Monthly Archives: October 2012

Ellington in Glasgow

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is about to undertake a five-city tour devoted to the music of the peerless Duke Ellington. I doubt there has been this much Ellington activity in Scotland since the great man was here himself for the very first time. He made five visits to my home town of Glasgow; one in each decade from the 1930s until his death in 1974, and all but the 1940s one with his legendary band.

I’ve researched all his visits to Glasgow, but the one that most thrills and intrigues me the most is that first one, which lasted six days in July 1933. Why? Well partly, of course, because of the music that was played – I can tell you that Ring Dem Bells was Scotland’s introduction to the wonders of Ellington – but also because the band was here for a residency, and I’m tickled by the idea that some of the original Ellingtonians (including Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Sonny Greer etc) , all of them young men at the time, walked the same streets I walk, and possibly stayed in the hotel which my great-grandfather managed.

Best of all, I love the fact that – according to a series of adverts that appeared during his stay – Duke Ellington actually came to Scotland for non-musical reasons. In an advertising campaign for McKeans shops, a photograph of Ellington is printed above the legend: “I came to Scotland to taste McKean’s Haggis … I have, it was worth the trip!”

The Ellington Orchestra came to Glasgow’s Empire Theatre fresh from a sensational final night in Liverpool which was attended by none other than the Prince of Wales whose cries for an encore did not go unnoticed by the band – or the press. The Glasgow papers were not sure, beforehand, what exactly to expect – but they did recognise that this was a major event, the first appearance by a major jazz orchestra playing work by a major composer. So much so that The Glasgow Herald, a broadsheet which didn’t usually deign to review Empire shows, sent a critic along, and there was coverage in the local papers throughout the week.

At the Empire on Monday, July 3, the band went down a storm at the packed houses for their two, hour-long, shows. According to the Bulletin reviewer, “thrilling” was the only word to describe them.  “Those strident, scarlet-toned trumpets and trombones, those thrumming banjos [sic], those reedy, imperative saxophones, working together in a stream of wild, insistent, rhythmic harmony, set the blood tingling.” It must have been utterly exhilarating to hear this young band, with its dynamic and charismatic leader, playing music familiar only from records..

The Daily Record review pointed out that “one of the trumpeters was taken straight to Glasgow’s large heart right from the first sight of his cheery non-stop grin. The whole place wanted to give him a cheer all to himself, and they got their wish when he blew strange noises in the approved Louis Armstrong method. His grin grew wider and wider, and the cheering rose in volume.”

Indeed, Glasgow seems to have gone suitably nuts for the show which featured Ivie Anderson – memorably described by one reviewer as “a sort of Gracie Fields of the negro metropolis” – who sang Stormy Weather and (bizarrely, since it was Cab Calloway’s hit) Minnie the Moocher, and various dancers including Bessie Dudley.

And as for Ellington himself? Well, the dashing and dapper 34-year-old made a strong impression on Glasgow audiences, and reporters with whom (at the height of a heatwave) he discussed his idea of taking some rolls of Harris tweed home as presents for his family. The journalist sent to interview him for the Evening Times wrote: “The Duke of Harlem has a grin and an effervescent personality that project themselves across the footlights – and at close quarters he is no less charming.

” ‘No, I don’t take my compositions from negro melodies,’ he said in intervals of signing the books of dozens of autograph hunters who were waiting outside the theatre. ‘The negro folk-tunes that are known the world over are negro in name only, written and altered into conventional form by conservatory trained musicians. Real negro music was never meant to be written down – it is just sound that comes from the heart to express a particular mood.’

“His own compositions, he told me, are evolved on those lines. ‘We compose – it is always we – to express a mood. There are no improvisations in the finished composition, every note being scored.’ ”

Nevertheless, as another article noted, none of the tunes from the band’s 500-number repertoire are played from printed music; they are all memorised.

