Category Archives: Tenor Saxophone

Looking ahead: A Concert for Alice and John Coltrane

This year marks 50 years since the passing of the great John Coltrane (and 10 years since that of his wife Alice Coltrane). On 18 November, a special commemorative concert is to be held at The Barbican in London.

It features a rare London appearance by Pharoah Sanders (hopefully accompanied by pianist William Henderson) with Denys Baptiste and Alina Bzhezhinska also performing on the bill.

The concert publicity says it will be:-

A three-part journey through the cosmos, celebrating the profound musical and spiritual legacy of two of the most influential figures in Western musical history: Alice and John Coltrane.

Tickets are currently available at all prices (as of 21st June 2017) at The Barbican Box Office here. At £35 or the best seats (and considerably less for others), I hope some of you will also be there.

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Coltrane Plays The Blues: John Coltrane


Are you one of the many fortunate readers who has reason to visit a barber or hairdresser? If you are and they are any good, take a moment to salute them. Maria at The Clipper keeps her scissors as sharp as how I think my hairstyle looks when I walk out through her salon door. Why start with this you may wonder? Well, the reason will become clear as you read on.

John Coltrane’s life was eventful though his star burned brightly and briefly, as he passed away at the age of 41. 1960 was a particularly busy and momentous year for him though. Giant Steps was released in late January and he spent March and April touring Europe with Miles Davis. During this tour he spent hours practising soprano saxophone (some accounts say that Miles Davis bought one for him in a Paris antique store although Coltrane also said that he has bought his own instrument earlier in the year after first starting to play on one that belonged to a fellow musician).

By May 1960 he had handed his notice in to Miles Davis and his own quartet opened a 9 week residence at the Jazz Gallery in New York’s Jazz Gallery (housed in a Greenwich Village building in which Leon Trotsky had briefly lived). On the first night, Thelonious Monk and a man dressed only in a loincloth and shouting ‘Coltrane, Coltrane!’ rushed towards the stage in salutation.

He recruited McCoy Tyner in the summer and later, in September he hired Elvin Jones, who he first met in 1957. On 21 and 24 October they went into the studios to record sessions which were to yield tracks for no less than four major albums (not including compilations and retrospectives).

Amongst them was Coltrane Plays The Blues. It is often overlooked by people exploring Coltrane’s discography, perhaps because the title may make it appear to be a generic career-spanning compilation rather than as a discrete work, recorded at one particularly important time in Coltrane’s development as a leader.

Blues To Elvin is as straightforward a blues as they come, except that we are in the company of masters, with solos from Coltrane and McCoy Tyner.

Coltrane plays his soprano saxophone on Blues To Bechet, opting for a pianoless trio with Tyner sitting out. Coltrane had been working towards mastery of his soprano saxophone, a horn previously seldom heard in a modern jazz context since the late 1950s. During that period he had visited the Blue Note offices to obtain copies of Sidney Bechet recordings (you can read about this, how Blue Train came to be recorded and the strange tale of the Blue Note office cat here).

Blues To You harks back to Giant Steps with busy Coltrane solo in which he is running through the chord changes.

Delivered at a brisk tempo, Coltrane leads out on Mr Day over a piano theme tastefully played by Tyner.

The identities of the three men that Coltrane honoured in the titles of the songs on side 2 of the original vinyl release are obscured. Messrs Day and Knight may be self-explanatory (probably relating to different times of day, although if you know anything more, please let us know). Mr Syms, however, could only be linked to an actual individual and my quest to uncover who this was resulted in a long unfruitful and frustrating internet trawl. It was only when I managed to consult Porter’s excellent book that I discovered that the Mr Syms that Coltrane had in mind was his barber in Philadelphia (although Sims was also the middle name of drummer Pete La Roca). So that explains the dedication of this review to my hairdresser. The solos from Coltrane echo elements of Summertime, version of which was recorded on the same day, in the same session, and appeared on My Favorite Things.

The highlight of the set, for me, is Mr Knight, a brilliant composition on which Elvin Jones’ drumming is of particular note. It can be enjoyed on YouTube courtesy of monomotapa15

To listen touch or click on the arrow.

The CD reissue delivers five extra tracks with two alternative versions of both Blues For Elvin and Blues To You with a further number known as Untitled Original which sits in contrast to the rest of the album with its modal feel.

Coltrane Plays The Blues is a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying recording which repays repeated listening and which deserves a place in any modern jazz collection. If you haven’t sought it out, you should. Of course, if you can prove to us that Mr Day and Mr Knight were people, rather than conceptual titles, please let us know without delay.

