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Bob Wilber Obituary

Bob Wilber, Ed Jazz Fest 1992Bob Wilber, who has died at the age of 91, was a champion of classic and traditional jazz and one of the world’s leading jazz soprano saxophonists and clarinettists. During a career which spanned more than six decades, the quiet-spoken New Yorker was a living link to the great jazz originals who had inspired him – in particular the legendary Sidney Bechet, whose protégé he was in the late 1940s – and a musical chameleon, able to emulate both Bechet’s sound and that of the clarinet king Benny Goodman.

In later life, he became a generous mentor to the younger players who followed him, not least the mighty tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton with whose young band Wilber recorded in 1977, thereby attracting the attention of the record company which ultimately signed him.

In Scotland, he is remembered for his involvement in gala or one-off concerts at the Edinburgh and Nairn Jazz Festivals – in particular the handful of reunions of the 1970s jazz “supergroup”, Soprano Summit, which took place twice in Edinburgh in the 1990s, and twice in Nairn in the 2000s, and he appeared with Scott Hamilton the final edition of the much-missed Nairn Jazz Festival, in 2009.

Robert Sage Wilber was born in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1928. His father was a partner in a small publishing firm which specialised in college textbooks. His mother died when Wilber was just over a year old, and Wilber and his sister were raised by their father and the second wife he married soon afterwards. When Wilber was six years old, the family moved to Scarsdale, an affluent commuter suburb to the north of the city.

Wilber was just an infant when he first heard jazz – his father, who played some jazz piano, played him the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s recording of Mood Indigo when it had just come out. Wilber would hear the band live, in 1943, when the whole family went to Carnegie Hall for the historic Black, Brown and Beige concert. Not that this was the young boy’s first experience of live jazz; his father had already taken him to Manhattan’s Café Society nightclub to listen to the elegant and swinging pianist Teddy Wilson.

Like many of his peers, Wilber, who took up clarinet in his early teens, became hooked on traditional jazz which was enjoying a popular revival in the 1940s. He wrote in his 1987 memoir Music Was Not Enough: “I had discovered jazz. It seemed to me to celebrate the very joy of being alive. How very different from the rest of my life!” At school, he helped establish a record club and formed a band which held lunchtime sessions.

Aged 15 years old, Wilber and his jazz-mad classmates would go into the city every Sunday afternoon to hear some of their favourite musicians playing in a jam session. They even persuaded them to come to play in an end-of-term concert at their school. And so it was that such well-known names from the jazz world as pianist Art Hodes, bass player Pops Foster, trombonist Wilber De Paris and clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow played at Scarsdale High.

Instead of pursuing an Ivy League education, as might have been expected, Wilber finished school and moved to New York to continue his studies in the jazz clubs of 52ndStreet and in Brooklyn, where he studied with the great New Orleans clarinettist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet.

“He had a ramshackle house with a sign, ‘Sidney Bechet’s School of Music’,” Wilber told the New York Times in 1980. “I was virtually the first student and the only serious student. After a month Sidney suggested I move in with him.” By 1948, Wilber was so immersed in Bechet’s style of playing and sounded so like him that when the older man was unable to accept an invitation to play at the Nice Jazz Festival, his student went in his place.

Wilber had formed his first band, the Wildcats, in 1945. It comprised contemporaries including the dazzling pianist Dick Wellstood. But, says Dan Morgenstern, the Director Emeritus of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, it was the second incarnation of the Wildcats which was Wilber’s most important band.

Morgenstern says: “Apart from Bob and Dick, the other members were veteran blacks, old enough to be their fathers or even grandfathers. Between them, these elders had worked with a veritable who’s who of early jazz including King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, as well as Louis Armstrong. The interracial aspect was almost as unusual, for that time, as the age one.”

When he was drafted into the army in 1952, Wilber – seeking to emerge from Bechet’s shadow – swapped his soprano sax for a tenor. He didn’t restrict his interest to classic and traditional jazz – he explored modern jazz by studying pianist Lennie Tristano, and he formed a band named The Six which combined elements of traditional and modern jazz.  He also studied classical clarinet, and toured with the most celebrated swing clarinettist, Benny Goodman. It wasn’t until the 1960s that he was first introduced to the instrument for which he will be best remembered – the curved soprano sax.

He later wrote: “I played one note of curved soprano sax and I remember saying this is different from the straight. I can do something on this which is different than Sidney Bechet. And that started my second career on soprano.”  Indeed, it was on soprano that Wilber was featured when he became one of the charter members of Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart’s modestly monikered World’s Greatest Jazz Band in 1968.

In 1969, Wilber earned a Grammy nomination for his album The Music of Hoagy Carmichael, which featured his arrangements and his serene soprano sax playing. (He won the Grammy in 1985 for his recreations of Duke Ellington’s 1920s music for the movie The Cotton Club.) It also marked a comeback for the wonderful swing era singer Maxine Sullivan, with whom he recorded another album that year, Close As Pages in a Book.

Wilber may have had to talk Sullivan into her comeback, but when he called Marty Grosz to ask if he would like to join Soprano Summit, the response was: “My bags are packed.” The much-loved guitarist, vocalist and purveyor of side-splittingly funny anecdotes had been working for the US Postal Service but he gave it up and headed out on the road with Soprano Summit; a move which launched Grosz’s career as a solo star who was a favourite of Edinburgh and Nairn audiences through the 1990s and 2000s.

Soprano Summit was created on impulse by a promoter desperate to revive an audience jazzed-out after a full weekend of wall-to-wall jazz. He suggested that Wilber and Kenny Davern “do a duet with soprano saxophones and wake everyone up”.  The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.

