Bobby Wellins, who has died at the age of 80, was not only Scotland’s first great jazz tenor saxophonist but also an icon of British jazz whose influence would have lived on even if he had never played again after 1965, when he featured on the iconic album of Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite.
Tag Archives: Ronnie Scott’s
Curtis Stigers wears his heart on his record sleeve. The versatile American singer who, two years ago, released his darkest album to date – a collection, as he put it, “of sad songs or songs about sex” – has gone to the other extreme with his new CD Hooray for Love, an all-out, old-fashioned celebration of romance. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking “Ooh, Curtis must be happy” as soon as I saw the the title of the new album – so is the Stigers who comes to Edinburgh indeed as happy and loved-up as the record suggests?
“Well, yeah,” say Stigers who, for all his drawl speaks ten to the dozen. “That was the whole idea. I set out to make an album that mirrored where I am as a person as well as the last record mirrored where I was when I made it. And that record was obviously f***ing depressed. And so I felt like it was time both for me and my fans for the antidote so I went looking for ten beautiful love songs. I really wanted to make an album of love songs; an album that was just unabashedly, unapologetically romantic.
Whereas Let’s Go Out, the previous CD, featured contemporary singer-songwriter material, this new album comprises swinging, jazz takes of classics from the Great American Songbook alongside some original songs which sound as if they might also have been written in the same era. “I threw out a lot of the rules I had made for myself, like ‘Don’t record songs that have been recorded a million times’ and ‘Never record a song that Sinatra is known for’.”
Stigers’s joyful experiences singing with the John Wilson Orchestra in the landmark 2010 MGM prom and subsequent movie-themed concerts inspired the inclusion of the a couple of the songs – Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight (“the sweetest and, I think, one of the smartest love songs ever written”) and the Gershwins’ Love is Here To Stay. Performed in a catchy, loose, simple arrangement reminiscent of small-group, 1950s jazz recordings featuring the likes of Harry “Sweets” Edison and Ben Webster, it’s the opening track, and it sets the intimate, laid-back mood of the album. “Ah,” agrees Stigers, “that era is definitely what we were going for, and one of the two or three albums that we really looked at and I kept at the back of my mind was the After Midnight sessions with Nat ‘King’ Cole – that has Sweets on it. It was Nat basically coming back to the small group, swinging sort of thing that he had stepped away from to become a pop star.”
“It seemed like the thing to do – to take a step back towards happy and towards a little more, I guess, of a mainstream jazz approach. As well as the King Cole album, I was thinking about those early Doris Day records before she got too pop, too cute and smarmy; those great pop records from the 1950s where it was fantastic jazz musicians playing great songs with a great singer, and there were solos but they weren’t long solos. That was the other thing: I really wanted to pay attention to the song first, and whilst there are some solos, I really stood on my musicians; I was grinding my heel into them as they were playing, saying: ‘No – simpler!’, ‘No – closer to the melody!’, ‘Let the song do the work!’ ”
It’s not only the mood and material of Hooray for Love which are reminiscent of those earlier albums; the sound evokes that era as well. Stigers explains: “When I mixed the record I really tried to not go for modern hi fidelity but go for more of an old-fashioned fidelity. There’s a difference between the way jazz records sounded in the 1950s to the way they sound now. I didn’t want it to sound retro; I just wanted it to sound cosier and more intimate. Jazz records these days you can hear the drums so well. You can hear every texture of the drums… I don’t really give-a-damn what the drums sound like – I want them to keep the beat; that’s what drums do. And I could be thrown in jazz guy prison for saying that but the truth is that’s not the issue with an album with a singer and great songs. The issue is the great songs and the voicings – and everything else is there to support that. So that’s what we were really going for.”
The mood really couldn’t be more of a contrast to the last record or the repertoire we’ve heard in Stigers concerts in recent years: he’s gone from the cynical to the soppy. He’s come out of a painful divorce and found a new love, and he can’t hide his delight. Even the title Hooray for Love came from the sign-off on an email from a friend congratulating him on his new romance. Thankfully, his performance at Ronnie Scott’s earlier this year showed he hasn’t completely sold out on his fellow cynics – he still sang Dylan’s Things Have Changed and other songs from the last album.
