Tag Archives: Ken Peplowski

Norwich Jazz Party 2012: Assorted Highlights

The Norwich Jazz Party strikes just the right balance between the completely informal, thrown-together, “jam” sets and arranged sets which have a rehearsal and charts and more esoteric material. I love both – and both formats produced some magic last weekend. Such as? Well,  that first track came from the opening night’s jam session. Or try this Drop Me Off in Harlem, which combusted into action so spontaneously that I didn’t even have the camera ready. And, no, that’s not Robert Redford on the soprano sax: it’s Bob Wilber, who, having hit 84, now seems to be rewinding towards his sprightly seventies…Another number which I was delighted to have captured on camera was this funky take on No Moon At All by singer Rebecca Kilgore with Craig Milverton (piano), Harry Allen (tenor sax) and Eddie Erickson (guitar) all featured. Of the sets featuring arrangements, my favourites were undoubtedly the Benny Carter set, led by Ken Peplowski, and Alan Barnes’s Ellington set – of which this sublime Sultry Sunset, featuring the national treasure that is Mr Barnes, was a stand-out.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2012

Aaaarrrgghhh! Where to start? The Norwich Jazz Party has been finished for three days and I’m still processing the music that I heard there. The jazz party format is great fun but it’s also an endurance test for those of us who want to get as much out of the concentrated musical activity as possible – while avoiding turning into zombies. Mind you, by the end of the first afternoon, I was definitely suffering from what saxophonist Alan Barnes diagnosed as “jazz fatigue”. Continuous jazz, with only a two-hour break for dinner and a change of shirt for the sweatier musicians, is the order of the day at one of these events and it’s so intense that it can threaten to sap the fun out of the party – if you don’t take precautions.

This year, I had vowed to take more breaks and try not to fret about what I might miss. I bought a tripod for my camera and planned to leave the photographic equipment doing the work of recording the music so I could nip off for some fresh air/chat/kip. However, the tripod idea didn’t work out – too many heads in the way – so I did sit through just about everything and, in the process, perfected the art of holding the camera still using props.

At least I knew that if my brain switched totally to zombie mode, I wouldn’t have to rely on zombie-penned notes as aide-memoirs later on.  Mind you, watching back some of the videos, I’ve realised that all the numbers I marked as the stand-outs for me at the time are still the stand-outs. So at least I’m consistent…

I’ll be writing a considered overview for Jazzwise magazine but instead of the more detailed reviews I’ve done in the past on this blog, I’m going to let the music do the talking – and throw in comments and observations here and there.  It didn’t help that Marty Grosz wasn’t in attendance this year – I always feel inspired to take notes when he’s throwing gags around the place.

The first clip, above, was the highlight for me of a Benny Carter-themed set on Sunday night, and this next one – with a similar line-up – is from a Coleman Hawkins-inspired session on the same day. More to follow as I get it all uploaded .. 

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra Plays Woody Herman

Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra Plays Woody Herman – The Four Brothers, Queen’s Hall, Thursday July 28th  ****  

American clarinettist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski’s five-day stint in Edinburgh came to a spectacular and exhilarating conclusion on Thursday when he assumed directorship of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra for a programme of music from the Woody Herman bandbook.

In the hands of some musicians, staging a programme of music from a famous big band could be akin to giving a live history lesson, but the quick-witted and charismatic Peplowski injected so much fun into the proceedings, and directed the band with such enthusiasm, that the whole concert was hugely entertaining. The schtick, between numbers, was Peplowski the stand-up at his best.

He neatly put one heckler in his place by commenting that the “first big band this guy heard was Beethoven’s”, and introduced drummer Stu Ritchie as “the winner of the 2011 EJF Robert Shaw look-alike award,” adding “we’re particularly proud of him because he won in both the ‘drunk’ and ‘sober’ catgegories”.

Peplowski was clearly energised by the reception he received both from the audience and the musicians with whom he had obviously enjoyed working through the week. This was a tight, polished band and the ensemble playing was terrific – Hallelujah Time and Bijou being stand-outs.

