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.
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.