Monday, 21 July 2008

Kevin Norton & the Ted Heath Orchestra...

Well, it's been some time since I last posted anything here. The blog hasn't run out of steam (there's plenty of material sitting there ready for posting), but time has been at a premium lately.

Call it 'domestic stuff' if you like - house renovation, Tour de France viewing, meeting magazine deadlines, shopping, cooking, feuding with work colleagues over my non-participation in strike action (long live free-will!!), and simply not being at home more than a couple of days a week. We've been busy.

Life is essentially fine though, and all is well at Afric Pepperbird. Just to keep the embers aflame, here is one of my 'Fast Taste' columns to take a look at. It may be the only time I've ever sat down and listened to Ted Heath, and that in its self was almost enough to make me ask whether or not I wanted to continue with this line of work. Of course I recovered and simply put it down to experience, and it's still the case that the Kevin Nortons and Sonny Fortunes of the world still make it all so worthwhile.

More blogging soon, I hope...

ERNIE ANREWS - Jump For Joy (HIGH NOTE 7103)
Starting his career at about the same time as Dinah Washington (see below), Ernie Andrews is still putting his golden-toned tenor voice to good use. The programme here is nearly all drawn from the classic jazz repertoire, and a top-notch band, directed by and featuring Houston Person, gives the perfectly realised after-hours feel the singer thrives on. Person and Andrews prove to be extremely compatible, both sharing a churchy-blues streak. The inclusion amongst the standards of Percy Mayfield’s ‘Danger Zone’, a Cold War protest song, is a nicely topical touch.

COUNT BASIE - At The Aquarium 1946 (UNLIMITED 201 2086)
Although the war was officially over by the time of this recording, it was issued under the auspices of the Armed Forces Radio Service as part of a series welcoming home the returning troops. Complete with radio style announcements, it’s basically pure pre-war Basie, swinging through a nicely varied programme. Trademark bluesy heads rub shoulders with vocal features for Ann Moore and Jimmy Rushing. The trombone section includes a young J.J. Johnson, though the band’s sound is largely unaffected by the be-bop revolution that would see them fall on hard times in a very short space of time.

KETIL BJORNSTAD - The Nest (EMARCY 067153-2)
Similar to his ECM project ‘The Sea’, this release uses different personnel to take Bjornstad’s romantic melodic sense into even purer realms. Without Rypdal’s propensity for the unpredictable, ‘The Nest’ is a more stable but less exciting place. Guitarist Eivind Aarset, who normally lets rip with Nil Petter Molvaer’s ‘Khmer’, is very much on the leash as an ambient sound-generator, whilst vocalist Anneli Drecker sandwiches the instrumentals with interpretations of Hart Crane’s poems, delivered in a peculiarly Anglo-Scandinavian dialect. With the usual Jan-Erik Kongshaug sonic wash, this won’t disappoint scholars of Nordic jazz.

CREME FRAICHE - Plays Compositions by Lars Togeby (STORYVILLE 1014254)
Don’t be put off by the uninviting title, this Danish big band play the type of funky Don Ellis style movie-score jazz that accompanied many a fine car chase sequence in the decade of flares and afros. Recorded in 1978, t boasts a youthful Tim Hagans, then living in Sweden, as one of the soloists. Worth reissuing even had he not gone on to be famous, the charts are crisp, the Rhodes piano textures suitably spacey, and the remaining soloists nicely up to scratch. Most of all, it’s infectiously groovy and about as tasteful as this flamboyant sub-genre could ever be.

WILD BILL DAVIS & EDDIE ‘LOCKJAW’ DAVIS - Live In Chateauneuf-du-Pape (BLACK & BLUE BB 968.2)
Two unrelated men sharing a common surname and a passion for bluesy post-Basie swing. Recorded at a French festival in 1976, nearly all of the material will be familiar, as will be the way they attack it - even ‘the Girl From Ipanema’ gets the blowtorch treatment! Billy Butler and Oliver Jackson complete the quartet, and their music is as greasy and steaming as anything from the relatively more sophisticated and less R&B rooted Jimmy Smith school of organ combo. The roots-of-the -roots of Acid Jazz? Cleanly re-mastered and nicely packaged, this is a thoroughly worthwhile re-issue.

