Monthly Archives: September 2011

Nairn Jazz: Bob Wilber (1995)

Review published in The Herald, June 1, 1995.

Bob Wilber, Parkdean Holiday Park, Nairn

Nairn did it again on Tuesday night: showed up the rest of the country in its commitment to one-off inter-festival jazz concerts. The name to be added to the town’s already impressive list of successes is that of British-based American clarinetist/saxophonist Bob Wilber.

Wilber is a paradoxical figure. His precise, professional appearance, while reflected in the polished nature of his arrangements, is really a foil for the passion and energy of his playing style. The academic (visual) image is underlined by one of his instrumental choices – his celebrated curved soprano sax which, at about half the length of the straight soprano sax, looks like an extra-large pipe.

The curved model was used to best effect on Wilber’s breathtaking marathon through Hindustan, but the straight soprano was favoured with more numbers. As promised, it made an altogether different sound from its wee brother: bolder, more commanding, and more elegantly fluid. That sound was showcased on two ballads – the stunning Indian Summer and Wilber’s own exquisite Reverie.

Although Wilber’s clarinet was the most exercised instrument of the evening, it was the least inspiring – but only because of the competition. Its lilting performance on What a Difference A Day Makes, however was a contender in the knock-out stakes.

Impressive, too, was the rest of the band, with Dave Cliff’s guitar input in particular, perfectly complementing Wilber’s playing. The quartet appears to be jinxed. Before the gig, it was announced that Wilber’s regular pianist, Mick Pyne, died last week – Brian Dee proved a worthy substitute – and midway through the evening the band’s superb bass player, Dave Green, had to be ambulanced off to hospital, but the band played on.

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Nairn Jazz: Gene Harris (1994)

This is an interview/review published in The Herald on November 30, 1994.

Funky Gene’s. The title of Gene Harris’s new CD says it all. And they don’t come much funkier. Not in Nairn anyway. But, unlikely as it may sound, Nairn and Mr H have a thing goin’ on. Last weekend the American pianist paid his second visit in two months to the wee town whose healthy and regular diet of major jazz artistes — courtesy of local fruiterer/promoter Ken Ramage — often puts the rest of the country to shame.

Harris had such a good time when he played Nairn in September that he was only too keen to take up the invitation to come again. Three not insignificant factors in his readiness to accept were guitarist Jim Mullen, bass player Dave Green and drummer Allan Ganley.

”These guys are cream of the crop in Great Britain. I hadn’t worked with any of them before my first night in Nairn (my first night in Scotland), and I certainly wasn’t expecting the high quality of talent that I got. I was amazed and pleasantly surprised, 99% of American jazz musicians are sons of bitches ’cause they believe that just because they’re American they’re the best in the world. That’s a lie.”

Michigan-born Harris, however, is regarded by many as one of the best exponents of his instrument and is in demand all over the world. During his lifelong musical career he has rarely been out of jazz work (although he did make a brief foray into the world of disco music in the 1970s); as leader of various trios (the first being the Blue Note-recorded Three Sounds) or bigger outfits like the all-star Philip Morris Superband. In Nairn, he summed himself up quite simply: ”I’m just an old funky blues player at heart.”

But to categorise Harris as a blues player is to underestimate his versatility. True, he has the emotional intensity of a blues man. His playing on Saturday was passionate — oftimes verging on the melodramatic: I Thought About You began as a poignant, reflective piece but became angry and resentful. Georgia began in the same way, but it developed into a rollicking boogie woogie — the style which, through the recordings of Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, first inspired Harris to take to the keyboards himself.

In cheerful mode, Harris displayed a remarkable lightness of touch — his fingers barely skimming the ivories as they scurried up and down the magnificent Bosendorfer grand piano (especially hired from Edinburgh) — and a facial expression reminiscent of another great jazz pianist/entertainer, Fats Waller. But it was the romantic numbers that drew the most enthusiastic reaction from an already-converted Nairn audience on Saturday. Harris played Misty with fingers positively dripping sentiment, but it was his Sweet Lorraine — less sickly and therefore more enjoyable — which was the real highlight of the evening.

There can be no doubt that Harris will be back in Nairn. Which is great for Nairn jazz fans and those who can be bothered to make the three and a half hour,  £29 train journey from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Inverness. But until someone in the central belt starts to book these big jazz names when they’re touring over here, they’re just going to keep flying over our heads.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 1994

By way of tribute to Ken Ramage (who died earlier this month), the founder and organiser of the wonderful Nairn Jazz Festival – and the promoter of many non-festival concerts, I’m going to run all my Nairn articles (or as many as I can find), starting with this, my first review from Nairn – of my first time at the Nairn Jazz Festival, published in The Herald on August 11, 1994. I’m not sure where or how I wrote this as it was pre-internet. It was probably phoned-in to copytakers, a now-extinct species!

