Tag Archives: Kenny Davern

Edinburgh Jazz Fest Memories: Norrie Thomson

Norrie Thomson first became an Edinburgh International Jazz Festival driver in 1987 when he was still working with HM Customs & Excise. He says: “Each year until 2000, when I retired after 38.5 years, I took annual leave to cover the jazz festival.

“When I started as a driver at the festival, bands would come for several days at a time – during which the driver effectively became the band’s ‘roadie ‘. Prior to the start of each festival the drivers would get notice of what bands were to appear and would ask to drive their favourites. It also often happened that, subsequently, band leaders would request drivers that they had dealt with previously. Many lasting friendships were built up over the years this way. Work allocations were made by Frances Burgess [mother of saxophonist/clarinettist John Burgess].

“As volunteers, the drivers were worked pretty hard at times putting in many long, unpaid, hours of work. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable and made a valuable contribution to the running of the Festival. A typical example of a volunteer driver’s experience at the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival would be:

  • Edinburgh Airport or the Waverley Station to be meet the band on arrival at the airport or train station and take the musicians to their hotel.
  • Discuss the band’s itinerary with leader or manager and arrange pick up times.

“The bands were worked pretty hard and earned whatever they were paid. The norm was several gigs each day. The driver would assist with loading and unloading band equipment. This would often be done under frantic conditions. Gigs often followed each other with little time to spare and considerable distances to travel.

Tomas Ornberg                                                                                                                                               “Tomas, a Swedish musician, was a very fine reeds player and leader of his Blue 5 and the Swedish Jazz Kings, and had played the festival on many occasions. In addition to the fine Swedish members of his band, Tomas often used top musicians from the jazz world – Bob Barnard, Roy Williams, Kenny Davern, Bob Hunt, Joep Peeters, Martin Litton, Keith Durston to name a few.

“My first experience with Tomas was in the early 1990s, but was the band’s first choice of ‘roadie’ thereafter. The band’s manager and Tomas’s partner was Irene Biermans, a Dutch lady.

“Over the years Tomas and Irene became great friends of mine and we corresponded regularly swapping news of our respective families.

“Whenever we met Tomas would always say to me: ‘I’ve got my clarinet’. This resulted from one memorable festival night when I got a phone call from Tomas, at about 1am, saying that he had lost his clarinet. The Swedish Jazz Kings had been doing the last slot in the Speigeltent, which had been erected on top of the Waverley Market ,and he thought that he must have left it there.

“I quickly dressed, got in my car and drove to the venue, which was still open. I searched around but couldn’t see the instrument. I called Tomas and asked him to describe the case that the instrument was in. He said it wasn’t in a case. I then resumed my search with this new knowledge. I eventually found it hidden behind a large sheet of plywood. I took it to Tomas’s hotel and gave him the clarinet. I think that he almost burst into tears as he had only recently paid a considerable sum of money to Kenny Davern for the instrument.

“The other memorable, regular event relating to both bands was the world class trumpeter /cornettist, Bent Persson ‘playing’ his mouth piece during various trips. (My worst experience of this was outside of the festival when I drove the Swedish Jazz Kings from Ayr to Inverness – Bent ‘played’ all the way.)

“Another one of the class musicians in the Swedish Jazz Kings was the wonderful bass-sax player Frans Sjostrom. His hobby was model aeroplanes. One of my neighbours had a model aeroplane shop and I introduced them to each other. Eventually Frans suggested that he would be some time and that I should go home and he would get the bus. Later on I was told by my neighbour that Frans had spent a considerable amount of money in the shop.

“In recent years Tomas suffered from poor health and in mid May 2018 I received the sad news from Irene telling me that Tomas had passed away.

Larry Adler                                                                                                                                                “In the late 1990s, I had the privilege of meeting and talking to the famous harmonica player, Larry Adler. Before his arrival, I was told that he had to be treated gently and that he was old and a bit frail (he was in his 80s at the time). He would be arriving at the airport with his manager. I allocated an experienced driver to meet them.

“The driver contacted me to say that both persons had been safely delivered to their hotel and that Adler was the oldest man that he had ever seen that wasn’t dead and that his manager was a young Philippino woman!

“Later, during his stay, I, with another couple of volunteers, met with him in The Hub where we spoke to him (or rather he spoke to us) about his life in music. It was like talking to the history of jazz. The only irritating part of it all was his habit of bringing himself into everything – ‘When Gershwin accompanied me playing Rhapsody In Blue’, ‘When Ellington accompanied me playing the St Louis Blues’, etc.