There was a tendency in many of the horn solos to blast and squeal, but some non-blasters and squealers stood out, among them Colin Steele, who contributed an eloquent muted solo to Opus de Funk, and Jay Craig whose baritone stole the show on Four Brothers. Pianist Dave Milligan was also in great form. Peplowski, disappointingly, wasn’t featured much, but he did turn in a magnificent extended solo clarinet version of Body and Soul.

(First published in The Herald, Monday August 1st)

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Ken Peplowski Ensemble Plays West Side Story

Ken Peplowski Ensemble Plays West Side Story, The Hub, Tuesday July 26th ****

If Ken Peplowski and Brian Kellock send in notes from their mothers to excuse them from the rest of the jazz festival, it would be perfectly understandable – given the amount of energy and sweat expended at Tuesday night’s concert of the music from West Side Story.

For clarinettist and tenor saxophonist Peplowski, as musical director, the pressure was on to pull off a series of challenging arrangements of Leonard Bernstein’s notoriously tricky and demanding music. (“On second thoughts, I should have told the jazz festival we’d do the tribute to Kid Ory,” he quipped, as he mopped his brow after the exhilarating opener, Prologue.) It’s safe to say that they succeeded – though some of the arrangements worked better than others.

For Kellock, who barely had the chance to pause for brow-mopping, the concert called on him to unleash his inner pianistic demon. “Representing the Jets – Brian Kellock,” was Peplowski’s introduction, and the pianist certainly seemed to be in killer mode, particularly on the electrifying Jet Song; America, where singer Clairdee’s renditions of the verses were broken up by frenzied, feverish attacks on the ivories by Kellock, and I Feel Pretty, one of the numbers which showed everyone off to best advantage and boasted  a terrific solo by Peplowski himself.

Leonard Bernstein’s music is notoriously tricky and demanding, so it was no surprise to find that the Peplowski Ensemble comprised some of Scotland’s best jazz players – notably Stewart Forbes, who turned in a superb alto sax solo on Jet Song, trombonist Phil O’Malley and drummer Tom Gordon.

(First published in The Scotsman, Thursday July 28th)

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Speaking of Ken Peplowski ….

We interrupt the Edinburgh Jazz Festival coverage to bring you a video I’ve just secured Ken Peplowski’s permission to share… Recorded at the Norwich Jazz Party in May, this is Ken’s serenade to a completely unsuspecting Marty … I’ll be posting more clips soon.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Ken Peplowski & Alan Barnes

Ken Peplowski & Alan Barnes, Spiegeltent, Sunday July 24th *****

The Peplowski-Barnes double-act may not have played in Edinburgh before – but its reputation, honed over the last few years at the Lockerbie Jazz Festival where it’s been THE Saturday night gig to attend, clearly preceded it, judging by the impressive turn-out at the Spiegeltent on Sunday evening. And by the fact that some of that impressive turn-out had made the journey from Lockerbie …

The reasons for the popularity of this pair were immediately apparent on Sunday – and not just in the terrific music they made, accompanied by a trio led by Paul Kirby. Anyone who’s seen either Barnes or Peplowski in concert knows that they’re going to be entertained by their patter – and when the two of them get together the fun they have onstage is utterly infectious. One number – Hanrid – couldn’t get fully underway because Peplowski was laughing so much he couldn’t play. No-one in the audience had any idea what had triggered it, but it was impossible not to share his Dudley Moore-like giggles.

Both being saxophonists and clarinettists, there are myriad ways Barnes and Peplowski could perform any tune (alto and tenor sax; two clarinets; one on clarinet, the other on a sax) but, on Sunday, the tunes they chose tended to feature either the two clarinets or two saxes combination. And with winning results. The two-sax Fajista, by now a signature number for the duo, was a highlight but the twin clarinet numbers stole the show; on Barnes’s own composition, the loving homage Humph, the effect was sultry and langorous as the melody unfolded in the chalumeau register of the clarinet. And the encore, demanded by an audience which went nuts for more, of Body and Soul, underlined how luxurious and exquisite two clarinets can sound together – when they’re being played by the best in the business.

