Luca Manning: Rising Star

Luca Manning - When the sun comes out (front cover)

Luca Manning may only have left school two years ago, but the young jazz singer with the soulful, gentle voice already has an award on his mantelpiece (Rising Star at the 2018 Scottish Jazz Awards), a debut CD to sell, a CV that many older singers would kill for, a star-studded roster of admirers, and a dedicated entourage which includes a well-kent face from TV.

Manning, you see, is the grandson of Anita – the colourful Glasgow antiques expert on Bargain Hunt – and over the last few years, she and her daughter, Luca’s mother, have become regulars at jazz concerts in Glasgow. Indeed, from being what she described as a “rock ‘n’ roll gal,” Anita Manning now has an impressive jazz collection (“she has loads of Ella Fitzgerald records”) and has helped her grandson by offering him tips on performance, dealing with nerves and keeping energy levels up. “ ‘Eat bananas’ is her top tip for an energy boost,” laughs Manning.

It was always obvious to Luca Manning that his future lay in music – but he only discovered jazz relatively recently. Born in Glasgow’s west end, he attended Hillhead High School where, initially, he dreamt of becoming a rock star – not that he was very keen on practising his guitar.

“I was in a pop/rock band playing ukulele and writing sad songs with four chords,” he says. “I was in a choir in first year – I had a high voice and had to sing with the sopranos. The school had a fantastic, dedicated music department and there was always an outlet for music.”

At home, Manning’s listening tastes were much influenced by his mother who raised him and his older sister by herself. “Mum, who of course is now into jazz, always liked amazing voices – Sinead O’Connor, Jimmy Sommerville, people like that. Great singers with big voices. I went through a lot of phases but the constants were Amy Winehouse (who I think Anita liked first!), Stevie Wonder and soul music. I bought my first album with my mum in Fopp on Byres Road. It was Bjork – Debut and my mum said: ‘If you don’t get it, I’ll get it!’ I think I was 14 at the time.”

Meanwhile, Manning was taking piano lessons, having given up on guitar, and was encouraged by his piano teacher to sing. “I was actually champing at the bit to get singing lessons but I didn’t get any until my voice had broken”.

When Manning was 16 years old, his school suggested he sign up for the weekly jazz workshops run by the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra. One of his tutors there was the pianist Alan Benzie, and when the course ended, Manning was desperate to continue learning, so Benzie took him on as a student. It was he who helped the youngster with auditions and prescribed listening material for him. “Until I did the SYJO classes, I knew very little about jazz and didn’t really know what I was getting into,” says Manning. “But the more I immersed myself in the music – the more I loved it.”

Among Manning’s early favourites was the iconic Chet Baker, whose eponymous 1959 album he will be celebrating at The Blue Arrow in Glasgow next month, as part of the club’s 59:60 series of homages to classic albums from that pivotal year in jazz.

“I instantly fell in love with Chet, both his singing and his trumpet playing,” explains Manning. I love that melancholy fragility and vulnerability; I have an emotional connection to Chet. Crooners never resonated as much with me as much. Mark Murphy’s later records are in the same vein as Chet’s – it’s a different style but he’s not afraid to stick his neck out, be himself, take risks. I also love Amy Winehouse – in fact, I think I got into her because my gran Anita was always playing her records.”

The summer school run by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland proved another invaluable experience for Manning. “I just loved learning. Jazz was like a new musical language, and I remember that it was after that summer school that I came back and told my mum I want to be a jazz musician.” Manning returned to the summer school a further two times, and one of those occasions it led to him appearing at the Proms as part of a choir of students from the course.

Along with Alan Benzie, the much-loved English singer Liane Carroll played a huge part in Manning’s development. Not only did she point him in the direction of the vocal jazz workshops run in Scotland by fellow singer Sophie Bancroft – with tutors including herself, Sara Colman and Fionna Duncan – but she also invited him to sing with her at her Christmas show at Ronnie Scott’s in 2017. She is, as Manning says, “a very generous person and musician”.

Carroll has also been a significant influence on the young vocalist. “Her singing is so honest; every word is so true and she just makes you feel something. No matter which genre she’s singing in, you are guaranteed to be told a story and she has so much fun onstage doing it. It’s infectious. She’s a very natural improviser which I love as well.”

It was during a particular listening phase around 18 months ago, that Manning – who is currently midway through the four-year jazz course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London – had the surreal experience of being invited to support the singer in question at a jazz festival gig.

He explains: “I was really getting into Georgie Fame – I love his Portrait of Chet album; he’s an amazing singer – and was listening to him a lot early in 2018. I sang one of his vocalese numbers at the launch of The Blue Arrow club and Jill Rodger, the director of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, heard me and said: ‘Georgie Fame is playing at the jazz festival this year. How would you like to open for him?’”

And so it was that Manning and the similarly youthful pianist Fergus McCreadie came to be the support act for Fame last year, and then Ruby Turner this summer. (The pair have now, separately, been nominated in the Newcomer category of the prestigious Parliementary Awards, taking place in London in December.) Understandably, this was a pretty daunting experience, but Manning took his cue from his more experienced, then 20-year-old, musical partner. “We decided not to tailor the music to the person we were supporting. Fergus reminded me never to compromise as a musician. He said: ‘Let’s just do our thing unapologetically’.”

