Tag Archives: Roger Spence

Ellington’s World Comes to Edinburgh

One of the most prestigious – and ambitious – items in this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival programme is a concert by a brand-new, specially-formed band on the penultimate night of the ten-day event. And, bizarrely, we have the Olympics to thank for it ..

Festival producer Roger Spence explains: “The idea is that in the Olympic year, when people are coming from all over the world to London, we thought we could create a concert programme which reflects jazz as an international music. In recent years, we’ve established the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra – the concept of which is to blend eight Scottish musicians with eight international ones – but with the World Jazz Orchestra, every single member of the band comes from a different country – we have musicians coming from all over the globe.”

Taking this idea and running with it, 100-metre style, Spence realised that there was one obvious body of work from which a programme could be formed for this melting pot band. “We know that jazz is international but we wanted music with a universal appeal and for a big event like this, we had to choose a composer who is regarded by many as the very best – so we chose Duke Ellington. And the wonderful thing about Duke Ellington as far as this project is concerned, is that he wrote music inspired by music and countries all over the world. We can reflect different flavours of world music through the prism of one composer.”

The choice of Duke Ellington led straight back to Scotland and to the jazz festival itself: over recent years, the great, Fife-born baritone saxophonist and one-time member of the Ellington band Joe Temperley (pictured above) has forged a strong relationship with the festival. “He was the obvious choice to lead the World Jazz Orchestra,” explains Spence. Temperley is more familiar than most with the vast Ellington repertoire: not only did he play in the band, following the death of its original baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, but he has also – in the context of his membership of Wynton Marsalis’s acclaimed Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – played many of the Duke’s seldom-performed suites.

And key excerpts from one such suite are at the heart of next Saturday’s concert. Along with such exotic pieces as the Far East Suite and the Latin-American Suite, the orchestra will play some of Ellington’s landmark Black, Brown and Beige, which was performed for the first time by the Ellington band for its Carnegie Hall debut in 1943. This historic concert in aid of Russian War Relief was sold out (3000 seats) days beforehand but the demand for tickets remained so intense that a further 200 people were seated on the stage.

For Ellington aficionados, the 47-minute tone poem, which fused jazz, blues, spirituals and Spanish influences, and reflected the Afro-American experience from the arrival of the first wave of slaves off boats in 1619, was a thrill to hear – though the critics were not as quick to embrace this, the jazz composer’s first, full-blown suite. Jazz critics worried that he was forsaking jazz (though he had written a number of extended compositions before, including Symphony in Black which had similar themes), while the classical world was dismissive of his aspirations as a “serious” composer.

Indeed, Ellington – who later said: “We stopped using the word jazz in 1943; that was the point when we didn’t believe in categories” – never performed it again in its entirety in concert though he recorded numerous versions of it. Some parts of it – notably the magnificent spiritual Come Sunday, written for the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and performed by him at Carnegie Hall almost before the ink had dried on the arrangements – have taken on a life of their own. On the Ellington orchestra’s 1958 recording of Black, Brown and Beige, Come Sunday was sung by Mahalia Jackson. Since then, vocalists as diverse as jazz singer Lee Wiley and soul singer Gladys Knight have performed it – and in Edinburgh next week, it will be sung by Cecile McLorin Salvant, whom Temperley recommended for the job.

For the octogenarian musician, it’s a joy to be able to bring this music to an Edinburgh audience. “I love Black, Brown and Beige,” he says. “It’s one of my very favourite Ellington suites. I’m particularly fond of the version with Ben Webster where he plays the solo on The Blues. We’ll be doing that piece in Edinburgh, with the Danish tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo following in the footsteps of Webster, Al Sears and Paul Gonsalves.”

Of course, Black, Brown and Beige – as with all of Ellington’s work – was written specifically for the musicians in his band at the time; for their individual and combined sounds. Temperley says: “The secret of Ellington’s success was the ‘Ellingtonians’ – Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges etc. He wrote for them. It was like a Shakespeare company. It was more than a band; it was a collection of individuals that came together and were marshalled together in an unusual way – those different voicings he used, like two trombones and a baritone.. He did not have those in mind harmonically; he was thinking of the personalities of the musicians who’d be playing.”

Given this, is it more of a challenge to play Ellington’s music; do you approach it differently? “I would say so. If you play a Basie arrangement, it’s pretty straight-ahead. With Ellington, you have to bear in mind the people who went before, and not try to impersonate them. Of course you’re influenced by them, but you shouldn’t try to sound like them.” A tall order – but Temperley and his international team will no doubt have earned their gold medals by the time they’ve completed their Ellington marathon.

