Monthly Archives: May 2012

Review: Carol Kidd Quartet

Carol Kidd Quartet, Perth Theatre, Perth, Friday May 25 ***

Friday night’s concert at the Perth Festival was a bit of a nostalgia trip – for both Carol Kidd  and her near-capacity audience. The singer hadn’t performed in the town for years and was propelled down memory lane by old friends in the audience whose names she called out as if she was taking the school register. Not only that but the concert reunited pianist Brian Kellock and guitarist Nigel Clark who were both in her band in the 1990s – and now tend to be heard with her on an either/or basis.

Indeed, their contribution, along with that of bassist Kenny Ellis, was one of the delights of the concert; the combination of piano, guitar and bass producing on many numbers – notably Night and Day – a sultry, balmy sound which was entirely appropriate for a summer’s evening and the perfect setting for the Kidd vocals. The only drawback was that there was an imbalance of sound and Clark’s guitar was not always audible.

And as for the star of the evening? Well, it was obvious to Kidd aficionados that she must have been getting over some throat issues as she confined herself more than usual to the lower register of her range. Hopefully, these will be well in the past by Thursday when she duets with Kellock on a Gershwin programme at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh.

Review first published in The Herald, Monday May 28

I

Skylark

A Little Jazz Bird

Jeepers Creepers

Embraceable You

I Got Plenty of Nuttin’

Come Rain or Come Shine

Moon River

II

Time After Time

Georgia On My Mind

Night and Day

Bye Bye Blackbird

Why Did I Choose You?

You Don’t Know Me

When I Dream

encore: The Man That Got Away

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The Art of the Duo, Part 1

The following is an article I wrote in 2004 and have been meaning to post on the blog for a while because I still feel (in fact, I feel more strongly than ever) that one great duo is worth several good bands.  It’s timely because another potentially great duo – of singer Carol Kidd (featured in the above video with regular partner in duets, Nigel Clark) and pianist Brian Kellock – is appearing at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh on Thursday, May 31.

When it comes to good taste and elegance, it’s often said that less is more. It’s little wonder then, that some of the classiest jazz in Scotland in recent years has emerged from concerts featuring just two musicians.

I have been reviewing jazz concerts for 11 years, and although I’ve had my fair share of memorable musical experiences, I can safely say that almost all the times when I’ve noticed my spine tingling have been during duo sessions. This
is a format which reveals the greatness of great musicians, which lays bare the essence of their playing and offers you, the fan, the chance to hear them playing as true to themselves and their style as is possible. Other players just get in the way.

When the guitarist and singer Marty Grosz and the clarinettist/saxophonist Ken Peplowski get together they don’t need anyone else; they set each other off beautifuly without additional accompaniment. They are just frustrated that they don’t get the chance to work as a duo more often.

It’s the same with the cornettist Warren Vache and the guitarist Howard Alden. These American musicians are the very best on their instruments, and to hear them duet is the kind of treat for which some of us would forfeit a couple of jazz festivals.

“I love playing this kind of gig,” says Vache [who, since this article was written, has tingled my spine when playing duets with pianist Brian Kellock and guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and Dave Cliff]. “Why? Because first of all, I know who I’m working with. Very often in my experience as a travelling soloist, I go over as the flyer in the trapeze act and I work with a different catcher every night – and sometimes they drop you. But when I work in a duo, it’s generally with someone I know very well. For me, improvised music should be like a conversation. The hardest thing is getting six musicians to think about the same thing in the same way for two point five minutes. With a duo, there’s less complication and there can be a deeper and more playful conversation.”

That’s a view shared by Alden. “The duo is one of my favourite settings,” he says. ” It’s the most intimate, most exposed and the most like chamber music. It’s different to other types of concert because it requires your full attention all the time. There’s no chance to relax – you have to take responsibility for every aspect of both the harmony and the time and try to make it a conversation between two instruments rather than a soloist playing with an accompanist.

