Monthly Archives: May 2009

Merry Month of May and the Notes are Blue

May has turned out to be a surprisingly memorable month, jazz-wise. Usually it’s a period of anticipation, as we jazz fans (in Scotland anyway) start to limber up for the festival season – or start getting hopeful that there will be some chances to hear our favourite musicians.

But sometimes you just can’t leave hearing favourite musicians to chance. From roughly 19 years’ experience, I know that I can’t rely on my local jazz festival – Glasgow – to cater to my tastes. Not since the heady days when they had Gerry Mulligan, Cab Calloway and Stan Getz on the bill have I managed to get terribly excited about their line-ups.  So, knowing that my two big hopes are the Edinburgh and Nairn events, which don’t start until the very end of July, it became necessary to find my fix elsewhere..

So it was to the Norwich Jazz Party that I headed during the first bank holiday weekend of the month. I’ve already reported on the Sandy Brown extravaganza but it was the icing on the cake: there were plenty of other treats. My highlights included a sizzling set of Eddie Condon-associated music (Ken Peplowski’s thrilling clarinet playing on That’s a Plenty a stand-out), an all-too-brief Bix set, which had an A-list front-line including Peplowski, Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet) and Howard Alden (guitar) letting rip on such delights as Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down and Louisiana, and Dan Block (tenor sax) and Jon-Erik Kellso’s lovely, laidback evocation of recordings made by Coleman Hawkins and Red Allen in 1933.

To my disappointment, I arrived in Norwich too late to hear cornet ace Warren Vache’s reunion with tenor king Scott Hamilton but I had several chances to hear them playing in other groups. Hamilton teamed up with piano whiz Rossano Sportiello (they’re hoping to do a duet CD together soon) and drummer Chuck Riggs for a set of tunes the saxophonist played with the late Dave McKenna.

The results were sublime: Hamilton was on top form, especially on the ballads April in Paris and She’s Funny That Way: romantic, forthright, bluesy. These were tour-de-force performances – and the first on his feet for a standing ovation after each number was none other than Sir John Dankworth.

Vache also beguiled audiences with his seductive way with a ballad. His rendition of Darn That Dream in a quintet set with his regular pianist Tardo Hammer was the very epitome of his appeal: unexpectedly tender, unforgettably spellbinding.

How to follow all that? Well, with a trip at the end of that week to the Lake District – the Keswick Jazz Festival, to be precise – to hear the very first classic jazz band I ever encountered: the Hot Antic Jazz Band. A combination of guilt (at being away from home over the holiday weekend) and the desire to see history repeat itself inspired me to take my five-year-old twins to hear the Antics. Frankly, this French band should be every five-year-old’s introduction to live jazz.

My pair sat through three sets – two and a half hours – and were totally won over by the onstage Antics. These guys are not only accomplished musicians, dedicated to the hot jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, but they are also great fun and don’t take the whole thing too seriously.. Which is precisely why their appeal goes well beyond the jazz anorak brigade.  And what were the five-year-olds’ favourite songs? I Can’t Dance (I’ve Got Ants in My Pants), Papa De-Da-Da and Won’t  You Come Over and Say Hello. But they did rather take offence at the fact that everyone in the audience got to hear the tune which was dedicated to them…

My jazz month ended on Sunday with a concert a bit nearer to home: the Australian singer-pianist Janet Seidel at the Recital Room in Glasgow’s City Halls.

Seidel, who was accompanied by her regular guitarist Chuck Morgan and her bassist brother David Seidel, immediately won over the crowd with her sunny disposish and exquisite, crystal clear vocals. The influences may be Blossom Dearie and Peggy Lee, but it was Julie London – albeit with a wider range and more power – whom Seidel’s soft and gentle voice instantly brought to mind.
The theme of the evening was the late American singer-pianist Blossom Dearie, and Seidel lived up to her promise of performing Dearie’s material – both her original songs and the standards she favoured – without imitating her. Only on the her own tribute song Dear Blossom did she have a go at what she cleverly described as Dearie’s “fairy voice” (thankfully, because a little of it goes a long way).
That said, Seidel clearly shares an impish sense of humour with her idol: this was a gig with lots of laughs, thanks to such witty songs as I’m Hip, Peel Me a Grape and, especially, the hilarious Pro Musica Antiqua. Other highlights included lovely versions of It Might As Well Be Spring (partly sung in French), a Mancini medley and Tea for Two.
It’s been a rich month musically, and my appetite should be sated – for a while anyway. Roll on July!
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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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Unsung Marilyn

Some Like It Hot, the riotous Billy Wilder masterpiece which the American Film Institute named the best comedy Hollywood ever made, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. I’ve been writing about it for The Herald and, re-watching it for the umpteenth time, I was struck by the fact that not only does it boast Marilyn Monroe’s greatest comic performance (and she really was a genius at comedy), but it also highlights what a talented singer she was.

Monroe may have sung in more than a quarter of her films – including some of her best-loved ones – but her singing is rarely mentioned in any of the potted biogs written about her. And yet, her sultry, soulful and sumptuous vocals contributed enormously to her overall sex appeal (witness the fact that songs were shoehorned even into the western River of No Return) – it’s just that everyone has been distracted by her visual voluptuousness..

