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The Sweet Sound of Ben & Gerry!

This fantastic clip, featuring three numbers and a terrific line-up headed by sax giants Gerry Mulligan (baritone) and Ben Webster (tenor), was recently posted on YouTube by the Duke Ellington Society and has been delighting those of us who stumbled across it on Facebook. So I thought I’d share it here – enjoy!

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Book Review: Wonderful Feels Like This (Allen & Unwin) by Sara Lovestam

 

As a jazz lover who had to give up watching Whiplash about ten minutes into the film, I approached Sara Lovestam’s novel Wonderful Feels Like This with a certain degree of trepidation. How were my favourite music genre and its characters going to be represented in this book? Would they – unlike that cringe-worthy movie – bear any relation to the music and people I love?

The answer turned out to be yes – though it took a while to feel reassured. Why? Because some of the descriptions of the music seem slightly affected and because so much of the novel doesn’t seem to have been translated into something that reads naturally. I almost did a Whiplash and gave up after reading “Steffi is becoming happy jazz”. And that’s the opening line. Even a friend’s explanation that the Scandinavians refer to traditional jazz as “happy jazz” doesn’t make that sentence sound right. It does, however, increase the sense that this is a book for younger readers – although it’s billed as grown-up fiction.

Unfortunately, that line is not the only one that doesn’t scan. They pop up throughout Laura Wideburg’s translation of Lovestam’s book. It’s like a supposedly wittily worded jazz song that’s been written in English by a Scandinavian; some of it just doesn’t work and quite a few bits jar. However, despite the strangeness of such phrases as “his jazz was sick”, there is much naïve charm to be found in this story of a young girl who finds both a new friend and the hope for a new life through her growing interest in jazz.

Steffi Herrera may feel like the odd one out at home and be the victim of bullies at school, but she finally begins to feel that she has a place to go when she becomes friends with an old man at the care home in her small Swedish town, thanks to their shared love of 1940s jazz. For the teenage Steffi, jazz – learning to play her instruments, listening to the music and hearing her new friend Alvar’s story about how he came to be part of the Stockholm jazz scene during the war – is a means of escape from her current grim reality and provides hope. For Alvar, when he was only a little older than Steffi is now, jazz and the city provided an alternative to the small-town life in which he would otherwise have found himself trapped.

The two characters’ stories unfold throughout the book as Steffi hears about Alvar’s Stockholm years during her regular visits to the care home. These parallel tracks of the book mostly complement each other well apart from the formulaic way in which most passages from the present day end with a line which is then repeated – often rather gratuitously – in the opening section of one of Alvar’s reminiscences. The first few times it works well, but it soon becomes an irritant. It also seems a little unrealistic that the old man should tell his story to his visitor in such a structured way, so that she only learns about his marital status, for example, in their last visit of the book. Alvar’s story is akin to a wartime jazz soap opera to which Steffi tunes in for regular instalments.

Where Wonderful Feels Like This comes into its own is in the way Lovestam deals with the subject of bullying: what it feels like to be picked-on all the time at school, how Steffi handles it, and how having a life outside school which her peers don’t know about helps her to cope. There’s also some moving insight into dementia and how it affects those around the person suffering from it.

But overall, this is a loving, quietly charming – if often irritating – portrayal of jazz as a music which salves the soul of a misfit, brings her friendship and a sense of camaraderie and connects the future with the past.

  • First published in the Sunday Herald, April 30th.

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Ella in Scotland

Ella Fitzgerald Glasgow prog.jpgThis year, the music world celebrates the centenary of the vocalist known as the “First Lady of Song”, the mighty Ella Fitzgerald – and it is entirely appropriate that Scotland should play host to a number of Fitzgerald tributes and events. Why? Because this is where she made her British debut in 1948; the first of a handful of visits over the years.
 
Born on April 25 1917, Ella Fitzgerald was a decade into her career as one of the most highly regarded singers on the scene when she arrived in Scotland in late September 1948. She had topped the charts and made her name in the late 1930s with the hit record A–Tisket A-Tasket, a swinging rendition of an old nursery rhyme which she went on to sing in the Abbott and Costello movie Ride ‘Em Cowboy. Her most celebrated admirers included Bing Crosby, who had said: “Man, woman and child, Ella is the greatest of them all.”
 
