Tag Archives: Dick Hyman

30 Years of Antics in Edinburgh

My Life in JazzThirty years ago, in August 1986, I attended my first Edinburgh Jazz Festival. (Actually, it was my first jazz festival full stop.) These were the heady days of the festival as a sprawling, round-the-clock affair whose programme was like a slightly oversized paperback book, and was stuffed with multiple opportunities to hear the same musicians in all sorts of different line-ups over the course of the week.

These were the days of the Gold Badge (now as fabled as one of Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets) which allowed agile festival-goers to attend the first of the evening’s three sets in one place set then leg it to another venue for the second set, and then sprint from wherever you had ended up for the evening’s third set back to the station with barely enough time for your father’s last half pint before boarding the last train to Glasgow. (Which, of course, was extra late because the main Edinburgh Festival was on.)

My dad would take a full week off work and travel through to Edinburgh every day (with the also now-fabled Festival Rover train ticket) and attend a full day’s jazz with different assortments of friends, relatives and colleagues. In 1986, I was invited to accompany him – for one reason only. Because Dick Hyman, the American piano genius, was playing a solo set at the Royal Overseas League halfway through the festival.

Earlier that year, Dad had recorded a movie on BBC2, possibly as part of its (also now-fabled) Jazz Week entitled Scott Joplin. It was a TV movie biopic – and one which I have never seen on TV since. Had he not recorded it and had my brothers and I not become completely obsessed with one sequence in it, I probably would not have become a jazz fan. The sequence was a cutting contest between two piano “professors” – and it absolutely thrilled us. To the point that we could soon sing every note of it. As the piano player in the family, I was already playing Scott Joplin pieces. Overnight, mastering the Maple Leaf Rag became my goal for the summer holidays.

So when my dad said that the guy who had played one of the pianos in the cutting contest scenes and who had done all the other piano music in the film was coming to Edinburgh and did I want to come, it was a no-brainer.

Dick Hyman’s solo set wasn’t until the evening of my first day in Edinburgh; being only 14, I had to stay with my father as he took in the rest of the day’s programme. And that programme began in the Grassmarket, in a pub called the Beehive Inn, where I heard and fell in love with the music of the Hot Antic Jazz Band from the south of France.

All of which is a very long way of setting up my first weekend at this year’s  Jazz Festival, when the stars aligned and for the first time in over a decade, the Hot Antics plus my dad and I were all in Edinburgh and all at the Spiegeltent on Friday night’s opening concert. As might have been expected, it was a slightly emotional affair as the events in Nice the night before cast a bit of a pall over proceedings but trumpeter and leader Michel Bastide promised that despite what had happened right on their doorstep, they were determined to give us an evening of jazz, “the music we love”.

The personnel and repertoire may have changed over the years since 1986, but the great sense of fun and irresistible joie-de-vivre (even amidst the terrible sadness of Thursday’s tragedy) endure – and were most apparent as soon as they started playing such uplifting numbers as the opener Funny Fumble and Somebody Stole My Gal, surely the happiest number about being dumped? And, as in 1986, when their charming version of Puttin’ on the Ritz made me forever afterwards sing it with a French accent, so Three Little Words a la francaise will keep me going till the next time the Antics come to town.20160716_183543

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Conal Fowkes: Woody ‘n’ Me

Conal Fowkes at pianoVersatile doesn’t even begin to cover the nature of Conal Fowkes’s music career. The New York-based 46-year-old comes to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival next week to play numerous solo piano sets and function as pianist, music director and arranger on a First World War-themed concert, but his CV spans classical to Cuban music, and his jazz piano talents range from Harlem stride to hard bop. Oh, and he also plays the bass. Indeed, it was on that instrument that he landed the gig that indirectly led to his playing being featured on Woody Allen’s two most recent films, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, and his soon-to-be-released Magic in the Moonlight. And it’s his Woody Allen association which will undoubtedly draw the punters in to his numerous festival performances.

Fowkes, who was born in Zambia and grew up in Leicestershire, had not long moved to New York when, 15 years ago, he went to a gig by a traditional jazz band. During a break, he got talking to the group’s banjoist, who had spotted the young Fowkes amongst the rather more senior audience. The banjo player was Eddy Davis, and, after being impressed by Fowkes’s enthusiasm for the music, he invited him to sit in on a couple of tunes – on piano. After the gig, Fowkes mentioned that he also played bass – and, lo, it turned out there was a vacancy in the band Davis played with on a Monday night at the Café Carlyle. Little did Fowkes know that the band was led by clarinettist and filmmaker extraordinaire Woody Allen. For five years, he played bass in Allen’s band before switching to piano when that chair became empty.