(First published in The Herald, Tuesday July 26th)

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CD Recommendations: July 2011

Ben Webster & Johnny Hodges: The Complete 1960 Sextet Jazz Cellar Recordings (Solar Records) Released for the first time in its complete form, this is a historic encounter between two of the greatest exponents of the saxophone in jazz: tenor man Webster and altoist Hodges. It does not disappoint; in fact, it’s an absolute treasure, a must for fans of Hodges’s sinewy sound and/or Webster’s breathy tenor – and anyone who loves funky, blues-infused jazz. The dream team is swingingly accompanied by a quartet featuring Lou Levy (piano) and Herb Ellis (guitar), and this 17-track CD also includes five rare octet outings from 1961. Blues’ll Blow Your Fuse, Ifida and The Mooche-like I’d Be There (surely a tribute to their Ellingtonian background?) are among the many stand-outs.. Frankly, I’ve been playing this obsessively since before I even got my own copy (I had already worn out my dad’s) – and I’m hoping that that great tenor-alto duo of our time, Ken Peplowski and Alan Barnes, unearth some of these brilliant tunes for their next joint outing..

Carol Kidd & Nigel Clark: Tell Me Once Again (Linn Records)

Vested interest declaration time: I wrote the liner notes for this, the first duo CD by the peerless Scots vocalist Kidd and her wonderful guitarist Clark. Their duets have long been highlights of Kidd’s concerts, and this collection of 12 songs shows why. This is musical storytelling at its best, and a superb example of the scope within the duo format: along with several exquisite ballads, the songs range from R ‘n’ B – You Don’t Know Me – to a bossa nova version of Stevie Wonder’s Moon Blue. There’s a lovely arc to this highly personal album which culminates, fittingly, with The End of a Love Affair.

Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet (OJC Remasters )

Stan Getz’s playing is like a cool summer breeze, and this lovely 1958 album is as fresh and lovely-sounding as his more famous, subsequent, bossa nova LPs. He and vibes player Tjader have a great rapport, and, accompanied by a quartet that includes pianist Vince Guaraldi, work their way through a delicious mix of standards and Tjader-penned tunes, with Guaraldi’s joyful Ginza Samba a rousing opener. A gem.

Scott Hamilton & Rossano Sportiello: Midnight at Nola’s Penthouse (Arbors Records)

In recent years, the American tenor sax great Scott Hamilton and the nimble-fingered Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello have increasingly sought out each other’s musical company, and their affinity is evident on all ten tracks included here. The phrase “less is more” could have been coined for this supremely tasteful double act: Sportiello’s delicate touch and Hamilton’s soulful, breathy sax were made for each other, and the choices of off-the-beaten-track tunes – among them such ballads as the beautifully spare Wonder Why, A Garden in the Rain and In the Middle of a Kiss – are spot-on.

Karen Sharp: Spirit (Trio Records) 
Baritone saxophonist Karen Sharp graduated from the Humphrey Lyttelton band and is now established as an in-demand solo star, who fits perfectly into mainstream and contemporary line-ups. This quartet CD, which features her Tokyo Trio colleague Nikki Iles on piano, veers more towards the contemporary and features mainly jazz compositions written by pianists as well as some familiar movie/musical numbers. A terrific introduction to Sharp’s authoritative, always-swinging baritone sax style.

Warren Vache, Alan Barnes and the Woodville All-Stars: The London Session (Woodville Records) Having written the liner notes, I’ve been living with this CD for months – and I’m still finding more things to love about it. Cornettist Vache and multi-instrumentalist Barnes may have worked together many times but this album is as exciting as they come: it features them getting their teeth into some imaginative arrangements in a septet setting. Their delight in each other’s company is evident throughout, and both are at the top of their game, notably when tearing up such storming numbers as Molasses.

Various: First Impulse – The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary (Verve) To mark the 50th anniversary of the iconic jazz label Impulse!, founded by producer Creed Taylor, an impressive, four-disc (but LP size) box set has been released comprising all six of the albums that Taylor himself produced – plus some previously unissued rehearsals by John Coltrane. It’s a great collection, with classic recordings from Ray Charles (Genius + Soul = Jazz), Gil Evans (Out of the Cool), Oliver Nelson (Blues and The Abstract Truth), Coltrane (Africa/Brass) and Kai Winding (The Great Kai and The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones).