“He did tell us that it was the American comedian, Jack Benny, who persuaded him to become a professional musician.

Leon Redbone                                                                                                                                          “Leon Redbone came to prominence in the UK through his rendition of ‘So Relax’, the soundtrack to Inter Cities sleeper service. Before this and after he was well known in the jazz / blues world as a fine singer and guitarist. He appeared at the EIJF at least twice.

“On one occasion, I assigned a driver to meet him off the 3pm train from London, King’s X. Round about 3.15pm I got a message from the driver saying that Redbone had not arrived on the 3pm train. I told the driver to wait for the next train which was due at 3.30pm. At about 3.45pm I got another call saying that he wasn’t off the 3.30pm arrival and that there wasn’t a black man on the train. What’s the point of putting artistes’ photos in the programme?! He had arrived on the 3pm train, couldn’t see anyone from the jazz festival, jumped into a taxi and went to his hotel!

Stolen Keys                                                                                                                                                    “The first Saturday of the festival has always been ‘Mardi Gras’ in the Grassmarket. This is one of the free events and consequently is very busy. Because of this, vehicles cannot go into the main part of the street but have to stop either in King’s Stable Road or the main road through the Grassmarket.

“One such Saturday in the mid noughties one of the bus drivers had to take a band of young musicians from New Orleans to play at the Mardi Gras. The driver stopped the bus on the main street, opposite where the band was to play. The band members objected to the fact that they could not go into the Grassmarket and that they would have to cross the road to get to their destination. The driver left his bus to see if any better arrangements could be made. When he returned, the band had disappeared along with the bus’s ignition key.

“I was informed of this situation and with the driver took steps to retrieve the key. I also cornered the band’s road manager and, in no uncertain terms, told him that what had happened was tantamount to theft and that if a similar situation occurred I would have no option but to call in the police.

“Unfortunately, the band members demanded an apology from the driver. What did he have to apologise for? He had done nothing wrong. I decided that the band would have to arrange its own transport and advised the driver accordingly.

‘Big Al’ Carson                                                                                                                                          “Probably the most aptly named musician who ever played at the festival. He hailed from New Orleans and weighed in at 38 stones (532 lbs). When travelling by air he had to book two seats. When travelling round Edinburgh the only suitable transport was a black taxi although he could squeeze into the front seats in the passenger section of a mini-bus.

“Big Al was at two festivals as a vocalist and sousaphone player. He was fortunate, as was the festival, in that he could fit in comfortably to the jazz or blues parts of the event.

“As could be surmised he had a prodigious appetite. One afternoon he was playing at the blues festival, located at the Caledonian Brewery. The brewery had a pub within the grounds, reserved for artistes. The beauty of this establishment was that there was no charge for food or drink! Every so often, a tray of about 12 Scotch pies was provided. On the occasion to which I refer, Big Al ate the whole lot and looked for more.

“He was a lovely man, always grateful for the trouble that was taken to look after him. He was always afraid that he was being a nuisance. I only once saw him angry. I had to drive him from Edinburgh to Prestwick Airport. He was going to Oslo by Ryanair (there were no Scandinavian flights from Edinburgh at the time).

“I accompanied him to the check-in desk where he was told that he would have to pay $160 excess baggage. He queried this, stating that as he had paid for two seats he should be allowed two lots of baggage. Ryanair being Ryanair would have none of this. This caused Big Al to become agitated and increasingly angry to the extent that the check-in person was threatening to call the police. I eventually managed to calm him down. His parting shot to Ryanair was that when he left Norway to return to the States he would be travelling with a real airline.

Lonnie Donegan                                                                                                                                          “Lonnie Donegan had been a hero of mine since the mid 1950s when he was with Ken Colyer’s band and with Chris Barber. However, it was with ‘The Rock island Line’, recorded in 1954, that Lonnie became internationally well known.

‘I prided myself in that I had nearly every recording that he had made together with some private stuff and radio broadcasts. In August 2002 he appeared at the Festival. He was not a well man at the time and I collected him from the premises of a chiropractor to take him to the Queen’s Hall where he was performing that evening. He sat hunched into the corner of the back seat of the car and was accompanied by his son, Peter. He was quite talkative and was looking forward to the evening’s concert. I genuinely thought that he wouldn’t make it.