“We got a rhythm section together,” explained Wilber during an interview in Nairn, in 1995. “By a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number.” Davern continued: “We finished it off on two high notes in thirds, and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”

In December 1972, the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album. Then, after a second LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born. The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go. Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work.

Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love of tunes which were off the beaten standard track. Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic ground plan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. Davern added: “That was the basic sound of the group – two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue.”

In a typical Soprano Summit number they bounced the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, though one sensed that much of the arranging was going on as they played. Wilber and Davern’s intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing.

As British clarinettist and saxophonist Alan Barnes says: “Soprano Summit brought together two highly individual and virtuosic reed players who, great as they were individually, found an interaction together that was very special. Taking the pre-swing era as their inspiration, they gave the material a contemporary edge and struck real sparks off each other in series of exciting exchanges that stood comparison with any of the other two reed combinations in jazz.”

Even years after Soprano Summit broke up, when Wilber and Davern got together, they still produced spine-tingling music – as anyone who attended one of their reunion concerts will testify.

After settling in the Cotswolds in the late 1980s with his second wife, the Sheffield-born singer Joanne “Pug” Horton, Wilber performed in Scotland every few years until around 2010, when he made his last appearance at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in a concert entitled Festival of Swing which also featured fellow octogenarian Joe Temperley and tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton.

By this time, he was in the habit of taking control of the line-up with which he was working, and, rather than following the programme and leading the all-star group in its entirety for a finale, he assumed leadership from the off, putting together a first set which overran by 45 minutes. Nobody in the band said anything, despite being 45 minutes’ overdue their pints, but Wilber – as one musician remembered it – “got a massive bollocking from the wee lady who sold the ice-creams – which had melted in the meantime.”

Bob Wilber, born March 15, 1928; died August 4, 2019.

A shorter version of this was published in The Herald on August 30.

Text (c) Alison Kerr; Photo (c) Donnie Kerr

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Colin Steele: Joni, Mary and All That Jazz!

colin steele low res-5004One of the most magical moments at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe came from the bowels of Chambers Street where a room-ful of punters could be heard softly singing Feed the Birds, the beautiful ballad from the Disney film Mary Poppins – to the accompaniment of two of Scotland’s leading jazz musicians as they performed their Poppins-themed show at the Jazz Bar.

This hour-long concert – which united tiny tots, senior citizens, hippies, hipsters, seasoned Fringe-goers, diehard Disney fans and jaded jazzers in song – became one of those shows which grew busier as its run went on. Word of mouth boosted its ticket sales and the memory of how special it was prompted its stars – the duo of trumpeter Colin Steele and pianist Brian Kellock – to be persuaded to revive it for this year’s Fringe, for just two performances.

But Mary Poppins, the jazz version, is just one of a raft of diverse gigs that Steele is preparing for. While other dads might be looking forward to easing off work during the school holidays, Steele is limbering up for the busiest couple of months in his calendar.

The acclaimed 51-year-old jazz musician – and father of three – is bracing himself for a festival season which this year sees him headlining two concerts at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival (and serving as sideman on a further seven) and four shows (each with multiple performances) at the Fringe, plus so many as a sideman that he has already lost count. “Some days I have three gigs,” he says, “so I’m practising like crazy, building up the chops.”

Steele – who has just spent the weekend zooming between the Glasgow Jazz Festival, where he played in up-and-coming singer Georgia Cecile’s band; Loch Lomond, where he is renovating a holiday house, and his hometown where he had gigs at both the Barony Bar and Soderberg – seems to be ahead of the game in terms of building up his stamina for mid July. But it’s not something he takes for granted, having suffered a catastrophic crisis with his playing ten years ago.

Left unable to play, he had to re-learn his craft and he is now much more aware that he shouldn’t push himself too hard. “Nowadays, I know that if it’s not working, then I need to put the trumpet away for a bit. I used to get anxious and push myself too far and it would all collapse,” he explains.

As his busy, cross-country weekend and heavy Fringe schedule illustrate, Steele is an extremely versatile musician who is at home in any number of jazz settings and has absorbed inspiration from a vast range of horn players. He cites Chet Baker – whose, cool, swinging, pared-back “West Coast” sound he channels with ease – as his biggest influence, and names Louis Armstrong, “whose creativity, originality and emotional playing is second to none”, as his favourite trumpeter. It was playing Baker-style jazz that made Steele’s name back in the 1990s, but recently he has played more traditional jazz thanks to his membership of various bands led by the singer Alison Affleck, a tireless champion of early styles of jazz.

[Affleck, Steele and their cohorts may have helped to fuel the revival of interest in traditional jazz in Scotland but it has,unfortunately been pounced upon, rather cynically, by some musicians who seem to view it as a way of landing gigs, rather than because it’s an area of jazz that they are passionate about and well-versed in. Even more disheartening is the fact that jazz festivals are lowering their standards by booking these groups which have jumped on the trad bandwagon.]

Under his own name, Steele has performed and recorded Celtic/folk-influenced jazz with his own band. At last year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival, he acknowledged his past forays into pop by performing a jazz concert of music by the Glasgow band The Pearlfishers, on ten of whose records he had played. The success of the Pearlfishers project – the concerts and a very well-received album – inspired another pop-themed jazz project for this year’s festival: the Colin Steele Quartet Play Joni Mitchell.

“I’ve had a deep love for Joni Mitchell for a long time; I’d always known her music – and I felt her songs deserved to be better appreciated. She’s known primarily as a poet, but her melodies are fab and stand on their own two feet. Plus, there’s already a jazz connection because she worked quite often with jazz musicians – Charles Mingus, Michael Brecker and Jaco Pastorius are just some of the jazz guys she worked with.”