Chuckling, Stigers points out: “I’m still cynical. The fact that I’m a romantic is the reason that my cynicsm is so thick. Let me explain that. I think because I open my heart – as the song says ‘I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast’. And that’s who I am. I believe in love, I believe in romance. And when you get your heart stomped on, as an open-hearted romantic, it’s pretty easy to take on a defensive edge. But underneath it all, I love love songs and I love love. So this was my chance to show the non-cynical side.”
And just to highlight the fact that the sad cynic is still there, he has concluded the album with You Don’t Know What Love Is, the bleak, Chet Baker-associated ballad which has been a bit of a showstopper at Stigers gigs in recent years. “I just couldn’t help myself! It’s a love song but it’s a dark song. It’s a song about love that one way or another can’t be fulfilled. It’s a sad song. It also seemed like that sort of cautionary tale at the end, you know? Love, love, love, love, love – but don’t forget what might happen!”
* Curtis Stigers plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on October 9. Hooray for Love (Concord Records) is out now. For tour dates visit www.curtisstigers.com
First published in The Herald, Friday October 3, 2014
Madeleine Peyroux, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Wednesday November 27th ****
What a difference a decade makes. The first time American singer Madeleine Peyroux appeared in Edinburgh following the success of her breakthrough album, Careless Love, she stood awkwardly in front of the audience with apologetic body language and the embarrassed expression of a little girl who’s been forced to perform.
The Peyroux who stood before the packed Usher Hall on Wednesday was almost unrecognisable as the same person. She held her own onstage, and cracked jokes with the audience – mostly on the same, drinking, theme as the many of her songs. Accompanied by her trio, plus a string quartet, she dished up a mix of numbers from her current CD, The Blue Room, plus that first album and its follow-up.
A grand concert hall is not the ideal setting for a singer whose style is so intimate and whose appeal is very personal and direct. Yes, she filled the Usher Hall with her wonderfully characterful and imperfect voice on Wednesday and was well appreciated, but in a smaller venue (such as Ronnie Scott’s, where she played a similar programme in the spring), she was able to mesmerise the punters, lock eyes with them, draw them in – very much a la Piaf – and to leave them emotionally destroyed.
On Wednesday night’s Desperados Under the Eaves, she came close – we were hungry for it – but there was just too much distance between her, the dot on stage, and us. Those elements which made her Ronnie Scott’s performance a five-star, unforgettable, experience got lost in the translation to a big hall – though she (and the lighting designer) did an impressive job of creating as intimate an atmosphere as the venue would allow.
First published in The Herald, Friday November 29th
Madeleine Peyroux, Ronnie Scott’s, London, Monday April 29th
She made us laugh; she made us cry … and she made us all sit up and hang on her every word. Madeleine Peyroux’s opening night at Ronnie Scott’s was a knock-out – a brilliant blend of the hybrid sounds of her new album, The Blue Room, and songs from her earlier records.
Standing self-consciously in the middle of a half-circle of musicians – a string quartet, a rhythm section plus guitarist Jon Herington – Peyroux looked, initially, a little overawed and nervous as she launched into the opening track from The Blue Room, Take These Chains. But the strange and seductive combination of her throaty, note-bending vocals and the ethereal sound of the strings arrangement was an instant winner – and she seemed to relax as the song went on; even going so far as to tell stories and crack jokes between numbers – and clearly having fun as she visited rock ‘n’ roll territory on Bye Bye Love.
It was certainly a far cry from the Peyroux many of us experienced in her earlier years, when she would stand apologetically in front of an audience and look distinctly sheepish as she sang – as if she might get found out at any minute.
Mind you, back then the voice was a lot less assured sounding. One thing that was particularly striking on Monday was how commanding a musical presence Peyroux can have; especially when she plumbs the depths of her vocal range as she did on a magnificent (and simply sung) You Don’t Know Me, a powerful and gutsy I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You – and on Bird on the Wire, one of the songs which was much more affecting in a live performance than on the album.
