Memories of Ronnie Scott’s Club on Gerrard Street

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz club - English Heritage Blue, London, 24th October 2019I was delighted to read and see that a plaque has been placed on the site of the original Ronnie Scott’s Club in Gerrard Street in Soho, the Old Place as it became known when the club moved to Frith Street.  The original club played a huge role in my developing love of jazz in the 1960s and I often take the opportunity to walk down Gerrard Street and conjure up memories.  But I have always been uncertain about which exact metal staircase was the one that led down into the club as there are two close together.  With the plaque in place all uncertainty will be removed.

The early 60s was the period when the club first started to be able to book American artists and the first one I heard was Al Cohn playing I suspect with Stan Tracey.  Not long after that Zoot Sims and Al Cohn formed a double saxophone front line, again playing with a British rhythm section.  The club was packed and pints of beer for Zoot were passed over the heads of the audience.

roland kirkI have a particular memory of Roland Kirk who played the club several times in that period.  He was hugely impressive with his three saxophones, flute and the whistle played in moments of excitementBut the first time I went with a friend we sat on the front row and found the proximity to Kirk’s swaying saxophones, particularly when he was playing three at once rather alarming.  But we enjoyed the gig so much that we went back later in the residency only to be told the only seats left were on the front row.  We explained why we were not keen to sit there and were promised that we could move if other seats became available.  We were in due course able to move, but had to do so in the middle of a set by the Ronnie Scott Quartet.  As we left our seats, Ronnie leant across and said ‘we get better later on’!

For a time the club ran a Sunday afternoon session and at one of these I caught a Sonny Stitt clearly unenthusiastic about playing in the afternoon and at another Stan Getz who responded immediately and without complaint to a request to play The Girl From Ipanema (not from me!).

tubby hayesBut very often the best nights were with the Tubby Hayes Quintet or the Ronnie Scott Quartet, the latter featuring Stan Tracey at that time.  There was one very special late night session with a Tubby Hayes group when the Ellington band was in town and some of the younger members of the band dropped into the club and sat in with Tubby’s group.  Tubby was clearly out to show these Americans what he could do and that night he played some of the most exciting solos I heard him play.

Life took me away from London so, much to my regret, I never heard Sonny Rollins in the club, nor any of the contemporary or South African exile bands that played in what became known as The Old Place when the main club moved to Frith Street.

I look forward to my next walk down Gerrard Street and being sure which staircase it was that led into the club.

Jack Gelber’s The Connection at Eastside Jazz Club

freddie reddI have always wanted to see The Connection, the innovative play written by Jack Gelber and first produced in New York’s Living Theatre in July 1959 and which includes a score written especially for the play by pianist Freddie Redd.  Redd’s quartet with Jackie Maclean on alto sax, Michael Mattos on double bass and Larry Ritchie on drums appeared in the original production and on tour.  The play appeared in London in 1961 and people were still talking about it in 1962 when I went up to university in London.

So I was excited to learn that it was being performed in the Eastside Jazz Club with acting and jazz students from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire which now houses Birmingham City University’s acting courses as well as the music courses.  There have been seven performances so far including the one I attended this afternoon (Sunday) and there are three performances this week.  It seems to be selling out for every performance, so I was glad to have booked in advance.

The connection posterThe play tells the story of four heroin addicts plus four musicians, also addicts, waiting for a fix.    There is also a play within a play as two film producers plus two cameramen are making a documentary about the addicts.  I have to admit that I found this rather confusing at first with the two producers occasionally interrupting the dialogue to admonish the addicts to put more into their performances.  Nonetheless, the play paints a convincingly harrowing picture of four addicts and their inability to escape from their habit and the tension that builds up between them as they become more desperate for their fix.  The music written for the play by Freddie Redd comes in at specific moments; it underpins the action and adds to the tension of the piece.  The final piece O.D., for example, links very effectively to Leach’s near fatal overdose.

The tension in the situation of the play builds up gradually through Act 1 and quite dramatically in Act 2 when Cowboy, the dealer, arrives with the heroin and each addict goes into the bathroom to get their fix and Leach nearly kills himself with an overdose.  They are eventually joined in getting a fix by one of the directors of the documentary and one of the cameramen.  The music complements the action brilliantly and is performed with great panache by Liam Brennan on alto sax, Cameron Sheehy on piano, Louis Stringer on bass and Andrew Duncan on drums.  The latter played in a Peaky Blinders cap!   In the original play the musicians are listed with their real names as they wanted to get attention for the music; here the four students just have the first names of the original band, so that, for example, Liam Brennan is Jackie, Cameron Sheehy Freddie, etc.

