Tag Archives: Howard Alden

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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Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Part 2

Published in The Herald, Monday August 12, 2002

It may not be in quite the same historic league as Benny Goodman’s legendary gig at the Palomar Ballroom, or Louis Armstrong’s Town Hall concert or the Ellington band’s riot-sparking Newport performance, but American cornet star Ruby Braff’s Wednesday night concert at The Newton Hotel for the Nairn International Jazz Festival was undoubtedly one of those nights which will be talked about for many years to come – at least by those who were there.

Before Braff opened his mouth, things didn’t bode well. Looking frail and wizened, and suffering from emphysema, the 75-year-old made it out of his wheelchair and up onto the stage. Propped up by pillows, he looked as if he should be in the local infirmary rather than in front of an all-star band. However, as soon as he began to talk, it was obvious that the notoriously cantankerous star was in good spirits, reducing the audience and the musicians onstage to tears of laughter with his politically incorrect jokes.

Of course, it wasn’t just the priceless patter which made Braff’s concert such a highlight. It was a fantastic night musically – a perfect example of swinging, melodic chamber jazz. Holding court for well over two hours, Braff brought out the best from an already terrific band which featured Scott Hamilton on tenor sax, John Bunch on piano and Jon Wheatley on guitar.

Rather than taking the easy – and more common – all-star concert option of featuring each soloist individually or dividing the band into different line-ups for different numbers, Braff simply had each musician play a share of the melody before everyone took a solo. The results were sublime, particularly the beautiful, laid-back version of Jerome Kern’s Yesterdays, which prompted Braff to comment: “That was like a nice conversation.”

Braff’s playing gave no indication of his breathing difficulties; indeed, the horn seemed to double as an oxygen mask, and as the evening progressed, he played for longer stints, always with that unique, mellow tone. He was surprisingly generous in his praise for his fellow musicians, and was clearly relishing the opportunity to be playing with Bunch and Hamilton again.

In those wee small hours of Thursday morning, it looked as though the highpoint of the festival had just finished, but there were still treats ahead, among them Scott Hamilton’s lunchtime reunion with pianist Brian Kellock. Kellock hooked up with his own band (John Rae on drums and Kenny Ellis on bass) to join American saxophonist Harry Allen for a gig on Friday evening which proved that the United Reformed Church should probably be a last-resort venue for Nairn jazz. Allen and co rose above acoustic problems and turned in a terrific extended set which left the tenor man raving about Kellock’s trio being the best in Britain.

Aside from the Braff concert, the gig which best summed up the spirit of the Nairn International Jazz Festival was the lunchtime concert by members of the Gully Low Band. Featuring a quartet made up of the magnificent trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, the elegant clarinettist Dan Levinson, virtuoso guitarist Howard Alden and tuba player-bandleader David Ostwald, the first set epitomised the relaxed, informal feel of the best Nairn concerts. This was a rare chance to hear this kind of line-up and their swinging, tasteful performances of such little-played 1920s and 1930s numbers like Diga-Diga-Doo and From Monday On were superb – sheer pleasure.

The relaxed feel of this ensemble was in complete contrast to the more carefully staged and formal atmosphere of the two concerts by the entire Gully Low Jazz Band, on Friday night and Saturday lunchtime. Although this band went down well with audiences, it seemed to lack the joyfulness and spontaneity of the small group sets, and, frankly, leader David Ostwald’s dull announcements were tiresome and unnecessary.

Also more formal and less rewarding than might have been expected was the concert by young stars Benny Green (piano) and Russell Malone (guitar) on Thursday evening. This slick, sharp-suited duo was, unquestionably, a class act but there was a strong sense that they were simply working their way through the material on their album, and that, to them, this was just another stop on the touring itinerary. Which is about as far removed from the one-off, peculiarly Nairn, feel of the Braff concert and the Bob Wilber-Fapy Lafertin gig of earlier in the week.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2001

Published in The Herald, August 14, 2001

It’s been a few years since this reviewer’s last visit to the Nairn International Jazz Festival, but, thankfully, very little has changed. The atmosphere is as friendly and laid-back as ever, and the prevalence of the founder-organiser’s own eclectic tastes – rather than a worthy but half-hearted attempt to cater for every jazz taste – still ensures that this event has a distinctive character.

