Tag Archives: Dick Hyman

Group of Groups

One of my favourite releases of recent months is the double Arbors CD of music by the 1970s supergroup Soprano Summit – much of it previously unissued. Browsing through the CD’s booklet this week, I realised that it’s 30 years since this small, but perfectly formed, outfit disbanded – though its members did get reunited in the 1990s and occasionally thereafter. Here’s a timely, 30th anniversary, tribute…

Soprano Summit was a band which, despite – or possibly because of – its lamentably short lifetime (seven years), has become something of a legend in the jazz world. Certainly, its albums became collectors’ items almost as soon as they were issued. Its conception – at a jazz party organised by enthusiast Dick Gibson over a holiday weekend in September 1972 – became a tale that the late clarinettist Kenny Davern and fellow founding father, saxophonist and clarinettist Bob Wilber, enjoyed telling.

By day three of the party, audiences were suffering from ear fatigue and Gibson decided that he needed something to wake everyone up. According to Davern, Gibson turned to Wilber and said in his Alabama drawl: ”Now, I wan’ you and Kinny to get together and play a duet”. The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.

”We got a rhythm section together – by a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden, and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number. We finished it off on two high notes in thirds and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”

In December 1972 the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album, the only difference in personnel being that busy bassist Hinton was replaced by George Duvivier. Then, after a follow-up LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born.

The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go. Rhythm guitarist Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work.

For Grosz, the invitation to join Soprano Summit was a lifeline – as well as a launchpad for the solo career he’s enjoyed ever since. “It was great for me because I’d been toiling in the vineyards – I’d been playing all the crumby jobs in Chicago and wondering if this was all there was in life for me,” recalled Grosz in a 1995 interview. “This band had a feeling of experimentation about it – and I love that.”

Grosz had already heard Soprano Summit on the radio and couldn’t wait to get to New York to take up his new job. “Soprano Summit was a sterling quintet, a peppy, interesting band sort of like the little Jimmie Noone Apex Club group with Jimmie Noone and Joe Posten on clarinet and Posten sometimes on alto sax.”

Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love for tunes that were off the beaten standard track. (He passed the test with Davern by being au fait with the Red Allen-Pee Wee Russell number Oh Peter.) Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic groundplan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. In Grosz they also had ”a marvellous player who lent the band an entertainment factor with his singing and clowning”. Davern said: ”That was the basic sound of the group: two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue”.

The guitar was the icing on an already rather tasty cake, because the essence of Soprano Summit was the relationship between its two frontmen. Davern put it down to the fact that they grew up on the same music but both have their own views on how it should be played. ”Our differences lie in how to approach the godhead, so to speak. We’re all descendants of classic jazz. Bob has his idea of how it should be interpreted and I have mine. But together, it works.”

In a typical Soprano Summit number they would bounce the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. Then several rounds of musical jousting would take place, with each front man vying for musical supremacy – especially, remembered Marty Grosz, on their “big, next-to-closing number, Song of Songs,” a schmaltzy tune that Sidney Bechet used to play. “They way they did it, they’d uilt and build and build it – and people loved it.

“They would build up a head of steam and it would bring the house down.I don’t think either of them would have the horn out of his mouth during the whole number. They’d egg each other on, and try to outdo each other. Then, when they ran out of gas, they’d pass it on to me – and I’d be like a drowning man struggling to keep his head above water..”

There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, and the only clue to the planned nature of the programme was the fact that they had music in front of them. Indeed, Grosz pointed out: “They were the only band I ever came across who could somehow surmount the fact that they were reading from these charts. I thought it was good that they had little arrangements – otherwise if you don’t play together for a long time, every night in the same club with the same bass player and drummer, then you’re going to end up playing common denominator tunes. This was a chance to do out-of-the-way material.”

Bob Wilber was modest about the way he and Davern worked. “A lot of it was intuitive. We would find out what worked by trying it, and then incorporate it into our repertoire.” Their intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing. Davern observed: ”Sometimes when the two of us play two notes, you can hear a third note present – a harmonic that suddenly appears, a richness.”

Although Soprano Summit split up in 1979, both Wilber and Davern, who thereafter played clarinet exclusively, continued to discuss their musical rapport in the present tense because following the recording of the Chiaroscuro album Summit Reunion (with their original line-up) in 1990, they increasingly found themselves being booked together for concerts, albeit with different rhythm sections. Indeed, plans were afoot for some Wilber and Davern concerts when Kenny Davern died suddenly in December 2006. As he had said, during a mid-1990s reunion, ”people still throw their babies up at this band, at this combination of instruments”.

