked for a table near the music, but they were very busy so I was a little way from the alcove half way down the long room where the trio played . Still,  just one table between me and the band. 

Then it hit me- it was Mother's Day- and the intervening table held 3 generations of a  family who were out to honour grandmother, and catch up. More people kept joining the party, and it became clear that they were not going to order (let alone eat) until all had arrived. (I hoped that eating might provide an alternative to conversation.)  The group included a woman whose voice could make mobile phones redundant and a man who sat looking slightly bemused for 30 minutes, then found his wind and joined in the melee. I was particularly impressed by his glasses, which came apart at the bridge, just like the ME's on CSI New York. Wasn't him though.

The fact that I've yet to mention the music might give you the impression that I wasn't concentrating...well I was trying but it was not easy to focus when there's that kind of  'background'. The tenor man had a nice tone out of Webster and Hawkins, the guitarist was in the Christian/ Kessel tradition- fine by me- and there were some nice bowed bass solos. If I'd been in a group with mother it would have been fine, but for a solitary music lover it was a struggle, and as my neighbours hadn't ordered by the end of the 1st set I finished my excellent Eggs Benedict and left, walking down to Washington Square Park where a young man had wheeled out a grand piano (almost in tune) and was playing Romantic favourites by ear. I'll certainly go back, but I'd book early the table opposite the band.

I'd been looking forward to that evening's gig at the Vanguard with great anticipation; I'd heard Geri Allen's trio on a previous visit to NYC- it was a Jazzmobile presentation in the open air at Grant's Tomb, and she had Maurice Chestnut (tapdancer) as guest. It was the first night of our trip, but her brilliance had cut through my tiredness.The chance to hear her at the Vanguard was not to be missed- I was slightly worried to read that once more there would be guests, because I'd have been content to hear the trio alone (remembering the great DIW 1990 album with Charlie Haden  & Paul Motian recorded at the Vanguard.) Robert Hurst on bass and Karriem Riggins (drums) were much more straight ahead than Haden & Motian but were dynamic parners to the pianist's rhythmically complex style and intense melodic inventiveness. Bruce Williams on alto was the first guest, with a rubbery Dolphy-like tone- excellent. Lizz Wright sang a couple of songs in each set- she claimed to be not a jazz singer, rather a folk singer who knew a few jazz songs. She's tall, physically very striking with a beautiful rich chocolatey voice, but she's right- Her 'Prelude to a Kiss' was rather stiff though she sang two gospel-inflected songs effectively, with Geri Allen's simple but effective backing- 'Grandma's Hands' impressed even though Lizz forgot the words. 

It was the last night of Geri's 6 night engagement; maybe that was why (though the first set was packed) most people disppeared during the interval. So we were invited to stay on (for just the 1 drink minimum). To a half-empty house they played a fantastic set, finishing with an obscure Charlie Parker blues- 'Another Hair-do' - Bird recorded it on Savoy in 1947, three breakdowns then the master take. Listen to the Complete Savoys and the head will drill itself into your memory. I didn't think anyone had recorded it since, but Tom Lord informs me that there are versions by Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, Jackie McLean and Pete Yellin (on an obscure record with Sheila Jordan guesting on one track.)

Back to Geri; after the piano and alto solos a tall tenor player strode onto the stage and unleashed a blistering solo, then strode off again scarcely acknowledging the applause. Geri clearly wasn't expecting a sitter-in; when she back-announced the band she looked to the audience for assistance and someone yelled 'Azar!' 'Wow...Azar Lawrence' ....and wow was right- a magical ending to a stunning performance.

And a very satisfying week of music.

I'm organising a jazz tour of NYC in October so part of the reason for this post is to give some idea of the range of music to be heard in the city one random week. Contact me for details of the tour.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Makanda Ken McIntyre- Peace thru Jazz

I've been listening to jazz and buying records for more than 45 years, selling jazz records for around 20. I consider myself quite well informed about the music.

So when my good customer Derek Styles wrote to tell me he'd written a bio- discography of Makanda Ken McIntyre I tried to scrape together from what's left of my failing memory what I know about the saxophonist & multi-instrumentalist. Not much surfaced: a Prestige album with Dolphy, some later Steeplechases which I hadn't heard, a Blue Note double cd- ditto. Clearly I needed to read the book, to be reminded of his recordings with Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor, the Jazz Composers Orchestra, the Liberation Music Orchestra, of his participation in the Studio RivBea Wildflowers sessions.