What was Fowkes’s first impression of Allen? “I met him on the bandstand and he’s a man of very, very few words so it’s not like we had a conversation – or  a ‘hey, how you doing? Who are you?’. Nothing like that. I think maybe he smiled in my direction, and we just played the gig. I’m sure I was nervous – it was quite a high-profile gig – but it was a lot of fun, and he’s so laid-back that he puts you at your ease anyway. There’s not a lot of tension around.”

When he met Allen, Fowkes wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about his work. “I didn’t know a lot of his films – I’ve obviously gotten in to them more and more over the years working with him.” Is he not terribly critical of his own playing? “He is very critical of himself but he’s very complimentary and full of praise for his sidemen. I’ve heard him say many many times that he would much rather play music than make films; he much prefers being on the bandstand than on the set but he then goes on to say that he’s not good enough to make a living as a musician –he puts himself down all the time. But he loves playing more than anything.

“Just to give you an idea, when he made Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Eddy Davis and I managed to find a location in Barcelona to play – the two of us as a duo – just so that Woody could drop in and play when he felt like it. We had nothing to do with the film: it was just because he was going to be there…  He was shooting a full schedule, Monday to Friday, 9-5 – or if it was a night shoot the same kind of hours in the evening – and he would come directly from the set three or four nights a week, and play for about three hours without a break. And I mean without even going to his hotel and taking a shower, you know; just coming straight to play with us. I think he needs it and desires it so much, it means so much to him. It must help him unwind.”

The first Allen film that Fowkes played on was 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger – all that was used was a tiny clip of Fowkes, Davis and Allen himself in what must have been the first time he played clarinet on his own soundtrack since Sleeper (1973).

The Midnight in Paris gig came out of the blue. Fowkes explains: “One Monday, we had just finished our regular gig and he turned to me and said ‘Hey, I need you to record some songs for my next film’ – just casual like that. I had to sing and play the piano for the actor playing Cole Porter to mime to – not that I knew that at the time. I’m not much of a singer – though thankfully neither was Cole Porter! He gave me the three songs that he wanted, booked a studio for me, and all he said was ‘Don’t play them jazzy, just play the songs. Just think you’re at a party playing and singing a song.’ So off I went completely confused and a little bit nervous, and I recorded them. I got a message saying everything was just as he wanted, and he used it all. I think I just was lucky that it fit what he wanted.”

Fowkes was drafted into Blue Jasmine at the last minute. The film had been made and they were looking for a version of Blue Moon. Allen tried a recording that he had used for a previous film, but it didn’t fit the images so he asked Fowkes to record a new version – again with virtually no remit. “It’s so frustrating. I’ve heard actors saying the same thing about his directing. The thing is: I see him all the time and I would like for him to know I’ll do it any way he wants because what I don’t want to happen is he says ‘Can you do this?’ and I record it and it’s not right, and he doesn’t want to tell me it’s not right – and stops asking me.”

Magic in the Moonlight sees Allen return, musically anyway, to Kurt Weill. And, again, Fowkes has no idea how much of Bilbao Song or Mack the Knife will have made it into the final edit. Still, it means that some wonderful Weill can be included in his Woody Allen-themed concert next Thursday. It’s not the first time that one of Woody Allen’s favourite pianists and collaborators has headlined the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – his longtime music director Dick Hyman (now 87) was a regular visitor to the festival in the 1980s – so it’s surely can’t be long before the movie maestro materialises himself…

* Conal Fowkes – Woody Allen and Jazz, Tron Kirk, Thursday July 24. For information on this and his other concerts, visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

First published in The Scotsman on Monday, July 14th

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CD Recommendations: April 2013

Scott Hamilton: Remembering Billie (Blue Duchess) Remembering Billie

Billie Holiday is a singer beloved by instrumentalists, and one whose distinctive repertoire has been celebrated by such wonderful, lyrical musicians as Ruby Braff, Chet Baker and Bobby Wellins. Now tenor saxophone giant Scott Hamilton offers his take on ten Holiday classics, in the company of his new, hard-swinging American trio/quartet. As ever, his big, soulful sound is a particular joy on the ballads, notably God Bless the Child and Good Morning Heartache, and it’s also a treat to hear Holiday’s 1930s small group hits getting the Hamilton stamp.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: In the Spirit of Duke (Spartacus) 

EllingtonLast autumn’s Duke Ellington-themed tour by the SNJO was undoubtedly one of the best live Ellington experiences in Scotland, in living memory. This CD is a 16-track fusion of music from the five Scottish concerts and it not only captures the thrill of hearing a young band getting a kick out of the glorious Ellington repertoire, but it also showcases its world-class ensemble playing (especially that of the saxophone section), and such terrific soloists as Ruaraidh Pattison (alto sax), Martin Kershaw (clarinet), Ryan Quigley (trumpet), Tommy Smith (tenor saxophone) and the inimitable Brian Kellock (piano).

