Tag Archives: jazz

KIND OF BLUE NOTE

There is a horrible neologism that I came across in a newspaper recently. In the article the term “premiumisation” was applied to scotch whiskey – it describes the process of rebranding/hyping a product to make it “investible” and “collectable”. Something very similar is happening in the world of jazz, specifically in the world of LPs. It began with coloured vinyl editions, which are nearly always promoted as limited, collectable and attract a few quid extra over and above their monochrome siblings. I fell for this for a while – I have clear, yellow, red, orange, blue and even camouflaged discs. I stopped going colour-crazy when a record company executive assured me that adding pigment can affect sound quality and longevity of the album.

       The other route to “premiumisation” is the re-mastered special edition. This is spiralling to quite frightening heights – there was a recent version of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, announced with typical fervour: Definitive handmade limited run reissue Ultra High Quality Record! 33 1/3 RPM LP release limited to 25,000 copies. Mastered directly from the original 3-Track master tapes by Bernie Grundman. Pressed at Quality Record Pressings using Clarity Vinyl® on a manual Finebilt press. Cost for all this? Around £150. I’m sure it’s a wonderful artefact but I already have six versions of that record, including one on cassette. I surprised myself by resisting it.

       Less eye-wateringly expensive is the Blue Note Tone Poet series, supervised by Joe “Tone Poet” Harley, and put out to celebrate 80 years of the label. These are  “all-analogue, mastered-from-the-original-master-tape 180g audiophile vinyl reissues in deluxe gatefold packaging. Mastered by Kevin Gray (Cohearent Audio) and vinyl manufactured at Record Technology Incorporated (RTI)” . The latter is considered one of the best pressing plants in the world. Artists getting the Tone Poet treatment include Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon and many others.

       Again, they are beautifully done, but are they worth the £10 premium they attract (they usually retail at £31-34) over a regular LP? After all, over the years I have been seduced by claims of superior sound quality by Japanese-only Blue Note editions (or maybe it was the obi strip – that band of paper that wraps around the cover) and “Cadre Rouge Audiophile” featuring Direct Metal Mastering and French pressing. Do I need more tweaks?

McCoy Tyner

       One of the most recent batches of Tone Poets included McCoy Tyner’s splendid Expansions, which features the great Woody Shaw on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Gary Bartz on alto and, unusually, clarinet, and bassist Ron Carter on an unexpected cello. It encompasses fast and furious modal jazz with the septet firing on all cylinders, Matthew Halsall-like Far Eastern tones and a piano/cello ballad. It was indeed an expansion of Tyner’s regular soundscape. I happen to have a 75th Anniversary re-issue of this, so I bought a Tone Poet one to compare and contrast.

       I don’t have a particularly high-end audio system. At its heart is a vintage Quad and 1970s Japanese Micro-Seiki deck with SME arm which is maintained by Audio Gold in Crouch End (it was where I  traded a still-boxed CD player for it years ago, back when you couldn’t give record decks away). So not audiophile perhaps, but I do know its sound very well and thought I should be able to detect any differences/improvements in the new pressing.

       And I could. A more sonorous piano here, a richer woodier bass sound there, crisper horns in one or two places. But, I realised, paying such close attention and constantly repeating sections not only gave me a headache, but it also spoiled my enjoyment. I was like one of those oenophiles who can wax lyrical about the component parts of a wine without pausing to enjoy the whole (the same is true of some coffee drinkers I know).  I’m assured that the superior quality is best appreciated through headphones, but as that isn’t how I like to consume music, it’s a moot point. So, would I rush out to replace an album I already had with a Tone Poet version? No, probably not. But….

The great Lee Morgan

       And it is quite an interesting “but”. One of the welcome aspects about these re-issues is that Mr Poet hasn’t gone for the big ticket albums. So, no Sidewinder by Lee Morgan, but the more obscure Cornbread, no Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock, but The Prisoner and so on. Also Joe Harley has embraced other labels that were or are now in the Blue Note stable. So for instance, I have a Tone Poet of Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, which was on the originally on the Stateside label, and a recent release, Katanga! by Curtis Amy and Dupree Bolton, which was on Pacific Jazz.