I really enjoyed the play and the performance.  I loved the way the actors were on stage and Cameron was playing the piano as we entered the club.  That immediately created an atmosphere.  I also enjoyed the way that the actors interacted with the audience at certain points.  My only concerns were that on occasion I had difficulty in following what the actors were saying; either they were talking too quietly or sometimes too fast.  I also wonder about the role in the play of Sister Salvation, the Salvation Army officer who arrives with Cowboy, the dealer, seemingly to enable Cowboy to get away from a couple of inquisitive police officers.  She seems unaware of what is going on, and eventually accuses the addicts of drunkenness on the basis of the number of empty wine bottles in the bathroom.  I am not sure what the point of her character is and what role she plays.  Her character does, however, lead into one the most attractive of Redd’s tunes, simply Sister Salvation.

I really applaud this collaboration between the acting and jazz students at the Conservatoire and the direction of Kristine Landon Smith and the musical direction of John O’Gallagher.  I look forward to future activity.

The Norwegian Hubro Label Celebrates Its 10th Anniversary

THubro_logo_light-greenhe Norwegian label Hubro celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.  It’s a small independent label that has become one of the most interesting in Europe through its championing of all the fascinating and varied music that is coming out of Norway.   The most notable characteristic of this music and particularly of that recorded on the Hubro label, is that it does not fit into one category.  It is the music of blurred genres, so that we have, for example, an artist noted for his folk music such as Nils Økland collaborating with experimental musicians, or bands such as Exoterm adding strong elements of rock and free improvisation into a jazz approach.  This is clearly a feature of the contemporary Norwegian music scene, but increasingly it is a more general feature of music making throughout creative circles in Europe.

Every so often a package arrives from Norway with a number of the latest releases.  They are beautifully packaged and accompanied by a press release outlining the key points of each release. One attractive feature, at least for me, is that the CDs are relatively short with about 35 to 40 minutes of music in each Cd, in other words about the length of a vinyl album.  I find this healthy as I still, in my perhaps old-fashioned way, like to sit down and listen to an album in one go, thinking about it as I listen.    The Cds that have up to or over 70 minutes of music make that much more difficult.

Four Cds arrived recently and I will comment on each one briefly. They are excellent examples of the variety mentioned above.  Some are rooted in jazz, but draw on rock and trash metal, while other are based in folk, but combine it with aspects of experimental rock.

LUMEN DRONES: UMBRA

umbraThis is a fascinating album combining the essentially folk sound of Nils Økland’s Hardanger fiddle and violin with that of two experimental rock musicians, Per Steinar Lie on guitars and Ørjan Haaland on drums.  It’s their second album, the first having come out on ECM five years ago.  There are nine tracks varying in length nearly 7 minutes to shorter tracks of just over 2 minutes.  Each tune has its own character from the gentle hynoptic feel of the opening track Inngang to the rock feel of the third track Droneslag that has the fiddle improvising over the driving rhythms of the guitar and drums. The notes suggest that ‘ there might be a bit of Sonic Youth in there, along with Joy Division, John Calle, Arvo Pärt, Dick Dale, Lamonte Young, Paganini …, but it doesn’t really intrude: Lumen Drones play Lumen Drones music’.  It is also intriguing to hear how the Hardanger fiddle, usually associated with folk and classical music, sounds at home with the jazz, rock and contemporary classical sounds of the trio.

EXOTERM: EXITS INTO A CORRIDOR 

Exoterm is a Norwegian American quartet led by bass player Rune Nergaard and featuring Norwegian saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, plus guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Jim Black from the USA.  The album was recorded in Brooklyn and has six tracks.  It is an extremely powerful and occasionally overwhelming album that is full of very intense improvisation, but also adds some gentler more ambient passages.   The notes quotes Nergaard talking of each member of the trio’s love of jazz, rock and improvised music, but that’ in this band every rule and musical boundary is torn down and we combine our musical influences in one big gumbo of sound’ 

