Category Archives: Jazz on Film

Conal Fowkes: Woody ‘n’ Me

Conal Fowkes at pianoVersatile doesn’t even begin to cover the nature of Conal Fowkes’s music career. The New York-based 46-year-old comes to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival next week to play numerous solo piano sets and function as pianist, music director and arranger on a First World War-themed concert, but his CV spans classical to Cuban music, and his jazz piano talents range from Harlem stride to hard bop. Oh, and he also plays the bass. Indeed, it was on that instrument that he landed the gig that indirectly led to his playing being featured on Woody Allen’s two most recent films, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, and his soon-to-be-released Magic in the Moonlight. And it’s his Woody Allen association which will undoubtedly draw the punters in to his numerous festival performances.

Fowkes, who was born in Zambia and grew up in Leicestershire, had not long moved to New York when, 15 years ago, he went to a gig by a traditional jazz band. During a break, he got talking to the group’s banjoist, who had spotted the young Fowkes amongst the rather more senior audience. The banjo player was Eddy Davis, and, after being impressed by Fowkes’s enthusiasm for the music, he invited him to sit in on a couple of tunes – on piano. After the gig, Fowkes mentioned that he also played bass – and, lo, it turned out there was a vacancy in the band Davis played with on a Monday night at the Café Carlyle. Little did Fowkes know that the band was led by clarinettist and filmmaker extraordinaire Woody Allen. For five years, he played bass in Allen’s band before switching to piano when that chair became empty.

What was Fowkes’s first impression of Allen? “I met him on the bandstand and he’s a man of very, very few words so it’s not like we had a conversation – or  a ‘hey, how you doing? Who are you?’. Nothing like that. I think maybe he smiled in my direction, and we just played the gig. I’m sure I was nervous – it was quite a high-profile gig – but it was a lot of fun, and he’s so laid-back that he puts you at your ease anyway. There’s not a lot of tension around.”

When he met Allen, Fowkes wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about his work. “I didn’t know a lot of his films – I’ve obviously gotten in to them more and more over the years working with him.” Is he not terribly critical of his own playing? “He is very critical of himself but he’s very complimentary and full of praise for his sidemen. I’ve heard him say many many times that he would much rather play music than make films; he much prefers being on the bandstand than on the set but he then goes on to say that he’s not good enough to make a living as a musician –he puts himself down all the time. But he loves playing more than anything.

“Just to give you an idea, when he made Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Eddy Davis and I managed to find a location in Barcelona to play – the two of us as a duo – just so that Woody could drop in and play when he felt like it. We had nothing to do with the film: it was just because he was going to be there…  He was shooting a full schedule, Monday to Friday, 9-5 – or if it was a night shoot the same kind of hours in the evening – and he would come directly from the set three or four nights a week, and play for about three hours without a break. And I mean without even going to his hotel and taking a shower, you know; just coming straight to play with us. I think he needs it and desires it so much, it means so much to him. It must help him unwind.”

The first Allen film that Fowkes played on was 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger – all that was used was a tiny clip of Fowkes, Davis and Allen himself in what must have been the first time he played clarinet on his own soundtrack since Sleeper (1973).

The Midnight in Paris gig came out of the blue. Fowkes explains: “One Monday, we had just finished our regular gig and he turned to me and said ‘Hey, I need you to record some songs for my next film’ – just casual like that. I had to sing and play the piano for the actor playing Cole Porter to mime to – not that I knew that at the time. I’m not much of a singer – though thankfully neither was Cole Porter! He gave me the three songs that he wanted, booked a studio for me, and all he said was ‘Don’t play them jazzy, just play the songs. Just think you’re at a party playing and singing a song.’ So off I went completely confused and a little bit nervous, and I recorded them. I got a message saying everything was just as he wanted, and he used it all. I think I just was lucky that it fit what he wanted.”

Fowkes was drafted into Blue Jasmine at the last minute. The film had been made and they were looking for a version of Blue Moon. Allen tried a recording that he had used for a previous film, but it didn’t fit the images so he asked Fowkes to record a new version – again with virtually no remit. “It’s so frustrating. I’ve heard actors saying the same thing about his directing. The thing is: I see him all the time and I would like for him to know I’ll do it any way he wants because what I don’t want to happen is he says ‘Can you do this?’ and I record it and it’s not right, and he doesn’t want to tell me it’s not right – and stops asking me.”

