Jacqui of All Trades

Jacqui DankworthJacqui Dankworth is in a class of her own. Not only is she the offspring of jazz royalty (her father was saxophonist, bandleader and composer John Dankworth; her mother is the formidable vocalist Cleo Laine), but the disarmingly unaffected singer and actress has a career that must be widely envied, not least for its eclecticism and variety.

In her visits to Scotland in the last year alone, Dankworth has performed in an opera at the Edinburgh International Festival, sung songs from family movies and cartoons with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and headlined one of the most successful concerts at the British Vocal Jazz Festival, within the Fringe.

For that concert, she was reunited with her occasional singing partner, Edinburgh-based Todd Gordon, and the pair bring their hugely popular Frank & Ella show to the Glasgow Jazz Festival this week. It’s proved to be a winning combination, and, since the two stars  – whose close friendship offstage accounts for the warm atmosphere on it – clearly get a kick out of performing together, it’s more double than tribute act. Indeed, as Dankworth points out: “I don’t sing like Ella but obviously I grew up listening to her. She was a one-off. It’s not a tribute show; it’s just acknowledging her and singing some songs that she sang.”

The Ella side of the operation, says Dankworth, means that pretty much anything from the Great American Songbook goes, as she sang everything during her long and prolific career – and in many instances, the record-buying public know more than one Fitzgerald recording of a song, since many live performances were been released on LPs.

“It’s strange because obviously Frank Sinatra had a lot more songs that he made the definitive versions of,  and hits that he was strongly associated with – like My Way and New York, New York – but that isn’t necessarily the case with Ella Fitzgerald. Hers was a different kind of career really. With Sinatra, it was almost more about him in a way than the songs. With her, she was serving the song.”

Although Dankworth may have had free rein to choose pretty much any standards she fancied – since Fitzgerald undoubtedly recorded them all – she did have to include two which are strongly associated with the legendary singer: Every Time We Say Goodbye (“though it was only a hit here – not in the States”) and How High the Moon, which became a Fitzgerald party piece due to her downright dazzling scat solo.

When it’s put to her that the other Ella’s with whom Todd Gordon has worked might have shied away from the mind-blowing acrobatics of Fitzgerald’s How High the Moon solo, Dankworth laughs and says: “It took me a long time to learn that solo. It feels easy now but when I first started learning it I thought how am I ever going to do this?! I learned it for Todd.”

Strangely, although Dankworth never met or heard Fitzgerald live (the teenage Todd Gordon did,  though, at the Usher Hall in the 1970s) she can boast of having spent an evening in the company of Gordon’s concert alter ego, Frank Sinatra. It was 1984, and Dankworth had recently graduated from Guildhall’s drama department.

She recalls: “I was on a 73 bus and as it passed the Albert Hall, I saw mum’s name because she was opening for Sinatra. I decided I should go and see her. They were all going out for a meal afterwards, and she said: ‘I’ll ask Frank if I can bring you along.’ So she rang his dressing room, and he said it was fine. I said: ‘Mum, I’d love to come but .. ..look at me!’ I was wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt.”

“Mum said: ‘Look, grab some earrings and we’ll get you jouged up a bit.’ So I sat looking slightly bedraggled on this table with the owners of all the casinos in Monte Carlo and the guy who was responsible for bringing Liza Minnelli over to Britain, plus this songwriter who’d had a big hit in the 1960s – I can’t remember his name. They were wearing their Versace and I was in a T-shirt and denims. It was a mad night.” And that was even before the songwriter made the Frank faux pas of bringing up the subject of a Mafia murder which was in the news. Dankworth remembers freezing in her seat. “I thought ‘oh God, get me out of here’. It was the longest three seconds of my life.”

A much more pleasant memory is that of Sinatra’s performance earlier that evening. “His presence onstage was astounding,” she says. “He sang every lyric as though he meant it – especially Ol’ Man River, which would normally be a bit odd, but he made it work. He made me cry..” And did she get to talk to him? “Well, not really. I just shook hands and said it was a pleasure to meet him.”