There were other contenders for this next jazz-meets-pop project, however. “Ricky Lee Jones was high up on the list too,” says Steele before returning to the subject of how he convinced himself that the Joni Mitchell idea could work. “Actually,” he explains, “I probably wouldn’t have gone for this Joni Mitchell idea had Brian Kellock and I not done the music of Mary Poppins at the Fringe last year. It’s so far away from jazz – it just shows what you can do. Someone said to me after the Mary Poppins show that if you can make something as fab as that out of Mary Poppins, then you can do anything. It’s all about melody, and if you have a really strong melody, then it will work. Also, Brian can make anything possible!”

Over the last five years, the Steele-Kellock double act has become a fixture on the Fringe; the two longstanding friends and colleagues seeing it as an opportunity to explore themes or songbooks that they hadn’t delved into before, and to harness the anything-goes spirit of the Fringe to up the level of spontaneity and fun. And, of course, to make a feature of audience participation.

Steele recalls: “The first Fringe show we did together was My Fair Lady in 2014, then the following year, Brian suggested that we do a Glenn Miller show and it sort of took off from there; it became an annual jamboree. It just worked so well; the audience loved it. We had air raid sirens, singalongs (Pennsylvania 65000 etc) and everybody knew a lot of the tunes. The strength of the melody and the arrangements are so great, and playing that music in a small group gives you so much space. When I’ve played it in a big band, I’ve not been satisfied because you can’t really be creative – and I do like to improvise.”

In 2018, Steele and Kellock retired the Glenn Miller show so they could concentrate on their Mary Poppins one. Its slow sales at the outset suggested that there was some ambivalence that it would work but ultimately it assumed the status of being one of those shows that people kick themselves for having missed because those who were there talk about it as a life-enhancing event.

Steele says: “On the fifth and final day, there was a big group of musicians who came in and they said it was the best, most fun, gig they’d ever seen and I felt that way too. It really was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life – everyone singing Feed the Birds. It was so special. I felt it would be a shame not to do it again.”

In addition to reviving Glenn Miller for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival and Mary Poppins for this year’s Fringe, Steele and Kellock are celebrating two of the original giants of jazz – Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington – in another Fringe show that will have five outings.

What is it about working in a duo that so appeals to Steele?  “There’s a real intimacy and a responsibility that you both have – you can’t take a back seat. It’s lovely to work with someone with such musicality and of course you have to remember that there’s also the beauty of no drummer! There’s so much space because there’s no drummer. Anything can happen in duos. With three or four people it’s more complicated. The duo offers more possibilities, more freedom but also harder work – there’s a lot of sweat going on.

“I’ve no doubt that Brian is the greatest of all Scottish jazz musicians and we’re so lucky to have him and I’m so honoured to play with him. We all feel that. It’s always a challenge: he’s not an accompanist – he’s there for the creativity, he’s always pushing. I’m more reticent, he pushes you into different areas. It’s always scary, always a joy.”

*Colin Steele plays the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on July 15 (Glenn Miller, with Brian Kellock) and 17 (Joni Mitchell with his own group); www.edinburghjazzfestival.com for details. For details of his various Fringe shows, visit www.edfringe.com ; Mary Poppins is on August 18 and 20.

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Carol Kidd: Doing It Her Way

Carol Kidd © Sean Purser

Carol Kidd at the 2016 Glasgow Jazz Festival (c) Sean Purser

If there was a stand-out artiste in last year’s star-studded gala concert to mark the 40thanniversary of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival it was undoubtedly Carol Kidd, the irrepressible and internationally renowned Glaswegian singer whose powerful renditions of a couple of ballads brought the house down at the end of the first half and triggered a Mexican wave of sniffles across the auditorium.

The two songs which sent moist-eyed listeners scurrying for reinforcements on the Kleenex front were both new to her repertoire, and were among seven tracks she had just recorded for her new CD, Both Sides Now, which is released this spring. Live, at the concert, they revealed that Kidd has still got it. The voice is as commanding, clear and pure as ever, and her way of bringing a song to life is as spellbinding as it’s always been. 

 Which is not something you can say of many jazz singers who are pushing 75. Indeed, there are not many jazz singers who their seventies and still have the “chops” that Kidd – who has always been a cut above the competition –  has. Although she may have had more than her fair share of woes they haven’t taken their toll on her voice. They’ve only shaped her attitude – and her current attitude is to keep on singing until she knows it’s time to stop. 

 This, she explains from her home in Majorca, was very much in her mind when she began to think about the new album. “Most of the tracks on it are songs I’ve been listening to over the last couple of years, real gems, and I thought I’d better get round to recording them – I’m not getting any younger. Whereas sometimes you have a theme in mind for an album, or are asked to do it, this one came from the songs – they were the starting point, and they were what got me into that studio.”

 One of the Edinburgh stand-out songs was a Billy Joel ballad And So It Goes, which Joel wrote in the early 1980s, and recorded in 1990 and which was recorded a few years ago by Alan Cumming. How did she come across it?

 “Well, my daughter Carol is always listening to music on Spotify and we’ll sit together and we go through it looking for ideas. Last February we listened to lots of different stuff and came across this Billy Joel song I’d never heard before – I think it’s one of his best songs.” 

 It certainly comes over as a perfect fit for the singer who has often delved into the works of contemporary singer-songwriters for material and blended them into her unique repertoire alongside the Great American Songbook stalwarts. So, a typical Kidd concert at any point in the last 30 years might have been mostly standards by the likes of Porter, Gershwin and Rodgers & Hart but with songs by Randy Newman, Eva Cassidy, Sting or Don Henley also represented, depending on what she had been listening to. 