The band etc: John Coltrane (soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone); McCoy Tyner (piano); Elvin Jones (drums); Steve Davis (bass). Produced: Nesuhi Ertegun. Engineer: Tom Dowd. Recorded: Rudy Atlantic Studios, New York City. 24 October 1960. Cover Design: Marty Norman- Bob Slutzky Graphics. Released: 1962. Original release: Atlantic Records 1382.

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Beyond Now: Donny McCaslin

Spare a thought for the chameleon and, perhaps a little later, after reading further, some praise. Why? Because it was the chameleon that brought us here.

The changeling that I have in mind is the late David Bowie. His 2014 single release, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) utilised a big band with Donny McCaslin to the fore on tenor saxophone. McCaslin was later to play on Bowie’s Blackstar (which contains a different rock version of Sue without much sax) where he was showcased with a solo on Dollar Days (and to a lesser extent I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Beyond Now was recorded in April 2016 following Bowie’s death in January 2016 and McCaslin states on the sleeve:-
“It was like a dream, except it was something that I could never have dreamed of. David Bowie was a visionary artist whose generosity, creative spirit, and fearlessness will stay with me the rest of my days. This recording is dedicated to him and all who loved him.”

Since the 1970s I’ve always been ready to listen to Bowie because he was a truly innovative and compelling artist. In mid-2014 I looked at a reprise of his Berlin songs recorded by Dylan Howe and it was my favourite contemporary set of the year for 2014. I’m therefore delighted that this jazz saxophonist who worked with Bowie has produced an album that he influenced. Beyond Now, which was released at the end of 2016, will be the first contemporary recording to be reviewed on downwithit.info in 2017.

Proceedings get underway with Shake Loose, a staccato funk piece that offers a great warm-up for McCaslin who covers the full range of his tenor saxophone, from high to low and back again with every stop in between. This could be a set opener as it certainly seizes the attention. I particularly enjoy the second phase, where things slow down a bit, the keyboards come in and longer notes are played.

McCaslin is content to operate as the lead accompanist on A Small Plot of Land, the first of two David Bowie tracks. Jeff Taylor supplies vocals on this ponderous version of a composition which was originally used as background to the funeral of Andy Warhol segment in the film Basquiat. The elegiac quality may possibly go some way to explaining why McCaslin chose to cover it here on an album recorded so soon after Bowie’s passing. It is a good choice, which repays repeated airings and which adds further layer of variety and texture to the album.

I need listeners to help me out on the title track, Beyond Now, as I think McCaslin is playing clarinet on the opening of this fine ballad. Jason Linder gets space to play a rather good piano solo here too.

Coelacanth 1 is a tune originally composed by Grammy Award nominated DJ and producer Deadmau5. McCaslin’s tenor paints a soundscape over long drone notes delivered from the keyboards. It is a contemplative piece in the style of so much that appears on ECM albums by the likes of Jan Gabarek.

On Bright Abyss McCaslin ranges over both the upper and lower registers of his tenor and shows that he is comfortable with the lower notes, which can often expose the limitations of lesser musicians.

McCaslin solos inventively over the increasingly frenzied straight ahead rock rhythms on FACEPLANT (uppercase sic). If Neil Cowley was to collaborate with a saxophonist, DMc would be a shoe-in for the job as this track has the same feel as some of the rockier pieces on Spacebound Apes.

With Warszawa, from Low, David Bowie and Brian Eno took us into new territory that seemed strange and somewhat challenging on a 1970’s rock album. Here, Donny McCaslin’s mournful tenor is played beautifully and this is a worthy homage to The Thin White Duke.

Glory builds slowly towards an engaging keyboard bridging section, before the saxophone comes in with overtones and sparkling upper register runs concluding with an exciting finish.

The Great American Songbook, that loose mishmash canon of jazz standards, is not known to have expanded to include the final track, but perhaps it should. Remain, originally written and recorded by Mutemath, is an exceptionally beautiful ballad, almost wistful in tone and the highlight of the album for me. It is just the sort of tune that Miles Davis could conceivably have chosen to cover in the twilight of his life. It is worth the price of admission to this set by itself. Although there are currently plenty of Donny McCaslin tracks on YouTube, at the time of writing, Remain was not one of them. However, you can hear a short slice of it on the album sampler:-

Treat yourself and play it now courtesy of YouTube. You won’t regret it.

To play, touch or click on the arrow

Donny McCaslin was born in 1966 in Santa Clara, California and was the son of a vibraphonist. He won a full scholarship to the world famous Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1984 before touring with Gary Burton’s band from 1987. In 1991 he replaced the eminent horn player, Michael Brecker in Steps Ahead and in 1998 he recorded the first of his 12 albums released to date. The Bowie link began when he was recommended by composer Maria Schneider and Bowie watched him and his band play in 55 Bar, New York City (which sounds like a must visit place in Greenwich Village).

downwithit.info will continue to cover selected contemporary CDs and Beyond Now has certainly got 2017 off to a great start. I wholeheartedly recommend this recording which has confirmed that David Bowie made an excellent choice of saxophonist for his last known projects. Cheers to The Chameleon for that and so much more!

