Review: Martin Taylor & Alison Burns – Ella at 100

Martin Taylor & Alison Burns – Ella at 100, Strathclyde Suite, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow ****

Maybe it’s fitting that a star who was as unassuming in real life as Ella Fitzgerald should have a low-key centenary year – in Scotland at least. The legendary jazz singer’s birthday celebrations can be contrasted with those organised for that other great 20th Century voice, Frank Sinatra, when he hit the C spot in 2015.

While Sinatra’s centenary in Scotland was a series of big band bashes fronted by such leading singing stars as Kurt Elling, Curtis Stigers and Frank Sinatra Jr, the biggest name on any of the Fitzgerald-themed Scottish concerts is a guitarist ….

But what a guitarist. Martin Taylor, who opened the Glasgow Jazz Festival on Wednesday with his and singer Alison Burns’s tribute, brought the house down in a way that Fitzgerald herself would have done, and in the duo format which Fitzgerald used to memorable effect with guitarist Joe Pass.

His two extended (non Fitzgerald-related) solo segments were, unsurprisingly given his status as an internationally renowned soloist, the stand-outs of the concert: tour-de-force balladeering on Hymne a l’amour (which, he joked, he used to think was a Glaswegian song because his aunty would invariably sing it after a few sherries), a beautiful and characteristically richly textured interpretation of Henry Mancini’s Two For the Road, and a gorgeous bossa version of The Carpenters’ I Won’t Last a Day Without You.

With a warm, lush voice which suited the intimate feel of the venue, Alison Burns impressed in the Ella role, bravely attempting to reproduce some of Fitzgerald’s less energetic improvisations and singing in a style which featured most of Fitzgerald’s trademark “licks”.

A slightly shorter version of this review was published in The Scotsman on Saturday, June 24th

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Review: Madeleine Peyroux, City Halls, Glasgow

Madeleine Peyroux, City Halls, Glasgow, Sunday June 4th *****

After a decade’s absence from Glasgow, the American singer-guitarist Madeleine Peyroux made a triumphant come-back on Sunday, to the delight of an adoring audience which hung on her every last word and note. Accompanied by just guitar and bass, she performed songs from across her career, and although she has moved through the genres in the 13 years since her first major album, she has clearly taken fans with her on the journey – and she still infuses everything she sings with a bluesy, slightly tortured, soulfulness.

Sunday’s concert benefitted from the fact that the City Halls’ Grand Hall is half the size of Royal Concert Hall and the Usher Hall, where she has previously played, and it was therefore possible to create the sort of intimate atmosphere that complements and enhances her confessorial style.

Now in her forties, Peyroux appears much more relaxed onstage, quietly holding court from her chair beside, rather than in front of, her band-mates. Indeed, Sunday’s gig revealed her playful, humorous side as she mocked Donald Trump, pretending that he was on the other end of the phone as she sang Kansas Joe McCoy’s Hello Babe, with the memorable line “you ain’t gonna worry my life no more”, and wisecracking “I ain’t got no healthcare either” during a gorgeous, swinging version of I Ain’t Got Nobody, one of several numbers which featured lovely backing vocals from Jon Herington (guitar) and Barak Mori (bass).

Other stand-outs included Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Agua de Beber (what a treat to hear Peyroux do bossa!), Randy Newman’s Guilty    one of the “drinking songs” dedicated to Peyroux’s father – and J’ai deux amours, whose line “mon coeur est ravi” (“my heart is ravished”) seemed to sum up the Sunday night experience.

  • First published in The Herald, Tuesday June 6th

Getting’ Some Fun Out of Life

Hello Babe

Tango Till They’re Sore

Guilty

If The Sea Was Whisky

Our Lady of Pigalle

I Ain’t Got Nobody

Bird On a Wire

It’s Getting Better All the Time

You Can’t Catch Me

Don’t Wait Too Long

Don’t Cry Baby

J’ai deux amours

Trampin’ On

Shout Sister Shout

Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky

Agua de Beber

Dance Me To the End of Love

Careless Love

This Is Heaven To Me

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The Sweet Sound of Ben & Gerry!

This fantastic clip, featuring three numbers and a terrific line-up headed by sax giants Gerry Mulligan (baritone) and Ben Webster (tenor), was recently posted on YouTube by the Duke Ellington Society and has been delighting those of us who stumbled across it on Facebook. So I thought I’d share it here – enjoy!