On all of those stand-out numbers, Peyroux held the adoring capacity crowd in her sway as she gently swivelled on the spot, working the room, locking eyes with punters and wringing her hands in a Piaf-like manner. Her attention to lyrics, and the emotion she invested in them, had listeners hanging on her every word – especially on the glorious Guilty (which brought out the Bessie Smith in her), You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go and Desperados Under the Eaves, all poetic and all a joy to hear as they were channelled through the Peyroux prism…
There were the inevitable moments of un-easy listening – Dance Me to the End of Love (which I caught at the end of the first show of the evening) had a nightmarish quality thanks to Peyroux’s slightly tortured vocals, while Don’t Wait Too Long’s melody was almost distorted beyond recognition, leaving only the lyrics as clues to what the song was. But these uncomfortable, unsettling moments didn’t spoil the overall effect – of a night well worth remembering.
Madeleine Peyroux, Ronnie Scott’s – Monday April 29th, second show
Take These Chains
Don’t Wait Too Long
Bye Bye Love
You Don’t Know Me
Changin’ All Those Changes
Half the Perfect World
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
Bird on the Wire
I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You
Dance Me to the End of Love
I Hear Music
Desperados Under the Eaves
A trip to London was the only way to ensure that my new year got off on the right foot. Why? Because two of my favourite US tenor saxophonists were playing there, to full houses – a couple of nights apart.
The majestic Houston Person, whose music I’ve only become acquainted with in the last handful of years, wowed a packed Ronnie Scott’s on Monday with his soulful take on such numbers as Who Can I Turn To, Sweet Sucker and Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.
In, er, person the charismatic Houston P is a man of few words – and it’s the same story when he plays: on the gorgeous ballads Maybe You’ll Be There (which I associate with one of my – and, I suspect, his – favourite singers, Lee Wiley), Too Late Now and Why Did I Choose You? (something of a signature tune for this tenor man), his playing was spare yet eloquent, and always with that soulful streak which often manifested itself in a trademark bluesy phrase. He was accompanied by the house trio, led by pianist James Pierce, and they all seemed to be having a ball in each other’s company.
On Saturday, Scott Hamilton – one of my very first musical loves, back when I got hooked on jazz in my teens – had played the final night of his New Year’s residency at the Pizza Express.
Accompanied by his regular, top-drawer, trio of John Pearce (piano), Dave Green (bass) and Steve Brown (drums), Hamilton – whose conversational drawl offstage is now so endearingly drawn-out that you sometimes wonder if he’ll fall asleep before he finishes his sentence – was in especially relaxed mode during the first set which featured the gorgeous ballad Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most and the most laidback uptempo blues imaginable.
Bizarrely, Hamilton seemed to receive and respond to my telepathic request for the lovely Cole Porter number Dream Dancing, one of my favourite tracks on the first Scott Hamilton album (Plays Ballads, 1989) I ever owned – and one which I had been humming all day…
I decided not to risk a telepathic communications breakdown in the second set and verbally requested another ballad, If I Love Again, which had been a highlight of the penultimate night of Hamilton’s summer residency. It turned out to be every bit as exquisite second time around.
There seemed to have been a gear change for the second set which was downright sensational; another stand-out being the super-funky Mary Lou Williams number Lonesome Moments which, Hamilton explained, they had “tried out” for the first time a couple of nights previously and had been requested to revisit. Turning to his ace drummer, the laconic tenor man said: “Some misterioso drumming, please” and launched into this catchy and atmospheric new addition to his repertoire.
The icing on an already delightful cake was the reinstatement to the Hamilton programme of another ballad with which he used to end sets: the Duke Ellington tune Tonight I Shall Sleep With a Smile on My Face. He wasn’t the only one…
HOUSTON PERSON, with James Pierce (piano), Sam Burgess (bass) & Shanee Forbes (drums); Ronnie Scott’s, Monday January 9, 2012
Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Maybe You’ll Be There
Too Late Now
Only Trust Your Heart
Lester Leaps In
Since I Fell For You
Who Can I Turn To?
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
Why Did I Choose You?