The band etc.:- Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute, clarinet); Jason Linder (keyboards); Tim Lefebvre (electric bass); Mark Guiliana (drums); supported by: Jeff Taylor (vocals- track 2); David Binney (additional synths and vocals, tracks 5 & ); Nate Wood (guitar, track 2). Recorded 4-6 April 2016. Systems Two, Brooklyn, New York. Produced by: David Binney. Recording Engineer: Mike Marciano. Mixed by: Nate Wood. Cover photo: Jimmy King. Art Direction and Design: Rebecca Meek. Issued as Motema 234310.

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Johnny Griffin’s Studio Jazz Party

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In September 1960 Johnny Griffin led this session which sought to capture the spontaneity of a live recording in a studio environment where the sound quality could be controlled and shaped to a much greater degree than in most live venues. Johnny Griffin’s Studio Jazz Party is exactly what the title says it is. An audience was invited to the Plaza Sounds Studio in New York where they were treated to drinks and a buffet and encouraged to respond to the music as though they were in a club setting.

Writing posts for downwithit.info would be far more difficult if, like many fellow Jazz site authors, I was to confine myself to recordings that I owned in a vinyl format. Most of my posts are based on listening to FLAC sound files that I have ripped from CDs that I have purchased. I enjoy the freedom to roam that this offers and it is a freedom that I wouldn’t have if I was to only write about vinyl records. I can’t afford top quality early pressings and usually lack the time it takes to dig through crates of second hand vinyl in search of rare bargains. I’m not sure if this offends the purists but if it does then too bad.

So what has this look at Johnny Griffin’s Studio Jazz Party to do with this?

Well! It represents a rare consideration on this site of a vinyl LP. I have a regular cursory flick through the jazz section of my local music and DVD shop and once in a while I come across an affordable record that I am prepared to stump up the cash for.

Back in August 2014 I wrote about another Johnny Griffin recording:- his Big Soul Band set. By coincidence that was also a vinyl record from the same shop.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the fare that is served up here:-

After an extended introduction from Babs Gonzales, in which the invited audience are encouraged to settle in and avail themselves of the food and drinks, the session proper gets underway.

The opener is a lengthy rendition of Tad Dameron / Count Basie’s Good Bait. After a brief and moody swing-influenced head the band hit double time and Griffin is away with a lively solo before bringing in Dave Burns on trumpet. Griffin’s second solo is a little ragged as is his playing when he trades verses with Burns but overall there is little not to enjoy.

You can take a listen courtesy of ‘Umo’ at Youtube here:-

To play click or touch the arrow.

There Will Never Be Another You features Burns on the head and first solo. Simmons acquits himself well on piano. Griffin’s notes are voiced swiftly as bursts of sound, before, in conclusion Griffen and Burns again trade phrases with each other, before receiving deserved applause.

Toe-Tappin’ is a Burns composition that displays more than a nod towards Moanin’, although unlike that classic it is played at a brisk tempo. There’s space for a short bass solo from Vic Sproules which fits well.

You’ve Changed is introduced by Gonzalves in basic French as a version of the ballad associated with Billie Holiday. Burns plays beautifully on this.

Low Gravy is a strolling blues number written for the session by Gonzales, which closes the recording.

My copy is a Japanese pressing and this initially made me think twice about the purchase. Any doubts were set aside when I examined the back cover and discovered that the copy on sale had been previously owned by ‘Schmidt’ a well-known British jazz collector (London Jazz Collector owns several records from the same source). As you will see he had the habit of adding his name in his distinctive script. Although embellishments to the sleeve usually reduce its value, an exception can be made for him.

I pointed the signature out to the extremely knowledgeable shopkeeper who said that he remembered meeting Schmidt and thought that he had something to do with the audio or hifi business. I intend to have a chat with him to try to get some more information when I next see him and the shop is not busy.

Although I admire Johnny Griffin for being adventurous with the concept of this release, Studio Jazz Party is not the greatest album with a live feel to it but it is worth a listen and I am pleased to have added a first ‘Schmidt’ to my collection.

The band etc: Johnny Griffin (tenor saxophone); Norman Simmons (piano); Dave Burns (trumpet); Vic Sproules (bass); Ben Riley (drums). Recorded: September 27 1960. Plaza Sounds Studio, New York City. Produced: Orrin Keepnews. Sleeve Notes: Chris Albertson. Cover photos: Lawrence Shustak. Cover Design: Ken Deardoff. Original Stereo copy issued as Riverside 9338.

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The Epic: Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington The Epic2

Readers, I’m sorry that it has taken me so long to get round to taking a look at this celebrated release from Kamasi Washington.

