Aron and Adb al Malik

It seems everyone ends up in Paris, eventually.  Aron Ottignon was raised in Auckland, New Zealand and I knew him when he was still a prodigious jazz pianist, playing professional gigs around town at an unusually young age.

Since then Aron’s played his way through the scenes in Sydney and London, released a solo album under the name Aronas, and now he’s ended up in Paris, playing with rapper Abd Al Malik.

As well as touring with Abd al Malik, Aron has appeared with the band on French TV shows such as Le Grand Journal, and earlier this year played at the Victoires de la Musique in Lille:

Aron was sneaky enough to film this very performance from his own perspective, on his iPhone…

And, if you’re quick, you can even see his iPhone in the live footage from France 4! :

Don Ellis “Indian Lady”

The Don Ellis Orchestra charted an original path through the jazz of the late 60s and early 70s, producing some remarkable music for big band.

With an emphasis on electronics, non-conventional time signatures and improvisation, there are more than a few fans who consider his Orchestra to have been one of the most advanced in modern jazz. The 1971 live album Tears of Joy is worth checking out to hear what this band was all about.

Ellis himself died in 1978, cutting short his remarkable career, and his music fell back into relative obscurity in the neo-conservativism of 1980s jazz. Very little film footage of the band seems to have survived: this VHS copy of the Ellis composition “Indian Lady” at a concert at Tanglewood in 1968 is one of the few films of the Don Ellis band on YouTube.

Betty Carter in 1990

There’s been a ferocious email debate going on among some of my friends this week regarding Betty Carter.

Is she the greatest jazz singer ever, or a warbling charlatan who destroyed every song she touched? 

With Betty, there seems to be no middle ground. Either you love her, or you hate her.

This is Betty Carter and her trio, playing one of her own songs, “Dropping Things“… with a nice nod to Art Blakey at the end…

Betty Carter (vocal)
Marc Carey (piano)
Dwayne Burno (bass)
Gregory Hutchinson (drums)

Lisbon, Portgual – October 1990, at the Galp Jazz Festival

Cuong Vu

Cuong Vu Trio playing “Vina’s Lullaby

Cuong Vu – trumpet
Stomu Takeishi – bass
Ted Poor – drums

Live at Berklee College of Music (date unknown)

Sonny Rollins in London

Sonny Rollins Quintet
Barbican, London
20th November 2010

Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Kobie Watkins, drums; Russell Malone, guitar; Sammy Figueroa, percussion

Age has not wearied Sonny Rollins, but it has reduced his gait to a slow, cautious waddle. Draped in a generous red silk shirt, crowned with a halo of grey frizz that recalled Arthur Rubenstein, Sonny Rollins emerged from behind a black curtain and swayed his way slowly to the front of the stage and the Barbican Theatre gave the man and his band a warm, heartfelt welcome.

Here, in front of us, stood a true mythic figure of music, one of the last men left standing from that famous generation of American musicians who defined modern jazz.  And this guy was going to play. For us. The expectation in the room was almost overwhelming.

Sonny Rollins – North Sea Jazz Festival, July 2010 – Evert-Jan (Creative Commons)

Despite the rapturous ovation that greeted the band, the gig started slowly. The quintet, slightly adrift on the wide Barbican stage, searched in vain for its mojo.  The opening tune, an 8-bar two chord vamp, had all the charm of a raucous soundcheck, and it took fully three songs, (half an hour), for the engineers to find a proper balance, allowing Bob Cranshaw’s bass and Russell Malone’s guitar to finally emerge from the murk.

Riding over the top of the band was Mr Rollin’s enormous, vocalised tenor saxophone. Sonny Rollins may no longer be able to outrun an advancing wall of lava, but his sound is still volcanic: broad, rough-hewn, scratchy as scoria.

His solos reminded me of a saxophone-playing friend of mine, who once commented to me “The best thing about Sonny Rollins is he doesn’t have any licks you can copy.” Even if the first third of the concert lacked inspiration, you got the impression that Rollins and his collaborators never gave up searching, grasping for the moment when everything would come together.