“I attended the concert, in the company of Bill Gunter, the washboard player from the Californian band, Cell Block 7, that I was driving during the festival. Like myself, Bill was a big fan of Donegan.

“The concert time arrived and Lonnie bounced onto the stage and proceeded to entertain the capacity audience for the next two hours. The transformation from a small, hunched-up man in the back seat of a car to what appeared to be a human dynamo was incredible. I was really please that I had met and spoken to him.

“Three months later, in November 2002, Lonnie died.

The Golden Eagle Jazz Band                                                                                                                “Another band from California. A great bunch of guys many of whom I have stayed in touch with since the ’90s.

“One of the jobs the band had was a publicity session at the Gyle Shopping Centre. The band was on a slighly raised stage. The trombonist, Glenn Calkins, had the biggest bag of mutes that I’ve ever seen. The bass player, Robin Tankard, a dep from Liverpool and the Merseysippi Jazz Band, was a bit of a joker. Glenn had just finished playing a solo using a baby’s potty as a mute and had laid it on floor. Robin kicked the potty out in front of the band and the public, thinking this was a band of buskers, started putting money into the potty. By the end of the gig there was £45 in the potty. Dick Shooshan the leader said to me that this was almost like begging. I said that it was begging!

“The band stayed in Edinburgh for a week after the festival ended and played each evening in the Carlton Hotel. Each day the band played in Princes Street Gardens and always the potty was to the fore! The musos earned their beer money for the week this way.

“In honour of the band’s visit to Scotland a poem was written. [Scroll down to read.]

 

Road Managers                                                                                                                                “Over the years I have found that some road managers seem to create situations to demonstrate to their clients just how well they are being looked after. This, of course, can backfire as the following examples show.

“An internationally famous vocal group is due to land at Edinburgh Airport. The group’s road manager has stated that three limousines are required, one for each vocalist. The band accompanying the vocalists are to be transported in a mini-bus. I have to go the airport to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

“The vocalists arrive together with the band. Only one limousine appears. The male vocalist jumps in and departs leaving the two female vocalists and the band. I speak to the female vocalists, apologising for the absence of the two limousines. The ladies tell me that they are glad because they wanted to travel with the band.

“The second situation is reasonably similar. Again, we have a well known vocalist travelling with his backing band. The road manager has demanded a nice car for the vocalist and a mini- bus for the band. The arrival location is the Waverley Station. Because of the station parking situation, I go into the station to meet the party whilst the nice car (a Mercedes) and the mini-bus are waiting in Market Street at the back of the station.

“As we emerge from the station, I indicate to the vocalist where his car is. He tells me that he doesn’t want a car. He wants to travel with the band. Again, this is a crazy thing. The driver has had to drive from Barnton to the Waverley at the height of the rush hour for nothing.

The Music                                                                                                                                                                    “One of the main advantages that I have gained from the many years that I have been involved with the Festival is the number of recordings that I have done – always with the band leaders permission, I may add. These recordings will end up in the Edinburgh / Scottish Jazz Archive eventually.

“I have only once been refused permission to record and after listening to the band I was glad!

* The 2018 Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival runs from July 13-22.

Haggis-2

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Happy 90th, Bob Wilber!

Bob Wilber, Ed Jazz Fest 1992It’s soprano saxophonist extraordinaire Bob Wilber’s 90th birthday today. I’ve been lucky enough to hear him playing on quite a few occasions over the years – the first time was in August 1992 (when the above photo was taken), when I interrupted my year in Paris to come back for the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, largely because I couldn’t bear to miss hearing him and clarinettist Kenny Davern together – the first chance I had ever had to hear these two titans of classic jazz playing together live.

Three years later, as a fledgling freelance journalist writing for The Herald, I sent myself up north to review concerts by Davern and Wilber, on consecutive nights in neighbouring towns. The night after Davern played his gig at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, Wilber performed at – of all places – the Parkdean Holiday Park in Nairn. (This turned out to be a suitably surreal introduction for me to Nairn Jazz and the wonderful world of the much-missed jazz promoter Ken Ramage.)

Never without my clunky Sony Professional tape recorder in those days, I interviewed both Davern and Wilber about the event that would become the most eagerly anticipated gig in my calendar for that summer – a reunion of the full Soprano Summit line-up (living members anyway!), to take place at that year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival.

