Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Review: Steve Parry at the Pack Horse, Friday October 24th, 2008

A late decision to go out into the demi-monde of God's Little Acre, to the edge of the Artist's Quarter and Mr Marmion's Friday night acoustic extravaganza at the Pack. Tonight featuring an old buddy, Steve Parry, a solo singer whom I have not heard for some time. With the audience he seemed to have brought en masse from another watering hole we frequent to give him a cushion of support, this proved to be a very good night. Steve was always a distinctive singer with a very pure tone warmed with a slight vibrato that would indicate some voice training back when – certainly he has no problems negotiating his material without accompaniment, holding the keys and the individual forms of the songs with ease. Interestingly, his voice has roughened slightly, a huskier edge which transmits the emotional content well and balances off the purer side of his timbre. Some singers over-emote and try to push the song along too far – Steve avoids this by keeping a certain distance yet does not allow his technical skill to overwhelm his evident love for the range of material he performs. A tricky dance to negotiate – but he is fleet of foot, as it were, and has that rare ability to get inside his music... An interesting selection: from old bangers like 'Lord Franklyn' and less well known songs (to me) 'The Jolly Butcher' and Childe Ballad 'Young Allen.' To more contemporary stuff – a Roy Harper song, 'Every Day.' Climaxing on the only encore possible, the song he is probably best known for locally, a stirring version of 'The King of Rome,' Dave Sudbury's epic celebration of working class life in Derby just before the Great War, made famous by June Tabor way back. Criticism? He maybe rushes the odd song, which is probably a sign of nerves as Steve does not perform nearly as much as he should. But that's my opinion, no more, no less... The other interesting point I noticed was that, given that majority of the crowd were probably not devotees of traditional music – or solo singing – Steve gripped his audience throughout and not just for partisan reasons. Certainly, from where I was positioned I would have noticed the odd surreptitious roll of the eyeballs or attention dropping. Of which there was none. Food for thought – maybe the old stuff is not so esoteric when given a fair chance of display? But there again – the message depends on the messenger. Tonight delivered with skill – and grace...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lambert, Hendricks and Ross... John Zorn/Masada... Kelly Joe Phelps... Milt Jackson... Kenny Dorham...

Slowly cycling back through my stash of music – extensive but not infinite, although sometimes when I survey the accumulated cds, tapes and digital formats, I wonder... I used to travel light...

I saw Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in the UK, back in the old days, hip, finger-snapping stuff, cleverly self-referential – what could be more self-reflexive than putting words to improvised jazz solos? The vocalese sub-genre of Eddie Jefferson, Babs Gonzales and King Pleasure taken to new heights. Here is a track from 'Sing a song of Basie,' where this conception is extended further: the material is based on the Count's tunes, the band sections were recreated by vocal over-dubs ( new technology at the time – for jazz, at least, although Lennie Tristano had done some multitracking in 1955) as the original idea of using a group of backing singers did not work in practice. It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing, etc. And the rhythm section came from the Basie band, minus the boss with Nat Pierce in the piano chair. 'One O' Clock Jump,' perfect swinging music for a sunny Sunday morning. The gig I went to, they were on tour with the Basie Ork and to hear them riffing off the source was a blast indeed...

Update: just found this memento - L, H and R with Basie and Ocie Smith on vocals, from the Juan Les Pins jazz festival in 1961. Go here...

A ten o' clock jump, as it were – to John Zorn's Masada. Mysterious bass over drums lead in on 'Hadasha.' Joined by the trumpet and alto, long notes on a sad theme cutting into each other. Zorn opens a slow spiral over deep trumpet that progresses into more enervated keening and high register squalls before dropping into an Ornettish line. Baron disrupts the background vamp with sudden surges. Dave Douglas solos, some gentle bluesy figures before he opens it out – yet keeping on a conversational level – vocalised tone and inflections. Zorn returns to parry lines as the trumpet drops back themewards. A sudden fast flourish and then wending onwards into a double improvisation. Free-ish and also operating within a fairly restricted area – an interesting paradox...

More singing – one of my favourite folk/blues/acoustic performers, Kelly Joe Phelps. Who came from a jazz background before he started to explore a mixture of slide and finger-picking styles to accompany his vocals and oblique songs. This is 'Wandering Away,' yet another song of the restless on the road, but a good few notches above the usual banalities we have become used to. Slide shadows voice, the vocalised guitar that came out the country blues call and response. Channelled, not 'tribute.'

