Phil Seaman: Seaman’s Mission

phil seaman imageOne of the advantages of the lockdown period has been the opportunity to catch up with various box sets bought with great optimism, but often sadly neglected after the initial enthusiasm.  I haven’t yet managed to get back to the Miles Davis Quintet’s Live At The Plugged Nickel set, but I have really enjoyed catching up with Seaman’s Mission, the 4-Cd set of Phil Seaman’s work as the drummer in a range of ensembles from quartets through to big bands.   Phil Seaman has always been a bit of a mystery to me; I am pretty certain that I heard him play on a number of occasions back in the 1960s when I first went down to London, but I hadn’t till this period really studied his playing in any depth.

In the 1950s and the 1960s Phil Seaman had the reputation of being the finest drummer in Europe, one who had the ability to provide a really driving rhythm for a big band and a very supportive swing for a small bop group.  He even got the call to play in the West End production of West Side Story, seemingly at the request of the composer Leonard Bernstein himself.  Seaman also had a reputation as a character, a wit and a consumer of massive quantities of drugs and alcohol.  The latter aspect of his character led to a reputation for unreliability and I suspect he was playing less by the time I was in London in the mid-1960s.  He died in 1972.

On the four Cds in the Seaman’s Mission Box Set we hear Seaman in big bands, the Jack Parnell Orchestra, Kenny Graham and his Afro-Cubists, the Ronnie Scott Orchestra and the Victor Feldman Big Band, and with various small groups, the Jimmy Deuchar Ensemble, the Dizzy Reece Quartet and Quintet, The Joe Harriott Quartet and Quintet, the Victor Feldman Quartet and Quintet, The Victor Feldman/Jimmy Deuchar Quintet. The Jazz Couriers, the Tubby Hayes Quartet.

The first thing that struck me listening to all this music which was mostly from the 1950s is how well that generation of players had absorbed the bop idiom.  We all know how good Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Stan Tracey were as they, with the exception of Hayes, continued to play for many years after the 50s.  But it is good to realise how excellent other less well known players were in the bop idiom: trumpeters Jimmy Deuchar and Dizzy Reece, alto saxophonist Derek Humble, pianist and vibraphonist Victor Feldman (who went on to make his career in USA), pianist Tommy Pollard, bass player Kenny Napper.  One player who really stands out is alto saxophonist Joe Harriott who comes across as a really exciting bop player in the tracks of his quartet and then as a brilliant innovator in the two examples in this collection of his free form playing.

All this of this music was fresh and exciting, but was ultimately following the example of the Americans; the development of a unique British voice as part of the European scene was to come later.

It is clear from this collection that Phil Seaman was both a great bop drummer and a great big band drummer.  It is fascinating to hear him driving the various big bands tracks in the collection, and to hear how he will take short solos somewhat in the style of the swing drummers of 1940s big bands.  With the small groups he will often have an important role in the playing of the tune punctuating the lines of the horns, but once the solos start he sees his role as being supportive of the soloist rather than as an equal participant.   On many of these small group tracks he will engage in the four or eight bar trading with the horns that is so characteristic of the bop style, and he will take short drum solos.  Even in the much more experimental music of Joe Harriott’s free form tracks – Abstract and Formation are included in the collection – Seaman sees his role as providing a straightforward pulse.

 

It seems that Seaman did not embrace the larger role for the drummer that came with American drummers such as Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Paul Motian.  But there are some interesting instances where Seaman plays a more dominant role; for example on Free, a track from Stan Tracey’s trio album Little Klunk where Tracey plays vibes.  Here Seaman is very much an equal partner with Tracey and plays lines that seem reminiscent of African rhythms.  Then on The Escape and the Chase, a track made by the Dizzy Reece Quartet  for the soundtrack  for the film Nowhere To Go  Seaman starts the track off by improvising interesting lines on cowbells.   On the five tracks by Kenny Graham and the Afro Cubists Seaman plays a very interesting role combining his style with the percussion of two Afro-Caribbean players, especially on the evocative Haitian Ritual and the two short tracks led by the percussion, One Four and Five Four.

So my conclusion is that Phil Seaman was a key figure in the early days of British modern jazz and was outstanding in the role of a bebop drummer.  It is interesting that for many listeners this is the role that the drummer should play in the ensemble, that is, providing the rhythmic support for the front line instruments and to take the occasional solo.  But the role of the drummer has changed in more contemporary jazz and the role is much more one of equal partnership with the rest of the band.

A Big Band Without a Rhythm Section

clear lineNew York based trombonist and composer Jacob Garchik has come up with a revolutionary idea for a big band.  It’s a big band with 13 players, who are 5 saxophonists, 4 trumpets and 4 trombonists.  This means that there is no piano, no double bass and no drums.  In his Twitter feed @JacobGarchik Garchik explains that he has been involved with big bands since his childhood and has played in over 50 of them.  He notes that the trombones in big bands are usually relegated to the section and wait for an opportunity to solo that often does not come.  He goes on to say in developing music for the 13-piece band he was at pains to avoid the clichés of both straightahead jazz and avant-garde jazz.  He also goes into detail on the clichés of big band jazz that he wishes to avoid: screech trumpets, ‘lush usage of woodwinds and colourful mutes’, long solos and big climaxes.