Soprano Summit was a hugely successful band in the 1970s which, despite – or possibly because of – its lamentably short lifetime (six years), became legendary. Its albums became collectors’ items almost as soon as they were issued. Its conception – at a “jazz party” – organised by enthusiast Dick Gibson over a holiday weekend in September 1972 – became a tale that clarinettist Davern and fellow founding father, saxophonist and clarinettist Wilber, enjoyed telling. Here’s how it was told to me, in the summer of 1995 …

By day three of the party, audiences were suffering from ear fatigue and Gibson decided that he needed something to wake everyone up. According to Davern, Gibson turned to Wilber and said, in his Alabama drawl, “Now, I wan’ you and Kinny to get together and play a duet.”

The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.

“We got a rhythm section together,” explained Wilber, “by a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number.” Davern continued: “We finished it off on two high notes in thirds, and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”

In December 1972, the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album; the only difference in personnel being that the busy bassist Milt Hinton was replaced by George Duvivier.

Then, after a second LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born. The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go.

Rhythm guitarist and singer Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work. Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love of tunes which were off the beaten standard track. Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic ground plan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. In Grosz, they also had “a marvellous player who lent the band an entertainment factor with his singing and clowning.”

Davern added: “That was the basic sound of the group – two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue.”

The guitar was the icing on an already rather tasty cake, because the essence of Soprano Summit was the relationship between its two frontmen. Davern put it down to the fact that they grew up on the same music, but both have their own views on how it should be played.

“Our differences lie in how to approach the godhead, so to speak. We’re all descendants of classic jazz. Bob has his idea of how it should be interpreted and I have mine. But together, it works.”

In a typical Soprano Summit number they bounced the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, though one sensed that much of the arranging was going on as they played.

As Wilber said: “A lot of it is intuitive. We find out what works by trying it, and then incorporate it into our repertoire.”

Their intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing. Davern observed: “Sometimes when the two of us play two notes, you can hear a third note present – a harmonic that suddenly appears, a richness.”

That Edinburgh Jazz Festival reunion turned out to be the only time I ever heard Soprano Summit live, but thankfully there were many more opportunities to hear both Wilber and Davern over the next couple of decades. Davern died in 2006, but Wilber remains active – I last heard him at the Norwich Jazz Party in 2014 when he was on terrific form, serving up deliciously unexpected harmonies and swinging with as much joie-de-vivre as those first times I heard him, more than 20 years earlier.BW 2

 

 

 

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Kenny Davern

It’s five years to the day since the great Kenny Davern died – so it seems appropriate to re-run the obit I wrote about him .. 

There can be few sounds as thrilling as clarinettist Kenny Davern cutting loose with one of his characteristically passionate and exhilarating solos – as anyone who heard the American jazz star during one of his countless visits to Scotland over the last 20 years will testify. Davern, who has died suddenly at the age of 71, was widely regarded as the foremost exponent of his instrument in the world; a musician whose sound was immediately identifiable and who brought a touch of class to everything he did.

Amongst regulars at the Edinburgh and Nairn Jazz Festivals, and at the former Glasgow Society of Musicians, Davern was also known as an intimidating character who did not suffer fools gladly, and who reserved his greatest contempt for anyone who tried to make him play in front of a microphone. Woe betide any sound engineer who hadn’t been alerted to Davern’s strongly held views on acoustics. Similarly, festival organisers were known to vanish mysteriously when Davern went on the attack – and he never let anything like an audience get in the way of a rant. Indeed, he often treated his listeners with derision too: one trick was to ask for requests and then shoot them down with an acerbic comment.

However, the cantankerous clarinettist was a part he enjoyed playing. It wasn’t the whole story. The intimidating Davern was my first-ever interviewee. Forty-five minutes into the nerve-wracking session, the significance of the fact that the wheels on my borrowed tape recorder weren’t turning dawned on both of us: I had forgotten to lift the pause button. After a terrifying five minutes, during which I was ready to jack in journalism, the unthinkable happened: he softened. At 11.30pm, as I tried to make a break for the door, he insisted on starting the interview again. Not only did the second version turn out better than the original, but, years later, I learned that Davern was dining out, among mutual musician friends, on the story – telling them that he had launched me on my career in journalism.