Every so often an artist comes along that it is important to have an opinion about. Kamasi Washington is of that ilk. His first release is a triple CD set featuring nearly three hours of music. Some of the tracks are indeed epic in scale featuring large choirs together with a 32 piece orchestra and he appeared live in concert at the BBC Proms at the end of August 2016. His tenor saxophone work is likened to that of some of the greatest musicians of all time. The album is entitled The Epic for a reason and trying to do it justice will be no easy task, so I will be doing so over the whole of August and September 2016, starting with some initial impressions before working towards some conclusions by the end of September 2016. If you want to join me and have some dialogue, get yourself a copy. There is also an opinion poll at the end of the piece that you are welcome to participate in (the current results are shown after you have voted).

Here goes:-

Volume 1: The Plan

Change of the Guard is dedicated to Austin Peralta, a musician of great talent and tremendous promise who died at the age of 22. You can read about him here.

Askim contains a long solo which builds from the mellifluous and slowly moves towards the discordant before calm returns. This track introduces us to another side of Washington’s playing. Again, I find the choir distracting.

Isabelle is played by a septet and the choir take a break. It is a gentle contemplative piece.

Final Thought is funkier with Brandon Coleman’s organ to the fore before Washington comes in with an exciting and powerful solo.

The choir are back on The Next Step. KW’s sensitive solo does not to be surrounded and this piece is over-embellished.

The Rhythm Changes is a song featuring Patrice Quinn on lead vocals, initially accompanied by the trombone of Ryan Porter. Again, I’m not convinced by this saccharine confection.

Volume 2: The Gloroius Tale

Miss Understanding. Trumpet run from Igmar Thomas

Leroy and Lanisha. A light lilting piece featuring a duet between trombone and tenor saxophone. A high point of the opus so far.

Re Run is next and the gargling choir are back on a Latin flavoured piece which turns into something special during Washington’s solo. Get out those soft jazz dance shoes, or better still, wait for the superior version of this track on the third CD, where the choir do not feature (although Washington’s solo is far less interesting).

Seven Prayers is played by a nonet with both acoustic and electric bass. Instruments are voiced in unison and guess what, they sound a little like a choir.

Henrietta Our Hero features another lead vocal from Patrice Quinn, which gives way to an enjoyable chorus on saxophone from Washington.

The Magnificent 7. Once again some great soloing from Kamasi but the choir is present to dilute the power of what he is serving up . The composition is a good one that is over developed and submerged in cloying sweetener. I could imagine this working on a big festival stage and this is stadium-sized rather than club jazz.

Volume 3: The Historic Repetition

Re Run Home is one of the most immediate tracks on the entire set. Uptempo and anthemic. However the soloing seems a little simplistic. You can have a listen courtesy of Brainfeeder on YouTube:-

Cherokee starts like a bright and bushy 1990’s Diana Brown track before the lead vocalist comes in. She doesn’t do much for me, I’m afraid.

Clair de Lune is a dreamy realisation of the Debussey piece on which the choir makes an appearance. There is a Hollywood, 30’s feel on this.

Malcolm’s Theme is a tribute to Malcolm X with extract from a speech which is liberal in its content and argues in favour of religious co-existence between Islam and Christianity and black and white. The music takes second place here on a piece that probably would not have made it onto a single CD, although KW’s solo is strong and it is a pity it is compromised by the other more indulgent aspects of this track.

The Message is a pleasant jazz funk meander which provides a springboard for a deft and exciting KW solo but is overlong.

My initial reactions are that Kamasi Washington overdoes things with this triple set. He offers up a full menu in one sitting when we would probably be better served with smaller portions featuring complimentary favours rather than a whole gargantuan blow-out. As will be clear by now, the choir doesn’t do much for me but some of you may like it. Washington clearly has at least one strong film score in the locker as there is much about The Epic that signals this to be the case.

I have added a quick single choice poll to see what you and fellow readers think of Kamasi Washington. Please feel free to complete and also to add a comment to get a lively debate going.

I’ll keep on listening and try to supplement this within the coming weeks.

First update:- Saturday 3 September:- A recording of KW’s BBC Proms performance from The Royal Albert Hall is on BBC iPlayer for the next 26 days and I have just listened to it. Unfortunately, the presence of The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and choir resulted in the aspects of KW’s work that I enjoy least being aired. The audience who saw the performance were very vocal in their appreciation and seemed to enjoy themselves.

Update: Tuesday 6 September 2016:- Six responses to the opinion poll so far and all positive, with five people wanting to hear more and one going for the even more enthusiastic ‘future of jazz’ position. Please keep the responses coming in and feel free to leave a comment.

Update: Thursday 8 September 2016 The liveliness of Final from the first CD was exciting after reviewing Grant Green’s Street of Dreams. The stripped down band can play and this was fun.

