Tag Archives: Johnny Mercer

Review: Carol Kidd & Brian Kellock

Carol Kidd Sings Gershwin with Brian Kellock, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Thursday May 31 *****

Well, well, well… Actually – superb, superb, superb would be more apt. Carol Kidd’s duo concert at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on Thursday night couldn’t have been more of a pleasant surprise. Hell, it was a sensation. I had always suspected that the Carol Kidd-Brian Kellock duo could be something wonderful – but its first outing, last year at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, was not all I’d hoped, and last week’s quartet concert in Perth – in which Kellock played – wasn’t a patch on the previous gig I had heard Kidd play (in October, with guitarist Nigel Clark).

What linked last year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival concert and last week’s Perth gig was the presence of Brian Kellock, who, it seems, brings out a childish streak in Kidd between numbers. Their horseplay had been a drawback and a distraction in Edinburgh last year – and there was more of the same in Perth. Kidd often jokes around onstage (usually the same jokes involving not being able to remember what’s happening next, not being able to see without her specs and pulling a few Jimmy Krankie faces as she tries to squint at her song sheet – and as she “accidentally” swears). Of course, only those of us who have been to every one of her gigs in recent years would be tiring of all this – it might have been funny the first time but I can’t remember that far back…

Last year in Edinburgh I was driven to write about that aspect – and also the other irksome characteristic of many a recent Kidd concert: her habit of reimagining or rewriting the lyrics. Sometimes it’s obvious that she has just momentarily forgotten them, but some of the mistakes are now clearly engrained in her mind. (As a friend of mine said after listening to her recording of Moon River, where did she get the “moon raker” line from?)

I only had 200 words to play with for my Herald review and didn’t want to waste them on the lyrics issue – especially since it didn’t bother the majority of the audience – but  I noted that not a single song emerged with its lyrics completely intact.

Kidd trampled over the carefully chosen words of such poets as Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, Sammy Cahn and E Y Harburg. To those of us who adore Skylark,  such eloquently expressed phrases as “where my heart can go a-journeying” or “faint as a will o’ the wisp, crazy as a loon” are as integral to the song as the melody- and it’s a major distraction when you hear them being changed. Not only that but sometimes the meaning of a song is compromised when the lyrics are mangled. It only takes a “you” and “I” to be used in the wrong place …

Kidd’s Perth version of Time After Time might have had all the right words – but, as Eric Morecambe said, they were not necessarily in the right order and the effect was that the meaning of the song was altered. I have to say, I feared for my enjoyment of future Kidd concerts and was in two minds about going along to the duo gig on Thursday.

But ..  in Edinburgh on Thursday, there were considerably fewer crimes against lyrics and less (sky) larking about, and that – combined with the fact that Kidd had clearly recovered from the throat problems which had been apparent to those of us who go to hear her whenever we can – made a huge difference.

And this time the duo achieved its potential. It was a thrill to witness it. From the opening song of the show, A Little Jazz Bird, it was obvious that Kidd was in better form than the previous week. It wasn’t until towards the end of the first half, however, that it really gelled – but, boy, when it did .. The duo’s take on Summertime was so powerful, so spine-tingling that it didn’t only blow the audience away; it also took the performers by surprise.

Kellock’s sparse Satie-esque accompaniment was utterly mesmerising – hypnotic, even, with its repetitive left hand rhythm and steadily increasing dramatic tension.  (It sounded so thought-through I was amazed when he later said that it had been entirely spontaneous.) It was the touchpaper for Kidd who took off with a commanding, passionate and emotionally devastating performance.  It was no wonder they decided to call half-time after it; everyone in the room  – onstage and off – was left somewhat shell-shocked. There should have been counselling available.

The second half was a series of triumphs culminating in a thrilling I Loves You Porgy, the other Porgy and Bess ballad which Kidd – who understands that “it’s a harrowing story, not a romantic ballad” – has very much made her own, and her sexy, smouldering and gutsily powerful The Man That Got Away, on which Kellock was electrifying.

All worries about her “losing it” – which I had been wondering about last week in Perth – were allayed. This performance proved that she is still light years ahead of any other female jazz singer I’ve heard singing live.

So much so that she could be forgiven for disingenuously claiming that it was in response emailed requests that she was including a number of non-Gershwin songs (coincidentally, almost all of them ones that she had performed in Perth) in this Gershwin programme…

I

A Little Jazz Bird

Time After Time

How Long Has This Been Going On?