At that stage in her life, Dankworth had not yet even begun to try to make her mark as a singer; acting was her passion and for 15 years she made her living as a jobbing actress, having first discovered her flair for drama while at boarding school. Her musical gifts first revealed themselves during her schooldays too – and she played violin, flute and sang. “The music teacher thought I was talented. He wrote these incredibly difficult musicals and my mum remembers feeling gob-smacked when they came to hear me sing in these musicals because it was really difficult music, and I was nine or ten.”

It was only in her thirties that the naturally shy Dankworth began to focus on singing. “My passion was acting and it was when I met my first husband and he said ‘Let’s form a band’ that I got into doing more music, but when I started singing a lot I found it very difficult. It was easier when I was acting as I had to be someone else.  In fact, I remember having this conversation with Paloma Faith once and I asked her how she was able to be so outrageous onstage. She said: ‘Jacqui, I’m so shy, if I were just me up there everyone would feel shy and embarrassed’ so in a way she has a persona that gets her through. She’s approaching her stage persona in the way an actor would approach a part – and I identify with that.”

* The Frank & Ella Show/Todd Gordon & Jacqui Dankworth is at the City Halls on Friday. Visit www.jazzfest.co.uk for details and ticket links, or call 0141 353 8000.

* First published in Scotland on Sunday on June 22nd

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Book Review: All This and Slowly Deteriorating Fast – The Memoirs of a Geriatric Jazz Buff, by Jim Godbolt (Proper Music Publishing)

GodboltWell, this was supposed to be a jolly book review; timed to usher in jazz festival season. Of course, it is still timely in that respect, but jolly? Nae chance. This is a bitter biography which highlights the fact that fierce divisiveness is not a new thing in jazz – it’s been going since the music first began to evolve. It also reminds us that one man’s jazz pleasure can often be another’s poison.

Jim Godbolt was (he died last year, aged 90) a well-known jazz expert who managed one of the biggest bands in the trad revival of the late 1940s, worked as an agent for rock groups in the 1960s, and spent years editing the house magazines for two leading London jazz venues – Ronnie Scott’s and the 100 Club.

He was also the author of several books – two volumes of memoirs (the second incorporating the first), plus the History of Jazz in Britain 1919-1950. This final book, assembled by friends to whom he dictated new passages while he was bedridden and cursed by problems with his vision, covers his declining health (cue rants against the NHS in particular) and revisits parts of the earlier autobiography. At times, he seems to go round in circles, repeating himself (occasionally word for word); his heyday of the late 1940s proving a favourite stop-off point in the circles of memories.

Tellingly, Godbolt wrote in his opening chapter of All This and Slowly Deteriorating Fast that he was including characters from the earlier books again in this new one, “but viewed from different angles”. It’s soon clear that what he really meant was “now they’re dead, I’ll say what I really thought of them” – since there is actually a fair bit of bitchiness in his comments, notably about the otherwise universally loved Humphrey Lyttelton.

Indeed, it was while reading the fourth chapter, entitled The Gentlemen of Jazz, of this dinky, CD-square shaped book (which comes with a compilation disc of relevant tracks) that I realized that I was not warming to Godbolt one iota. His gripe against Lyttelton, about whom he wrote at length as if the quantity of words alone suggested at least that he acknowledged his importance in British jazz, was – according to the book at any rate – not personal. He blames it on Humph’s “most memorable volte-face” when Godbolt says he first abandoned then publicly condemned the principles of the post-war Revivalism movement  – during which young jazz musicians, including Humph himself, had revived the style and format of the original American jazz bands of the early 1920s.

But one senses that there’s more to it than Godbolt’s outrage at the popular Lyttelton’s decision to distance himself from trad purists. Perhaps it was his natural charisma, or his privileged background and Eton education that made the author – who emerges as someone who could find something to take exception to in any situation – seethe with polite venom?