Update: Friday 9 September 2016. Miss Understanding is 8 minutes and 46 seconds long and the seven minutes that the choir sit things out for is very good. The introduction is somewhat ostentatious but after 90 seconds it settles to a fine track on which KW plays with fire and gusto.

Update: Sunday 11 September 2016. 8 votes so far, with 6 regarding KW as ‘Interesting new talent’ and one each for the other two choices

Update: Tuesday 16 November 2016. 77% of voters, so far, regard KW as ‘Interesting new talent’; 8% agree that KW is ‘the future of jazz’ while 15% go for’over-rated and unlikely to listen to again’.

Update: Monday 2 January 2017.
I’ve not felt inclined to re-listen to’The Epic’. Eventually I will get round to a selective re-listen concentrating on the tracks that I do like. I’ll also watch out for Kamasi Washington’s next release in the hope that he veers in the direction of work with small bands without choral arrangements and vocals. Just in case you are unable to read the poll on your machine or phone, as of today 15 readers had voted in the poll:- 67% of voters, as of 2/1/17, regarded KW as ‘Interesting new talent’; 20% agreed that KW is ‘the future of jazz’ while 13% went for’over-rated and unlikely to listen to again’. Thanks for taking part- I will leave the poll open until KW releases another set.

You need to vote to view the results as only the premium version of this plugin offers a preview option, although I will visit and provide a breakdown in the updates from time to time.

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Simon Spillett, Ted Beament, Simon Thorpe & Clive Fenner: Live at East Side Jazz Club: 12 July 2016

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Simon Spillett has been on my ‘to hear list’ of tenor saxophonists for a while now and the East Side Jazz Club offered an opportunity to catch up with him. Tubby Hayes has been a particular influence on his playing and last night’s set was largely made up of tunes that Hayes had covered. Opening with a lively Royal Ascot, the set moved through Like Someone in Love and Alone Together through to Miles Davis’ Vierd Blues, Polkadots and Moonbeams and The Theme.

Spillett’s playing combined fluent dexterity with fleeting references to a veritable history of jazz riffs and it was good to hear fine controlled mainstream soloing. Simon Thorpe, last seen a couple of weeks ago at the same venue with Vasilis Xenopoulis had gigged with Spillett in the previous week. The live sound from his double bass was a joy to listen to and his solos and runs added to the programme, rather than merely filling it out. I don’t think I’ve encountered Bob Beament’s piano before but he impressed on East Side’s trusty upright, combining delicate softly played single notes with great percussive chords and leading this non-pianist to ponder the mysteries of effective pedal work. The guests excelled, as did Clive Fenner on drums, who was given more space than usual with plenty of ‘fours’ and longer fills afforded by Spillett’s benign leadership. Spillett told us that Beament had last played at East Side 18 years ago and it never ceases to astound how four musicians can meet up without rehearsal and deliver such an engaging performance. That’s the essence of what good professional live jazz is about, I guess.

The second set featured There is No Greater Love, Misty, It Could Happen To You and Caravan, before Beament and Spillett produced Blue Monk, which was of particular interest as I am currently reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s excellent ‘Thelonious Monk: The life and times of an American Original’.

Throughout the performance Spillett interspersed the music with tales that displayed a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour and I look forward to reading his acclaimed recent book on Tubby Hayes when funds allow.

The East Side Jazz Club is closed until 20 September 2016 but downwithit will be back there in the autumn to catch a selection of the consistently high standard performances.

By using the search box at the top of this page you will be able to look at content from over 140 separate posts for views and reviews of work by numerous modern jazz artists.

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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).

By using the search box at the top of this page you will be able to look at content from over 140 separate posts for views and reviews of work by numerous modern jazz artists.

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Vasilis Xenopoulos, Nigel Price, Simon Thorpe & Clive Fenner: Live at East Side Jazz Club: 28 June 2016

By using the search box at the top of this page you will be able to look at content from over 140 separate posts for views and reviews of work by numerous modern jazz artists.

At the end of June 2016 disappointment holds sway, from the ballot box to the football field and Tuesday night saw me heading off to Leytonstone for some respite at the East Side Jazz Club. It is amazing how time flies and it is probably over 12 months since my last visit. Indeed it was my first visit to the new venue (Leytonstone and District Ex-Servicemen’s Club) with its floral kitsch stage dressing providing an unexpected splash of colour.

I was drawn by Vasilis Xenopoulos, a Greek tenor saxophonist and graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music. He shared the stage with guitar and bass stalwarts, Nigel Price and Simon Thorpe with the ever-present Clive Fenner on drum and MC duties.