Skylark

Love Is Here To Stay

The Man I Love

A Foggy Day

Summertime

II

Can’t Help Lovin’  That Man of Mine

I Got Plenty of Nuttin’

Come Rain or Come Shine

T’Ain’t Necessarily So

Why Did I Choose You?

I Loves You Porgy/I’s Your Woman Now

encore: The Man That Got Away

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Review: Janet Seidel Trio, Glasgow

Janet Seidel Trio, Recital Room, Glasgow, Friday September 30                ****

The Australian-style weather may have already been a thing of the past by Friday evening but there was still a sultry, balmy quality to the music played in the Recital Room – courtesy of Janet Seidel‘s Sydney-based group. The charismatic singer-pianist set the tone with the very first tune, a gentle bossa nova version of Day In, Day Out on which her soft, unfussy vocals were offset by just guitar and bass, creating a sound very reminiscent of the gorgeous Julie London albums, Julie and Julie Is Her Name.

The theme of the concert was the Johnny Mercer songbook, and – as one of the greatest wordsmiths of his time – Mercer could not have asked for a better champion of his songs than Seidel whose attention to the lyrics and their meaning was obvious from the start. It was a rare treat to hear Lazy Bones, Mercer’s early hit with Hoagy Carmichael, but Seidel went one better and included the even more rarely-exhumed verse – accompanied by just Chuck Morgan on ukelele – and the effect was extremely evocative.

Other highlights – and there were many – included Blues in the Night, Come Rain or Come Shine and Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home, all of which revealed the bluesier side of the otherwise cool, quiet and spellbinding Seidel vocals. What was particularly striking was how Seidel, who honed her craft in piano bars, established an instant rapport with her audience – and was rewarded with a wildly enthusiastic and warm response to every number.

(First published in The Scotsman, Monday October 2)

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Australia’s First Lady of Jazz

Had it not been for Julie Andrews and a weekly pile of ironing, Janet Seidel, who is currently touring the UK, might not have become the renowned singer and pianist that she is. The glamorous fiftysomething given the title of  First Lady of Jazz  by critics in her native Australia only discovered her singing voice thanks to the LP of the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, which she listened to every time she carried out her weekly chore – of doing her family’s ironing.

“I’ve got four brothers – I was the only girl – and I used to listen to that record over and over again while I was ironing their shirts. So when my school said
they were going to stage My Fair Lady, I thought: ‘Gosh, I can sound exactly like Julie Andrews.’ So I auditioned and got the role, and I’m so grateful because that experience gave me the chance to conquer my shyness: I put the pancake make-up on and I became Eliza Doolittle, not Janet Seidel.”

Brought up on a dairy farm near Adelaide, Seidel had been playing piano from an early age and was regularly “shuffled out to play pieces for my granny”. Her natural shyness didn’t prevent her from playing piano but it took a while for her to sing as she played – after all, she had to be herself, not Eliza, in that context. “It was a leap of faith, really,” she says.

In her late teens and early twenties, while she was studying classical music at university in Adelaide, Seidel formed a band with two of her brothers. “We did everything from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo to Suzi Quatro songs. I had a keyboard and we’d play country dances and all sorts of gigs.” Even now, she still works with one of her brothers: David Seidel is the bass player in her current trio.

During Seidel’s university years, piano bars became all the rage – and proved to be a lucrative way of subsidising student life, though it took a bit of getting used to. Seidel explains: “I was so used to having my brothers there on guitar and bass, and to being surrounded by friends. For this solo gig, I had to expand my repertoire and learn how to interact with strangers – the idea of the piano bar is that people come in and sit around the piano bar and want to talk to you. It really was a baptism of fire but it served me well. Back then, you could get work anywhere in the world just playing piano and singing.”

To begin with, she played poppier material – Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and Carole King were her favourite songwriters – but she soon graduated on to the Great American Songbook and since then, it has interested her “almost exclusively”.

Seidel first heard jazz on the radio when she was still at school. “The ABC had a programme, Music to Midnight, which I used to listen to – and that’s how I first heard Nat ‘King’ Cole and Blossom Dearie.” Both of these great singer-pianists proved highly influential – but the girlish-sounding Dearie especially so. The jazz writer Whitney Balliett once said of her “tiny” voice that, without a microphone, “it wouldn’t reach the second floor of a doll’s house”.

During her student days, Seidel had the chance to see Dearie perform – and it proved to be a defining moment. “She came to Adelaide as the support artist for Stephane Grappelli who was on an Australian tour. She did a solo thing in the first half and it was just magical, you know – one of those spine-tingling moments.. I’d always been a bit ashamed of my voice – it wasn’t a huge operatic voice, and it wasn’t a big mama kind of belter. Then I heard Blossom’s fairy-like voice and I thought: ‘She’s so delicate and intimate, and still communicating that way without doing anything silly with her voice.’ And I loved the way she played piano.”

