Tag Archives: Ken Peplowski

Recent Four & Five Star CD Reviews

Harry Allen: New York State of Mind (Challenge Records CR73293)
*****

Never having heard American tenor saxophonist Harry Allen playing with Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello before, I am now desperate to hear them live. This magnificent CD of New York-themed tunes has this duo at its heart; they bounce off each other brilliantly on such uptempo numbers as Singin’ in the Rain’s Broadway Melody. On the ballads, Allen’s tender, breathy and slightly melancholy sax (especially on an exquisite version of Autumn in New York) is complemented by Sportiello’s dreamy, eloquent piano. And there are some sublime contributions from in-demand trombonist John Allred.

Johnny Hodges Quintet: Buenos Aires Blues (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10373)
*****
Even if you’ve long since been smitten with the sublime sound of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, chances are you might not be familiar with the two albums which make up this magnificent CD: the first is a 1963 quintet session with the film composer Lalo Schifrin on piano, while the second is the 1962 strings LP, The Eleventh Hour, which was arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson. Both are terrific, but the first, which features Hodges’s signature mix of Ellington numbers and his own blues (plus a couple of Schifrin originals), is a particular treat.

Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet: To Fred Astaire With Love (Jazz Lips JL765) *****

This superb CD comprises two joyous, mid-1970s, albums – the eponymous Astaire tribute and The Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet – recorded by the terrific group which featured on Tony Bennett’s sublime Rodgers and Hart LP during the same period. The partnership between cornettist Ruby Braff and electric guitarist George Barnes was a great one, characterised by warmth, swing, lyricism and sheer joie de vivre, and their sound was beautifully offset by a rhythm section of just guitar and bass. The 20 tracks are perfect examples of chamber jazz at its best.

Randy Sandke’s Jazz for Juniors (Arbors Records ARCD 19385)
****
Jazz albums for kids are nothing new but this one, which not only entertains but also educates, is something different. The concept of US trumpeter Randy Sandke – whose interest and style span the history of jazz – it tells the story of the formation of a jazz band, as a trumpet-playing tiger travels the world meeting fellow animal instrumentalists (as portrayed, musically, by such top-notch musicians as Ken Peplowski, Howard Alden and Wycliffe Gordon).  Perfectly pitched at young ears, the CD also includes a slide show viewable on PCs.

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The Mouse That Roared: An Introduction to Nairn Jazz

It’s a balmy Sunday evening and over 300 jazz fans are taking their seats in the conference room of an elegant seaside hotel. The place is buzzing. Many of the audience members haven’t seen each other since the last jazz concert, a few months ago, and there’s a great deal of anticipation about the return visit of the favourite American jazz musician about to appear onstage.
You might think that I’m about to tell you all about some Mediterranean jazz festival or an American jazz party, but this is actually the build-up to a concert at the Newton Hotel in Nairn, the picturesque Scottish seaside town which, over the last decade, has put itself firmly on the jazz map. Like something out of an Ealing comedy, the highly personal and often eccentric Nairn International Jazz Festival is now a player on the world-stage of jazz.
The festival was founded by Ken Ramage, a local greengrocer with a passion for the music. In the early 1990s, he decided to stage a series of jazz concerts featuring such big names as the American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and the Scottish singer Carol Kidd. These proved so popular that Ramage, inspired by the classic documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which was filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, boldly went on to develop the Nairn International Jazz Festival.
Like Newport – which was also, famously, the setting for the well-loved Hollywood musical High Society – Nairn, with its big old houses, stunning views across the Moray Firth and beautiful surrounding countryside – is a splendid location for a festival. It only took a few years for it to emerge as a mecca for the creme de la creme of the jazz world who routinely descend on the wee town every August for the annual festival, and at various times in between, for one-off concerts and weekend events.

As Ken Peplowski, the clarinet and saxophone star, tells an audience which has just been blown away by his dynamic, exciting performance: “We love coming here. There’s such an amazing scene here. Sometimes I tell people, and they don’t believe me. Then they come, and they realise it too.”

The day after his sell-out concert at the Newton, Peplowski is waiting at reception for a lift to his next gig: a late morning concert at a restaurant where, in true Nairn style, the audience’s tickets include their elevenses. There’s just one problem: his bass player, London-based Andrew Cleyndert, isn’t around. A couple of inquiries later and Peplowski learns that Cleyndert was whisked off earlier to do an extra gig: at, of all places, the local nursery.