Thankfully, there are plenty of recordings of this near-mythic band to testify to its ability to give the hairs on the back of the neck a work-out, even three decades after its demise. As the recent Arbors CD of highlights from the tapes recorded by the New Jersey Jazz Society in 1975 demonstrate, the Soprano Summit sound is as fresh, exhilarating and downright thrilling as ever.

***

MARTY GROSZ remembers:

“I joined Soprano Summit in 1975 for a concert at the Carnegie Hall. There I was, with my knees knocking together. Somehow, playing the Carnegie Hall is an unnerving experience. I had to put one foot up on a chair to stop my knees from clacking like castanets while I played the guitar and sang the Milenberg Joys.

“Around that time, we did The Today Show a couple of times. One time we were doing The Today Show and I was singing How Can You Face Me, and Kenny started mugging, pulling his fingers at the corner of his mouth and making all kinds of faces and obscene gestures. It was all I could do not to just give up in the middle of live television and crack up.

“I like that kind of thing in a band. I’d much rather they’d come out with water pistols and soda water bottles than those deadly bands where everybody sits there like zombies and the leader comes out and makes one of those deadly earnest announcements. In this band, we had a chance for craziness like Theatre of the Absurd, which I personally am a fan of.

“Soprano Summit was the only group I ever played with who managed to read music on the stand and not have it have a negative effect on the audience. Usually, when you have a little combo – especially – and the musicians have their eyes down at the paper, you lose contact with the audience. But, for some reason with Soprano Summit, they could surmount the fact that they were reading from these charts.

“We had these little orchestra stands and I sat in the middle – I was the guy who stopped Kenny and Bob from killing each other at times. Kenny was the outspoken one, and Bob was quiet – always thinking about the music; about arrangements.

“Soprano Summit was the band I actually looked forward to playing with. I’m really sorry it had to come to an end. Sometimes when Kenny and Bob were wailing away full tilt, and the rhythm section was boiling, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. And I’m an atheist.”

* The Soprano Summit in 1975 and More (Arbors Records ARCD 19328)

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Remembering Lester

Since the end of last week, when I wrote my piece on Lester Young, the extent of his enduring appeal has become apparent as various jazz musicians – players of all instruments – have shared their thoughts about this unique character and his enormously influential sound.

Over the next few days, I’ll be adding the memories and impressions of those who met him, who admired him and who were inspired by him, as well as their suggestions for required listening.

DICK HYMAN (piano, US): “When I was playing for Lester Young in Birdland in the 1950s, he amazed me one night by calling Lavender Blue – it was then on the hit parade. It was a really silly sort of song. Its full title was Lavender Blue Dilly-Dilly. It was the most foolish and un-hip thing and to hear Lester Young calling for it, I thought he was joking. But we played it and it worked fine – he knew better than I that the tune had that kind of potential. I would never have guessed it!

“We had a good working relationship, but I can’t say I knew him. Probably few people did. I recently introduced his recordings to a young musician who had never heard them, whom I thought was a little glib and unconcerned with where he was going in his lines. Lester always told a story when he played.

“My own favourite tracks would be any of the very earliest recordings he did with Basie – such as Shoe Shine Boy, Lady Be Good and Lester Leaps In.”

JIM GALLOWAY (saxes, Canada):  “Lester is, of course, one of my all-time favourites and proof that less is more. It’s really difficult to home in on a favourite recording. Favourites in music and art aren’t fixed in stone and vary with one’s frame of mind, but the one that springs to mind today is the 1957 Newport Festival when he guested with the Basie band. On One O’Clock Jump he plays five wonderful choruses with the band swinging like no other band could. He could say so much with only a handful of notes – just as a Matisse drawing could with a few seemingly simple lines.

“I never did meet Lester, but travelled and played a lot with Buddy Tate who knew him well. He often said that Lester really didn’t want to go on living, but thought he would make it to 50. He almost did.”

JON-ERIK KELLSO (cornet, US):  “I love Lester in all his periods, and consider him one of my biggest musical influences, so it’s not easy for me to pick my favorite tracks. It changes day to day, week to week.

“That said, his Lester Young Trio sides with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich are right up there for me. The chemistry between them is lovely, and Prez really sounds strong and comfy. This setting affords the opportunity for him to ‘stretch out’ and ‘tell his story’, as they say.