* The World Jazz Orchestra plays at the Festival Theatre on Saturday, July 28. For more information visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

First published in The Scotsman, Thursday July 19, 2012

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Stan’s the Man for Edinburgh

Stan Getz means different things to different music fans. The jazz great, whose death 20 years ago is being commemorated by the 2011 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, is best known the world over as the saxophonist featured on one of the biggest-selling jazz singles of all time, the The Girl From Ipanema. Certainly that gorgeous track highlights the hallmarks of the Getz sound – his lyricism, and a sort of yearning, ethereal tone – as well as his swinging style, but the Brazilian bossa nova phase was one of several highly productive, and hugely influential, periods in a four-decade career which is represented by various concerts, plus a panel discussion, in this year’s jazz festival.

Born in 1927, Getz was the son of Ukrainian parents who had fled the pogroms. He was raised in the Bronx, in New York, and took up saxophone when he was 13 years old, having already demonstrated that he had a terrific ear for music by picking out tunes on the piano or the harmonica and committing a raft of Benny Goodman’s clarinet solos to memory. (By the time he was 19, he was working for Goodman.)

Getz began his professional career at the age of just 16, when he went on the road with the great trombonist Jack Teagarden. Stints with the bands led by Stan Kenton and Jimmy Dorsey followed, before the Goodman one which was followed by his celebrated tenure, from 1946-1950, as one of the quartet of saxophonists known as the Four Brothers within Woody Herman’s Second Herd band.

It was Getz’s spare and langorous solo on their 1948 recording of Early Autumn that made his name as a major new improvising talent. This breakthrough period of his career will be reflected at the jazz festival by a concert celebrating the Four Brothers and featuring the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra under the direction of clarinettist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski.

After quitting Herman’s band in 1950, Getz began to lead his own small groups and became one of the most popular saxophonists of the decade, thanks in part to a series of peerless albums, including Stan Getz Plays and Stan Getz and The Oscar Peterson Trio, which, says Scottish tenor saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski, was a major influence on him.

“That album just blows me away – it doesn’t get any better,” he says. “His playing is so melodic, you can imagine a voice singing these lines. There’s a kind of tenderness in his playing, an emotional quality that you didn’t hear much when I was learning to play – it was all Michael Brecker, and a much more about a kind of aggressive soloing. I was much more drawn to the 1950s recordings by Stan Getz.”

For the jazz festival, however, Wiszniewski is headlining a concert which celebrates another landmark album in the tenor man’s career and is that rare treat – a jazz concert with strings.

Focus, recorded 50 years ago, just before the bossa nova phenomenon exploded, has long been a cult LP and stands out in the Getz canon not just because it’s his strings album, but also because it’s not as easily accessible as the more mainstream bossa or big band output. Β Festival director Roger Spence says: “This album had some tough music in it – I’d compare it to something by Bartok – and I believe that it’s probably the greatest of all the recorded collaborations between jazz soloists and string ensembles.”

On the original album, a full string section played arrangements by the master arranger Eddie Sauter. It took, says Wiszniewski, months for the scores to be tracked down (from Yale University), and it’s taken almost as long to figure out how to pare them down for a quartet – luckily his future father-in-law, Ian Budd, is the principal viola in the RSNO, and was able to help – and how to handle the Getz part which, says Wiszniewski, is entirely improvised. “There are some chords there but what he’s going by are cues from the strings. He’s taken some themes from the strings and he’s playing them and developing them as well. So it is quite an organic piece of music.”

Getz himself claimed that it was his proudest achievement in the recording studio because – due to the sudden death of his mother – he had missed the session with the orchestra and had to record his part separately. It sounds as if the strings and the jazz star are interacting and responding to each other when you listen to the album; in fact, Getz was hearing the pre-recorded strings through headphones – and was struggling not to be thrown by his inability to hear his own sax.

In order to evoke Getz as he sounded on the album, Wiszniewski is going play some of his improvised melodies and expand on them. He’s clearly excited by the challenge, and delighted to have been given the opportunity to pay tribute to a phenomenal improviser and stylist who, as Roger Spence points out, “is one of the giants of the LP era”; one whose output is as worthy of celebration by a jazz festival as a jazz composer’s.

* For full details of the Stan Getz strand, visitΒ www.edinburghjazzfestival.comΒ or call 0131 467 5200.

 

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