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.