Peace Thru Jazz is a chronological survey of McIntyre's work and recordings, with reviews, comments by musicians he worked with and short commentaries by Derek. He includes not only published recordings but details of the hundreds of tapes Makanda made at gigs and workshops, a few of which are available via the website maintained by his widow Joy Rosenthal.

What emerges is a rounded portrait of an undoubtedly significant and unjustly neglected musician who made a considerable contribution to jazz from the 60s on as player & composer, and as a pioneering jazz educator.

He was for sure a complicated and contradictory character; he preferred to call his music 'African American' rather than jazz but signed his letters 'peace thru jazz', he could be tough on his students- trombonist Steve Swell recalls him whispering 'You sound sick' in his ear- Swell agreed with his judgment!- yet encouraged a young inexperienced trumpet player to sit in with him at a gig and heaped praise on him afterwards.

He immersed himself in the music education world, teaching in schools and universities, then complained when he was not called on for gigs; he was bitter about the neglect he was shown by record companies & club owners and recalled the Down Beat review of Looking Ahead- 'Don't listen to this record if you have the slightest hint of a headache' - in his sleeve note to the Prestige two-fer reissue (under Dolphy's name). The book is full of praise for Makanda from fellow musicians- Roscoe Mitchell, Charlie Haden, Sonny Rollins, but a sentence from altoist Sonny Simmons stands out: 'Ken McIntyre?- we never liked each other.'

The 700 + tapes of Makanda which have now been placed in the Library of Congress in no way compensate for the paucity of issued recordings- an example: 8 years passed between Cecil's Unit Structures and Makanda's first recording for Steeplechase. His final recording, called with a nice irony 'A New Beginning' was issued on his own label CAAMO in 1999 but got no distribution; he died in 2001 not knowing it was to be reissued by Roscoe Mitchell on his Passing Thru label.

The neglect Makanda received during his career is reminiscent of the treatment of Herbie Nichols, so it's perhaps appropriate that there's a Makanda Project led by his ex-pupil John Kordalewski with the aim of recording some of Makanda's 400 unrecorded compositions.

Derek Styles sells antique silver for a living; this book is a sterling piece of research illuminating the life and work of an important musician.

Makanda Ken McIntyre; Peace thru Jazz by Derek Styles
Cadence Jazz Books 340pp paperback; ISBN 9781881993452
Price £20- signed copies available here

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Autumn in New York

I'm organising a walking tour of the NYC jazz scene to take place in the first week of October.

The tour is aimed at people who have not visited NYC before or who have not explored its jazz scene. By the end of the tour participants should have good knowledge of the geography and attractions of the city & a thorough knowledge of the jazz scene past & (most importantly) present. And will have heard some great music.

The 5-day tour will include:

  • Entry to Louis Armstrong’s house- now a museum- in Astoria, Queens
  • A visit to Charlie Parker’s house
  • Entry to the Jazz Museum in Harlem, with a ‘Harlem Speaks’ session if available
  • A 'ghost walk' covering the sites of (vanished) jazz clubs past - (Café Society, Minton’s, Monroe’s, Apollo Theatre- still there but no longer presenting much jazz- Five Spot, 52nd Street clubs, Slug’s) and other sites of jazz interest
  • and present- (not only famous clubs like the Vanguard, Blue Note, Birdland, Jazz Standard) but also Small’s, 55 Bar, Jazz Gallery, Cornelia St Café, Tea Lounge, Bar Next Door, I-Beam, The Stone.)
  • (At least) one recommended gig per night.
  • Visits to the best places to buy jazz records and cds in Manhattan, Brooklyn & Princeton
  • A meeting with a NYC-based musician for a discussion of the reality of the New York scene in the c21
  • A back-stage visit to a prominent jazz club.
  • A visit to the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, Newark, NJ
  • A visit to WBGO, Newark’s 24 hour jazz radio station.

I've had an encouraging response to the idea and plan to repeat the trip in future years; I've also received information on the avant garde scene and encouragement from Kevin Reilly who works at the Stone and runs the Relative Pitch record label.

Even more information (including the correct address of Monroe's Uptown House, one of the birthplaces of bebop) came from Bill Birch, author of Keeper of the Flame, a history of the modern jazz scene in Manchester. Ken Vail in his book Miles' Diary places it incorrectly, but Bill tracked it down!

My thanks to them both; anyone with queries or suggestions can contact me at alan@jazzhouserecords.co.uk

Bill's book is reviewed here: http://www.pennilesspress.co.uk/northernreview.htm and Relative Pitch here: http://www.relativepitchrecords.com/