You can read his whole piece in a series of tweets at @JacobGarchik.  They were posted on July 28th.

The result is a wonderful set of 9 pieces for an album with the title Clear Line.  I don’t feel qualified to comment in detail on the music.  Suffice it to say that I found it exciting, unusual, refreshing, accessible and some of the interesting music I have heard for some time.  It is fresh and innovative without totally rejecting the big band tradition.

I therefore strongly recommend it; it’s available at: https://jacobgarchik.bandcamp.com/album/clear-line.

Do buy it.

jacob garchik1Jacob Garchik is perhaps one of the less known musicians in New York, at least in UK, but he is certainly one of the most creative.  He composed and played all the parts in the wonderful The Heavens album with music inspired by the gospel trombone choirs of certain churches in the USA.  A UK version of that project toured to Birmingham, Sheffield and London in 2019.  He arranges for the Kronos Quartet and played on tour with the Mark Morris Dance Groups Pepperland, the tribute to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  He also occasionally deps for Brian Drye, the trombonist in Hadestown, and has written about that part at https://slate.com/culture/2019/11/hadestown-trombone-brian-drye.html.

British Representation In The Downbeat Critics’ Poll

It is interesting to see who comes into the Downbeat Critics’ Poll.  This is an annual list chosen by 154 critics, most of who are in the USA.  There are three UK critics in the list:  Sebastian Scotney of London Jazz News and The Arts Desk, Ammar Kalia of The Guardian and Downbeat, Brian  Morton of The Wire and The Herald, Bruce Lindsay of Jazz Journal and Jon Newey of Jazzwise.

There are two categories, the main category and the Rising Star category.

Inevitably the Poll is dominated by American artists; Downbeat is an American magazine and nearly all the critics are also American.  But it is good to see a number surmanof British entries, some well established artists such as John Surman in the main Baritone Saxophone category and Evan Parker in the main Soprano Saxophone category (but not in the Tenor Saxophone category) while others are part of new scenes in UK, e.g. Shabaka Hutchings or Yazz Ahmed. It’s interesting that quite a few of the new London scene have clearly gained a reputation in the USA, partly as a result of the PRSF support of their appearances at US festivals.

Here’s a list of the UK artists who appear.  The full list of all poll winners is in this month’s Downbeat (August)

MAIN CATEGORY

ancestorsJazz Album of the Year:  Shabaka Hutchings & The Ancestors: We Are Sent Here by History

Soprano Saxophone: Evan Parker – also nice to see Ingrid Laubrock there; she’s German and now in New York, but spent a significant period of her career in London

Tenor Saxophone:  Ingrid Laubrock is there

Clarinet: Shabaka Hutchings

Keyboard: Kit Downes

Organ: Kit Downes

Double Bass:  Dave Holland, British but based in the USA

Female vocalist: Norma Winstone

Male Vocalist: Jacob Collier, Phil Minton

Arranger: Django Bates

Beyond Artist: Richard Thompson Jeff Beck

Beyond Album: Michael Kiwanuka: Kiwanuka; Van Morrison: Three Chords and the Truth

 

RISING STARS

Jazz Artist: Shabaka Hutchings

Group: Shabaka Hutchings & the Ancestors; The Comet Is Coming

yazz 1Trumpet: Yazz Ahmed

Soprano Saxophone: Nathaniel Facey

Tenor Saxophone: Nubya Garcia; Josephine Davies

Baritone Saxophone: Karen Sharp

Flute: Gareth Lockrane, Finn Peters

Keyboard: Joe Armon-Jones

Organ: Alexander Hawkins

Electric Bass: Michael Janisch, American, but UK based

Vibes:  Corey Mwamba; Jim Hart, Lewis Wright

Arranger: Jacob Collier

 

I hope I haven’t missed anyone!

Otis Sandsjö: Y-Otis 2, A Review

Y-Otis 2I have been listening to Otis Sandsjö’s second album Y-Otis 2 on the Finnish We label.  Sandsjö is a Swedish saxophonist based in Berlin, and the album is a product of his longstanding relationship with Petter Eldh, a fellow Swede also based in Berlin.  In other contexts they provide the contrasting whirlwind of sound that accompanies Lucia Cadotsch’s vocals in the Speak Low trio, and Sandsjö is a key member of Eldh’s Koma Saxo group.   Eldh produced both of Sandsjö’s albums, Y-Otis and Y-Otis 2.

It’s a fascinating album that has as its core a group with Sandsjö on tenor sax and clarinet, Dan Nicholls on keys and electronics, Eldh on double bass and electronics, Tilo Weber on drums, plus appearances from Per ‘Texas’ Johanssen and Jonas Kullhammar, both on flute, Lucy Railton on cello and Ruhi-Deniz Erdogan on trumpet.

