I Rediscover Gil Evans’ Music

It’s interesting how tastes change.  I have found that the more I listen to music, the more my taste expands.  When I first started listening to jazz, I much preferred johnny doddsJohnny Dodds to Charlie Parker, but gradually through a journey that took in Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges, I arrived at bop and Charlie Parker.  I stayed with Charlie Parker for quite some time before taking in John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and, more recently, the European scene and the free jazz and improvised music approaches.

I have always felt that, certainly for my generation, that progression from New Orleans jazz onwards was a natural way of engaging with jazz.  I remember being surprised, almost shocked, when I met people who assured me that they started listening to jazz with Ornette Coleman.  Nothing wrong with that of course, and I have to admit that it is a more likely way in to jazz today.

I was reminded of this last week when my occasional search for an LP led to a whole rediscovery of the later music of Gil Evans.  I am always reminded of something I read about the processes of scientific investigation; the argument was that a researcher sets out to investigate Finding A, but ends up with Finding B, but writes up the investigation as the search for the actual finding, i.e. Finding B.  So it is with searches in my collection, especially the vinyl collection; I look for Artist A, find Artist B and decide to listen to and write about that artist.

In February 1978, I was back in Birmingham after eight years teaching in the Middle East and one year teaching Venezuelans in Lancaster.  I was gradually rediscovering my interest in music, initially more with the CBSO (City of Birmingham Orchestra), but was excited to have the opportunity of hearing Gil Evans who was making his first appearances in UK with a top American line up – Arthur Blythe, George Adams, David Sanborn, Lew Soloff and many others including the Japanese keyboard player Masabumi Kikuchi.  This was on 24th February 1978 at Birmingham Town Hall in a double bill with the Stan Tracey Octet curated by the Contemporary Music Network (CMN).

gil evansI had long been a fan of the great collaborations between Gil Evans and Miles Davis and therefore of albums such as Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess.  But while abroad I hadn’t kept up with developments in jazz and, in particular, in the ways Gil Evans had moved into different musical territories.  So I was confused and baffled by the concert: I wasn’t ready for the much looser approach of 1978 band as compared with that of the 1950s band, nor was I comfortable with the electronics of Masabumi Kikuchi.

The albums I found were the two albums (At The Royal Festival Hall/Gil Evans on RCA Records and The Rest of Gil Evans Live of the Royal Festival Hall London 1978 on Mole Records) of the music recorded at the Royal Festival Hall the day after the Birmingham concert I had attended.  So I imagine the music on the album must be broadly similar to the music I heard in Birmingham.

I now absolutely love this music. It has all the qualities of Gil Evans’ later music, the vibrancy of the ensemble passages, the use of electronics, the interpretation of Jimi Hendrix tunes (Angel, Stone Free, Voodoo Chile and Up From The Skies), the creation of the right settings for individual soloists.

Perhaps the best example is the version of Hendrix’s tune Angel which is a feature for David Sanborn.  You can hear this here; it has the vibrancy that comes from a live performance; it has Sanborn as his most powerful supported initially by some bubbling electronics from Kikuchi and, when the brass comes in, it never fails to send shivers down my spine.  There are many other delights on the RCA record: Hendrix’s Stone Free and a medley of Charlie Parker tunes, and Mingus’ Orange Was The Colour of Her Dress, then Silk Blue.  The sound balance on the Mole record is not as good as on the RCA record and George Adams often seems a bit off mic, but there is wonderful version of Gil Evans’ own tune Variation On The Misery with trumpeter Hannibal Marvin Peterson playing superbly throughout the tune.

This tour with Gil Evans in 1978 was the first of a number of visits, and he toured with a top British band in 1983.  Sadly when Gil was booked in 1988 by the Royal Festival Hall in a series with the theme of late work by various composers, for example Beethoven’s late string quartets, he died some time before the concert and the band was led by trumpeter Lew Soloff.

I Shall Miss John Cumming

john cummingI feel immensely sad to hear of John Cumming’s death; he was a good friend and a great colleague.   He had a significant influence on my activity as a promoter.  I think it is particularly sad that John was not able to enjoy the retirement he was so looking forward to and the travel with Ginnie that he was planning.

John leaves great achievements; he played a major role, probably the major role, creating an international jazz scene in London and a touring network of British and international artists in the major UK venues.  He ran the much missed Bracknell Jazz Festival, then the Camden Jazz Festival which paved the way for the London Jazz Festival, now rightly regarded as one of the leading jazz festivals in the world.  He curated major tours for the Arts Council’s Contemporary Music Network (CMN) as part of his role at Serious, the promoting organisation he played a key role in building up along with David Jones and Claire Whitaker.  He also played a major role as a Board member of the Europe Jazz Network (EJN).

