Monthly Archives: November 2011

CD Recommendations: November 2011

Houston Person: Moment to Moment (HighNote) 

As anyone who’s heard the seventysomething American saxophonist Houston Person perform knows, he plays with an authority, a bluesiness and a robustness which mark him out as belonging to the Gene Ammons/Illinois Jacquet school of tenor sax. Those qualities, plus his lyricism and graceful handling of ballads, shine through on this CD which teams him with boppish trumpeter Terell Stafford plus quartet. Highlights include Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are, Johnny Green’s I Cover the Waterfront, plus the bossa E Nada Mais.

Coleman Hawkins: Today and Now/Desafinado (Impulse)

To mark the 50th anniversary of Impulse! Records, a new series of two-album CDs is being launched. This double bill of 1963 LPs by the saxophone giant Coleman Hawkins is superb. Playing as beautifully as ever in the last decade of his life (and accompanied on both albums by a rhythm section led by pianist Tommy Flanagan), the Hawk is in raunchy form on the uptempo numbers on the first album, notably the sensational opener Go L’il Liza, and manages to make the bossa nova his own on a string of tracks associated with Stan Getz. The absolute stand-out, however, is the sublime Love Song (AKA My Love and I) from the movie Apache.

Warren Vache: Ballads and Other Cautionary Tales (Arbors Records) Few artists are brave enough to make an album entirely composed of ballads, but with American cornettist Warren Vache – one of the greats at wearing his heart on his musical sleeve – it’s a long overdue and natural decision. The 12 tracks featured here show that ballads come in many forms – sexy, bluesy and playful among them. Vache is at the top of his game these days, and is surrounded here by the best, including pianists Tardo Hammer and Richard Wyands, and special guests John Allred (trombone) and Houston Person (tenor sax).

Johnny Hodges: Second Set – Three Classic Albums Plus (Avid Jazz) Attention Johnny “Rabbit” Hodges fans! Devotees of the slinkiest, sexiest alto saxophonist of them all should note that this double CD includes a Rabbit rarity: his 1958 strings album, Johnny Hodges Plays the Prettiest Gershwin, hitherto very difficult to come by. You may already have the other three albums (from the early 1950s) but the strings is a must; Hodges’s exquisite, swoonsome sax beautifully complemented by the Stuttgart Light Orchestra playing Russ Garcia’s elegant arrangements.

Scott Hamilton Scandinavian Five: Live at Nefertiti (Stunt Records)

Tenor sax king Scott Hamilton shows that he reigns supreme on this Swedish-made album (and DVD), recorded in a Gothenburg jazz club with a band comprising members from Sweden and Denmark. Devotees of Hamilton’s rich, full-bodied sax sound and swinging style may not find it as essential a buy as his recent duo CD with Rossano Sportiello but it’s a great find all the same, with Hamilton demonstrating how thrilling a live player he is, and that, when it comes to ballads, few can touch him.

Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!! (OJC Remasters) The pioneering alto saxophonist’s first recording session (from 1958) is, perhaps surprisingly for someone whose name connotes far-out, avant-garde jazz, extremely accessible – and very much in the bop idiom. Accompanied by a quartet featuring Don Cherry on trumpet and the hard-swinging Walter Norris on piano, Coleman powers his way through nine of his own compositions, showcasing his squawky yet appealing sound and conversational style in the process. Highlights include the immensely catchy The Blessing, Sphinx and the opening track, Invisible, which launched Coleman on unsuspecting listeners for the first time.

The Rossano Sportiello Trio: Lucky to Be Me (Arbors Records) 

The wonderful Italian-born, New York-based pianist Rossano Sportiello is the darling of the mainstream jazz scene these days – and this trio album shows why. He has a similar lightness and delicacy of touch as the late John Bunch, as well as a comparable combination of lyricism, swing and whimsical humour. This CD, on which he’s accompanied by Frank Tate (bass) and Dennis Mackrel (drums), is a hugely enjoyable, classy affair.