“Playing in a duo keeps you on your toes and takes you in directions you wouldn’t necessarily go otherwise. When you have a bass player and a drummer, it tends to fall into a certain format. With a duo, you’re freer to do pretty much anything you want – and if you have someone like Warren who can think so fast on their feet, you can do almost anything and be assured that the other guy is going to be there with you or force you in a different direction.”

Warren Vache (cornet) with Dave Cliff (guitar), Nairn Jazz Festival, 2006

Vache also relishes the challenges which arise from the duo context. “You find yourself coming face to face with your own cliches by about the third song,” he explains. “We all have little tricks that identify us, and little ways of getting around the harmony that become patterns we often don’t recognise. If you’re playing in a duo, there’s nothing else to distract your attention from the mirror you’re holding up to your playing. You see those patterns and they being to bore you. So by about the fifth time one of those comes up, you say – ‘Damn, am I playing that again?’ And you have to force yourself to let go of the comfortable and look for something different. So it pushes you.”

Of course, as Vache points out, it’s equally difficult for the guitarist since the guitarist or pianist in a duo concert has to be both an accompanist and a soloist. “How they balance between those functions is a great deal of what intrigues me,” he says, “and Howard is one of the world’s best at it.”

And does he feel more vulnerable in a duo? “Oh, yes,” says Vache. “It takes balls to play the trumpet in a duo because all the pimples in the air in your sound will come out and the concentration is takes to make that part of the music is enormous. You have to make the imperfections part of the music. It’s pleasurable but it’s a lot harder work because there is nowhere to hide. Not only that, but you have to play more often: you can’t just sit there and smile while the drummer obligingly plays a ten-minute solo – there is no drummer.”

With his soft, seductive tone and lyrical style, Vache always seems especially at home in the duo setting.

“When I’m with a larger band I have to play in a way that directs the band – sometimes I feel like a guy in uniform standing in front of a circus band waving my arms trying to get everybody’s attention. Here, I can play in a much more intimate way which, frankly, I prefer. I think it’s closer to my personality.”

* Check out Vache in duo mode with pianist Brian Kellock on my YouTube channel, GirlfridayJazz – here’s a taster: 

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Book Review: The Baroness by Hannah Rothschild (Virago)

A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a late-night BBC4 documentary about
a jazz character whose story was completely unfamiliar to me. The Jazz Baroness was an intriguing film about a vivacious, jazz-loving British aristocrat – one of the Rothschilds no less – who, upon hearing the eccentric pianist/composer Thelonious Monk on record for the first time, abandoned her children and her marriage to set up home in New York and lead the “jazz life”. She became a sort of girlfriday to the bebop pianist who was troubled by mental problems and addiction. She acted as his muse, his manager, his chauffeur, his best friend, his protector and even, when his drugs were found in her car, his fall guy. And she, alone, cared for him during the last decade of his life.

The story may have been unfamiliar, but the name of this fascinating character wasn’t: Pannonica or “Nica” Rothschild inspired more than 20 jazz compositions, several of them by Monk, whom she described as “the eighth wonder of the world”; the others by musicians whom she helped during her three decades driving them around in her famous Bentley, providing welfare and opening her door to them in times of trouble.

Indeed, it was in her suite at the swanky Stanhope Hotel that Charlie Parker died; a tragedy which propelled Nica’s name into the gossip columns – much to the chagrin of her family back home.

Now, the filmmaker Hannah Rothschild (clearly no jazz expert, judging from some of the gauche references to jazz which are scattered through the early
part of the book) has penned a compelling biography of her great-aunt, whom she only met briefly at the end of her life – and had hoped to get to know better. (That frustration – that she was just a little too late in forging a relationship with her elderly relative – is tangible.) Unlike her documentary, which mostly concentrated on the relationship between Nica and Monk, and the unexpected similarities between their two backgrounds, Hannah’s book also fully fleshes out her first three decades, before (thanks to her friend Teddy Wilson) she heard that life-changing recording of Round Midnight.

And what a three decades she had already had. Although she was born into a the oppressive world of high society where children were seen and not heard, and girls didn’t have any function other than to be decorative, marry well and produce heirs (fewer options even than the black, southern-born Monk), the slightly wild Nica had had a few attempts at breaking out before – but always ended up being caught and put back in her gilded cage.