Godbolt does seem to have a chip on his shoulder about class. Indeed, he comes across as someone weighed down by shoulder chips: the chapter on his years working as an agent contains much that is fascinating about the day-to-day – apparently thankless – business of being an agent, but it is also an opportunity for Godbolt to reel off a series of gripes about misconceptions about agents, and about what agents had to put up with.

In another section, he appears to be providing a potted biog and career overview of the great maverick clarinettist and composer Sandy Brown, but it soon morphs into an ill-judged moan about the fact that musicians at the bar drowned out his speech at Brown’s 100 Club memorial. He quotes one of the musicians’ well-meaning attempt at an apology and adds that it “was not a great comfort for this disgruntled speaker who had spent hours working on the speech.” Brown died in 1975. It seems that Godbolt’s “huff” – as he himself described it – continued until his own passing.

Never mind the “Mouldy Figs” – the term used in the British scene to describe the jazz purists who waged battle with the beboppers in the postwar years – this memoir reeks of sour grapes. It’s a damn shame. In the name of background research, I texted a musician friend who’s been on the London scene since the 1980s and dealt with all the jazz “characters”. Unprompted, he volunteered that Godbolt had long been known as a “grudge-bearer” and a “misanthrope”.  In which case, he certainly gives an accurate portrayal of himself in his final book.

* First published in the Sunday Herald on June 22nd

 

 

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Review: Leith Jazz Festival 2014

The Ugly Bug Ragtime ThreeFree jazz can mean two things. It can connote jazz that’s wholly, wildly, improvised – and it can mean amateur hour. And that’s where this year’s Leith Jazz Festival turned out to be the exception that proves the rule. Why? Because over the course of two and a half days, it offered punters the chance to hear not just good jazz, but also world-class jazz – and all for the price of a pint (or three).

Returning to the festival for its third year, alto saxophonist Martin Kershaw must have had deja vu as he took to what passed for the stage area in Sofi’s on Saturday. His duo gig there with bassist Ed Kelly was one of the highlights of 2012, and the follow-up was just as memorable – though this time it had the added appeal of a canine floorshow as it coincided with the monthly meeting of local dog owners and their pooches.

Kershaw and Kelly dished up a wonderful afternoon of cool, classy swinging jazz, with an especially slow Manha de Carnivale and the beguiling, Stan Getz-associated, ballad With the Wind and the Rain In Your Hair among the highlights.

A second helping of Kershaw’s airy, eloquent sax was a must on Sunday at the Isobar where the 1950s West Coast sound was evoked by him, trombonist Chris Grieve and guitarist Graeme Stephen, a sublime sounding combination which – appropriately enough, given that Leith’s twin city is Rio de Janeiro - worked especially well on a couple of bossas.

The Isobar also played host to another of the weekend’s stand-outs: a duo gig by trumpeter Colin Steele and guitarist Lachlan MacColl. The joint was jumping so much that MacColl’s douce guitar playing got lost in the lively ambience, but Steele certainly made himself heard, not least on an especially funky Blues March and an uptempo, boppish All the Things You Are – the second of three outings for the Jerome Kern classic that the Isobar witnessed over the weekend.

For anyone who fondly remembers the old Edinburgh Jazz Festival pub trail, the Leith event is its 21st century incarnation. The spirit seemed to prevail most strongly at the Saturday afternoon gig by The Ugly Bug Ragtime Three (pictured above), a clarinet-bass-banjo/guitar trio recently hatched by leader John Burgess.