The “click” finally happened on the fourth tune: an unnamed funk groove, Russell Malone laying out an unexpected line worthy of a James Brown rhythm section. Watkin and Cranshaw obliged by accelerating the tempo ever-so-slightly, and finally the taper was lit.

Rollins waddled along the line of footlights, pouring out notes, quoting show-tunes and Pop Goes the Weasel, stopping in front of audience members to dedicate a phrase or two to each, before moving on, his saxophone swaying like a cradle in the storm, waiting for the bough to break. The gig was on.

Sonny Rollins – New York, September 2010 – Mr Mystery (Creative Commons)

As the evening progressed, the man’s purpose become clear – he was here to play music, and to play as much music as he could.  Only a musician of Rollins’ stature could flick off a rendition of Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood without ever bothering to play the melody. The climax came on the penultimate tune: a swinging version of Why Was I Born? where Rollins paced the width of the stage while engineering a solo of uncommon beauty.

There were some unusual choices of settings for his sidemen to take the spotlight: a slow, early-set ballad was the moment for Mr Rollins to trade fours with Sammy Figueroa’s congas, while the 3/4 tempo of Some Day I’ll Find You provided the frame for Kobie Watkins to let loose on drums. Russell Malone’s guitar was consistently tasteful, and occasionally audacious – he even permitted himself an extended reconstruction of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on a middle chorus.

The gig closed with a few words of wisdom from the man himself, who recalled with humility his younger days gigging in London with Ronnie Scott and friends.  The band stretched out for a rollicking calypso finale on Don’t Stop the Carnival, and the groove bounced in our heads all the way home along the Northern Line and through the foggy streets of Islington.

This was a gig that, if only momentarily transcendant, was all the more special for those rare, precious minutes when Sonny Rollins – stately, majestic and deliberate in his ninth decade – made the stage positively glow.

Image: Evert-Jan (Creative Commons)

EDIT: 22/11/2010 Corrected name of guitarist (Russell Malone) and spelling of Sammy Figueroa

Ants in their pants

In a previous life I lived for a few years in England. During that period I participated in the extraordinary project that called The Original Rabbit Foot Spasm Band. Some might consider this an obscure claim to fame: however it has been scientifically proven that on days when US Air Force cargo jets are not taking off from RAF Brize Norton, the ORFSB is in fact the loudest human-produced noise in Oxfordshire.

Of course, it took my departure from the UK for the guys to really find success, and these days they play regularly outside their native county, including London’s 100 Club, the Glastonbury Festival, and pubs in the less smelly parts of Berkshire. Earlier in the year they even managed to find enough money for fuel to drive down the A40 to Cheltenham for the annual Jazz Festival:

Their first album, Gin and Sympathy, is a good introduction to the band’s music, and certainly offers 350% more fun for five quid than you can get on Park End Street on a Friday night.

Stylistically, the Rabbits plant one foot firmly in the traditions of pre-war jazz. (The other foot is firmly pushing through the crowd at the bar to order another pint). Semi-autobiographical originals (Booze Cruise and Nappy Head Rag) sit alongside classics like The Saints and I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, as well as a Sheik of Araby who seems singularly proud of his lack of underwear.

And yet there is a serious project behind the band’s exuberant, devil-may-care stage persona. This band shows that jazz played in the old style can be not only be fun, but actually attract young audience in venues normally reserved for rock acts. I am reliably informed that at their gig at The Cellar in Oxford on Friday night, the queue to get in stretched well out the door.

The band’s singer and pianist, Stuart MacBeth is involved in an advisory capacity at the British National Jazz Archive, and it is his deep knowledge and enthusiasm for the music and its history that offers authenticity to what might otherwise be perceived as a novelty act.

Despite the reverence for tradition, the Original Foot Spasm Band are a thoroughly modern, networked outfit. You can pick up a digital copy of Gin and Sympathy on Bandcamp (for just 5 pounds), and follow the band on Twitter and Facebook.

Someday We’ll All Be Free

This week’s musical interlude is courtesy of the Miguel Atwood Ferguson Ensemble, performing Donny Hathaway‘s Someday We’ll All Be Free. This video was shot live a few weeks ago at California Plaza in Los Angeles.