It’s little wonder, given the trust he has in McCreadie, that Manning chose to record his debut CD, When the Sun Comes Out, with him earlier this year. The original idea was not to record an album, but just to make some recordings together. “Sara Colman, my mentor and tutor at Guildhall, and I had spoken a lot and she suggested we go in and record enough material so I could make a CD if I wanted. We recorded at the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland’s HQ – a room that we were already familiar with – and that was a great way of minimising stress, by being in familiar surroundings. Sara sat in on the recording and helped produce which also helped me feel more comfortable and confident.”

His confidence was further boosted by the involvement of leading alto saxophonist Laura Macdonald, who had given him sax lessons at school before he took up singing. “I love her energy and her playing. We’ve always stayed in touch, and she has been a really good mentor to me. I wanted to have a duo on the CD – but then I thought it would be nice to have a guest and Laura was the first person to come into my head. And it was the idea of having her, rather than the idea of a sax. It turned out just as I envisaged: she came in on the second day and completely changed the energy. I was almost pinching myself. Everyone in the room loved it. Fergus hadn’t played with her before. We had a quick run-through. It was very much of the moment.”

The bottom line for Manning was that this debut CD was an accurate reflection of what he does in a gig. “All I wanted was honesty. I didn’t want multi-tracking or mixing, and I wanted a maximum of two or three takes. Some of the songs were new to us; some we’ve done before. There is no theme to the album but the songs are connected in a way because there are themes of home, identity and love. I was thinking about how there is pressure to release ALL new music that’s innovative and new, but I didn’t want to write ten new tunes – I wanted to do what I’d do on a gig.

“At the end of the day, it’s an honest snapshot of who I am. And I just love great songs.”

*When the Sun Comes Out is available now; Luca Manning – Chet Baker: Chet is at The Blue Arrow, Glasgow on Thursday October 24; www.thebluearrow.co.ukLuca 2 solo pic.jpg

Text (c) Alison Kerr, 2019; album cover artwork by Irenie Blaze-Cameron; portrait by Delilah Niel

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Bob Wilber Obituary

Bob Wilber, Ed Jazz Fest 1992Bob Wilber, who has died at the age of 91, was a champion of classic and traditional jazz and one of the world’s leading jazz soprano saxophonists and clarinettists. During a career which spanned more than six decades, the quiet-spoken New Yorker was a living link to the great jazz originals who had inspired him – in particular the legendary Sidney Bechet, whose protégé he was in the late 1940s – and a musical chameleon, able to emulate both Bechet’s sound and that of the clarinet king Benny Goodman.

In later life, he became a generous mentor to the younger players who followed him, not least the mighty tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton with whose young band Wilber recorded in 1977, thereby attracting the attention of the record company which ultimately signed him.

In Scotland, he is remembered for his involvement in gala or one-off concerts at the Edinburgh and Nairn Jazz Festivals – in particular the handful of reunions of the 1970s jazz “supergroup”, Soprano Summit, which took place twice in Edinburgh in the 1990s, and twice in Nairn in the 2000s, and he appeared with Scott Hamilton the final edition of the much-missed Nairn Jazz Festival, in 2009.

Robert Sage Wilber was born in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1928. His father was a partner in a small publishing firm which specialised in college textbooks. His mother died when Wilber was just over a year old, and Wilber and his sister were raised by their father and the second wife he married soon afterwards. When Wilber was six years old, the family moved to Scarsdale, an affluent commuter suburb to the north of the city.

Wilber was just an infant when he first heard jazz – his father, who played some jazz piano, played him the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s recording of Mood Indigo when it had just come out. Wilber would hear the band live, in 1943, when the whole family went to Carnegie Hall for the historic Black, Brown and Beige concert. Not that this was the young boy’s first experience of live jazz; his father had already taken him to Manhattan’s Café Society nightclub to listen to the elegant and swinging pianist Teddy Wilson.

Like many of his peers, Wilber, who took up clarinet in his early teens, became hooked on traditional jazz which was enjoying a popular revival in the 1940s. He wrote in his 1987 memoir Music Was Not Enough: “I had discovered jazz. It seemed to me to celebrate the very joy of being alive. How very different from the rest of my life!” At school, he helped establish a record club and formed a band which held lunchtime sessions.

Aged 15 years old, Wilber and his jazz-mad classmates would go into the city every Sunday afternoon to hear some of their favourite musicians playing in a jam session. They even persuaded them to come to play in an end-of-term concert at their school. And so it was that such well-known names from the jazz world as pianist Art Hodes, bass player Pops Foster, trombonist Wilber De Paris and clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow played at Scarsdale High.

Instead of pursuing an Ivy League education, as might have been expected, Wilber finished school and moved to New York to continue his studies in the jazz clubs of 52ndStreet and in Brooklyn, where he studied with the great New Orleans clarinettist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet.

“He had a ramshackle house with a sign, ‘Sidney Bechet’s School of Music’,” Wilber told the New York Times in 1980. “I was virtually the first student and the only serious student. After a month Sidney suggested I move in with him.” By 1948, Wilber was so immersed in Bechet’s style of playing and sounded so like him that when the older man was unable to accept an invitation to play at the Nice Jazz Festival, his student went in his place.

Wilber had formed his first band, the Wildcats, in 1945. It comprised contemporaries including the dazzling pianist Dick Wellstood. But, says Dan Morgenstern, the Director Emeritus of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, it was the second incarnation of the Wildcats which was Wilber’s most important band.