Nevertheless, her singing abilities were recognised by her employers almost from the word go. She sang various numbers in her first notable role – in Ladies of the Chorus, in 1949, and memorably crooned along to a record of Kiss in the thriller Niagara (1953).

Thereafter, Monroe gave a string of iconic musical performances. As Lorelei Lee, the archetypal gold-digging blonde, in the sparkling Howard Hawks comedy-musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), she guaranteed herself a place in the pantheon of great Hollywood musical moments when she sang Diamonds Are  Girl’s Best Friend.

While Marilyn got to prance around in Schiaparelli-pink satin as debonair dancers draped diamonds on her, poor old Jane Russell (as her best pal, Dorothy) had as her featured number Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love. The song was okay, though hardly Hoagy Carmichael’s finest, but Russell had to perform it with a particularly camp-looking crew of scrawny, knobbly-kneed dancers who did not look in the slightest bit interested in her or her impressively upholstered chest.

Monroe and Russell actually made a pretty good team, both comically and musically: they duetted memorably on Hoagy Carmichael’s When Love Goes Wrong (Nothing Goes Right), and Jule Styne and Leo Robin’s Bye Bye Baby and A Little Girl From Little Rock.

There’s No Business Like Showbusiness (1954) also made good use of Monroe’s singing skills – notably on the sizzling Heat Wave. But easily the most sexually charged of her musical performances were to be found in Some Like It Hot.

As Sugar Kane, the emotionally fragile yet effervescent singer with Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters, Monroe only sang a trio of songs (Runnin’ Wild, I Wanna Be Loved By You and I’m Through With Love) but they make an indelible impression: indeed, she pretty much ruined them for anyone else. Even those who had sung them first..

I Wanna Be Loved By You may have been associated with another Kane – Helen, the original boop-boop-a-doop girl from the 1920s (and many a Betty Boop cartoon), but from 1959 onwards, it was Marilyn’s grown-up, sensual version that first sprang to minds, and poor old Helen’s girlish boop-boop-a-doops were forgotten.

The piece de la resistance was Monroe’s I’m Through With Love, the perfect song choice for a character who’s been bruised by bad love affairs before (and now thinks she’s in love with an impotent and somewhat camp millionaire with a Cary Grant voice). It’s difficult to conceive of a more exquisite reading of that song (though Goldie Hawn’s in Everyone Says I Love You comes a very close second): Monroe was never more vulnerable or more exposed. And I’m not just talking about the fact that she’s dressed and lit so that she looks naked.

Only one more musical outing remained for the doomed star: the pretty awful Let’s Make Love (1960) which has as its redeeming factor Monroe’s often-forgotten, but utterly fab, version of Cole Porter’s My Heart Belongs to Daddy.

Sadly, there’s not a lot of Marilyn Monroe on compact disc  – just the afore-mentioned songs, plus a few other goodies (including a dreamy take on the Gershwins’ Do It Again which seems to have been recorded independently of any film), which are available on any number of cheap compilations. Still, they’re cheap compilations worth having.

* Some Like It Hot is showing at the GFT, Glasgow from June 19-21; my piece on the film runs in Saturday’s Herald (May 23).

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Something About Sandy ….

I’ve been inspired by the Sandy Brown set I heard in Norwich, as well as recent conversations with admirers (among them Michel Bastide of the Hot Antic Jazz Band), to resurrect a piece I wrote four years ago on the great clarinettist. This was published in Scotland on Sunday’s Review, when the album Doctor McJazz made its CD debut. Of course, we should be hearing more Brown music at one of the Scottish jazz festivals in 2009 as this would have been his 80th birthday year….

Long before Brian Kellock, Carol Kidd and Tommy Smith earned their places on the international stage, Scotland had already made a significant contribution to the jazz world – in the slightly shambolic shape of the maverick Sandy Brown.

This self-taught clarinettist was one of the most respected figures on the British jazz scene from the mid-1950s onwards.  His death, at the age of 46 in 1975 , was a great shock to admirers of his fiery style of playing and his dazzlingly original compositions which still sound quite unlike anything else in the jazz repertoire. Several of his recordings – especially the albums McJazz and Doctor McJazz (available on Lake) – were hailed as classics almost as soon as they were released.

But Brown’s death wasn’t a loss just for the jazz community. He was also a successful acoustic architect, and he used his pioneering audio techniques to design recording studios for the BBC, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Sandy Brown Associates is still going strong today – though their current contracts presumably no longer have the clause that, upon completion, the architect’s band is to be allowed to used the facilities to record its next album.

As if two world-renowned talents weren’t enough, Brown was also an extremely funny writer whose posthumously published book, The McJazz Manuscripts – a collection of his columns from The Listener magazine – sparkles with the same originality and wit that’s evident in his playing and composing. Its photographs reveal what an unconventional character he was: he’s pictured looking like a young Peter Cook, wearing suits with sneakers and strange hats, as he heads off for business meetings as part of his day job.