“I love his creative musical phrases, his pretty tone, his laid-back feel, his swinging beat, and his unorthodox approach (paving a new direction aside from the Hawk disciples, his way of finding the road less traveled, unusual phrase endings and song endings). Plus, he was simply one of the coolest people ever (hell, I think he actually invented “cool” as an expression as we know it!).”

ALAN BARNES (saxes, UK): “I love Lester Young. In fact, I named my record label, Woodville, after his birthplace. Why? Because he wasn’t just a great musician: he seemed to have an ‘other-wordly’ quality – which has a magic beyond definition and can’t be analysed- and because he changed the music forever. It wouldn’t be how it is without him.”

SCOTT HAMILTON (tenor sax, US): “Pres was the first tenor sax player I really loved and it’s hard to narrow my favorites down to a few but these ones are my perennial favorites since childhood: Back To The Land (with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich, from 1946), Up ‘N Adam (with Hank Jones, Ray Brown & Buddy Rich, 1950), I Can’t Get Started (from Jazz At the Philharmonic, 1946), You Can Depend On Me (with Basie small group, 1939), and Sometimes I’m Happy ( with Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart and Sid Catlett, 1943) is a little masterpiece. “

ALAN BARNES: “My very favourite Lester Young track would be Somebody Loves Me with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich, from 1946. The pianist fits with him superbly and it’s Lester at his relaxed and inventive best. He was a total original and worked at right angles to the more obviously ‘virtuosic’ sax players. “
BOBBY WELLINS (tenor sax, UK): ” I went to New York with Vic Lewis in 1950. I was 21, and was just too excited to take everything in. I used to eat just across the road from where we stayed because they did this cheap chilli dish that I loved – for $2. It was a hotel where a lot of showbiz people – musicians and people on the road – stayed. I suddenly saw this person standing outside the hotel looking awfully befuddled, and I thought: ‘Oh my God, that’s Lester Young!’. I couldn’t help myself – being young and foolish, I shot out across the road and shouted: ‘Lester!’.

“I told him that I was over with a British band. He had a high-pitched voice, and he said: ‘Oh yes, I heard you were over with Vic Lewis.’ It was so sad. He had this old dirty raincoat, and there were rumours that he was drinking a lot. I asked if I could buy him a drink, and he said [Wellins sounds like a female impersonator as he mimics Young's voice]: ‘That’s very nice of you.’

” 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 of disbelief on their faces, and they’d come over and I’d introduce them.

“We sat there for so long. 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 had on his pork-pie hat – he never took it off. That’s what I saw first. I saw the hat, then the tall figure. He didn’t have his saxophone. The next week he was doing a recording, and he invited me along but we were flying back to Britain.

“Most of the people I idolised were the offspring of Lester’s influence, like Stan Getz. I never even asked him [Wellins sounds rueful as he says this] what mouthpiece he used. In retrospect, he was a bit bedraggled.

“People forget about how Lester played earlier in his career. They don’t listen to his solos in the Basie band when he was absolutely tearing around but in that lovely way he had of doing things.”

ALAN BARNES: “I know Bobby Wellins and Duncan Lamont met him in the early 1950′s on an American tour. Lester got quite a crowd of British musicians around him in the hotel foyer, happily accepting drinks, and made a comment about going upstairs to get ‘he loaves and fishes’ – whatever that means.

“There are plenty of stories about Lester in Dave Gelly’s book - as well as some great insights. He suggests that Lester’s erratic later work – sometimes struggling to get the sound, sometimes brilliant – may have had something to do with the state of his horn. Also, in a book called A Lester Young Reader there’s a lovely essay by Bobby Scott who, as a very young man, spent time with Prez on a Jazz At The Phil tour. They were drawn to each other because they were both outsiders: one for reasons of youth; the other because of not fitting in.

“Lester was quite a character. He hated anyone crippled being on the same flight as him – he felt that the chances of crashing were greater if they were on board – and referred to them as “Johnny Deathbeds”! However, he could be re-assured if a baby was amongst the passengers as he thought the almighty wouldn’t be mean enough …

“He also referred to Pee Wee Marquette, the midget MC of Birdland, who required bribing to pronounce a name correctly, as “Half a Motherf***er” which is pretty good.”

SIR MICHAEL PARKINSON (broadcaster & writer, UK): “Anyone who loves Lester Young and Ben Webster understands the full joy, range and possibility of the tenor sax. They are the gods who define the instrument.”