DUKE ELLINGTON - Echoes of Harlem 1936-38 (NAXOS JAZZ LEGENDS 8.120682)
This is the fourth volume of Ellington material issued as part of the trawl through jazz history by budget label Naxos. Concentrating on a narrow two-year period and covering many of his best known compositions, there is much here to enjoy. In fact, with music as well-known as this, it is probably more worthwhile to consider the Naxos presentational style than the merits of the performances. Sound mastering is excellent, liner notes functional, and with a price that’s pretty much unbeatable, this makes a good way to build a classic jazz library. I wonder if we’ll get a budget Blanton-Webster boxed set for Volume 5?

SONNY FORTUNE - Great Friends (EVIDENCE 22225)
Great Friends, and what friends they are! Billy Harper, Stanley Cowell, Reggie Workman and Billy Hart join Fortune for a reissue of what could almost be a Strata East re-union band assembled in 1986. For Charles Tolliver to have been on hand would have made it just perfect, though in truth the band manage superbly without him, digging into each such minor classics as Cowell’s ‘Equipoise’. Very post-Trane in mood, men like Fortune and Harper show that there’s nothing wrong with the continuing omni-presence of JC, and more importantly that his many lessons can continue to be refracted in new and interesting ways.

BENNY GOODMAN ALLSTARS - An Airmail Special From Berlin 1959 (JASMINE JASCD 402 2CD)
The allstars are essentially Red Norvo’s band of the day with Goodman tacked on as leader for the purposes of fulfilling a short European tour. Bill Harris, Flip Phillips and Russ Freeman are among those putting their personalities largely on the backburner to conform to BG’s unique but highly prescriptive style. Anita O’Day brings further start qualities with a clutch of walk-on appearances, but such an eclectic cast may have been more interesting had they been a little less drilled and unified.

Anybody who can produce enough material for a second four-disc boxed set with a title like this either has talents extending well beyond a prolific recording schedule, or is the victim of disingenuous marketing. Fans will prefer the former explanation, and will welcome this collection of sides recorded between 1960-63 for Decca, and sent to American radio networks for publicity purposes. Less devoted listeners could be curious to hear a young Stan Tracey tinkling the ivories, but may baulk at the prospect of wading through nearly four hours of material to do so. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder.

THE KINGS OF JAZZ with KENNY DAVERN - Live In Concert 1974 (ARBORS JAZZ 19267)
The origin of these recordings lies in a Tommy Dorsey spin-off band nominally led by Pee Wee Erwin and created especially for a one-off European tour in 1974. The band never made it to the studio but these performances from the Swedish leg of the tour were preserved for posterity and are here issued for the first time. Of principal interest to many will be the sound of Kenny Davern playing soprano sax, but the band also includes Dick Hyman and Johnny Mince, and the programme includes old war-horses like ‘Royal Garden Blues’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. Spirited playing.

Hailing from Canterbury, this trio operate at the sophisticated end of jazz-lite. Hugh Hopper, who provides the liner notes, serves as a reminder that this quiet Kent town in more usually noted for woolly fusion than quality contemporary jazz. Pianist Frances Knight has a nice touch and a penchant for the exotic, overdubbing bandoneon countermelodies on two pieces. Consisting largely of attractive self-penned originals, the inclusion of a Kenny Wheeler and a Beatles piece tells you much about the trio’s musical horizons. A very post-ECM palette, and derivative at times perhaps, but this is not easy terrain to occupy, and all three have the requisite musicianship and sensitivity demanded to pull it off.