But her debut at the Glasgow Empire on Monday, September 27 seems to have been a non-event.
 
Accompanied by her new husband, the bassist Ray Brown, Fitzgerald had arrived off the Queen Mary at Southhampton a week earlier, to be told that the location of her British debut had been changed from the London Palladium to the Glasgow Empire – because boisterous Hollywood personality Betty Hutton’s Palladium run had been extended. 
 
Fitzgerald said she was worried about her London appearance and welcomed the chance to make her debut in Glasgow instead. But according to the reviews, and judging by Fitzgerald’s own reaction, her debut performance – accompanied by pianist Hank Jones – was a bit of a damp squib.
 
“Enthusiasm was lacking” said one review. “Ella made the mistake of changing her act to cope with request numbers,” said another, “and the result was a fairly ragged presentation.” Among the songs she sang were Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me, A-Tisket A-Tasket, Woody Woodpecker and Nature Boy.
 
Apart from the fact that Fitzgerald was suffering from both a bad cold and a bad case of nerves, there was also the problem that – as was the case with all American jazz musicians at the time – she was appearing as part of a variety programme (below the top-billed Gracie Fields in London, for example, and with the Nicholas Brothers dance team, plus a comedian, in Glasgow) which was designed to cater for all tastes, rather than for an audience of jazz aficionados. And at this point, encouraged by Dizzy Gillespie and her newfound enthusiasm for bebop, she was starting to explore scat singing. Perhaps Empire audiences just weren’t ready for it. 
 
Indeed, after the first show, Fitzgerald told one interviewer that she was a “rebop” (sic) singer. “You know what that means?” she asked. The reporter replied that he understood it to be a modern way of phrasing music. “You’re lucky,” said Fitzgerald. “I doubt if the audience knows. I don’t really know myself what it is. To me it is singing discords. It goes down well in America. I wonder if it will go down well in Britain.”
 
By 1964, when Fitzgerald returned to Glasgow, she was indubitably the queen of jazz; her recent series of classy songbook albums underlining the fact that she was at the peak of her powers. This time, she shared the bill with the Oscar Peterson Trio and trumpet ace Roy Eldridge. 
 
Among those in the audience of the Odeon Theatre on Friday April 3, 1964 were two young singers who would go on to dominate the Scottish jazz scene: Carol Kidd and Fionna Duncan. Kidd recalls:  “She walked on in silence – no announcement, and stood at the microphone with a big smile waiting for Tommy Flanagan to get his music together. Then she decided to go ahead anyway! She went straight into It’s Alright With Me at breakneck tempo, but by God she was spot on with the key. It took Tommy Flanagan a full chorus to catch up with her! She giggled all the way through the song which was obviously not rehearsed. I’ll never forget the impression that made on me – to be so sure that you can carry such a hiccup off and always be in key..
 
“Just to see her standing there in front of me took my breath away. I cried all the way through it. Her scat was just a joy because we never knew when she was going to run out of phrasing but she never repeated herself – not once!”
 
Duncan, meanwhile, was struck by how shy and self-conscious Fitzgerald appeared onstage. “She just just didn’t look comfortable at all – until she was singing. As soon as she sang, she was a different person. I was bowled over by her singing. I’d always been a fan; I loved how she grabbed the melody.”
 
It may have been a momentous occasion for many in the audience, but media coverage of Fitzgerald’s appearance seems to have been non-existent. That there were no interviews or photographs in the local press seems to fit in with Fitzgerald’s reserved personality. And a performance at the Apollo in Glasgow exactly ten years later drew as little coverage. Only one interview pops up and that was secured by a bold Daily Record reporter who bypassed her “people” and nabbed her when she returned to her hotel in Southport just before she came north to do her Apollo gig.
 
“Sure I’ll talk, honey,” she told him, over a slimline tonic. “I hear people saying I don’t give press interviews – and that kinda puzzles me. Because while I’m on tour I never see the press. I guess someone gets to them before they can get to me. There has never been anyone so great that they didn’t need the press. If you think that, then you have nothing left to accomplish.”
 
Asked about her repertoire and how it had changed, she said: “I’m always striving for something new, and nowadays we’re playing a lot of material by the young generation of composers. People like Carole King and Bacharach.”
 