A Milt Jackson date for Blue Note, featuring what would become the first incarnation of the Modern Jazz Quartet (Conny Kay replaced Kenny Clarke in 1955), with Lou Donaldson added for his first recording session. A sprightly jog through 'Don't get around much anymore.' Donaldson is usually figured under the sign of Parker but here he gives echoes of an older tradition, a shadow of Johnny Hodges, perhaps, in the fractional slides into notes of the theme statement.
Did Milt Jackson ever take an uninteresting solo?

Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke again in the engine room for an oddity – Kenny Dorham, one of the great bop trumpeters – also singing here: 'Lonesome Lover Blues.' Showing that perhaps the rhythm and blues roots weren't so far away from modern jazz. Dorham sings, plays some fiery trumpet, followed by a snatch of Jimmy Heath (Percy's brother) on tenor... Recorded in New York, 1953. Dorham was always somewhat overshadowed by Diz, Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro perhaps, but could hold his own in any company. He also recorded with Donaldson and Milt Jackson on some seminal Monk sessions round this time – must dig them out...

To go out: a different 'Lonesome Lover Blues' done by Billy Eckstine, fronting his kicking big band in 1946-ish. Playing some neat valve trombone as well... Here... Come to think of it, Kenny Dorham was in the band round that time, replacing Fats Navarro in the trumpet section...

Lambert Hendrick and Ross
Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross (v) Nat Pierce (p) Freddie Greene (g) Eddie Jones (b) Sonny Payne (d)
One O' Clock Jump


John Zorn/Masada
John Zorn (as) Dave Douglas (t) Greg Cohen (b) Joey Baron (d)


Kelly Joe Phelps (v, g)
Wandering Away


Milt Jackson
Milt Jackson (vib) Lou Donaldson (as) John Lewis (p) Percy Heath (b) Kenny Clarke (d)
Don't get around much anymore


Kenny Dorham (t, v) Jimmy Heath (ts, bars) Walter Bishop Jr. (p) Percy Heath (b) Kenny Clarke (d)
Lost lover blues


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Review: An Exhibition of Great London Street Entertainers at the New Players Theatre, Thursday October 9th, 2008... and a Reunion...

Up to town for An Exhibition of Great
London Street Entertainers
at the New Players Theatre in Villiers Street, researched and organised by John Kelly. I had also arranged to meet up with a group of street musicians at the Porcupine on Charing Cross Road, where my involvement with busking started in the sixties... Alan, Patrick, Don, Phil and Roger, along with John Kelly, the curator of the show. We sat outside to accommodate the smokers on one of the few decent days we have had recently, as the sun shone down on this motley crew. A funny, moving experience... Many ghosts wandering round – and further summoned by anecdote... Some of us have not met for many years, so there was much catching up to be done, over liquid refreshment. I retired from playing on the streets some years back now (go in different musical directions these days although hopefully with the same questing spirit) but a couple of these guys are still active – Roger/Chucklefoot and Don Partridge. Alan is still playing regularly and I'm sure that Pat drags his guitar down to a few sessions in the West Country. Great to be part of the old verbal cut and thrust again as egos collided in good-natured banter. Luckily the beer fights that used to part of the old Porcupine gatherings were not resurrected...

Don, as 'The King of the Buskers,' was apparently opening the exhibition, which was situated in the bar of the New Players theatre – underneath the Arches, an historic place as a pitch back in the old days. This was the first place I ever played in the West End, accompanying the old street singer, Megan Aitken, the Piccadilly Nightingale. Almost unrecognisable now, with shops, bars and the early evening bustle, from the grim brick tunnel of bygone years which had also traditionally been a place where the homeless found a kip for the night. We wandered in to the theatre bar, a plush joint, and checked out John Kelly's handiwork - a selection of photos, drawings and engravings with brief descriptions of London street performers from Shakespearean times – Marocco and Banks – to those I knew when I was involved in the game – Ronnie Ross, The Earl of Mustard and Don Partridge. Also: Jim 'Tiger' Norman, the Road Stars, William Reed with his broom, among others – a small group of snapshots into the underground /outlaw world of street entertainment down the centuries. And a measure perhaps of the distance busking has travelled, from wilder times to the almost respectable contemporary scene where permits are applied for, demarcation lines drawn, the whole no doubt monitored on the ever-present cctv cameras of Brown's Britain. Although – given the way the economic crash is progressing, maybe we will soon be back to a rerun of those depression days in the 1930s when many of the old guys I knew in the sixties had started out, when performing on the streets was perhaps born of financial desperation more than an outlaw choice. The whole event was very informal – which suited the subject matter and its characters, some (all?) of whom would have found it amusing to be enshrined in such a setting – and would have worked out ways to 'bottle' (collect money from) the punters, no doubt... The evening morphed into an impromptu session as Don's guitar was passed among us, which the gathering theatre crowd wandering through seemed to enjoy. Alan Young ended on the old standard 'Gypsy in my soul,' a fitting climax to this celebration of anarchic spirits past and present. The tradition scattered out from London in the fifties and sixties as travel became cheaper and easier and we have all at various times busked our ways round many countries in Europe and beyond. Yet I am sure that we are all conscious of the heritage and the lines that lead from these earlier pioneers. In understated rather than self-consciously pretentious ways - the street would soon smack down any pomposity.