On the Sunny Side of the Street
SCOTT HAMILTON QUARTET, Pizza Express, London, Saturday January 7, 2012
I Just Found Out About Love
Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most
Sweet Georgia Brown
If I Love Again – The Man I Love
Tonight I Shall Sleep With a Smile on My Face
It’s the most unexpected shared interests that people tend to bond over – and that was certainly the case when I had my first proper conversation with Houston Person, the saxophonist and record producer who headlines this year’s Lockerbie Jazz Festival.
A big, imposing figure who made his name in the 1960s as a purveyor of hard bop, this 77-year-old African-American has a stately presence on stage and plays tenor in a bluesy, soulful style. He tends to keep himself to himself at jazz jamborees – and when he’s performing he doesn’t waste time with idle chit-chat between numbers. But when I found myself in his company, sharing a lift with him during the Norwich Jazz Party in May, a hunch (based on his choice of the song Why Did I Choose You, from the 1938 movie The Yearling) led me to bring up the subject of old films. Was he a fan? And which films were his favourites?
It turned out he is a serious movie buff whose favourite films are the timeless romance Casablanca and the classic Alan Ladd western, Shane. But what really ignited the conversation was the revelation that Mr Person is a major fan of Doris Day. “I love all her films,” he said, “but NOT Pillow Talk!” Suddenly, his exquisite performance of the ballad Fools Rush In made sense, and the knowledge of his secret love for Doris made his interpretation of Little Girl Blue – the Rodgers and Hart ballad she sang in Jumbo – all the more poignant.
When I called Person last week to chat over his life and career, he sounded tired – he was between gigs – and slightly disinclined to talk. He also didn’t have a clue which journalist he was being interviewed by. Then I mentioned the D word, and the man sprang to life. “That’s my gal,” he said in a voice that was undoubtedly accompanied by a wink and a smile. “How’d you know that?” The conversation in the car was relived. “Oh yeah-yeah-yeah! I remember.” It’s Doris Day’s
“sincerity” that Person particularly admires, and he regularly plunders her repertoire – “everybody does!” – for such gems as Sentimental Journey (the title of one of his albums) and I’ll Never Stop Loving You.
Unfortunately, Person never got the chance to work with his dream girl but he does have an impressive track record when it comes to singers, having recorded with the likes of Lena Horne (“Oh, she was very nice,” he says in his sexiest drawl) and Ernestine Anderson (“easy to work with”). His longest working relationship with a singer, however, was with Etta Jones, who made her name in the early 1960s with her hit Don’t Go To Strangers. For 30 years they worked together – until her death, in 2001. Theirs was a rewarding musical friendship which some compared to the legendary relationship betweeen musical soulmates Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Did he see it that way?
“Well, I know everybody else did – but for me, it was just my relationship,” he says, somewhat sheepishly. “I think it worked so well because nobody had an ego. Nobody in the whole band had an ego. Everybody had a job to do, and you just did it. I’d do my stint, she’d do her stint, and the band would do their stint and that was it. Everybody had equal time.
“I’ve worked with a lot of singers, and usually I’m the leader. But when I record with them they’re the leader. And I just try to make it sound good. I’ve always had the attitude that even though I was leader of my group, and Etta was part of that group, when it came her turn to sing, she became the leader and then whoever the piano player was, when his time came, he became the leader. I didn’t feel I had to be in charge of what they do.”
Person was born and brought up in Florence, a small town in South Carolina where his mother worked as a schoolteacher and his father was employed by the agriculture department. He and his brother were exposed to all sorts of music – from the church choirs (“everyone was involved in those”) to the pop tunes his mother would play on the piano. When he was 15 years old, he was given a saxophone for Christmas and within a few years was studying music at South Carolina State College.
Living in South Carolina, he didn’t have the chance to hear his favourite saxophonists – who included Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young. “I was already performing myself by the time I got to hear many musicians. But I did get to see Duke Ellington’s Orchestra when it came to Columbia, South Carolina. Our teacher took us to see them and it was an amazing, thrilling, experience.”