Bilal Oliver does a fine job shadowing the original vocal style of Mr Hathaway on this song. He will have his own album Air Tight’s Revenge out in September… could be worth checking out.

What’s even better is that the mp3 of this performance is available as a free download!

Eddie Palmieri live in Paris

It is a rare and exciting day when you hear a musician of the calibre of Eddie Palmieri in concert. One of the founding fathers of New York salsa and a great innovator in the Latin jazz of the 1970s, Palmieri brought his Afro-Carribean All-Stars to New Morning in Paris last Friday, and they blew the roof off.

Eddie Palmieri, Concert Pique-Nique, Reims France, 17.07.2010. Image: Eulsteph

Two hours of music stretched out over a pair of sets, suffused with humour and generosity. It was hard to suppress a giggle when Palmieri threw a quote from Salt Peanuts into one of his famously overblown solo passages. The grinning complicity between Palmieri and his bass player, Luques “Salsa” Curtis was evident throughout the gig.

Brian Lynch, Concert Pique-Nique, Reims France, 17.07.2010. Image: Eulsteph

The presence of trumpeter Brian Lynch in the touring band was a particular pleasure – an incredibly technically accomplished player, Lynch has been a regular collaborator with Palmieri since 1987, and directed the Grammy-winning album Simpàtico in 2006.

The music traversed Palmieri’s jazz catalogue (including tunes from Simpàtico and 1990’s Palmas) and included a steaming Latin version of Monk’s In Walked Bud, a nod to one of Palmieri’s own stylistic influences on the piano.

Palmieri apologised that the band wouldn’t be playing his salsa hits (Vamonos pa l’Monte, Cuidate Compay…), because of a lack of vocalists in the group. But with the energy on show last Friday, nobody went home disappointed. This is a gig I’ll remember for a long time.

Esperanza Spalding

It’s safe to say I’ve finally leapt on board the Esperanza Spalding bandwagon. I got her album Esperanza a few weeks ago, and it’s pretty darn good.

For a still-young musician (25 years old) Esperanza shows remarkable maturity in performance and composition. She reminds me a lot of a young Tania Maria, both in the fact she is a vocalist/composer/instrumentalist and because of her taste for rapid-flight scat melodies spread over latin grooves:

But Esperanza is also all about subtle and complex songwriting, both in terms of the lyrics and their harmonic structure. I wish Betty Carter were still alive, because she would understand exactly where Esperanza is going with songs like She Got To You. Esperanza is the real deal:

Photo: Johann Sauty

Soirée Germanopratine

In the heady days following the Second World War, Paris was the world capital of one of the first modern “youth” subcultures. Before rock ‘n’ roll, before Elvis, before punk, before hip hop, kids flocked to jazz clubs and proclaimed themselves existentialists or beat poets. St Germain des Près was the European centre of the movement, orbiting around figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre and the inimitable Boris Vian.

Today almost all the jazz cellars of St Germain des Près are gone, replaced by specialist boutiques and restaurants. Along the Boulevard, the cafés that were formerly literary haunts of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Juliette Gréco and their offsiders are largely given over to the tourist trade.

One of the last surviving clubs is Papa Jazz on rue Saint Benoit, and it was thence that we repaired last night in search of a few hours of slow whisky and music.

Papa’s offers a perfectly acceptable line in non-offensive, well-played small group jazz and by all accounts an excellent dinner menu. Guitarist Jeff Hoffman was offering some nicely-turned licks in the style of Wes Montgomery, and Philippe Petit’s parallel chords on piano drifted increasingly Brubeck-wards as the evening drew on.

The highlight of the gig was the arrival of trumpeter Ken Barker who sat in for just one song – Bye Bye Blackbird. I caught most of it thanks to the recorder on my iPhone. The performance was pretty good, at least to these jazz-starved ears…

Bye Bye Blackbird, performed by the Jeff Hoffman Trio with Ken Barker

Jeff Hoffman (g)
Philippe Petit (pn)
Pierre Maingourt (b)
Special guest Ken Barker (tp)

Papa Jazz Club, rue Saint Benoit, Paris 6e – 7 May 2010