You had to be there really, but you can take my word for it that the audience for jazz is alive and flourishing in the north of Scotland. Consider the remarkable initiative of Nairn fruiterer-cum-jazz promoter Ken Ramage who decided – only three months ago – to build a festival around an exclusive Scottish appearance by the Ray Brown Trio.

Only the promise of a night of world-class music would drag the mainstream jazz fan away from residency at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, but Ramage could not have selected a better group to launch his own event than the one which took the stage in the grounds of the Golf View Hotel on Tuesday night. With an all-American, all-star, front line of cornettist Warren Vache, clarinettist Kenny Davern, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and trombonist Joel Helleny, plus a stellar British rhythm section in the shape of the Colin Purbrook Trio, it could only be a winner.

The band swung its way through numbers like Bernie’s Tune and Sweet Georgia Brown, but it was in the various groups within the group that the individual musicians truly shone. Jerome Kern’s Pick Yourself Up showcased the dulcet cornet tones of Vache, while Joel Helleny – making his first Scottish appearance – introduced the 300-strong audience to his poetic playing with a stunning Polka Dots and Moonbeams. The two brassmen were featured on a poignant You’ve Changed.

Much the same could be said of Hamilton and Davern who locked horns and competed for the notes in the dog whistle register during their splendid version of Blue Monk. Elsewhere, Hamilton’s bluesy, growling tenor on It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, and his lulling Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square provoked cheers – as did Davern’s beautifully restrained solo number, Sweet Lorraine.

The Vache-Davern-Hamilton triumverate is always a pleasure to hear, but add Joel Helleny and a trio as compatible as Purbrook’s and we really had one helluva line-up. They will be a tough act to follow, but then so is singer Carol Kidd. She appears at the Marquee tonight accompanied by her regular trio of Dave Newton (piano), Dave Green (bass) and Allan Ganley (drums).

For many, however, the highlight of Nairn’s jazz festival will be the booking that set the ball rolling – the Ray Brown Trio. Bass player Brown started out with the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker Quintet before working with, and marrying, Ella Fitzgerald. His name will also be remembered from Norman Granz’s legendary Jazz At the Philharmonic concert series, or from his stint with Oscar Peterson’s most celebrated trio. On Sunday Brown’s band features Benny Green, a young pianist in great demand worldwide, and another Peterson regular – drummer Jeff Hamilton.

Here’s the complete list of numbers played by Vache, Hamilton, Davern, Helleny etc:

* Sometimes I’m Happy (SH)

* Polka Dots and Moonbeams (JH)

* Pick Yourself Up (WV)

* A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (SH)

* Sweet Lorraine (KD)

* It Don’t Mean a Thing (whole band)

* Bernie’s Tune

* In a Mellow Tone

* You’ve Changed (WV & JH)

* On Green Dolphin Street (trio)

* Blue Monk (SH & KD)

* Sweet Georgia Brown

I didn’t hear the rest of the Nairn Jazz Festival – I got a lift down to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival with Vache, Hamilton and Davern who were all appearing at the Gala Concert at the Queen’s Hall the day this review was published!

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What Bix Means to Me: Otis Ferguson

Otis Ferguson (1907-1943) was a brilliant American writer and critic who wrote for The New Republic from 1930 until his death – he was killed by a German bomb in the Gulf of Salerno. I first came across his work when I was a film student – and quoted his film essays in my dissertation on the screwball comedy. But we also share a love of jazz, and, in particular, of Bix Beiderbecke‘s music. Ferguson wrote no fewer than four essays on Bix – and his descriptions of his playing are inspired. Here are some of my favourite extracts.

YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (The New Republic, July 1936)

“An analysis of his music as a whole would amount to a statement of the best elements in jazz …. Briefly, he played a full easy tone, no forcing, faking, or mute tricks, no glissando to cover unsure attack or vibrato to fuzz over imprecisions of pitch – it all had to be in the music. And the clear line of that music is something to wonder at…..

“Here is this fantastic chap, skipping out from behind a bank of saxophones for eight measures in the clear and back again, driving up the tension with a three-note phrase as brash and gleeful as a kid with a prank,  riding down the whole length of a chorus like a herd of mustangs – everywhere you find him there is always this miracle of constant on-the-spot invention, never faltering or repeating, every phrase as fresh and glistening as creation itself.

“Just as characteristic was the driving rhythm against which he played, the subtle and incisive timing that could make even a low and lazy figure of syncopation explode like blows in the prize ring.