The Sunday Mail’s reporter grilled him on the “distinctive Harlem slanguage” that was exchanged onstage during the shows, and in particular Ellington’s habit of shouting “Every tub!” during particularly “forceful” numbers. The ducal explanation was: “It’s another way of saying ‘Let go!’ We’ve got an expression, ‘Every tub stands on its own bottom’. In other words, ‘Every man for himself!”

I can’t find any information on whether he fulfilled his stated desire to hear bagpipes being “properly” played during that first visit to Scotland, but can report that among the other tunes performed on the opening night of the Empire residency were Mood Indigo, Black and Tan Fantasy, Whispering Tiger and Rockin’ in Rhythm.

That last tune can be heard – along with Stormy Weather, also played in Glasgow – on the short film Bundle of Blues which the band filmed in New York just before coming to Britain.  This classic soundie gives us a flavour of what the Glasgow Empire audience experienced – right down to the vocals of Ivie Anderson and the loose-limbed dancing of Bessie Dudley. As for the haggis? You’ll have to imagine that for yourself…. 

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Jazz on Film: No One But Me

One of the highlights of the jazz calendar in Scotland this year (if you limited it to Glasgow, it would probably be my only personal highlight) was the pair of concerts given by the great Annie Ross at Glasgow’s Oran Mor back in February.

Ross was in town to attend the premiere of No One But Me, a Scottish-made documentary about her, at the Glasgow Film Festival. The screening was sold-out and it was a delight to watch the film in the company of its subject and so many of her friends and family – though the Q&A session afterwards was not what it would have been had the presenter known anything about jazz.

Very evocative, entertaining and insightful, with some great music and clips (not least some rarely seen footage of Ross as a child star) and featuring some very frank interviews with Ross herself, as well as with pals and colleagues, No One But Me is  must-see.

It does, however, have the air of an “authorised biography” about it, as it very much reflects Ross’s point of view and the way she wants her life and life choices to be seen. In fact, there’s probably another, unofficial, biographical documentary to be made – featuring the part(s) of her life that she didn’t want to relive, and the people who weren’t interviewed.

Anyway, if you live in Scotland you can make up your own mind as the film is screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17; at Eden Court Cinema, Inverness on October 28 and at MacRobert Cinema, Stirling on October 31 – all as part of the Luminate Festival.

Here’s a reminder of how the grande dame of the jazz scene sounded on those two magical evenings in Glasgow, in the company of Tardo Hammer (piano) and Andy Cleyndert (bass).

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Glad Rag Krall

Well before its mid-October release date, Grammy Award-winning singer and pianist Diana Krall’s new album Glad Rag Doll had tongues wagging – and twits tweeting – thanks to its cover portrait of the artist reclining in a basque and stockings… But it turns out that the shocking aspect of Glad Rag Doll is not so much the fact that a well-established, 47-year-old jazz star would pose in lingerie to sell her record as the radical difference between this album and all her previous ones.

Whereas we’re used to hearing Krall’s sultry minimalist vocals backed by shimmering strings playing glossy bossa arrangements, her band here is very guitar-heavy – there’s a raunchy rock element to a couple of the tracks, and a country feel to others. And there’s a looseness, a spontaneity, occasionally a homespun quality, to this album that’s new.

The content is not autobiographical (just as well – given the inclusion of the gloriously gloomy torch songs Here Lies Love and Lonely Avenue), but Glad Rag Doll may well be Diana Krall’s most personal album to date. Not only does it feature a string of slightly obscure songs she has lived with for most of her life, but it also includes a notable contribution from her husband, one Elvis Costello, who plays ukelele among other instruments on the record, and can be heard on backing vocals too.

And furthermore, its producer, the man whose “voodoo magic is all over it,” as Krall explains, is close friend of the Krall-Costello family T-Bone Burnett, a man whose musical knowledge straddles country, rock, bluegrass, folk and the “old-timey” music of one of the hit films he worked on – O Brother Where Art Thou.