Brown’s musical roots lie in the apparently unlikely jazz breeding ground of Edinburgh’s Royal High School. There, in 1943, he formed his first band with trumpeter Al Fairweather and pianist Stan Greig. They and two other former Royal High pupils – Bob Craig and Dizzie Jackson – formed a semi-professional trad jazz band in 1949.

In February 1952, the band played its first big concert, as support for the American blues artist Big Bill Broonzy at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. A string of recording dates followed and, in 1953, the band travelled to London to play the Royal Festival Hall. The next year, Brown moved permanently to the capital.

Brown’s distinctive, hot, sweet and often spiky clarinet style blossomed during the 1950s, and was increasingly showcased on his own compositions, many of which had a strong African tinge. Initially inspired by the New Orleans clarinettist Johnny Dodds, he emerged as a highly original player, actively hostile to the idea of Benny Goodman as primary role model.

Brown’s playing was lyrical, exuberant and often wild. The late writer and broadcaster Miles Kington told me that he had always had the feeling that there was something inherently Scottish about Brown’s sound. “There was often a keening, a wild, lonely note in his playing,” he explained.

The pianist Ralph Laing recalled: “He was one of the great melodic lateral thinkers and he would never let your attention waver. He would lull you into a sublime musical security, then make you leap to attention.”

In person too, Brown delighted in unsettling new acquaintances. Miles Kington was a student in 1962 when he first encountered Brown. Kington told me: “He said: ‘Where are you from, laddie?’ And I said: ‘Well, I’m English but I went to school in Scotland. I went to Glenalmond, for what it’s worth.’ ‘No’ very much,’ was the reply.

“He was a fearsome character. He had this enormous pate, a big beard and gigantic eyebrows. I think he enjoyed putting on this gruff manner to frighten people, but underneath he was a bit of a softie.”

Sandy Brown’s enduring popularity has led to numerous tribute albums and, especially memorably, a sell-out concert at the 2002 Edinburgh Jazz Festival which reunited many of his old bandmates and highlighted the degree of affection in which he is still held. Kington summed up the feelings of those who remember him: “He was larger than life. He was more than just a musician – and he was the best clarinettist in the world at one time. He was a force of nature.”

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Hot Notes From Norwich

It’s almost 48 hours since the last note was blown at this year’s Norwich Jazz Party and it’s still ringing in my ears. This weekend was my first experience of Norwich – or should I say Norwich’s Holiday Inn, which is where all the musical action took place at the jazz party – and I hope it’s one I get to repeat.

Some 30 musicians had taken up residence for the event which had already been underway for a day and a half before I turned up for the Sunday evening session. While I was kicking myself for missing such tantalising treats as cornettist Warren Vache and guitarist Howard Alden’s duo set (and I’ll be kicking myself even harder if I learn that they reprised two of the unforgettable tunes I head them duet on in Nairn a few years back – I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles and the theme from the Spiderman cartoon), there was still much to savour from the second half of the party.

Easily the standout set for me was the one that was so unexpected in a programme packed with homages to the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Red Allen & Coleman Hawkins, Eddie Condon: a Sandy Brown celebration featuring an international band led by ex-pat Scot Jim Galloway on soprano sax. This set was Galloway’s brainchild and he wrote the arrangements – of such Brown numbers as Bimbo, Own Up and The Clan – from the original recordings.

I’ve only ever heard the maverick, Edinburgh-raised clarinettist’s weird and wonderful compositions played by the Scottish musicians (with the odd Englishman featured at the Sandy Brown gala at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival a few years back). To hear them played by a star-studded ensemble that included Americans Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet) and Bucky Pizzarelli (guitar), as well as the Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello was a new thrill.  And what made it even more exciting was watching the musicians – several of whom had never even heard of Brown, let alone his tunes – being converted to his music as they played the arrangements for the very first time..

Jon-Erik Kellso, who had been chosen by Galloway because of his unfussy style, did a terrific job,  and was overheard saying that he was going to be shopping for Sandy Brown CDs as soon as he could.. Some of the jazz festivals, both here in Scotland and abroad (because Brown’s music, with its unique blend of African, Caribbean and Scottish flavours, is truly international) should be shopping for bands to stage Brown tributes such as this – because 2009 is the year in which the great man would have been 80. Sadly, however, he died at the age of 46.

Jim Galloway told me that he first encountered Sandy Brown when Brown brought the band he led at the Edinburgh College of Art over to Glasgow’s famous School of Art, where Galloway was studying. Every year the two colleges would do an exchange – any excuse for a piss-up – but even then, says Galloway, you could hear that there was something special about Sandy Brown.

Some of the same line-up on the Brown set also played in a sensational Bix Beiderbecke tribute, and it highlighted for me the fact that Sandy Brown, like Bix, is one of those musicians who is not merely revered and loved still, 30-odd years after his premature death: he is cherished by people. He routinely inspires his fans to become somewhat evangelical about him. And it was undoubtedly the idea of spreading the Brown word that was a prime motivation for Jim Galloway who must have felt immense satisfaction watching his fellow musicians come under the spell of Sandy’s music.

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