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Lady (Doesn’t) Sing the Blues – Again

Lady Sings the Blues concert poster.pngOne of the strangest nights in the history of New York’s illustrious Carnegie Hall took place in November 1956 when Billie Holiday, the jazz singer now regarded as the greatest of them all, headlined a show entitled Lady Sings the Blues. What made it so unusual was not so much that a jazz star, and a black one at that, was going to perform at this most prestigious of venues – jazz musicians, including Holiday herself, had played on that stage before.

The difference was that this show was inspired by Holiday’s recently published, brutally frank and fairly controversial autobiography, excerpts of which would be read out during the evening – by a male journalist – in between performances by Holiday and an all-star band.

The publication of Lady Sings the Blues a few months earlier had been a big deal. To ensure maximum publicity, a new album with the same title was released simultaneously (an LP of the Carnegie Hall show would follow as well). It was made up mostly of songs associated with the singer earlier in her two-decade career plus the title track – a new song comprising a melody already written by pianist Herbie Nichols with words by Holiday. It had been the publishers, Doubleday, who insisted on the title – Holiday preferred “Bitter Crop” which comes from her powerful protest song Strange Fruit – despite her argument that she had never been a blues singer.

The book was co-written with respected journalist William Dufty, who was a close friend. Holiday needed to get the book out fast since she was in dire financial straits in the mid-1950s: she was in debt but she was unable to work in the nightclubs of New York having had her cabaret card (which permitted performers to work in licensed premises) revoked following her drugs conviction in the late 1940s.

Dufty drew on previously published interviews plus conversations between him and Holiday, and the result was a confessional style of autobiography which dealt frankly with Holiday’s drug addiction and her experiences of rape, prostitution and domestic abuse. The New York Herald Tribune said it was a “hard, bitter and unsentimental book, written with brutal honesty and having much to say not only about Billie Holiday, the person, but about what it means to be poor and black in America”.

Some jazz critics were appalled by the book, which made little reference to Holiday’s art and which – they knew – was an attempt to make some money to support her drug habit and pay off her debts, while giving the impression that she was now clean so that she could get back her cabaret card. One jazz writer who did review it positively was Down Beat’s Nat Hentoff who said that it would “help those who want to understand how her voice became what it was – the most hurt and hurting singer in jazz”.

For a long time, the received jazz wisdom was that Lady Sings the Blues was a sensationalist memoir packed with fiction. Holes were picked in it and once doubt was cast over some mistakes, the reliability of everything else was called into question. It didn’t help that there’s an inaccuracy in the very first line – one of the most shocking and attention-grabbing openers you’re likely to come across. It became a book that you would read but knew you should take with a hefty pinch of salt – and the Lady Sings the Blues movie, starring Diana Ross and not even bearing much resemblance to the book on which it purports to be based, didn’t help matters.

In recent times, the book, which sold well upon publication and has never been out of print, has been re-evaluated within the jazz world, and there’s an appreciation of the authenticity of Holiday’s voice – her streetwise language and her sassy attitude – even if her memories played tricks on her, or if she did have an agenda.

Similarly, the Lady Sings the Blues concert proved to be a big success. Reviews talked about how the audience was spellbound, and you can certainly hear from the live LP how warm the reaction was. Nat Hentoff wrote: “The audience was hers before she sang, greeting and saying goodbye with heavy applause, and at one time the musicians, too, applauded. It was a night when Billie was on top, the best jazz singer alive.”

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For the opening night of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, David McAlmont – the versatile London-based singer whose group McAlmont and Butler topped the charts with the song Yes in the mid 1990s – is staging his show “David McAlmont Presents Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall” in which he pays homage to his favourite jazz singer and that strange yet triumphant night in 1956.

Although McAlmont, who is 52, has been a fan of Holiday for most of his adult life, he didn’t get off to a great start with her. “The first time I heard her, I thought she sounded horrible – it wasn’t even one of her very last recordings. I’d seen a picture of this gorgeous woman and wanted to know what she sounded like. It wasn’t until I saw an Arena documentary, The Long Night of Lady Day, that I understood where that voice came from – and that was when I became obsessed.”