Indeed, Burnett’s influence is the key to trying to explain what sort of record this is: it is an album of many different flavours, as it’s the result of the collaboration of a number of artists – notably the guitarist Marc Ribot – who all draw on wide-ranging influences and move seamlessly between musical genres. Krall laughs at her own attempts to categorise it – “well, that only took five minutes!” – but settles on it being “something very unique”. She says: “It’s like if you cast a movie with great actors who are all coming from different disciplines. They’re all great and when they’re all together, you get something unique. I think there’s a Tom Waites quote: ‘Once you figure out what it is, maybe people stop listening.'”

Part of the need to ask her about categorising it comes from the record company’s PR telling me that this is NOT a jazz album, that it’s not being positioned as such. And yet, when I listened to it, I found there were plenty of delights for the fan of classic jazz, with some of the tracks bound to appeal to anyone who’s enjoyed the music of Marty Grosz or Leon Redbone. “Who told you it was a move away from jazz?” asks Krall in disbelief. “Oh, boy,” is her response when I tell her. “It’s definitely rooted in jazz!”

When I first interviewed her, 14 years ago, we fell to chatting about Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show, and, listening to Glad Rag Doll, I was struck by the front porch treatment of some of these lovely old pop songs and how they were exactly the kind of thing you might hear on Keillor’s show.

“That is a compliment to me,” she says. “A lot of that is from my mother. She loved that music, and I grew up listening to that radio show every weekend. And I also heard things that my dad played – he belonged to 78 record clubs in England. I grew up listening to everything from George Formby and Harry Lauder 78’s to Supertramp and Elton John.”

The album was born out of a desire to do something with some of the 1920s songs that Krall had fallen in love with as a girl. “Two years ago I recorded them in the studio by myself – with a view to putting out a solo record. I did a solo show at the Montreal Jazz Festival but then wasn’t so sure I wanted to spend the next couple of years doing that.

“I decided I’d like to try something different, with a different producer (I’ve worked with Tommy LaPuma my whole career), and I decided that T Bone would be the person who would know best what to do with the songs of the
1920s without making a nostalgic record, or a traditional record. I knew he would bring something unique to it with the artists that he chose.This is different than if you take the repertoire of someone like Duke Ellington or some of those early jazz recordings which you would want to recreate because they are as important as classical music; these songs have been re-imagined. It takes a lot of imagination to go from the original Let It Rain and make it into this Let It Rain.

“If you go on YouTube, which is the only place you’ll find it, you’ll hear Gene Austin singing it. It’s someone’s gramophone being filmed – you see the cat coming in and out! – and you would almost never guess that it was the same song. Therein lies the key of the creative click of the kaleidoscope.. Someone described this as an album of covers, and that makes me cringe because the imagination required to take something that’s just ukelele and corny piano and make it into a gospel tune is significant. I’m not saying the original recordings weren’t good but there was definitely more creative imagining involved in this than with the songs from the Great American Songbook that I’ve done.”

Krall was clearly daunted by the different approach involved in working with Burnett. “We went into it without a lot of discussion,” she says, laughing. “I gave T Bone a CD of 35 songs, and when we went into the studio, I had no idea what we were going to do. The first one we tried was one I was comfortable with, There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears – I’ve known the Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby version all my life – and I heard Ribot playing this sort of Howlin’ Wolf thing and I thought: ‘Aaah, I see what we’re doing..!’ I think that fear of the unknown, in the creative sense, is sometimes the best place to put yourself because that’s when things happen naturally.”

Krall may have had 35 songs ready to choose from but one of the stand-outs, A Little Mixed Up, an R’n’B tune recorded by Ray Charles, was sprung on her by Burnett at 10pm the night before she went into the studio and released her inner Elvis (Presley, that is). And the Buddy Miller ballad Wide River To Cross was one that she suggested to the musicians and then recorded more or less on the spot.