JO BERGER MYHRE & ÓLAFUR BJÖRN ÓLAFSSON: LANZAROTE 

This is essentially a duo album the mood of which is one of melancholy triggered by Ólaffson’s sadness at the death of Johann Johannson just before the recording of the album.  Ólaffson had often worked with Johannson and was understandably shocked by his unexpected death.  The music is based on a process whereby the songs are initially created through improvisation and then treated sonically often with overdubs.  The sound is thus ambiently-inclined, but with layers of electronics added.  Track 2 Atomised/All We’ve Got is a good example; on this Ólaffson plays percussion and electronics gradually building up the layers of sound over Myhre’s bass.  On three tracks the duo is joined by a small section of trumpet and trombone doubling tuba adding an extra melancholy texture.

SKARBÓ SKUKEKORPS 

SkarboThis is a septet led by Óvind Skarbó on drums, percussion, vibes and banjo.  The music is the most eclectic of the four albums reviewed here.  The notes state that ‘Óvind Skarbó doesn’t just think outside the box.  With this drummer/composer there is no box.’  There are nine tracks that include vocals accompanied by banjo, a steel guitar solo and a final more in-your-face track.  It’s all very approachable and good fun.

The Hubro label is celebrating its anniversary with a number of showcases round Europe: October 31st October Lantaren Venster, Rotterdam; Spice of Life London 3rd November; La Dynamo, Pantin, France 4th November and Auster Club, Berlin 5th November.

 

 

Mary Halvorson & John Dieterich: A Tangle of Stars

tangle_digital_cover_3000px_screen+(1)At the recent excellent Jazzlines concert with Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl at the CBSO Centre, Birmingham I was fortunate to obtain a copy of Mary’s forthcoming duo album with John Dieterich, the guitarist with the Deerhof band.  It’s essentially a set of guitar duos, but Dieterich does also play on drums and synths.  It’s a fascinating album the music of which goes in all sorts of tricky and quirky directions, and draws on many different styles.

The collaboration between these guitarists seems to be a natural outcome for two musicians whose music defies categorization.  Mary Halvorson in her Code Girl project draws on jazz, art rock and singer songwriter material; she says of her music ‘ So I think if it would have to be put in a category, I probably would consider it jazz. But at the same time that might not be true in ten years. I’m not interested in being a “jazz musician,” I’m just interested in doing whatever music I feel is relevant and exciting.’ (http://atlengthmag.com/music/electric-fruit/)   John Dietrich’s band Deerhof is also noted for a blurring of different genres, particularly post-punk, rock and improv.  One article (Portland Mercury, 2017, quoted in Wikipedia) describes their music as ‘experimental pop mired in a pure sense of adventure’  I have noticed that it is a band that many jazz followers seem to like.mary+and+john

It also helps that Mary and John know each other quite well, and have a high respect for each other’s music.

The album is entitled Mary Halvorson & John Dieterich: A Tangle of Stars and it’s on the New Amsterdam label.  There are twelve tracks, five written by Mary and five by John, one jointly created and one very short opening track from the archive of John Donald Robb.  John’s tunes are quite rocky, often quite staccato in their lines. Some of Mary’s tunes have a rolling bouncy feel with the eclecticism we associate with her compositions, while others of hers have a more atmospheric sound culminating in the very complex, slightly weird Track 9 the handsome. I suspect that Track 11, better than the most amazing game, which is attributed to both players is totally improvised.  Throughout however, whatever the vibe of a particular track, something surprising always seems to happen to subvert the mood.

It is difficult to capture in words what is going on in the various tracks, but it is definitely an album to listen to in one straight through go, enjoying the way the mood changes from track to track. Some tracks are lively and upbeat, others are dark and brooding, all of them are highly rhythmic.  It is also difficult to work out when they are playing the composition and when they are improvising, always a good sign of good challenging music.  John Dieterich captures the essence of the music when he says ‘the album is tangled, full of little strange musical nooks and crannies that may or may not lead somewhere’. (https://www.tinymixtapes.com/news/mary-halvorson-and-john-dieterich-announce-new-collaborative-guitar-album).

The album is to be released on October 25th and will be launched at Roulette in Brooklyn New York on October 28th.

Three British Albums Reviewed in Downbeat

It was extremely pleasing to see three important albums by UK bands reviewed in the October edition of the American music magazine Downbeat.  The albums are Shifa Live At Café Oto, Laura Jurd’s Stepping Back, Jumping In and Rebecca Nash’s Atlas’ Peaceful King. 

