Monthly Archives: May 2010

Norwich Jazz Party 2010: John’s Bunch

Last year I arrived at the Norwich Jazz Party just as pianist John Bunch was leaving. One of the reasons I booked myself in for the full weekend this year was so that that wouldn’t happen again. But John’s death in March left us all deprived of his elegant playing. His loss was keenly felt at this year’s event – but he was paid an affectionate tribute by several of his regular bandmates under the leadership of tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton.

Unlike some musicians who trot out the same tunes at every opportunity, or at least have a couple of numbers associated with them, John always liked variety in his repertoire, and his taste was wide-ranging.  So it was tough even for someone who knew John as well as Scott Hamilton did to concoct a set in tribute to him.

“None of us could come up with a whole  set of John Bunch things,” admitted Hamilton, who kicked off proceedings with a gorgeous take on the ballad Be My Love before launching into John’s memorable arrangement of Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz. This dynamic number, with its sudden changes of tempo,  gave everyone in the band – Bucky Pizzarelli (guitar), John Pearce (piano), Dave Green (bass) and Steve Brown (drums) – a chance to shine.

Of course, the set had to end with John’s Bunch, the song which Hamilton said John wrote for Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. This was a rollicking, rousing number with nods to boogie woogie and it inspired a powerhouse performance from Hamilton in particular.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2010: Swingin’ the Dream 2

I promised more photos from the all-singing, all-dancing Swingin’ the Dream set .. so here goes. You’ve been warned.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2010: Swingin’ the Dream

No, your eyes do not deceive you: this photo shows “Brother” Marty Grosz preaching while Ken Peplowski plays clarinet (and tries to suppress his laughter).

This was the scene two-thirds of the way through one of the most unusual sets of the Norwich Jazz Party – a costume-free, eight-man recreation of Swingin’ the Dream, an ill-fated, 1939, Broadway show that had a cast of over 150 as well as three bands. Not to mention Louis Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan in starring roles.

Like Ken Peplowski, who had organised this celebration of Swingin’ the Dream, I’ve long been fascinated by this little-documented show which may have been short on success but was loaded with talent. A musical re-imagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in 19th century New Orleans, it was, said Peplowski, partly a disaster because of its bloated budget.  “It ran for 13 performances – and we’re going to show you why,” said Peplowski, by way of self-deprecating introduction.

With only 30 minutes to evoke the presumed spirit of the show, Peplowski’s septet served up a delightful mix of numbers, kicking off with numbers which Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman might well have performed. Moonglow was a particular highlight, thanks to the combination of Paolo Alderighi’s lovely piano solo, Enrico Tomasso’s laidback trumpet and Peplowski’s hot and sweet clarinet.

For the show’s enduring hit, Darn That Dream (one of the songs contributed, at the last minute, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie de Lange), Peplowski switched to tenor sax. Hearing the verse – played by just Peplowski and Alderighi – was a rare treat, and the rest of the number was equally beautifully executed; the musicians gently passing the melody amongst themselves.

Another song written for the show and still surviving is Love’s a Riddle, penned by Alec Wilder who was the musical’s original composer. A quirky, peppy number, it reminded me of the much more successful swinging Shakespeare project – Sullivan, Shakespeare, Hyman – the classic album of jazz settings of Shakespeare songs which Dick Hyman recorded with Swingin’ the Dream’s Maxine Sullivan in the 1970s.

The set culminated in two more songs written for the show by Van Heusen and de Lange – and for these, Peplowski brought on his secret weapon: Marty Grosz. On Peace, Brother – introduced as ” a message/gospelly number of the era”, Grosz threw himself into the part, waving his arms in the air as he recited the lyrics in a spoken style that was more Rex Ingram than Rex Harrison.

Grosz was back on vocals duty for the catchy title number which provided the all-singing, all-dancing (by Marty and Ken anyway) finale to the set. Featuring terrific solos by Peplowski (on clarinet) and guitarist  Howard Alden, it was one of the standouts of a hugely enjoyable session which Peplowski will no doubt have regarded as a trial run for the full Swingin’ the Dream concert which he’s staging at the Oregon Festival of American Music in July.

* Watch out for more photos of Brother Marty feeling the spirit coming soon..

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Norwich Jazz Party 2010: Django & Sandy

Two jazz legends were celebrated in sets featuring the delightful soprano saxophonist Jim Galloway and the grand old guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli at this year’s Norwich Jazz Party.

First up was Djangology, a Howard Alden-led tribute to the ever-popular guitarist Django Reinhardt. As you’d expect from a Djangly set, this was a joy from start to finish – and it gave all the front-liners in the sextet a chance to shine, not least Alden himself who dazzled on such finger-busters as Nagasaki and Rose Room.