But doesn’t the Billy Joel number have a male point of view – this ballad about someone who’s been hurt and risks letting a new love slip through his fingers because he’s scared? “Oh no,” insists Kidd. “To me it’s just life. It applies to everybody, everybody has gone through that – kept too much to themselves and then they get in a situation where it’s ‘Do you want to be with me coz I want to be with you?’ I sang it from my point of view. I was blown away by the response I got when I sang it at the jazz festival.”

 Both And So It Goes and the other “new” song introduced in Edinburgh – Something Wonderful, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score for The King and I (“What a song! We came across that when we were listening to movie themes on Spotify ..”) – were performed and recorded as duets with pianist Paul Harrison and could easily have come from any number of Kidd’s previous albums. But you wouldn’t describe this new CD as a jazz record – it is a distinctive mix of pop power ballad, folk, country & western and jazz and features such well-kent names as regular collaborator and former Wet Wet Wet member Graeme Duffin, on guitars, bass and drums and jazz and folk fiddle player Seonaid Aitken. 

 Kidd says: “Some of the tracks are quite Celtic-y – and I wanted it to be like that. For others, I wanted to have strings. When it came to the title song, Both Sides Now, I wanted a really full-on arrangement. I wanted it to sound wacky and really strange – because life is strange. I wanted the whole background to be strange.”

 Had Joni Mitchell’s classic Both Sides Now been a favourite since she first heard it? “Well, when she did it, with just guitar, I liked the song – but she was a young girl then. I wanted it to be me as a mature woman, having lived my life. It’s like Sinatra’s My Way – I’ve been through all of this, all the ups and downs, the highs and lows. And I still don’t have a bloody clue! It had to be the title track because the album is a sort of life story which reflects where I am and how I feel.”

 Has Kidd’s way of selecting songs changed as she has aged? Does she now feel that it’s a similar sort of challenge to the one faced by older actresses who decry the shortage of meaty roles for their age group? “Yes! I am very conscious of the fact that I am now older and that a lot of songs don’t suit me any more. I choose songs according to my age. I don’t want to be mutton dressed as lamb! I want to deal with my life as it is now – I can’t sing silly boy-meets-girl songs in my seventies. I need lyrics which are more mature and have more substance.”

 Sometimes this need to reflect where she is in her life means that Kidd has to tinker with existing lyrics in order to make them work for her now. This was the case with the song with which she is most strongly associated –When I Dream. Twenty years ago, her recording of Sandy Mason’s haunting ballad was picked to be on the soundtrack of a Korean blockbuster action movie, the success of which catapulted her to the top of the charts over there, and elevated her to superstar status in Asia. But by last year, she had begun to wonder if she might have outgrown one phrase in it.

The line goes ‘I can go to bed alone and never know his name’ and I thought: ‘Aw come on. I’m too old for that!’ So I changed it to ‘and never speak his name’. So this is the mature version of When I Dream!”

 One name that’s missing from the list of singer-songwriters featured on the album is Carol Kidd’s. She has previously recorded a handful of her own songs, most recently the title track of Tell Me Once Again, her acclaimed 2011 duo album with guitarist Nigel Clark – the last studio recording she did. But these days, her regular creative outlet tends to be painting, the art form which brought her back from “the depths” in the years following her partner John’s sudden death back in the early 2000s, and which helped her again when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer five years ago. “That’s twice it’s done it for me,” she laughs.

 In 2014, she was invited to stage her first exhibition, in Glasgow, and since then, painting has increasingly consumed her time. “I’m doing more painting than ever,” she explains. “And I’ve sold more paintings than ever just recently. It’s proving more lucrative than singing at the moment, especially since I can’t get many gigs in the winter as the flights from Majorca are a nightmare.” 

 But for the moment, Kidd is enjoying promoting Both Sides Now and looking forward to trying to get some concerts scheduled with the featured line-up. “I love this record,” she says, “I really love it. My daughter said ‘Your heart is smiling in it’ – and she’s right because I was enjoying making it so much; enjoying choosing the songs myself rather than being told to do them, and enjoying singing songs by songwriters I adore.”

 * Both Sides Now is out now, downloadable from www.carolkidd.bandcamp.com and on CD from www.carolkidd.co.uk

(c) Alison Kerr, 2019

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Georgia Cécile: Jazz, Soul & Sass

GC 2019 (1 of 1)

Photography by Rianne White

There’s a breath of fresh air on the jazz scene – and her name is Georgia Cécile. If you heard her voice on the radio, you might think you were listening to an older singer, maybe an African-American who has been round the block a few times. Yet the mighty, soulful American-sounding vocals actually emanate from a petite 29-year-old Glaswegian. 

Over the last 18 months, Georgia Cécile has enjoyed a whirlwind of success. She has performed at jazz festivals up and down the country, released a single (Come Summertime) and was nominated as one to watch by Steve Rubie, the owner of the celebrated 606 Club in Chelsea where she played last July. In the last three months, her increasingly busy itinerary has included gigs in Arbroath, Aberdeen and – er – Oman, where she was invited to play a 30-minute set for royalty.

But while Cécile may appear to have burst onto the Scottish jazz consciousness from nowhere, she has in fact been slogging away for the last ten years, learning her craft through her studies and on the job. And her roots in jazz reach back to her childhood, which was steeped in the music.

“My grandfather, Gerry Smith, was a piano player in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s,” Cécile explains. “He played in clubs every night of the week, though he was a mechanic by trade. In fact, during the Second World War, while he was working as a mechanic on planes, he met my grandmother in a music shop in Italy. She played accordion, and was doing a desk job over there. He was from London but came back to Lanarkshire with her after the war. They had nine children, and every one had a musical instrument and every one had to sing at family parties.”

From her grandfather, Cécile learned the foundations of her jazz repertoire – the Great American Songbook – but it was her dad’s sister, Ann, who was the primary influence on her singing style and taste, even before she had discovered such favourite singers as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson.