Indeed, in Edinburgh the following year it was with Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life that she serenaded one adoring young fan. Singer Todd Gordon was a 16-year-old devotee of Fitzgerald when he heard she was coming to Scotland for Glasgow and Edinburgh dates with Count Basie’s Orchestra (at the Kelvin Hall and Usher Hall respectively).
Having heard her at the Apollo, he resolved to go one better the next year – so he turned up at the Caledonian Hotel, where she was lunching before her two Usher Hall performances, and presented her with 20 pink roses.
 
Gordon recalls: “Towards the end of the first concert, when Ella came to say thanks to the musicians, she added: ‘I’d also like to thank a young fan who gave me flowers earlier today. I haven’t been able to see you. Are you here?’” As Gordon waved from the organ gallery, a spotlight shone on him and Fitzgerald invited him to come onstage with her. After she had sung her song and Gordon was making his way back to his seat, she said: “Wasn’t that sweet? He spent his little bread on me – when he could have spent it on Elton John!”
 
Gordon, like Fionna Duncan, found Fitzgerald to be very shy but also “very motherly”. He adds: “She really put me at ease.” So much so that he went back to see her the next time she visited Edinburgh – when she was appearing with pianist Jimmy Rowles’s trio and the BBC Concert Orchestra in a concert later released as an album – in July 1981. This time it was the distinctly less impressive King James Hotel – rather than the elegant Caledonian – where this jazz legend was staying. 
 
Perhaps this is where Fitzgerald was more comfortable. After all, she seems to have been quite a homely person, “a simple soul” – as Jean Mundell, another Edinburgh-born singer who spent a little time with her, remembers. 
 
This, after all, is the woman who – at the end of her first-ever week performing two shows a night in Britain – took the time to hand-write a letter on Central Hotel notepaper to a couple who had, presumably by giving up some ration coupons, helped to make her visit to Glasgow more comfortable. This rare letter, which turned up on an auction website a couple of years ago, thanks Beth and George for “a lovely time”. Intriguingly, it adds: “It isn’t everyone who will give up there (sic) points so nicely, you see I’m a housewife also and I know what it meant.”
 
* Tina May & Brian Kellock are visiting Greenock, Glasgow, West Kilbride, Arbroath and Inverness with an Ella Fitzgerald & Oscar Peterson tribute show from May 10; http://www.tinamay.com
* Alison Burns & Martin Taylor – 100 Years of Ella Fitzgerald is at the Perth Festival on May 17
This article was first published in The Herald on Friday, April 21st.

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Joe Temperley Obituary

Jazz 2012 004Joe Temperley, who has died at the age of 88, was a giant of the baritone saxophone and the first Scottish jazz musician to make it on the New York scene. In a career which spanned seven decades, he worked his way through the best British dance and jazz bands before moving to New York and doing the same there, serving in no less prestigious an organisation than the Duke Ellington Orchestra and, later, its closest modern-day equivalent – Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

That Temperley was regarded as an integral part of that ensemble’s sound and success was obvious even before he was honoured with a concert in his name last year. Wynton Marsalis told one magazine: “It’s difficult to express in words the depth of respect and admiration we have for Joe. And it’s not just about music. It’s also a personal, a spiritual thing. His approach is timeless. And he’s the center of our band.”

In addition to his long association with that band, Temperley was also an educator who taught at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, and was a guest mentor for the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra during his regular visits back to Scotland where he kept up with his extended family and the jazz community here. In the hours after his death was announced on Wednesday afternoon, Facebook was flooded with heartfelt messages from students who had benefitted from Temperley’s teaching.

Until old age and ill health took their toll, Temperley was a big, physically imposing figure who seemed physically to embody the history which he represented; a history that spanned the dance band era, the big bands, bebop – and was peppered with musical and social encounters with such icons as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, in whose final concert he played.

His burly figure, often gruff manner and stern appearance could make grown men – such as his favourite UK pianist, Brian Kellock – quiver in their boots. In the jazz room at Hospitalfield House in Abroath, a large photo of Temperley hangs on the wall behind the bandstand. Its subject appears to glower over in the direction of the piano. “It’s really quite disconcerting,” says Kellock, “even though, once I got to know him, I discovered that he was really a big softie.”

