Category Archives: Robin McKelle

downwithit.info: Jazz Gigs of The Year 2014

One of my New Year resolutions at the start of 2014 was to get myself out rather more to catch live Jazz performances. As the year ends it is time to take stock of what I saw and where I went.

A deep benchmark was engraved in February when legendary funk masters, Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley played at Ronnie Scott’s. Their performance was commented on here and I rated them with an 8/10. I was expecting a deep disappointment when they introduced a female vocalist- so many promise much, but deliver nothing. In this case my lack of faith was exposed and confounded. Robin McKelle was superb and is a real talent to catch (if she ever plays any where else other than France).

2014 was the year when I made my first visit to East Side Jazz Club in Leytonstone. Denys Baptiste featured one May evening and I was there to enjoy the first of six visits this summer.

I was assured that I would enjoy Gilad Atzmon and they were right. His powerful and intense soloing merited my second 8/10 rating of 2014. There were times when I that he was going to blow his alto sax apart, such is the forcefulness that he has on tap.

Another saxophonist also merited an 8/10 the ESJC. I’ve always harboured a strong mistrust of sax players who play several instruments from Adolphe Sax’s brood. They are usually adequate on one and dire on the rest. Derek Nash made me review that particular prejudice (Gilad Atzmon is a fine multi-reedsman too). Playing with the Letonstone R & B Allstars in an end of Summer season spectacular, I enjoyed his showmanship and that of the rest of a band which also featured Geoff Gascoyne on bass.

In addition to playing several members of the sax family, Derek Nash also fronts several bands, which he uses to showcase different repertoires. Following up on a gig he publicised on Twitter took me to a bar called The Water Margin at the 02 (Dome) in Greenwich in late July. I suppose all musicians have performed before small audiences, but that night saw Nash and his jazz funk outfit, Protect The Beat open to no more than three friends of the band and five civilians, myself included. After some deliberation amongst the band about whether to play or not, pure professionalism kicked in and the result was a performance which rated a rare 9/10. Nash is a very entertaining frontman and his joy encouraged his band mates to excel. Particular mention should be given to guitarist Dave Ital and drummer Darby Todd, but the whole show saw great musicians triumphing over a sadly meagre audience.

My home town of Macclesfield hosts a summer arts festival, which is growing year on year and it was there that I attended a rendition of Under Milk Wood, which was another memorable evening. On the same weekend I also saw a re-creation of A Love Supreme on London’s Southbank.

Unexpectedly, and for no particular reason, a hectic summer of gig-going gave way to an autumn in which I only got to three live Jazz performances. Dylan Howe merited the second of my two 9/10 ratings this year, while I was disappointed by Abdullah Ibrahim at London Jazz Festival, and Steve Wiiliamson‘s long overdue return to leading a band also gave me the opportunity to visit Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho for the first of what I hope will be many visits.

All in all I went to 14 jazz gigs, none of which rated lower than 6/10. Out of these, the downwithit gig of the Year 2014 was:-

Derek Nash and Protect The Beat at The Water Margin, for a triumph of brilliant professionalism against the odds.

Well done Derek and here’s to getting out and about again in 2015, with seeing another performance by Pharaoh Sanders as my New Year’s wish. Hope I will have lots to tell you about this time next year!

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downwithit.info Contemporary Set of The Year 2014

Occasionally, opinionated people come out with ill-formed assertions. They say: ‘Jazz is dead’, or ‘There’s nothing new to hear’. The downwithit.info party line on this is that they are not trying hard enough. They might be too scared or blinkered but one way or another they need to do a bit of work and, at the very least test their opinion against the market. That’s what I did this year, after listening to an excellent recent set from 2012 by RipRap, and I’m delighted to present our first album of the year, from a truncated crop of eight new sets.

These are the new recordings I wrote about. Each of them was issued in 2014 for the first time and all were recorded, either this year or in 2013. You can visit my review by clicking on the red titles.

Robin McKelle- Heart Of Memphis. March 2014. The only vocal set in this list- but what a wonderful soul voice she has. She has been concentrating on the French market in 2014 and I hope we will get to see her in London again sometime soon.

Polar Bear- In Each And Every One. May 2014. Electronica infused jazz. A brave set, justifiably on the Mercury Awards list.

Marc Ribot Trio Live At Village Vanguard. June 2014. This trio led by guitar virtuoso Ribot go intense and free on a set featuring Coltrane and Albert Ayler tunes, but with a couple of ballads as respite.

Dylan Howe- Subterranean, New Designs On Bowie’s Berlin. July 2014. A labour of love brought to us via Kickstarter crowdfunding. Bowie’s instrumentals sound wonderful in this context. An unrushed, wonderfully executed set featuring some excellent musicianship and arrangements.