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Le Grand Grump

This piece, published in the Sunday Herald in June 2011, was great fun to write – thanks to its subject’s wilful lack of co-operation …  In the excitement of the jazz festival, I forgot to post it – but I’ve had requests recently to do so.

“Can you articulate slowly like I’m doing? Do you speak Russian? Or Japanese?” So begins my interview with the award-winning film composer and jazz arranger/pianist Michel Legrand, who is playing the Glasgow Jazz Festival next week. Instead of the anticipated Gallic charm, I find myself being treated to some Gallic grumpiness as he huffs and puffs and claims to understand neither my Scottish nor my French accent.

Just as I begin to fear for the future of the Auld Alliance, a miracle occurs. Without having to get a translator (or a neutral negotiator – he does live in Geneva, after all) involved – and before either of us hangs up on the other – he answers the original, troublesome question (which he had clearly understood perfectly well). And so begins an interview which really only improves once I twig that articulating like he does means pronouncing American names in an ‘Allo ‘Allo style – Deezy Gillespeee, Gene Kellee, Beex Beederbecke.

Actually, it’s only when he starts waxing lyrical about the great American jazz men that he’s heard that the 79-year-old temporarily stops being exasperated. Legrand, who had been a child prodigy on the piano, was studying classical composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger when he became hooked on jazz.

“I first heard it on the radio when I was a kid. But at that time there was a German occupation in France and jazz was forbidden – so we heard some lousy jazz . Then, just after the war, in 1947 Deezy Gillespee came to Paris to give concerts. I was in the audience and I was ecstatic. I was extremely excited by it.”

The boy wonder of the French music scene in the 1950s, Legrand juggled playing jazz with being in demand as an arranger for such top stars as Edith Piaf and Yves Montand. Indeed, it was as Maurice Chevalier’s music director that he made his first trip to America. And it was there, in 1958, that he made his first recording with American jazz musicians – LeGrand Jazz, a collection of his contemporary reworkings of classic jazz tunes from earlier decades. It’s a sign of how highly regarded the young Parisian arranger was (he had already sold seven million copies of his LP I Love Paris in just two years) that he asked for – and got most of the biggest names in jazz at the time. John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Phil Woods, Hank Jones, Herbie Mann.

How did these guys react to a 26-year-old French kid running the show? “They were very kind to me,” recalls Legrand, homing in on the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster who was “un bon papa” to him. One musician who could have been a handful was the star of the moment, trumpeter Miles Davis. Luckily, however, he behaved.

“Miles was adorable with me. I was told that when he’s hired to do a session, he comes on purpose 15 minutes late. He opens the door of the studio and before he enters, he listens to the rehearsal of the orchestra. If he likes it, he comes in and plays. If he doesn’t like it, he closes the door and he goes away and you never see him.

“So I knew this, and I was extremely nervous. And he did exactly that! He came 15 minutes late. He opened the door, he listened to the rehearsal of the orchestra for a few minutes, then he came in, sat down and after the first take, he came to me and said [Legrand assumes a growlly voice that sounds like a Glaswegian heavy]: ‘Michel, you like the way I play?’ I said: ‘Miles, it’s not my job to tell you how to play.’ He said: ‘Yes, it is – because it is your music.’ Isn’t that nice? That’s beautiful.”

In the late 1950s, Legrand began working with the young film directors who launched the New Wave style of cinema. One of his most enduring scores was written for Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), in which all the dialogue was sung. He and Demy – plus the film’s star, Catherine Deneuve, were reunited three years later for Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, a homage to the Hollywood musical which also starred Gene Kelly. Indeed, it was Legrand who brought Kelly to the project, having collaborated with him on various projects and become “very close friends”.

Perhaps one reason for Legrand’s longevity in the music and entertainment businesses is the fact that he finds he doesn’t want to do the same job for more than a decade at a time. After ten years scoring films in France, he relocated to the States where, almost immediately, he won an Oscar for his song The Windmills of Your Mind, from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Among the many other film scores he has written are The Go-Between (1970), Summer of ’42 (1971), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Never Say Never Again (1983) and Yentl (1983).