As an old movie fan, Krall often describes things in film terms, and she says that what always particularly appeals to her is “if I can find the short film in my head of what it’s about”. The filmic aspect really came into focus for her with the tender title track which is heavily associated with the legendary Ziegfeld Follies shows of the 1920s. Recorded by the torch singer and Ziegfeld star Ruth Etting, it tells it as it was for some of those chorus girls who “had a tough time and often died very young and tragically.”

And it was the exquisite official portraits of Ziegfeld girls, taken by their official photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston, in various states of arty undress that inspired the photo shoot for Krall’s album. The singer worked with the Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood on the look. “Just as we didn’t want to completely recreate the 1920s in the music, we didn’t want to recreate the Cheney Johnston pictures. So the hair is more modern. It’s like Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde – her hair was more 1960s than 1930s. I think mine here is like Sharon Stone in Casino meets the 1920s, which is fine – it gives it a rock ‘n’ roll edge.

“The fact is: I’m playing a character. I’m not changing or reinventing myself – I’m not going to go on stage like this. It’s the movie poster. People don’t go to the premiere of Boardwalk Empire dressed in what they wore in the show. I feel like this is just a different movie for me…”

* Glad Rag Doll (Verve) is released in the UK on October 15. Diana Krall performs at the Royal Albert Hall on October 30th and 31st.

This feature was first published in The Herald Arts magazine on Saturday, October 6th, 2012.

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Review: Django a la Creole

Django a la Creole, Queen’s Hotel, Lockerbie, Saturday September 29th

*****

Based on what happened on Saturday night, it’s probably safe to say that a little bit of Lockerbie now belongs to Django a la Creole, the hugely popular jazz group which – as its star soloist Evan Christopher explained – “plays a Django Reinhardt tune and adds New Orleans flavours or takes a New Orleans tune and Django-ises it”.

Right from the off, the quartet – Christopher on clarinet plus the traditional Hot Club line-up of two guitars plus bass – had the audience utterly in its thrall and going wild after every tune. The spell was cast during the opening number, Douce Ambience, on which the Christopher clarinet started out soft and tender, slow and seductive before bursting into a fiery flight of passionate fancy.

Christopher never gives the spell a chance to be broken. Even when he wasn’t in the spotlight, and the super-dextrous lead guitarist David Blenkhorn was taking centre stage, the energetic Christopher was quietly wrapping his clarinet around the guitar solo. He came over as a bit of a musical snake charmer, dancing about onstage while playing a sinewy-sounding solo during Mamanita and faux-baiting Blenkhorn on the exuberant Riverboat Shuffle.

In addition to many tunes from the band’s two existing CDs, there were some new treats which may well feature on a live album to be recorded at the end of this British tour (the Scottish portion of which they have dubbed “The Road to Carnegie Hall … Dunfermline”). These included the evocative Sweet Substitute, which Christopher sang, a glorious That’s a Plenty and The Mooche, which hasn’t been played by such a menacing and thrilling clarinet since Kenny Davern’s day.

* First published in The Scotsman on Monday, October 1st.

Evan Christopher (clarinet), David Blenkhorn and Dave Kelbie (guitars) & Sebastian Girardot (bass)

I

Douce Ambience

Riverboat Shuffle

Mamanita

Sweet Substitute

Jubilee

II

Tropical Moon

Solid Old Man

The Mooche

Manoir de mes reves

Feerie

Mood Indigo

That’s a Plenty

encore: Nuages

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Django a la Creole, Lockerbie Jazz Festival

If you’re looking for my review of Saturday night’s Django a la Creole concert at the Lockerbie Jazz Festival, and can’t wait for me to post it on this blog (which will be done after midnight – and will have a video), then please visit http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/music/news-and-features/gig-review-django-a-la-creole-with-evan-christopher-lockerbie-jazz-festival-1-2556498?utm_med

 

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