Only in Nairn would this very typical sort of last-minute addition to the itinerary be cooked up. Many a time, during the festival, word has spread through audiences that there’s to be an extra concert or that somebody has started a little jam session somewhere. It’s all part of the event’s charm.

As is the fact that Nairn is very much the jazz festival with the personal touch. You only need to watch the crowds filing out of the concerts to see this: people line up to thank Ken Ramage and to request that certain bands or musicians be invited back. As often as not, the musicians are the first to request a return visit – and Peplowski’s requests start on Sunday evening and continue through to the workshop he gives pupils at the local secondary school on the Monday afternoon.

The late cornet star Ruby Braff came to Nairn several times – and, in fact, played his last-ever gig there. Like many of his fellow musicians, he was treated to trips to Loch Ness and Cawdor Castle during his stay, but it was the dolphins in the Moray Firth which particularly appealed to him. Legendary bass player Ray Brown found the golfing opportunities (the Newton Hotel looks out on to the splendid West Golf Course) as much of an incentive as the musical ones. Other jazz musicians have managed to cram in visits to nearby Brodie Castle – which has been a venue in past festivals – to their schedule, as well as visits to distilleries.

Ruby Braff was also one of a number of musicians who head for Nairn before anywhere else in Scotland, and who have effectively been adopted by festival-goers as one of their own. Since the festival has always been a reflection of Ramage’s personal taste, there has long been a degree of favouritism towards pianists – the late Ralph Sutton and Gene Harris loved coming to Nairn – and singers who, as often as not, Ramage first heard on Michael Parkinson’s radio show.

The characteristic which, more than any other, puts Nairn jazz in a class of it own is its laid-back, friendly atmosphere. Musicians and audience members mingle before concerts, after concerts and during the intervals: there’s no attempt at the segregation which is now the norm at jazz events. John Bunch, the veteran American pianist, loves the fact that “the musicians get to hobnob with the fans”. Indeed, the musicians usually stay at the same hotels as the punters, and it’s really quite surreal to see great American jazz men emerging from the newsagents on the High Street, or to hear them extolling the virtues of the local chippie’s curry sauce.

For cornettist Warren Vache, “the most rewarding feature of the Nairn Jazz Festival is its intimacy”. Vache, who has been a regular visitor since the early days, says: “The concert venues are generally smaller, allowing more contact with the audience and this sometimes makes for very special music. I remember doing a duo concert with Ralph Sutton several times in Nairn, and it always seemed as though we were performing for friends in a sitting room.”

And in case you think you need jazz aficionado credentials to get a kick out of Nairn, bear in mind that large chunks of the audience are local folk who have discovered jazz as a result of the festival. Prepare to be converted ….

* A preview of this year’s Nairn International Jazz Festival (Aug 3rd-8th) will be posted next week, but if you can’t wait, visit www.nairnjazz.com for information.

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Celebrating Satchmo

It’s entirely my dad’s fault that I turned out the way I am: a jazz fan. The seeds had been carefully sown during my early childhood – and one of the more cynical and calculating (but fun) methods my father used to brainwash me was to organise annual midnight feasts to celebrate the birthday of the great Louis Armstrong.
My brothers and I were aware of Louis from an early age. We couldn’t not be: his photograph (signed, because Dad won a competition to meet him during his 1962 visit to Glasgow) hung in our bathroom for years. Which, given his famous fondness for Swiss-Kriss laxatives, seems entirely appropriate.
Anyway, the midnight feasts (which, it has since transpired, actually took place well before the witching hour) were a family tradition and were always held on July 4, the date Louis claimed to be his birthday. Now, of course, that date is generally believed to be a month out, but it’s the date we remember and so it’s the date for my offspring’s inaugural “midnight feast for Louis”, on July 4.
To mark Louis’s chosen birthday, and to commemorate the anniversary of his death (on July 6, 1971), here’s a piece I wrote for The Herald in 2001, at the time of his centenary.
JAZZ anniversaries come and go, but there is none as significant or as worthy of celebration as that of Louis Armstrong. He was jazz. No other jazz musician has had the impact or the profile that Armstrong had. While the general public remembers him primarily as a much-loved entertainer who came from a jazz background, the jazz world regards him as the singlemost important figure in 20th century American music. Armstrong invented jazz as an art form, and he revolutionised popular singing. His influence was universal and enduring.
Genius springs from unlikely sources – and Louis Armstrong was no exception. He was born on August 4, 1901 in the seedy Storyville section of New Orleans. Just 21 years later, the waif who learned to play trumpet while in a home for wayward boys had musicians queuing up to hear him, and all of Chicago buzzing with talk of his brilliance on the bandstand with his mentor King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
His impact on jazz was immediate. His dynamic, driving playing revitalised the Fletcher Henderson band in New York in the mid-1920s. What he played one night would be copied by musicians all over town the next day. And when he first got into a studio with his own bands, specially created for recording sessions, the results turned the jazz community upside down.

