I’m just back from a flying – 26 hour – visit to the London Jazz Festival where I managed to experience not one but two of my highlights of my year (so far) in jazz. Not only were both of them tributes to great trumpeters, but they were also joyous celebrations dished up with a great deal of panache.
The first was the nine-piece Buck Clayton Legacy Band at the Southbank on Saturday evening – the actual centenary of the trumpeter’s birth. Thanks to a particularly fast BA flight and the fact that the closure of the tube line to Heathrow forced me onto the Heathrow Express, I was in time for the kick-off of broadcaster and bass player Alyn Shipton’s loving homage to his friend, who made his name in the 1930s with Count Basie’s band and went on to establish himself as a stylish arranger.
Indeed, as Shipton pointed out at the start, all the charts being played on Saturday night were from a box of mostly unrecorded arrangements which were left to him when Clayton died 20 years ago, in December 1991.
It was a treat to be introduced to them – and by such a terrific ensemble. Numbers such as The Bowery Bunch and Party Time showed a playful side to Clayton’s writing, while I’ll Make Believe was a gorgeous romantic number that benefitted enormously from Alan Barnes’s scene-stealing alto which dazzled against a backdrop of sumptuous horns, evoking Johnny Hodges’s Ellingtonian ballads.
Black Sheep Blues and Claytonia were superb, funky blues; the latter featuring another floor-wiping solo from Barnes while the former, the second tune of the concert, revealed the eloquent trumpet playing of Menno Daams, who emerged as the other star soloist of the evening. His gorgeous, burnished tone and magesterial style stood out on Horn of Plenty and Swinging at the Copper Rail. That number featured the single most thrilling part of the concert: when Barnes and Daams locked horns (well, Barnes had actually chosen clarinet as his weapon of choice) to trade breaks. It looked as if it was unplanned; whether it
was or not, it was electrifying.
Which is also the adjective that sprang to mind as the end titles rolled during the European premiere of the new silent film Louis, and much of the euphoric audience leapt to its collective feet to applaud the top-notch band which had played onstage throughout the movie and was now letting rip with Tiger Rag. (There was even more euphoria, a few minutes later, when the child actor who played Louis Armstrong was spotted in the audience.)
Dan Pritzker’s film is a beautiful thing – shot in black and white by the renowned cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, it looks ravishing. It’s an impressionistic and stylised evocation of Louis Armstrong’s childhood with lots of gentle mickey-takes on the mythology of his story – and of early jazz generally. In one lovely scene, a wagon, bound for the insane asylum, passes the kid Louis and as it does, its horn-playing passenger – the acknowledged first great king of the trumpet, Buddy Bolden – drops his crown for the youngster to catch.
The film is bursting with affectionate humour – and not just for Armstrong who is winningly played by Anthony Coleman (he got me when he flashed that signature Satchmo expression of bemusement/double-take). It’s also a homage to the original silent movies and to the great silent movie kings Buster Keaton and, especially, Charlie Chaplin – who is the obvious inspiration for the villain (played brilliantly by Jackie Earle Haley) and whose films are clearly referenced.
And then there’s the music; a score which fuses original music by Wynton Marsalis plus tunes by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington (The Mooche is very effectively used in one of many racy bordello scenes) and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a 19th century Creole composer whose music paved the way for the jazz of the 20th.
Performed by a ten-piece American band, led by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and featuring two pianists (one classical, playing the Gottschalk in the manner of the film accompanists of yore; the other jazz), it simultaneously evoked the era the film is set in (1907 New Orleans), and the 1920s – the era in which Armstrong exploded onto the popular consciousness and in which silent movies were at the peak of their popularity.
If that sounds a bit of a mish-mash, that’s because it is: like New Orleans in 1907, it’s a melting pot of musical influences – but one which, for the most part, works. Visually, the film moves elegantly between scenes advancing the plot and fantasy sequences which find Louis soaring into the Storyville sky or the villainous judge off in a Chaplinesque reverie. Along the way, Pritzker has woven in many of the hallmarks of the silent movie: the sign cards, the special effects, the slow fade-outs.
Just as Keaton and Chaplin effectively choreographed themselves, so much of this film has been choreographed: the writhing bodies in the bordello, the comic “business” when the judge confronts the street kids … It’s all highly stylised – and very effective.
Only criticisms are that the characters are pretty one-dimensional, the storyline a little simplistic and some of the scenes a bit self-indulgent. But taken as an experience, rather than as a film or as a concert, this is a must – for lovers of Louis Armstrong and cinema alike.