“My Aunt Ann was an amazing singer – a hairdresser by day and she’d sing with her dad at night. I learned a lot from her. She had a really rich, warm tone – like Sarah Vaughan’s – and her vibrato was very distinctive. I tried to imitate that. I was in awe of her. Her delivery was so emotional every time. She could be sitting on the arm of my granny’s settee belting out Body and Soul, with a cup of tea and scone, and reduce everyone to tears. The emotion and the tone and the rich texture of her voice all inspired me.”

Not only did Aunt Ann’s singing helped shape the teenage Cécile’s own singing style, but her taste in vocal jazz on record played a part too. Cécile recalls: “When I was 15, I started working behind the bar in the family restaurant – Smith’s in Uddingston. They always had jazz playing. On a Friday afternoon, Aunt Ann would come in to do a shift and she would put on her favourite CDs. She loved Ella, and Billie as well, and she knew every song. At home, I was immersed in my parents’ music – my dad is a big Stevie Wonder fan – and I also loved older funk records, as I loved dancing too.”

When, at the age of 16, Cécile announced that she was planning to enter the school talent show as a singer, her mum was quite taken aback. After all, up to that point, classical piano had been her main focus. 

“I did Eva Cassidy’s version of Over the Rainbow in the talent show and got through to the final. It took a while for me to feel confident and believe I could do it, though. I was always a bit afraid I would fail or be mocked. I was bullied at high school and had to change school and that probably knocked my confidence but I drew on that experience. 

“I moved to Uddingston Grammar. It was an amazing school, a nurturing school. In sixth year we did a musical production – Grease. I was Frenchie. I wanted to be Sandy but they said I had too much sass!”

After studying law at Strathclyde University for a year (“God knows why!”), Cécile dropped out in order to pursue a career in music. “I wanted to study it full time; I wanted to work on my voice, on my craft. I had started to write songs and wanted to learn vocal technique so I went to Napier University.” Cécile studied the Estill method of voice training – which teaches the science of how the voice works; the understanding of which enables students to produce different textures and tones. “It blew my mind,” she says.

The BA Hons Popular Music course required students to perform the repertoire in different contexts so she began gigging in Edinburgh as part of her studies. By this time she had she met Glasgow-based jazz pianist and composer Euan Stevenson and although they were initially introduced so she could sing the songs he had been writing with a collaborator, he and Cécile soon began writing together, inspired by their shared love of such great songwriters as Stevie Wonder and Burt Bacharach.

Ten years after they first met, she reckons that they now have a catalogue of over 100 original songs – though some haven’t been heard outside Stevenson’s living room. “It’s been a really organic process right from the start. We seem to have a sort of musical telepathy. We’ve grown on the same path together.” 

How would she describe their music? “Our original melodies have a real jazz flavour, but with contemporary lyrics. They’re about what’s in my life now, but when we play them on gigs in between jazz standards they sit alongside them well. 

“My songs often start as poems, similar to writers like Don McLean who use poetry in their lyrics.  And when Euan and I come together at the piano, we transform the words, using harmony and melody to paint the lyric.  Melody is everything to me, in both the songs I write and the songs I choose to sing – like recently I performed a song by Duke Ellington called I’m Afraid which has one of the most beautiful melodies in any jazz standard I’ve ever heard. It has the perfect balance of fragility and strength, familiarity and surprise! It’s spine-tingling stuff.”

For someone whose confidence took a while to emerge, how did she get to the point where she holds her own on stage? “Well, the whole stage presence thing has taken a while to conquer. We did a lot of stage craft at uni but I learned mostly from watching others, I spent hours on YouTube watching live concerts and I gleaned lots of great little nuggets of info, such as get rid of the mic stand as it’s a barrier between you and the audience. Also, I record every gig I do and critique my performance afterwards – and there is always something that I want to improve on.

“When I bring my songs to audiences, my ultimate intention is to ‘send people’ some place. The level of story telling and authentic emotion is what I love most about the great pioneers of this music. It’s like turning on a tap when I’m truly connected to the song – something can flow through me in every note. As a singer, having good technicality is important of course, but for me, if the intention of love and connection isn’t there, then you’re missing the point.

“Essentially, I want our music to be accessible and focus on quality and good old-fashioned songwriting. So much is throwaway now. I like artists whose records still sound so good 30, 40 years later. I think we’ll still be listening to Amy Winehouse decades from now. Timeless pop music – that’s what jazz is. It doesn’t date.”

* Georgia Cécile plays the Aberdeen Jazz Festival on March 21 and 22. Visit www.georgiacecile.com for more details.

(c) Alison Kerr

GC Editorial 2

Photography by Rianne White

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Madeleine Peyroux & Her Anthem of Hope

MADELEINE PEYROUX redAnybody who was at the City Halls last June to witness Madeleine Peyroux’s return to Glasgow after a decade’s absence will remember that it was an extraordinarily moving experience; the sort of five-star concert experience that doesn’t come along very often. The American singer-songwriter with the sultry, bluesy voice held the audience in the palm of her hand and there was a strong sense of solidarity when she made reference to the political situation in the States and took the mickey out of its president.

Little wonder, then, that Peyroux remembers her one Scottish gig of 2017 clearly when we speak on the phone to discuss her next Scottish date – in Edinburgh later this month. But what is a surprise is just how much of an impression that June day in Glasgow made on her, and how it played a part in the way she approached her new album, Anthem, which is the catalyst for her current European tour.