       The latter is a fascinating album, because it highlights just how brilliant a trumpeter Dupree Bolton was, blistering fast yet astonishing accurate, with a hairs-up-on-the-back-of the-neck high-speed stratospheric excursions and brilliant tone. Bolton only made two real appearances on disc (Katanga! and The Fox by Harold Land, also recommended), frequently disappearing into the fog of drug addiction and subsequently prison. There isn’t space here to tell his whole tragic story of wasted talent, but if you are interested seek out Granta 69 (“The Assassin”). It includes a piece about Bolton by Richard Williams called Gifted, which is as fine and as moving a piece of jazz writing as you’ll find.

            So, given the quality and heft of the physical record, the heavy card used for the covers and, sometimes, the inserts with essays (as with Katanga!), I certainly would buy a Tone Poet if it was an album new to me or I only had it on CD and wanted an actual LP. Forthcoming releases for 2021 include Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan, Wayne Shorter, Joe Pass, Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Red and  more Grant Green, all new to me. I’ve got my extra tenners ready.

Double Exposure

 

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Music, particularly jazz music, and photography have long enjoyed a healthy symbiotic relationship. Think of the evocative photographs of Herman Leonard, the bassist and snapper Milt Hinton or William Caxton, images of clubs, patrons and players so powerful you can almost smell the cigarette smoke, hear the splash of a cymbal, the tinkle of highball glasses.

The two art forms have something else in common – a powerful sense of their own history. Everyone who is serious about jazz studies the masters, be it the fiendishly mathematical complexity of Charlie Parker’s be-bop or the lyricism of Bill Evans’ piano. Photographers, too, are drawn back to the great practitioners of the art, the Robert Capas, Lee Millers and Bert Hardys, analyzing and sometimes imitating, until, like musicians, they find their own style.

I recently spoke to drum legend Billy Cobham, whose CV should just say “played with everyone who is anyone in jazz and beyond”, about his lifelong love of the photograph.

“I started shooting seriously in the army, back in ’64. That was my secondary military occupation, after drumming instructor. Then, when I left the army I never really stopped. I did my first album cover for Blue Note, for Horace’s Serenade to a Soul Sister in 1968.” Which meant he was following in the f-stops of Francis Wolff, another legend who shot many of the iconic Blue Note covers. “Absolutely I was. Big shoes to fill. I also did work with Count Basie and Gil Evans.”

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For many years Billy shot with a classic Leica M3, especially while on the road. “With the Mahavishnu Orchestra,” says Billy, “we were touring for two years solid. I’d always get up early the day of a show and I’d walk round town with my camera and I’d be alone. When you are in band doing that many gigs, you are with the guys 24/7 and you need some space. Going out with my Leica helped me gather my wits, my feelings, about how I felt about me that day.’ Not everyone in the band shared his commitment. “John McLaughlin, I think he just used a compact camera for snapshots, while I was there with my Leica with a 150-280mm zoom with all the bells and whistles and he’d look at me like I was out to lunch.”

I first saw Billy Cobham with that band, at an open-air concert at Crystal Palace Bowl. I had never heard or seen anything like it. The guy in white with the twin-necked guitar, he was good, but the drummer was something else. Finding out about him led me to Larry Coryell and then back to Miles Davis and beyond. Billy Cobham sparked my interest in jazz. “So it’s my fault?” he laughs when I tell him this. I also followed his post-Mahavishnu work, including the seminal Spectrum album and his later bands, which sometimes included a young trumpeter from the UK called Guy Barker.

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Billy still takes plenty of photographs, but these days he has embraced pixels. “I made the switch four or five years ago. I’ve retired my M3 and shoot with an M8 or, especially for documentaries like my recent Art of the Rhythm Section Retreat in Arizona, an S Typ 007. Everything I used to do in the darkroom, I can do in the camera now. And I don’t feel like I’ve been sniffing airplane glue for five hours.”

He thinks that photography has a way of enhancing his music . “For me, taking a photograph is like capturing an instant in my life, like a single “cel” in an animation, a frozen moment of my time of this earth. What it also does, it takes my primary mind away from what I am always thinking musically, and gives that part of my brain a rest for a minute while I do something visual. I’m still being creative, but in a different way. Then, when I come back to the music, it has more meaning.”

