Tag Archives: Dave Cliff

The Art of the Duo, Part 1

The following is an article I wrote in 2004 and have been meaning to post on the blog for a while because I still feel (in fact, I feel more strongly than ever) that one great duo is worth several good bands.  It’s timely because another potentially great duo – of singer Carol Kidd (featured in the above video with regular partner in duets, Nigel Clark) and pianist Brian Kellock – is appearing at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh on Thursday, May 31.

When it comes to good taste and elegance, it’s often said that less is more. It’s little wonder then, that some of the classiest jazz in Scotland in recent years has emerged from concerts featuring just two musicians.

I have been reviewing jazz concerts for 11 years, and although I’ve had my fair share of memorable musical experiences, I can safely say that almost all the times when I’ve noticed my spine tingling have been during duo sessions. This
is a format which reveals the greatness of great musicians, which lays bare the essence of their playing and offers you, the fan, the chance to hear them playing as true to themselves and their style as is possible. Other players just get in the way.

When the guitarist and singer Marty Grosz and the clarinettist/saxophonist Ken Peplowski get together they don’t need anyone else; they set each other off beautifuly without additional accompaniment. They are just frustrated that they don’t get the chance to work as a duo more often.

It’s the same with the cornettist Warren Vache and the guitarist Howard Alden. These American musicians are the very best on their instruments, and to hear them duet is the kind of treat for which some of us would forfeit a couple of jazz festivals.

“I love playing this kind of gig,” says Vache [who, since this article was written, has tingled my spine when playing duets with pianist Brian Kellock and guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and Dave Cliff]. “Why? Because first of all, I know who I’m working with. Very often in my experience as a travelling soloist, I go over as the flyer in the trapeze act and I work with a different catcher every night – and sometimes they drop you. But when I work in a duo, it’s generally with someone I know very well. For me, improvised music should be like a conversation. The hardest thing is getting six musicians to think about the same thing in the same way for two point five minutes. With a duo, there’s less complication and there can be a deeper and more playful conversation.”

That’s a view shared by Alden. “The duo is one of my favourite settings,” he says. ” It’s the most intimate, most exposed and the most like chamber music. It’s different to other types of concert because it requires your full attention all the time. There’s no chance to relax – you have to take responsibility for every aspect of both the harmony and the time and try to make it a conversation between two instruments rather than a soloist playing with an accompanist.

“Playing in a duo keeps you on your toes and takes you in directions you wouldn’t necessarily go otherwise. When you have a bass player and a drummer, it tends to fall into a certain format. With a duo, you’re freer to do pretty much anything you want – and if you have someone like Warren who can think so fast on their feet, you can do almost anything and be assured that the other guy is going to be there with you or force you in a different direction.”

Warren Vache (cornet) with Dave Cliff (guitar), Nairn Jazz Festival, 2006

Vache also relishes the challenges which arise from the duo context. “You find yourself coming face to face with your own cliches by about the third song,” he explains. “We all have little tricks that identify us, and little ways of getting around the harmony that become patterns we often don’t recognise. If you’re playing in a duo, there’s nothing else to distract your attention from the mirror you’re holding up to your playing. You see those patterns and they being to bore you. So by about the fifth time one of those comes up, you say – ‘Damn, am I playing that again?’ And you have to force yourself to let go of the comfortable and look for something different. So it pushes you.”

Of course, as Vache points out, it’s equally difficult for the guitarist since the guitarist or pianist in a duo concert has to be both an accompanist and a soloist. “How they balance between those functions is a great deal of what intrigues me,” he says, “and Howard is one of the world’s best at it.”

And does he feel more vulnerable in a duo? “Oh, yes,” says Vache. “It takes balls to play the trumpet in a duo because all the pimples in the air in your sound will come out and the concentration is takes to make that part of the music is enormous. You have to make the imperfections part of the music. It’s pleasurable but it’s a lot harder work because there is nowhere to hide. Not only that, but you have to play more often: you can’t just sit there and smile while the drummer obligingly plays a ten-minute solo – there is no drummer.”

