Category Archives: Ronnie Scott’s

The Blackbyrds: Ronnie Scott’s 15 February 2017

Although 2017 is not a leap year, here at downwithit we’ve sprung like a feisty feline on the hunt. The great Donald Byrd has led us from The Catwalk to a sellout first night of a residency at Ronnie Scott’s, costing me more of a song than sixpence and featuring The Blackbyrds as the main course.

While working on my consideration of The Catwalk and explaining how I had first started to listen to Donald Byrd when his Best Of compilation was released in 1992, I noticed that his protégés, The Blackbyrds, were playing in London in mid-February. It took seconds to hit the club website and reserve a couple of tickets. A month passed quickly and a night on the town came along to add a bit of sparkle to a late winter’s evening.

There’s always a bit of a gamble involved in going to see bands that have reformed. The Blackbyrds did so in 2012 and feature three original members in the form of powerhouse vocalist and drummer, Keith Killgo, the mighty Joe Hall on six string electric bass and Orville Saunders playing a very funky guitar.

Any misgivings were left behind at the door and a satisfying starter was served up by saxophonist Christian Brewer and his band, Brewer’s Crew. Their lively jazz funk was well received by an appreciative audience out to enjoy themselves.

After a quick rearrangement of the small stage, the main course was delivered by an octet who paved the way with their anthem, Black Byrd, which you can listen to (in the form of the original featuring Donald Byrd) courtesy of Youtube:

To play click on or touch the arrow

After a great opener, one of my personal favourites, Dominoes, followed. It led onto a delicious smorgasbord of hits including Think Twice, Time is Movin’, the inevitable Walking in Rhythm, Do It Fluid and Happy Music, not forgetting the well-loved Rock Creek Park.

There isn’t a weak link in the current Blackbyrds line-up and it is very much in keeping with Donald Byrd’s legacy as a great and inspirational music educator, that they include young talent. Paul Spires on lead vocal has a unique voice that the smart money says we will hear more of, while the sax and flute duties were delivered without fault by Elijah Balbed, a recent graduate of Washington’s Howard University, where Donald Byrd formed the band in 1973.

As the set progressed, a trickle of members of the audience began to dance and that rapidly turned into a flood as The Blackbyrds infectious and tightly delivered songbook worked its magic. Although this is their first residency there, this will surely not be the last engagement at Ronnie Scott’s for The Blackbyrds.

The gig also offered the opportunity for me to say hello to Carl Hyde, the in-house photographer at Ronnie Scott’s. I have been aware of Carl’s work for some time and you can see a sample of it for yourself on his website.

All in all, another great night at Ronnie’s!

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Pharoah Sanders live at Ronnie Scott’s: First set- 9 July 2016

Pharoah Journey To The One

You know what? Those of us who enjoy this music are very fortunate. It is possible to see musicians from the simply great to absolutely world-class standard perform in small venues. Saturday night offered a long awaited opportunity to see Pharoah Sanders perform live again, this time in the comfortable, indeed salubrious surroundings of Ronnie Scott’s.

Regular readers will be aware of my enjoyment of Pharoah’s music and may have noticed that I have posted links to reviews of a number of his recent American gigs. You may even have noted an underlying wistfulness as time passed without news of a UK gig. Eventually though this evening, almost on my doorstep in London, was announced.

Pharoah was accompanied by his regular pianist William Henderson and his European rhythmn section. Gene Calderazzo on drums is an alumni of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where a roommate was none other than Branford Marsalis, while bass player Oli Hayhurst was a founder member of Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble.

Pharoah played Origin, which first appeared as a septet version featuring scat vocals on the 1981 Rejoice set and again six years later in an earthier stripped down quartet context on Africa. Set like a diamond in the precious metal setting of his superb accompanists it seemed unlikely that we would witness the extensive explorations reliant on circular breathing but the tone was there and Pharoah’s spirit will never waiver.

John Coltrane’s beautiful love song for his first wife, Naima, was delivered with great sensitivity before Pharoah, ramped up the passion with a powerful rendition of Highlife, another selection from Rejoice. His expressive chants were matched with an equally strong saxophone part.

The band were of the highest calibre, although I am puzzled by why William Henderson doesn’t seem to have recorded as a leader as his playing has merited this for years. A trio performance featuring himself, Calderazzo and Hayhurst, perhaps on a small label like Smoke Sessions could be brilliant.

My evening was made when Pharoah graciously signed a couple of CD booklets that I had brought with me on the off chance (which is why this article has a picture of my CD copy of Journey To The One at the head). Even if you were to offer me three John Coltrane’s, four Monk’s or ten Miles Davis signed items these are momentos that I will never part with.

Evenings like this are gems to be stored up in the memory, treasured and returned to when times get tough. Unfortunately, the set was a short club sized morsal and all too soon it was time for the attentive staff to turn us out to the bright lights and crowds of an early Soho night. Oh for the old days when you could watch the early set at Ronnie’s and stay on for the second performance! Still, I also have memories of longer free-blowing sets at Dingwalls and The Jazz Cafe from the distant past to recall. I understand that Pharoah may have played other songs from his repertoire including You’ve Got To Have Freedom in his second set (if you were there, please leave a comment and let us know).

