Monthly Archives: August 2007

Richard Cook.

I learnt this morning that Richard Cook died last week. Cook was a jazz writer, and I have been reading articles and books that he wrote for more than 25 years.

He started off on the NME – not writing about jazz, then, but rock music. But at the jazzier end of rock. By the time I started getting interested in jazz, he had set up The Wire, a magazine dedicated to jazz and improvisation (though they did cover rather more popular music, too – I remember a long article on the importance of Michael Jackson).

I was exploring jazz, and The Wire a good guide to have along: it was always interesting, and it introduced me to lots of things I doubt I would otherwise have come across.

When I moved to London, I listened to Cook’s Saturday evening jazz show, too. I would lie in the bath, whisky in hand, and listen to the music before venturing out to find some of my own.

In the mid or late 1990s, The Wire became a bit more “out there”, and started covering things I wasn’t so interested in; Cook left, and I stopped my subscription.

He became a record producer, tasked by Verve (I think…) to find young British jazz: he championed trumpeter Guy Barker, for instance. I think he may have managed Barker for a while, too.

A few years ago, he launched a new jazz magazine, Jazz Review, which did exactly what it says on the cover – most of each issue reviews jazz CDs (of which there are a confusing volume released each month – for a minority music, there are an awful lot of CDs, and it is really hard to keep track).

Cook is most well-known, perhaps, as being the co-author of the many editions of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD. Together with Brian Morton, this huge volume tries to cover the world of jazz as available on disc; it is invaluable. It lives on my coffee table, and I frequently find myself reading it – picking it up to check who was playing on a CD, or when it was recorded or … and then one enquiry leads to another, and I am flicking backwards and forwards through the music.

I met Cook a few times at jazz clubs in London; he was a common face at live gigs, and he did a lot to keep an interest in British jazz alive – long before Gilles Peterson. Indeed, Cook must have started at least two British jazz renaissances himself. (Don’t worry; every few years, jazz is suddenly the new thing again. They’ll be another along shortly.)

So I feel rather sad at his death. I had heard he was ill a few weeks ago, from a friend that knew him well. He was three years older than me, and his death makes me feel more mortal, too.

He has been a feature of the music world – the world of the music I listen too – most of my adult life, and I think I am going to miss his influence over it.

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Zoe Rahman Trio at Edinburgh Jazz Festival. July 2007.

My last gig of the Jazz Festival was the Zoe Rahman Trio. I saw this band last year in a large, cavernous concert hall, and I thought they’d be much better at a more intimate venue; so I decided to check out the theory at their gig at the Bosco Theatre.

They were great. This was quiet, gentle, contemplative music – Rahman played several Abdullah Ibrahim tunes (thankfully without the reverence that Ibrahim requires), as well as some Monk numbers and several of her own. Her playing was good, but she also presented an air that she was surprised to be there: surprised that anyone would come, and surprised that people would know her music. Before one of the Monk’s tunes – following a couple of her own – she said “And now back to some music you are more familiar with”: but the audience had come to see her play! And she has won many awards for her albums – so people would know what to expect.

It was a good gig, bass player Oli Hayhurst and drummer Gene Calderazzo working well as a unit – they really gelled. Indeed the only downside was that during the quieter moments, the noise outside came through the tent-walls of the theatre.

Laura MacDonald at Edinburgh Jazz Festival. July 2007.

The Lot functions as a jazz club throughout the year, and last time I was there – back in February (which seems like an awful long time between visits!) – it was for a concert by alto saxophonist Laura MacDonald. Then, she was playing with a Norwegian drummer; this time, it was meant to be a collaboration with trumpeter Ryan Quigley, but Quigley (a fiery player who excels at hitting the high notes) had cancelled, so it was more or less a quartet date, with the Paul Harrison on piano, Aidan O’Donnell on bass and Tom Bancroft on drums – an excellent band.

Perhaps because of the missing trumpeter, the band fell back on a mixed set of MacDonald originals and old standards – including several old Charlie Parker numbers. It was good but it felt safe: MacDonald played as if perhaps her heart wasn’t really in it. Perhaps it wasn’t – most of the band were part of Bancroft’s band who were playing a later set, so maybe they felt they had to keep something in reserve.