With his soft, seductive tone and lyrical style, Vache always seems especially at home in the duo setting.

“When I’m with a larger band I have to play in a way that directs the band – sometimes I feel like a guy in uniform standing in front of a circus band waving my arms trying to get everybody’s attention. Here, I can play in a much more intimate way which, frankly, I prefer. I think it’s closer to my personality.”

* Check out Vache in duo mode with pianist Brian Kellock on my YouTube channel, GirlfridayJazz – here’s a taster: 

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Norwich Jazz Party 2012: Warren Vache

This feisty solo by Warren Vache woke me and my camera up at the climax of a lunchtime set on day 2 of the Norwich Jazz Party. I think I had sunk into a slump and wasn’t concentrating after pianist Nick Dawson had taken the ill-advised decision to burst into song on the Gershwin ballad Isn’t It a Pity? It was indeed a pity that he started singing, and I have to say I switched off (for self-preservation purposes) – only to be jolted back into alertness by Vache’s magnificent  solo on It Had To Be You – which shook up the musical proceedings and set us back on the road to musical excellence. (And which was one of three versions of this rarely-played number performed over the weekend!) It was like a prize fighter entering the ring and laying out everyone in his wake.

I was disappointed that there was no opportunity this year to hear Vache in my preferred setting for him: the duo. It was particularly disappointing because guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli was there – and one of my favourite memories of the old Nairn Jazz Festival is a duo gig he and Pizzarelli played.

Vache’s most intimate set in Norwich last week was a trio one with guitarist Dave Cliff (plus bass) which swelled to quartet because Vache – understandably – wanted to invite his old pal Alain Bouchet to join him, given that they weren’t scheduled to play together  otherwise.

However, my favourite of the numbers he played which I recorded was this deliciously funky take on Yesterdays which he performed in his first set of the weekend, with Dave Cliff, John Pearce (piano), Giorgos Antoniou (bass) and Steve Brown (drums). 

Vache the balladeer is always a winner – listen no further than this Ghost of a Chance, one of two played at Norwich this year, on which he shares the spotlight with a fellow master musical seducer, Houston Person (tenor sax).

 

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Nairn Jazz: Bob Wilber (1995)

Review published in The Herald, June 1, 1995.

Bob Wilber, Parkdean Holiday Park, Nairn

Nairn did it again on Tuesday night: showed up the rest of the country in its commitment to one-off inter-festival jazz concerts. The name to be added to the town’s already impressive list of successes is that of British-based American clarinetist/saxophonist Bob Wilber.

Wilber is a paradoxical figure. His precise, professional appearance, while reflected in the polished nature of his arrangements, is really a foil for the passion and energy of his playing style. The academic (visual) image is underlined by one of his instrumental choices – his celebrated curved soprano sax which, at about half the length of the straight soprano sax, looks like an extra-large pipe.

The curved model was used to best effect on Wilber’s breathtaking marathon through Hindustan, but the straight soprano was favoured with more numbers. As promised, it made an altogether different sound from its wee brother: bolder, more commanding, and more elegantly fluid. That sound was showcased on two ballads – the stunning Indian Summer and Wilber’s own exquisite Reverie.

Although Wilber’s clarinet was the most exercised instrument of the evening, it was the least inspiring – but only because of the competition. Its lilting performance on What a Difference A Day Makes, however was a contender in the knock-out stakes.

Impressive, too, was the rest of the band, with Dave Cliff’s guitar input in particular, perfectly complementing Wilber’s playing. The quartet appears to be jinxed. Before the gig, it was announced that Wilber’s regular pianist, Mick Pyne, died last week – Brian Dee proved a worthy substitute – and midway through the evening the band’s superb bass player, Dave Green, had to be ambulanced off to hospital, but the band played on.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Monday evening

The last night of the Norwich jazz jamboree started in what has become its traditional style: with Jim Galloway’s Sandy Brown set. One of the joys of this jazz event for me personally – and one which I always remind myself about during the hellish seven-hour train journey from Glasgow – is the chance to hear Galloway and assorted British and American stars execute with panache the very distinctive music written by the late, great Scottish clarinettist.