Initially, McAlmont reckons, he was put off Holiday because he didn’t understand what singing is. “You could say that my first singing teacher was Julie Andrews – there’s a purity and clarity and pitch perfect melodiousness. That was the period when a voice like Billie Holiday’s, Bob Dylan’s or Van Morrison’s just didn’t make any sense to me. I hadn’t lived. I hadn’t fallen in love or felt hurt. I was just a kid.”

While many vocalists gravitate towards late-era Holiday when the voice had deteriorated due to her lifestyle but she still managed to put a song across with terrific style and sensitivity, McAlmont has always been more drawn to her early output.

“I love the 1930s recordings,” he says. “It’s still my favourite period – she’s having fun, she’s hip, she’s updating Bessie Smith and Satchmo and having fun with the boys. My go-to album, the one I drilled a hole into, was A Fine Romance with Lester Young. I still can’t face Lady in Satin.”

As a singer himself, McAlmont was keen to pay musical tribute to his idol. “I tried to get myself on Billie Holiday bills and tribute shows – but I kept being told ‘no’ – because I’m a man. After a few years of not being allowed to take part in anybody else’s Billie Holiday events, at the Barbican, at the Chichester Jazz Festival etc, I was lucky to meet Alex Webb [pianist and musical director] and when he asked me if I’d like to do something together, I suggested doing something on Billie. And he came up with this idea.”

For his show, McAlmont uses the material from Carnegie Hall night and broadens it out, adding some extra songs – “I wasn’t going to let this opportunity go by without singing some of my favourite Billie songs that she didn’t do at Carnegie Hall!” – and highlighting different passages from the book, although he retains the shock opening.

He also includes passages that were deleted from the book for legal reasons. The actor Charles Laughton was one of Holiday’s famous friends whose lawyer had demanded that all reference to him be removed. “Well, I like those stories,” explains McAlmont, who has clearly immersed himself in Holiday research in preparation for the show.

“In my research, I consulted everything I could find. I had a bee in my bonnet about jazz being hostile to men singing Billie Holiday and also about the way that Billie is often just thought of as a tragic figure. I’ll never forget, I met this young girl years ago and when we talked about Billie Holiday, she said ‘I love the tragedy’. I’m responding to that. The show is not a wake. There are plenty of people who do that. The show is about that night in 1956 and the book.”

So how does he approach the songs in the show; most of which were so strongly associated with Holiday that her recordings are regarded as the definitive versions? Whereas many singers paying homage to a hero tend to make a point of avoiding imitation, McAlmont – whose heroine often reinvented songs on the spot as she sang – has a different take on this.

He says: “The composition exists but when Billie Holiday takes it it’s a new composition. So in this show, I adhere to the notes she chose – if I sang them my way it would be more cabaret. The integrity of the performance is in remembering how she did it. I’m celebrating her – the show is about her and my love for her, and what she achieved.

“By writing Lady Sings the Blues, she told an American story that people hadn’t heard before and because of her talent, they listened. It’s a valuable document.

“Not only that, but by staging this show at the Carnegie Hall – because she had been banned from singing in clubs – Billie Holiday elevated jazz into an art form. Jazz was brought into a major arts base. That’s another reason why I can’t stand the Billie Holiday industry which sees her only as a tragic heroine. I won’t have it!”

* David McAlmont Presents Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall is at the Drygate on Wednesday June 19. For tickets, visit www.jazzfest.co.uk

First published in The Herald on Saturday, June 15

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Review: Leith Jazz & Blues Festival

Leith Jazz & Blues Festival ***

Leith Jazz Festival trio

The Scottish jazz festival season kicked off on Friday in Leith, where pubs, bars and eateries (oh, and even a hair salon) in the area played host to a huge number of free jazz and blues gigs.

Even a cursory glance at the flyer or website for this year’s event couldn’t fail to give the impression that the festival has ballooned in size and become significantly more blues oriented since it was launched, in its current incarnation, back in 2012.

Back then, and for the first few years, a large part of the joy for jazz lovers was getting to hear world-class Scottish names for free while discovering often unfamiliar corners of the Leith’s liquid landscape. It felt like the legendary Edinburgh Jazz Festival Pub Trail of the 1980s come back to life.