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Book Review: Wonderful Feels Like This (Allen & Unwin) by Sara Lovestam

 

As a jazz lover who had to give up watching Whiplash about ten minutes into the film, I approached Sara Lovestam’s novel Wonderful Feels Like This with a certain degree of trepidation. How were my favourite music genre and its characters going to be represented in this book? Would they – unlike that cringe-worthy movie – bear any relation to the music and people I love?

The answer turned out to be yes – though it took a while to feel reassured. Why? Because some of the descriptions of the music seem slightly affected and because so much of the novel doesn’t seem to have been translated into something that reads naturally. I almost did a Whiplash and gave up after reading “Steffi is becoming happy jazz”. And that’s the opening line. Even a friend’s explanation that the Scandinavians refer to traditional jazz as “happy jazz” doesn’t make that sentence sound right. It does, however, increase the sense that this is a book for younger readers – although it’s billed as grown-up fiction.

Unfortunately, that line is not the only one that doesn’t scan. They pop up throughout Laura Wideburg’s translation of Lovestam’s book. It’s like a supposedly wittily worded jazz song that’s been written in English by a Scandinavian; some of it just doesn’t work and quite a few bits jar. However, despite the strangeness of such phrases as “his jazz was sick”, there is much naïve charm to be found in this story of a young girl who finds both a new friend and the hope for a new life through her growing interest in jazz.

Steffi Herrera may feel like the odd one out at home and be the victim of bullies at school, but she finally begins to feel that she has a place to go when she becomes friends with an old man at the care home in her small Swedish town, thanks to their shared love of 1940s jazz. For the teenage Steffi, jazz – learning to play her instruments, listening to the music and hearing her new friend Alvar’s story about how he came to be part of the Stockholm jazz scene during the war – is a means of escape from her current grim reality and provides hope. For Alvar, when he was only a little older than Steffi is now, jazz and the city provided an alternative to the small-town life in which he would otherwise have found himself trapped.

The two characters’ stories unfold throughout the book as Steffi hears about Alvar’s Stockholm years during her regular visits to the care home. These parallel tracks of the book mostly complement each other well apart from the formulaic way in which most passages from the present day end with a line which is then repeated – often rather gratuitously – in the opening section of one of Alvar’s reminiscences. The first few times it works well, but it soon becomes an irritant. It also seems a little unrealistic that the old man should tell his story to his visitor in such a structured way, so that she only learns about his marital status, for example, in their last visit of the book. Alvar’s story is akin to a wartime jazz soap opera to which Steffi tunes in for regular instalments.

Where Wonderful Feels Like This comes into its own is in the way Lovestam deals with the subject of bullying: what it feels like to be picked-on all the time at school, how Steffi handles it, and how having a life outside school which her peers don’t know about helps her to cope. There’s also some moving insight into dementia and how it affects those around the person suffering from it.

But overall, this is a loving, quietly charming – if often irritating – portrayal of jazz as a music which salves the soul of a misfit, brings her friendship and a sense of camaraderie and connects the future with the past.

  • First published in the Sunday Herald, April 30th.

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Ella in Scotland

Ella Fitzgerald Glasgow prog.jpgThis year, the music world celebrates the centenary of the vocalist known as the “First Lady of Song”, the mighty Ella Fitzgerald – and it is entirely appropriate that Scotland should play host to a number of Fitzgerald tributes and events. Why? Because this is where she made her British debut in 1948; the first of a handful of visits over the years.
 
Born on April 25 1917, Ella Fitzgerald was a decade into her career as one of the most highly regarded singers on the scene when she arrived in Scotland in late September 1948. She had topped the charts and made her name in the late 1930s with the hit record A–Tisket A-Tasket, a swinging rendition of an old nursery rhyme which she went on to sing in the Abbott and Costello movie Ride ‘Em Cowboy. Her most celebrated admirers included Bing Crosby, who had said: “Man, woman and child, Ella is the greatest of them all.”
 
But her debut at the Glasgow Empire on Monday, September 27 seems to have been a non-event.
 
Accompanied by her new husband, the bassist Ray Brown, Fitzgerald had arrived off the Queen Mary at Southhampton a week earlier, to be told that the location of her British debut had been changed from the London Palladium to the Glasgow Empire – because boisterous Hollywood personality Betty Hutton’s Palladium run had been extended. 
 