Shackled by marriage, status and motherhood, Nica came to life during the war when she joined the French Resistance and served alongside her husband in Africa. Like women from all social strata, she was expected to slip back into her domestic role once peace had broken out but she was bored and frustrated.

Hannah Rothschild was given access to interviews conducted with Nica not long before she died. In one of the tapes, she heard Nica explain that she had a “calling” to jazz in 1949 when she heard Duke Ellington’s symphony Black, Brown and Beige. Shortly afterwards came the exposure to Monk’s music. And she knew what she had to do.

Had Hannah Rothschild not had access to Nica’s own explanation of why she never returned to her husband and children, and had merely speculated, this “calling” explanation would be laughable. But what shines through on every page is the amount of passionate research and foraging through her family’s past – often to the fury of some Rothschilds – that Hannah has done in her multi-pronged quest to understand Nica, to understand her relationship with Monk, to answer the question “is it possible to escape from one’s past or are we forever trapped in layers of inherited attitudes and ancient expectation?”.

In the film, Hannah Rothschild’s presence and personal connection to Nica get a little in the way of the story. But in the book, her unique, insider, understanding of her family – the history of which she traces back to the squalid Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt in the 1700s – arguably helps her to make better sense of Nica than an outsider might. Her obvious empathy and affection inspire her to perhaps delve deeper for an explanation for some of Nica’s more questionable decisions (those involving her children) – and perhaps to want to make her a sympathetic character.

She recognises Nica’s all-consuming passion (in her case, for jazz and Monk) as a family trait. And, having known Nica’s siblings – and, briefly, Nica herself – she understands the family dynamics and the Rothschild pragmatism, as well as the family’s familiarity with mental illness. It could well have been one of the bonds between Nica, who had watched her father go insane and eventually kill himself, and Monk, whose mentally ill father died in an asylum.

What emerges is a colourful, entertaining study of a fearless, fiercely loyal, independent, audacious and slightly bonkers adventuress who was regarded with tremendous affection – and bemusement – by those who knew her in the jazz community. There is a nod to the school of thought that she was nothing more than a rich white lady who bought her way into the jazz scene, and to the theory that perhaps the Monks saw her as a golden goose.

Hannah herself admits, late on in the book, that she couldn’t bear to think that Nica’s blind devotion to Monk might have been taken advantage of. She prefers to think that in return for friendship, which had been missing from her childhood, Nica “made her sliver of a great fortune go a little further. She made a difference”.

But whether she was a glorified groupie or not, the Baroness emerges just as Hannah describes the impression she formed of her when they first met: “a woman who seemed at home and knew where she belonged”. Their meeting place? A New York jazz club.

* The Jazz Baroness is available on DVD.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2012: Jim Galloway

This sublime Duke Ellington number was my very favourite piece played by the wonderful Scots ex-pat saxophonist Jim Galloway and the ever-delightful pianist Rossano Sportiello at the Norwich Jazz Party.

Anyone who assumed that Galloway would be playing his usual soprano sax for his duo set with Sportiello was, as you can see, in for a surprise as he had borrowed Karen Sharp’s baritone for the occasion and played the whole set on it.

I love hearing great musicians in the intimate, duo setting – and this particular set was a joy from start to finish, thanks to the chemistry between the players, the top-rate performances and the imaginative choice of tunes which included such gems as Black Butterfly (Ellington), Lotus Blossom (Strayhorn) and Old-Fashioned Love (James P Johnson).

Here’s another one they played which I’ve never heard live before – the jaunty Santa Claus Blues 

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Norwich Jazz Party 2012: Alain Bouchet

One of the personal pleasures of this year’s Norwich Jazz Party was the chance for me to see the French trumpeter Alain Bouchet again – and the first time that I’d seen him in the company of Warren Vache, who had put us in contact in the first instance. Two decades ago!