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Individually they played really well – Harrison and O’Donnell particularly – but as a band it seemed a bit ordinary.

MacDonald brought on fellow alto player Paul Towndrow for the second set – a curious choice since adding another alto didn’t really extend the dynamics a great deal. Towndrow was excellent, though, playing some great solos.

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The Bad Plus, Happy Apple & Bad Apple at Edinburgh Jazz Festival. July 2007.

Another dose of Dave King; indeed, Dave King in three different incarnations. The first set of Bad Apple was played by the Bad Plus . Only three numbers – over half an hour or so – and it was interesting to compare them with Happy Apple the previous night. The tunes were slightly differently constructed (sure, it’s hard to tell on three numbers – but I have seen this band a lot, and it quickly came back to me); and there was a piano. Ethan Iverson – a regular visitor to Edinburgh, with or without King and Anderson – plays quite sparse piano: he likes Monk (and last year he played a set of Monk tunes), and often his input into the music is just a few chords here and there.

I believe Reid Anderson is the real star of the Bad Plus: his bass playing gives the band both solidity and flexibility – he allows Iverson and King to play around more. And he writes beautiful tunes which build in the intensity.

Then there was another, short set from Happy Apple. Their last tune was excellent – building and building to a climax, Lewis wailing on sax against the solid electric bass and King’s insistent drums. Wonderful stuff.

After the break, all five musicians came back on as Bad Apple. (Three of the five sport shaven heads; I couldn’t help feeling they should have been called Bald Apple. Lewis and Anderson seemed resolutely hirsute.) Before the concert, the Canadian couple sitting next to me had asked me what to expect, since they knew neither band; I had replied that it would probably wacky and a bit “Ornette-ish”. So I felt very clever when King announced that Bad Apple were going to play a set comprised solely of numbers by Ornette Coleman.

King explained that the only other time his two trios had come together was at a celebration of Coleman’s music to mark his birthday a while back, and that Coleman had been a big influence on all the members of both bands. That had certainly been apparent in the Happy Apple gig.

The music they played spanned Coleman’s career, including tunes from his collaboration with Pat Metheny, Song X. Fratzke played electric guitar throughout the concert, leaving Anderson to take the bass duties. Lewis switched to alto sax (Coleman’s main instrument; I was relieved that none of the band chose to emulate Coleman by trying to play trumpet or violin).

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It was very good: exciting, sometimes wild and manic, sometimes gentler. King surprised me with his more swinging style. The freedom was very much in evidence, but like Coleman’s Prime Time bands, they were rather funky too.

With Anderson centre stage, he and Lewis worked up a strong relationship – Lewis was as energetic as before, bobbing around as he blew his saxophone. Fratzke and Iverson seemed rather sidelined – they made key contributions, with some beautiful guitar and piano, but the trio of Anderson, Lewis and King seemed to dominate.

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Happy Apple. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2007.

The first band at the 2007 EJF I saw was Happy Apple. Led by drummer Dave King – his other band The Bad Plus had played the previous evening (and both bands would play together the following night, as Bad Apple) – this was a saxophone trio, with Erik Fratzke on electric bass and Michael Lewis on tenor saxophone. The first set was good, but the second was excellent – they caught fire. They were quite off the wall – free but rhythmic, the bass being pretty steady, the sax freaky and the drums quirky. At times they seemed positively Ornette-like (which I learned later was quite appropriate).

Fratzke played the electric bass posing as if he were in a rock band – maybe there is something about the way one holds the instrument that just makes one pose (and whilst one can pose with an electric bass, I couldn’t help thinking that acoustic bass is much much cooler).

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Lewis was very animated – leaping up and down, practically to his knees, blowing all the while; and he blowing up and down the dots, too. It was generally quite powerful, though on the softer numbers, he brought a touch of beauty.