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Pharoah Sanders coming to Ronnie Scott’s in July 2016

It will come as no surprise to regular readers when I repeat my very high regard for Pharoah Sanders. I’ve been hoping for an opportunity to see him again for several years.

I was delighted to learn that this great saxophonist is coming back to the UK in July and that he will be playing two shows at Ronnie Scott’s in London on Saturday 9th July 2016.

If you are quick you may also be able to book a ticket for this unmissable master musician. The last time I looked in early May, the earlier show had sold out. By late May 2016, both sets had sold out

The details are here.

Pharoah was at Birdland in New York City in early April 2016, and you can read a fine review from Chris Tart of the blog here

Likes(4)Dislikes(0) 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!


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.


Jazz Crusaders: Ronnie Scott’s

Time certainly flies by. About 40 years ago, on a visit to London, I discovered Dobell’s record shop on Charing Cross Road and bought two jazz albums. At that stage I was starting out and wasn’t digging back into the past. They were both contemporary releases and very much at the soul end of the spectrum. Hollywood by The Crusaders was one of my purchases and I enjoyed it very much. I still do.

Over the years I have probably had countless opportunities to see The Crusaders in various incarnations. One way or another it never happened and it was only on Thursday night that I saw them for the first time.

It would be extremely cheeky of me to expect the full classic lineup with Wilton Felder and Joe Sample in the intimate luxury of Ronnie Scott’s, so I was happy to settle for Wayne Henderson’s excellent touring band.

They were funky, very funky! They even made second song, Three Blind Mice sound funky!

Maybe it was because they were in the UK that they played a very sensitive version of Eleanor Rigby which showcased Brian Price on guitar. He’s a Londoner- from London, Canada and plays with a delicate touch, getting right down the fretboard and spinning an intricate solo.

Next we were told there was a special treat. Polly Gibbons, chanteuse with the support band was brought back to perform Street Life. She’s a good singer with a great vocal range and I got the idea that even Wayne Henderson, who must have played this thousands of times, thought that she brought something fresh to it. Well done Polly.

The hits continued with Always There, which always makes me think of an imagined night in an Essex soul mine (being honest imagined ones are the only Essex soul nights I’ve ever been to. They are based on poorly recalled but seemingly legendary depictions of The Goldmine in Canvey Island from those Blues and Soul magazines I used to read as a teenager. Perhaps those are the best ones though). This featured a masterful bass solo from Derek Murdoch.

Finally, it was time for Way Back Home aka ‘The Anthem’. There’s a great version of this on an earlier post on this site- make sure you take a look. This was the track that got me into jazz in the first place. I loved the Junior Walker covers (both the vocal and the instrumental) and it was seeing a version by the composer on Hollywood that led me to part with my two quid- or whatever the album cost. There are some tracks that dredge up deep and sweet feelings- not necessarily linked to finite memories and this is one that does it for me. A great tune.

Regulars will know about my dislike of bitter critical remarks in the style of Leonard Feather. As an ex-saxophonist, albeit one who couldn’t really blow his own way out of a paper bag, I am wary of criticising pro-players. I know what I like though. That is why my personal jury remains out on Paul Russo. However, he is a brave player who performed very expressively and freely at times and who wasn’t afraid of blowing a soprano sax in public, which few do with much credit. I will listen out for more from him.

Drummer Tony Ward was the baby of the band but was absolutely solid and the aptly named Bill Steinway was superb on keyboards.

All in all, another great night at Ronnie Scott’s: which is an essential stop if you enjoy music (although if you are entertaining on the company credit card and just want to chat to your clients, please go elsewhere on the nights I’m in).

I’m starting to rate gigs from here on and this one gets a strong 7/10. Thanks Wayne!

I’m aware that I’ve veered towards soul jazz in these early postings but I’ll not be neglecting other strands. So please come back often and leave your comments. If I don’t like what you have to say, I’ll set the monstrous reincarnation of Leonard Feather loose on you.


Hollywood: The Crusaders

Richard Nixon can be blamed for a long list of things. He is partly to blame for my interest in jazz and moon rock has a part to play!

Back in 1973 Nixon gave Edward Heath and the leaders of 134 other countries slivers of moon rock, brought to Earth as part of the Apollo Programme. Our bit was put on display in Kensington and this was big news, even in my hometown. A trip to London was organised from my school to view this mysterious substance. Since it offered a chance to see the big city for a second time (I’d already been to a cup final- but that’s another story), I was well up for it.

Once we had marveled at our little bit of the Moon and had a good look around the Science Museum, we were turned loose by the accompanying teachers on the Metropolis and in the time-honoured manner of many stupid teenage boys, we headed straight for Soho. During the course of my wanderings I found Dobell’s Record Shop on Charing Cross Road. I was already smitten by Junior Walker and wanted to take my interest in saxophones further. I’d read in Blues and Soul Mag that there was a version of Way Back Home on a newish Crusaders album and I managed to locate and purchase my copy of Hollywood. I also bought another LP featuring a saxophonist and have just discovered a strange fact about it- but that can wait for another post.