If only there had been more breathing space in the packed-out Malt ‘n’ Hops pub, there would almost certainly have been an outbreak of slow dancing along to the Uglies’ gorgeous, gently swinging How Come You Do Me Like You Do. Ah well. Maybe next year … the festival is still young.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday June 9th

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The Sound of Fifty Summers

Getz:Gilberto coverFifty years ago, while the Beatles stormed America, an altogether cooler, more laidback craze breezed across the world. The summery, sultry, gently swaying sound of bossa nova, which had blown in from Brazil and captured the imagination of American jazz musicians, was showcased in a landmark collaboration between tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and a Brazilian quartet led by guitarist/singer Joao Gilberto and featuring music written by the great composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Getz/Gilberto was the album and it’s a landmark LP in jazz and pop history. It put bossa nova on the map, produced a chart-topping single, and made household names of both Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, the singer whose beguilingly unfussy, airy vocals helped make a hit of the album’s opening track, The Girl From Ipanema – which is now the second most recorded pop song in history (after the Beatles’ Yesterday). Getz/Gilberto was the first jazz album to win a Grammy for Album of the Year. And now, to mark its 50th anniversary – and just in time for a Brazil-themed summer – it has been re-issued in a special edition CD.

It’s an album which has become so familiar and is so accessible, and its tunes – Corcovado, Desafinado and The Girl From Ipanema, especially – so readily associated with bossa and so often now reduced to what’s tantamount to elevator music, that it’s easy to forget that this was all brand new and trendsetting back in 1964. Also, as the American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton says, “not only is it the best that Stan ever played – and that’s saying something – but it’s also one of those rare albums that is just perfect.”

Edinburgh-based alto saxophonist and Getz admirer Martin Kershaw agrees, and points out that it is a peerless example of “crossover” music. “We’ve all heard collaborations where we’ve thought ‘mm, that sounds like a slightly half-baked version of the two kinds of music that have been fused’, but that’s certainly not the case here. It feels like a finished article in that it just works so well. Getz himself sounds so comfortable in it .You don’t feel for a second that there’s anything forced or contrived about it; it sounds very natural. It’s an amazing collaboration.”

Whereas many jazz recordings of the period showcased a soloist or two with a rhythm section, Getz/Gilberto comes over as much more of a group effort; The Girl From Ipanema flows from Joao Gilberto’s soft Portuguese vocals – first hummed then quietly sung – into his wife’s breezy English vocals then Getz’s wistful tenor sax and Jobim’s gentle piano chords ….  The whole thing is soothing, undulating, languid, dreamy, romantic and a sort of comforting musical tonic for Americans living through turbulent times. This was a nation still reeling from the Kennedy assassination just a few months earlier. And not everybody was finding musical solace or distraction in the noisy invaders from Liverpool.

Stan Getz’s daughter, Bev, was ten years old when the album came out in 1964 and was present at many of the rehearsals and get-togethers before it was recorded the year before. Her impression of the atmosphere and personalities is exactly what anyone who loves the record would hope and expect. She says: “I found the Brazilians to be just such lovely, friendly, warm people; really gracious and fun-loving and kind. They were definitely not Americans, you could tell! They came to our house and we went to Joao and Astrud’s apartment, where they were staying in Manhattan, to rehearse – I remember being there a couple of times with my parents.

“And that’s when my dad heard Astrud singing – while she was doing the dishes. He said: ‘Let’s have Astrud sing the English lyrics’ – because they needed somebody to sing the English lyrics and I guess that’s how that came about.”

And the music? “I remember thinking how pretty it was – and how different to what I’d heard before. And my dad was quite taken with it – on so many levels. He referred to it as folk music; he said it’s beautiful music. He always loved folk music from all different countries, because it expressed who the people were from that country.”

Jobim, who was just one week older than Getz, told the saxophonist that he had written the songs on Getz/Gilberto while listening to and being influenced by the West Coast “cool school” jazz of the 1950s, a scene which Getz belonged to. So it really was a meeting of like minds on many levels, and a very organic music-making process. For Getz, who had recorded Brazilian music on his earlier Verve album, Jazz Samba, with the guitarist Charlie Byrd, this was the next step: recording it with the leading Brazilian musicians of the day.