Blacktop- #One. August 2014. Disappointing Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas project featuring Steve Williamson on sax. Hopefully there’s better to come from this source next year.

Pharaoh Sanders- Spiral Mercury. October 2014 (1). More of an ensemble piece than an album dominated by Pharoah but it brought a taste of a hot night in Lisbon and is worth seeking out if you like this great saxophonist.

GoGo Penguin- V2.0 October 2014 (2). A light piano led set which was also on the Mercury shortlist but was slighter and less adventurous than Polar Bear.

Neil Cowley Trio- Touch And Flee. November 2014. Enjoyable piano trio- a good listen from a band to watch, with even better things expected.

And the first downwithit.info Contemporary Set Of The Year 2014 is…

IMG_1307

…Dylan Howe- Subterranean.

If I could only grab two others from a burning room they would be-
Marc Ribot Trio Live At Village Vanguard
And
Polar Bear- In Each And Every One

I’m delighted with this crop of releases from artists, many of whom were new to me at the start of 2014.

Before Christmas 2014, I will be looking back over the older sets that I’ve brought to you this year in an on the shoulders of giants / dead Jazzer’s shoes posting. I’ll also be reflecting on the handful of gigs that I’ve attended- not such a bad list, come to think of it! In the meantime, why not use the comments section to tell us about your new album of the year, especially if it is one of the many that I’ve overlooked.

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Heart of Memphis: Robin McKelle

Heart of Memphis

In February I saw Fred Wesley and PeeWee Ellis perform at Ronnie Scott’s and wrote about their performance here. I’m not a great lover of jazz vocals, especially those delivered by a certain type of supper club vocalist but I do my best not to write any musician off too early. After all, if you handed me a tenor sax and said ‘entertain us’, I’m confident you would be making your excuses pretty sharpish. Robin McKelle, who they introduced on vocals, confirmed the old saying that there are rubies to be found amongst the dust- and the world of jazz vocals really needs a good rub over with the Mr Sheen. Gifted with one of those voices that can be both raunchy and subtle, Robin McKelle has a world-class talent.

Regular readers may recall that I’ve made a commitment to write about one new recording by a contemporary artist every month. Kevin Flanagan and RipRap were first up and April’s recording is Heart of Memphis by Robin McKelle and The Flytones.

Robin has already released four albums but I’m not familiar with these. Heart of Memphis took her down the Mississippi to Scott Bomar’s Electraphonic Studio to record an album steeped in a classic 60’s Stax and Muscle Shoals sauce. Purists may feel I’m stretching the jazz angle a bit here but I’m sure many of you will be interested to hear about her.

About To Be Your Baby gets things off to a good start with an exclamation from a strong woman, well capable of giving as good as she gets in love and knowing which way the world was turning when a lover ‘…went and started actin’ shady’.

Good Time is a medium paced dancer, which could probably cut it as a slower number on a Northern Soul dance floor. Robin’s vocals are a husky treat on this one. Next up is the classic, Please Don’t Let Me Misunderstood which she punches on the nose and knocks out with one mighty effort. Control Yourself has a 80’s flavoured sould ballad feel to it. Forgetting You is a country song- not a genre that I’m wild about but this song smoulders and then burns. If I’d been producing this one, the horns would have been crisper and more to the fore- but what do I know?

Heart of Memphis just makes me want to go there- perhaps one day soon? A fine song, written by Robin and perhaps the standout track for me.

Like A River offers you the opportunity to take a look and see what you think, courtesy of YouTube

http://youtube.com/watch?v=0xhVvjOU_Wk

To watch and listen, click or touch the arrow.

Easier That Way has a lighter musical air to it, although it’s message is one of nostalgia for better and simpler past days. Once again Robin captures a feeling and takes us there. What You Want puts a lover on the spot and sorts them out with a direct question. Well put and well delivered!

Good & Plenty is another song about a woman standing up for herself and ending a relationship where she got ‘…herself good and plenty of nothing’. It’s an energetic band workout and is likely be a highlight of a live set from The Flytones.

Baby You’re The Best is presented in an 80’s style and in this context is a breather between two strong tracks, because Down With The Ship is another potential anthem- a big soul ballad that should be heard and appreciated widely. It’s Over This Time is as described, a closer in which the singer points to a line in the sand and makes it clear that the subject is stating that a bad relationship is over with a big full stop.

So that’s Heart of Memphis. I’ve resisted the temptation to mention and compare any of the pantheon of great female vocalists, because Robin McKelle has her own distinctive style and can stand up in her own right. I really enjoyed her live with Fred and PeeWee doing the funky material and will be on the case when she plays her next London dates. If you want to know more about Robin McKelle you can read here about this Rochester, NY State born performer, who herself taught vocals at Boston’s revered Berklee School of Music. Catch her fast in the small venues because I feel that the big stages beckon. While we wait, you are unlikely to be disappointed by Heart of Memphis, or The Flytones whose musicianship complements their vocalist with performances that confirm their own talents.