Magic in the Moonlight sees Allen return, musically anyway, to Kurt Weill. And, again, Fowkes has no idea how much of Bilbao Song or Mack the Knife will have made it into the final edit. Still, it means that some wonderful Weill can be included in his Woody Allen-themed concert next Thursday. It’s not the first time that one of Woody Allen’s favourite pianists and collaborators has headlined the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – his longtime music director Dick Hyman (now 87) was a regular visitor to the festival in the 1980s – so it’s surely can’t be long before the movie maestro materialises himself…

* Conal Fowkes – Woody Allen and Jazz, Tron Kirk, Thursday July 24. For information on this and his other concerts, visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

First published in The Scotsman on Monday, July 14th

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Hooray for Fats

Today, December 15, is the 70th anniversary of the premature death of the great Thomas “Fats” Waller – pianist and organist extraordinaire, delightful singer, prolific composer, and all-round (no pun intended) entertainer. He died on a train en route back from Hollywood where he’d been filming his unforgettable contributions to the musical Stormy Weather. More on Fats on Film anon…  

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Jubilant Louis on Parade

Someone has been searching for “Louis Armstrong on parade” – I hope they check back on this blog because I think I know exactly what they’re looking for: a clip of Louis in the 1937 Mae West comedy Ever Day’s a Holiday. He plays a street sweeper (a step up from the chicken thief of Pennies From Heaven the year before?!) who leads a parade and sings this joyful Hoagy Carmichael song towards the end of the film (go t0 0.47 to hear the uninterrupted version and see Mae West playing drums!) 

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Happy Swinging Hallowe’en

Louis Armstrong’s first appearance in a feature film – 1936’s Pennies From Heaven –  found him cast as a trumpet-playing chicken thief who performs at the opening of a haunted house style nightclub .. The great Marty Grosz, who also recorded a terrific version of this song, used to offer audiences a brilliantly funny potted version of the ridiculous plot of this particularly silly film – and it was much more entertaining than the movie itself. But this clip – the perfect Hallowe’en clip for jazz fans – is essential viewing. Louis vanquishes the skeleton with his high notes, while Lionel Hampton is featured on drums!

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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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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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Jazz on Film @ Glasgow Jazz Festival prt 2

By way of previewing the 25th Glasgow Jazz Festival, which this year includes a Jazz on Film strand, the Glasgow Film Theatre is showing a couple of movies – and I’ll be introducing them..

First up, the definitive – and original – jazz documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959), which is showing on Saturday, June 25 at 1.45pm. I’ve written extensively on this wonderfully evocative film before – so please read my jazz and style posts about it.

I am delighted that we’re showing it as a taster for the Glasgow Jazz Festival because it is a favourite film of Glasgow audiences. It also ties in rather nicely with a concert I had a wee hand in: the Classic Jazz Orchestra’s concert, which pays tribute to two of the big names who appeared at the first two editions of the Glasgow Jazz Fest – Benny Carter and Gerry Mulligan. Saxophonist extraordinaire Alan Barnes is playing both the part of altoist Carter and baritone player Mulligan. And the connection with JOASD? Well, Mulligan can be seen both performing and being a jazz fan (he’s pictured in the poster above) in Bert Stern’s iconic documentary.

The other film I’m introducing (at the GFT, on Monday June 27 at 6pm) is not really a jazz film but was chosen because its  music was written by the great Michel Legrand, who is performing with his trio to the Glasgow Jazz Festival, on July 2. I thought that Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, the tongue-in-cheek 1967 homage to the classic Hollywood musical, was much more likely to appeal to a jazz audience than something like The Thomas Crown Affair as the music does have a bit of a jazz feel in parts – mostly when Legrand is playing piano. Also, I’ve heard that this is Legrand’s favourite of his own films..

I first saw Les Demoiselles a couple of years ago and have been obsessed with it ever since. It’s kitsch but stylish, cheeky but romantic, silly but – typically, given that it’s French – deadly serious about l’amour… It has frothy, camp pop tunes and lush, romantic ballads. I’m not 100% sure whether Catherine Deneuve, Francois Dorleac, Gene Kelly, Jacques Perrin, Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli and George Chakiris did their own singing – but hopefully I’ll find out when I interview Monsieur Legrand next week.

* For tickets, visit www.gft.org.uk .

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