The impact and success of the album – and The Girl From Ipanema, especially – took everyone by surprise. Bev Getz was oblivious to her father’s newfound pop star status -until, that is, he took the family to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium (“It was awful, I was completely unimpressed – you couldn’t hear a thing for all the screaming!”) and they were invited to go back to meet the Fab Four at their New York hotel after what turned out to be a historic concert.

Bev recalls: “We were in the lobby of, I think it was the Plaza, waiting to be escorted up and of course I was on tenterhooks. But then we heard that some fan had gotten up on to the roof and was threatening to throw herself off if she didn’t get to meet the Beatles. And that was it: we had to leave, because that became a whole big thing. And that was a huge disappointment in my life!”

Although he appreciated the opportunities and the fame which came with the success of The Girl From Ipanema and Getz/Gilberto, for Getz the musician, the association with bossa nova soon became a bit of a burden, and a bit of a bore. Bev explains: “He went with whatever he was feeling and hearing at the time. He did it, and then he moved on. And that’s what he did with the whole bossa nova thing – as a matter of fact he got pretty sick of it. Musically, he never stood still, he never stayed in one place. He was a creator so he wanted to create, he wanted to continue – and he was always being pulled back to the bossa.

“He didn’t resent it; he was just like “aaarrrggghhh!”. And in later years he would rarely play The Girl From Ipanema; he would play one of the ones that he really loved more, O Grande Amor. I think he threw that one into just about every set. It’s my favourite – and it was his too.”Getz, Gilberto & co

* Getz/Gilberto: Expanded Edition (Verve) is out now. Martin Kershaw plays every Thursday at the Playtime evening he co-founded at the Outhouse, Edinburgh (www.playtime-music.com)

* First published in The Scotsman, Saturday June 7th 

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CD Recommendations: May 2014

Evan Christopher’s Django a la Creole Live! (Fremeaux & Associes) Django a la Creole live sleeve

This international group has a loyal following thanks to its exhilarating fusion of Evan Christopher’s exotic clarinet sound with the Hot Club format of the trio, and invariably provides a five-star live listening experience so it’s no surprise that this CD, a selection of numbers recorded during its autumn 2012 tour, is nigh-on sensational. As ever, Christopher thrills with his dynamic, dramatic soloing and the exciting interplay with the superb lead guitarist David Blenkhorn. While most of the titles feature on the quartet’s previous CDs, there is a handful of new tunes – among them One For the Duke, a sublime take on the Ben Webster-Johnny Hodges number I’d Be There.

The Radio Luxembourg Sessions: The 208 Rhythm Club – Volume 2 (Vocalion)Sandy Brown sleeve 

The 208 Rhythm Club was a half-hour programme broadcast on Radio Luxembourg in the early 1960s and featuring groups promoting new recordings they had made at the Lansdowne Studios, to be issued by EMI’s Columbia subsidiary. This CD comprises two terrific 1961 sessions recently unearthed and presented here unedited and remastered – one by Al Fairweather & Sandy Brown’s All Stars and the other by Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band (featuring Tony Coe and Joe Temperley). Everyone is on top form; the Fairweather-Brown session is a typically uplifting affair, featuring such classic Brown tunes as Glories in the Evening, Harlem Fats and Bimbo, while the Lyttelton one boasts a couple of stunning Ellington numbers.

Scott Hamilton Quartet: Dean Street Nights (Woodville Records) Scott Hamilton Dean Street Nights

Dean Street, as anyone who has ever sought out top-notch jazz in London knows, is the Soho address of the Pizza Express jazz club which, for decades now, has played regular host to the great American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton who plays residencies there several times a year. This sensational session was recorded during a final night in his festive season run of early 2012, and it shows the one-time regular fixture on the British touring circuit in magnificent form, blowing up a storm with his longstanding London trio. Highlights include a gorgeous bossa version of Sweet and Lovely (with signature, masterful Hamilton intro), a riotous Jitterbug Waltz and a sublime If I Had You.