It was, however, the trust and liking that musicians had for John that made him the force that he was in the jazz world.  He had the ability to deal with agents and musicians as friends and colleagues who shared the same aspirations for the music.  John was fun to deal with, full of humour and wise about the realities of the jazz world.  I can remember him dealing with many tricky situations, such as problems with PA equipment, late arrival of bands, even the KGB minder who was looking after the Ganelin Trio touring UK from Lithuania when it was still part of the Soviet Union.  It was always clear to me that touring musicians from the USA or other parts of Europe looked forward to meeting and interacting with John, and I can remember, for example, how close he was to Jack DeJohnette and Sonny Rollins, and nearer to home John Surman and Andy Sheppard.

I didn’t always agree with John, for example I never understood his lack of enthusiasm for the Loose Tubes generation, Django Bates, Iain Ballamy et al.    But I had the highest regard for his commitment to the music and I shall greatly miss the ability to catch up with him, to get the inside story on artists’ or agents’ decisions and to chat about who to look out for amongst up and coming players and bands.

I am not sure that the jazz world has ever completely grasped how much John Cumming has contributed to the music.  It is great that he was awarded an OBE in the Honours List a few years ago, but John was not a person prone to self-promotion; he just wanted to make a particular gig or tour work or help a given artist develop his or her career.   He leaves a huge gap, and, as the jazz world recovers from the current crisis, his example will be sorely missed.

The Around Houses May Programme and Further Thoughts on Live Streaming

around the housesThe good news is that the Around The Houses programme of live streamed events has some financial support and is therefore able to run a programme every Sunday during May.  The first virtual Around The Houses mini-festival in April was a great success with some excellent music in a strong programme curated by Alex Woods and Sam Slater.  It also raised £2000 for the Help Musicians organisation.

As I say, the May programme has some financial support so this time it can pay the musicians performing  – but donations are still needed.  The programme started last weekend; the pattern is that each Sunday in May there will be a set for children at 11am, an afternoon solo set at 2pm and an evening set at 7.30pm.

This Sunday, May 17th, the programme features:

laura

 

11am   Laura The Musical Explorer.  Laura is a charismatic performer and I think adults will enjoy her show too!  Children certainly will.

 

dave ferris2pm     Dave Ferris solo piano.  Dave is a great pianist and also a fine composer.  I expect his compositional skills may bring a structure to his solo set

 

jim hart7.30pm  Jim Hart solo vibraphone  I’m assuming Jim will play vibes, but he is also a great drummer and percussionist, performing with Bex Burch’s Vula Viel in that role.     I hope it will be the vibes as a solo vibes set should be something special and an event we probably we would be unlikely to hear in a concert situation.

The programme for the rest of the month can be accessed here.

The point I made above about the uniqueness of a solo vibes leads me into a few thoughts about the current situation where many musicians and music venues/promoters are creating a lot of interesting live streamed events.  I have watched quite a few during the lockdown period; some have been gigs played in clubs with a whole group but no audience present; this seems to be possible in the Scandinavian countries. Rather more have been solo or duo performances streamed from the player’s music room.  I have particularly enjoyed these latter events as they seem to create an intimacy and an immediacy that captures something of the vibe one gets at a live gig.  While I really miss the interaction that comes in a group performance, these solo or duo gigs often present a unique event.  Earlier this week the Into The Shed series that Ronny Graupe is running in Berlin had a gig with Chris Dahlgren improvising a fascinating set on the viola da gamba instrument.  You can hear that here.

Earlier this week I joined a Zoom meeting about live streaming organised by Oliver Weindling of the Vortex Jazz Club, which created a very interesting discussion with views presented by both musicians and promoters.  The first point to emerge was that live streaming events are much more effective if they are curated, that is organised with a series of related events or with a theme as in Liam Noble’s solo piano stream.  Then there was a very interesting discussion with musicians Sam Leak and Sam Eastmond very much to the fore arguing that there needs to be a mechanism whereby musicians are paid for these streamed gigs.  Sam Leak described how his performance for Jazz at the Lescar required listeners to pay a fee, in a sense to buy a virtual ticket, in order to access the stream.  This was successful and in that case a good income was generated.