Sigurdur Flosason & Kjeld Lauritsen: Night Fall (Storyville Records) Night Fall

This CD is a wonderful introduction to the gorgeous, gentle sound and lyrical style of Icelandic alto saxophonist Sigurdur Flosason, and features a line-up of sax plus Hammond B3 organ, played by Kjeld Lauritsen); guitar, played by Jacob Fischer, and drums, played by Kristian Leith. Flosason excels throughout, particularly on ballads. The overall effect is of a series of laidback musical conversations, with the dialogue between sax and guitar especially pleasing. Indeed, the organ often gets in the way.

Heather Masse & Dick Hyman: Lock My Heart (Red House Records) Hyman cd

American piano virtuoso Dick Hyman (newly turned 86) has joined forces with the alto from the popular folk singing group The Wailin’ Jennies for this unsurprisingly classy duo album. Masse has a luscious, rich voice and refreshingly unfussy style, and serves up lovely interpretations of an eclectic selection of songs including two original numbers and two sublime Kurt Weill ballads. Only the title track, which closes the CD, disappoints since Masse morphs into what sounds like Betty Boop. Hyman remains as elegant, imaginative and dynamic as ever.

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Something About Lee

I’ve been a bit obsessed with Lee Wiley since the time I wrote most of this article, back in 1994. Around then, I’d fallen in love with her songbook albums – notably the Rodgers & Hart one, and such later recordings as Oh! Look at Me Now and R & H’s My Romance – surely the definitive version?

Whenever I revisit her recordings, I find new delights and have come to realise that not only was she one of the best interpreters of a lyric, but she was also a singer who expressed a distinctly female point of view through her song choices and her delivery of them – just listen to such songs as Any Time, Any Day, Anywhere (which she co-wrote), If I Love Again, A Woman’s Intuition, Who Can I Turn To Now and Can’t Get Out of This Mood. I’ll bet her recordings of these songs speak more to us women than they do to men.. 

Even among jazz fans, the name Lee Wiley is rarely heard. One of the most influential singers of her time, she remains –  to many people – little more than a name. Anyone who has heard her recordings, however, is unlikely to forget them: her voice is one which raises the spirits and exudes sheer class.  She could count among her admirers the likes of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Marlene Dietrich;  the singers she influenced include Peggy Lee, and she regularly inspired critics to ecstatic, and near poetic, musings on her interpretations of the popular songs of the day.

A TV drama starring Piper Laurie and Claude Rains (and directed by Sam Peckinpah) based loosely on her life was made in 1963. It was entitled Something About Lee Wiley – a title which hints at the elusive quality of the Wiley voice.

You could describe it – as others have – as warm, sensual, fragile, husky, pure
and unpretentious. But there’s still something else; something that’s difficult to pin down. It could be the way she had of implying a note amid her breathiness, or of leaving a wisp of a note hanging in the air, lingering in the mind of her listener. Whatever it was she did, it was unique – and it enhanced every tune she caressed with her velvety vocals.

Lee Wiley was born on October 9, 1908 or 1910 (she claimed at one point that 1915 was the year of her birth) in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma – a town she described with characteristic irony as “about as small as a town can get”. Legend has it that she was of Cherokee Indian, Scottish and English ancestry, and musicians later nicknamed her Pocahontas or The Indian Princess. She certainly comes across as having been as sophisticated and elegant in appearance as her tasteful vocal style and regal nickname suggest.

Wiley was listening to the blues from an early age, and longed to be a singer. “I had a boyfriend who would skip school with me and we would go over to the local store and play records .. they called them ‘race records’ and they only sold them in a certain part of town -the coloured part,” she told one interviewer. Her favourite black singer was Ethel Waters. “I loved to hear her and I adapted her style and softened it to make it more ladylike.”

In her mid teens, Wiley left Oklahoma to sing with Leo Reisman’s band in New York. Working with him and the popular Paul Whiteman outfit on radio, she quickly graduated to her own show – The Pond’s Cold Cream Hour Starring Lee Wiley. Along the way, she suffered a couple of setbacks: suspected tuberculosis, which forced her to take a year off work, and later temporary blindness and disfigurement, the result of a fall from a horse – just as she was about to do a screen test in Hollywood.

