Tag Archives: Re-birth of the Cool

Mad About Mulligan

One of the main reasons I pray for a long life for my old cassette recorder is so I can go on reliving, ad infinitum, the first concert hall jazz gig I ever attended. Back in 1988, one of the biggest American stars at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival was Gerry Mulligan, a musician whose powerful, distinctive and lyrical playing immediately won me over and continues to seduce me every time I listen to his records.

I still can’t quite believe my luck in hearing the great baritone saxophonist, composer and bandleader Gerry Mulligan on what was undoubtedly his only visit to Glasgow – and I heard him not once, but twice. (I would have heard all three of his concerts had my dad not decided to be fair and take my brother to his gig with the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra.) I was so immediately smitten by Mulligan’s muscular baritone sound and charismatic leadership of his Concert Jazz Band that I joined the throngs of long-in-the-tooth fans at the stage door and secured my first-ever jazz autograph at the end of the evening.

Mulligan’s quartet gig may have been terrific but my memories of it were immediately swept aside by the tidal wave of excitement generated by the electrifying performance of his Concert Jazz Band on the last night of the festival. This amazing ensemble swung like crazy and played every number as if for the first time – tightly executed arrangements with red-hot solos by the likes of Seldon Powell (tenor sax), Bill Charlap (piano), Barry Ries (trumpet) and of course Mulligan himself, who barely rested. As Dave Brubeck points out in the fascinating documentary, Listen:Gerry Mulligan, made after Mulligan’s death, he was incapable of standing still and not playing.

Among the many gems played that night in Glasgow were such late-era Mulligan numbers as the joyful opener Sun on the Stairs, Walk on the Water (on which he played a serene soprano sax), Song For Strayhorn and 42nd and Broadway as well as a magnificent version of Georgia on My Mind.

But the piece that had everyone in that audience on the edge of their seats was the one which had been commissioned by the jazz festival. As with his K-4 Pacific, Mulligan drew on his love of trains (as well as on a theme from his Octet for Sea Cliff) to create a rollercoaster ride of a composition for Glasgow. The Flying Scotsman is breathtakingly evocative and exciting – a thrilling, dramatic piece that gathers momentum and builds to a spine-tingling climax.

It prompted a euphoric reaction from the audience (though I seem to remember there being some criticism the next day that it had been too short – the bean-counters clearly didn’t think it was value for money; never mind that it was a beautifully crafted composition with not a wasted or redundant note), and was one of the main reasons for my insistence, the following May, on setting up tape recorders all over the house to make sure we didn’t miss a note of the Concert Jazz Band gig when it was finally broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

To my knowledge, Mulligan only recorded The Flying Scotsman once: on the newly reissued quartet album Lonesome Boulevard, originally released in 1990. It certainly sounds great but it doesn’t have the excitement or the thrills of the full-band version. Which makes it all the more irritating that the recording of the 1988 Concert Jazz Band gig has never been released on CD (the following year’s Stan Getz concert, also recorded by the Beeb, has long been available on CD). Everyone should get to hear it.

Frankly, I would rather stay at home and listen to the still-electrifying Concert Jazz Band on the stage at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow in 1988 than endure a live performance by a second-rate band in 2009… Gerry Mulligan ruined us Glaswegians for anybody else.

CODA

I got to hear Gerry Mulligan again, four years after the Glasgow Jazz Festival, when I was a student in Paris and he was headlining the La Villette Jazz Festival with his Re-birth of the Cool Band. That occasion I don’t remember so well, possibly because I got distracted by the social side of things – namely the members of the Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars who had secured me my ticket!

When, a couple of years later, I was invited to make my debut on radio, on BBC Radio Scotland’s Bebop to Hiphop, my first track was my all-time favourite – the sublime Shady Side from the Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges album. It was only after playing it that I learned that it’s my dad’s favourite too.

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Paris Blues & Highs

I was down in London yesterday to interview the mysterious jazz singer and guitarist Madeleine Peyroux whom I last interviewed by phone in 2005, just as her cultish CD Careless Love was on the verge of exploding into the mainstream (it topped the charts in August of that year).
One of the main subjects we chatted about was Peyroux’s time as a busker in Paris. Turns out she was there, singing and working as the “hat passer” for a group of street musicians in and around the Latin Quarter at exactly the same time as I was bunking off my 12-hour week as an English language “assistante” to go and watch old movies in the Latin Quarter – the cinemas in the rue des Ecoles, to be precise. (I do have a vague recollection of listening to a group of jazz-playing buskers at the St Michel fountain – and I may have bought a tape of them…)
I probably saw more old movies on the big screen during that year than in the rest of my life: they showed seasons devoted to the Marx Brothers (and you haven’t lived until you’ve watched Duck Soup in the company of like-minded strangers), Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Astaire and Rogers, Frank Capra. This was where I saw Love in the Afternoon the one and only time ever, and ogled William Holden up close (in Sabrina) for the first time…
That year in France was one of abject poverty – until I got myself a summer job. But despite having no money, I did alright in the jazz stakes. During a trip back to Glasgow, I went to a concert at the late, lamented Glasgow Society of Musicians, a cavernous club, reeking with history (I think that’s what it was, anyway) behind an anonymous, speakeasy-style door on Berkeley Street. There I heard the American cornettist Warren Vache who struck up a conversation with my father and me. Upon learning of my imminent return to Paris, he told me to contact a pal of his, the trumpeter Alain Bouchet. And so I found myself at my first Parisian jazz club, nursing one Perrier (shared with my pal Siobhan) from 10pm-2am and then having to stay awake in the Pub St-Germain-des-Pres until the first RER train back to the suburbs at 6am. (Taxis were not an option – they cost money.) These were the lengths I had to go to back then to get my jazz fix.
I almost overdosed a couple of months later when, at the height of the Parisian summer, I crossed the city to attend the jazz festival at La Villette, the old abattoir, which, for one magical night, played host to the Newport All-Stars (with Warren, Scott Hamilton, etc) and the Re-birth of the Cool band, led by the great Gerry Mulligan – whose Glasgow concerts four years earlier had converted me from dabbler to devotee of this music….
* Madeleine Peyroux’s new CD, Bare Bones, is out now on Decca/Rounder – and my interview with her should be in The Herald Magazine on Saturday May 9th…

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