The soft centre shouldn’t have been so unexpected. Davern was a player of great warmth and passion. He routinely sent shivers down the spine and made hair stand on end when he broke out of his hitherto controlled solos and let rip. There was absolutely nothing like it when he soloed, exploding unexpectedly into the upper register and then swooping back down again. Playing ballads or blues tunes, he had a seductive style, coaxing the sound from the horn the way a snake charmer would draw the reptile from a basket. His playing embraced extreme musical characteristics in the same manner as his personality was, by turn, intimidating and charming. His sound was sweet, fluid and polished one minute; thrillingly spiky, raw and plaintive the next. It is impossible to think of his signature songs – especially Sweet Lorraine – without hearing him playing them.

Born in Huntington, New York, the self-taught Davern began his jazz career at the age of 16. He played with many older greats, including Jack Teagarden, and despite flirting with avant-garde jazz during the 1950s, his primary influence was always Louis Armstrong. In the 1970s, he and fellow clarinettist/saxophonist Bob Wilber formed the super-group Soprano Summit. Davern then formed The Blue Three with pianist Dick Wellstood, before operating as a touring soloist after Wellstood’s death. He leaves an impressive, though not vast, legacy of recordings, and told me in that initial interview: “Just to record for the sake of being in a studio is masturbatory.” He is survived by his wife, Elsa, his two step-children and four step-grandchildren.

* Kenny Davern, jazz clarinettist and saxophonist, born January 7, 1935; died December 12, 2006.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2004

I was too busy throwing up round the clock (I was pregnant with twins) to make the 2003 Nairn Jazz Festival but I managed to get to the 2004 event – for one day only.. As it turned out, however, heavy rain caused a landslip on the train line between Inverness and Glasgow and I ended up having to spend an extra night away from the babies…

This write-up was first published in the September 2004 issue of Jazz Review 

It takes some jazz festivals a week to notch up the quantity of quality music on offer in a 24-hour period at the Nairn event. In the space of just one day, slap bang in the middle of this most laid-back of festivals, it was possible to hear clarinettist Bobby Gordon three times, and many of the other stars – including Bob Wilber, James Chirillo, Rossano Sportiello and John Sheridan – twice apiece. Old band-mates were reunited, and new alliances were formed. And this year, the programme featured a significant injection of new names (drummer Herlin Riley’s Swing Quartet went down a storm with aficionados of a more contemporary persuasion) alongside long-established favourites.

One Nairn newcomer whom it was impossible to avoid was the veteran American violinist Johnny Frigo. It may not have been his fault, but by the time he had gatecrashed his second concert (delaying the start, much to the inevitably vocal chagrin of Kenny Davern who was expecting to kick-off at the advertised time), Frigo was beginning to outstay his welcome. His impressive age (he’s 87) and impish sense of fun may allow him to get away with a great deal (a degree of arrogance and a penchant for reading his own poetry onstage to name but two examples), but his invitation for requests was dangerous, since what most of the audience wanted to hear was the band they had bought tickets for – Summit Reunion.

This musical meeting of Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber – the twin titans of the clarinet (plus, in Wilber’s case, the soprano sax) – turned out to be well worth the wait. It’s two years since their last Nairn summit, and clearly the time apart has had only a positive effect on their collaborations. Their concert in the excellent, Davern-pleasing,acoustics of the Newton Hotel’s conference room was – by their own reckoning – their best ever. What shone through was the fact that they were revelling not only in each other’s company, but also in the company of a terrific band – the Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello (whose exquisitely tasteful playing won him many fans), guitarist James Chirillo, bass player Andrew Cleyndert and drummer Tony De Nicola.

This was classic Soprano Summit: Davern and Wilber jostle and joust with the melody, bouncing it to and fro before one of them throws down the gauntlet with his solo; then, all solos taken, the pair reunite for an invariably exhilarating  climax, packed with the kind of harmonies that cause spines to tingle. This time out, the tunes ranged from such old SS favourites as Some of These Days to numbers – Comes Love, for one – which aren’t associated with this band. As ever, the leaders seemed energised by each other’s playing, and the results were utterly thrilling.

Less thrilling, but extremely satisfying nevertheless, was the reunion of most of the group featured on the recent Arbors CD Yearnings. Clarinettist Bobby Gordon, making his Nairn debut this year, initially appeared ill at ease next to the majestic-sounding Bob Wilber on the bandstand and, until the volume of his microphone was bumped up, he didn’t make much of a musical impression. By half-time, however, he had hit his stride, playing with ever greater assurance, and revealing – even more than he had in a far from relaxed duo concert with James Chirillo the previous day – a breathy, Pee Wee Russell-informed style which was a joy on his featured number If You Were Mine. Towards the end of the set, he felt sufficiently comfortable to sing –  a charmingly unaffected, characterful rendition of Sweet Lorraine which was reminiscent of Doc Cheatham’s similarly gentle vocal version.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 2002, Part 1

Published in The Herald, Thursday August 8, 2002

This year’s Nairn International Jazz Festival must have some sort of jinx on it, if its catalogue of problems to date is anything to go by. First, there was the Nairn accommodation crisis – caused by double bookings and the fact that since so many jazz fans had booked rooms, there were few left for the performers – which was resolved by putting most of the musicians in Elgin.