Billy wouldn’t be drawn on a favourite image, not even given a this-is-the-one-I’d-save-from-a-burning-house challenge. “I’m still exploring,” he insists. Which is true of his music, as you can experience when Billy plays Ronnie Scott’s with the Guy Barker Big Band  from June 25-30th (www.ronniescotts.co.uk).

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From last time at the club… but much the same killer band

I have worked with Guy on the narrative of some of his large-scale compositions and Billy and the Big Band will probably play Guy’s brilliant arrangement of Stratus from the Spectrum album. You’ll recognise the dynamite drum motif, because it was sampled for Massive Attack’s Safe From Harm, which became the title of a novel I co-wrote (as R J Bailey). How many degrees of separation is that?

 

 

BELGIAN INTERLUDE

Berlin InterRail will be along shortly; meanwhile, here is some music….

There was a moment during Melanie de Biasio’s performance at the Purcell Room on the Southbank the other night when, as a fan of light framed her uplifted face, I felt as if I was watching Ingrid Bergman playing Joan of Arc re-incarnated with the voice of Abbey Lincoln fronting a Belgian version of The Necks.

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Certainly anyone who popped along because of the tag ‘the Belgian Billie Holiday’ that she is often saddled with was in for a surprise. This was strange fruit all right, a cross pollination of jazz, blues, trip-hop, post-rock and late Talk Talk and it certainly wasn’t a singer showing off her chops with a succession of torch songs or standards. If anything, she used the power of her spine-tingly voice too sparingly, often simply breathing out phrases or single words to wrap around the repetitive, sometimes languorous patterns created by a band consisting of piano, keyboards (clavinet, synths) and drums. But that meant when she did let rip, it counted, and hairs stood up on necks.
In a short, intense, one-hour set she played most of new (also short) album No Deal (Play it Again Sam records) with parts of A Stomach Is Burning, her less minimal debut from a couple of years ago. It was effectively one single, stripped-down sixty-minute song, building to the wonderful I’m Gonna Leave You. The two keyboards players added mostly texture and a skeletal framework for the tunes – no long noodly jazz solos here – while drummer Dre Pallemaerts ably supplied the rhythmic heft (and the singer added smoky stabs of flute). It was an unsettling – on a good way – monochrome show, a little like the drawings that come with the album, and was brilliantly lit, creating a close, clubby atmosphere in the sometimes sterile Purcell Room.
It’s all too rare to come away from a gig thinking: well, I haven’t seen anything like that recently, but Melanie De Biasio (who is highly rated by Jamie Cullum and Gilles Peterson) will leave you scratching your head and producing weird combos of artists to explain her to those who don’t yet know her sound. Although possibly none as odd as Joan of Arc.
http://www.melaniedebiasio.

Kyle Eastwood: New York, Paris and Ken Clarke

The latest issue of Man About Town features a piece by me about Kyle Eastwood, Clint’s bass-playing son, which includes a look at the history of jazz on Manhattan, as well as a recommended list of ‘Live in NYC’ jazz albums. Also what happened when Ken Clarke turned up to see Kyle play at Ronnie Scott’s. Plus a lovely illustration by Liselotte Watkins.
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And you get James McVoy:

mat2See http://www.manabouttown.tv.

A Few Thoughts On @lovesupremefest

There was some carping that Chic didn’t belong on the bill at the Love Supreme Festival last weekend. A disco band at a jazz festival? Yet, both Nile Rodgers and his late partner, Bernard Edwards, came from a jazz background, as Niles demonstrated with some Wes Montgomery-style noodling while getting the sound right. Furthermore, it’s hard to tell how many of the 7,500 a day tickets he and his Daft Punk/Glastonbury connection added but, along with an accurate forecast for glorious weather, it must have been significant.

