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Recent Four & Five Star CD Reviews

Harry Allen: New York State of Mind (Challenge Records CR73293)
*****

Never having heard American tenor saxophonist Harry Allen playing with Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello before, I am now desperate to hear them live. This magnificent CD of New York-themed tunes has this duo at its heart; they bounce off each other brilliantly on such uptempo numbers as Singin’ in the Rain’s Broadway Melody. On the ballads, Allen’s tender, breathy and slightly melancholy sax (especially on an exquisite version of Autumn in New York) is complemented by Sportiello’s dreamy, eloquent piano. And there are some sublime contributions from in-demand trombonist John Allred.

Johnny Hodges Quintet: Buenos Aires Blues (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10373)
*****
Even if you’ve long since been smitten with the sublime sound of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, chances are you might not be familiar with the two albums which make up this magnificent CD: the first is a 1963 quintet session with the film composer Lalo Schifrin on piano, while the second is the 1962 strings LP, The Eleventh Hour, which was arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson. Both are terrific, but the first, which features Hodges’s signature mix of Ellington numbers and his own blues (plus a couple of Schifrin originals), is a particular treat.

Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet: To Fred Astaire With Love (Jazz Lips JL765) *****

This superb CD comprises two joyous, mid-1970s, albums – the eponymous Astaire tribute and The Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet – recorded by the terrific group which featured on Tony Bennett’s sublime Rodgers and Hart LP during the same period. The partnership between cornettist Ruby Braff and electric guitarist George Barnes was a great one, characterised by warmth, swing, lyricism and sheer joie de vivre, and their sound was beautifully offset by a rhythm section of just guitar and bass. The 20 tracks are perfect examples of chamber jazz at its best.

Randy Sandke’s Jazz for Juniors (Arbors Records ARCD 19385)
****
Jazz albums for kids are nothing new but this one, which not only entertains but also educates, is something different. The concept of US trumpeter Randy Sandke – whose interest and style span the history of jazz – it tells the story of the formation of a jazz band, as a trumpet-playing tiger travels the world meeting fellow animal instrumentalists (as portrayed, musically, by such top-notch musicians as Ken Peplowski, Howard Alden and Wycliffe Gordon).  Perfectly pitched at young ears, the CD also includes a slide show viewable on PCs.

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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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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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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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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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