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Caption Competition

I set a challenge to the musicians at Norwich: who could come up with the best caption for this classic photo of the inimitable Marty Grosz, here having trouble fixing his bow tie… And the winner was: Ken Peplowski. Of course!

Due to budget cuts, the Texas prison system is now forcing condemned prisoners to hang themselves.

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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: Monday afternoon

The last day of the Norwich Jazz Party got off to a rousing start. If ever there was a set guaranteed to wake you up it was the one which launched the sensational new CD by Alan Barnes and Warren Vache – The London Session (Woodville Records). I have to confess to feeling a sort of  motherly pride as they began playing the music which was already very familiar to me as I wrote the liner notes for the record, and had interviewed them extensively in the process.

So, hearing the very distinctive and stylish arrangements of such numbers as My Funny Valentine and, especially, a hangover-blasting Molasses played live was a particular treat. And, since not all of the Woodville All-Stars, with whom Barnes and Vache recorded the CD, were at the party, they were replaced by the likes of trombonist John Allred, and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, adding a different flavour to the tunes.

Barnes himself farmed out his baritone sax duties to Karen Sharp (who turned in a gorgeous extended solo on Sophisticated Lady), and was able to devote himself to some ace alto solo work instead, notably on an uptempo Love For Sale – a number which also had him playing bass clarinet.

For Sharp, The London Session er, session was an excellent warm-up for her own set of Gerry Mulligan-associated music later in the afternoon. It was interesting to note how many of the musicians made a point of listening to her set – the same thing happened with pianist Rossano Sportiello’s solo session later that night. And no wonder: both are lovely, lyrical players who grabbed the audience’s attention and kept them spellbound.

In fact, having your attention grabbed and then being bound to your seat are the risks you run if you attend a jazz party like this. The fear of missing what might turn out to be THE set of the weekend leads to marathon bouts of sitting still (some of the audience members looked as if they should be checked over for DVT), and, frankly, after a while the music just starts to wash over you. (I was completely jazz-lagged by Sunday afternoon.)

My leg is still bruised from the kicking I gave myself for missing most of the Basie set led by Rossano Sportiello on Sunday at lunchtime – the self-abuse began almost as soon as Scott Hamilton wrapped his horn around a sumptuous Blue and Sentimental… At least I got to hear him and Sportiello again – this time in a duo, playing some glorious music from their recent CD – on Monday afternoon. Among the many highlights was a high speed This Can’t Be Love – featuring a rollicking solo from Sportiello and Hamilton working up a head of steam on tenor – and the poignant ballad A Garden in the Rain which highlighted the tenderness and gentleness of Sportiello’s piano playing in particular.

Of course, there’s just no way I would ever risk missing the Ken ‘n’ Marty show – sadly only 20 minutes long this year but one for the history books as it featured this longstanding double act’s first onstage kiss, midway through Ken Peplowski’s sung serenade to Marty Grosz (pictured above) of When Did You Leave Heaven? Amidst the hilarity there was some lovely music – for the serenade they were joined by John Pearce (piano),  Alec Dankworth (bass) and John Allred whose mellow obbligato work behind Peplowski’s vocals was a delight. Peplowski himself was on great form, notably on a speed limit-breaking version of Walter Donaldson’s You, an old favourite of this duo. And Grosz, who has enjoyed better health this year than before last year’s Norwich expedition, was in similarly fine fettle, and evidently relishing the musical and comedy antics.

Other stand-out moments of the afternoon? Pianist Tardo Hammer’s elegant and funky set which revealed the great rapport he’s established with British drum whiz Steve Brown, Dan Block’s set of colourful and complex, John Kirby-style arrangements of Fats Waller songs, and Jim Galloway’s serene tribute to Pee Wee Russell – I’d Climb the Highest Mountain. When the young Galloway complimented Russell on his handling of the tune, he was told that he liked to play it “because it was a favourite of Bix’s”.

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