The 64 “sides” Armstrong recorded between 1925 and 1929, with his Hot Five, Hot Seven and Savoy Ballroom Five line-ups shaped the course of jazz and are now regarded as the singlemost important body of work in jazz history. These were the records on which his genius burst out in all its glory for the first time: his fantastic playing – dazzling lyricism and originality, innate swing and daring stop-time solos – threw down the gauntlet to musicians everywhere, and inspired everyone who heard it. The Hot Five records are the DNA of jazz.

The late guitarist Danny Barker once said: “The Okeh record company released a record by Louis about every six weeks, and everybody waited for the records because each one of them was a lesson in something new; in things to come.” Armstrong had already inspired other musicians who came to hear him, but the Hot Five records had an even greater impact. These recordings taught the world how to swing.

Trumpeter Max Kaminsky later wrote: “Above the electrifying tone, the magnificence of his ideas and the rightness of his harmonic sense, his superb technique, his power and ease, his hotness and intensity, his complete mastery of his horn – above all this he had swing. No-one knew what swing was until Louis came along. It’s more than just the beat; it’s conceiving the phrases in the very feeling of the beat, moulding and building them so that they’re an integral, indivisible part of the tempo. The others had an idea of it, but Louis could do it; he was the heir of all that had gone before, and the father of all that was to come.”

Even if Armstrong had never made another record after 1929, he would still be the most important figure in jazz. Gary Giddens, one of the most eloquent voices in the Ken Burns documentary, Jazz, says: “In those [Hot Five] recordings, Armstrong proves for the first time that an improvisation can be just as coherent, imaginative, emotionally satisfying and durable as a written piece of music.”

As he played, Armstrong unselfconsciously wrote the language of jazz, transforming an ensemble music into a soloist’s art. One of his contemporaries, the trumpeter Mutt Carey, later remembered: “He tried to make a picture out of every number he was playing to show just what it meant. He had ideas, enough technique to bring out what he wanted to say. He made you feel the number and that’s what counts.” Miles Davis, the trumpeter who himself broke plenty of new ground, said: “You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played – I mean, even modern.”

Not only did Armstrong influence his contemporaries, he has continued to influence generations of jazz musicians. Cornettist Warren Vache, says: “He was the 20th century Beethoven as far as I’m concerned. Nobody ever swung before Louis. He taught us all how to play in 4/4 time and swing like mad. He also invented the language of the trumpet and pretty much the language of improvisation too. It just doesn’t get any better than him.”

Marty Grosz, the guitarist and singer, echoes the sentiment. “Let’s put it this way, Louis Armstrong was to jazz, or is still to jazz, what Shakespeare was to English literature. He somehow, innately, just knew what to do and when to do it. He was the bellwether of everything that followed. He pointed the way. That’s not to say that there weren’t many other talented people but somehow Louis rhythmically freed up the whole thing.”

Tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton says: “There is no other single person who has had the kind of impact on how we play music than Louis Armstrong had, and his Hot Five records were pioneer examples. He continued the rest of his life to influence people, and he continued to make influential recordings, but those ones from the 1920s were the ones which first showed the way.”

It’s also important to note that Armstrong showed the way not only to trumpeters, but to players of every instrument – a rare legacy, as clarinettist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski points out. “There are a few people who have come through the jazz pantheon who do that: Charlie Parker’s one, but Armstrong was the first.”

Armstrong’s phenomenal achievements as a pioneer don’t end with his trumpet playing. He was also, as Gary Giddens said in Jazz, “the singlemost important singer that American music has produced”. His first big hit, Heebie Jeebies, introduced the world to his gravelly, mumbling style of “scat” singing, and his way of improvising with his voice as freely as if it were an instrument was enormously influential. Danny Barker said: “That’s when the song stylist came in.

“People began to buy records because they liked a certain personality – Louis Armstrong was responsible for that.” Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra are among those who were directly inspired by his looser style of singing, his way of personalising songs.