Fitzgerald said she was worried about her London appearance and welcomed the chance to make her debut in Glasgow instead. But according to the reviews, and judging by Fitzgerald’s own reaction, her debut performance – accompanied by pianist Hank Jones – was a bit of a damp squib.
 
“Enthusiasm was lacking” said one review. “Ella made the mistake of changing her act to cope with request numbers,” said another, “and the result was a fairly ragged presentation.” Among the songs she sang were Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me, A-Tisket A-Tasket, Woody Woodpecker and Nature Boy.
 
Apart from the fact that Fitzgerald was suffering from both a bad cold and a bad case of nerves, there was also the problem that – as was the case with all American jazz musicians at the time – she was appearing as part of a variety programme (below the top-billed Gracie Fields in London, for example, and with the Nicholas Brothers dance team, plus a comedian, in Glasgow) which was designed to cater for all tastes, rather than for an audience of jazz aficionados. And at this point, encouraged by Dizzy Gillespie and her newfound enthusiasm for bebop, she was starting to explore scat singing. Perhaps Empire audiences just weren’t ready for it. 
 
Indeed, after the first show, Fitzgerald told one interviewer that she was a “rebop” (sic) singer. “You know what that means?” she asked. The reporter replied that he understood it to be a modern way of phrasing music. “You’re lucky,” said Fitzgerald. “I doubt if the audience knows. I don’t really know myself what it is. To me it is singing discords. It goes down well in America. I wonder if it will go down well in Britain.”
 
By 1964, when Fitzgerald returned to Glasgow, she was indubitably the queen of jazz; her recent series of classy songbook albums underlining the fact that she was at the peak of her powers. This time, she shared the bill with the Oscar Peterson Trio and trumpet ace Roy Eldridge. 
 
Among those in the audience of the Odeon Theatre on Friday April 3, 1964 were two young singers who would go on to dominate the Scottish jazz scene: Carol Kidd and Fionna Duncan. Kidd recalls:  “She walked on in silence – no announcement, and stood at the microphone with a big smile waiting for Tommy Flanagan to get his music together. Then she decided to go ahead anyway! She went straight into It’s Alright With Me at breakneck tempo, but by God she was spot on with the key. It took Tommy Flanagan a full chorus to catch up with her! She giggled all the way through the song which was obviously not rehearsed. I’ll never forget the impression that made on me – to be so sure that you can carry such a hiccup off and always be in key..
 
“Just to see her standing there in front of me took my breath away. I cried all the way through it. Her scat was just a joy because we never knew when she was going to run out of phrasing but she never repeated herself – not once!”
 
Duncan, meanwhile, was struck by how shy and self-conscious Fitzgerald appeared onstage. “She just just didn’t look comfortable at all – until she was singing. As soon as she sang, she was a different person. I was bowled over by her singing. I’d always been a fan; I loved how she grabbed the melody.”
 
It may have been a momentous occasion for many in the audience, but media coverage of Fitzgerald’s appearance seems to have been non-existent. That there were no interviews or photographs in the local press seems to fit in with Fitzgerald’s reserved personality. And a performance at the Apollo in Glasgow exactly ten years later drew as little coverage. Only one interview pops up and that was secured by a bold Daily Record reporter who bypassed her “people” and nabbed her when she returned to her hotel in Southport just before she came north to do her Apollo gig.
 
“Sure I’ll talk, honey,” she told him, over a slimline tonic. “I hear people saying I don’t give press interviews – and that kinda puzzles me. Because while I’m on tour I never see the press. I guess someone gets to them before they can get to me. There has never been anyone so great that they didn’t need the press. If you think that, then you have nothing left to accomplish.”
 
Asked about her repertoire and how it had changed, she said: “I’m always striving for something new, and nowadays we’re playing a lot of material by the young generation of composers. People like Carole King and Bacharach.”
 
Indeed, in Edinburgh the following year it was with Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life that she serenaded one adoring young fan. Singer Todd Gordon was a 16-year-old devotee of Fitzgerald when he heard she was coming to Scotland for Glasgow and Edinburgh dates with Count Basie’s Orchestra (at the Kelvin Hall and Usher Hall respectively).
Having heard her at the Apollo, he resolved to go one better the next year – so he turned up at the Caledonian Hotel, where she was lunching before her two Usher Hall performances, and presented her with 20 pink roses.
 
