Tag Archives: Pee Wee Russell
The Scottish-born, Toronto-based soprano saxophonist has always loved the legendary Bix Beiderbecke‘s “beautiful tone and great melodic and harmonic sense” – and first heard his music as a youngster listening to BBC radio.
He was lucky enough to get to know older musicians, such as the clarinettist Pee Wee Russell, who were colleagues of Bix during his heyday. Indeed, Jim paid tribute to both during this year’s Norwich Jazz Party when he played I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, a beautiful ballad which Russell told Jim he liked to play “because it was a favourite of Bix’s”.
Typically, Jim has a funny Bix-related story: “A few years ago I was in LA, and Betty O’Hara, a very good horn player and singer was also on the gig. One morning, I came out of the elevator just as Betty came out of another one just opposite. We said our hellos, and then Betty said: ‘Did I tell you that I bought a parrot?’ I said that she hadn’t mentioned it so then she said: ‘Guess what his name is?’ I had no idea, and then she hit me with it … ‘Beaks Bite or Peck!’
“Two of my favourite tracks are Singin’ the Blues (it was Eddie Higgins’s favourite too) and, for great hot ensemble playing, the first chorus of San, recorded in 1928 with Paul Whiteman. And we must not forget his remarkably modern piano compositions – In a Mist, In the Dark, Flashes, Cloudy and Candlelights.”
Tomorrow: Jon-Erik Kellso.
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.
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”.