Ken Peplowski is one of a huge number of musicians – including clarinettist Artie Shaw and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins – who has credited Armstrong with inspiring him to create his own music. Shaw said that Armstrong taught him “that you should do something that is your own”; something that expresses who you are. Peplowski says: “He was a great entertainer and a great artist. He didn’t compromise either of those aspects – and almost refused to. He was one of the first people that presented himself in a very natural state – take it or leave it; this is what I do.”

But the last word goes to the late trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who memorably summed up the feelings of thousands of jazz musicians the world over, when he said of Louis Armstrong: “Without him – no me.”

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Musicians’ Movie Talk

Over the last however-many years of interviewing and socialising with jazz musicians of all ages and backgrounds, I’ve come to notice a certain leit-motif when it comes to their interests: many of them, like me, are avid old-movie buffs.

The thought had occurred before but it was rammed home last week when I met the young jazz singer-songwriter Melody Gardot. The way this girl speaks is as eloquent as her lyric-writing, and she has a way with an analogy that Raymond Chandler would have envied. Sitting, like teenagers, on her bed in her west London hotel, we talked about fashion, nail polish – the important stuff – before going on to the problems she has overcome since she was knocked off her bike by a hit-and-run Jeep a few years ago.

I had to ask if the long, wavy, peekaboo blonde hair was inspired by one of my favourite stars, Veronica  Lake (it wasn’t), and there ensued a chat about old movies. Gardot, it turns out, is a big Groucho Marx devotee, and she certainly knows her stuff – she even launched into an impersonation of him singing in A Night at the Opera. “I love you very mucho…”  Although she has trouble remembering things, certain movie moments haven’t slipped through the sieve that is her memory- and these are mostly from Fellini and Hitchcock films.

Being an aficionado of old movies is a trait that Gardot has in common with at least two of her label-mates: the first time I interviewed the singer-pianist Diana Krall, she told me that she loved the old MGM musicals (she had just been watching Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon in her hotel), and had been brought up watching classic films on TV.

There were certainly clues to her love of film in the songs that she recorded on her early albums: Dancing in the Dark (from the afore-mentioned The Band Wagon), I’ll String Along With You (My Dream Is Yours)  and  Let’s Face the Music And Dance (Follow the Fleet). Of course, old movies offer rich pickings for anyone on the look-out for great songs.

Singer Madeleine Peyroux was similarly raised on a diet of great Hollywood movies. In her case, Frank Capra had made a big impression with Mr Smith Goes to Washington – and James Stewart and Gary Cooper were her two favourite stars.

Of the Scottish jazz musicians with whom I’ve had great movie conversations, piano ace Brian Kellock and velvet-voiced singer Todd Gordon stand out; while the great American double-act of Marty Grosz (guitar) and Ken Peplowski (clarinet/tenor sax) is just as entertaining in a dinner table discussion of 1940s comedy character actors as it is onstage playing tunes from that era.

Clearly, for some of us, a love of jazz goes hand-in-hand with a love of old films. In many cases, it’s the result – initially anyway – of a parent’s influence. And let’s face it, with jazz especially, if you don’t start off being introduced to something that has perhaps been carefully chosen for you, it could well put you off for life..

Maybe the joint interest in jazz and old movies arises out of a predisposition to past pop culture – and possibly a teenage tendency towards individualism.  Who knows? All I can say is that the best conversations about old movies that I’ve had have been with jazzers. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my favourite jazz musicians are the ones who love the same comedy masters as me: Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers. After all, in both jazz and comedy, timing is everything…

* Read my full interview with Melody Gardot in The Herald Magazine next Saturday, June 13.

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Five star reviews

An awful lot of awfully good CDs have landed on my desk recently, and I’ve found myself giving one five-star review after another. A coincidence of CDs worthy of so many stars only happens once in a blue moon (ask Patrick Moore), so I thought it might be worth reproducing the reviews I wrote for Scotland on Sunday’s Review section here:

Johnny Varro Featuring Ken Peplowski: Two Legends of Jazz (Arbors Records ARCD 19363) Describing anyone who’s still alive as a legend is perhaps ill-advised, but this CD is so good that it’s easy to see why the record company got a bit carried away. Veteran pianist Johnny Varro and clarinettist Ken Peplowski make an ace team; it’s always a treat to hear the dynamic Peplowski in a small group setting, and on the 15 imaginatively chosen tracks here he’s to be found in duos, trios and full quartet (with drummer Joe Ascione and bassist Frank Tate). Download: Out of Nowhere, Love Locked Out

 