Nairn is still very much the jazz festival with the personal touch. You only need to watch the crowds filing out of the venue to witness this: people queue up to thank Ken Ramage, the organiser, for the concert and to request that certain bands be brought back. Musicians and audience members mingle at interval-time, and seem to be united in their enjoyment of the festival and its informal ambience. Indeed, it’s not unusual for bandleaders to ask to be invited back as they bid farewell to the audience.

This is precisely what happened at this year’s showcase concert, given by David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band on Saturday. This classy New York-based group went down a storm and seemed to be as delighted by the response they received as the audience was thrilled by the music. Unlike, say, the Nairn All-Stars band, which had appeared two nights earlier, this was a ready-made outfit comprising members who work together regularly and operate less as a group of individuals (although trumpeter Randy Sandke, clarinettist-saxophonist Dan Levinson, trombonist John Allred and pianist Mark Shane are all in demand as soloists) and more as an ensemble. Consequently, they managed to cram several decades’ worth of Armstrong material into a hugely enjoyable couple of sets.

The Ostwald outfit asked for, and received, an instant invitation to come back to Nairn. But it wasn’t the only debuting group looking for a return visit. The Hot Antics charmed Nairn audiences with two afternoon concerts at the weekend. This French band’s winning combination of seldom-played tunes from the 1920s and 1930s plus a good deal of fun and banter – prompted a flurry of requests, not least from the band itself, for a repeat performance at a future event.

The surprise of the festival was Dunstan Coulber, an English clarinettist who led a swing quartet, featuring the versatile pianist Richard Busiakiewicz, on Friday evening. The winner of the Perrier Young Jazz Musician of the Year, Coulber has a soft, fluid, and commanding style which contrasted well with Busiakiewicz’s crisp, elegant playing.

The Nairn audience’s willingness to try out the unfamiliar is a sign of its faith in the taste of the organiser, and he rewarded the loyalty by arranging return visits by old favourites. It was a not-so-old favourite who opened the festival on Wednesday. Jane Monheit, the American singer who made her Scottish debut in Nairn in December, was welcomed back as if she was the prodigal daughter, while Monty Alexander, the Jamaican pianist who has played the festival in the past and who would appear to have been adopted by Nairn as one of its own, seemed to thrive on the friendly atmosphere when he gave a late-night recital on Friday.

Although all the evening events played to a full tent, the stand-out concerts of the festival were the ones which were heard by fewest people. In the intimate, and unlikely, venue of the newly-converted stables of Brodie Castle on Friday afternoon, the peerless American musicians Warren Vache (cornet) and Howard Alden (guitar) – both of whom have been absent from the festival for several years – teamed up with the excellent bass player Ricky Steele for two glorious sets which are bound to become Nairn festival legend.

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Sunday Afternoon at Ryan’s

Having two young children, my gig-going tends to be confined to their sleeping hours – outwith festival season, at least. So it was a real treat to be able to sneak through to Edinburgh for an afternoon of jazz that stretched well into the evening. The reason for my Sunday leave? A barely-publicised concert in the basement of Ryan’s (across from the Caledonian Hotel) by the ace American guitarist Howard Alden, whose seven-string wizardry is very familiar to Edinburgh jazz fans, and singer Jeanne Gies – a new name to Scottish audiences.

I’ll be the first to admit: I’m always wary of new singers, especially singers who are performing with much better established instrumentalists. Let’s face it, we’ve all been at gigs where we’ve wished someone would lock the singer in the ladies’ so we can hear the rest of the band better.