This was the third Sandy Brown set in as many years and, as usual, the quirky and catchy Brown originals were a delight to hear – Blues-A and Own Up proved to be the ideal tunes for getting the night’s party started. Galloway takes great care to avoid duplication of numbers played in previous years so I finally got to hear the evocative Harlem Fats and, for this outing of the Sandy Brown songbook, he also included some of the arrangements that Brown played from the musical Hair. Personally, I could listen to the Brown repertoire all night – and would have welcomed the chance to hear such previously played numbers as Go Ghana and Africa Blues again.

This year’s Sandy line-up bore a close resemblance to the 2009 version: the wonderful Rossano Sportiello again proving to be the perfect pianist for this witty music, and drummer Chuck Riggs and trombonist Ian Bateman both similarly reprising their parts. Stepping into what have been Bucky Pizzarelli’s shoes in previous years, guitarist Dave Cliff did a terrific job. Each year there has been a different trumpeter – we’ve had Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Reinhart and this time Duke Heitger who certainly measured up to the previous incumbents despite being unfamiliar with Brown and his music.

One trumpeter who always makes a point of listening to some of the Sandy Brown set but who hasn’t yet had a chance to get stuck into Jim Galloway’s uplifting arrangements is Warren Vache. He was partnered with tenor saxophonist Houston Person for his final appearance of the Jazz Party, and it was a heavenly match, especially when it came to the set’s two ballads, Once in a While and These Foolish Things, both of which were played as lovely, relaxed duets.

And speaking of ballads, tenor saxophonist  Scott Hamilton – another great master of the genre – produced some magical moments on Monday, most memorably a dreamy take on the rarely played Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.

It was, however, the clarinettists – Alan Barnes, Bob Wilber, Ken Peplowski, Dan Block and Scott Robinson – who dominated the closing set of the 2011 Norwich Jazz Party. And, in a superb set, one number stood out above all others: Pee Wee’s Blues, written by Pee Wee Russell, who was described by Alan Barnes as “possibly the most technically brilliant clarinet player who ever lived”.

Not only did it boast a terrific, Pee Wee-esque solo from the great Bob Wilber but it will also be remembered for Scott Robinson’s masterstroke: by way of homage to the slightly oddball Russell sound, he hummed the first part of his solo into his horn – with wonderfully lyrical results.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Sunday

The timetable may be gruelling – and the pressure may have been on, what with the volume of often tricky arrangements to be rehearsed -but what shone through from Sunday’s sessions at the jazz party was how much the musicians who come to Norwich relish the chance to play together in imaginative programmes with all sorts of different line-ups.

On Sunday, a set of Cannonball Adderley-associated music acted as a sort of touch paper for some particularly fiery, feisty playing by cornettist Warren Vache who recently told me how much he enjoys playing bop – and how seldom he gets to do it. Vache seemed to explode into life on this set, notably on a storming version of the enormously catchy Work Song, and he was aided and abetted by five fellow enthusiasts including Tardo Hammer, whose kittenish way with the keys offset the three-horn front line beautifully; Karen Sharp, whose dynamic baritone playing was a joy, and set-leader Alan Barnes in similarly energetic form. But it was Vache’s forceful, take-no-prisoners playing that stole the show.

If the Cannonball set brought out the tough – yet always lyrical – side of Vache, then his after-dinner set with guitarist Dave Cliff and bassist Dave Green inevitably showcased his sweet side. You only had to see this line-up listed in the programme to know that you were in for a treat. Vache’s taste is flawless – both in terms of the tunes he chooses, and the way in which he delivers them.