It would seem that live streaming will be the main offer for listeners for the immediate future.  I also believe that this will result in it becoming a regular feature of the scene after lockdown.  So clearly it is essential that we promoters find ways of paying the musicians.  At the moment when audiences are feeling public-spirited, I suspect that a voluntary donation rather than a fixed compulsory entrance fee is likely to generate more income, but, as streaming becomes part of the ‘new normal’, we will need to find other ways to ensure that musicians can earn a living.

Don Byron Clarinetist, Saxophonist, Composer

don byronIn a blog at the beginning of 2019 I welcomed the re-appearance on disc of clarinetist Don Byron in a beautiful duo album with pianist Aruan Ortiz (Random Dances and (A)tonalities) on the Swiss Intakt label.  I described the interaction between the two players as ‘exquisite’.  I also noted that Byron played three of the tracks on tenor saxophone with a tone reminiscent of the sound of the tenor in the 1930s.  You can read that review here.

Don Byron used to be a regular visitor to UK, touring initially with Bill Frisell, then with Uri Caine’s Mahler Primal Light project, and finally with his own projects, Nu Blaxploitation, Music for Six Musicians and the New Gospel Quintet.  He toured as a sidesman with Jack DeJohnette in 2012, but, as far as I am aware, we have not seen or heard him in UK since.  I suspect he has reached that stage in his career when touring seems less attractive and he is looking for projects that keep him in the USA.

Don Byron is the clarinetist who more than anyone else brought the instrument into contemporary jazz; he has complete mastery of the instrument and a beautiful tone, and adds to those attributes an ability to create long flowing solos in the more contemporary jazz idiom.  We hear this particularly strongly in his first album Tuskegee Experiments.  On this album we hear Byron as a brilliant performer on the bass clarinet as well the straight clarinet and also as an excellent curator of an album that has a refreshing range of offers; as well as the quartet and quintet tracks, there is a solo clarinet track, duo tracks and performance of a classical piece, Robert Schumann’s Auf einer Burg.  This liking for the inclusion of a classical piece is a feature of many of Byron’s albums.  You can listen to the title track here.

This openness and liking for variety becomes apparent in the range of albums he has curated since that first album.  We have albums re-visiting the music of the Jewish musician and comedian Mikey Katz, the music of three popular bands from the 1930s, the R&B of Junior Walker and the small group playing of the tenor saxophonist Lester Young.  In addition, we have albums that focus on the Latin music of New York, the hip hop and neo-soul of the New York scene, then albums that take a classical theme and another a gospel theme.  He collaborates with the Bang on a Can contemporary music ensemble.  Most of his albums have a theme or even a hypothesis that the music on the particular album exemplifies.  So, for example, his A Fine Line album posits the argument that many pop anthems such as Roy Orbison’s It’s Over have much in common with classical arias.

In amongst these ‘concept’ albums Byron also recorded a number of albums without a theme in which his own writing and playing are to the fore.   A live album with a quintet with the title No-Vibe Zone recorded at the Knitting Factory in 1996 is an excellent example.

It appears that not all critics are comfortable with the range of the music presented and with his enthusiasm for ‘cross-pollination’ of music.  Some have called Byron a ‘chameleon’, others have referred to him as a ‘jazz nerd’.  Surely these criticisms are unfair.  I see Byron as a fiercely independent and intelligent person with a wide interest in different forms of music and, more generally, in current affairs and history.  I remember him telling me that he was going to stay in London after a tour to find out what really happened during the Second World War.  The interest in Mickey Katz is fascinating; not only is he in Byron’s view one of the major American musicians, but his music is key to understanding what was happening to music in the USA in the rather strange period between the big bands and rock ‘n roll in the early 1950s.  Then his interest in the John Kirby and Raymond Scott bands of the 1930s illuminates another unexplored area of music history.   The revisiting of the music of the Lester Young Trio in the Ivey Divey album is yet another example of a totally refreshing and absorbing way of paying respect to an important tradition.

 

Let’s look at the albums in chronological order:

1992   Tuskegee Experiments 

Discussed above, you can also listen to Tuskegee Strutter’s Ball here.

1993  Don Byron Plays The Music of Mickey Katz

This is one of my favourite albums of Byron’s.  He grew up in the South Bronx area of New York and was surrounded by Jewish families and klezmer music.  He played in various klezmer groups eventually joining the Klezmer Conservatory Band.  Two things attracted Mickey Katz to Byron, the first was that he was a brilliant clarinetist, the second was that he was a very popular musician, bandleader and comedian in the period 1945 to 1955 that Byron describes an interim period between the big band era of the 1930 and 40s and the arrival of rock ‘n roll in the mid-50s.  The album really captures the energy and fun of Katz’s music.  Listen to the track Haim Afen Range, Katz’s version of Home On The Range here.