Reminded of that concert, the 44-year-old immediately responds: “That was a memorable visit to Glasgow. It changed me. It was a big part of my growing up. Before the concert, I met some Glaswegians out on the street and they started telling me about their personal lives – two blokes, two fans, told me about some very serious tragic things that they had gone through. It was very generous of them; it was a real human connection and it made me think very deeply about how I’ve got to be open to that all the time. I have to assume that people want to talk about the hardest things; I shouldn’t shy away from it. I should be open to these conversations.”

It’s little wonder that anyone who has followed Peyroux’s career or is familiar with her recorded output through which run recurring themes about alcoholism, homelessness, falling foul of the law and romantic disappointment should feel that she is approachable and ready to listen. This is the woman who began her performing life as a busker on the streets and metro lines of Paris and who told The Herald in 2009 when she was promoting her first, painfully honest, album of original material that she had “spent a lot of time with sadness”.

So how did the Glaswegian experience impact on Anthem? “I realised that the conversation needs to be on a personal level.” The conversation to which Peyroux refers is about the current political situation, a subject which may have united her with her Scottish fans but which is a thorny topic in her homeland. The seeds for the album were sown during the 2016 US elections when Peyroux was touring the length and breadth of the States, getting a sense of her country and trying to find ways to connect with audiences who don’t necessarily hold the same views as she does.

Does she have to watch what she says about Trump in the States? “Yes. The new record was definitely inspired by concerts where I found that I wasn’t able to talk about issues properly and couldn’t find the repertoire that reflected what was in the air – especially in 2016. I’ve realised that it’s not necessary for me to say anything more about him. He gets enough attention and he thrives on any sort of attention he gets.

“The conversation needs to be on a more personal level so I decided to embrace speaking through the music only. The songs here are based on what’s happened – there’s Lullaby which was inspired by the image of a refugee in the ocean, and Down On Me was inspired by the financial paradox one finds oneself involved – one can’t get back on the horse if one falls off. Songs are meant to speak, and these are deliberately not preachy.”

The record is a group of stories of different people’s experiences and presents an intimate view of politics – through the prism of the personal. “The idea of writing new songs was at the back of my mind at the same time as I was invited to be part of a songwriting session where five of us were stuck together for a few days at a time in LA over a course of a year. It got to the point that I was really excited and wanted to record the songs right away; they felt so connected to what was going on. We recorded it last fall.”

The sessions were the brainchild of Larry Klein, the acclaimed producer with whom Peyroux had collaborated on four albums, including her 2004 breakthrough chart-topper Careless Love and, most recently, her 2013 foray into country music, The Blue Room. Peyroux found it particularly exciting to be writing the songs with musicians, “instruments in hand”, and hearing the songs – which span the musical genres from Marvin Gaye-like We Might As Well Dance to the bluesy funk of Down On Me – come to life.

Unlike her masterful 2009 album Bare Bones, which Peyroux wrote mostly with one collaborator per number, the songs on Anthem were mostly been born out of these afternoon jam sessions. She says: “I was the catalyst for those songs and I used the skills of partners, such as David Baerwald, to finish them.”

An exception to that was All My Heroes, an unblinkered but touching homage to some of the 20thCentury pop icons who have died in the last few years – “All my heroes were failures in their eyes/Losers, drunkards, fallen saints, and suicides.”

Peyroux explains: “The day after one of our former poet laureates died, David came in to the session bemoaning the loss and said ‘Let’s write something about that.’ So the song was inspired by all these great people we’ve been losing like David Bowie, Prince, Robin Williams, and also I had lost a dear friend, so it felt like the natural time to try to address this feeling of loss. So it was David’s idea and it changed form several times.” Indeed, Robin Williams was one of the heroes Peyroux said, back in 2009, “made my life bearable when it was unbearable.”

It was, appropriately, a recently deceased hero of Peyroux who provided the title number – one of only two non-original tracks on the CD. Despite being a fan of Leonard Cohen, whom she knew originally as the father of a classmate from the American School in Paris, for years – and having previously recorded two of his songs – Peyroux hadn’t heard Anthem until Klein, who thought it fitted in well with how they were feeling about the political situation, brought it to her.  She quickly became obsessed with it and with working out how she wanted to perform it.

“The stand-out line in the song,” says Peyroux, “is – ‘There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in’. It has this power of hope. He’s saying: ‘Look at how terrible this is and then live through it and come out the other side.’ It’s really become a personal anthem, and I felt that it tied together all the stories on the record so it had to be the title song.”

* Anthem (Decca) is out now. Madeleine Peyroux is touring the UK this week, including Edinburgh Festival Theatre on Sunday November 25. For tour details, visit www.madeleinepeyroux.com

*  First published in The Herald on Saturday November 17

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Fionna Duncan: Still Stompin’

Fionna Duncan by Sean Purser

Fionna Duncan, June 2018, by Sean Purser

When singer Fionna Duncan received the call telling her that she was to be the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Scottish Jazz Awards, she took the night off cooking – heading instead for a celebratory dinner at the local Chinese restaurant with her partner, veteran bass player (and winner of the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award) Ronnie Rae. And she also began a trip down memory lane which pretty much lasted until Sunday evening’s ceremony.

“I realised when I put the phone down that it’s nearly 60 years since I won my first award,” laughs Duncan. “It was at the JazzBeat 1960 awards at the St Andrew’s Halls in Glasgow, when I was with the Clyde Valley Stompers. I don’t actually remember anything about the night at all!”

Piecing together when things happened and in what order has been something of a challenge for Duncan, but then she is looking back over a life that’s had more twists and turns, ups and downs than most. “My life seems to have been a series of mishaps,” she chuckles, “but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Which is entirely understandable when you consider that one of her proudest moments was meeting and being admired by the greatest jazz legend of them all, Louis Armstrong, when she was the singer with the band, Forrie Cairns’ Clansmen, that was supporting him on the bill in Bridlington in 1962. But it’s maybe less understandable when you consider such setbacks as having to spend a full year in hospital in her early thirties, or having to make her debut at Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow the same day as having every single tooth taken out at the dentist’s.