Live at Monmartre – Nicolaj Bentzon Trio featuring Winard Harper (Storyville) Live at Montmartre

A versatile Danish pianist, composer and conductor, Nicolaj Bentzon returned to his first love, the classic jazz piano trio, for two dates at Copenhagen’s famous Jazzhus Montmartre club last summer. Given that he’s the latest star of a composing dynasty that stretches back two centuries, it’s no surprise that Bentzon’s ten-tune set includes five original numbers – notably the gentle and classical-flavoured Flyv Fugi, Flyv and Cantilena Elegiaca. His style is exciting, occasionally explosive, and (as the liner notes say) effervescent, with traces here and there of the influence of Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner.

Lee Wiley: Four Classic Albums Plus (Avid) Lee Wiley

Lee Wiley (1908-1975) is one of the most criminally overlooked jazz singers but she was, and is, one much adored by musicians. Before Ella Fitzgerald recorded her first “songbook” album, the smoky-voiced Wiley had already earned the admiration of Gershwin, Porter and co with her classy, sassy, swinging and sexy interpretations of their songs. The quartet of LPs included here stem from the 1950s and include her sublime and iconic Night in Manhattan, as well as two classic big band/orchestra albums – the glorious West of the Moon, and A Touch of the Blues.

Curtis Stigers: Hooray For Love (Concord Jazz) Curtis Stigers Hooray For Love

Given his recent track record – of dishing up exclusively (as he put it) “sad songs or songs about sex” – you might expect Down With Love to be the title song of a Curtis Stigers album, but the soulful, craggy-voiced singer has clearly turned born-again romantic in the time since his last CD was released, and is spreading the word via a mixture of swinging standards and original numbers which are new but sound as if they’ve been torn from the back pages  of the Great American Songbook. The Gershwins’ Love Is Here To Stay is served up in a particularly tasty sextet arrangement (which evokes the groovy feel of Harry Edison and Jimmy Rowles’s mid-1950s album Sweets) and is a treat to hear, but it’s those catchy new tunes – notably the title track and A Matter of Time – which linger in the mind more than the other classics.

Georgia Mancio & Nigel Price: Come Rain or Come Shine (Roomspin) Georgia Mancio

There’s a cool, classy elegance and balmy feel to this gorgeous new album from the London-based singer Georgia Mancio which – along with the voice, guitar and bass line-up (and one of the song choices) – recall the glorious Julie and Julie is Her Name records made by Julie London in the 1950s. Mancio, however, is no clone and stamps each number with her own style which is less pared-down and more daring than London’s. Her gentle, clear and beguiling voice is for the most part beautifully complemented by Nigel Price’s eloquent guitar, along with Julie Walkington on bass; stand-outs include a sublimely sultry Manha de Carnaval (well, the English language version, A Day in the Life of a Fool), a swinging Gone With the Wind and a breezily romantic Moonlight in Vermont.

Kate Daniels: Atmospherics (Loxford Records) Kate Daniels CD sleeve

Hers may not be the strongest, most arresting or distinctive voice but British singer Kate Daniels has created a strangely compelling collection of songs on this CD; an introduction to a style she intriguingly (and accurately, based on most of the evidence here) describes as “jazz noir”. These are moody, melancholy, midnight-y arrangements featuring such top British musicians as John Etheridge (guitar), John Horler (piano), Graham Pike (trumpet) and Tony Coe (tenor sax), and a voice that lends itself equally well to gently swinging ballads and gut-wrenching chansons.

Warren Vache & Alan Barnes: The Cobbler’s Waltz (Woodville Records)Vache- Barnes

If ever there were two players whose delight in each other’s playing is infectious, it’s the duo of American cornettist Vache and British clarinettist/saxophonist Barnes. Old friends and occasional colleagues, this pair clearly relish opportunities for collaborating – and that certainly shines through on this CD, even before you read Vache’s lively liner notes. More laid-back than their last outing on Woodville, this quintet recording (with top-drawer British rhythm section of John Pearce, Dave Green and Steve Brown) features an inspired mix of off-the-beaten track tunes as well as a couple of insanely catchy original numbers by Vache.