Then there was the nightmare journeys faced by anyone travelling on public transport at the weekend. (One musician endured a ten-hour train and bus trip from Edinburgh.) And yesterday came the announcement that festival organiser Ken Ramage’s personal piece de resistance – the debut of American crooner Steve Tyrell on Saturday night – had been cancelled by Tyrell himself. As if that wasn’t enough, Ramage’s mobile phone has gone AWOL …

Despite all this, the festival swung into action as if nothing was wrong. There is a ramshackle, everybody-pitches-in, quality about this festival, but the bottom line is that everything always works out in the end – and that the music always comes first. Which is presumably why musicians love to come here.

One musician who left, yesterday morning, looking as if he had had the time of his life was Bob Wilber, the American clarinettist and saxophonist who was lured out of semi-retirement by two tempting reunions – with the clarinettist Kenny Davern on Monday night, and with the Hot Club de France-style band fronted by Belgian guitar maestro Fapy Lafertin on Tuesday evening.

Wilber and Davern gave a sensational concert at the stiflingly hot Universal Hall in Findhorn. These virtuoso musicians have known each other for decades and they clearly thrive on opportunities to play together. Their duetting style, formed during the heyday of their group, Soprano Summit, is thrilling whether they’re both playing clarinet or whether Wilber has switched to soprano sax. These guys know each other’s styles so well, and are so experienced, that they produce spine-tingling harmonies as a matter of course.

For the most part they steered clear of standard fare on Monday night, and instead offered such lesser-played numbers a Smiles, Jazz Me Blues and The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.

However, it was during an old Fats Waller warhorse, Honeysuckle Rose, that the camaraderie onstage reached its high point, with Wilber (on soprano sax) and Davern jabbing and jousting to exhilarating effect as they traded breaks. And they were buoyed by the accompaniment of a peerless band featuring the lyrical guitarist James Chirillo, Britain’s top bass player Dave Green, the impressive young drummer Steve Brown and the super elegant American pianist John Bunch who, at 80, is as nimble and stylish a player as ever.

Wilber’s next appearance was in civvies – as a member of the audience at Davern’s lunchtime gig at the The Newton Hotel, Nairn, on Tuesday. This was a wonderfully relaxed session featuring the clarinettist in charge – and at his best. And it was a treat to hear him playing such rarities as Then You’ve Never Been Blue (which he learned from an old George Raft movie) and My Gal Sal, the first few bars of which featured unsolicited audience participation.

What really put the smile on Wilber’s face was his second and last concert as a player – on Tuesday night at Findhorn, with Fapy Lafertin’s Quartet. Before he went onstage, Wilber was enthusing about Lafertin being the world’s leading exponent of the “gypsy” jazz style of guitar playing made famous by Django Reinhardt, and reminiscing about his own face-to-face meeting with Reinhardt in Nice in the late 1940s. He obviously loves the Hot Club’s music and to play it with such a class act was clearly a great treat.

And the Lafertin outfit – two guitars, bass and violin (played by the fiendishly talented Dutchman Tim Kliphuis) – was just as delighted to have the chance to renew its acquaintance with Wilber, with whom they last worked in 1996. The results were a knockout, with Wilber absolutely in his element – hunched over his horn and dancing about as if he was in a New Orleans parade – and egged on by the dazzling, though far from flamboyant, virtuosity of Lafertin.

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Nairn Jazz Festival 1994

By way of tribute to Ken Ramage (who died earlier this month), the founder and organiser of the wonderful Nairn Jazz Festival – and the promoter of many non-festival concerts, I’m going to run all my Nairn articles (or as many as I can find), starting with this, my first review from Nairn – of my first time at the Nairn Jazz Festival, published in The Herald on August 11, 1994. I’m not sure where or how I wrote this as it was pre-internet. It was probably phoned-in to copytakers, a now-extinct species!