However, it’s perhaps not surprising that Duncan – who, at 78, is as ebullient as ever – has such a “no regrets” perspective on her own life: she is known for her optimistic outlook and ability to find and focus on the positive, a trait that has made her a sort of fairy godmother to younger musicians and enabled her to add teaching to her list of accomplishments relatively late on in her singing career.

That singing career swung into action before Duncan had even left Rutherglen Academy, where one of her teachers – Norman Buchan – got her involved in the folk music scene. Duncan, who had been taught to play guitar by her engineer father, began to take part in competitions, singing and accompanying herself on the ukulele. One of the most memorable was a talent contest organised by Hoover in Kilmarnock.

“My friend’s dad was the managing director of Hoover and they asked me to take part – though I didn’t really want to. I went along and reluctantly sang two songs – and won. The prize was a Hoover iron, an electric kettle, the chance to make a recording and an audition for TV.” Around this stage, the talented teen spent a lot of time trying to dodge small-time impresarios who wanted to put her on the bill of local theatres on the west coast. “I’d have had my name up in coloured chalk! That was the level of the Clyde circuit,” she recalls with a shudder.

A much more tempting offer came during Duncan’s ten-month visit to the States, with her parents, in 1957. “I became friends with this girl, Ann White, who had cerebral palsy, and whose dad was a millionaire. She was a talented songwriter and she told her father that she wanted me to record some of her songs so we went to New York and traipsed around the record companies there.”

At Riverside, the label whose roster of stars at that time included Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk, Duncan was offered the contract of a lifetime. But she turned it down since it required moving permanently to the States. Still, the trip did provide her with a first-hand experience of the biggest singer of the day, if not of all time – and triggered her ongoing fear of meeting her heroes.

“We were at a reception with people from the recording company, and I saw this man fawning over Frank Sinatra. He put his hand on Sinatra’s shoulder, and Sinatra snapped at him: ‘Get your hand off the material, creep!’ I saw this and thought: ‘Oh f**k, I’m not going to try to speak to him!”

Luckily, other big name stars proved much more approachable. Through a “Rasputin-like” boyfriend in the business, Duncan met Lena Horne in London in the 1960s and confirms that she was every bit as elegant and beguiling in real life as she appears on film.

“She looked amazing – so composed and elegant in a white tailored suit – and she sounded amazing. She did this song The Eagle and Me, just voice and bass, and it made a big impression on me.” So much so that Duncan slips into song, and proves that her memory for good lyrics – in this case those of a protest song – is better than her memory for dates and chronology.

Indeed, there’s some dispute between them over when exactly Duncan met Forrie Cairns, the Glasgow-born clarinettist with whom she worked in various trad bands over the years – but what they do agree on is that it was during the auditions for Stars in Your Eyes, the TV show which she went on to win, and that the first song he heard her perform was Jimmie Rodgers’s hit, Honeycomb – which, of course, Duncan pauses her story to sing.

“It suited my ukulele playing because, like many of these tunes, it only had three chords – and that was about my stretch,” she laughs. “When I got on the TV show Stars in Your Eyes, they put me with Geraldo’s orchestra. They said to me: ‘Do you want to leave the ukulele?’ And I said ‘no, I need it!’ I was singing Pennies From Heaven while this stagehand was dropping great clumps of coins onto the stage from above – like missiles.”

Cairns recalls: “When I heard her for the first time, I immediately asked her if she would be interested in joining my group. She said she would have to ask her mother! Fortunately, her mum said yes and we appeared the following Saturday night at Whitecraigs Tennis Club.”

From the Forrie Cairns All Stars, Duncan and Cairns were recruited into the hugely popular Clyde Valley Stompers, led by Ian Menzies, and it was with the Stompers in 1959 that the gravelly, bluesy, Americanised Duncan vocals were first recorded – on the LP Have Tartan Will Trad. The JazzBeat award for Top Singer followed soon afterwards.

It’s little wonder Duncan doesn’t remember details as she was on such a gruelling treadmill at the time – this was, after all, the age of the trad jazz revival, when jazz bands regularly topped the pop charts and filled dance halls.

“I never got time off,” she explains. “I sang in Dundee with the mumps because Ian Menzies said it was just swollen glands. It was awful. I thought my face would never go back to normal.” When Duncan, Forrie Cairns and his pianist brother John were all injured in a late night car crash in September 1959, it was front page news in Scotland. Two days later, Menzies assured Evening Times readers that the trio would be out of hospital and on the stage that night “at a Woodend tennis club hop”.

In 1971, following an accident abroad which left her with five slipped discs and resulted in a year in hospital, Duncan decided to jack in the singing game altogether. “All I could think about was the pain – the idea of sitting in vans all day put me off returning. I decided to train as a hairdresser and really liked it – it was the first time I had had any female friends; in the bands it was all men.”

However, it turned out that hairdressing was not Duncan’s calling and she gradually returned to full-time singing, a transition that ushered in a chapter of her life which included setting up home with her partner, bass player extraordinaire Ronnie Rae, and forming her own trio – Rae, plus two up-and-coming talents, Brian Kellock (piano) and John Rae (drums) – in the mid-1980s.

It also included a broadening of her repertoire and development of her style through working with younger musicians and through participation in workshops in the States; a format which she brought back to Scotland with her fondly remembered Fionna Duncan Vocal Jazz Workshops which ran during the Glasgow Jazz Festival for more than a decade.