This year, there was still a smattering of world-class jazz but there were none of the established classic or trad jazz bands that appeared in previous years, and it was more of a challenge to find familiar names amongst the astonishing 62-strong list of gigs shoehorned into the three days. (Some sort of brief description of each band would have been a big help for punters when perusing the programme.)

On the jazz side of things, unfamiliar names turned out to be unfamiliar for a reason. Thankfully, Friday night offered a series of safe bets, however: trumpeter Colin Steele was on terrific form leading an ace group at the Lioness of Leith pub. Steele’s inner Chet Baker was much to the fore; his pared-back, swinging and eloquent style beautifully offset by Kevin Mackenzie on guitar and Kenny Ellis on bass.

One of the highlights of Steele’s set, the haunting bossa Manha de Carnaval, was reprised a couple of hours later when he unexpectedly sat in on the only available mid-evening jazz session on Friday’s programme – pianist Fraser Urquhart’s knock-out trio gig at the atmospheric Shore Bar (one of the most conducive venues on the Leith circuit).

Manha de Carnaval – The Sequel was an entirely separate entity from the original, featuring as it did some delightful exchanges between pianist Fraser Urquhart and his guitarist dad Dougie, and a dramatic Sketches of Spain-esque ending.

Earlier, Fraser Urquhart had been a member of John Burgess’s trio in the wine bar/eatery Toast. This was a fabulous set of classy, swinging jazz that showed off Burgess’s mighty, soulful tenor sax sound.

Quantity rather than quality was to the fore on Saturday afternoon’s programme – which is why some of the jazz-following contingent launched their jazz trail outwith the festival, at Broughton Street’s Barony Bar where Burgess could be heard in an impressive line-up led by guitarist John Russell.

In the spirit of “you can’t improve on perfection”, there was really no point in going anywhere other than home after hearing the superb duo of West Coast-style altoist Martin Kershaw and ace bass Ed Kelly, a duo which was a highlight of the first Leith Jazz Festival and which is always worth cramming into Sofi’s Bar to hear.

First published in The Scotsman on Monday, June 10th

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Leon Redbone Obituary

Leon Redbone, who has died at the age of 69, was an enigmatic and eccentric figure on the music scene best remembered in this country for providing the wistful songs which played a key part in the success of a series of much-loved British Rail InterCity adverts which ran from 1988 into the early 1990s.

In the United States, he was regarded as a national treasure, having made regular appearances on TV since the first series of Saturday Night Live in 1976 when his debut album, On the Track, was attracting attention. He became such an icon that he was immortalised in both the 2003 Will Ferrell movie Elf (he voiced Leon the Snowman) and one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. He was also a regular on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion live radio show.

Usually dressed in a suit and tie, and panama hat and always wearing shades, Redbone cut a distinctive dash. His throwback look and the air of mystery around him were almost as intriguing and appealing as his unique musical sound – a simple, folksy melange of jazz and Delta blues with a hint of western swing. He sang in a laconic Louisiana accent, and played acoustic guitar. Sometimes he broke into a bit of yodelling, and he often whistled melodies or played harmonica along with his guitar.

The songs he chose were invariably little-remembered Tin Pan Alley gems from the 1910s and 1920s, though he also wrote some numbers – including So Relax, the song featured in the InterCity adverts. Many of his 16 albums featured top jazz musicians who were no strangers to jazz audiences in Scotland – Ken Peplowski, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dan Barrett.

His rise to fame in the mid-1970s coincided with the sudden popular interest in ragtime – thanks to the use of Scott Joplin’s rags on the soundtrack of The Sting – and he enjoyed early endorsement from Bob Dylan, who was impressed and intrigued by this Groucho Marx lookalike whose age, he said, could be “anywhere from 25 to 60”.

Throughout his career – which came to an end in 2015, when he retired for health reasons – Redbone’s disinclination to talk seriously about himself or engage in routine publicity simply added to his mystique.

During his four-night run at the 1991 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Radio Tay broadcaster (and festival compere) Alan Steadman’s delight at managing to persuade Redbone to be interviewed turned to slightly frustrated bemusement when every question was answered with just “yes” or “no”. (Steadman also recalls that one of Redbone’s quirks was to take a photo of the audience before every show.) All he did reveal, beyond his gentle and whimsical style of music, was a wry sense of humour. Quick wit quietly delivered in a slow southern drawl was in evidence both onstage and off.