Barbra Streisand, the star of Yentl, has proved to be one of several notoriously difficult stars – Stan Getz and Miles Davis are others – with whom Legrand has worked extremely well. Perhaps, given what I experienced down a phone line from him, it’s a case of like likes like …

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Horns of Plenty

I’m just back from a flying – 26 hour – visit to the London Jazz Festival where I managed to experience not one but two of my highlights of my year (so far) in jazz. Not only were both of them tributes to great trumpeters, but they were also joyous celebrations dished up with a great deal of panache.

The first was the nine-piece Buck Clayton Legacy Band at the Southbank on Saturday evening – the actual centenary of the trumpeter’s birth. Thanks to a particularly fast BA flight and the fact that the closure of the tube line to Heathrow forced me onto the Heathrow Express, I was in time for the kick-off of broadcaster and bass player Alyn Shipton’s loving homage to his friend, who made his name in the 1930s with Count Basie’s band and went on to establish himself as a stylish arranger.

Indeed, as Shipton pointed out at the start, all the charts being played on Saturday night were from a box of mostly unrecorded arrangements which were left to him when Clayton died 20 years ago, in December 1991.

It was a treat to be introduced to them – and by such a terrific ensemble. Numbers such as The Bowery Bunch and Party Time showed a playful side to Clayton’s writing, while I’ll Make Believe was a gorgeous romantic number that benefitted enormously from Alan Barnes’s scene-stealing alto which dazzled against a backdrop of sumptuous horns, evoking Johnny Hodges’s Ellingtonian ballads.

Black Sheep Blues and Claytonia were superb, funky blues; the latter featuring another floor-wiping solo from Barnes while the former, the second tune of the concert, revealed the eloquent trumpet playing of Menno Daams, who emerged as the other star soloist of the evening. His gorgeous, burnished tone and magesterial style stood out on Horn of Plenty and Swinging at the Copper Rail. That number featured the single most thrilling part of the concert: when Barnes and Daams locked horns (well, Barnes had actually chosen clarinet as his weapon of choice) to trade breaks. It looked as if it was unplanned; whether it
was or not, it was electrifying.

Which is also the adjective that sprang to mind as the end titles rolled during the European premiere of the new silent film Louis, and much of the euphoric audience leapt to its collective feet to applaud the top-notch band which had played onstage throughout the movie and was now letting rip with Tiger Rag. (There was even more euphoria, a few minutes later, when the child actor who played Louis Armstrong was spotted in the audience.)

Dan Pritzker’s film is a beautiful thing – shot in black and white by the renowned cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, it looks ravishing. It’s an impressionistic and stylised evocation of Louis Armstrong’s childhood with lots of gentle mickey-takes on the mythology of his story – and of early jazz generally. In one lovely scene, a wagon, bound for the insane asylum, passes the kid Louis and as it does, its horn-playing passenger – the acknowledged first great king of the trumpet, Buddy Bolden – drops his crown for the youngster to catch.

The film is bursting with affectionate humour – and not just for Armstrong who is winningly played by Anthony Coleman (he got me when he flashed that signature Satchmo expression of bemusement/double-take). It’s also a homage to the original silent movies and to the great silent movie kings Buster Keaton and, especially, Charlie Chaplin – who is the obvious inspiration for the villain (played brilliantly by Jackie Earle Haley) and whose films are clearly referenced.

And then there’s the music; a score which fuses original music by Wynton Marsalis plus tunes by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington (The Mooche is very effectively used in one of many racy bordello scenes) and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a 19th century Creole composer whose music paved the way for the jazz of the 20th.

Performed by a ten-piece American band, led by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and featuring two pianists (one classical, playing the Gottschalk in the manner of the film accompanists of yore; the other jazz), it simultaneously evoked the era the film is set in (1907 New Orleans), and the 1920s – the era in which Armstrong exploded onto the popular consciousness and in which silent movies were at the peak of their popularity.