Peggy Lee’s recordings also helped shape Seidel’s soft and gentle style. “I read in a book that, before she became a star, Peggy was singing in a bar and there was a lot of loud noise. She decided that she would sing a bit more softly to see if it would quieten the crowd down, and it worked.”

Seidel toured Scotland a couple of years ago with a show of Blossom Dearie songs, but she’s not the only heroine to whom she has paid tribute: Doris Day is another favourite and she takes comparisons to Day as a great compliment. “She was a very tuneful and very swinging jazz singer – she really knew how to phrase and she had a lovely light lilting kind of approach to singing.”

Recently, Seidel was hired to sing a jingle for an Audi advert, to be broadcast on British television. For that, she was called upon to sing like Julie London – with whom she bears a strong vocal resemblance. “She was a big influence on me. I love that cool, unfussed style and the timbre of her voice – it’s a very caressing sound without being forced or deliberately sexy.”

A Julie London tribute may be the next obvious step, but for this tour, Seidel is celebrating Johnny Mercer’s songbook, including the ballad Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home – a song which would be apt for any jazz musician, let alone one who’s on an eight-month house-swap ….

* Janet Seidel Trio plays Recital Room, Glasgow on Thursday,  March 15, at 7.30pm. Call 0141 353 8000 or visit http://www.glasgowconcerthalls.com for tickets.

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Long Live The Queen!

Maxine Sullivan is one of my very favourite singers (as well as something of an honorary fellow Scot) – so I couldn’t let her centenary this month go by without taking the opportunity to write about her. Unfortunately, I was too young – but only just! – to have heard her sing live (she died in 1987, which is just when I was first listening to jazz), but I’m lucky enough to now know many of her colleagues. And none of them has anything but the highest praise for her, both as a singer and as a human being.  She is definitely a lady whose life and career are worth celebrating.

Maxine was born Marietta Williams on May 13, 1911 in Homestead, Pennsylvannia. She began singing as a child and went on to perform regularly in and around Pittsburgh. “Discovered” by Gladys Mosier, the pianist in Ina Ray Hutton’s all-girl band, she moved to New York in 1937 and was introduced to bandleader Claude Thornhill.

According to Will Friedwald, who writes about Maxine in his book Jazz Singing, “Thornhill’s ideas as to how to use her voice were to soon do as much for his career as they would for Sullivan, and he concentrated on a gimmick that Sullivan had already been using for years. Thornhill matched Sullivan’s ‘suave, sophisticated swing’ with material from way out of the Afro-Jewish jazz and Tin Pan Alley lexicon, from Anglo-European folk sources, which paid off in the Sullivan-Thornhill hit ‘Loch Lomond’.”

Loch Lomond was an international hit, and, as she later said, it put Maxine on the map. She was very clearly a class act, with her cool voice and unfussy, natural, gentle swinging style, and although she recorded a string of traditional folk songs and standards, she was forevermore known as the Loch Lomond Girl – not that everyone approved of the liberties being taken with song: one American radio station manager banned it, deeming it “sacrilegious”.

In 1938, she  sang the song in the Dick Powell movie Going Places which also starred Louis Armstrong – pictured here with Maxine and songwriter Johnny Mercer who penned the lyrics for the Harry Warren tunes featured in the film. (See clip of Mutiny in the Nursery at the end of this article.) Ella Fitzgerald later went on record saying that she had the idea of swinging the nursery rhyme A-Tisket A-Tasket from Maxine’s success with swinging the classics.

In 1939, Maxine appeared in the movie St Louis Blues, singing the title number while Dorothy Lamour got all the new songs. Maxine, however, managed to record one of Dottie’s songs – Hoagy Carmichael’s Kinda Lonesome – before the film was released.

In 1939, Maxine and Louis Armstrong were reunited – as Bottom and Titania, no less (see pic below) – for the ill-fated, but intriguing-sounding, Broadway extravaganza Swingin’ the Dream, the swing version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which brought together the creme de la creme of the jazz world. It wasn’t Maxine’s first foray into Shakespeare territory – she had already recorded swing versions of It Was a Lover and His Lass and Under the Greenwood Tree – and it wouldn’t be her last, as she revisited the bard’s sonnets three decades later in the delightful company of pianist, composer and arranger extraordinaire Dick Hyman.