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Certainly, the very youthful faces in Chic’s crowd (who could just about place Let’s Dance as a Bowie record) weren’t there because of Chic’s heyday, but they were a welcome dilution of the usual jazz demographic. Poor Portico Quartet suffered in the nearby Arena, being swamped by the tsunami of slap bass and sing-alongs, Brass Jaw were equally outgunned by an exuberant Soweto Kinch, although they later gave an nicely impromptu al fresco blow to make up for it. Next year (we are promised at least three Love Supremes), the proximity of the Arena to the main stage needs to be looked at. As does the car parking – some marker boards so you can locate your vehicle in the middle of a field in the dark would help. But, a few gripes apart – is there any way to prevent ridiculously lengthy peak-time beer queues at a festival? – ALS was a very creditable inaugural effort. One thing I liked was that it was small and comfortable enough that you could always get close enough to the stage to look the artists in the eye – so there was no need for the giant screens of larger gatherings. Plus there was fine music, with notable performances from Snarky Puppy – not so much snarky as rabidly good – Gregory Porter (below), whose star continues to shine brighter and brighter,

Porter1._JPG Go Go Penguin, Michael Kiwanuka, Terence Blanchard, Troyka and Neil Cowley (due to clashes/tennis/interviews I missed several acts, including Esperanza Spalding, who sounded in fine form, and Melody Gardot). John Fordham in his very fair Guardian review (www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/jul/07/love-supreme-festival-review) didn’t seem to mind Bryan Ferry, but I thought, as accomplished as his Jazz Age band was at evoking the ‘20s/30s, it was all just plain weird, especially when his guitarist appeared to shred things up a little. Overall, though, A Love Supreme is well worth booking a slot for next year. Let’s hope the sun thinks so, too.

See also John L Walters’ opinion at http://bit.ly/10IBzIx .

For Those Listening To Radio 3 @ 7.30pm Tonight

These are the notes the audience at Snape will have as a guide to the piece’s structure. It is based on The Jolly Corner by Henry James, but is set on a Transatlantic ship, New York in the late ’40s and Soho present day. Spot the Benjamin Britten references (because there’s none in the music).

THAT OBSCURE HURT.

Music by Guy Barker.

PART ONE.  Prologue: An Atlantic Overture.

Early 1950s. The English musicians of Geraldo’s Navy arrive at the docks in awe at the size of their ship, the SS Lucretia. As they board the ship, the captain and the crew bark at the disorientated new hands, sending them this way and that, looking for their cabins, their instruments, their gig and then, as they set sail into rough seas, the newcomers try unsuccessfully to find their sea legs. Eventually, they locate their berths and settle into work and, over the sounds of the ocean, we hear the strains of the dance band and we find ourselves momentarily in the Verandah Ballroom before the skyline of Manhattan makes in appearance. The excited musicians drop their instruments and scuttle ashore. They take in the sights, sounds and throbbing energy of the city – exciting and intimidating in equal measure. They find themselves on 52nd St.

PART TWO. Prince At the Pagoda.

Early 1950s. The jazz club on 52nd St where the musicians listen in rapture to host Harry Prince as the band plays a roaring be-bop piece that incorporates passages from the solos of the great modern jazz maters of that era: Bud Powell, Fats Navarro and even a four-bar quote from Dizzy Gillespie’s “Ow”.

PART THREE. In Darkness.

Present Day. Spencer Bryden is watching CCTV from a remote location and sees the ‘ghost’ haunting his club (Gordie’s or AMJG) in Soho, London. An account of the encounter is read out by Jennifer Muldoon, an investigator into psychic phenomena.

PART FOUR. Opus 50/ A Time There Is

Present Day. Spencer, still reeling from the images he saw on the CCTV, visits the Soho jazz club (Gordie’s, above) he inherited from his father, which is in its final week of operation before its proposed sale.  Harry Prince Jr – the son of the man Spencer’s father saw in NYC all those years ago – sings a song about the passage of time.

PART FIVE. Powder Monkey.

1960s flashback. Harry Prince Jr, with a little help from Alice Staverton, the club manager, evokes the sounds of the club in its sixties heyday.

PART SIX. Notturno.

Spencer is alone in the club after hours, the room silent and deserted, the tables with empty glasses, the walls slick with 60 years of smoke and sweat and the echo of all the music that has been played and is about to disappear forever.

PART SEVEN. A Kind of Ghost.

Spencer becomes aware he is not alone. He glimpses a figure. He chases him backstage, terrified but determined to confront the spectre. But the ghost doesn’t want to be caught – it is elusive and playful, giggling, darting and dancing (in one instance to a tango) through the club, shredding Spencer’s already taut nerves, until, finally, an exhausted Spencer manages to corner the phantom. When he finally does confront the ‘ghost’, he realises he is looking at a different version of himself. This was the terrifying image he saw on the CCTV.  This is the man he would have been, had he not left London for exile. But this ghost is suffering – he has cancer, is constantly chewing nicotine gum to suppress the urge for the cigarettes that have killed him. He has come to warn Spencer. And enlighten him.