When Wiley emerged from that catastrophe, she did so as a fledgling jazz singer. Whereas previously she had been singing with comercial bands for the mass audience of radio, it was the jazz fraternity which now took her under its wing, and provided the perfect musical settings for her intimate and swinging vocal style.

In 1939, backed by the likes of Max Kaminsky (trumpet), Fats Waller (piano and organ) and Bud Freeman (tenor sax), Wiley recorded what has become a classic: a collection of George and Ira Gershwin  numbers – many of them (though it’s hard to believe now) rescued from obscurity. Not only did Wiley set a trend by recording the first songbook album, she also scored a winner by transforming songs which were familiar only as showtunes into sensitive and dramatic jazz standards.

The album was recorded for Liberty, a high-class music shop with an elite clientele, and they (not to mention the messrs Gershwin) were so delighted with it that it was quickly succeeded by a Cole Porter equivalent. Porter was so taken with it that he was prompted to write: “I can’t tell you how much I like the way she sings these songs. The combination of voice and musical accompaniment is excellent. Please give my congratulations to Lee Wiley.”

Songbook albums of Rodgers & Hart and Harold Arlen followed soon afterwards, and – with her respect for the verse and the meaning of the lyrics – hers have become the definitive versions of many of the songs she recorded.  So much so that few have touched such gems as A Ship Without a Sail or Here In My Arms since.

Wiley was, as her friends have noted, a complex person. One defining characteristic, evident in her music, is her honesty and sense of conviction. She was also a free spirit, and seems to have been able to blend into any social circle.

Her friend Larry Carr said: “She loved the free-wheeling, barrel-house atmosphere of jazz clubs and musicians but there was also another, equally strong, side of her that appreciated the well-bred, genteel and chic side of society”. Just as Katharine Hepburn once said of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that he lent her class and she lent him sex appeal, the same applies to Wiley and jazz. She brought sophistication to the music, and it brought out her sexy side. It was the perfect relationship.

From 1943 until 1946, Wiley was married to the pianist Jess Stacy, and sang with his short-lived big band and Eddie Condon’s group. By the late 1940s, she was working on the nightclub circuit and beginning her slide into obscurity. However, her sumptuous 1950 Columbia album, A Night in Manhattan, won acclaim and led to more recordings in the mid-1950s – including another two classics, the sublime West of the Moon (with Ralph Burns arrangements) and A Touch of the Blues (with Billy Butterfield and His Orchestra, and arrangements by Bill Finegan and Al Cohn). Thereafter, she only made the occasional appearance on television and radio.

The TV film Something About Lee Wiley caused a resurgence of interest in her music but she didn’t record again until 1971. The superb Back Home Again – which teamed her with Dick Hyman –  proved to be her last album. She died in December 1975 after a long battle against cancer.

The tragedy of Lee Wiley is that her legacy of recordings is pretty slight, and there is no film footage of her singing. She was, by all accounts, too happy-go-lucky to be ambitious and too dismissive of commercial work – and this could be why, during her lifetime at least, she wasn’t as well appreciated as she should have been. Except by those who heard her: at her last public appearance, at the Carnegie Hall, as part of the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival, audiences went wild for her – an upbeat note on which to end her career.

Here are some of my favourite Lee Wiley recordings that are available on YouTube:

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What Bix Means to Me: Dick Hyman

The piano wizard spent last weekend co-directing The Statesman of Jazz band at the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Weekend in Davenport, Iowa. Not surprising, really, since Dick has been a fan of Bix for most of his life – and has celebrated it in numerous ways, most recently on the CDs If Bix Played Gershwin (Arbors Records) and Thinking About Bix (Reference Recordings). He’s also a wonderful ambassador for Bix’s piano compositions.

He says: “Bix’s music had a powerful effect on me from the first records of his which my big  brother brought home from college. They were ’78 reissues  of Somebody Stole My Gal, Rhythm King, I’m Coming Virginia and Singin’ the Blues. Those titles  remain precious to me among the 200 or so recordings which Bix played on.