“Bix Beiderbecke is to be found at his highest and best in a few of the early Goldkette and Whiteman sides (Clementine, San, etc) and especially in the small all-star outfits he and Trumbauer used to get together from larger personnels …. I could mutter and whistle the general idea of of the big full solo in Riverboat Shuffle, which was on the back of Ostrich Walk, which coupling just about represents the peak of a high and wonderful career – but why waste time with words and poor copies? One hears it, and is moved and made strangely proud; or one does not, and misses one of the fine natural resources of this American country.”

BIX BEIDERBECKE’S MUSIC (unpublished essay, 1940)

“You will know him by the little ringing shout he can get into a struck note; by the way each note seems to draw the others after it like a string of cars, giving the positive effect of speed even in his artful lags and deliberation, a sort of reckless and gay roll; and by the way, starting on the ground, he will throw a phrase straight up like a rope in the air, where it seems to hang after he has passed along, shaking gently. Above all (and this comes out best in the non-Dixieland numbers, where he remained subdued but getting the feel of it right up to the release and then putting it all in eight or 16 bars), above all there is his singing quality – over the chord and melodic structure of the tune and against the steady four-four beat, he made a little song of his own, sometimes shouting and sometimes very sweet, and often both at once …

“.. And there is exactly no-one who has kept this pure lyric quality which the best men begin to bring out only in the slow, haunting jump of the blues, in the kind of ride Bix used to take it in, on numbers with the tear and rush of an express train. To hear him is to have the feeling of being present at the original spring music comes from.

“Between Bix and whoever has the ear to listen there was none of the usual blocking effect of a set score and a difficult instrument; he simply delivered music, easy and direct. It is this intense but free personal language of his that explains such mysteries as, say, the effect of fierce open attack he gets in From Monday On – that first trumpet blast – without using the volume some can work up, and he gets it out of a horn much milder than a trumpet, at that. ..

“He taught himself ways of doing it that couldn’t have come from anyone else; for example, his trick of setting off the key note of a phrase by brushing a false – or grace – note just below it, so that he could rip up to it. An economy of emphasis, and at the same time a sharp underlining of where it falls, that leads the ear the way his phrase wants it to go. It was partly this that Hoagy Carmichael meant when he said: ‘The notes weren’t blown – they were hit, like a mallet hits a chime’; it was this that Whiteman meant when he said Bix could get more music into three notes than the whole band would get all night.”

NOTES ON BIX BEIDERBECKE (unpublished essay, 1940)

“He ran best when he had no care for the general effect, on the Whiteman and Goldkette records where you can almost see him sitting back there and laying for the four-, eight- or 16-bar chance he’d have at that tune, when he would light a fire under it and burn a few notes of variation on its theme down to a scatter of hard and bouncing gems. He had time to sit there and think out the musical possibilities, and then a single shot at bringing them together to confound fools (Felix the Cat).

“You can hear him on a hundred records, and most of the way through the records, you can hear that he is being held back, even when the arrangement calls for trumpets. But at some point on all the records that carry his signature, you will hear him come out from behind with something that is more than noise or tone or new phrase or anything definable, something that amounts to a dedication to all and any music, and a joy in it, a joy. When, for example, the old Whiteman number of Felix the Cat is over, and the word is given to take it out, Bix lifts his horn over the band from the back row in the close studio and the whole heavy organization seems to trail after him like banners.

“…He could leave a break (as in Lazy Daddy) on two low notes dropping roundly, just with that insolence and skill of a pool shark dropping the last two balls of the rack into the far-corner pocket, or he could hold a note and tease it through the better part of a two-bar break, and just out of his go-to-hell exuberance squeeze it up another half tone to come out on the chord.

“… Even if there weren’t people around to tell you you could guess it from the music: Bix never had to reach for a note. They were all lying right there in the drawer before him.”

* All extracts from In the Spirit of Jazz – The Otis Ferguson Reader (Da Capo Press, 1997).

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Australia’s First Lady of Jazz

Had it not been for Julie Andrews and a weekly pile of ironing, Janet Seidel, who is currently touring the UK, might not have become the renowned singer and pianist that she is. The glamorous fiftysomething given the title of  First Lady of Jazz  by critics in her native Australia only discovered her singing voice thanks to the LP of the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, which she listened to every time she carried out her weekly chore – of doing her family’s ironing.

“I’ve got four brothers – I was the only girl – and I used to listen to that record over and over again while I was ironing their shirts. So when my school said
they were going to stage My Fair Lady, I thought: ‘Gosh, I can sound exactly like Julie Andrews.’ So I auditioned and got the role, and I’m so grateful because that experience gave me the chance to conquer my shyness: I put the pancake make-up on and I became Eliza Doolittle, not Janet Seidel.”