SHIFAThe Shifa album receives a 4 Star review (4 Star means Excellent), and it describes the music as ‘an uncompromising and uncharted plunge’.  It singles out particular praise for the playing of saxophonist Rachel Musson describing her playing as ‘commanding a bold, granitic timbre’. It goes on to state that Rachel is ‘better known in Europe than in the States’ and that ‘she’s a force deserving of greater recognition’.

Stepping backThe Laura Jurd and Rebecca Nash albums receive 3 Star reviews (3 Star means Good).  Laura Jurd’s playing is described as having ‘a profundity neatly paired with a keen sense of humor’ and the music is seen as having ‘an overall playfulness and a totally relaxing mood’.

 

rebecca-nash-atlasThe review of the Atlas album praises its musicality and states that ‘the eight tracks form a holistic argument that Nash and her superb band are at the vanguard of innovative and compelling new music’.

One important aspect of this feature on three British bands and their most recent albums is that it shows an appreciation of the range of the contemporary scene here and all the great music emerging from the difficult to define area around free music and post-free music.  Downbeat has quite rightly focussed on the young London scene and bands such as Sons Of Kemet, Nerijah and players such as Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Theon Cross and others.  Absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I am happy to see a recognition that there is much more to the UK scene.

I can’t resist the temptation to point out that two of the bands reviewed have strong Birmingham links.  Atlas is in fact a Birmingham band with all the members except Sara Colman based in the city, and even Sara was based here for many years.  Shifa has Mark Sanders who is based in Bearwood, in an area a few yards outside the Birmingham boundary, and the band was launched in Birmingham at mac’s Hexagon Theatre in March 2018.

The Shifa album is on the New York 577 Records, the Atlas album is on the British Whirlwind Records   and the Laura Jurd Ensemble album is on Edition Records, also British.

Kaja Draksler Petter Eldh and Christian Lillinger Play mac Birmingham on October 1st

Together Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler, Swedish bass player Petter Eldh and German drummer Christian Lillinger are Punkt.Vrt.Plastik, an amazing trio which first came together at the legendary Bimhuis Club in Amsterdam as part of the October Meeting in 2016, a kind of summit for European improvisers.  Their set there was totally improvised and was the major highlight of the weekend.

PunktVrtPlastikSince then they have recorded an album for the Swiss Intakt label; this is built round nine attractive tunes, each one composed by one of the trio.  These tunes are the launching pad for some wonderfully interactive music.  It’s intense and there is constant movement between the composed passages and the improvisation, but, above all, it is extremely rhythmic.  In the excellent liner notes Petter Eldh states ‘the approach to rhythm Christian and I have is different in many ways and I think we have created this volatile way of dealing with it’  He adds ‘Kaja’s playing is adding a very powerful layer to what’s happening in the rhythm section… I think it’s important to understand that the three of us have a very strong rhythmical core and we rely on that backbone’.

Each member of the trio is a leading figure in European jazz and the Punkt.Vrt.Plastik trio captures something of the personality of each player. Kaja Draksler brings wonderfully intricate melodies in her improvisations, Petter Eldh brings a tremendous power and energy, and Christian Lillinger provides excitement and drama through his constantly shifting rhythmic patterns.

The name of the band is derived from the nationalities of the players; Punkt is Swedish and means ‘point of view’, Vrt is Slovenian and means ‘garden’, and Plastik is the German spelling of ‘plastic’.

The Birmingham date – October 1st – is the first of an 8-date tour throughout Europe; they play The Vortex London on 2nd October.

Tickets for the Birmingham date can be booked at https://macbirmingham.co.uk/event/tde-promotions-presents-punkt-vrt-plastik

A Review of the Punkt Festival in Kristiansand Norway

This was the 15th edition of the Punkt Festival, but my first experience of this unique festival.  The invitation to attend came as part of an expansion of the festival, both in the range of music presented and the number of venues, and as part of its international focus and presentation of partner Punkt festivals in different cities round the world.  This year the music took in a range of genres, including what we might call ‘chamber improv’, ambient music, experimental rock and a concerto for the Japanese shamisen instrument and full orchestra, and however we define the music of the Swedish piano trio Rymden (Scandinavian jazz?).  But, as is probably well known, the core of the festival is the Live Remix, the immediate follow up of a particular concert with the use of samples of that concert to create a new piece of music.