The cumbersome baritone saxophone was an appropriate instrument for a towering figure such as Temperley – but it wasn’t cumbersome in his hands. Famously, he could coax the most tender and romantic sounds out of it (fellow saxophonist and jazz educator Tommy Smith yesterday compared the Temperley sound to “sweet velvet”) – as exemplified in recent years on his chosen Scottish encore, an unaccompanied performance of My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose in which the melody was caressed in such a gentle and exquisite way that you knew he was singing the words in his head. It stopped the show every time.

The son of a bus driver, Joseph Temperley was born in the mining town of Lochgelly, in Fife, in 1927. The second youngest of five children, he left school at the age of 14 when his mother secured him a job in a butcher’s shop. By this time, he was already playing cornet alongside his elder brother, Bob, in the Cowdenbeath Brass Band – and it was Bob who bought the youngster his first saxophone, an alto, so he could join his dance band. As Temperley liked to tell it later, he had six months of lessons and then ended his musical education because, by that point, he could play better than the teacher. “All the stuff that I learned, I learned by doing,” he said.

The teenage Temperley formed a band called the Debonairs, in which he played tenor sax. Speaking in 2010, he recalled: “I had a horse and cart and I would go round all the villages during the day, trying to sell meat. Then at night I’d play sax in dance bands!”

When the Debonairs took part in a dance band competition organised by Melody Maker, Temperley’s talent was spotted and he was invited to play with the winning band. At the age of 17, he left Lochgelly for the bright lights of Glasgow where he played at the Piccadilly Club on Sauchiehall Street for 18 months.

During the days, he would augment his earnings by playing snooker. “The guys in Glasgow thought that I was just some country boy from Fife and they would be able to take a few bob off me – but they didn’t know that I had been playing snooker at the Miners’ Welfare for years. The days were quite profitable for me!”

When Tommy Sampson’s band, one of the most popular of the period, came to play at Green’s Playhouse, Temperley went along for an audition and was signed up on the spot. Not yet 20 years old, he moved to London to take the tenor chair in the Sampson band – “the first time I was in a band that was sort of regimented”. He then joined the Harry Parry band, with which he had his first experience of foreign travel, then moved onto Joe Loss’s band, then Jack Parnell’s and Tony Crombie’s (with Annie Ross on vocals) before settling into what turned out to be eight year stint with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band, during which he switched to the baritone sax. “That was the start of my professional career,” he later said. “The rest was incidental.”

With “Humph,” Temperley met many top American musicians – Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Anita O’Day. “The first time I came across iced tea was when Cannonball Adderley ordered it,” he recalled in 2010. “I thought: ‘what’s that?’!”

Temperley’s first taste of New York, the epicentre of jazz, was with Lyttelton’s band in August 1959. “I arrived wearing a Harris tweed jacket. It was so hot, I’d sit in the bath all day and only go out at night!’ After returning from three weeks in jazz heaven, Temperley was desperate to get back – and in December 1965 he did so, permanently.

After six months without a gig, Temperley was approached by Woody Herman to join his band for a series of one-nighters, but after two years on the road, he had had enough and returned to New York where he freelanced quite contentedly for several years, with a regular gig with the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra every Monday at the famous Village Vanguard club. He met everyone there. “Miles Davis came in two or three times. And Charlie Mingus, André Previn, Bill Evans. People from the Ellington band. Monday night was a big social scene, and some marvellous people came down there.”

In the early 1970s, he worked with Frank Sinatra – an experience he alluded to during An Evening With Joe Temperley, a special duo concert-cum-trip-down-memory-lane he gave with Brian Kellock at the 2010 Edinburgh Jazz Festival. When Kellock interrupted Temperley’s roll call of stars he had met to ask if Sinatra was a nice guy, the audience got a typically frank reply: “The bass player who worked with him for 20 years was leaving the band. As he left, he said to Sinatra ‘I’m off’. And Frank Sinatra replied: ‘I don’t talk to the help.’!”

A change of direction came in October 1974 when the pastor of the Lutheran Church on 54th Street, the church which serves New York’s jazz community, asked Temperley to play at the funeral of Harry Carney, the great baritone saxophonist who had played in Duke Ellington’s band for 45 years.

“I played Sophisticated Lady at Harry’s funeral – and that’s how I got the job replacing him in the Ellington band,” recalled Temperley as he introduced that number at the 2010 jazz festival. Temperley spent ten years in the Ellington band – by now run by Mercer Ellington – before becoming one of the original members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 1990; a gig which he described as being “like a real job with health benefits, dental benefits, a pension”.