However, all fears were allayed when Gies revealed a cool, airy and lovely voice which was at its most appealing on ballads. Stand-outs were I’m Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life, which set out Gies’ stall as an eloquent storyteller, a bossa nova version of My Foolish Heart, and probably the only live versions of More Than You Know and How Long Has This Been Going On I’ve ever heard performed with their exquisite verses.

On faster numbers and songs in which Gies jumped about a bit musically, her animated body language – flailing elbows and busy hands – was a little distracting. But that was the only negative in a couple of sets which also showcased Alden’s lyricism and dexterity, notably on the well-titled Tricky Little Devil and a faster-than-the-speed-of-light I Got Rhythm.

And as if that wasn’t enough, it transpired that the Sunday early evening slot (5.30pm-8.30pm) at Ryan’s is usually occupied by none other than the brilliant Brian Kellock who plays the grand piano there for three hours every week, accompanied by Phil O’Malley (trombone) and Ed Kelly (bass).

Kellock, who was recently nominated for the award of Best Jazz Musician of the year in the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, was in great form – notably on a rollicking Tea for Two, an intense and hard-swinging Whisper Not and the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic Wave which was distinguished by a particularly densely layered Kellock solo (as well as by O’Malley’s lyrical trombone work).

Now, about moving the offspring’s bedtime to 4pm every Sunday …

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CD Recommendations

Bobby Wellins: Time Gentlemen, Please (Trio Records)

Some players just get better with age – and, judging by this new CD, Bobby Wellins is one of them. Featuring a wonderfully eclectic and imaginative selection of tunes from his working repertoire, it finds the great Scots tenor player in terrific form whether he’s powering through such uptempo tunes as the title track, balladeering wistfully on a standard or giving I’m Wishing (the love song from Snow White) a stylish, funky going-over. Of course, it helps that he’s surrounded by an ace trio – notably his long-term pianist John Critichinson.

Jump Presents Private Treasures from Allegheny Jazz Concerts 1950s-2000 

For lovers of classic jazz, the Allegheny Jazz Society is a familiar name as it has issued many great recordings on the Jump label. It has also played host to some great live performances, as this superb two-disc compilation demonstrates. Comprising numbers recorded across a 50-year period, it features groups including the likes of Marty Grosz, Ken Peplowski, Bob Wilber, Dick Hyman, John Sheridan and Scott Hamilton – all of whom have been regular visitors to British jazz festivals – as well as by the late, great Ruby Braff and Lee Wiley.

Howard Alden: I Remember Django (Arbors Records)

Two of US guitarist Howard Alden’s earliest influences were the gypsy jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt and the American great Barney Kessel – and he pays tribute to both on this new CD which also recalls the fact that, back in 1999, he was responsible for coaching Sean Penn in his role as a Django-obsessed guitarist in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown. Featuring a Django-style line-up (two guitars and bass), this is a joyful album which showcases Alden’s lyricism and dexterity on 13 sublime numbers. Cornettist Warren Vache and clarinettist Anat Cohen’s elegant contributions are the icing on the cake.

Vince Guaraldi Trio: Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (OJC Remasters) 

Italian-American pianist Vince Guaraldi – AKA Dr Funk – is best known for his catchy music for the Charlie Brown/Peanuts TV specials. However, before that association, he had already scored a hit with this 1961 album – which has at its core trio versions of the music from the influential 1959 film Black Orpheus (the movie that brought Brazilian music to worldwide attention) – and had topped the charts with his own complementary composition number Cast Your Fate to the Wind. Lovely, atmospheric stuff.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Festival of Swing