Xenopoulis immediately won the audience over with his engaging personality before slowly revealing his excellent command of his instrument throughout a set which was made up of mainstream standards such as I Remember You, Autumn Leaves, Witchcraft and Imagination. I was equally impressed by the inventive guitar work of Nigel Price, whose schedule of forthcoming gigs confirms the the ex- James Taylor Quartet member is massively in demand. I have a weakness for good jazz guitar and was delighted when the third number of the set, Grant Green’s Mambo Inn was introduced.

East Side always have a raffle during the interval and one of this week’s prizes was a CD copy of Oliver Nelson’s Blues And The Abstract Truth. Such was the versatility of this outfit that Vasilis was able to call Stolen Moments, one of the highpoints of the recording, seemingly on the spur of the moment, with the band delivering a solid version. Also of particular note was Nigel Price’s mash-up of Monk and Charlie Parker on Straight No Bounce which was an unlikely but excellent melding of Billie’s Bounce and Straight No Chaser.

Throughout the show, Simon Thorpe and Clive Fenner provided a rock-solid foundation and were able to show what they are capable of through their own short solos.

All in all, another fine night at East Side Jazz Club, where you are assured a warm welcome every week and which is well worth a visit (although they will be taking their summer break after 12 July through to 20 September). Indeed, next week’s annual visit by Derek Nash and the East Side R & B Band is highly recommended and a review from 2014 is here.

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Ed Kelly and Pharoah Sanders

Sanders Kelly

There’s great excitement and anticipation in the downwithit household. As Pharoah’s summer gig at Ronnie Scott’s approaches it seems opportune to introduce or possibly remind you of one of his lesser-known albums. I’m trying out a simple poll for visitors on this post- just to see how many of you own recordings by Pharoah, so please feel free to complete, if you so wish.

After coming to notice as a trusted sideman during John Coltrane’s final years, recording a string of his own sets on Impulse and accompanying Alice Coltrane and Don Cherry, the mid-1970’s arrived. To state things simply, this was a difficult, transitional time for the music. Free Jazz and the New Thing had exploded into difficult territory and many of those at the vanguard had turned back towards a hybrid fusion, funk and R & B sound (as exemplified by the late work of Albert Ayler- I will take a look at New Grass sometime perhaps) and the eclecticism of Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues.

Pharoah Sanders seemed to have lost his way and in 1978 he released a soul jazz album on Arista, Love Will Find A Way, which I have yet to hear. I understand this featured a vocal track from Phyllis Hymen and a poor cover of Marvin Gaye as the title track.

Fortunately, in 1978 Pharoah went into the studio with pianist, Ed Kelly, who was an important figure in the local San Francisco and Oakland jazz scene. The two of them recorded six tracks which ranged from covers of standards, through soul jazz through to two real gems. The album was originally released as Ed Kelly and Friend due to Pharoah being contracted to Arista Records at the time. Indeed, as you can see, the cover shows Kelly playing next to Pharoah’s hat, shoes and Selmer tenor saxophone. Let’s explore:-

Heavens above! Smooth Jazz alert! Rainbow Song, a Kelly composition, opens matters in a manner far removed from Pharoah’s work on his Impulse albums (although there had been a dramatic change of course when he signed with Arista and recorded). This is firmly in Grover Washington Junior territory with a liberal sprinkling of oh so tasteful strings. The Master’s sound is full and mighty as ever, but the overall confection is too tame.

Thankfully, with the radio track out of the way it is business as hoped for and Newborn is a Sanders composition that burns with intensity. The power of his solo is as good as anything he has produced and he runs over the full span of the tenor’s range and onwards into territory lesser known or explored by 99% of sax players. You can take a listen, courtesy of zigett at YouTube:-

To play, touch or click on the arrow (or you may even be able to command Siri to do something).

Sam Cooke’s You Send Me is treated with reverence and respect, with Pharoah delivering a sensitive and heartfelt rendition and ending with some extraordinary phonics, which we will meet again on later albums. Kelly’s accompaniment complements Sander’s playing before he receives his own space for a shimmering yet restrained solo which discloses what this non-pianist assumes to be an agile right hand.

Pippin is another Ed Kelly composition, based firmly on the 1980″s soul sound and only merits passing attention.

Answer Me My Love is an early 50’s ballad with a fascinating back story. On its initial release in post-war Britain, covers of this this fine melody stirred sufficient controversy for the song to be banned by the BBC. What led to it being barred from broadcast on the Light Programme and treated like Anarchy For The UK, Wet Dream and Give Ireland Back To The Irish? I can reveal that the reason for this draconian action was that the original version was entitled ‘Answer Me, My Lord’. In the olden days, it seems that a direct appeal to God was considered to be blasphemous- especially if set in a secular or selfish context (I can’t understand how hymns got around this though). Further research indicates that Nat King Cole made the most celebrated recording and that Bob Dylan used to sing it live in the 1990’s, presumably during his overtly Christian phase- which I didn’t know until now was so risky. Anyway, it is a grand tune, played very well but listen with care and don’t attempt to Google the lyrics. Here at downwithit.info we have to warn you that too much of that sort of thing may place your mortal soul in peril (to those unfamiliar with English humour, I am joking here).