PART EIGHT. I Hid My Love.

Spencer reels yet again at the revelations from his other self (musically, the brass chorale in Opus 50 reappears, but this time played on the strings). The ghost departs and Spencer discovers cans of old film from the days when his father was alive. He plays the super-8 movies and sings a song about the love of his father (and Alice), and how he denied it. This piece is designed to echo ‘the sounds of the era of ‘The Great American Songbook’.

PART NINE. Alice’s Gift.

Alice finds Spencer passed out in the club. She wakes him. He reveals what the ghost told him- that Alice has paid off the gangsters who had been threatening him and that she has saved the club – if he wants to keep it, he can. Alice makes a speech explaining herself and finally declaring her love for Spencer. He realises he has been a fool – he can have the club, and Alice too. With thanks to Henry James and his friend Edith Wharton.

PART TEN. Floods of Noise.

The spirits of every musician who has ever played the club celebrates including a reprise of Powder Monkey.

KURT ELLING, BENJAMIN BRITTEN AND GERALDO’S NAVY

An extract from the programme notes for That Obscure Hurt, a new piece by Guy Barker:

“Guy Barker and Robert Ryan first came to Snape Maltings in 2008 for a performance of dZf, their reimagining of the story of The Magic Flute. As a result of that performance, the Aldeburgh Music Festival asked whether Guy would be interested in creating something similar to celebrate Benjamin Britten’s centenary. Guy accepted and then asked Ryan if he could again help. ‘I am a long term admirer of Benjamin Britten’s music,’ says Guy, ‘and I knew from the very beginning this had to be a very different approach from the one we used for dZf.’
In the end they went back to the title of the concert series ‘Inspired By Britten’ and decided to look at where Britten had turned to for inspiration of his own work and Ryan began to consider the two operas based on Henry James ghost stories – The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave and discovered another of the tales, The Jolly Corner, which had all the elements they required to make a start. Although Britten never tackled a third James story, they felt as if they were tapping into the same source. However, the jazz element of the music had to grow organically from the setting of the story (Barker was insistent that none of Britten’s music be touched or referenced).

So, the story was relocated from an apartment block in New York to a jazz club in Soho. There is a prologue, about the dance bands who worked on the transatlantic liners, crossing to New York, which gave them a thematic link to Britten’s own crossing to America. The Cunard dance bands (“Geraldo’s Navy”) are legendary in the jazz world – musicians such as Ronnie Scott, John Dankworth and Stan Tracey would sign on with the sole intention of rushing ashore in NYC to hear the new music being played in the clubs of 52nd St and the Village by modern jazz giants such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell.

Unknown When originally conceived by Ryan, there was to be no spoken narration or songs in the piece. As things developed, Barker began hearing songs and while experimenting with an idea for the prologue set in NYC, all he could hear in his head was Kurt Elling’s voice. And so Kurt was approached to play Harry Prince, singer at The Pagoda nightclub, and agreed and the piece took another turn. It subsequently became apparent that a different form of narrative was required in addition to Kurt.

With dZf they had an American actor but the writers wanted to go a different way this time by using with an English actress. Barker had seen Janie Dee perform the works of Pinter and Ayckbourn and knew she had the voice they needed. The final piece features these two great performers plus the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Guy Barker Jazz Orchestra – a total of 77 individuals on stage.”

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So just to reiterate – we have managed to get the great Kurt Elling, who recently sold out Ronnie Scott’s for eight consecutive shows, to come to the concert hall at Snape Maltings deep in rural Suffolk and sing my “lyrics” and the equally wonderful Janie Dee to do the narration. As I said to Guy: ‘You always said Kurt could sing the phonebook and make it entertaining.. we’re about to find out if that’s true.’

* That Obscure Hurt premieres as part of Aldeburgh Festival at Snape Maltings on Wednesday June 12th. Further details: 01728-68710, http://www.aldeburgh.co.uk/events/guy-barker-obscure-hurt. It will also be broadcast live on Radio 3.