Brought up on a dairy farm near Adelaide, Seidel had been playing piano from an early age and was regularly “shuffled out to play pieces for my granny”. Her natural shyness didn’t prevent her from playing piano but it took a while for her to sing as she played – after all, she had to be herself, not Eliza, in that context. “It was a leap of faith, really,” she says.

In her late teens and early twenties, while she was studying classical music at university in Adelaide, Seidel formed a band with two of her brothers. “We did everything from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo to Suzi Quatro songs. I had a keyboard and we’d play country dances and all sorts of gigs.” Even now, she still works with one of her brothers: David Seidel is the bass player in her current trio.

During Seidel’s university years, piano bars became all the rage – and proved to be a lucrative way of subsidising student life, though it took a bit of getting used to. Seidel explains: “I was so used to having my brothers there on guitar and bass, and to being surrounded by friends. For this solo gig, I had to expand my repertoire and learn how to interact with strangers – the idea of the piano bar is that people come in and sit around the piano bar and want to talk to you. It really was a baptism of fire but it served me well. Back then, you could get work anywhere in the world just playing piano and singing.”

To begin with, she played poppier material – Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and Carole King were her favourite songwriters – but she soon graduated on to the Great American Songbook and since then, it has interested her “almost exclusively”.

Seidel first heard jazz on the radio when she was still at school. “The ABC had a programme, Music to Midnight, which I used to listen to – and that’s how I first heard Nat ‘King’ Cole and Blossom Dearie.” Both of these great singer-pianists proved highly influential – but the girlish-sounding Dearie especially so. The jazz writer Whitney Balliett once said of her “tiny” voice that, without a microphone, “it wouldn’t reach the second floor of a doll’s house”.

During her student days, Seidel had the chance to see Dearie perform – and it proved to be a defining moment. “She came to Adelaide as the support artist for Stephane Grappelli who was on an Australian tour. She did a solo thing in the first half and it was just magical, you know – one of those spine-tingling moments.. I’d always been a bit ashamed of my voice – it wasn’t a huge operatic voice, and it wasn’t a big mama kind of belter. Then I heard Blossom’s fairy-like voice and I thought: ‘She’s so delicate and intimate, and still communicating that way without doing anything silly with her voice.’ And I loved the way she played piano.”

Peggy Lee’s recordings also helped shape Seidel’s soft and gentle style. “I read in a book that, before she became a star, Peggy was singing in a bar and there was a lot of loud noise. She decided that she would sing a bit more softly to see if it would quieten the crowd down, and it worked.”

Seidel toured Scotland a couple of years ago with a show of Blossom Dearie songs, but she’s not the only heroine to whom she has paid tribute: Doris Day is another favourite and she takes comparisons to Day as a great compliment. “She was a very tuneful and very swinging jazz singer – she really knew how to phrase and she had a lovely light lilting kind of approach to singing.”

Recently, Seidel was hired to sing a jingle for an Audi advert, to be broadcast on British television. For that, she was called upon to sing like Julie London – with whom she bears a strong vocal resemblance. “She was a big influence on me. I love that cool, unfussed style and the timbre of her voice – it’s a very caressing sound without being forced or deliberately sexy.”

A Julie London tribute may be the next obvious step, but for this tour, Seidel is celebrating Johnny Mercer’s songbook, including the ballad Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home – a song which would be apt for any jazz musician, let alone one who’s on an eight-month house-swap ….

* Janet Seidel Trio plays Recital Room, Glasgow on Thursday,  March 15, at 7.30pm. Call 0141 353 8000 or visit http://www.glasgowconcerthalls.com for tickets.

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What Bix Means to Me: Philip Larkin

The great English poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a passionate jazz fan and advocate of pre-bop jazz. Indeed, in 1965, he showed just where his priorities lay when he said: “I can live  a week without poetry, but not a day without jazz.”

His book All What Jazz – A Record Library (faber & faber) revealed him to be a Bix devotee – one who, like other especially eloquent fans, came up with marvellous analogies for Bix’s playing.

He wrote:  “There is no doubt of Bix’s originality: the astonishingly flighted solo on the Wolverines’ Royal Garden Blues shows him able, even at 21, to produce triumphs owing nothing to Armstrong. And there is no doubt it was wasted: to hear him explode like Judgement Day out of the Whiteman Orchestra (as on No Sweet Man) only to retire at the end of his 16 bars into his genteel surroundings like a clock-cuckoo is an exhibition of artistic impotence painful to witness. Bix should have been dominating his own group, not decorating the Whiteman cake. …. One is left miserable at the utter waste of the most original talent jazz ever produced.”

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Ken Ramage

To view my newspaper obituaries of Ken, please click on the links below:

The Herald, published Thursday September 8

The Scotsman, published Friday September 9

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