Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: Cindy Douglas Sings Billie Holiday

Cindy Douglas Sings Billie Holiday, Tron Kirk, Saturday July 19th ***

Scottish singer Cindy Douglas served up a pretty impressive debut show at the Tron on Saturday. Well, two shows actually – both celebrating the often unsung musical relationship of the great Billie Holiday and her tenor saxophonist soulmate Lester Young. The fact that this was not going to be an attempt at recreating their sounds was obvious even before Douglas had opened her mouth: the choice of Konrad Wiszniewski, who sounds beefier and more muscular than the melancholic, dreamy Lester Young, as her musical partner spoke volumes. It’s a shame that his name wasn’t advertised beforehand – not that there would have been room for many more audience-members.

With a girlish, soft-edged voice, Douglas herself sounds nothing like Lady Day though aspects of her style, notably its simplicity, evoked her heroine’s on occasion. She put her own spin on the songs, most of which had a casual, spontaneous accompaniment by Wiszniewski and her trio.

On some of Holiday’s more personal later numbers, however, there were bold attempts to reinvent them – with varying degrees of success: a heavy-handed arrangement of Good Morning Heartache turned it, bizarrely, into a jaunty number. More daring and successful was a striking duet of Strange Fruit with Karen Marshalsay playing the bray harp.

Some of the song choices were odd – How Long Has This Been Going On? is not a Holiday-associated number – and it would perhaps have made sense to include more of the 1930s repertoire which is synonymous with the Holiday-Young heyday. But it was a flying start.

First published in The Scotsman, Monday July 21st

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2014: The Big Chris Barber Band

The Big Chris Barber Band, Queen’s Hall, Friday July 18th ****

There was a sense of déjà vu about the concert given on Friday at the Queen’s Hall for the opening night of this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival. As the Big Chris Barber Band launched into a performance of Duke Ellington’s glorious Rent Party Blues which stirred neck hairs into a standing ovation, memories of this British outfit’s last visit to the Glasgow Jazz Festival flooded back. And so it was for much of the evening, which seemed to follow the same programme (a mixture of classic New Orleans jazz tunes and spirituals, Ellington compositions and the wild card of Miles Davis’s All Blues) and trigger the same pleasures and frustrations as that 2010 concert.

Among the pleasures of hearing this band are the fact that it offers a rare opportunity to hear 1920s Ellington being played so expertly and enthusiastically. Its slick, exhilarating ensemble playing – especially when trios of clarinets, saxes or trumpets are featured playing in unison (as happens so often, to thrilling effect, on such early Ellington numbers as East St Louis Toodle-Oo and Hot and Bothered) – was a particular delight, and there were some ace solos, not least by star clarinettist Bert Brandsma.

Barber himself, now 84 and in a wheelchair, played some memorable solos when the spotlight (the stylish lighting also added to the concert’s classiness) was on him but, unfortunately, the tear-your-hair-out frustration of being an audience member at one of his concerts was still very much present: it’s nigh-on impossible to make out 90% of what he says because of his rushed delivery. And what makes it even more infuriating is that the 10% that was intelligible was funny and/or fascinating.

First published in The Herald, Monday July 21st

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Conal Fowkes: Woody ‘n’ Me

Conal Fowkes at pianoVersatile doesn’t even begin to cover the nature of Conal Fowkes’s music career. The New York-based 46-year-old comes to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival next week to play numerous solo piano sets and function as pianist, music director and arranger on a First World War-themed concert, but his CV spans classical to Cuban music, and his jazz piano talents range from Harlem stride to hard bop. Oh, and he also plays the bass. Indeed, it was on that instrument that he landed the gig that indirectly led to his playing being featured on Woody Allen’s two most recent films, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, and his soon-to-be-released Magic in the Moonlight. And it’s his Woody Allen association which will undoubtedly draw the punters in to his numerous festival performances.

Fowkes, who was born in Zambia and grew up in Leicestershire, had not long moved to New York when, 15 years ago, he went to a gig by a traditional jazz band. During a break, he got talking to the group’s banjoist, who had spotted the young Fowkes amongst the rather more senior audience. The banjo player was Eddy Davis, and, after being impressed by Fowkes’s enthusiasm for the music, he invited him to sit in on a couple of tunes – on piano. After the gig, Fowkes mentioned that he also played bass – and, lo, it turned out there was a vacancy in the band Davis played with on a Monday night at the Café Carlyle. Little did Fowkes know that the band was led by clarinettist and filmmaker extraordinaire Woody Allen. For five years, he played bass in Allen’s band before switching to piano when that chair became empty.

What was Fowkes’s first impression of Allen? “I met him on the bandstand and he’s a man of very, very few words so it’s not like we had a conversation – or  a ‘hey, how you doing? Who are you?’. Nothing like that. I think maybe he smiled in my direction, and we just played the gig. I’m sure I was nervous – it was quite a high-profile gig – but it was a lot of fun, and he’s so laid-back that he puts you at your ease anyway. There’s not a lot of tension around.”

When he met Allen, Fowkes wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about his work. “I didn’t know a lot of his films – I’ve obviously gotten in to them more and more over the years working with him.” Is he not terribly critical of his own playing? “He is very critical of himself but he’s very complimentary and full of praise for his sidemen. I’ve heard him say many many times that he would much rather play music than make films; he much prefers being on the bandstand than on the set but he then goes on to say that he’s not good enough to make a living as a musician –he puts himself down all the time. But he loves playing more than anything.