Morgenstern says: “Apart from Bob and Dick, the other members were veteran blacks, old enough to be their fathers or even grandfathers. Between them, these elders had worked with a veritable who’s who of early jazz including King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, as well as Louis Armstrong. The interracial aspect was almost as unusual, for that time, as the age one.”

When he was drafted into the army in 1952, Wilber – seeking to emerge from Bechet’s shadow – swapped his soprano sax for a tenor. He didn’t restrict his interest to classic and traditional jazz – he explored modern jazz by studying pianist Lennie Tristano, and he formed a band named The Six which combined elements of traditional and modern jazz.  He also studied classical clarinet, and toured with the most celebrated swing clarinettist, Benny Goodman. It wasn’t until the 1960s that he was first introduced to the instrument for which he will be best remembered – the curved soprano sax.

He later wrote: “I played one note of curved soprano sax and I remember saying this is different from the straight. I can do something on this which is different than Sidney Bechet. And that started my second career on soprano.”  Indeed, it was on soprano that Wilber was featured when he became one of the charter members of Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart’s modestly monikered World’s Greatest Jazz Band in 1968.

In 1969, Wilber earned a Grammy nomination for his album The Music of Hoagy Carmichael, which featured his arrangements and his serene soprano sax playing. (He won the Grammy in 1985 for his recreations of Duke Ellington’s 1920s music for the movie The Cotton Club.) It also marked a comeback for the wonderful swing era singer Maxine Sullivan, with whom he recorded another album that year, Close As Pages in a Book.

Wilber may have had to talk Sullivan into her comeback, but when he called Marty Grosz to ask if he would like to join Soprano Summit, the response was: “My bags are packed.” The much-loved guitarist, vocalist and purveyor of side-splittingly funny anecdotes had been working for the US Postal Service but he gave it up and headed out on the road with Soprano Summit; a move which launched Grosz’s career as a solo star who was a favourite of Edinburgh and Nairn audiences through the 1990s and 2000s.

Soprano Summit was created on impulse by a promoter desperate to revive an audience jazzed-out after a full weekend of wall-to-wall jazz. He suggested that Wilber and Kenny Davern “do a duet with soprano saxophones and wake everyone up”.  The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.

“We got a rhythm section together,” explained Wilber during an interview in Nairn, in 1995. “By a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number.” Davern continued: “We finished it off on two high notes in thirds, and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”

In December 1972, the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album. Then, after a second LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born. The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go. Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work.

Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love of tunes which were off the beaten standard track. Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic ground plan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. Davern added: “That was the basic sound of the group – two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue.”

In a typical Soprano Summit number they bounced the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, though one sensed that much of the arranging was going on as they played. Wilber and Davern’s intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing.

As British clarinettist and saxophonist Alan Barnes says: “Soprano Summit brought together two highly individual and virtuosic reed players who, great as they were individually, found an interaction together that was very special. Taking the pre-swing era as their inspiration, they gave the material a contemporary edge and struck real sparks off each other in series of exciting exchanges that stood comparison with any of the other two reed combinations in jazz.”

Even years after Soprano Summit broke up, when Wilber and Davern got together, they still produced spine-tingling music – as anyone who attended one of their reunion concerts will testify.

After settling in the Cotswolds in the late 1980s with his second wife, the Sheffield-born singer Joanne “Pug” Horton, Wilber performed in Scotland every few years until around 2010, when he made his last appearance at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in a concert entitled Festival of Swing which also featured fellow octogenarian Joe Temperley and tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton.

By this time, he was in the habit of taking control of the line-up with which he was working, and, rather than following the programme and leading the all-star group in its entirety for a finale, he assumed leadership from the off, putting together a first set which overran by 45 minutes. Nobody in the band said anything, despite being 45 minutes’ overdue their pints, but Wilber – as one musician remembered it – “got a massive bollocking from the wee lady who sold the ice-creams – which had melted in the meantime.”

Bob Wilber, born March 15, 1928; died August 4, 2019.

A shorter version of this was published in The Herald on August 30.

Text (c) Alison Kerr; Photo (c) Donnie Kerr

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Duncan Lamont Obituary

Duncan Lamont recent [12236]Duncan Lamont, who has died at the age of 87, was a songwriter, composer, arranger and saxophonist who swapped the shipyards of Greenock for the jazz clubs of Soho in the 1950s, and forged a unique career which continued up until his death just hours after he played in a special concert of his music at London’s famous 606 Club.

A particularly generous and modest man who was held in high esteem by his fellow musicians, Lamont was especially well loved by singers who appreciated his gift for producing songs which told stories or painted vivid scenes. A prolific songwriter, who still aimed to produce a song a day well into his eighties, he wrote numbers which were recorded by some of the most revered names in jazz, among them Cleo Laine (who ended her Carnegie Hall show with his Not You Again) and Blossom Dearie, herself a gifted songwriter.

Just last month, he brought a show celebrating his songbook – featuring his regular collaborators, the singers Esther Bennett and Daniela Clynes, plus a Scottish rhythm section – to the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock.

Lamont also penned orchestral suites, such as The Young Person’s Guide to the Jazz Orchestra and The Sherlock Holmes Suite, in collaboration with his great admirer Spike Milligan. He also wrote music for TV, most famously the children’s classic Mr Benn and the cop show The Sweeney.