WARREN VACHE (cornet, US): “Lester Young was one of the most influential musicians to have ever walked the planet. His approach to music was unique, deeply felt and profoundly important. He paid the price for this dedication and talent while he lived, working for small fees, constantly traveling, and suffering many personal disappointments and indignities. In short, he had a miserable time while he was with us and in return for our mistreatment of him and his kind left us some of the most uplifting recordings ever made to sustain us in our daily lives and inspire us to greater heights.

“To reduce his life’s work to ‘your favorite track’, is, in my thinking, to continue the indignity and mistreatment he suffered throughout his life. Lester Young’s music was a gift, the magnitude of which it is clear we don’t fully appreciate or understand even today 100 years after his birth.

“To really appreciate his genius, I suggest you play all of his music, all day long, and do yourself the favor of shutting up, not imposing your own opinions and values, and actually listening. Let the profundity impress upon you what it will. If you learn nothing more than: although Lester Young is dead, his music is certainly alive and well.”

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Five Star Reviews From Edinburgh & Nairn


NAIRN INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL’S PIANO SUMMIT, COMMUNITY CENTRE, NAIRN (published in The Scotsman, August 8th)
It may have been a musician down (pianist John Bunch called off due to illness) and have a tenor sax star lost in transition (Scott Hamilton, whose first flight of the day from northern Norway to Oslo was cancelled), but the Nairn Jazz Festival still managed to pull a magic evening out of its hat on Thursday night. Everything went according to plan; in fact, it went better than could have been planned, because an extra piano materialised towards the end of the hitherto two-piano concert.
This summit meeting involved veteran American wizard Dick Hyman plus younger, German pianists Chris Hopkins and Bernd Lhotzky – in other words, the three pianists who had wowed Edinburgh audiences earlier in the week with their games of musical pianos. For their Nairn reunion, they were joined by the similarly nimble-fingered Rossano Sportiello – and the results were sensational.
Of course, the numbers which involved all four pianists were the most exciting – and the most fun to watch, as a certain amount of contorting and Marx Brothers-like horseplay took place as the musicians arranged sheet music so that two pianists could read it at a time, and arranged arms and torsos so that complex duets were feasible.
Among the highlights of the many different line-ups within this quartet was a beautifully delicate duet by Lhotzky and Sportiello on George Shearing’s Children’s Waltz, Hyman and Hopkins’s hard-swinging Opus 1/2, and Sportiello’s sublime solo version of Wonder Why, which was so romantic that the old couple next to me were moved to hold hands..
*******
NAIRN INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL, COMMUNITY CENTRE, NAIRN (published August 10th)
There’s no doubt about it: this year’s somewhat reduced Nairn International Jazz Festival would have been an altogether lesser affair had it not been for the contribution of American jazz star Dick Hyman. The veteran pianist is so versatile that he played an important part in preventing this year’s event from feeling like a diet version of the usual programme.
On Friday afternoon, Nairn audiences were treated to a history lesson from Hyman, whose acclaimed and epic CD Rom A Century of Jazz Piano is about to be released as a CD box set. His two-hour guided tour of the jazz hall of fame was an exercise in musical time travel: among the many greats he managed to squeeze into concert (which really demands a sequel) were Erroll Garner, George Shearing and Bill Evans.
Just as an impersonator can drop different voices into a conversation so Hyman elegantly conjures up the spirits of his piano heroes, most thrillingly such early pioneers as the ragtime composer Scott Joplin, with whose eternally exciting Maple Leaf Rag he kicked off the afternoon, and stride giant James P Johnson whose Keep Off the Grass Hyman played at such speed that his hands were a cartoon-like blur.
On Saturday night, he was back for a staggeringly energetic festival finale with fellow octogenarian Bob Wilber (clarinet, saxes) – the highlights of which were the oldest numbers, Running Wild, Royal Garden Blues and CC Rider.
Wilber had arrived on Friday to play what turned out to be a superb concert with tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton – who had finally arrived from northern Norway, more than 24 hours after he had set out. Red Bull energy drinks perhaps deserve some credit for his performance (what Wilber’s secret is remains to be seen – he’d been playing till 4am in France earlier that day), but the wildly enthusiastic response of the audience to the Nairn debut of this particular line-up (with the wonderful Rossano Sportiello on piano duties, joining resident bassist Andy Cleyndert and drummer Joe Ascione) no doubt helped power both stars.
******

DICK HYMAN PIANO LEGENDS, THE HUB, EDINBURGH (published in The Herald, August 4th)