Years later, I’ve still got my original copy, released on MoWest and pressed at EMI’s plant at Hayes (there was also a version on UK Tamla Motown, as you will see). Here’s the cover:-

Crusaders cover-2

When I got my new album onto the turntable of the radiogram at home my adventures with jazz started. Spanish Harlem was a familiar track. I already had the Aretha Franklin version on an Atlantic single but I don’t think I knew that the original was recorded by Ben E King in 1960, or that it was a Leiber / Phil Spector composition. It still sounds superb (despite mangling spins on the radiogram turntable which is landfill somewhere) with beautifully recorded drums and pleasing tenor sax and trombone solos. Try A Little Harder is a bit of a filler, but then comes the title track. On Hollywood Joe Sample tickles a very engaging and soulful tune out of the piano before tenor and sax play in unison and the tenor plays a downright earthy solo, followed by Wayne Henderson on trombone. Thanks to Montysylvano for the YouTube clip

Do Yourself a Favour is a slab of early 70’s jazz funk with wah wah guitar. Its OK but doesn’t excel.

Side two’s opener Cold Duck Eddie has a nice strolling sort of a sound with the trombone out in force. Way Back Home, was familiar to me through Junior Walker’s version and I was a little disappointed with this one at the time as the sax sounds much more restrained and formal within the context of a very tight band. Trawling YouTube, I found this great live version from 2003 (courtesy Horthy66) with a wonderful introduction by Joe Sample. I still love the way Junior did it though!

Papa Hooper’s Barrelhouse Groove never did much for me, while Alekesam is a pleasant sounding track that could have been bland but which is saved by great musicianship.

So there you have it. Richard Nixon, the Moon and the music of the Crusaders. Best of all, the Crusaders are playing at Ronnie Scott’s in a couple of weeks and I aim to tell you all about it. The clip above has certainly whetted my appetite.

The band etc: Wayne Henderson (trombone); Wilton Felder (tenor sax and electric bass); Joe Sample (keyboards); Stix Hooper (drums). No studio details on my copy (maybe someone out there on the net can help us with this?) but it was recorded in 1972 and produced by Stewart Levine.


Rebirth Brass Band live at Ronnie Scott’s

A Friday gig preamble:- I know somebody who is a great storyteller (take a bow Tim).  He could spin a tale about watching the lawn grow and grip you with it.  He once told me about a live recording in which the American vocalist invited all the people in the house to shake their handkerchiefs.  Those of us listening laughed at the prospect of the seldom seen, often disgusting typical British handkerchief making an appearance in smart company.  We wondered why anybody would engage in such antics.  A couple of years later I saw the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, from New Orleans, perform at The Fillmore in San Francisco.  Not only did they have a dancer who encouraged us all to wave our handkerchiefs but he also sported a very fine umbrella, which made us all very jealous.  Apparently, it is a New Orleans thing.

Then there was Treme, an amazing, high quality American TV series from the makers of The Wire.  This was centred on New Orleans and largely seen through the lens of those involved in the music scene there as recovery from Hurricane Katrina began.  The series opens with the first street procession or ‘second line’ as the city starts to pick itself up and the band accompanying the revelers is the Rebirth Brass Band.  If you haven’t seen Treme do yourself a favour and grab the series sets.  I’d be surprised if you regret it.

I was delighted to learn that Rebirth were playing here this month and even happier when tickets for their gig at Ronnie Scott’s tonight were secured.

Rebirth Brass Band-2

The gig:-  The opening set was from The Gareth Williams Trio.  They played a short warm up performance which attempted to please the maximum possible number of viewers.  They managed to follow John Coltrane’s Giant Steps with a Cole Porter tune, after which it was time for the main act.

Featuring a tuba, two trombones, trumpet, tenor sax and two drummers, the Rebirth Brass Band played with verve and great energy.  They mixed musical tradition and old school marching band instrumentation with an earthy sense of funk.  Miles Davis’s Freddie Freeloader and I Got a Woman by Ray Charles were combined with Caravan and It’s All Over Now to transport the early Friday night crowd to the Big Easy.  Whilst I did contemplate purchasing a very fine pack of 5 blue handkerchiefs for a fiver in Brixton this lunchtime, the cash stayed in my pocket.  It didn’t matter as although this early-evening first set left few disappointed, the band seemed to be holding plenty in reserve for later.  No whirling handkerchiefs amongst the early crew!

Sadly, it was all over too quickly.  Back in the days when it was possible to see two sets from the main act at Ronnie’s, with the only extra expense being a late night, this would have been a band I would have paid that price for.  It’s just about midnight as I write this and they will be back onstage shortly-but I’m back at home.  I’m sure those celebratory handkerchiefs will be in order for this fine band after the witching hour.  As for me, it’s early to bed, to dream of imagined second lines and seeing the Rebirth Brass Band in a sweaty Crescent City club with space to dance.  I really must go to New Orleans one day!