Monthly Archives: July 2009
Doin’ the Chameleon
The News From Nairn
The digitally dextrous Hyman – who was Woody Allen’s musical director on numerous films including Radio Days, Everyone Says I Love You and Zelig – is a chameleon of the keyboard, able to play in the style of all the jazz greats and one of his Nairn concerts (on Friday 7th) will offer a unique chance to hear his own take on jazz history. He will also be sharing the stage – and the Steinway – with three other virtuoso pianists (Bernd Lhotsky, Rossano Sportiello and Chris Hopkins) at the International Piano Summit on Thursday evening, and with his old Soprano Summit band-mate Bob Wilber, on Saturday 8th.
Wilber, the veteran soprano saxophonist and clarinettist who was mentored by none other than jazz legend Sidney Bechet, is, along with Brian Kellock and Cyrus Chestnut (piano), John Allred (trombone) and Joe Ascione (drums), one of many return visitors to this year’s festival. In addition to his closing concert with Dick Hyman, he guest-stars with festival favourite Scott Hamilton, the great tenor saxophonist, for a reunion on Friday 7th. Hamilton’s two festival gigs – the other is on Thursday 6th – feature him in the supremely classy company of his one-time regular pianist John Bunch.
It’s 20 years since Hamilton’s quintet (with Bunch) released the album, Scott Hamilton Plays Ballads, which cemented the tenor man’s reputation as a great romantic player, and there will be many aficionados keeping their fingers crossed for a reprise of such sublime numbers as Dream Dancing and In a Sentimental Mood..
With cornettist Warren Vache unable to come to Nairn this summer, the festival turned to Wendell Brunious, a trumpeter who made an impression – and not just because he was by far the most nattily attired musician in attendance – when he made his debut here, as part of the Frank Wess band, in 2007. New Orleans-born Brunious is in residence for most of the week, playing with Rossano Sportiello and Andy Cleyndert (bass) on Friday 7th and John Bunch, Andy Cleyndert and Joe Ascione (drums) on Saturday 8th. His duties during the festival also extend to introducing a film: even the youngest jazz fans – or potential jazz fans – are catered for with a special screening of The Aristocats, the 1970s Disney movie which is most memorable for its terrific Everybody Wants to Be a Cat number.
Brunious starts his week with a couple of concerts with a trio led by the Russian pianist David Gazarov, who makes his Nairn debut with a solo set on Tuesday 4th – one of a series of intimate morning gigs in The Classroom bistro. Expect a mix of classical music and jazz, as Gazarov – like Dick Hyman – is expert at both.
* The Nairn International Jazz Festival runs from August 3rd-8th. For tickets, call 01309 674221 or buy in person at Nairn Community Centre, Kings Street, Nairn. For full details, visit http://www.nairnjazz.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Happier Holiday
The Mouse That Roared: An Introduction to Nairn Jazz
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.
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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