Gordon recalls: “Towards the end of the first concert, when Ella came to say thanks to the musicians, she added: ‘I’d also like to thank a young fan who gave me flowers earlier today. I haven’t been able to see you. Are you here?’” As Gordon waved from the organ gallery, a spotlight shone on him and Fitzgerald invited him to come onstage with her. After she had sung her song and Gordon was making his way back to his seat, she said: “Wasn’t that sweet? He spent his little bread on me – when he could have spent it on Elton John!”
 
Gordon, like Fionna Duncan, found Fitzgerald to be very shy but also “very motherly”. He adds: “She really put me at ease.” So much so that he went back to see her the next time she visited Edinburgh – when she was appearing with pianist Jimmy Rowles’s trio and the BBC Concert Orchestra in a concert later released as an album – in July 1981. This time it was the distinctly less impressive King James Hotel – rather than the elegant Caledonian – where this jazz legend was staying. 
 
Perhaps this is where Fitzgerald was more comfortable. After all, she seems to have been quite a homely person, “a simple soul” – as Jean Mundell, another Edinburgh-born singer who spent a little time with her, remembers. 
 
This, after all, is the woman who – at the end of her first-ever week performing two shows a night in Britain – took the time to hand-write a letter on Central Hotel notepaper to a couple who had, presumably by giving up some ration coupons, helped to make her visit to Glasgow more comfortable. This rare letter, which turned up on an auction website a couple of years ago, thanks Beth and George for “a lovely time”. Intriguingly, it adds: “It isn’t everyone who will give up there (sic) points so nicely, you see I’m a housewife also and I know what it meant.”
 
* Tina May & Brian Kellock are visiting Greenock, Glasgow, West Kilbride, Arbroath and Inverness with an Ella Fitzgerald & Oscar Peterson tribute show from May 10; http://www.tinamay.com
* Alison Burns & Martin Taylor – 100 Years of Ella Fitzgerald is at the Perth Festival on May 17
This article was first published in The Herald on Friday, April 21st.

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Bobby Wellins Obituary

Bobby_Wellins 2

Bobby Wellins (c) Trio Records

Bobby Wellins, who has died at the age of 80, was not only Scotland’s first great jazz tenor saxophonist but also an icon of British jazz whose influence would have lived on even if he had never played again after 1965, when he featured on the iconic album of Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite. 

 
His gorgeous and evocative solo on the track Starless and Bible Black has regularly been named as the single most memorable British jazz solo ever recorded – and his haunting, Celtic-tinged sound was undoubtedly a huge inspiration on generations of young musicians, among them fellow tenor saxophonist, composer and educator Tommy Smith who was responsible for bringing Wellins’s own Culloden Moor Suite, to life five years ago when the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and Wellins recorded it and performed it to considerable acclaim. Its concert performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland exactly five years ago was electrifying and Wellins, and the band, gave a tour-de-force performance which brought the house down. 
 
Smith, who was just 13 years old when he first heard Wellins on record, says: “Bobby was a grandmaster of the saxophone, a composer of profound integrity and a beautiful guy who will be greatly missed.” Indeed, Wellins was one of the best-loved musicians on the scene; a huge talent who was extremely self-effacing and likable and still very much, as he put it, “a Glasgow boy” at heart.
 
Jill Rodger, the longstanding director of the Glasgow Jazz Festival which most recently booked Wellins in 2013, says: “Bobby was an absolute pleasure to work with and to know. He was a very humble person who made no demands – as some do – other than a packet of potato scones to take back to Bognor Regis after his Scottish gigs!”
 
Clark Tracey, the son of the late piano giant Stan, says:  “Bobby was legendary, influencing goodness knows how many saxophonists and inspiring so many young musicians over the years with his generous nature.  He had time for anyone.  His sound was unique – a commodity sought by many but achieved by a few.  His groove was innate and he had limitless invention.”
 
Robert Coull Wellins was born into a showbiz family living in the Gorbals; he later lived in Carnwadric and attended Shawlands Academy. His singer mother and alto saxophonist father – the son of a Russian Jew who had emigrated from Minsch – worked in a show band which played in a local cinema before establishing their own double act which they took on the road around Scotland.
 
In an interview with me in 2011, Wellins explained: “They did sketches and she sang. My father played everything – musical saw, a bit of guitar, saxophone.” 
 
It wasn’t long after he returned from the war that Wellins’s father began to teach him to play alto sax. “My dad taught me and my sister to read music, we had to be what they called consummate musicians before they let us play for their showbiz friends at one of their Sunday get-togethers.”
 