FESTIVAL OF SWING, QUEEN’S HALL
*****

It may be 83 years old, but the beautiful old tune Creole Love Call is certainly getting a work-out at this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival. And not only that; she’s the belle of the ball. On Tuesday, for the second consecutive night, Duke Ellington’s gorgeously smoochy ballad inspired some magical playing, this time an exquisite clarinet duet by Bob Wilber and Alan Barnes, with Howard Alden’s guitar evoking the famous growls on the original recording, and Ed Metz Jr adding a dash of the oriental with his cymbals.
Actually, it was one of many highlights of a concert which could easily have turned out to be an all-star shambles as there was no Dick Hyman this year to coral the participants (who also included saxophonists Scott Hamilton and Joe Temperley, trumpeter Duke Heitger, bassist Eric Harper and pianist Tom Finlay) into an orderly ensemble. However, what it did have was the equally senior Bob Wilber as leader, and it worked a treat.
The first set was entirely composed of Ellington and Ellingtonian numbers and what was especially pleasing was the fact that we weren’t short-changed on the full, nine-man band front: often at these all-star gigs, there are a couple of crowd-pleasing numbers by le tout ensemble at the start and thereafter it’s a series of individual soloists playing with the rhythm section.
On Tuesday, although smaller bands emerged within the bigger band, there was plenty of tout ensemble action – on such knock-out numbers as hard-swinging The Jeep is Jumpin’ and a laidback Squeeze Me, and, in the second half, on a sensational All of Me and a thrilling Hindustan, one of several tunes which stirred memories of Wilber’s great Soprano Summit band.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2010: Swingin’ the Dream

No, your eyes do not deceive you: this photo shows “Brother” Marty Grosz preaching while Ken Peplowski plays clarinet (and tries to suppress his laughter).

This was the scene two-thirds of the way through one of the most unusual sets of the Norwich Jazz Party – a costume-free, eight-man recreation of Swingin’ the Dream, an ill-fated, 1939, Broadway show that had a cast of over 150 as well as three bands. Not to mention Louis Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan in starring roles.

Like Ken Peplowski, who had organised this celebration of Swingin’ the Dream, I’ve long been fascinated by this little-documented show which may have been short on success but was loaded with talent. A musical re-imagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in 19th century New Orleans, it was, said Peplowski, partly a disaster because of its bloated budget.  “It ran for 13 performances – and we’re going to show you why,” said Peplowski, by way of self-deprecating introduction.

With only 30 minutes to evoke the presumed spirit of the show, Peplowski’s septet served up a delightful mix of numbers, kicking off with numbers which Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman might well have performed. Moonglow was a particular highlight, thanks to the combination of Paolo Alderighi’s lovely piano solo, Enrico Tomasso’s laidback trumpet and Peplowski’s hot and sweet clarinet.

For the show’s enduring hit, Darn That Dream (one of the songs contributed, at the last minute, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie de Lange), Peplowski switched to tenor sax. Hearing the verse – played by just Peplowski and Alderighi – was a rare treat, and the rest of the number was equally beautifully executed; the musicians gently passing the melody amongst themselves.

Another song written for the show and still surviving is Love’s a Riddle, penned by Alec Wilder who was the musical’s original composer. A quirky, peppy number, it reminded me of the much more successful swinging Shakespeare project – Sullivan, Shakespeare, Hyman – the classic album of jazz settings of Shakespeare songs which Dick Hyman recorded with Swingin’ the Dream’s Maxine Sullivan in the 1970s.

The set culminated in two more songs written for the show by Van Heusen and de Lange – and for these, Peplowski brought on his secret weapon: Marty Grosz. On Peace, Brother – introduced as ” a message/gospelly number of the era”, Grosz threw himself into the part, waving his arms in the air as he recited the lyrics in a spoken style that was more Rex Ingram than Rex Harrison.

Grosz was back on vocals duty for the catchy title number which provided the all-singing, all-dancing (by Marty and Ken anyway) finale to the set. Featuring terrific solos by Peplowski (on clarinet) and guitarist  Howard Alden, it was one of the standouts of a hugely enjoyable session which Peplowski will no doubt have regarded as a trial run for the full Swingin’ the Dream concert which he’s staging at the Oregon Festival of American Music in July.

* Watch out for more photos of Brother Marty feeling the spirit coming soon..

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