That same festival, American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton was appearing on a BBC radio show featuring an all-star line-up. He remembers: “I was desperate for a drink and there were only minutes to go before the start, so I ran downstairs and bumped into Leon, whom I’d never met before. ‘Is there a bar or a restaurant down here anywhere?’ I asked, out of breath. He looked at me funny and said: ‘A bar or a restroom? Buddy, you better make up your mind ..’ !”

At the 2002 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, it was difficult to tell whether the stage persona was his natural personality or a cultivated one (indeed, there had been speculation that Redbone was an alter ego for another performer). Redbone – wearing his signature sunglasses – complained about the lights being too strong but was admirably unruffled, and characteristically droll, when dealing with the other issues of what turned out to be a pretty tense evening for those of us who wanted to listen to him.

First there were the problems with the microphone – “Was I singing the same song I was playing?” asked the deadpan musician – then there was the one-man campaign for audience participation which went on for most of the concert.

Redbone ended up playing referee as his attentive audience turned on the heckler, and demanded his removal (after he had sung along through a staggering seven numbers and even been given a personal warning from the jazz festival director himself). “Some enchanted evening …” sang Redbone, by way of commenting on the incident.

Asked, late in his career, about his reluctance to chat or to talk about himself, Redbone said: “I don’t do anything mysterious on purpose. I’m less than forthcoming, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m mysterious. It just means I’m not inclined to go there.” He claimed that he preferred the emphasis to be on his songs, and that he was simply a vehicle for the music. Even the announcement of his death last week – in a notice posted on his official website – referred to his age as 127.

What is known is that Redbone – who is believed to have been born Dickran Gobalian in Cyrpus to Armenian parents – moved to Toronto in the 1960s where he developed a cult following thanks to his performances in coffee houses and folk clubs. But it was in the mid-1970s that he came to the attention of a larger audience when he was name-checked in a Rolling Stone article by Bob Dylan, who had heard him at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario and talked about producing his first album. Other notable admirers have included Loudon Wainwright III, Jack White and Bonnie Raitt.

He is survived by his wife (and manager) Beryl Handler, his two daughters and three grandchildren.

*Leon Redbone, singer and guitarist, born August 26, 1949; died May 30, 2019.

First published in The Herald, June 6, 2019

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Mike Hart Obituary

Mike HartMike Hart, who has died at the age of 84, founded the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – Scotland’s first such event – and, in so doing, consolidated the city’s status as an epicentre of classic, traditional and mainstream jazz. The jazz festival he created may have evolved and mutated over the four decades since it began, but it has kept Hart’s kind of jazz at its core.

An only child born in Inverness, Hart moved to Edinburgh when his father (a former engineer) set up an antiques business later run by his mother. After a brief, unhappy spell in boarding school in England, Hart was educated at Edinburgh’s Royal High School, a breeding ground for trad jazz musicians in the late 1940s when that genre of jazz was enjoying huge popularity. The teenage Hart took up drums and by 1949, was playing in a local band, Gavin’s Gloryland Jazz Band, led by trumpeter Jimmy Gavin.

One night, around the same time, in the West End Café, Hart was invited to sit in with the band led by clarinettist Sandy Brown, a maverick and now legendary figure. As Hart told Graham Blamire, the author of Edinburgh Jazz Enlightenment – The Story of Edinburgh Traditional Jazz, “I nearly fell over but immediately accepted”.

So began Hart’s association with Brown, and the trumpeter Al Fairweather and the pianist Stan Greig who also played in the band. With them, Hart went to London in 1952 where their gigs include the Big Jazz Show at the Royal Albert Hall.

After completing his National Service in the RAF, Hart returned to Edinburgh in 1954 and played banjo in trumpeter Charlie McNair’s band. Before long, he had established his own outfit, Mike Hart’s Blue Blowers, and in 1956 he co-founded what would become one of Edinburgh’s longest-running bands, the Climax Jazz Band which featured Jim Petrie on cornet and which would take Hart into the recording studio for the first time. The late 1950s saw the birth of two more popular bands which he co-led, Old Bailey and his Jazz Advocates and the Society Syncopators.