If that sounds a bit of a mish-mash, that’s because it is: like New Orleans in 1907, it’s a melting pot of musical influences – but one which, for the most part, works. Visually, the film moves elegantly between scenes advancing the plot and fantasy sequences which find Louis soaring into the Storyville sky or the villainous judge off in a Chaplinesque reverie. Along the way, Pritzker has woven in many of the hallmarks of the silent movie: the sign cards, the special effects, the slow fade-outs.

Just as Keaton and Chaplin effectively choreographed themselves, so much of this film has been choreographed: the writhing bodies in the bordello, the comic “business” when the judge confronts the street kids … It’s all highly stylised – and very effective.

Only criticisms are that the characters are pretty one-dimensional, the storyline a little simplistic and some of the scenes a bit self-indulgent. But taken as an experience, rather than as a film or as a concert, this is a must – for lovers of Louis Armstrong and cinema alike.

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Review: Bobby Wellins/SNJO: The Culloden Moor & Caledonian Suites

Bobby Wellins/SNJO, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Saturday October 29th ****

You’d be forgiven for thinking that by night three of a four-concert tour, 75-year-old tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins might be flaggging – but that was far from the case when he and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played on Saturday night.

This was a tour-de-force performance – and not just in the actual playing; but in the composition of the music too. The focal point of the evening was Wellins’s Culloden Moor, originally written back in 1964, but only now arranged, by Florian Ross, into a suite for the full band.

It proved to be an utterly compelling piece of music: evocative, dramatic and harnessing the haunting quality that is a key characteristic of the Wellins sound. The atmospheric and eerie opening and closing movements suggested the influence of the arranger Gil Evans, but it was the section entitled The March – which kicked off with everyone in the band stomping their feet before swinging into action, and peaked with an extended, show-stealing, snare drum solo (by Alyn Cosker) – that pinned punters to the edge of their seats. The overall effect was absolutely elecrifying, reminiscent of the opening track of one of the great Duke Ellington suites of the 1950s: hell, this was Anatomy of a Massacre.

How to follow that? Well, it might have been better not to: the Caledonian Suite of the second half certainly had its moments – notably The Tartan Rainbow and The Wind That Shakes the Barley – but Culloden Moor was the talking point of the night, and the music that most of us would have liked to have had ringing in our ears as we went home.

First published in The Scotsman, Monday October 31st.

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Review: Tam White Memorial Concert

Tam White – A Night of Celebration, Pleasance Theatre Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh, Sunday October 16th ****

As the singer Liz MacEwan noted in her moving speech at the Scottish Jazz Awards earlier this year, the Edinburgh singer/stonemason Tam White – who was being inducted into the Scottish Jazz Hall of Fame – was someone whose life touched many others, and from many different backgrounds. Even within the music world, he straddled so many genres – what John Byrne described as “down ‘n’ durty rock’n’ roll”, blues and, to a lesser extent, jazz – that any event celebrating his musical life was bound to be a diverse and colourful one.

And Sunday night’s memorial concert – the first “formal” memorial since White’s sudden death in June 2010 – certainly lived up to those expectations. Organised by two of White’s closest musical pals, pianist Brian Kellock and guitarist Neil Warden, it brought together musicians from across the board – a veritable Who’s Who of the Edinburgh scene – and attracted a sell-out audience.

A dynamic set by the Dexters, White’s band from the 1980s, led by MacEwan, whipped the crowd into festive mode; a bawdy, funky Let the Good Times Roll establishing the party atmosphere that characterised the evening’s proceedings. Singer-guitarist Stevey Hay took over the reins for a funky, bluesy set which featured some electrifying guitar work from Neil Warden, notably on Got My Mojo Working.

There were quieter moments too – courtesy of a gorgeous duet on the ballad Nancy With the Laughing Face, by tenor saxophonist Julian Arguelles and Brian Kellock, and a poignant song, Dear Mr White, written by saxophonist Bobby Ewing who joined Liz MacEwan and co to perform it.

First published in The Scotsman,  Tuesday October 18th.

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