For more than two decades, he was also the featured saxophone soloist in British bands accompanying such illustrious visiting stars as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Bing Crosby, or being led by such greats as Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Henry Mancini. For 11 years, Lamont led a band himself to raise money for cancer research.

Duncan Lamont was born in Greenock in 1931. His father worked in the torpedo factory in the shipyards, and the family was very musical. In a BBC interview last year, he recalled: “My family talked about music all the time.” His father and one sister played accordion; another sister was a champion dancer, and at the age of seven, Duncan took up trumpet, chosen because “it was the cheapest instrument I could get – it cost 30 shillings”.

During the war the family was evacuated, and Lamont’s first trumpet lessons were with a teacher in Troon. “He was terrible, but I didn’t know it at the time,” he later said. After the war, the teenage Lamont began to travel to Glasgow every week for lessons with the “wonderful” Jimmy Young who immediately realised that the boy destined to become his star pupil had not learned to read music at all with his previous teacher.

Lamont began to play gigs with local dance bands, and was soon leading the life of a musician rather than that of a school boy. “I’d be up till about five in the morning, so my mother often didn’t send me to school at all.” A crippling lack of self-confidence plagued Lamont in his early years – even after he and some friends came second in a Melody Maker contest and he was offered a job with a top London jazz band.

“Being invited to join Kenny Graham’s Afro Cubists was like being offerd a Hollywood contract,” he recalled, “but I turned it down because I was too frightened.” He went back to work at the shipyards but received regular telegrams from Graham imploring him to change his mind, until one day, he did just that. “I always felt there must be something better than the shipyards, but I felt I was doomed to work there.”

In London, Lamont switched to tenor saxophone, and made his first recording (“I was absolutely petrified!”) with Edinburgh-born Johnny Keating’s band, in 1957. Entitled Swinging Scots, it featured an all-star line-up entirely comprised of some of the talented musicians who had already migrated from north of the border, including the likes of George Chisholm (trombone) and trumpeters Jimmy Deuchar and Tommy McQuater.

Lamont soon added flute and clarinet playing to his skill set and rose through the ranks of session musicians to the point where he was regularly called upon to play, often as a featured soloist, with American stars when they toured or recorded over here. Marlene Dietrich and Sammy Davis Jr were two of his favourites, while Fred Astaire inspired Lamont to write a song. The thank-you letter he received from the debonair song and dance man became a treasured possession.

Despite having a diary that many freelance musicians could only dream of, Lamont found some of these high-profile gigs daunting and seems to have suffered from what’s now labelled “imposter syndrome”. He later said: “I coped but I didn’t want to do it through drink or drugs so I tried yoga. And within a week it transformed me. I became like a different person, more relaxed, more outgoing.”

Perhaps it was yoga that emboldened Lamont when, after 19 seasons of playing for Frank Sinatra, he – along with the rest of the band – was offered a significantly reduced fee for the usual amount of work. Finding that everyone else had accepted the pay cut, Lamont took the gig but when he realised that his old black evening suit needed to be replaced, he decided that Sinatra wasn’t paying him enough to justify a shopping trip, so he opted to make a silent but visual protest – by wearing a brown evening suit. When Sinatra’s fixer got in touch with him the following year it was to ask if he had any idea why had been told never to book Lamont again..

Other 20th Century music greats – among them the arranger/composer Gil Evans – were won over by his talents as a composer. Sammy Cahn, who wrote many of Sinatra’s favourite lyrics, wrote an article on Duncan Lamont, and said: “It makes me very happy that people are still writing songs like I Told You So.” That song – written from a woman’s point of view – was recorded by a string of diverse singers, including Natalie Cole and Cleo Laine, and featured on Tomorrow’s Standards, an award-winning CD of Lamont’s songs, released in 1994.

British singer Tina May, who appeared at the birthday show at the 606 Club last week and who is going ahead with a planned CD of Lamont’s songs later this year, says: ““Duncan had an uncanny sensitivity and witty insight when writing songs. I find his lyrics and his melodies very catchy and a joy to sing. Each song is a little vignette and they are sometimes quite challenging; Manhattan in the Rain, for example. A consummate jazz player, Duncan was a song writer with an exceptional sense of groove, melody, sophistication and internal rhyming structures – which created the feeling of a very well crafted ‘standard’.”

Lamont, who was predeceased by his wife Bridget, is survived by his sons Duncan Lamont Jr and Ross, and four grandchildren.

Duncan Lamont, saxophonist, songwriter, composer and arranger; born July 4, 1931; died July 2, 2019.

First published in The Herald, July 16, 2019; (c) Alison Kerr; 2019

Young Duncan Lamont in Glasgow (1)

Duncan Lamont (left) and friends in Greenock in the 1940s

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Colin Steele: Joni, Mary and All That Jazz!

colin steele low res-5004One of the most magical moments at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe came from the bowels of Chambers Street where a room-ful of punters could be heard softly singing Feed the Birds, the beautiful ballad from the Disney film Mary Poppins – to the accompaniment of two of Scotland’s leading jazz musicians as they performed their Poppins-themed show at the Jazz Bar.