If Sunday night’s concert at The Hub is anything to go by, the secret to being a spry octogenarian is to play regular games of musical piano stools. American pianist extraordinaire Dick Hyman may be 82 but that didn’t stop him from joining fellow ivory-ticklers Bernd Lhotzky and Chris Hopkins in a couple of rounds of stool-hopping as the three men worked their way round two grand pianos, while serving up rafters-raising versions of The Sheik of Araby and I Found A New Baby.
Those two thrilling numbers – played with great style as well as humour (the younger players’ mock territorialism over the keys, a bit of business involving who had the longest sheet music etc) were highlights of an exhilarating evening. But they weren’t the only highlights. On faster, stride numbers, a solo Hyman can sound like he’s playing with multiple hands, and his dynamic take on James P Johnson’s classic Carolina Shout was a terrific example of this.
Less flamboyant but equally impressive was his original piece, Thinking About Bix, which captured the beguiling peculiarities of the compositional style of the legendary Bix Beiderbecke as well as evoking his unique cornet playing.

Although Hyman was very much in charge of proceedings, his young cohorts – both first-timers at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival – had plenty of opportunities to shine, notably their electrifying duet on Somebody Stole My Gal, and Lhotzky’s duet with Hyman on Harlem Strut.

*****

DICK HYMAN EUROPEAN ALL-STARS/KEN MATHIESON CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA, THE HUB, EDINBURGH (published in The Herald, August 6th)

Following his piano extravaganza of Sunday night, Dick Hyman returned to The Hub on Tuesday evening for a concert which showcased his equally prodigious talents as an arranger and a bandleader who can whip even the most ragtag bunch of star soloists into a tight, working unit. Some of the musicians on Tuesday night’s bill had quite possibly never met before, let alone played together before, which undoubtedly added to the excitement of the music – as well as underlining bandleading Hyman’s skills.
Mind you, with the likes of Alan Barnes (saxes and clarinet), Dave Green (bass) and John Allred (trombone) in his septet, Hyman had at his disposal some superb players, several of whom looked as if they were getting a real kick out of playing such rarely performed numbers as a thrilling Dooji Wooji (Hyman revealed that he’d once asked the bass player Milt Hinton was this meant, only to be told “Better you not know..”).
Alan Barnes must sometimes rue the fact that he’s so versatile because it often means that he does back-to-back shifts on the bandstand. Tuesday night was no exception, as his turn as a European All-Star followed fast on the heels of his first guest appearance with the Classic Jazz Orchestra. Their programme of Benny Carter music might have benefitted from an interval but it was a treat nevertheless to hear this top-class band dish up such cracking Carter numbers as Symphony in Riffs from the 1930s and Katy-Do from his Kansas City Suite. Barnes’s superb work on alto (on the latter tune especially) was the icing on the cake.