The Ellington band didn’t just make a musical impression on the young saxophonist; it was visual too. Back then, the Duke’s outfit was one of the best-dressed on the scene – and one only needs to look at the famously sharp-suited Person to see that he would have fitted right in. Indeed, these days one of the musicians to whom he’s often compared is the great Ellingtonian tenor man Ben Webster, another master balladeer.
For now, though, the only balladeer up for discussion is Doris…
* Houston Person plays Ronnie Scott’s, 47 Frith St, London on Monday January 9 and Tuesday 10. His CD Moment to Moment (HighNote Records) is out now.
He may be well into his seventies now, but the British tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins shows no sign of slowing down. At least not if his latest CD – Time Gentlemen, Please (Trio Records) is anything to go by.
Wellins was born into a showbiz family living in the once- infamous Gorbals area of Glasgow. His mother, a singer whose stage name was Sally Lee, and alto saxophonist father worked in a show band which played in a local cinema before establishing their own double act which they took on the road around Scotland.
Wellins recalls: “They did sketches and she sang. My father played everything – musical saw, a bit of guitar, saxophone. My sister and I always went with them when they were working. As a matter of fact, they forgot about us one night – we were locked in the Argyle Cinema. When they got home they realised they’d left us there and they had to rush back in. The two of us were fast asleep in the front row seats.”
It wasn’t long after he returned from the war that Wellins’s father began to teach him the alto sax. Round about the same time, he bought the family a second-hand radiogramme which came with a jazz record collection which was almost a complete musical education.
That education continued with a couple of years at the RAF School of Music – where he switched to tenor sax – followed by stints with numerous big bands. “All the guys from the various bands who were married and wanted to have holidays would ask me to dep for them. It was a fantastic three years – the best foundation you could ever have.”
One highlight of Wellins’s own big band era was a trip to New York with Vic Lewis’s band and, in particular, a chance encounter with one of his heroes. Wellins recalls: “I ate just across the road from where we stayed because they did this cheap chilli dish which I loved – it was a bit like mince and totties – for $2. I suddenly saw this tall figure in a dirty raincoat and a pork-pie hat, standing outside the hotel looking awfully befuddled, and I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s Lester Young’. I couldn’t help myself, I just shot out across the road and shouted ‘Lester!’ I said I was with a British band and asked if I could buy him a drink.
“So we went in and sat down and of course as the guys were coming and going up and down in the elevator they were having a quick look in the lounge and they’d see me and I’d see this look on their face of disbelief and they’d come over and I’d introduce them. ‘Oh nice to meet you man’ [Wellins goes into female impersonator mode as he imitates Young’s squeaky voice]. We sat there for ages. We talked about everything, current affairs, New York – I told him I was too excited to take it all in . ‘Well, you’re only a baby, man,’ he said. He invited me along to a recording he was doing the following week, but we were flying back home so I couldn’t go.”
There’s something of Lester Young’s melancholy sound in Wellins’s own playing, as well as a yearning which critics often describe as a Scottish quality. Does he detect something quintessentially Scottish in his music? “Well, I do sometimes think to myself: ‘This is terribly Scottish-sounding.’ I once played a 6/8 or 12/8 piece entitled Dreams Are Free at Ronnie Scott’s when Dizzy Gillespie was there. When I came offstage, he said: ‘That piece you wrote, it was very African.’ I said: ‘No, it’s Scottish.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘sounds African to me.’ Dizzy was very mischievous, mind. I said: ‘No, it’s definitely Scottish.’ ‘Ah, okay then.’
“So about six months later, there was a phone call at about three in the morning. The voice said: ‘It’s John Birks Gillespie here.’ Of course, I thought: ‘who the hell is John Birks Gillespie?’. Then I realised it was Dizzy. He said: ‘I’ve just been to a Scottish pipe band parade on 42nd Street. You’re right. That composition of yours is Scottish.’ And that was it. He hung up!”
Ironically, the composition with which Wellins is most strongly associated is not one of his own. Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite, which was recorded in 1965 and is widely regarded as the best British jazz album of all time, was effectively the product of a musical partnership which began within the Tony Crombie band and blossomed at Ronnie Scott’s club.