While his jazz career was bubbling away, Hart – who married his first wife, Moira, in 1960 – supported himself and his family via a number of jobs, including agricultural feed advisor, sail boat skipper in France, variety club producer and tour manager (for the likes of Jimmy Shand and Andy Stewart) and, ultimately, from the mid-1970s, running a successful antiques business with his mother, to whom he was very close.

By this time, he had re-formed and re-launched the Society Syncopators as Mike Hart’s Society Syncopators – and it was this band which Hart took on foreign tours on many occasions, notably to the Dunkirk Jazz Festival, where it was named European Amateur Jazz Champions 1979, and to California’s Sacramento Jazz Jubilee which it visited ten times.

Keen to stage something similar in Scotland, Hart spent a great deal of time with the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee’s director, Bill Borcher. Fionna Duncan, who sang with Hart’s band, recalls: “Bill had a sort of ‘war room’ in his house where he plotted out the programme, moving bands and audiences from one venue to the next using models!” This type of planning manifested itself in the way the Edinburgh Jazz Festival was structured during Hart’s tenure.

Hart brought together a number of local bands plus a couple of well-respected soloists from England and staged a mini festival in a ballroom in the capital in 1978.Its success inspired him to seek sponsorship for the first Edinburgh Jazz Festival which took place in 1979, and featured a variety of semi-professional bands from here and abroad.

But it was in 1980 that Hart began to operate the policy which helped define the festival (re-named the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival): he began to hire individual jazz stars, many of them veterans of the great American bands of the 1930s onwards, who had been sidemen in their youth but were now happy to be more in the spotlight. Such now-legendary players as Teddy Wilson, Doc Cheatham, Harry Edison and Milt Hinton all visited the Edinburgh Jazz Festival during its first decade.

Into the mix, Mike Hart added younger players who were part of the mainstream revival. All these musicians would stay for several days, if not a whole festival, at a time and would be mixed and matched in different line-ups, often featuring Scottish talent in the rhythm sections. Many of today’s leading Scottish players – among them pianist Brian Kellock and bassist Roy Percy – cut their teeth at the EIJF, invariably alongside big name Americans.

When the jazz festival became a limited company, Hart assumed the role of Artistic Director, and later Founding Director. In 1995, he was awarded an MBE for his services to jazz, and he also received a citation from the City of Sacramento in recognition for his work.

Always a figure who cut a dash and who had something of the old-fashioned adventurer and bon viveur about him, Hart threw himself into other passions beyond jazz. He was an accomplished deep sea fisher (a photo of him and the 180lb Blue Fin Tuna which he caught during a trip to Madeira with author and deep sea fisherman Trevor Housby is featured in Housby’s best-selling book). He also enjoyed sailing and racing his wooden keelboat, then he got hooked on flying, learning to fly a single engine Cessna aircraft and gaining his private pilot’s licence in 1985. That passion gave way to driving and owning a Triking wheeler sports car and attending events for enthusiasts. Jazz remained the constant while other interests came and went.

Graham Blamire says: “Mike would never have claimed to be an innovative or particularly original jazz musician but he was a fine player, both as a member of the rhythm section and in his solo work. He could be a volatile and demanding individual with whom to work, but he had vision, energy and determination and, when he wanted, a great deal of charm. He was a major influence on Edinburgh Jazz for a very long time, a leading figure in some of Edinburgh’s best bands, and he left his mark on jazz at an international level through his creation of the EIJF, which will be his enduring memorial.”

Hart, who was twice married and divorced, is survived by his children Susan and Michael, and three grandchildren.

* Michael Warner Hart, founder and original director of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, jazz musician; born Inverness March 23, 1934; died Edinburgh December 11, 2018.

This obituary was first published in The Herald on Wednesday, December 26 2018

Mike Hart, banjo, 1965 at the Manhattan Club

Old Bailey & the Jazz Advocates, 1965, at the Manhattan Club. Thanks to Hamish McGregor (clarinet) for the photo.

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Review: Tim Kliphuis Trio, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Tim Kliphuis Trio, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Sat December 1st ****Tim Kliphuis Trio

 The Royal Scottish National Orchestra didn’t have a monopoly on the classical goings-on in the Concert Hall on Saturday night; upstairs, in the elegant former restaurant space, a trio was performing Bach, Brahms and Vivaldi pieces which it has recorded with orchestras for Sony Classical over the last few years.