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Doin’ the Chameleon

Dick Hyman has a lot to answer for. Had it not been for him, who knows if I would have turned out to be a jazz fan. It all happened in 1986. My brothers and I had watched – and recorded – a movie over the Easter holidays, and become absolutely obsessed with the music, in a way that only teenagers can. We played the same scene over and over till we knew it off by heart and were able to sing it even without the video playing.
The film was a TV movie biopic of the pioneering ragtime composer and pianist Scott Joplin, and the scene which caught our imagination was one where the unknown Joplin and his accomplice wipe the floor with the established “professors” in a piano battle that culminates in Joplin’s rafters-raising rendition of his Maple Leaf Rag.
Three months into the obsession with this scene, my jazz-daft dad – who had already used such devious methods as midnight feasts for Louis Armstrong’s birthday to kickstart the brainwashing process – casually mentioned that the guy who had played the piano in the Scott Joplin was coming to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. His name was Dick Hyman – would I like to come?
So it was that, at the age of 14, I accompanied my dad around the Edinburgh Jazz Festival’s erstwhile Pub Trail for a day. The Dick Hyman gig took place in one of the rooms in the labyrinthine Royal Overseas League, on Princes Street. The bespectacled American made an immediate impression. To play the rickety old upright piano at a comfortable height, he was perched on two stacked chairs, but what struck me most of all were how thin and fast his fingers were as they flew about the keyboard – not least on the showstopping Maple Leaf Rag.
I heard more than just ragtime that night. Hyman has the unique ability to mimic the styles of all the great jazz pianists – and he morphs seamlessly from one into another, on a sort of whirlwind tour of the jazz piano hall of fame. A solo set from him is an education in jazz history, as he elegantly conjures up the spirits of the likes of Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson (who gave the teenage Hyman lessons) and his personal favourites, Art Tatum and Bix Beiderbecke.
He is truly a chameleon of the keyboard, and it’s therefore highly appropriate that he should have been the man responsible for the music for Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary Zelig, about a man who takes on a similar appearance to whomever he’s standing beside. For Zelig, Hyman drew on his talent for recreating period music, in this case the novelty tunes of the 1920s. The soundtrack was an integral part of the success of the film because it added another layer of authenticity and humour.
When I embarked on my own Woody Allen phase, I was thrilled to discover that Hyman was my then favourite filmmaker’s regular musical director: indeed, when I heard him in Edinburgh, he was undoubtedly in the midst of composing the brilliant jingles and themes for the nostalgic, 1940s-set comedy Radio Days. He arranged music or wrote for all the period Allen films – plus his bold musical Everyone Says I Love You – and is heard on several more.
Over the years, I have seen Hyman performing in all sorts of concerts – in spine-tinglingly moving duets with the trumpeter Doc Cheatham, in trio sets of Disney and Wizard of Oz music, in showcases for his compositions for an orchestra, in organ recitals, in two-piano extravaganzas with such formidable fellow ivory-ticklers as Jay McShann, and in the all-star extravaganzas which he co-ordinated with flair and characteristic unflappability (and zilch time to prepare) at several Edinburgh Jazz Festivals in the early 1990s.
Hyman is such a class act that he elevates any event into a different league, and his gift for rounding up a rag-tag bunch of soloists and arranging them, on the spot, into a slick band is legendary. At one Blackpool Jazz Party, it fell to Hyman to conduct 30-odd world-class solo stars through a grand finale. As the cast of what seemed like thousands swung a Basie-style riff, the beady-eyed Hyman – whose nickname should really be The Headmaster – walked up and down in front of the stage picking out soloists, sectioning off bands within the band, and bringing it all together with his usual aplomb.
He may seem a rather cool character but his enthusiasm and passion for jazz (and classical music) is apparent not just in his playing but in his voracious appetite for new and often off-the-wall projects. Shakespeare sonnets set to jazz? He’s done it. An album which imagines how Bix Beiderbecke’s bands might have sounded playing Gershwin? Yup. An hour-long blues tune? Uh-huh.
But all the above-mentioned events and achievements only skim the surface: during a six-decade career, Hyman has played with legends ranging from Benny Goodman to Charlie Parker (that’s him on piano in the one existing bit of footage of Bird), he’s written pop hits (Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time; kd lang’s Shadowland), pioneered the Moog synthesizer, penned innumerable classical compositions, scored ballets, served as musical director of two major festivals plus a string of classic TV shows, and recorded a CD-rom (A Century of Jazz Piano) which is now a library reference tool.
Now in his 83rd year, Hyman shows no sign of slowing down. Coasting is not an option – certainly if his forthcoming week in Scotland, which includes a harpsichord gig, a four-piano spectacular and a History of Jazz Piano concert is anything to go by. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of converting the next generation: my children are primed and ready for brainwashing…
* Dick Hyman is at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival (0131 467 5200; www.edinburghjazzfestival.co.uk) from August 2-5, then at the Nairn International Jazz Festival (01309 674221; www.nairnjazz.com) from August 6-8.

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The News From Nairn

Quality, not quantity, is clearly the ethos of the Nairn International Jazz Festival, if this year’s line-up is anything to go by. The festival may not be quite as long as usual, and there may be fewer concerts, but organiser Ken Ramage has nevertheless put together a programme which will make many jazz-lovers salivate – and which could well lure festival-goers up north rather than to the Edinburgh event which, this year, runs concurrently with Nairn’s.
Although the festival is shorter than usual and there is only ever one concert on at any given time, there is still a packed, focused, programme, and it’s one which offers something for everyone. Ramage is undoubtedly proudest of securing the Scottish debut of the glamorous thirtysomething Italian singer Roberta Gambarini, who has been making a name for herself in the last few years thanks to her amazing scatting. She is giving two concerts – on Monday 3rd and Wednesday 5th.
Another coup for the festival is finally managing to welcome American piano wizard Dick Hyman to Nairn. Like guitar ace Martin Taylor, who makes his festival debut on Tuesday 4th, he has been invited many times but until relatively recently, the Nairn Jazz Festival clashed with a festival of American music of which Hyman was the musical director. He relinquished that job a couple of years ago, and so was able to take up the invitation to Nairn, a festival which, he says, he has heard all his friends enthusiastically talking about.

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 info@nairnjazz.com

 

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