1995 Music For Six Musicians

Byron will have been surrounded in his youth, not only by klezmer music, but also by Latin music.  On this music he brings together jazz playing with Latin rhythms, but the focus is rather more on the jazz.  The later album You Are #6: More Music for Six Musicians, see below, seems to have more of an authentic feel of New York Latin music with relaxed rhythms and vocals.

1996 Bug Music

In this album Byron pays tribute to three bands that were very popular in the 1930s, the early Duke Ellington Orchestra, John Kirby and his Orchestra and The Raymond Scott Quintette.  Byron regards the early Ellington band as one of his absolute favourites and is fascinated by the way the Kirby and Scott bands responded to the challenge of finding a niche between the jazz of Ellington and classical music.  Raymond Scott’s music was very influential on the music that accompanied film cartoons, and Byron developed an excellent programme for children based on Bug Music that came to Midlands Arts Centre in 2002,

1996 Don Byron Quintet: No-Vibe Zone

A live recording in which Byron plays with a great quintet, Uri Caine on piano, David Gilmore on guitar, Kenny Davis on bass and Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith on drums.  There is no theme to the album and they play a number of originals by Byron and a show tune by Johnny Mercer Tangerine. It’s a fine album with great playing all round and good opportunity to hear what a fine soloist in a more straightahead contemporary jazz context Byron can be.

1998 Nu Blaxploitation

In this album Byron engages with hip hop and spoken word.  In my opinion this is one of his less successful albums, but it has a brilliant track, Dodi, in which vocalist Sadiq sympathises with Princess Di’s fated lover.  You can hear this track here.

1999  Romance With The Unseen

This is another of Byron’s albums without a theme, just a series of versions of songs written by Ellington, Lennon McCartney, Herbie Hancock and some originals by Byron.  They are played by a great quartet with Bill Frisell on guitar, Drew Gress on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.  On the gentler songs we get to hear what a beautiful sound Byron has on clarinet.

2000  A Fine Line: Arias and Lieder

Here the hypothesis is that pop anthems have much in common with classical arias and lieder.  It has a brilliant version of Ladies Who Do Lunch by Cassandra Wilson which you can hear here.

2001  You are #6: More Music For Six Musicians

This album captures the true atmosphere of Latin music in New York and, as stated above, I prefer it to the earlier Music for Six Musicians.

2004 Ivey Divey

A wonderful album in which Byron develops his interest in music from earlier periods. The inspiration is an album made by Lester Young with Nat King Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums and the trio formed for the recording with Jason Moran on piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums provides a brilliant example of how to engage with the jazz tradition and create something fresh and interesting.  On one track Byron plays tenor saxophone with a sound which relates to the gentler tone of Lester Young.  There are also very original versions of two Miles Davis tunes: Freddy Freeloader and In a Silent Way

2006 Do The Boomerang: The Music of Junior Walker

Here Byron and groups of various sizes engage with old school R&B and the Motown music of saxophonist Junior Walker.  The group is really tight and funky, and Byron plays some really hard hitting saxophone with a harder tone than on the Ivey Divey track mentioned above. I love hearing a group playing this genre with really slick ensemble work and solos of a quality that one does not always get with a regular R&B band.

2012 Love Peace and Soul

Byron engages with gospel music on this album; as ever, he has done lots of research and comes up with a fine interpretation of that genre that both revisits it and takes it forward.  Vocalist D.K. Dyson and pianist Xavier Davis are key to this interpretation of a genre that Byron has described as ‘the unifier of African American identity’.  It is interesting to note that also in UK many Afro-Caribbean jazz musicians have a background in gospel music.  Some years before the recording in 2009 Byron had led a tour of UK with this project playing a brilliant set at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

2018 Random Dances and (A)tonalties

The duo album with Aruan Ortiz discussed above.

Poing + Maja Ratkje International Workers’ Day

Poing m Maja S K Ratkje_Foto_Ketil_Hardy_DFF_6700_10x15cm

A quick post to say how much I enjoyed last night’s live streaming from the Nasjonaljazzscene in Oslo featuring the trio Poing vocalist Maja Ratkje.  It was a special performance marking International Workers’ Day on May 1st.  The music was built around the music of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and others in that style, and was delivered with great conviction and humour by Maja Ratkje and the trio.  It’s still available on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkrtUSQERxk&feature=youtu.be and I strongly recommend it.