Tenor saxophonist Dan Block contributed a sublime and sultry bossa nova version of Insensiblement (which he’d never played before), while Bucky Pizzarelli’s  take on Nuages was a tour-de-force performance. Swaying from side to side and looking like the Pied Piper as he played his soprano sax, Jim Galloway entranced with his exquisite solo on the languorous Manoir de Mes Reves.

Galloway took centre stage the next night for his sequel to last year’s Sandy Brown set. The 2010 Sandy Brown tribute set was every bit as thrilling as the 2009 one. Galloway was in his element, and no wonder: Brown’s music is nothing if not uplifting.

It was a treat to hear such unusual, rousing melodies as Africa Blues and Everybody Loves Saturday Night being played live, and with such style and good humour. And Galloway did a great job of sounding like himself while evoking the quirkiness and spikiness of the late clarinettist’s playing.

He was undoubtedly spurred on by the enthusiasm and talent of the rest of the band. Randy Reinhart was superb on trumpet duties; his hot but unfussy style of playing perfectly suited to the Brown sound. Bucky Pizzarelli resumed his role from last year, while trombonist Roy Williams brought an authentic British touch to the band and seemed – like everyone else in the room – to be having great fun with the material.

God, I wish someone had recorded it for YouTube.  Surely it’s time Galloway got to record this stuff with one – or both – of his Norwich line-ups. Bagsy a seat in the recording studio ..

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Norwich Jazz Party 2010: Warren Vache

Cornettist Warren Vache was kept busy in Annie Ross’s band over the Norwich weekend and although he was well featured in her sets, I’m sure I wasn’t the only punter who was especially looking forward to the last day. Why? Because it offered two opportunities to hear Vache in co-leader mode – and both quite different.

Last year, I arrived too late for Vache’s duo set with guitarist Howard Alden and my shin had only just recovered from the kicking I’d given it by the time I got to this year’s event …. So I was thrilled to get a chance to hear them on Monday – and it was certainly worth the wait (not to mention the bruises).

Vache was in superb form, at his most delicate and sensitive on a beautiful version of Ill Wind which highlighted the great rapport between him and Alden and culminated in a laid-back, conversational exchange.The bossa nova Felicidad was breezily seductive and played so quietly and gently that you could have heard a pin drop – on the carpeted floor – during Alden’s elegant solo.

But the outstanding number in this outstanding set was the utterly sublime My One and Only Love. A gorgeous tune in its own right, it became heartbreakingly exquisite in the hands of Alden and, especially, Vache, who treated it with the utmost tenderness and gentleness.  Few musicians have such a bewitching way with a ballad as Vache – and the duo setting is the perfect showcase for his softer side.

Later in the day, he had a chance to break out in bop mode, with the quintet he co-leads with ace trombonist John Allred. Their set was essentially a preview of their forthcoming album, Top Shelf, and it went down a storm.  This is a tight, hard-swinging band – Tardo Hammer (piano) and Nicki Parrott (bass) are regulars; only British drummer Steve Brown isn’t on the new CD.

Vache and Allred have both waxed lyrical to me about their musical rapport; indeed, Vache has enthused about the affinity he and Allred feel – both for material (a shared love of the music of trumpeter Blue Mitchell provided the foundation on top of which the new CD was created) and in the way they play it. And it was certainly in evidence on Monday, especially in the freewheeling climax to They Can’t Take That Away From Me when the two horns let rip with an unaccompanied bit of improvisation which underlined the similarities in the way their minds work.

A further touch of class was added by their pianist, Tardo Hammer, whose elegance and wit shone through on the playful Sweet Pumpkin and on his beguiling solo take on I Surrender, Dear.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2010: The Ken ‘n’ Marty Show

Among the many highlights of this year’s Norwich Jazz Party was the return, to British shores anyway, of “The Ken ‘n’  Marty Show”.

Over the last 12 or so years, whenever Ken Peplowski (clarinet & tenor sax) and Marty Grosz (guitar & vocals) have been teamed together at a jazz festival or party, there has been as much mirth as music on the bandstand.

With their hilarious repartee, these two are like the Matthau and Lemmon of the jazz world; they love nothing better than to trade often surreal, and always very funny, insults with each other. And they clearly also relish the chance to play together.

Grosz wasn’t at last year’s party, and the last time I was supposed to hear him and Peplowski – in Nairn in 2007 – the gig was cancelled at the last minute due to travel problems.  So it was a treat to be able to hear them several times over the weekend.