This year the festival used a number of different venues.  The festival clearly has as a defining feature a willingness to present a wide range of music and a lack of interest in genre labels.  However, the programme with its range of available venues had this year a policy of putting particular types of music into the venue most suited to it.  Thus what I have called ‘chamber improv’ was presented in a black box venue in SØlander Art Museum, the ‘ambient music’ sets were in the Domkirken, the Cathedral, the ‘experimental rock’ was in the Kick Scene club and the final evening with the orchestral piece, Rymden and Kim Myhr’s guitar and percussion based piece took place in Kilden, the relatively new concert hall.

The festival thus seems to have an openness to different genres and an acceptance of their differences rather than a rejection of genre labels.   It brings these genres together and shows how they overlap through the use of the Live Remix.

There were many highlights in the concert programme; on the first evening vocalist Sidsel Endresen interacted with the violin and double bass duo Vilde and Inga, five members of the Ensemble Modern interacted with festival co-director Jan Bang on laptop.  The highlight of the evening, however, was the set with Samuel Rohrer’s Dark Star Safari that featured Jan Bang’s vocals with their attractive, rather melancholy feel.    On Day 2 in the Cathedral we had a stunning solo set from Ståle Storløkken on the cathedral organ and a beautiful, if slightly overlong, vocal composition performed by the Trondheim Voices.

stale Solokken
Ståle Storløkken photo by Petter Sandell

In the Kick Scene club we had two powerful and loud sets of experimental rock, the first from the young Drongo group from Kristiansand, a band with three keyboards, two guitars, electric bass and drums, and the second from the Thurston Moore Group.   The latter set was very structured with a series of transitions from one passage to another signalled by Moore with the other members of the group poised waiting for the cue.

Thurston Moore Group
Thurston Moore Group photo by Petter Sandell

In the Kilden concert hall the concerto for the Japanese shamisen instrument composed by Dai Fujikura and performed by Hidejiro Honjoh and the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra was a little underwhelming with the shamisen, a three stringed guitar/banjo type instrument, perhaps lacking the breadth of sound needed to match the orchestral writing.  Kim Myhr’s You | Me group with four guitars, all doubling acoustic and electric guitars, and three percussionists created wonderful layers of music, repetitive but powerful enough to resist the ‘minimalist’ label.  Finally, the set by Rymden, the Swedish trio with Bugge Wesseltoft, Dan Berglund and Magnus ÖstrÖm was the one that came closest to a jazz approach based on tunes, all announced, and all featuring solos from the members of the group.

The Live Remixes took place immediately after the main concert and on the same stage.  The festival directors, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, led three of the six remixes, either individually or working with other musicians, and the other three involved invited individuals or groups.  I enjoyed all the Live Remix sets, but was unsure about the focus of these sets.  Some built an intriguing set of music that referred to aspects of the concert sampled to create a fascinatingly coherent version of that concert.  The Remix by Jan Bang and Erik Honoré with Arve Henriksen and Eivind Aarset that drew both on the organ set by Ståle SorlØkken and that of the Trondheim Voices is a case in point, producing what was for me some of the most beautiful music heard during the festival.  The Remix of the shamisen concerto by Jan Bang and featuring Sidsel Endresen was less obviously linked to the concert, but nonetheless created a set of music that reflected the original.  Also less obviously linked, at least in my ears, were the remixes of the Drongo set by Simen Løvgren, that of the Thurston Moore set by the Supersilent trio, and that of the Kim Myhr set by Pål- Kåres Elektroshop.  Each of these remixes presented interesting electronic music that was successful in its own right and certainly captured the spirit of the original.  But I was left wondering what the parameters of the Live Remix are.  How far should they draw on the original?  Is it sufficient to create something original that does no more than reflect the vibe of the original?

A couple of observations: I found Fiona Talkington’s introductions very informative, especially those on the first day when she conducted a brief Q&A with the musicians.  Secondly, the festival was dominated by guitars, keyboard and drums.  Not one group had a saxophone!

The Birmingham Punkt Festival with the two co-directors, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré and a mix of British and Norwegian musicians will take place at Birmingham City University from 18th to 20th March.

The photographs above were taken by Petter Sandell