Thelonious Monk: Paris 1969 (Blue Note Records) Thelonious Monk Paris 1969

Also newly available on DVD, this is a rare recording of a late-career concert by the maverick pianist-composer Thelonious Monk (then aged 52) in the company of his longtime collaborator Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, plus a much younger bassist and drummer (17-year-old Paris Wright). Monk may have been past his creative prime, playing tunes he had played umpteen times before, and breaking in a new rhythm section – but this concert is hugely enjoyable and fresh-sounding and it went down a storm with the Parisian audience. Maybe for those of us who aren’t Monk maniacs, the slightly more mellow, older incarnation of the pianist has a particular appeal. Veteran drummer Philly Joe Jones, who had been resident in the French capital for a year, was invited up by Monk to sit in on the closing numbers.

Christine Tobin: A Thousand Kisses Deep (Trail Belle Records) Christine Tobin

Irish singer Tobin introduced the material on this album of Leonard Cohen songs at the inaugural British Vocal Jazz Festival at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe – and the concert was one of the highlights of the event. With her gutsy, powerful voice and unfussy yet passionate style, Tobin turns each song into a vivid story or portrait, and has strong accompaniment from her trio, led by guitarist Phil Robson, which is augmented to include accordion on several tracks – an addition which brings a chanson-y feel to the proceedings.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2014

P1040978Please visit London Jazz News for my write-up of this year’s Norwich Jazz Party. I hope to have a few videos to post here soon though, and perhaps a few words I didn’t use in the LJN report! Sadly, I had a photographic fail this year – but Bruce Lindsay’s pictures, which accompany my review, are fab.

This one shows the winner of the most colourfully attired character of the last night – plus me.

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The Cat in the Jazz Hat

Photo_Liquid Sp_300CMYK 1It’s not often you put the phone down from an interview with someone who is probably enduring 20-odd interviews a day, and think “What a lovely guy,” but, then it’s not very often you come across someone as charming and unassuming as Gregory Porter, the soulful 42-year-old jazz singer who is no longer the “next big thing” but the “big thing” itself.

Porter, who performs in Glasgow on Saturday, is currently riding the wave of Grammy and chart success thanks to Liquid Spirit, his debut album on legendary jazz label Blue Note. Porter’s appeal may go well beyond the jazz arena, but his musical roots lie very much in jazz and gospel, the types of music with which he grew up in California.

The combination of a very present mother and a completely absent father shaped the course of Porter’s journey through music. His mother was a minister who raised eight children in what Porter describes as “a very musical household”. Everyone mucked in with cooking and cleaning, and there was always a soundtrack, whether it was from the radio or from the family singing which, of course, they did in church as well as at home.

For Porter, whose talent was identified early on, singing was a way of getting his mother’s attention. “I was a mama’s boy,” he admits, “and that was a way to get on to her side. The two things that I really love to do are cooking and singing – two things my mother really loved. I was number seven of eight kids – so you had to find some way to distinguish yourself in the household.”

It may sound ridiculous, but it was in his mother’s record collection that Porter, whose teenage tastes already included Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, found a father figure – in the great singer/pianist Nat “King” Cole. He explains: “I became obsessed with Nat King Cole. I was using his music and his style, and even the images from his records, to satiate me in some way in some absence that I had – in terms of a father figure.”

Cole’s rich, chocolatey voice was comforting, and he seemed to exude an air of wisdom. As imaginary fathers go, his appeal is pretty obvious: on the much-repeated television shows that he made in the 1950s (he died in 1965), he came across as an avuncular personality, introducing his songs as if dispensing advice and addressing the audience as if he was talking to close friends and relatives. Porter remembers album covers making a particular impression on him: “A lot of them show him sitting by the fire with a pipe.” He always came across as a family man.