Despite the fact that Swingin’ the Dream was a spectacular flop, Maxine’s career continued to blossom into the early 1940s when she and her husband, the bass player/small group leader John Kirby, became the first black stars to have their own radio show, Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm.

The show ended in 1942, not long after Kirby and Maxine divorced. During the 1940s, Maxine continued to be a major draw at nightclubs the length of 52nd Street. She came to Britain in 1948 – a visit which was documented by an American news magazine – and took a weekend out of her schedule to sing Loch Lomond on its “bonnie bonnie banks”. She didn’t perform – officially – in Scotland during that trip but I’ve found some lovely photos of her collecting water from the famous loch, and entertaining a crowd at the water’s edge, in the local press here in Glasgow. (She came back and toured Scotland in 1954.)

The 1950s were tougher for Maxine, partly because the jazz scene was changing and she was still regarded as a swing singer, and partly because she didn’t get the publicity for her shows from the radio stations, as she had in the past. She later said: “It was like walking uphill with the brakes on.” So, in 1958, she decided to stop performing and concentrate on her family and the community affairs in which she enjoyed an active role. By now married to pianist Cliff Jackson, she trained as a nurse, served as the president of her children’s PTA, and – in her neighbourhood of the Bronx – established The House That Jazz Built, where she rented rooms to musicians, provided space for local arts groups and organised workshops and concerts.

The retirement didn’t last long – and Maxine was back in the recording studio in the late 1960s when she embarked on what would turn out to be the arguably most productive and prolific comeback in jazz history. Working with such master arranger/players as Bob Wilber and Dick Hyman (with whom she had already collaborated on a classic album of Andy Razaf songs), she won over a new generation of fans with such superb albums as Close as Pages in a Book and The Music of Hoagy Carmichael (both with Wilber). With Hyman, she revisited the sonnets of Shakespeare for the cultish album Sullivan-Shakespeare-Hyman, a lesser-known gem in her recorded output.

By now promoted to jazz royalty and nicknamed “The Queen”, Maxine toured and recorded extensively during the 1970s and 1980s, notably with the Scott Hamilton Quintet. Her rate of recording seems to have accelerated in her final years when she produced five LPs with a Swedish group headed by trumpeter Bent Persson; worked her way through a raft of definitive songbooks of such favourites of the jazz world as Burton Lane and Jule Styne, with small bands under the direction of the pianist/arranger Keith Ingham, and produced the fabulous Uptown with the Scott Hamilton Quintet (featuring the wonderful John Bunch on piano). Lyricists loved her because she paid such great attention to their words, and usually sang the rarely-performed verses. And musicians loved her too.

Dick Hyman told me a few years ago: “I’ve always thought that she was maybe my favourite singer of all to have accompanied. Why? Because she was so musical. She responded to anything that she heard. It wasn’t just a matter of your following her; she would follow you too – so from the point of view of jazz, it was a very mutual kind of situation.

“As a person, she was laidback and easy to get along with. She was small-ish and perfectly self-possessed, and could take charge of a musical situation with her delicate way of singing – quite the opposite of someone who shouts the blues or rants and raves. She was very controlled, very delicate and feminine in what she sang. And she swung.”

Like many of the musicians Maxine worked with, Hyman stressed the fact that “she was one of the boys”. He added: “She was perfectly feminine but she fit right in with us – and really we thought of her as another musician because she was such a good time-keeper and knew how to relate to what we were doing.” I think the fact that she is the only female vocalist (and one of only three women) in Art Kane’s iconic Great Day in Harlem photograph (a snippet of which is shown above) illustrates the fact that she was regarded as a musician rather than a girl-singer.

Continuing the one-of-the-boys theme, Warren Vache recently told me that when he was 25, he was drunk under the table by Maxine, who – it seems – was very fond of her whisky. And, according to Vache, anyone else’s that was lying around …  Despite the fact that she was an old lady when he knew her, Vache still refers to her as “a great gal” – and certainly the age difference between her and such younger musicians as Scott Hamilton and Phil Flanigan, who played bass in Hamilton’s quintet, didn’t seem to matter one iota.

Flanigan told me: “What I remember about Maxine is the ease of working with her and travelling with her. It was all pleasantness. The idea of a generational divide never occurred to any of us. I loved her singing style which was as straight and true to the composer’s intention as you could imagine but yet she did her own thing. She had a complete lack of affectation – which I loved about her. Some singers float on top of the rhythm section without sustaining any time. Maxine was an absolute genius at that but she could nail the time in such a way that it was a pleasure for a rhythm section to play with her. She was a musician of the voice, and a pleasure for other musicians to work with.”