Wellins says: “Ronnie was a professional gambler and there was a place across the road from his first club where a lot of heavy gambling used to go on. If Ronnie was on a roll then I’d be called in to dep for him, and that’s really where the quartet with Stan grew from.” Wellins twigged early on that he and Tracey had a unique intuition about each other’s playing. It shines through Under Milk Wood, which was recorded in just two days, and yet they never made a big deal about how much they enjoyed playing together.
“Stan and I never ever discussed what it was that we felt about each other but I do remember that it really struck hard when we were down at Ronnie’s one night and I said: ‘You know it’s a wonderful piece’ . And he said: ‘Well, I did write it with you in mind.’ That was quite a while after we had recorded it. But being the kind of people we were, we weren’t carried away with ourselves. I just felt it was such a wonderful vehicle for me. I felt it was just like me.”
In characteristically self-effacing style and with typical Glaswegian frankness, Wellins concludes: “Let’s face it, most people wouldnae know who I was if it hadn’t been for Under Milk Wood.”
* Time Gentlemen, Please (Trio Records) is out today.
I’m writing this en route back from the Norwich Jazz Party – in the hope that it will be of interest to anyone considering visiting Ronnie Scott’s in Soho on Wednesday or Thursday night..
One of the highlights of the Norwich event this year was a series of sets by Annie Ross, the soon-to-be octogenerian singer who is appearing at Ronnie Scott’s this week. Perhaps the word “vocalist” would be more appropriate as what the deep-voiced Ross does these days is as much about speaking the lyrics as it is about singing them.
Nobody expects a voice to sound as if it’s been unaffected by the ravages of time – not to mention a life in jazz – so there’s no point in going along expecting to hear the Annie Ross who made her name in the 1950s with the tongue-tying Twisted and her other hits with the pioneering vocalese group of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
I hadn’t heard Ross live before but had watched her on YouTube and had read reviews of her performance in Glasgow three years ago. I knew the voice wasn’t what it once was, but I expected that the appeal and pleasure of the experience would lie as much in the history that she represents (she’s a direct link to Billie Holiday, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, etc) as in the performance she would give.
So it came as something of a surprise to find that hers were some of my favourite sets of the weekend – especially her opening session on Saturday night. After being taken aback initially by quite how ravaged her voice is – and fast tunes like Twisted aren’t perhaps the best showcase for it – I became first attuned to and ultimately blown away by her performance, especially on ballads.
Lush Life, from the Saturday night set, was simply a masterpiece of storytelling. Accompanied by her regular pianist Tardo Hammer, she seemed to inhabit every word, making the familiar Billy Strayhorn song deeply personal in the process. Fran Landesman’s All the Sad Young Men, on Sunday, had a similarly moving effect; its lyrics invested with experience and Hammer’s piano accompaniment exquisitely elegant and sensitive.
She certainly knows how to put a band together, does Ms Ross. Her other secret weapon is the magnificent cornettist Warren Vache who sat slightly to her side and beamed like the teacher’s pet when she glanced his way. On slower numbers, his beguiling obbligato playing wrapped itself round her sparse vocals like furls of smoke, and ramped up the raunchiness and pzazz of faster tunes. He and Hammer are integral to the Annie Ross show.
As is the acknowledgement of the past which, in Ross’s case, is rich with legends from the jazz world – from Prez, Coltrane, Bird and all the other jazz greats who feature on the roll call that is Music is Forever, the homage Ross wrote to all her old musician friends, to Billie Holiday, to whom Ross paid tribute with a lovely interpretation of Travellin’ Light.
I remember seeing Ross in a documentary on Billie Holiday in which she said that her favourite Holiday LP was Lady In Satin, which Lady Day recorded at the end of her life – and on which her voice sounded painful and worn-out. Ross said she loved the fact that this was a voice that had lived.
While listening to Ross isn’t the harrowing experience that listening to “late-era” Billie is, it is the voice of experience nonetheless – and its appeal to those of us who were moved by her music in Norwich echoes her own feelings about Lady in Satin.