I missed the sextet set they performed in on Saturday afternoon, but was glued to my seat for their eagerly anticipated duo session on Sunday night. As off-the-wall experiences go, it was right up there. Where else in the world could you hear references to Horace Gerlach, Some Like It Hot (the Bob Hope movie), Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Red Allen and Fats Waller compressed into a 30-minute period?

And the music was pretty bloody good too, from the dynamic take on You with which they opened their set, to the jaunty swing of The Lady’s In Love With You, this was a vintage Ken ‘n’ Marty set; both players apparently energised by the other’s playing. Grosz may have had not one but two bouts of pneumonia – one on each side of his recent 80th birthday – but there was no evidence of him flagging even as he and Peplowski powered through their closing number, the hot and fiercely swinging Nagasaki.

“I didn’t get my joke book this month,” quipped Grosz, but it certainly didn’t seem to do the double act any harm. “It’s a big tradition in Norwich to go to the local Italian restaurant on a Sunday, but it was closed today. Someone stole their table cloth,” announced Peplowski, giving Grosz’s vivid checkedshirt a sideways glance.  “The funny thing is, Bucky [Pizzarelli] ate off him today..”

The joshing continued on Monday night during Grosz’s solo set. He was halfway through a typically convoluted explanation of the background to his next song, when Peplowski appeared with a large brush and began sweeping the stage. “Marty, just turn the lights out when you’re done,” he told an unruffled Grosz.

All good fun, and for their grand finale, they shared the results of their “judge the audience”  deliberations. “The audience got nine marks out of ten for punctuality,” said Peplowski, “and one out of ten for hygiene…” Which begged just one last question from Grosz: “And how’re they doing on hair loss?’

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Norwich Jazz Party 2010: Annie Ross

I’m writing this en route back from the Norwich Jazz Party – in the hope that it will be of interest to anyone considering visiting Ronnie Scott’s in Soho on Wednesday or Thursday night..

One of the highlights of the Norwich event this year was a series of sets by Annie Ross, the soon-to-be octogenerian singer who is appearing at Ronnie Scott’s this week. Perhaps the word “vocalist” would be more appropriate as what the deep-voiced Ross does these days is as much about speaking the lyrics as it is about singing them.

Nobody expects a voice to sound as if it’s been unaffected by the ravages of time – not to mention a life in jazz – so there’s no point in going along expecting to hear the Annie Ross who made her name in the 1950s with the tongue-tying Twisted and her other hits with the pioneering vocalese group of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

I hadn’t heard Ross live before but had watched her on YouTube and had read reviews of her performance in Glasgow three years ago. I knew the voice wasn’t what it once was, but I expected that the appeal and pleasure of the experience would lie as much in the history that she represents (she’s a direct link to Billie Holiday, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, etc) as in the performance she would give.

So it came as something of a surprise to find that hers were some of my favourite sets of the weekend – especially her opening session on Saturday night. After being taken aback initially by quite how ravaged her voice is – and fast tunes like Twisted aren’t perhaps the best showcase for it – I became first attuned to and ultimately blown away by her performance, especially on ballads.

Lush Life, from the Saturday night set, was simply a masterpiece of storytelling. Accompanied by her regular pianist Tardo Hammer, she seemed to inhabit every word, making the familiar Billy Strayhorn song deeply personal in the process. Fran Landesman’s All the Sad Young Men, on Sunday, had a similarly moving effect; its lyrics invested with experience and Hammer’s piano accompaniment exquisitely elegant and sensitive.

She certainly knows how to put a band together, does Ms Ross. Her other secret weapon is the magnificent cornettist Warren Vache who sat slightly to her side and beamed like the teacher’s pet when she glanced his way. On slower numbers, his beguiling obbligato playing wrapped itself round her sparse vocals like furls of smoke, and ramped up the raunchiness and pzazz of faster tunes. He and Hammer are integral to the Annie Ross show.

As is the acknowledgement of the past which, in Ross’s case, is rich with legends from the jazz world – from Prez, Coltrane, Bird and all the other jazz greats who feature on the roll call that is Music is Forever, the homage Ross wrote to all her old musician friends, to Billie Holiday, to whom Ross paid tribute with a lovely interpretation of Travellin’ Light.

I remember seeing Ross in a documentary on Billie Holiday in which she said that her favourite Holiday LP was Lady In Satin, which Lady Day recorded at the end of her life – and on which her voice sounded painful and worn-out. Ross said she loved the fact that this was a voice that had lived.

While listening to Ross isn’t the harrowing experience that listening to “late-era” Billie is, it is the voice of experience nonetheless – and its appeal to those of us who were moved by her music in Norwich echoes her own feelings about Lady in Satin.

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