The first track, waldo, is characteristic of the album’s music and approach.  It starts with Sandsjö weaving lines on the saxophone over a choppy rhythm from the bass and drums; then his voice is blended with the electronic sounds and the drums come to the fore with patterns that seem to be influenced by those of hip hop drummers.   The track continues in this mode up to an abrupt finish.  These features dominate throughout the album, the only variations being that the second track tremendoce features an attractive loop on the flutes of Johanssen and Kullhammer and that Track 8 bobby has an edgy feel that is stronger than in the other tracks.

otisThe general approach is to mix together the playing of the various instruments with the electronics.  The rhythms of Eldh and Weber are often dominant and Sandsjö’s sound on the saxophone or clarinet is often gently manipulated to create an ambient effect.  The result has been described as ‘smeary’; while I can see this is meant as a positive link to a kind of painting, the word strikes me a negative in tone, and I would prefer to describe the music as having a splash of colours.

This approach has also been described as ‘Mauerpark liquid jazz’.  Mauerpark is a park in a hip part of Berlin, the city in which most of these musicians are based.  The adjective ‘liquid’ I see as reflecting the creation of a fluid style in which no particular instrument dominates.  This is a style that is seen in Eldh’s Amok Amor group with Peter Evans, Wanja Slavin and Christian Lillinger, and in the Koma Saxo group that Eldh also leads and in which Sandsjö plays a key role.

I believe that Eldh’s and Sandsjö have developed a very interesting approach to the integration of free jazz with contemporary sounds of electronica and the rhythms coming from a mix of jazz and hip hop.  It has the potential to become very popular with audiences across both the jazz and the urban music scenes.

I have bought the album on Bandcamp at https://wejazzrecords.bandcamp.com/album/y-otis-2.

A Collaboration Between Deerhoof and Wadada Leo Smith

deerhoof and wadadaDeerhoof is a band I have got to know because a lot of young jazz players and students often rave about them.  I have listened to several of their albums and am attracted by their non-formulaic rock approach.  So when I heard that they have put out on Bandcamp a recording of a live gig with free jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, I immediately downloaded it and have listened to it several times.   Part of the attraction was a feeling that adding an improvising horn to an avant-pop group, such as Deerhoof, has definite possibilities for creating something unique, even ground breaking.

There are eleven tracks in total, mostly quite short.  The first six tracks feature just Deerhoof and bring out all the qualities of their music.  It is quite complex music that has the energy of heavy rock, but also the rapid and unpredictable changes in direction of the best in contemporary jazz or avant-pop.  I particularly enjoy the quirky vocals of Satomi Matsuzaki, and also the interaction between the two guitarists, John Dietrich and Ed Rodriguez. It is, however, the drumming of Greg Saunier that really creates the excitement and unpredictability of the band’s music.

wadadaWadada joins them for the final five tracks.  The music retains the excitement of the Deerhoof alone tracks, but is not totally successful in integrating Wadada’s trumpet.  There are times when he seems to be struggling to find a place in the rapidly changing music.  On the first track of the collaboration, Snoopy Waves, Deerhoof begin at the same level of intensity as in the first six tracks, and Wadada initially contributes just short bursts on the trumpet, but finds his place towards the end of this short track (2.24 mins) with a gentle lyrical passage on trumpet.   Tracks 8 and 9, Breakup Song and Flower, both start with quite a heavy rhythm and a vocal; it sounds great, but Wadada seems to struggle to get into the mix.  On Breakup Song there is some nice interaction between trumpet and guitar, but on the very short Flower (1.50mins) there is not much trumpet apart from an occasional burst.   The final two tracks, Last Fad and Mirror Monster, at 7.54 mins and 4.48 mins respectively, are much longer, and there is much more room for Wadada.   At the beginning of Last Fad Wadada interacts in a kind of call and response, initially with the vocals and then with the two guitars and drums; about half way through he becomes the dominant voice with a beautifully lyrical solo after which the band comes back in.  The track concludes with a second more melodic passage from Wadada accompanied by a gentle drone from guitar at first and then from a wordless vocal.  This track works really well.  On Mirror Monster Wadada leads off over the two guitars before the track settles into a nice groove with the trumpet improvising over the guitar, bass and drums.  The vocals come in about half way through and for the rest of the track Wadada engages in a lovely call and response just with Satomi Matsuzaki on vocals.     This is another successful track.

These two final tracks really make the album one which I would strongly recommend.  The album is out only on Bandcamp, and all proceeds will go to the Black Lives Matter campaign. The full title is To Be Surrounded By Beautiful, Curious, Breathing, Laughing Flesh Is Enough, the first line from Walt Whitman’s poem I Sing The Body Electric.  It was recorded live at Le Poisson Rouge in New York as part of the Winter Fest in 2018.