So, if you are in the area of Villiers Street/Charing Cross in the next few weeks (it runs from now to December), it's well worth a look. Free entrance but contributions go to St Mungos. Good stuff, John – more, please...

There's something calling me, from way out yonder...

Thelonious Monk... Mal Waldron/Marion Brown... Evan Parker/Eddie Prévost... Donald Byrd...

'Monk plays Ellington' was never rated as one of Thelonious's great albums. Yet I have always had a fancy for it, if only for the fascination of hearing one great pianist/composer take on another's work. This is 'I got it bad and that ain't good.' Monk leads in solo, stretching phrases to their breaking point, using almost unbearable periods of silence with the placement of a master. Suddenly bouncing off in a jaunty ride, joined by bass and the subtle tick of Kenny Clarke's drums. Pettiford solos, showing his class. Monk again, staying close to the melody – then suddenly dropping off into another space with an oblique turn, a rush of notes, a crunching chord. Thelonious in his heyday, sounding as if he was enjoying himself.

Mal Waldron is of the line of Monk – a minimalist vision at times, using space to great effect. Here, he is joined by Marion Brown for a slow, elegaic version of 'My Funny Valentine.' Piano starts off, allowing the air to blow through both melody and chords, holding back the beat, using repeated figures for emphasis. Late night feel, perhaps, but thoughtful rather than brooding, Just over three minutes in, Brown enters, holding the mood with keening long notes, harking back to an older tradition, saxophonic pyrotechnics stripped right back. At the end, Waldron rips out chords for the alto to pirouette through in an elegant coda.

Evan Parker and Eddie Prévost duet on 'Knowledge is power,' from a 1997 session. A long track that uncurls at its own speed, lazily snake-like with the occasional lash of the tail to snap the dynamics up a few notches. Opening on mysterious sonorities and scrapings, a fluttery sax like an early morning bird call. Prevost moves into more conventional percussive territory with some hammered toms. Parker worries a phrase across the registers. Moving from busy back into freer space, utilising a wide range of sounds between them, Parker getting so much out of his saxophone in between the usual long lines of circular breathing, at one point approximating a muted trumpet. They go into a more jazzy feel as the track progresses – at its back I hear Coltrane's sax/drums workouts, but Parker always acknowledged the influence – and proceeded over the years to fully work out his unique strategies rather than remain a copyist. This goes long because it has to...

Donald Byrd and band play 'Beale Street,' not the W.C. Handy piece but a choppy funky composition of its time – out of 'Sidewinder' etc. Hank Mobley blows a couple of choruses then Sonny Red takes some – playing with texture and sonorities, sounding bluesy. Byrd next, high up the range, spurred on by front line riffs. Cedar Walton comes in for a brief piano interlude. An odd mix of funk and bop, nothing particularly earth-moving, perhaps, but a snapshot of the trumpeter's working band from 1967, under the stamp of Blue Note...

Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk (p) Oscar Pettiford (b) Kenny Clarke (d)
I got it bad and that ain't good


Mal Waldron (p) Marion Brown (as)
My Funny Valentine


Evan Parker (ss) Eddie Prévost (d, perc)
Knowledge is power


Donald Byrd (tp) Sonny Red (as) Hank Mobley (ts) Cedar Walton (p) Walter Booker (b) Billy Higgins (d)
Beale Street