Maxine Sullivan died on April 7, 1987, just months after returning from her last visit to Japan – where she was the darling of the jazz scene – with Scott Hamilton’s Quintet. And the last song she sang onstage (and recorded – as the concert was filmed)? You’ve guessed it: Loch Lomond.

(c) Alison Kerr

* I’ll be singing Maxine Sullivan’s praises on BBC Radio Scotland’s The Jazz House on Wednesday, May 25. Sadly, we were only able to play three tracks. So here is a wee compilation of videos of Maxine culled from YouTube.

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Jazz Journal

John Bunch and me at the 2003 Blackpool Swinging Jazz Party

It’s been a sad week, with the news of John Bunch’s death.  John was a good friend to me, and, after meeting him at the Nairn Jazz Festival of 2002 (we were staying in the same Elgin hotel, and were transported to gigs in the same mini-bus), we stayed in touch between festivals – John, after all, was a dab hand at e-mail (and, even more impressively, at emailing photos).

John Bunch and one of his youngest friends at the 2005 Blackpool Swinging Jazz Party

Scott Hamilton told me last week that John had been responsible for various jobs that he landed during his early days in New York – including his stint with the Benny Goodman band. And that there were lots of musicians who owed John a debt of gratitude. Helping and encouraging younger people seems to have been something that John did as a matter of course. He certainly did it with me, and would often send me emails congratulating me on articles that he must have sought out online.

Just before I heard about John’s death, I finished the liner notes for Top Shelf, the new Arbors CD by cornettist Warren Vache and trombonist John Allred. It’s a reunion of the band that featured on the live CD, Jubilation, a couple of years back: in addition to John and Warren, there’s Tardo Hammer on piano, Nicki Parrott on bass and Leroy Williams on drums.

Warren and John seem to have had great fun choosing the tunes – most of them lesser-played bop numbers from the 1950s and 1960s – and they play them in such a swinging and lyrical way that they’re very accessible even to those listeners who normally give bop a bodyswerve.. I sent the notes to Warren for approval just as the news of John’s death came through, and he immediately resolved to dedicate the CD to John, and to another friend and colleague who died recently, the great drummer Jake Hanna.

A reunion at the 2008 Nairn Jazz Festival.

John spent six years working as the musical director for the singer Tony Bennett so it was a strange coincidence that after several months on the blink, my digi-box finally sprang back into life in time for me to see Bennett in the star-studded documentary on Johnny Mercer, The Dream’s On Me, on BBC4 at the weekend.

This hugely enjoyable and suitably long (after all Mercer did write more popular songs than just about anyone else) film was a real treat and featured performances by everyone from Bing Crosby to Jamie Cullum, via Morgan Eastwood. Who? I hear you asking. Well, if I tell you that Morgan Eastwood is the teenage daughter of the film’s executive producer, a certain Clint, that might explain it – and the fact she got to sing the programme’s title song!

There’s another chance to see Johnny Mercer – The Dream’s On Me on Friday on BBC4 at 10pm. I’ll be kicking my Friday night off in style with a couple of programmes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing the songs from the Great American Songbook – presumably excerpts from their great run of movies in the 1930s. To paraphrase Irving Berlin: “I’ll be in heaven… “

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News & Blues

…Vocalist Annie Ross is performing at Ronnie Scott’s in London on May 5 & 6, along with her regular New York co-horts – Warren Vache (cornet) and Tardo Hammer (piano). All three will have been at the Norwich Jazz Party immediately before heading to Soho…

….John Bunch, that most elegant of American pianists, has been forced to pull out of the Norwich Jazz Party (May 1-4; www.norwichjazzparty.co.uk)  due to ill health. It won’t be the same without him, but we’ll be thinking of him …

….. Scots singer Carol Kidd and her long-time musical partner, the guitarist Nigel Clark, have recorded an album of … wait for it … duets, for Linn Records. Due out in the autumn. Can’t wait, especially since it includes their take on Moon River. Their duet of that ballad at the Johnny Mercer centenary show at last year’s Glasgow Jazz Festival was the highlight of the night, and left host Sir Michael Parkinson lost for words as it was so exquisite…

….. American cornet supremo Warren Vache has been in the recording studio with his friend and collaborator John Allred (trombone) for a new CD on the Arbors Records label. Top Shelf, due out later this year, boasts the same line-up as the live album they released last summer, and features an imaginative selection of bop tunes…

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