These days, Duncan performs less frequently – though she notched up both Edinburgh Jazz Festival and Fringe appearances last summer – but is regularly called upon for her teaching skills at jazz singing workshops, the next of which takes place in August. Until then, expect her to be busy rearranging the mantelpiece in her Garelochhead home so that the household’s latest Lifetime Achievement Award is centre stage ….

* Fionna Duncan is one of the tutors on the Pathhead Vocal Jazz Workshop which runs August 18-19. For more information, visit www.sophiebancroft.co.uk/teaching/workshops

First published in The Herald, June 9

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Jamie Cullum: Grown-Up Boy Wonder

Me & Jamie Cullum, 2009

Jamie Callum and me, 2009

What a difference a decade makes … The last time I interviewed the phenomenally successful British jazz-pop star Jamie Cullum he was newly engaged to supermodel and writer Sophie Dahl and was promoting his fifth album, The Pursuit. Now, as a father of two young daughters, he has found a new rhythm to his life – and, as he approaches the big 4-0, he is rushing around less and spending more time standing still and taking stock. Not that you would know it from his stage performances – which feature little in the way of standing still, and are as energetic as ever.

The subject of age – and the changes in outlook that can come with it – is a recurring theme in our chat. Cullum, who will bring his quartet to BBC Music’s The Biggest Weekend event in Perth on Friday May 25, is currently working on his eighth album and was last widely seen by the general public playing for the Queen at her televised 92nd birthday bash at the Royal Albert Hall.

It wasn’t the first time Cullum had performed for the Queen, but it was – he laughs – the first that he can clearly remember. The previous occasions are foggier memories glimpsed through a haze of youthful high living, though he does recall the late Alan Rickman reading poetry and the Queen requesting that he sing In the Wee Small Hours Of The Morning. He says: “These opportunities, as she gets older and as I get older, I appreciate them more – you appreciate consistency in people because it’s very easy to be inconsistent.”

That doesn’t seem to be a description that can be applied to Cullum, who is as chattily eloquent, down-to-earth and friendly as he was right back in the early 2000s – when he was a regular visitor to such lost venues as Henry’s Jazz Cellar in Edinburgh – before a 2003 appearance on the Parkinson show catapulted him into the public consciousness and he went, almost overnight, from playing in that much-loved basement jazz club to performing at the Usher Hall when he came to Scotland.

Not only does the mop-haired superstar rail against inconsistency; he has also begun, recently, to filter out the more superficial and throwaway aspects of modern culture – in a quest for self-improvement. Rattling off a huge list of his favourite poets – “Rilke, Carol Ann Duffy, Charles Bukowski, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes” – he explains that his love of poetry has been creeping into his work of late as he puts together his first album of entirely original material, which is scheduled for release later this year.

“I’m thinking that if you overdose on garbage then garbage comes out. I’ve been trying to fill my brain with wisdom, in the hope that even 1% comes out. It’s so easy these days to input surface stuff when you’re rushing about. I think for me it’s about remembering what you really value. When you rush around, you grab for the nearest thing. Now I have kids, you think about what has value, what enriches life – reading, family, friendships, food, wisdom … I hope it comes out in my work.”

With his 40th birthday looming next year, the always self-aware Cullum is particularly contemplative these days. “I’ve started to look back more, wresting out some of the wisdom I might have accrued and maybe missed. That’s bit of a theme just now. I’m trying to take stock.”

While some get their kicks from cocaine – as Jamie Cullum didn’t sing when he performed a typically funky version of the classic Cole Porter number at the Queen’s birthday party last month and used Porter’s alternative, less risqué, line – others, including the singer himself, get their kicks from reading. Literature has played a huge part in Cullum’s life – from his days at Reading University, where he studied English, to his relationship with Dahl which was born from the shared love of books (“and eating and dancing”).

“We definitely connected over that,” he says, “and we do live in a house of books.” The title of the album he was promoting when we last spoke came from the title of Dahl’s favourite book, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.

Of course, the afore-mentioned Cole Porter, a particularly elegant and sophisticated songwriter, has been a consistent favourite source of material since Cullum first started out (there are no fewer than three Porter songs on his 1999 debut album, Heard It All Before) and if you’ve ever attended one of his gigs, you will probably have heard his take on Just One of Those Things or I Get A Kick Out Of You.

“I love Porter’s dry acerbic wit, and his combination of happy and sad, tragic and comic. He expresses the general struggles we all face. …” Breaking into song at his piano, Cullum continues: “This one, What Is This Thing Called Love, is just great. It shows that understanding of the tragic nature of all things. Porter has very much inspired my writing. In fact, up until a few years ago, my influences were musical – but now they are much more literary. I’ve been looking at composers writing from a lyrical place – a lot of the great writers were lyricists: Johnny Mercer, Stephen Sondheim. They come from a lyrical place. I’m hoping their influence will show in my songs.”

Commenting on a quote he gave another interviewer a few years ago about aspiring to play George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the piano one day, he says: “I’ve actually just started learning to read music – and getting into theory with a view to expanding my horizons. I want to get better. I didn’t read music at all until recently. Now it’s a bit like reverse engineering – I look at my fingers and I understand what I’m doing and why things work.

“I’m thinking seriously of going to uni to study music – for selfish reasons. Yes, Rhapsody is still very much an ambition – but right now, I’d be happy with getting through Grade 2 for Beginners – that would be a joy! That comes from the children – seeing their sense of accomplishment. I’m drawn to these moments.”

* Jamie Cullum plays at BBC Music’s The Biggest Weekend, at Scone Palace in Perth on the afternoon of Friday, May 25. For more details and to buy tickets (£18 + £4.50 booking fee), visit the website http://www.bbc.co.uk/biggestweekend

First published in The Herald, Saturday May 12th

 

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