Until relatively recently, he was still touring the world with the orchestra. Latterly, he claimed that the only thing that troubled him about the sax was carrying it. Despite his obvious frailty, he turned in a series of terrific and surprisingly robust performances, switching between the baritone and the bass clarinet during a mini tour with Brian Kellock which turned out to be his final visit to Scotland in March 2015.

* Joe Temperley, jazz saxophonist and educator, born September 20 1927; died May 11 2016.
Joe Temperley and meText and photos (c) Alison Kerr, 2016.

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I Cover the Waterfront, Part 1

ElbJazz 2Last weekend I was in Hamburg, on a press trip which tied in with the Elbjazz Festival, a festival quite unlike any I had ever previously attended. Which was both a good and a bad thing! On the positive side, it’s a festival which makes terrific and exciting use of its venues and locations. But it’s also, it seems to me, a festival which caters more for those seeking to dip their toes in the waters of jazz – rather than for the diehard jazz fan such as myself. As the name suggests, the epicentre of the festival is the River Elbe and getting to gigs involves boat rides, riverside strolls and exploring the vast indoor and outdoor spaces of the Blohm & Voss shipyards.

Friday night, Blohm & Voss shipyard

Friday night, Blohm & Voss shipyard

I loved the maritime feel of the festival and the way it makes use of the locations to enhance the festival experience. Over lunch on Saturday, the charismatic Tina Heine, the founder and director of the festival, explained how much thought she puts into matching artists with venues – which this year ranged from St Catherine’s Church, part of which dates back to the 13th Century, to the Hafenmuseum, a museum of shipbuilding.

St Catherine's Church, Hamburg

St Catherine’s Church, Hamburg

She said: “Every artist I look at, I think about what the perfect setting would be. Sometimes you can accelerate the musical experience through the venue, and the artist can find inspiration in it too.” The shipyard has been at the heart of the festival since it began six years ago. “Blohm & Voss is there every year. Other venues change. How many stages we have at the shipyard depends on what’s happening there. This year everything is on the south side of the Elbe. In Hamburg we never get bored of being on the waterfront. Even if you’ve been here 20 years, like me. ”

Outside the Hafenmuseum, Saturday evening

Outside the Hafenmuseum, Saturday evening

Heine is a restaurateur – she owns an elegant-looking bar-restaurant called Hadley’s in Hamburg – whose love of contemporary and experimental jazz inspired her to branch out from staging weekly concerts in her own establishment to conceiving a major jazz festival which would embody her ethos of “cool venues and good food and good wine”. Indeed, Hadley’s had a satellite stall at the shipyard, one of many  stands selling some of the best fast festival food I’ve come across – along with wine, served in wine glasses! “I don’t drink my wine from plastic cups,” says Heine, “so why should I expect others to? We’ve never had a problem. People hand back the glasses to us.”

Outside the Hafenmuseum, Saturday evening

Outside the Hafenmuseum, Saturday evening

Unfortunately, this year’s event was a bit on the damp and chilly side but the weather certainly didn’t dampen the spirits of the 15,000 festival-goers who seemed to relish the opportunity to explore the shipyards and hear the likes of Dee Dee Bridgewater, on an outdoor stage, singing songs about another great port as she performed her New Orleans songbook on the first night of the weekend. A little later on, there were ten rows of people trying to get indoors to hear Stacey Kent guest with Quatuor Ebene string quartet.  ElbJazz 3A little later, the crowd had vanished and it was possible to get into the concert – right at the back, where a lot of people were listening on a sort of platform from which (unless you were at the front) you could see nothing. I gave up and went for a stroll outside. A little later still, I showed my press band and managed to get into the seated, ground-level area nearer the stage. I heard about 15 minutes of the set which I thoroughly enjoyed. I wished I’d heard more. During our conversation the next day, Tina Heine enthused about the fact that over 80% of the people who come to the festival say that they are not jazz fans. She doesn’t sell tickets to individual concerts; it’s all done on a first-come, first-served basis as far as getting a seat or a view are concerned. What, I asked, if you were a big fan of a particular artist and wanted to ensure that you had a decent seat to hear him or her from?