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But the centre of the band was definitely King. He held the mike, made all the announcements (and kept up a bit of banter between the tunes, telling anecdotes which were as weird and wacky as one might have expected – for instance, about the glee the band felt when they received a royalties statement showing they had sold a single copy of a CD in North Korea…), and drove the music. Playing somewhere between jazz and rock – he didn’t really swing much that evening – he was continually inventive, finding new ways of keeping the beat going.

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The band were on the border between jazz and rock – though the bass was definitely more jazz, and the sax was way out there. The tunes didn’t have a rock feel. Some of the quieter tunes sounded rather like material from King’s Bad Plus colleague Reid Anderson (and I really can’t recommend The Vastness of Space highly enough) – perhaps King has absorbed some of Anderson’s style by osmosis; or perhaps they are in a band together because they think the same way. Whatever, it works – there were some lovely melodies hidden within the freedom and anarchy.

Singing the Blues. August 2007.

I have been listening to this evening’s Prom on the radio, featuring the newly knighted Johnny Dankworth leading a big big band in a couple sets of largely Ellington numbers; they’re just finishing with a feisty reprise of Take the A Train. A family affair – son Alec is on bass – the vocals are provided by Lady Dankworth, Cleo Laine. (Lady Laine has a kind of Billie-like air to it.)

I’m not a fan of jazz vocalists, really. Cleo put words to a lot of the numbers – tunes from Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder suite had a variety of words stuck on them. Actually, it worked quite well, but since this is one of my favourite pieces of music, it also jarred. Still, she sounded good, and she didn’t irritate too much.

Aside from Billie Holiday, maybe Sarah Vaughn, I don’t really go for singers. The words seem to get in the way. And the style of singing jazz appeals to people who don’t like jazz. People go to hear the singers rather than the music.

(I think I have said before how much I dislike Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Love For Sale. She takes a sad, dark song and turns it into treacle. And hearing that record, long ago, made me realise I didn’t like jazz singers.)

The interval in the Prom was a feature by Miles Kington, a bass player, humorist (well, he writes a “humorous” column in the Independent), and one-time jazz critic. He was going on about how he disliked jazz singers. This pleased me no end, since he managed to give me the words to explain why I don’t like jazz singers. (And since people that don’t like jazz like jazz singers, and I have never really been able to explain why I don’t, I think this could be very useful.)

He spoke about an interview he did with Johnny Green, who wrote some famous jazz tunes – Body and Soul, I Cover the Waterfront – and Kington asked what it was like to have written some of the most famous jazz standards. Green hated it. He especially hated the version of Body and Soul by Coleman Hawkins – which is a true classic of jazz interpretation. And the reason he hated it is that it was an interpretation: Green liked singers who didn’t improvise, who didn’t mess with the beat, who sang the words as they were written.

Jazz on the other hand is about taken the tune – or even just the chords behind the tune – and bending it, inventing a new tune over the top of the original, going off in new, strange directions.

Singers don’t really do this; the words fit the tune, and singers have to sing the tune. When I listen to jazz singers, the interesting stuff is happening behind them – the singers just get in the way.

Kington went on to dismiss those jazz musicians who are determined to sing. Mostly trumpet players – he explained this by reasoning that trumpet was a physically hard instrument to play – all that puff going through that little brass tube – and singing actually gave trumpeters a break. He was most angry with Louis Armstrong, who invented scat and recorded vocals with meaningless childlike words – Heebie Jeebies, Skid-Dat-De-Dat – that played into the hands of white images of black entertainers. Pops set the standard, and made it ok for other serious musicians to sing rubbish songs. Kington pointed out that Nat King Cole – a serious jazz pianist – discovered that people (not jazz fans, obviously) liked his singing; and he became a singer – not even a jazz singer – and hardly played piano at all. Even Dizz played the vocal-jester, hamming it up between the hard-bop; because hamming pays.

So that is why I don’t like jazz singers; they sing over the real music; they restrict the improvising (because they have to be able to sing the tune). And for me, they just get in the way.

(It did however strike me as ironinc that Kington was given space for his diatribe against singers in the middle of a Prom featuring Britain’s most famous jazz singer. And I must admit I thought she sounded pretty good – especially for an eighty-year old!)