Round about the same time, he bought the family a second-hand radiogramme which came with a jazz record collection which was almost a complete musical education.
 
That education continued with a couple of years at the RAF School of Music during his National Service – where Wellins switched to tenor sax – followed by stints with numerous big bands. 
 
By the time he began gigging on the London jazz scene in his mid twenties, Wellins already had what Clark Tracey describes as “a highly personalised sound.” Wellins befriended saxophonist playing club owner Ronnie Scott and later credited him with helping to launch his career. 
 
Wellins said: “Ronnie was a professional gambler and there was a place across the road from his club where a lot of heavy gambling went on. If Ronnie was on a roll then I’d be called in to dep for him, and that’s really where the quartet with Stan grew from.” Wellins twigged early on that he and Tracey had a unique intuition about each other’s playing. It shines through Under Milk Wood, which was recorded in just two days, and yet they never made a big deal about how much they enjoyed playing together.
 
“Stan and I never ever discussed what it was that we felt about each other but I do remember that it really struck hard when we were down at Ronnie’s one night and I said: ‘You know it’s a wonderful piece’ . And he said: ‘Well, I did write it with you in mind.’ That was quite a while after we had recorded it. But being the kind of people we were, we weren’t carried away with ourselves. I just felt it was such a wonderful vehicle for me. I felt it was just like me.”
 
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of that recording. Not only was it Tracey’s best-selling album, reissued five times after its initial release, but it put British jazz on the world map. It was, as Clark Tracey says, “something that stood up to an American release”. And that was significant during the period when British musicians were frustrated by the restrictions on them working in America and getting a chance to make their names there.
 
However, frustration and boredom for Wellins and Tracey partly led to drug habits which marred their lives for years. Clark Tracey says: “They were soon messed up pretty badly from the cheap, top quality, narcotics widely available in Soho.” Both eventually recovered, and Wellins, who moved to Bognor Regis with his family, worked with his own quartet of local musicians while recording a string of albums and writing prolifically during the 1980s and 1990s. He and Tracey always wanted to play together again, however, and they spent the last 15 years of Tracey’s life (he died in 2013) doing just that – on record and in concerts.
 
In 2011, Tommy Smith commissioned arranger Florian Ross to arrange Wellins’s Culloden Moor Suite, originally written back in 1964, for the SNJO. The resulting concerts and CD were a triumph and Wellins was thrilled with the whole experience. Smith says: “It meant a great deal to him – he couldn’t stop thanking me.”
 
Following a mild stroke a year ago, Wellins stopped playing to recoup. His death from leukaemia, however, was sudden and a shock to his family.  He passed away in hospital in Bognor and is survived by his wife Isobel and daughters Fiona and Elizabeth.
 
* Bobby Wellins, jazz saxophonist and composer, born January 24, 1936; died October 27, 2016
* An edited version of this obituary was published in The Herald on Tuesday, November 1, 2016

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2016: Remembering Alex Welsh

Remembering Alex Welsh, Spiegeltent St Andrew Square ****

For the second consecutive year, the evening slot on the last day of the jazz festival– or as bandleader John Burgess called it “the fag-end of the festival” – became a jovial celebration of the music of the much-loved Scottish trumpeter and legend of British jazz who died, aged 52, in 1982.

Sunday’s concert reunited the line-up from last year, and was led by the afore-mentioned clarinettist/saxophonist and amiable host Burgess whose jokey patter added to the festive atmosphere. Indeed, from the energy expended by the entire seven-piece band in the opening number, it seemed as if the musicians had started the party without us: they were already on fire when they launched into a rousing Rose Room – there was no gradual build-up. No sooner had a clarinet-wielding Burgess played along with the front line on the melody of Rose Room than he was blowing the sax on the first solo. This was a high-octane concert from the get-go.

Particularly impressive – as ever – was the human dynamo Enrico Tomasso, who, at his best is an irrepressible bundle of musical energy when he’s playing this sort of Chicago-style jazz – and whose solos seemed to explode out of him, notably on an exhilarating After You’ve Gone. Burgess was being facetious when he described him as “quite simply the finest in his price range” but Tomasso is undoubtedly the best when it comes to contemporary trumpeters with the Louis Armstrong influence to the fore.

And, of course, there were also terrific contributions from the great, ever-nimble and ever-lyrical trombonist Roy Williams, who, as a veteran of Welsh’s band, brought the stamp of authenticity to the proceedings.

* First published in HeraldScotland on Monday July 25th

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