You had to be there really, but you can take my word for it that the audience for jazz is alive and flourishing in the north of Scotland. Consider the remarkable initiative of Nairn fruiterer-cum-jazz promoter Ken Ramage who decided – only three months ago – to build a festival around an exclusive Scottish appearance by the Ray Brown Trio.

Only the promise of a night of world-class music would drag the mainstream jazz fan away from residency at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, but Ramage could not have selected a better group to launch his own event than the one which took the stage in the grounds of the Golf View Hotel on Tuesday night. With an all-American, all-star, front line of cornettist Warren Vache, clarinettist Kenny Davern, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and trombonist Joel Helleny, plus a stellar British rhythm section in the shape of the Colin Purbrook Trio, it could only be a winner.

The band swung its way through numbers like Bernie’s Tune and Sweet Georgia Brown, but it was in the various groups within the group that the individual musicians truly shone. Jerome Kern’s Pick Yourself Up showcased the dulcet cornet tones of Vache, while Joel Helleny – making his first Scottish appearance – introduced the 300-strong audience to his poetic playing with a stunning Polka Dots and Moonbeams. The two brassmen were featured on a poignant You’ve Changed.

Much the same could be said of Hamilton and Davern who locked horns and competed for the notes in the dog whistle register during their splendid version of Blue Monk. Elsewhere, Hamilton’s bluesy, growling tenor on It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, and his lulling Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square provoked cheers – as did Davern’s beautifully restrained solo number, Sweet Lorraine.

The Vache-Davern-Hamilton triumverate is always a pleasure to hear, but add Joel Helleny and a trio as compatible as Purbrook’s and we really had one helluva line-up. They will be a tough act to follow, but then so is singer Carol Kidd. She appears at the Marquee tonight accompanied by her regular trio of Dave Newton (piano), Dave Green (bass) and Allan Ganley (drums).

For many, however, the highlight of Nairn’s jazz festival will be the booking that set the ball rolling – the Ray Brown Trio. Bass player Brown started out with the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker Quintet before working with, and marrying, Ella Fitzgerald. His name will also be remembered from Norman Granz’s legendary Jazz At the Philharmonic concert series, or from his stint with Oscar Peterson’s most celebrated trio. On Sunday Brown’s band features Benny Green, a young pianist in great demand worldwide, and another Peterson regular – drummer Jeff Hamilton.

Here’s the complete list of numbers played by Vache, Hamilton, Davern, Helleny etc:

* Sometimes I’m Happy (SH)

* Polka Dots and Moonbeams (JH)

* Pick Yourself Up (WV)

* A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (SH)

* Sweet Lorraine (KD)

* It Don’t Mean a Thing (whole band)

* Bernie’s Tune

* In a Mellow Tone

* You’ve Changed (WV & JH)

* On Green Dolphin Street (trio)

* Blue Monk (SH & KD)

* Sweet Georgia Brown

I didn’t hear the rest of the Nairn Jazz Festival – I got a lift down to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival with Vache, Hamilton and Davern who were all appearing at the Gala Concert at the Queen’s Hall the day this review was published!

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2011: Django a la Creole

Django a la Creole with Evan Christopher , The Hub, Wednesday July 25th *****

There must be an awful lot of musicians who are kicking themselves for not having dreamt up the concept for Django a la Creole, the quartet which fuses the gypsy jazz style and line-up with that of the traditional New Orleans jazz clarinet. Why? Because it’s such a brilliant and inspired mix – and one which, certainly on the evidence of Wednesday’s jazz festival concert at The Hub, is utterly seductive and widely appealing.
The members of the band may live in different countries, but over the course of two albums and regular tours they have clearly established a terrific relationship, yet sparks still fly when they play – and, as with the original recordings of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, the atmosphere is of sheer joie-de-vivre.

On Wednesday night, they dished up one thrilling treat after another – from a lovely repertoire that ranges from 1850s New Orleans to Hoagy Carmichael classics. Of course, much of the appeal of this uniformally top-notch band is the gorgeous and downright mesmerising clarinet playing of the flamboyant Evan Christopher who injected drama and New Orleans-style colour into every tune. As with the late, great Kenny Davern, Christopher has a flair for the theatrical (both musically and, rather distractingly, in his stage presence): in Davern style, Christopher played such quieter numbers as Mood Indigo and Solid Old Man in the lower register to begin with before exploding into a soaring flight of fancy, after holding back and almost lulling the audience into expecting that the whole tune would be soft and gentle.

 

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