 The Tim Kliphuis Trio doesn’t merely “swing the classics”, however. Kliphuis (violin), Nigel Clark (guitar) and Roy Percy (bass) started out as a superior gypsy jazz group and their renditions of the classics are very much shaped by their roots in the swinging, life-affirming spirit of the music of the great Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. 

 On Saturday, some of the classical numbers – such as the Allegro in G from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos – sounded as if they had always been jazz tunes, opening with riffs played in unison by this impeccably in-synch trio, before erupting into solos that spotlighted the breezy virtuosity of the individuals. 

 Showmanship and drama also played a part, with the first set’s electrifying closer – Winter, from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – breaking the speed limit and bringing many members of the audience to their feet. (That number was one of many on which it was a difficult to hear Nigel Clark’s dazzling guitar-playing without straining. The acoustic in the room meant that whenever he played a delicate, quiet ballad or was being accompanied on a solo by both of his colleagues, he was in danger of being completely drowned out.)

The classical pieces were beautifully balanced by a handful of French and American numbers from the 1930s, notably the ballad Ou es tu?, once sung – as Kliphuis explained – “by Edith Piaf, Jean Sablon, Maurice Chevalier and ..” 

 “Kenneth McKellar?” interjected Percy helpfully.

* First published in The Herald on Wednesday December 5th

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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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Ali Affleck: The Juggling Jazz Singer

Alison Affleck.pngIf ever there was a living embodiment of get-up-and-go, it’s Alison “Ali” Affleck, the Scots-born American jazz singer and bandleader who – in less than a decade – has established herself as a popular fixture on the Scottish music scene, and one of the busiest singers in the business.

While others struggle to get gigs, Affleck – whose name is synonymous with early New Orleans jazz and blues – is juggling several bands and has so many projects on the back (and front) burners that she must have a super-size Aga in her office.

At this weekend’s Islay Jazz Festival, the ebullient thirtysomething singer is playing virtually back-to-back gigs with the up-and-coming Tenement Jazz Band, a six-piece outfit from Edinburgh, and with regular collaborators Colin Steele and Graeme Stephen.  This comes just a fortnight after she completed a Fringe run comprising not one but three distinct shows, as well as a handful of one-nighters.

Affleck’s obvious capacity for cramming a great deal of activity into a short amount of time makes the stories of her adventures before she returned to Scotland in her late twenties much less like tall tales than they would otherwise have been. After all, in the first fifteen minutes of our conversation, we have covered five countries where she’s resided, two college degrees, one fiancé and several encounters with one Barry White.

Wait, what, rewind – THE Barry White?! “Yes!” laughs Affleck. “I looked after his dogs. I used to work as a vet nurse in California. I went to community college there and one of the courses I did there was vet medicine. I ended up working in a practice for a while, and one of the clients was Barry White. He happened to need help with his dogs – jet black Alsatians, a father, mother and son called Bear, Isis and Sokar.

“I got on well with them so I would groom them, take them out and then return them to his house. He was a nice guy, not the sharpest tool in the box though – his PA’s used to say: ‘We think for Barry so he doesn’t think for himself.’ Sadly, we never discussed music. I was only in my early 20s – and not as ballsy as I am today!”

Barry White’s California mansion was a far cry from Affleck’s hometown of Dundee where she was born and raised. Her talent for singing was evident from an early age, especially to her mother – who had wanted to be an opera singer. “My granny’s side of the family is musical,” says Affleck. “In fact, we are related to the Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba – somebody researched our family tree and it turned out that she’s my great, great, great aunt.”

Her singing talent was also very obvious to her primary school teachers. “I became aware of the power in my voice when I was admonished by my teacher for not taking part in something we were doing. She said: ‘You’re not singing. If you had been singing, we would have heard you above everyone else!’ ”

During this period, Affleck was mostly singing Scots songs and performing for family and friends. She won the prestigious Leng Medal, awarded in Dundee schools for children performing Scots songs and keeping the tradition alive.

Through her grandmother, who had an impressive record collection, Affleck first heard the such iconic jazz singers as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald for the first time but it was only when she was living in San Diego in her late teens – “I went there to study photography” – that she got into jazz singing as a result of a newfound interest in swing dancing.