Really, the whole thing was a knockout, but it was a particular delight to hear him tease out extra magic from the sublime Richard Rodgers ballad My Romance which he played quietly, tenderly and with what seemed an air of exquisite resignation. You Don’t Know What Love Is and Triste were others which sounded as if they had been written specially for him, banishing as they did every other version from the memory. You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To was vintage Vache: swaying gently from side to side, the cornettist played with his trademark playful and seductive swagger, softly and persuasively at the start; bluesy and more assertively by the end.

Another musician who was on top form throughout the jazz party was guitarist Marty Grosz who may now be 81 but is clearly rejuvenated by performing. Sunday afternoon proved to be the perfect slot for a delightfully good-natured set  on which he was joined by Nick Dawson (piano), Jim Galloway (soprano sax) and Duke Heitger (trumpet); the latter two emerging as something of a noteworthy duo over the weekend.

The mood was established straight-away with an uplifting take on You Are My Lucky Star (probably the first time I’ve ever heard this at a jazz concert), but it was a gorgeous, laid-back take on Love Is Just Around the Corner which lingered in the mind long after the music had ended. It was the perfect example of musical camaraderie.

The same could be said of singer-pianist Daryl Sherman’s late-night set which featured the second You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To of the evening for the versatile Dave Cliff.  Mind you, second time around it was quite a different affair; one which played on the coquettish quality of Sherman’s voice.

The cosy piano-bass-guitar line-up swelled to a quartet with the co-opting of tenor man Houston Person (whose sumptuous Fools Rush In a couple of hours earlier had been inspired by his not-so secret love of Doris Day!)  into the proceedings for a couple of terrific Rodgers and Hart numbers: a lovely Little Girl Blue (also a Doris song), on which Sherman’s suitably wistful, girlish vocals were complemented by Person’s masculine, bluesy sound, and a hard-swinging This Can’t Be Love; a perfect partner to his frisky Isn’t It Romantic of the afternoon…

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Saturday

This was my favourite moment in the first night of the 2011 Norwich Jazz Party. Midway through an all-star closing set headed by Toronto-based soprano saxophonist Jim Galloway, the stage emptied leaving just the leader, plus trumpeter Duke Heitger, guitarist Dave Cliff and bassist Giorgos Antoniou. And what did they serve up? An exquisite Sweet Lorraine – perfectly seasoned. Not too sugary, not too fast; just a gentle, laid-back conversational handling of the old standard. The way that Galloway, the impish charmer of sinewy soprano sax melody, and the mellow-toned Heitger gently batted the melody back and forth reminded this listener of a memorable night in Nairn when Ruby Braff struck up a similar musical dialogue with Scott Hamilton and Jon Wheatley. The set ended with what seemed like a nod to my Glasgow granny (and probably Galloway’s too): a hugely enjoyable tout ensemble (11 players) version of Show Me the Way to Go Home.

Earlier in the night, the Japanese clarinettist Eiji Kitamura and tenor man Scott Hamilton had only really hit their stride by the time they were on the closing numbers of their 45 minute set: a classy take on These Foolish Things, which – unlike some of the earlier tunes – seemed to benefit from Kitamura’s restrained style, and a super-fast Lover Come Back to Me which boasted a classic Hamilton filibuster solo.

Marty Grosz can always be relied on to do his homework, and his arrangements for his set entitled Songs You Thought You’d Never Hear – or Gold for Mouldies were typically colourful and catchy, and it was a treat to hear this superb eight-piece band playing them. Highlights included Cincinnati, which featured some superb solo work by the dynamic duo of Ken Peplowski (clarinet) and Enrico Tomasso (trumpet).

Since Warren Vache and Bill Charlap’s cornet-piano duet version of What’ll I Do has ruined me for any other, I guess Houston Person didn’t stand a chance. But he made sure of it by playing it at break-neck speed during his late-night set.. Luckily, the ballad to which he introduced me two tunes later more than made up for it: Why Did I Choose You? was the perfect showcase for his spare balladeering style and rich sound.

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