A glimpse of Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg's impressive new concert hall, which opens in Jan 2017

A glimpse of Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s impressive new concert hall, which opens in Jan 2017

“No chance!” was Heine’s frank reply. “If we did dedicated tickets then that would go against my whole idea of the flow of people going from one concert to another that’s completely different.” This is a lady with a firm idea of how her festival should be. Punters leaving concerts en masse 15 minutes before the end so that they can get into the next one on their schedule is fine with her, and that movement and freedom is why you can only buy one or two-day tickets, rather than individual concert tickets. It also means that festival-goers don’t have to fork out for the boat and bus shuttle trips involved in getting to the different venues on the river – it’s all included, which makes that side of things more straightforward especially for the tourist!

She said she had also resisted the idea of having stages themed according to music genre. She is firmly anti-segregation within the numerous types of music that now come under the jazz umbrella. Which is fine for those who aren’t passionate about particular genres, but not great if you are. (And if you are, there tend also to be some styles which you just can’t stand!) Mind you, if – like me – you’re a fan of classic and mainstream jazz, you probably wouldn’t find too much in the Elbjazz programme since it is more weighted in favour of contemporary jazz and fusion, as befits its founder’s personal taste. My conclusion? I need to get my own jazz festival too!

* www.elbjazz.de

All photos © Alison Kerr

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Review: Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

Yes, yes, I know this isn’t a jazz music review – and this is a jazz blog. But .. I also happen to know, from years in their company, that jazz musicians (at least some of the very best on both sides of the Atlantic) seem to have a penchant for PG Wodehouse – so I’m assuming that a similar proportion of jazz fans do too, and may be interested in this hit show which is currently touring the UK. Oh, and Bix Beiderbecke and Reinhardt/Grappelli feature on the soundtrack…

Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, Theatre Royal, Glasgow *****

It’s always a gamble going to see cherished characters being portrayed onstage or screen, but fellow Wodehouse worshippers can rest assured that the Jeeves & Wooster production which opened at the Theatre Royal on Monday, following its West End run, is nothing short of wonderful.

John Gordon Sinclair and Joel Sams (replacing James Lance) star as the eponymous butler and master, in an uproarious caper beautifully and lovingly adapted by the Goodale Brothers from The Code of the Woosters, PG Wodehouse’s 1938 novel. In the play, Bertie Wooster enlists the help of the multi-talented Jeeves and his Aunt Dahlia’s butler, Seppings (Robert Goodale, yup one of the writers), to help him put on his own play based on the rummy tale of what happened when he was summoned to Totleigh Towers to steal an antique silver cow creamer from his uncle’s rival collector. Or something like that .. the plot matters several jots less than the delicious, delightful dialogue and the deliriously funny performances from the trio of actors – two of whom play multiple parts.

John Gordon Sinclair proved himself a fantastic physical comedian, not so much in the Jeeves role, which has to be understated, but more when Jeeves took on the persona of the fish-faced newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle, a quivering, myopic, lovable geek. Sinclair’s body seemed to do Mexican waves when he was in nervous Gussie mode. In all, Sinclair played four characters, while Robert Goodale did an equally marvellous job bouncing between Seppings, Aunt Dahlia, Roderick Spode and Butterfield the butler (who was surely inspired by Eric Blore’s immortal Bates in Top Hat). As for Joel Sams, he made a terrific Bertie. An utter delight; perfect Perfect Nonsense, in fact.

* First published in The Herald, Thursday November 27th

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Songs for Soppy Cynics (and Swinging Lovers)

CurtisCurtis Stigers wears his heart on his record sleeve. The versatile American singer who, two years ago, released his darkest album to date – a collection, as he put it, “of sad songs or songs about sex” – has gone to the other extreme with his new CD Hooray for Love, an all-out, old-fashioned celebration of romance. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking “Ooh, Curtis must be happy” as soon as I saw the the title of the new album – so is the Stigers who comes to Edinburgh indeed as happy and loved-up as the record suggests?

“Well, yeah,” say Stigers who, for all his drawl speaks ten to the dozen. “That was the whole idea. I set out to make an album that mirrored where I am as a person as well as the last record mirrored where I was when I made it. And that record was obviously f***ing depressed.  And so I felt like it was time both for me and my fans for the antidote so I went looking for ten beautiful love songs. I really wanted to make an album of love songs; an album that was just unabashedly, unapologetically romantic.