This hour-long concert – which united tiny tots, senior citizens, hippies, hipsters, seasoned Fringe-goers, diehard Disney fans and jaded jazzers in song – became one of those shows which grew busier as its run went on. Word of mouth boosted its ticket sales and the memory of how special it was prompted its stars – the duo of trumpeter Colin Steele and pianist Brian Kellock – to be persuaded to revive it for this year’s Fringe, for just two performances.

But Mary Poppins, the jazz version, is just one of a raft of diverse gigs that Steele is preparing for. While other dads might be looking forward to easing off work during the school holidays, Steele is limbering up for the busiest couple of months in his calendar.

The acclaimed 51-year-old jazz musician – and father of three – is bracing himself for a festival season which this year sees him headlining two concerts at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival (and serving as sideman on a further seven) and four shows (each with multiple performances) at the Fringe, plus so many as a sideman that he has already lost count. “Some days I have three gigs,” he says, “so I’m practising like crazy, building up the chops.”

Steele – who has just spent the weekend zooming between the Glasgow Jazz Festival, where he played in up-and-coming singer Georgia Cecile’s band; Loch Lomond, where he is renovating a holiday house, and his hometown where he had gigs at both the Barony Bar and Soderberg – seems to be ahead of the game in terms of building up his stamina for mid July. But it’s not something he takes for granted, having suffered a catastrophic crisis with his playing ten years ago.

Left unable to play, he had to re-learn his craft and he is now much more aware that he shouldn’t push himself too hard. “Nowadays, I know that if it’s not working, then I need to put the trumpet away for a bit. I used to get anxious and push myself too far and it would all collapse,” he explains.

As his busy, cross-country weekend and heavy Fringe schedule illustrate, Steele is an extremely versatile musician who is at home in any number of jazz settings and has absorbed inspiration from a vast range of horn players. He cites Chet Baker – whose, cool, swinging, pared-back “West Coast” sound he channels with ease – as his biggest influence, and names Louis Armstrong, “whose creativity, originality and emotional playing is second to none”, as his favourite trumpeter. It was playing Baker-style jazz that made Steele’s name back in the 1990s, but recently he has played more traditional jazz thanks to his membership of various bands led by the singer Alison Affleck, a tireless champion of early styles of jazz.

[Affleck, Steele and their cohorts may have helped to fuel the revival of interest in traditional jazz in Scotland but it has,unfortunately been pounced upon, rather cynically, by some musicians who seem to view it as a way of landing gigs, rather than because it’s an area of jazz that they are passionate about and well-versed in. Even more disheartening is the fact that jazz festivals are lowering their standards by booking these groups which have jumped on the trad bandwagon.]

Under his own name, Steele has performed and recorded Celtic/folk-influenced jazz with his own band. At last year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival, he acknowledged his past forays into pop by performing a jazz concert of music by the Glasgow band The Pearlfishers, on ten of whose records he had played. The success of the Pearlfishers project – the concerts and a very well-received album – inspired another pop-themed jazz project for this year’s festival: the Colin Steele Quartet Play Joni Mitchell.

“I’ve had a deep love for Joni Mitchell for a long time; I’d always known her music – and I felt her songs deserved to be better appreciated. She’s known primarily as a poet, but her melodies are fab and stand on their own two feet. Plus, there’s already a jazz connection because she worked quite often with jazz musicians – Charles Mingus, Michael Brecker and Jaco Pastorius are just some of the jazz guys she worked with.”

There were other contenders for this next jazz-meets-pop project, however. “Ricky Lee Jones was high up on the list too,” says Steele before returning to the subject of how he convinced himself that the Joni Mitchell idea could work. “Actually,” he explains, “I probably wouldn’t have gone for this Joni Mitchell idea had Brian Kellock and I not done the music of Mary Poppins at the Fringe last year. It’s so far away from jazz – it just shows what you can do. Someone said to me after the Mary Poppins show that if you can make something as fab as that out of Mary Poppins, then you can do anything. It’s all about melody, and if you have a really strong melody, then it will work. Also, Brian can make anything possible!”

Over the last five years, the Steele-Kellock double act has become a fixture on the Fringe; the two longstanding friends and colleagues seeing it as an opportunity to explore themes or songbooks that they hadn’t delved into before, and to harness the anything-goes spirit of the Fringe to up the level of spontaneity and fun. And, of course, to make a feature of audience participation.

Steele recalls: “The first Fringe show we did together was My Fair Lady in 2014, then the following year, Brian suggested that we do a Glenn Miller show and it sort of took off from there; it became an annual jamboree. It just worked so well; the audience loved it. We had air raid sirens, singalongs (Pennsylvania 65000 etc) and everybody knew a lot of the tunes. The strength of the melody and the arrangements are so great, and playing that music in a small group gives you so much space. When I’ve played it in a big band, I’ve not been satisfied because you can’t really be creative – and I do like to improvise.”

In 2018, Steele and Kellock retired the Glenn Miller show so they could concentrate on their Mary Poppins one. Its slow sales at the outset suggested that there was some ambivalence that it would work but ultimately it assumed the status of being one of those shows that people kick themselves for having missed because those who were there talk about it as a life-enhancing event.

Steele says: “On the fifth and final day, there was a big group of musicians who came in and they said it was the best, most fun, gig they’d ever seen and I felt that way too. It really was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life – everyone singing Feed the Birds. It was so special. I felt it would be a shame not to do it again.”

In addition to reviving Glenn Miller for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival and Mary Poppins for this year’s Fringe, Steele and Kellock are celebrating two of the original giants of jazz – Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington – in another Fringe show that will have five outings.