Pharoah went on to record at least three studio versions of his great anthem You’ve Got To Have Freedom but the one here is the earliest incarnation that I am aware of. It is also the most restrained treatment of the theme, although Pharoah’s solo shows his ability to play with fire and power over the entire range of the horn. There’s plenty of space for Kelly’s piano too and he provides an elegant setting for Sanders’ exploratory work. The version on Africa (recorded 1987) is taken at a faster pace and features an equally fine piano solo from John Hicks.

These six tracks made up the selections released on the original album on Theresa Records. From this point on, Pharoah’s work on the CD is complete and the final five recordings are from 1992 and feature Ed Kelly with a quintet on the first two and on solo piano for the last three. They are well worth a listen and my notes follow:-

Song For The Street People endeavours to create an aural representation of day to day life in Oakland. Like the next track it has that jaunty mainstream sort of feel that makes you feel all is good in the world.

West Oakland Strut wouldn’t be out of place on Donald Byrd / Mizell brothers production. AJ Johnson’s muted trumpet sounds fine but overall the piece is slightly too light for me.

The CD concludes with three solo piano pieces. Lift Every Voice has been referred to as the Black American national anthem and Kelly’s piano offers a reflection on a tune of great cultural significance. Just The Two Of Us is the popular MacDonald, Salter, Bill Withers number, which was recorded by Withers and Grover Washington Jr. on Winelight. Stripped of strings and over-embellishment it is most listenable.

Finally, Kelly takes a look at Thelonious Monk’s Well You Needn’t, which he interprets wonderfully and which shows what a talented pianist he was.

I came across this CD a couple of months ago and was surprised as I had never heard of it before. It represents a satisfying bridge from the free-fire of the Impulse recordings to the later more melodic Sanders. You should be able to track it down on CD, but expect to pay over £15.00 (which is small change for collectors of first pressings).

As I have said elsewhere, Pharoah Sanders seems to be somewhat ignored by many lovers of jazz. Some of his work on Impulse can be abrasive and difficult and, since he emerged in the mid-1960’s he doesn’t have the hard bop pedigree that some insist on. That is their loss. Ed Kelly and Pharoah Sanders has been a great find and if you want a good introduction to this great saxophonist it may be a suitable springboard for you.

Ed Kelly shows a talent that could have enabled him to have made his name on the international stage. However, he chose family life on the West Coast over potential fame in New York and was a professor of Music at Laney College, Oakland for 27 years before his untimely death aged 69 in 2005. There is an obituary here.

The bands etc:
Tracks 1-6 (the Pharoah Sanders collaborations from 1978).
Ed Kelly (Piano); Pharoah Sanders (Tenor and Soprano Saxophone); Peter Barshay (Bass); Eddie Marshall (Drums).
Recorded: Bear West Studios, San Francisco. December 1978.
Tracks 7 and 8 (quintet selections from 1992).
Ed Kelly (Piano); Robert Steward (Tenor Saxophone); AJ Johnston (Trumpet); Harley White (Bass); Mark Lignell (Drums).
Tracks 9-11 (solo piano from 1992).
Ed Kelly (Solo Piano).
Recorded: Hyde Street Studios, San Francisco. 8 December, 1978.
Produced by Allen Pittman and Al Evers. recording and Mixing Engineer: Mark Needham. Premastering: Dave Shirk. Cover design Imageworks. Cover photos: Tom Copi. CD released 1993. Evidence ECD 22056-2.

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Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

Monk & Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

Reader, I have a confession. This started out as a review of Thelonious Monk Live At The It Club (in Los Angeles 1964) but ended up as a look at the Carnegie Hall Concert (November 1957), via a visit to The Five Spot in New York City (August 1958). There is an explanation. Firstly, although it is an excellent recording featuring a great performance by Monk, a review of The It Club set is a daunting prospect. The Colombia double CD runs to over 150 minutes and contains 19 separate compositions. I did think about writing about it over two or three posts but, somehow that didn’t seem satisfactory. Secondly, I came to realise the significance of a short period during an amazing year for two of the all time greats (if not the greatest). Thirdly, I wanted to write about the Carnegie Hall Concert, with its tale of the re-discovery of a lost treasure of incalculable value. So here we go.