The band etc: Robin McKelle (vocals, percussion); Ben Stivers (organ, piano); Derek Nievergelt (bass); Adrian Harpham (drums); Al Street (guitars); Mark Franklin (trumpet); Kirk Smothers (tenor & baritone saxophone); Danielle Hill & Susanne Marshall (background vocals). Production: Scott Bomar, Electaphonic Studios, Memphis Tennessee. Sony Music, OKeh. 2014

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Pee Wee Ellis & Fred Wesley: Ronnie Scott’s

I missed too many opportunities to see James Brown perform live. I thought that there would always be a next time. As we know, that opportunity has gone. So when the former JB stalwarts, Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis engagement at Ronnie Scott’s was announced, I pounced for tickets.

I was pondering how good a gig it would be, especially as they were being backed by a funk allstar band from the UK. I needn’t have worried. Although both Ellis and Wesley sit down when they are performing these days, they remain capable of hosting a gripping show Their UK band was made up of musicians of the calibre of Tony Remy (guitar), Mark Mondesir (drums), Laurence Cottle (bass), Dan Moore (keyboards). A second reedsman added back-up tenor sax (sorry I didn’t catch his name- but I believe he was the singer’s cousin). The McKelle’s must be a fine musical family and we will be returning to vocaliste Robin McKelle’s presently.

Opening with a couple of instrumentals to settle the band in, the audience soon became aware of how well this lineup could play. Fred Wesley then introduced a special guest from one of his several hometowns, Rochester, New York State, to help out on the vocals.

I don’t know what your view of jazz vocalists is? I’m not normally enamoured, having heard a few too many sultry Sarah, siren of Salisbury types trying to woo an audience with their take on a seeming random selection from the Great American Songbook (no disrespect to anyone who is actually called Sarah, comes from Salisbury and sings a bit, by the way). Every so often somebody surprises but it is so rare hear a singer who turns out to be even halfway on the uphill road to goodville.

Robin McKelle has been gifted with an amazing voice, which became clear from the start of Cold Sweat. We were then invited to Bop to The Boogie before being advised that Robin, Fred, Pee Wee and co were going to Move to The Outskirts of Town. Even Bexley, Uxbridge, Purley or Barking would become bearable if this gang moved there as a domestic unit, especially if Ray Charles, who wrote this classic, lived round the corner too.

It was time for a mid-performance break and while you re-charge your drink or make a cuppa, you can listen to a version of FW PWE and Robin performing Cold Sweat in Paris a couple of years ago. This is lifted from YouTube to give you, dear readers, some idea of their excellence:-

Click on or touch the arrow to play the YouTube film.

After the break the band showed they could swing and played the sort of Benny Carter/Coleman Hawkins number that was probably playing in the background when PWE and Fred were growing up. It was time for Fred to tell us about Breaking Bread cooked in grease, on a wood stove, in a great big skillet (to paraphrase the chorus), which sounded like it would taste even better than Ronnie Scott’s in-house burger, if that could be imagined.

Robin explained that she was a pretty fair cook, that her parents had a wood stove and that if she had the ingredients she would rustle something up. This led into her tribute to Etta James. Her take on I’d Rather Go blind, which sounded even better at this Thursday night at Ronnie’s, than on the film that which you can view next. I’ll shout it loud! Robin McKelle is a world-class talent, of whom a great deal more will be heard.

A standing ovation from the audience was entirely merited.

Earlier this week I’d pulled out my aged copy of The JB’s Pass The Peas and I was delighted when the band covered that, followed by Chicken, written by Fred Wesley but turned into a real moneymaker by Jaco Pastorious. At some stage we went to a funky House Party, of the finest kind. Pee Wee then explained how his dear departed friend, Eddie Harris owed him a few quid. He soon cashed in with a Harris number, drawing repayment, with compound interest, from the bank with Freedom Jazz Dance inscribed of over the door. He certainly showed great fluency and dexterity as he ran through the theme. Unlike far too many tenor sax players, PWE can hit those lower register bass notes on the nail, every time. Fred Wesley can also play his trombone a little bit too.

The set closed with a fine, slowed down version of I Feel Good. If James Brown, himself, could have heard this he would have been getting on the good foot with us.

I’m glad I rewarded The Crusaders with a cautious 7/10 before Christmas, because this set was a notch up on that one, meriting a well-deserved 8/10.

The midnight train to the NorthWest has nearly reached its destination on another Friday night and with that, here’s another post for you.

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