What is it about working in a duo that so appeals to Steele?  “There’s a real intimacy and a responsibility that you both have – you can’t take a back seat. It’s lovely to work with someone with such musicality and of course you have to remember that there’s also the beauty of no drummer! There’s so much space because there’s no drummer. Anything can happen in duos. With three or four people it’s more complicated. The duo offers more possibilities, more freedom but also harder work – there’s a lot of sweat going on.

“I’ve no doubt that Brian is the greatest of all Scottish jazz musicians and we’re so lucky to have him and I’m so honoured to play with him. We all feel that. It’s always a challenge: he’s not an accompanist – he’s there for the creativity, he’s always pushing. I’m more reticent, he pushes you into different areas. It’s always scary, always a joy.”

*Colin Steele plays the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on July 15 (Glenn Miller, with Brian Kellock) and 17 (Joni Mitchell with his own group); www.edinburghjazzfestival.com for details. For details of his various Fringe shows, visit www.edfringe.com ; Mary Poppins is on August 18 and 20.

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Lady (Doesn’t) Sing the Blues – Again

Lady Sings the Blues concert poster.pngOne of the strangest nights in the history of New York’s illustrious Carnegie Hall took place in November 1956 when Billie Holiday, the jazz singer now regarded as the greatest of them all, headlined a show entitled Lady Sings the Blues. What made it so unusual was not so much that a jazz star, and a black one at that, was going to perform at this most prestigious of venues – jazz musicians, including Holiday herself, had played on that stage before.

The difference was that this show was inspired by Holiday’s recently published, brutally frank and fairly controversial autobiography, excerpts of which would be read out during the evening – by a male journalist – in between performances by Holiday and an all-star band.

The publication of Lady Sings the Blues a few months earlier had been a big deal. To ensure maximum publicity, a new album with the same title was released simultaneously (an LP of the Carnegie Hall show would follow as well). It was made up mostly of songs associated with the singer earlier in her two-decade career plus the title track – a new song comprising a melody already written by pianist Herbie Nichols with words by Holiday. It had been the publishers, Doubleday, who insisted on the title – Holiday preferred “Bitter Crop” which comes from her powerful protest song Strange Fruit – despite her argument that she had never been a blues singer.

The book was co-written with respected journalist William Dufty, who was a close friend. Holiday needed to get the book out fast since she was in dire financial straits in the mid-1950s: she was in debt but she was unable to work in the nightclubs of New York having had her cabaret card (which permitted performers to work in licensed premises) revoked following her drugs conviction in the late 1940s.

Dufty drew on previously published interviews plus conversations between him and Holiday, and the result was a confessional style of autobiography which dealt frankly with Holiday’s drug addiction and her experiences of rape, prostitution and domestic abuse. The New York Herald Tribune said it was a “hard, bitter and unsentimental book, written with brutal honesty and having much to say not only about Billie Holiday, the person, but about what it means to be poor and black in America”.

Some jazz critics were appalled by the book, which made little reference to Holiday’s art and which – they knew – was an attempt to make some money to support her drug habit and pay off her debts, while giving the impression that she was now clean so that she could get back her cabaret card. One jazz writer who did review it positively was Down Beat’s Nat Hentoff who said that it would “help those who want to understand how her voice became what it was – the most hurt and hurting singer in jazz”.

For a long time, the received jazz wisdom was that Lady Sings the Blues was a sensationalist memoir packed with fiction. Holes were picked in it and once doubt was cast over some mistakes, the reliability of everything else was called into question. It didn’t help that there’s an inaccuracy in the very first line – one of the most shocking and attention-grabbing openers you’re likely to come across. It became a book that you would read but knew you should take with a hefty pinch of salt – and the Lady Sings the Blues movie, starring Diana Ross and not even bearing much resemblance to the book on which it purports to be based, didn’t help matters.

In recent times, the book, which sold well upon publication and has never been out of print, has been re-evaluated within the jazz world, and there’s an appreciation of the authenticity of Holiday’s voice – her streetwise language and her sassy attitude – even if her memories played tricks on her, or if she did have an agenda.

Similarly, the Lady Sings the Blues concert proved to be a big success. Reviews talked about how the audience was spellbound, and you can certainly hear from the live LP how warm the reaction was. Nat Hentoff wrote: “The audience was hers before she sang, greeting and saying goodbye with heavy applause, and at one time the musicians, too, applauded. It was a night when Billie was on top, the best jazz singer alive.”

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For the opening night of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, David McAlmont – the versatile London-based singer whose group McAlmont and Butler topped the charts with the song Yes in the mid 1990s – is staging his show “David McAlmont Presents Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall” in which he pays homage to his favourite jazz singer and that strange yet triumphant night in 1956.

Although McAlmont, who is 52, has been a fan of Holiday for most of his adult life, he didn’t get off to a great start with her. “The first time I heard her, I thought she sounded horrible – it wasn’t even one of her very last recordings. I’d seen a picture of this gorgeous woman and wanted to know what she sounded like. It wasn’t until I saw an Arena documentary, The Long Night of Lady Day, that I understood where that voice came from – and that was when I became obsessed.”