At the end of November 1957, Monk was invited to play in two performances of a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall to raise funds for the Morningside Community Center in Harlem. The prospect of making a contribution to this local social action centre appealed to him because as a young person he had spent most of his free time at a youth centre across the road from his family home in Midtown New York. The rest of the bill was stellar and included Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Zoot Simms and Sonny Rollins. Ray Charles headlined with a jazz set. Two dollars, or $3.95 for the best seats and you were in.

Monk Coltrane Carnegie Poster

In the four months before the concert, John Coltrane had been playing as part of Monk’s quartet at the Five Spot. This was the year in which Coltrane’s talents flowered. He had kicked heroin after being fired by Miles Davis in April 1957 and spent a great deal of time at Monk’s apartment, learning from the older master-musician. The superb and informative booklet which accompanies the CD release records Coltrane as saying:-
“I’d go by his apartment and get him out of bed (laughs). He’d wake up and roll over to the piano and start playing… He would stop and show me some parts that were pretty difficult, and if I had a lot of trouble, well, he’d get his portfolio out and show me the music…sometimes, we’d get through just one tune a day. Maybe.”

In ’57 Monk also had much to celebrate. Brilliant Corners had been released and earlier work on Blue Note and Riverside was re-released on the new 12″ long playing LPs. He had regained his Cabaret Card in May 1957 and was once again able to play in New York clubs that served alcohol. In July, he obtained a residency at The Five Spot, a small bar on the edge of The Bowery and on Tuesday July 16, he was joined by John Coltrane. The original piano was inadequate and in very poor repair but with an eye to the crowds lining up outside every night the club owner rapidly agreed to allow Monk to source a Baldwin baby grand.

The night at Carnegie Hall gave Monk the opportunity to perform in public on one of renowned venue’s concert grands. Monk’s Mood features a pianist taking great delight in the tone of an excellent piano and the fine acoustics of the hall (although he also had access to two baby grand Steinway pianos: his own rented instrument and one owned by his friend Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter). John Coltrane also approaches this beautiful ballad, that he made great efforts to learn and interpret, with great sensitivity, while Shadow Wilson’s drumming is sparse and complements the two soloists.

Evidence is angular and almost jagged with Monk giving Coltrane the space to develop a solo that contains fast phrases reminiscent of his work on the recently recorded Blue Train.

Crepuscule With Nellie had been written in the early summer of 1957 at a time when Monk’s beloved wife was facing a major thyroid operation. Monk laboured long and hard to produce music which captured his feelings and sought perfection in a piece that he usually played without improvisation or embellishment (on this version there is a brief reference to the ’52nd Street Theme’ just after Coltrane starts to play). ‘Crepuscule’ sounds like some type of seafood but it actually means ‘twilight’ and it was suggested that Monk should consider using the French word by his friend the Baroness.

This is followed by a jaunty version of Nutty, which features some fine percussion and great fluency from Coltrane.

Epistrophy is complex with some fine cymbal work. The quartet is really tight and this is superlative musicianship.

I understand that the final four tracks were recorded during the second set of the evening.

Bye-Ya is another vehicle for John Coltrane to shine on, although there is a short solo from Monk before the band moves straight into Sweet And Lovely, the standard favoured and recorded regularly by Monk.

Blue Monk is taken at a brisk pace. This tune is a classic which has become a staple of the young jazz musician’s repertoire, which means that it is regularly put through the mangle. I recently heard a sax player in a local pub who should never play this again until he can aspire to get within a million miles of how Coltrane plays here (not playing flat would be a start). You can listen courtesy of Praguedive on Youtube by touching or clicking on the arrow below:-

Finally a second truncated reprise of Epistrophy from the second set closes the recording.

Although Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane worked together during an intense period of about six months, very little was recorded by the great quartet. There were three studio tracks and a further live recording made by Coltrane’s first wife on a portable tape machine. There was an awareness that the Carnegie Hall concerts had been recorded by Voice of America and Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter had made enquiries at the Library of Congress, which was believed to be where they had been consigned to, but the tapes were lost. Then, in February 2005, Larry Appelbaum, a recording lab supervisor, found several tapes labelled ‘Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957’ and one had a box with a note labelled T Monk. A treasure had been discovered and within six months this resulting album was released. It is available on vinyl- with the Mosaic recording being the one to seek out. However, I’m delighted with the CD which comes complete with a brilliant booklet. This is a recording that I recommend without reservation and which I hope you will enjoy. Happy listening.

The band etc: Thelonious Monk (piano); John Coltrane (tenor sax); Ahmed Abdul-Malik (bass); Shadow Wilson (drums). Recorded: 29 November 1957. Produced for release: T.S. Monk and Michael Cuscuna. Cover illustration: Felix Sockwell. Sleeve notes: Amiri Baraka; Ira Gitler; Ashley Kahn; Stanley Crouch; Robin D.G. Kelley; Lewis Porter and Larry Appelbaum. Released as Blue Note 35173 on September 27, 2005.

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