“It is not only the notes, which are Mozartian  in their mixture of the perfect melodic sequence  and then the astonishing unexpected turns of phrase,  but the way the notes are played: at times boldly and fortissimo, then tender and imploring, dead center on pitch or  with a  blues-inflected quaver. It is difficult and finally impossible to describe music in words, but these are some of the things I hear in his playing …”

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My Silver Jubilee in Jazz (Part 2) – In Photos

Gus Johnson (drums), Harry Edison (trumpet) & Al Grey (trombone) at the 1986 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, (c) Donnie Kerr

So, to recap, the 1986 Edinburgh Jazz Festival was my first …  I was 14, I accompanied my Dad, whose annual jazz festival routine involved taking the week off work and taking up smoking (it seemed to make the Pub Trail pints taste better). The main event and reason for my being invited was to hear piano wizard Dick Hyman play at the Royal Overseas League that night. But, being a youngster, I had to go wherever my father went – and, of course, he had a full day of jazz planned.

Buddy Tate at the Speigeltent, at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on Thursday, August 21st, 1986 (c) Donnie Kerr

Many of the musicians I heard on my first day were already elder statesmen of jazz when I was born. I speak, of course, of the musicians I was privileged to hear playing in the Speigeltent (a venue that I’ll be virtually inhabiting over the next week at this year’s event): Harry “Sweets” Edison (trumpet), Buddy Tate (tenor sax), Al Grey (trombone), Ray Bryant (piano), Milt Hinton (bass) and Gus Johnson (drums). In all honesty, I don’t remember much about what they played (and these were the days before I took notes) but I’m pretty sure that – as with Doc Cheatham eight years later – there was a strong sense of

Michel Bastide,Virginie Bonnel & Jean-Francois Bonnel of The Hot Antic Jazz Band at the Festival Club, Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Thursday August 21st, 1986 (c) Donnie Kerr

being in the presence of guys who were part of the fabric of the music’s history.

From the Speigeltent, we undoubtedly followed part of the old McEwan’s Pub Trail, to the now-legendary Festival Club for a 3pm set by the band which had much to do with my conversion to fully-fledged jazz fan: The Hot Antic Jazz Band. This Gallic group should be compulsory listening for anyone who thinks jazz is po-faced or inaccessible. Humour, style, joie-de-vivre and terrific musicianship are the hallmarks of an Antics concert. They won me over – and they’re still going strong. My seven-year-old sons love them too…

One of my abiding memories of my early jazz festival visits is of hot-footing it from venue to venue (often across town) in order to catch ten minutes of a set and cram as much into the day as possible. With our gold badges we could get into any gig that wasn’t already full to capacity and this meant that if you only

Spanky Davis (trumpet) & Al Grey (trombone), at the Festival Club, at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on Thursday August 21st, 1986 (c) Donnie Kerr

wanted to hear the first band in a three-set evening in one venue, you could take a chance on getting into the second or third set in a different venue – usually (at Dad’s  suggestion) the one furthest from Waverley Station where we’d catch the last train home. These gambles usually paid off (and were worth taking if you realised that you had perhaps chosen the wrong gig to start your night in), though there was a memorable occasion when Dad and I pitched up at the “Tartan Club” in Fountainbridge only to be told that we’d have to listen to Kenny Davern, Scott Hamilton and the rest of the all-star group onstage from outside the front door as the club was already full. I don’t know if I’ve dreamt it, but I am sure I heard Hamilton storming through a superb version of Back In Your Own Back Yard (the only time I’ve ever heard it live) on that occasion – playing it fast and furiously as if to ensure that those of us straining to hear the music from outside wouldn’t miss out.

Dick Hyman, Royal Overseas League, Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Thursday August 21st, 1986 (c) Donnie Kerr

That first year, we didn’t do any of that kind of juggling: there was no way we were going to risk not getting in to see Dick Hyman at the Royal Overseas League, a venue which fills to uncomfortable capacity very quickly.  Indeed, there was no way we were going to risk not getting front row seats – and prime position for requesting Maple Leaf Rag, the Joplin tune which had first got me hooked on Hyman’s playing just a few months earlier.

And in case there is any doubt about my having been there that day, here’s the photographic evidence: you can glimpse my reflection in the mirror on the pillar of the Speigeltent ..

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My Silver Jubilee in Jazz (Part 1)

The Edinburgh Jazz Festival starts on Friday, July 22nd and I’m both mortified and proud to declare that this year is the 25th anniversary not only of my first-ever Edinburgh Jazz Festival, but also of my first-ever jazz concert (and first-ever visit to a pub with my dad) … and it all happened on one day: Thursday, August 21st, 1986. I relived that fateful day in my first-ever (bit of a theme emerging here) Edinburgh Jazz Festival preview feature which was written, in 1993, while I was still a student and about 20 articles into my journalistic career. I remembered August 21st 1986 much more vividly when I wrote that article than I do now, so here it is:And here are the pages from the programme with the tantalising list of concerts I attended – as well as those I didn’t..

And then the main event:

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