Initially, McAlmont reckons, he was put off Holiday because he didn’t understand what singing is. “You could say that my first singing teacher was Julie Andrews – there’s a purity and clarity and pitch perfect melodiousness. That was the period when a voice like Billie Holiday’s, Bob Dylan’s or Van Morrison’s just didn’t make any sense to me. I hadn’t lived. I hadn’t fallen in love or felt hurt. I was just a kid.”

While many vocalists gravitate towards late-era Holiday when the voice had deteriorated due to her lifestyle but she still managed to put a song across with terrific style and sensitivity, McAlmont has always been more drawn to her early output.

“I love the 1930s recordings,” he says. “It’s still my favourite period – she’s having fun, she’s hip, she’s updating Bessie Smith and Satchmo and having fun with the boys. My go-to album, the one I drilled a hole into, was A Fine Romance with Lester Young. I still can’t face Lady in Satin.”

As a singer himself, McAlmont was keen to pay musical tribute to his idol. “I tried to get myself on Billie Holiday bills and tribute shows – but I kept being told ‘no’ – because I’m a man. After a few years of not being allowed to take part in anybody else’s Billie Holiday events, at the Barbican, at the Chichester Jazz Festival etc, I was lucky to meet Alex Webb [pianist and musical director] and when he asked me if I’d like to do something together, I suggested doing something on Billie. And he came up with this idea.”

For his show, McAlmont uses the material from Carnegie Hall night and broadens it out, adding some extra songs – “I wasn’t going to let this opportunity go by without singing some of my favourite Billie songs that she didn’t do at Carnegie Hall!” – and highlighting different passages from the book, although he retains the shock opening.

He also includes passages that were deleted from the book for legal reasons. The actor Charles Laughton was one of Holiday’s famous friends whose lawyer had demanded that all reference to him be removed. “Well, I like those stories,” explains McAlmont, who has clearly immersed himself in Holiday research in preparation for the show.

“In my research, I consulted everything I could find. I had a bee in my bonnet about jazz being hostile to men singing Billie Holiday and also about the way that Billie is often just thought of as a tragic figure. I’ll never forget, I met this young girl years ago and when we talked about Billie Holiday, she said ‘I love the tragedy’. I’m responding to that. The show is not a wake. There are plenty of people who do that. The show is about that night in 1956 and the book.”

So how does he approach the songs in the show; most of which were so strongly associated with Holiday that her recordings are regarded as the definitive versions? Whereas many singers paying homage to a hero tend to make a point of avoiding imitation, McAlmont – whose heroine often reinvented songs on the spot as she sang – has a different take on this.

He says: “The composition exists but when Billie Holiday takes it it’s a new composition. So in this show, I adhere to the notes she chose – if I sang them my way it would be more cabaret. The integrity of the performance is in remembering how she did it. I’m celebrating her – the show is about her and my love for her, and what she achieved.

“By writing Lady Sings the Blues, she told an American story that people hadn’t heard before and because of her talent, they listened. It’s a valuable document.

“Not only that, but by staging this show at the Carnegie Hall – because she had been banned from singing in clubs – Billie Holiday elevated jazz into an art form. Jazz was brought into a major arts base. That’s another reason why I can’t stand the Billie Holiday industry which sees her only as a tragic heroine. I won’t have it!”

* David McAlmont Presents Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall is at the Drygate on Wednesday June 19. For tickets, visit www.jazzfest.co.uk

First published in The Herald on Saturday, June 15

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Review: Leith Jazz & Blues Festival

Leith Jazz & Blues Festival ***

Leith Jazz Festival trio

The Scottish jazz festival season kicked off on Friday in Leith, where pubs, bars and eateries (oh, and even a hair salon) in the area played host to a huge number of free jazz and blues gigs.

Even a cursory glance at the flyer or website for this year’s event couldn’t fail to give the impression that the festival has ballooned in size and become significantly more blues oriented since it was launched, in its current incarnation, back in 2012.

Back then, and for the first few years, a large part of the joy for jazz lovers was getting to hear world-class Scottish names for free while discovering often unfamiliar corners of the Leith’s liquid landscape. It felt like the legendary Edinburgh Jazz Festival Pub Trail of the 1980s come back to life.

This year, there was still a smattering of world-class jazz but there were none of the established classic or trad jazz bands that appeared in previous years, and it was more of a challenge to find familiar names amongst the astonishing 62-strong list of gigs shoehorned into the three days. (Some sort of brief description of each band would have been a big help for punters when perusing the programme.)

On the jazz side of things, unfamiliar names turned out to be unfamiliar for a reason. Thankfully, Friday night offered a series of safe bets, however: trumpeter Colin Steele was on terrific form leading an ace group at the Lioness of Leith pub. Steele’s inner Chet Baker was much to the fore; his pared-back, swinging and eloquent style beautifully offset by Kevin Mackenzie on guitar and Kenny Ellis on bass.

One of the highlights of Steele’s set, the haunting bossa Manha de Carnaval, was reprised a couple of hours later when he unexpectedly sat in on the only available mid-evening jazz session on Friday’s programme – pianist Fraser Urquhart’s knock-out trio gig at the atmospheric Shore Bar (one of the most conducive venues on the Leith circuit).

Manha de Carnaval – The Sequel was an entirely separate entity from the original, featuring as it did some delightful exchanges between pianist Fraser Urquhart and his guitarist dad Dougie, and a dramatic Sketches of Spain-esque ending.