By the time she moved to New Orleans three years later, she was well on her way to being a jazz obsessive. “I got really feverishly into researching the songs I was learning,” she says. The music that really grabbed her, and with which she is most strongly associated, is that of the early jazz singers – the original jazz and blues vocalists who blazed a trail in the 1920s and 1930s but are often now overlooked. “I have massive affection for these pioneering women, particularly Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, and I love the storytelling nature of the songs they sang.”

With her powerful, gutsy vocals and obvious skills as a storyteller herself, Affleck is well qualified to revive or take on the songs that these strong black women introduced almost a century ago. But she doesn’t do it in an imitative way, nor are they performed as novelty numbers; she puts them in context with a bit of background information and brings out the humour, feeling and drama in them in a way that makes them feel current, fresh and timeless – even in the case of some of the most familiar songs that have been on the trad jazz repertoire for decades.

Of course, it helps that Affleck also has a gift for surrounding herself with the best musicians. Returning to Scotland after a long residency in the States and an impressive amount of travel, Affleck was lucky to land in Edinburgh just as new opportunities were flourishing for would-be singers. Whighams, a wine bar and restaurant in the west end, had just launched its jazz club and weekly sessions in which singers could have the chance to sing with the house rhythm section, and Affleck, who had finally decided to focus on music after dabbling in numerous academic courses and jobs, became a regular.

“It was great for me,” she recalls. “It gave me an instant way to meet people. The Jazz Bar’s Tuesday night jam session was way more intimidating!”

Also lucky was the fact that Edinburgh has a relatively high concentration of terrific jazz musicians who can play in the style which Affleck loves. Through Whighams, she met regular collaborators Dick Lee (clarinets and saxes), Colin Steele (trumpet) and Roy Percy (bass), who have been “a great support – especially whenever I’ve thought of packing it in”. Lee was in the first band she formed – Vieux Carré – and both he and Steele play with Affleck in her Copper Cats, while Steele is one of her Gin Mill Genies.

Indeed, Affleck seems to have a knack for hatching new bands on a regular basis. “It’s true!” laughs. “But it’s through necessity. I’ve always found that if I want to do something, I have to be proactive. I realised that if I wanted to do the music that I want to do, I would have to make the band.

“The problem I have is that there are so few really top musicians that can play this sort of stuff well, and have the time to do it. I’m trying to forge a career but I’m hitting a wall because the guys I work with here can’t come on tour for one reason or another – and they play in other bands as well as with me. So I do feel a wee bit stuck. I’ve always been able to find a way, and if someone can’t do a gig I can usually find a dep but it means I have to adapt. And if I have to compromise in my performance, I always feel deflated afterwards.”

Affleck’s way of dealing with these frustrations is to take practical steps – and build a new band. The latest one is an all-female sextet named the Red Hot Rhythm Makers, which is not even a year old. It seems entirely apt that Affleck, who plays washboard and concertina, should galvanise a group of women to play the music of the original female pioneers – and it’s a refreshing new direction as trad and classic jazz have long been male-dominated in Britain.

“It’s turned out to be a really nice experience,” says Affleck. “Not only does it mean that I have another band I can do gigs with but the dynamic in an all-woman band is very different – in a positive way. We share the load more: everybody adopts roles, for example, one of the girls offered to be the cashier. I’ve never had this before! Every time we get together I really enjoy the camaraderie. It’s hilarious: everybody apologises to each other whenever they make a mistake – that never happens when guys mess up!”

So what’s next for this particular pioneer? “Well, the Gin Mill Genies have just put out a new live CD, Pioneer … Queen… Goddess … Diva – Birth of the Blues, and the Copper Cats are releasing a new studio recording. I’m writing some original material, and I’m working on a Billie Holiday-themed show which will feature Martin Kershaw playing on the songs she did with Lester Young. Oh, and there’s a new monthly trad residency at the Jazz Bar which I’m heading up. Those are the main strands I’m working on just now …”

Affleck pauses for a split second, before adding: “But I’m always looking for new collaborations …”

 * Visit www.aliaffleck.com to keep track of all the latest news on her various bands.

* First published in The Herald, Saturday September 15th

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