Take a little-known Italian jazz violinist to the island of Madagascar and put him in front of an enthusiastic festival crowd to play with three prominent home grown talents. Next, bring them all to London to record their collaboration, and what happens? International Headhunters/Weather Report-style fusion of course! At times Manes’ treated violin sounds a little too polite, but the Madagascans always lay down a rock-steady groove. Nothing to shake the world, but a curiously satisfying fusion of musical cultures, and clearly a good time was had by all.

STEPHANIE NAKASIAN - Lullaby In Rhythm: A Tribute to June Christy (VSOP 110 CD)
Doing exactly what it says on the tin, Nakasian pays tribute to her favorite vocalist. Christy, identifiable with a ‘cool’ style, is noted for her work with Stan Kenton, and although this band is a mere quintet, the West Coast is certainly the disc’s defining sound. The band includes Nakasian’s husband Hod O’Brien on piano, as well as saxophonist Harry Allen, who provides suitably laid-back Four Brothers-style tenor. All 16 tracks are songs associated with Christy, and this is a lovingly made if somewhat too literal tribute to its dedicatee.

Kevin Norton is one of those clattering percussionists, like Gregg Bendian, who seem to have the simultaneous presence of two or three drummers. Best known for his work in the more convoluted recent ensembles of Anthony Braxton, his Metaphor Quartet is a more tunes-based project, boasting an unusual line-up of trombone, vibes, bass and percussion. Whilst none of the compositions are particularly memorable, The spirited solos certainly make up for that. Trombonist Masahiko Kano subtly augments his sound with slight electronic delay, meshing well with Hitomi Tono’oka’s vibes during the more textural passages. The presence of the late Wilber morris on bass is one more reason to investigate this exciting outfit.

Now entering his third decade as a professional musician, Plaxico has paid a lot of dues and covered a lot of stylistic terrain. From Art Blakey to Cassandra Wilson, Lonnie’s been there and done it. ‘Rhythm & Soul’ sums it all up, covering everything from Messengers-style hard bop to M Base funk, as well as providing an unexpected slot for Gospel vocalist Aneilia Lomax. Jeremy Pelt and Marcus Strickland are part of the talented front-line, propelled by Plaxico and the rubber-limbed Billy Kilson for a fun programme of tunes played with panache and maturity.

AL SEARS - The Big Raw Tone (OCIUM 0030)
Not one of the best remembered ex-Ellingtonians, but Sears could cut it with the best of them, projecting concise ideas with a huge tone, drawing on the model of Coleman Hawkins. Sears followed Ben Webster into the Ellington band, and this comprehensive collection, spanning the years 1945-53, is peppered with appearances by the likes of Emmett Berry, Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodges. His orchestra had a decidedly commercial slant, but even with a sprinkling of dated pop crossover vocal cuts there are enough sub-three minute instrumental gems and slyly adopted be-bop stylings to satisfy fans of the period.

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Latin From The North (SLAM 317)
George Haslam’s enthusiasm for South American music has surfaced before, with several trips to Argentina documented for posterity by his label SLAM. Whilst those sessions are equal parts free-jazz, this Anglo-Scandinavian project (hence the title) is purely concerned with the rhythms and melodies of the South Americas. There is disappointingly little in the way of European cross-fertilisation, but with soloists including trumpeter Steve Waterman, there’s nothing too disagreeable to be found either. Why you’d go for this as opposed to, say, an authentic Cal Tjader reissue, though, I’m not exactly sure.

Speaking of Sears’ crossover vocal cuts, here we have an album full of them. Joined by strings, big band and even girlie vocal chorus, the eminent chanteuse tackles a programme of largely forgotten hits of the day. The only real jazz content lies in that great voice and phrasing, proving the old adage that it isn't the song so much as the singer which counts. Four more albums in this vein followed before she died a year later, and although by no means her finest achievement, her voice is still a convincing asset, and devoted fans will want to hear it whatever the context.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, November 2003)