Whereas Let’s Go Out, the previous CD, featured contemporary singer-songwriter material, this new album comprises swinging, jazz takes of classics from the Great American Songbook alongside some original songs which sound as if they might also have been written in the same era. “I threw out a lot of the rules I had made for myself, like ‘Don’t record songs that have been recorded a million times’ and ‘Never record a song that Sinatra is known for’.”

Stigers’s joyful experiences singing with the John Wilson Orchestra in the landmark 2010 MGM prom and subsequent movie-themed concerts inspired the inclusion of the a couple of the songs – Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight (“the sweetest and, I think, one of the smartest love songs ever written”) and the Gershwins’ Love is Here To Stay.  Performed in a catchy, loose, simple arrangement reminiscent of small-group, 1950s jazz recordings featuring the likes of Harry “Sweets” Edison and Ben Webster, it’s the opening track, and it sets the intimate, laid-back mood of the album. “Ah,” agrees Stigers, “that era is definitely what we were going for, and one of the two or three albums that we really looked at and I kept at the back of my mind was the After Midnight sessions with Nat ‘King’ Cole – that has Sweets on it. It was Nat basically coming back to the small group, swinging sort of thing that he had stepped away from to become a pop star.”

“It seemed like the thing to do – to take a step back towards happy and towards a little more, I guess, of a mainstream jazz approach. As well as the King Cole album, I was thinking about those early Doris Day records before she got too pop, too cute and smarmy; those great pop records from the 1950s where it was fantastic jazz musicians playing great songs with a great singer, and there were solos but they weren’t long solos. That was the other thing: I really wanted to pay attention to the song first, and whilst there are some solos, I really stood on my musicians; I was grinding my heel into them as they were playing, saying: ‘No – simpler!’, ‘No – closer to the melody!’, ‘Let the song do the work!’ ”

It’s not only the mood and material of Hooray for Love which are reminiscent of those earlier albums; the sound evokes that era as well. Stigers explains: “When I mixed the record I really tried to not go for modern hi fidelity but go for more of an old-fashioned fidelity. There’s a difference between the way jazz records sounded in the 1950s to the way they sound now. I didn’t want it to sound retro; I just wanted it to sound cosier and more intimate. Jazz records these days you can hear the drums so well. You can hear every texture of the drums… I don’t really give-a-damn what the drums sound like – I want them to keep the beat; that’s what drums do. And I could be thrown in jazz guy prison for saying that but the truth is that’s not the issue with an album with a singer and great songs. The issue is the great songs and the voicings – and everything else is there to support that. So that’s what we were really going for.”

The mood really couldn’t be more of a contrast to the last record or the repertoire we’ve heard in Stigers concerts in recent years: he’s gone from the cynical to the soppy. He’s come out of a painful divorce and found a new love, and he can’t hide his delight. Even the title Hooray for Love came from the sign-off on an email from a friend congratulating him on his new romance. Thankfully, his performance at Ronnie Scott’s earlier this year showed he hasn’t completely sold out on his fellow cynics – he still sang Dylan’s Things Have Changed and other songs from the last album.

Chuckling, Stigers points out: “I’m still cynical. The fact that I’m a romantic is the reason that my cynicsm is so thick. Let me explain that. I think because I open my heart – as the song says ‘I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast’. And that’s who I am. I believe in love, I believe in romance. And when you get your heart stomped on, as an open-hearted romantic, it’s pretty easy to take on a defensive edge. But underneath it all, I love love songs and I love love. So this was my chance to show the non-cynical side.”

And just to highlight the fact that the sad cynic is still there, he has concluded the album with You Don’t Know What Love Is, the bleak, Chet Baker-associated ballad which has been a bit of a showstopper at Stigers gigs in recent years.  “I just couldn’t help myself! It’s a love song but it’s a dark song. It’s a song about love that one way or another can’t be fulfilled. It’s a sad song. It also seemed like that sort of cautionary tale at the end, you know? Love, love, love, love, love – but don’t forget what might happen!”

* Curtis Stigers plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on October 9. Hooray for Love (Concord Records) is out now. For tour dates visit www.curtisstigers.com

First published in The Herald, Friday October 3, 2014

 

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