“Just to give you an idea, when he made Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Eddy Davis and I managed to find a location in Barcelona to play – the two of us as a duo – just so that Woody could drop in and play when he felt like it. We had nothing to do with the film: it was just because he was going to be there…  He was shooting a full schedule, Monday to Friday, 9-5 – or if it was a night shoot the same kind of hours in the evening – and he would come directly from the set three or four nights a week, and play for about three hours without a break. And I mean without even going to his hotel and taking a shower, you know; just coming straight to play with us. I think he needs it and desires it so much, it means so much to him. It must help him unwind.”

The first Allen film that Fowkes played on was 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger – all that was used was a tiny clip of Fowkes, Davis and Allen himself in what must have been the first time he played clarinet on his own soundtrack since Sleeper (1973).

The Midnight in Paris gig came out of the blue. Fowkes explains: “One Monday, we had just finished our regular gig and he turned to me and said ‘Hey, I need you to record some songs for my next film’ – just casual like that. I had to sing and play the piano for the actor playing Cole Porter to mime to – not that I knew that at the time. I’m not much of a singer – though thankfully neither was Cole Porter! He gave me the three songs that he wanted, booked a studio for me, and all he said was ‘Don’t play them jazzy, just play the songs. Just think you’re at a party playing and singing a song.’ So off I went completely confused and a little bit nervous, and I recorded them. I got a message saying everything was just as he wanted, and he used it all. I think I just was lucky that it fit what he wanted.”

Fowkes was drafted into Blue Jasmine at the last minute. The film had been made and they were looking for a version of Blue Moon. Allen tried a recording that he had used for a previous film, but it didn’t fit the images so he asked Fowkes to record a new version – again with virtually no remit. “It’s so frustrating. I’ve heard actors saying the same thing about his directing. The thing is: I see him all the time and I would like for him to know I’ll do it any way he wants because what I don’t want to happen is he says ‘Can you do this?’ and I record it and it’s not right, and he doesn’t want to tell me it’s not right – and stops asking me.”

Magic in the Moonlight sees Allen return, musically anyway, to Kurt Weill. And, again, Fowkes has no idea how much of Bilbao Song or Mack the Knife will have made it into the final edit. Still, it means that some wonderful Weill can be included in his Woody Allen-themed concert next Thursday. It’s not the first time that one of Woody Allen’s favourite pianists and collaborators has headlined the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – his longtime music director Dick Hyman (now 87) was a regular visitor to the festival in the 1980s – so it’s surely can’t be long before the movie maestro materialises himself…

* Conal Fowkes – Woody Allen and Jazz, Tron Kirk, Thursday July 24. For information on this and his other concerts, visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

First published in The Scotsman on Monday, July 14th

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Review: Stu Brown’s Twisted Toons, Glasgow

Stu Brown’s Twisted Toons,Recital Room, Glasgow, Saturday June 28th ****

It was impossible not to be charmed by the Twisted Toons concert at the Recital Room on Saturday evening. Not only is drummer Stu Brown an extremely engaging and amiable host, but his passion for Raymond Scott’s cultish compositions – which were used in dozens of classic Warner Bros cartoons as well as the more recent Ren and Stimpy animations – and the performances of them by a septet comprising A-list Scottish jazz musicians make an irresistible combination. That said, however, a little of the Scott repertoire goes a long way…

The opening numbers were highly enjoyable. Jungle Medley was a collection of pieces from Looney Tunes cartoons by Carl Stalling which segued into Scott’s swinging, vaguely early-Ellingtonian composition Dinner Time For a Pack of Hungry Cannibals and featured a superb hot clarinet solo by Martin Kershaw. Scott’s spooky Goblins in the Steeple was another gem, thanks to the terrific ensemble work and a stylish solo by trumpeter Tom MacNiven. The septet sound – of clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, violin, piano, bass and drums – on this number, the playful arrangement and the classy playing brought to mind some of the brilliant work of some of Marty Grosz’s modern-day small, 1920s-style, groups which blend zingy, witty arrangements with top drawer soloing.

Less appealing, however, were full-length cartoon scores – perhaps they would work better if accompanying a screening of the cartoons. The complete scores are too disjointed, and their jazz and tuneful elements too scattered to be satisfying listening on their own for the lay person.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday June 30th

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Review: James Tormé & His All Star Trio, Glasgow

James Tormé & His All Star Trio, 29, Glasgow, Friday June 27th  ***

There was a touch of the Emperor’s New Clothes about Friday night’s concert at new venue, 29,  a lovely supper club space on the fourth floor of the private members’ club in Royal Exchange Square. Why? Because not only was up-and-coming singer James Tormé presented and introduced as a big name (big surname, maybe) whose presence was something of a coup, but he was accompanied by an “all-star” trio, plus a saxophonist, of whom only one musician was familiar to this jazz fan, and even he would probably be the first to register surprise at his sudden promotion to star status.

Still, the audience seemed not only to buy it but to lap it up – along with everything Tormé himself threw at them. He fairly tested the patience with cheesy inter-song patter worthy of Liberace, and with his habit of striking a series of poses nonstop during his songs as if he was doing a simultaneous fashion shoot.

In Emperor’s New Clothes style, only one woman (presumably not caring if she appeared a fool), shouted out what everyone was surely thinking – “Och, you’re a right name-dropper!” – as Tormé effused endlessly about how his parents met, his father’s hit records (which he then sang) and his Scottish connection.

Can he sing? He sure can. He proved it during effortless but impressive scat solos and on unfussy ballads. He doesn’t need all the showbiz window dressing and posturing – and the over-arranged songs don’t do him many favours either.

 * First published in The Scotsman on Monday, June 30th

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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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