Poing is a trio led by accordionist Frode Halti and features saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm and bass player Håkon Thelin.  All seem very active on the Norwegian music scene in various genres, but their website http://www.poing.no suggests that their main focus is on contemporary classical music.  Maja Ratkje is also an artist whose music transcends genres, from improvised music through to classical composition..  In UK she has worked with Chris Mapp’s Gominoblast and has been commissioned more than once by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music  Festival.

Most of the introductions were unsurprisingly in Norwegian, but occasionally they switched to English comments.  From these I understood that their celebration of International Workers’ Day is an annual event and they are usually joined for it by Maja Ratkje.   I was struck by both by their commitment to the songs and by the way they brought them to life through arrangements for the trio’s interesting line up of accordion, bass and saxophones.  They ended a long two hour set with a tremendous rendition of the Internationale in both German and Norwegian.

The Nature of Improvisation in Jazz: Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz

lee bookI have enjoyed rediscovering the fascinating series of interviews with Lee Konitz in Andy Hamilton’s Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art.  In his introduction (Hamilton, 2007, p. xi) Hamilton argues that Lee Konitz should be heard in his own words rather than have them summarised in a biography.  Hamilton justifies this very persuasively by noting that Konitz was rare in his willingness to discuss both his own approaches to playing and improvising, and those of others.

Konitz is particularly interesting on Charlie Parker’s approach to improvising.  Parker was of course considered the finest improviser of the bebop movement and the player who, along with Dizzy Gillespie, established bebop as the dominant form of jazz in the late 1940s and onwards.  Konitz regarded Parker as a genius and the major figure in jazz, and, although he developed his own style that was significantly different stylistically and soundwise from that of Parker’s, he always acknowledged his influence from Parker.

In talking about Parker’s improvisational style, Konitz states he regards it as ‘compositional’ and as ‘developing a vocabulary of motifs’  (Hamilton, p. 22).  He goes on to say in another interview (Hamilton, p. 102) that ‘as a composer he conceived of great phrases’  that he was able to bring together in a given solo.

charlie parkerWe can illustrate this by listening here to Parker’s solo on Billie’s Bounce, with apologies that I don’t seem able to get rid of the advert!  This was recorded on Parker’s first recording under his own name in November 1945.   Parker develops his solo through great majestic phrases, based on the blues, that are perfectly formed and totally logical.  Of course many of Parker’s recorded solos were restricted by the three minute format, and one is tempted to think that Parker worked on his solos and even planned them in advance such is the logic and flow of these solos.  This, however, is shown not to be the case if one listens to the alternate takes; Parker would often improvise totally different solos on a given tune as the recording session developed.

Was this just a phenomenon of Parker’s studio work?  The evidence from live recordings suggests otherwise.  Parker’s solos from the September 1947 Carnegie Hall concert (Diz ‘N’ Bird In Concert, Vogue Records LAE 12252) are also excellent examples of what is discussed by Konitz.   Sadly this recording does not seem to appear online

The only exception I have found is the famous 1953 Massey Hall concert with Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach (The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever, Prestige PR24024).   On All The Things You Are which you can hear here, Parker interacts with Gillespie and seems rather more flexible in his solo that in the previous examples.

The terms ‘instant composition’ is often used to describe improvisation and it would certainly seem an appropriate term for Parker’s soloing.

Konitz’s approach to soloing is much more improvisational, by which I mean it is more spontaneous and is usually taken in different directions by what is happening around him in the rhythm section.  All the biographies of and tributes to Konitz following his recent death, have pointed to this aspect of his playing.  John Fordham in his excellent obituary suggests that ‘Konitz sounded like a jazz player from a different habitat entirely – a man immersed in contemplation more than impassioned tumult, a patient explorer of fine-tuned nuances’ (The Guardian, April 16th 2020).  We can hear this very clearly in one of Konitz’s top recordings, Motion, with drummer Elvin Jones and bass player Sonny Dallas.  Listen to the opening track I Remember You here.  Sonny Dallas lays down a strong rhythm on the bass which allows Konitz to interact spontaneously with Jones’ inventiveness on the drums.  He moves between short phrases and long flowing lines that I suspect not even he knew how they were going to end.  He occasionally pauses seemingly to reflect on where to go next.  The interaction with Jones is stunning.

This is not to argue that either approach is better, or more stimulating than the other.  It is rather a recognition of what a rich and diverse aspect of music improvisation is.

Reference

Hamilton, Andy (2007) Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press