Not only did Nat King Cole to some extent plug an emotional gap in the young Mr Porter’s life, but he also proved to be the launchpad for his career. In 1998, Porter had been singing in small jazz clubs in San Diego while attending the state university on a football scholarship when he was invited by local pianist/saxophonist Kamau Kenyatta to visit him in the Los Angeles recording studio where he was producing flautist Hubert Laws’ album Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole.

When Laws overheard Porter singing along to the song Smile, he was so impressed that he decided to include him on the album. Another twist of Nat King Cole fate that day was a chance encounter with Laws’ sister, a singer who was about to join the cast of a new musical, It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. One thing led to another – and Porter landed one of the leading roles when it opened in Denver. Off-Broadway then Broadway success followed, and in the New York Times’ 1999 rave review, Porter was mentioned as one of the show’s “powerhouse line-up of singers”.

The Cole connection didn’t end there: in 2004, Porter wrote his own musical – about his relationship with his “father figure”. In Nat King Cole and Me – A Musical Healing, he played a character based on himself, a boy seeking love and guidance and finding it in Cole, who – like him – had “grown up in the church”, with both parents involved in the ministry.

Porter’s love for Cole was ultimately expressed in many ways – and may soon manifest itself in a duet with his surviving daughter, the singer Natalie Cole – but initially, during the early years, it was his own, “private” music. “I liked that,” he says. “I still do that to this day. I like it when there’s some unique singer that not a whole bunch of people know about – and it’s my personal musical conversation that I’m having with them.”

So, do any other singers get a look-in as influences? Porter chuckles and replies: “Yeah. For me, very different stylistically [from Cole] but in the way that both are singing from a very emotional standpoint I would say Donny Hathaway. Also Bill Withers and Lou Rawls – those styles and types of voices and approach have always been very influential to me.”

Another key influence is the jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln – but not so much for her singing. “In terms of my writing and even approaching my music, she has been very much an influence. She was very personal with her style and her offerings of music. She would put personal stories, personal cultural stories, into her writing and it’s almost hard to imagine anybody else singing her music – and so I think I’ve taken cues from her. She was willing to put her politics into the music as well; life being politics – she put that into the music, and that was something that affected me and my thinking about music as well.”

All but three of the 14 songs on Liquid Spirit were penned by Porter who has been praised for the way in which he weaves social and political observations into his songs, and for his ability to translate painful personal experiences into poignant lyrics that are easy to relate to. Doesn’t he ever kick himself and think: “I wish I hadn’t put that song on the album – because now I’ve got to keep singing it?!” Isn’t it like reliving the same experience over and over?

Laughing heartily, he says: “Yeah! But I’ll tell you something that’s interesting. I keep being asked ‘who is Laura?’ [from the brink-of-break-up song Hey Laura]… Actually, she was from Edinburgh! I’m speaking to you from Laura’s home in Colorado.” He doesn’t elaborate.

Of course, the other question that Porter is always being asked is “what’s the story with the hat?”. The singer is never seen without his signature bunnet-cum-balaclava.  Is it, as one paper reported, the sartorial equivalent of a security blanket – his “jazz blankee”? Does he have a scalp condition? Is it a homage to Thelonious Monk who was seldom seen sans wacky chapeau.

The singer chuckles good-naturedly. “It goes with what I feel about music. I admire people who are their own individuals in the music, who have a distinct and unique sound and approach. That’s what jazz is supposed to be – you’re supposed to be a unique individual in the music. It also applies to your personal charisma and style – and even with your personal dress. As a jazz musician, you’re probably supposed to be a little bit out of the box. And let’s face it, there have already been a whole bunch of great jazz hats – Count Basie’s sailor caps, Lester Young’s pork pie hat etc. This is mine.”

* Gregory Porter plays the ABC, Glasgow, on Saturday.

 First published in Scotland on Sunday on April 27

 

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