Earlier, Fraser Urquhart had been a member of John Burgess’s trio in the wine bar/eatery Toast. This was a fabulous set of classy, swinging jazz that showed off Burgess’s mighty, soulful tenor sax sound.

Quantity rather than quality was to the fore on Saturday afternoon’s programme – which is why some of the jazz-following contingent launched their jazz trail outwith the festival, at Broughton Street’s Barony Bar where Burgess could be heard in an impressive line-up led by guitarist John Russell.

In the spirit of “you can’t improve on perfection”, there was really no point in going anywhere other than home after hearing the superb duo of West Coast-style altoist Martin Kershaw and ace bass Ed Kelly, a duo which was a highlight of the first Leith Jazz Festival and which is always worth cramming into Sofi’s Bar to hear.

First published in The Scotsman on Monday, June 10th

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Leon Redbone Obituary

Leon Redbone, who has died at the age of 69, was an enigmatic and eccentric figure on the music scene best remembered in this country for providing the wistful songs which played a key part in the success of a series of much-loved British Rail InterCity adverts which ran from 1988 into the early 1990s.

In the United States, he was regarded as a national treasure, having made regular appearances on TV since the first series of Saturday Night Live in 1976 when his debut album, On the Track, was attracting attention. He became such an icon that he was immortalised in both the 2003 Will Ferrell movie Elf (he voiced Leon the Snowman) and one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. He was also a regular on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion live radio show.

Usually dressed in a suit and tie, and panama hat and always wearing shades, Redbone cut a distinctive dash. His throwback look and the air of mystery around him were almost as intriguing and appealing as his unique musical sound – a simple, folksy melange of jazz and Delta blues with a hint of western swing. He sang in a laconic Louisiana accent, and played acoustic guitar. Sometimes he broke into a bit of yodelling, and he often whistled melodies or played harmonica along with his guitar.

The songs he chose were invariably little-remembered Tin Pan Alley gems from the 1910s and 1920s, though he also wrote some numbers – including So Relax, the song featured in the InterCity adverts. Many of his 16 albums featured top jazz musicians who were no strangers to jazz audiences in Scotland – Ken Peplowski, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dan Barrett.

His rise to fame in the mid-1970s coincided with the sudden popular interest in ragtime – thanks to the use of Scott Joplin’s rags on the soundtrack of The Sting – and he enjoyed early endorsement from Bob Dylan, who was impressed and intrigued by this Groucho Marx lookalike whose age, he said, could be “anywhere from 25 to 60”.

Throughout his career – which came to an end in 2015, when he retired for health reasons – Redbone’s disinclination to talk seriously about himself or engage in routine publicity simply added to his mystique.

During his four-night run at the 1991 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Radio Tay broadcaster (and festival compere) Alan Steadman’s delight at managing to persuade Redbone to be interviewed turned to slightly frustrated bemusement when every question was answered with just “yes” or “no”. (Steadman also recalls that one of Redbone’s quirks was to take a photo of the audience before every show.) All he did reveal, beyond his gentle and whimsical style of music, was a wry sense of humour. Quick wit quietly delivered in a slow southern drawl was in evidence both onstage and off.

That same festival, American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton was appearing on a BBC radio show featuring an all-star line-up. He remembers: “I was desperate for a drink and there were only minutes to go before the start, so I ran downstairs and bumped into Leon, whom I’d never met before. ‘Is there a bar or a restaurant down here anywhere?’ I asked, out of breath. He looked at me funny and said: ‘A bar or a restroom? Buddy, you better make up your mind ..’ !”

At the 2002 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, it was difficult to tell whether the stage persona was his natural personality or a cultivated one (indeed, there had been speculation that Redbone was an alter ego for another performer). Redbone – wearing his signature sunglasses – complained about the lights being too strong but was admirably unruffled, and characteristically droll, when dealing with the other issues of what turned out to be a pretty tense evening for those of us who wanted to listen to him.

First there were the problems with the microphone – “Was I singing the same song I was playing?” asked the deadpan musician – then there was the one-man campaign for audience participation which went on for most of the concert.

Redbone ended up playing referee as his attentive audience turned on the heckler, and demanded his removal (after he had sung along through a staggering seven numbers and even been given a personal warning from the jazz festival director himself). “Some enchanted evening …” sang Redbone, by way of commenting on the incident.

Asked, late in his career, about his reluctance to chat or to talk about himself, Redbone said: “I don’t do anything mysterious on purpose. I’m less than forthcoming, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m mysterious. It just means I’m not inclined to go there.” He claimed that he preferred the emphasis to be on his songs, and that he was simply a vehicle for the music. Even the announcement of his death last week – in a notice posted on his official website – referred to his age as 127.

What is known is that Redbone – who is believed to have been born Dickran Gobalian in Cyrpus to Armenian parents – moved to Toronto in the 1960s where he developed a cult following thanks to his performances in coffee houses and folk clubs. But it was in the mid-1970s that he came to the attention of a larger audience when he was name-checked in a Rolling Stone article by Bob Dylan, who had heard him at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario and talked about producing his first album. Other notable admirers have included Loudon Wainwright III, Jack White and Bonnie Raitt.

He is survived by his wife (and manager) Beryl Handler, his two daughters and three grandchildren.

*Leon Redbone, singer and guitarist, born August 26, 1949; died May 30, 2019.

First published in The Herald, June 6, 2019

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