In fact, it was exactly 20 years ago – in May 1992 – that I first heard of Alain, whose style of playing has been shaped by very similar influences to Warren’s. I was already a fan of Mr Vache’s music back then, and during a brief visit to my home town of Glasgow from Paris where I was working as an “assistante” in a school, I went with my father to hear Warren perform at the Glasgow Society of Musicians. On learning that I was based in Paris, he put me in touch with Alain who was then working regularly in the French capital.

My pal and I went to hear him at Le Montana, a club on the rue Saint-Benoit in Saint Germain-des-Pres. As impoverished students, we couldn’t afford the bar prices so we shared (and topped up) a bottle of Perrier as we listened to the jazz. Alain’s group didn’t come on until 10pm and the music wasn’t due to finish until 2am, by which time the trains out to the suburb where we stayed would have stopped forthe night. Determined not to miss a note, I persuaded my pal to stay until the end of the gig. Then we crossed the boulevard Saint-Germain to the Pub Saint-Germain , where we nursed another Perrier until 6am when our trains started running again. The things we do for jazz…

Anyway, I was an immediate fan of Alain’s lovely playing. Warm, lyrical, swinging and joyful, it is beautifully captured on a CD from that era which I still play regularly: his 1991 Jazzology album Introducing Alain Bouchet (in His Premier American Recording) which found him in the company of Vache and several other top American solo stars.

In Norwich, he was in great company too – playing with the likes of Rossano Sportiello (piano) for the very first time. Here they are in action:

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Norwich Jazz Party 2012: Warren Vache

This feisty solo by Warren Vache woke me and my camera up at the climax of a lunchtime set on day 2 of the Norwich Jazz Party. I think I had sunk into a slump and wasn’t concentrating after pianist Nick Dawson had taken the ill-advised decision to burst into song on the Gershwin ballad Isn’t It a Pity? It was indeed a pity that he started singing, and I have to say I switched off (for self-preservation purposes) – only to be jolted back into alertness by Vache’s magnificent  solo on It Had To Be You – which shook up the musical proceedings and set us back on the road to musical excellence. (And which was one of three versions of this rarely-played number performed over the weekend!) It was like a prize fighter entering the ring and laying out everyone in his wake.

I was disappointed that there was no opportunity this year to hear Vache in my preferred setting for him: the duo. It was particularly disappointing because guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli was there – and one of my favourite memories of the old Nairn Jazz Festival is a duo gig he and Pizzarelli played.

Vache’s most intimate set in Norwich last week was a trio one with guitarist Dave Cliff (plus bass) which swelled to quartet because Vache – understandably – wanted to invite his old pal Alain Bouchet to join him, given that they weren’t scheduled to play together  otherwise.

However, my favourite of the numbers he played which I recorded was this deliciously funky take on Yesterdays which he performed in his first set of the weekend, with Dave Cliff, John Pearce (piano), Giorgos Antoniou (bass) and Steve Brown (drums). 

Vache the balladeer is always a winner – listen no further than this Ghost of a Chance, one of two played at Norwich this year, on which he shares the spotlight with a fellow master musical seducer, Houston Person (tenor sax).

 

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Norwich Jazz Party 2012: Assorted Highlights

The Norwich Jazz Party strikes just the right balance between the completely informal, thrown-together, “jam” sets and arranged sets which have a rehearsal and charts and more esoteric material. I love both – and both formats produced some magic last weekend. Such as? Well,  that first track came from the opening night’s jam session. Or try this Drop Me Off in Harlem, which combusted into action so spontaneously that I didn’t even have the camera ready. And, no, that’s not Robert Redford on the soprano sax: it’s Bob Wilber, who, having hit 84, now seems to be rewinding towards his sprightly seventies…Another number which I was delighted to have captured on camera was this funky take on No Moon At All by singer Rebecca Kilgore with Craig Milverton (piano), Harry Allen (tenor sax) and Eddie Erickson (guitar) all featured. Of the sets featuring arrangements, my favourites were undoubtedly the Benny Carter set, led by Ken Peplowski, and Alan Barnes’s Ellington set – of which this sublime Sultry Sunset, featuring the national treasure that is Mr Barnes, was a stand-out.

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