Madeleine Peyroux: Bare Bones (Decca 6132732) The sultry yet fragile-voiced Madeleine Peyroux might be excused for her long absence since her last album by the fact that for this CD, she wrote all the songs. Ironically, the opener, Instead, has the catchy, old-timey flavour associated with the tracks on her breakthrough album, 2004′s Careless Love, but the majority of the 11 songs are intensely personal, astonishingly intimate-sounding ballads which highlight the range of influence on Peyroux’s music. It’s uneven, raw and, in a couple of spots, misjudged, but overall it’s as seductive as Peyroux’s previous releases. Download: River of Tears, To Love You All Over Again

(I actually gave the Peyroux album four stars when I first reviewed it, but have since upgraded it)

 

Marty Grosz: Hot Winds, The Classic Sessions (Arbors Records ARCD 19379) Opportunities to hear the great American rhythm guitarist and singer Marty Grosz in Scotland have been disappointingly rare in recent years, so this new CD is a welcome treat. The 79-year-old is in his element, playing his own imaginative arrangements with a tight, swinging unit known as the Hot Winds – featuring regular Grosz cohorts Dan Block (clarinet), Scott Robinson (various horns) and Vince Giordano (string bass, bass sax etc). In his witty notes, Grosz says he’s often asked what “hot jazz” is. Well, this CD is the definition. Download: Rent Party Blues, I Just Couldn’t Take It Baby

 

Duke Heitger and Bernd Lhotzky: Doin’ the Voom Voom (Arbors Records ARCD 19382) For some CD-buyers, the bigger the band, the better the value – but this album is proof that the opposite is true: less is definitely more, especially when you have players of the calibre of the US trumpeter Duke Heitger and the German piano whiz Bernd Lhotzky. The 17 tracks on this CD are an tantalising blend of standards and lesser-heard numbers exhumed from the back catalogue of Duke Ellington, James P Johnson and several obscure composers; the ballads are particularly sublime, and highlight the fact that Heitger and Lhotzky are a perfect musical match. Download: Doin’ the Voom Voom, How Long Has This Been Going On

 

Ken Peplowski Meets Alan Barnes: Doodle Oodle (Woodville Records WVCD127) Anyone who heard them together at the Lockerbie Jazz Festival last year will know that the American clarinettist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski and Alan Barnes, the British clarinettist and player of several types of sax, make a brilliant team. That they relish each other’s musical company is evident in concert because one always invites the other to be a special guest, and it shines through just as strongly on this terrific CD, the ideal blend of unexpected tunes; swinging, lyrical playing and good, old-fashioned fun. Download: In Love in Vain, Shady Side*

* The  original Johnny Hodges-Gerry Mulligan recording of this Hodges composition is my all-time favourite single track – so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a new version of it. However, Barnes and Peps’ version, with AB on alto and KP on tenor (rather than JH on alto and GM on baritone), stands up in its own right and actually complements the original. I know: I just played them back to back…

 

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Grosz Humour

Sometimes fate takes a hand – at just the right moment. There I was (well, here actually – at my desk), despairing about the choice of CDs awaiting me when I heard a dull thud in the hallway. It was the arrival of a package containing .. my salvation: the new CD by my favourite guitarist, singer and raconteur Marty Grosz. I knew I’d enjoy my reviewing..

And I did. This new album, Hot Winds – The Classic Sessions (Arbors Records), finds Grosz in fine form – and no wonder, he’s playing his own distinctive , fresh arrangements of mainly 1920s & 1930s tunes with five of his most like-minded pals (among them clarinettist Dan Block, bassist/bass saxist Vince Giordano and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson). This lot clearly enjoyed recording together Indeed, Grosz told me: “I had more fun with this group than any other I can think of.”

Mind you, fun is an integral part of jazz for Grosz and his devoted fans. He has always believed that audiences want to be entertained and that jazz shouldn’t be a po-faced affair. He grew up with swing bands whose leaders were characters and put on a show. Grosz’s USP is his razor-sharp wit which flourishes both in the solo setting – noone can introduce a song like him; an introduction can become a surreal stand-up routine - and alongside such favourite sparring partners as the clarinettist/saxophonist Ken Peplowski. (Together, they’re the Matthau and Lemmon of the jazz scene.)

If you’re lucky enough to find that Marty Grosz is playing at a jazz club near you, make sure you take along one of the un-converted: his music is about as accessible as you can get. And his “act” is the best tonic for these dreary times.

More on Grosz at a later date, but to read about the Hot  Winds recording session in depth, visit the Jazz Lives blog – www.jazzlives.wordpress.com

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