John Dankworth, 1927-2010

John Dankworth passed away on Saturday. Here’s a recent performance of his arrangement of Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing, still going strong at 81 at the 2008 North Sea Jazz Festival, and only hung up his saxophone in December.

This clip epitomises a lot of what Dankworth’s music meant to me – his close partnership with his wife Cleo Laine (one of the great voices of the 20th Century), his penchant for tight, witty ensemble writing, and his consistent ability to connect with a wide audience well beyond the regular jazz public.

Our revels now are ended.

A few not-quite connected thoughts, after which I can resume normal transmission.

1. Two words: Quincy Jones. Sure, Michael Jackson had a great voice, could dance a hell of a lot, and for a time in the 70s and 80s he had all the ambition in the world. But he only made 3 great records – Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad, and the common denominator in all of them was Quincy Jones in the producer’s chair. Nothing Jackson released after Bad was worthy of the legacy created by these 3 albums.

Beyond Jackson’s remarkable voice, all the best musical moments in his catalogue are Quincy Jones moments: the crystal-clear orchestration of Rock With You, the synth stabs that announce the arrival of Thriller, and the classic soundscape of Billie Jean (undisputably Jackson’s most perfect song).

2. My generation essentially can’t remember a time before Thriller. Alongside fighting with lightsabres, dancing to Michael Jackson is something we’ve been doing since we were in nappies. Bubbles the chimpanzee was the common currency of  playground chatter, and when we danced to Beat It in my kindergarten girlfriend’s lounge (dodging scattered Lego blocks), we discovered for the first time that if we danced hard enough, we could make the needle jump off the LP turntable.

3. I was about 10 years old when Moonwalker came out. I can’t remember if I saw it in the cinema or not. But during a wet holiday with my grandparents in Taupo, we hired it on VHS. The Smooth Criminal dance sequence completely blew my tiny mind.

And even during my most annoying teenage jazz-fundamentalist phase, when good Michael Jackson albums were a phenomenon of a previous decade, there was still a part of me that thrilled to that singer who could tip his fedora forward and moonwalk across any stage he cared to.

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. 

Freddie and Me

Freddie Hubbard, 1938 – 2008

Rochester, NY – 1976 (Image: Tom Marcello)

Freddie Hubbard – Keep Your Soul Together (Excerpt)
From Keep Your Soul Together: CTI [Buy]

There was a time when I didn’t know who Freddie Hubbard was.

I was just starting to learn about jazz. A friend’s father (himself a well-known pianist and jazz broadcaster around town) thrust two dusty cassettes into my hand, which I duly took home and thrashed to death in my bedroom.

One tape was a copy of Miles’ Someday My Prince Will Come. The other was Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles. The Herbie tape had a hastily scribbled playlist and personnel listing: Herbie… Ron … Tony… Freddie. Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, I’d heard of. But this Freddie guy… playing the … cornet?

Pretty soon Freddie Hubbard was a familiar sound in my house. His solos from that album – on One Finger Snap, Oliliquy Valley – were melodies I could sing in the shower. At that time, all trumpet players sounded fresh and exciting to me. Lee Morgan, Wynton Marsalis, Clifford Brown were all early additions to a small trove of cassettes that filled the family home with sound on evenings and weekends and annoyed my sister in her room down the hallway.  Freddie, with his loud-high hard bop style, probably annoyed her more than most.

At university we formed little jazz bands that played cafés around town. Somehow we managed to persuade the owners that we were actually good, and sometimes the owners even paid us.  By that time, we had discovered Freddie’s early 1970s recordings for CTI, and Red Clay inevitably ended up on our setlist.   We played it EVERY gig. Along with Chameleon, Wayne Shorter’s Footprints and a couple of Cole Porter ballads.

And then one January day, one of the band was killed in an accident. He was the youngest of us. Hell, the oldest of us was only 23.  We put together a band that played at his funeral.  Stevie arrived there before us, and we did our soundcheck next to his coffin. We played four songs before the start of the service. One of them was Red Clay.

Now Freddie Hubbard’s gone too, to join the ever-expanding jam session in the sky.  Through his most powerful recorded work (from, say, 1961 to 1975) many of his phrases have spun themselves into the DNA of all young jazz trumpet players today.  I never got to see him play live, but more than most trumpeters, it felt like I knew him a little bit through his records and the way they influenced me and my bandmates.   So, thanks, Freddie.  We’ll remember you.

An Eartha Kitt Recipe

Eartha Kitt (1927 – 2008)

Take 2 teaspoons of Billie Holiday, a pinch of Edith Piaf, half a cat, a small dose of Judy Garland (or Liza Monelli to taste), and mix together with the essence of Marlena Dietrich, Josephine Baker and some dynamite.

Smoulder on stage for 81 years, serve in a slinky cocktail dress, sharpen her claws, light the fuse and stand well clear… you have created…. Eartha Kitt.

Isaac Hayes, 1942-2008

Hopefully Isaac Hayes, who died yesterday, will be remembered for more than just the Theme from Shaft, Chef’s voice in South Park and providing the original style template for “pimped-out”.

Even before he was a solo artist, he wrote songs and arrangements for the Stax stable, including some guy called Otis Redding. His career as a songwriter, singer, pianist, arranger includes some of the most kick-ass re-imaginings of pop songs ever (try his 18+ minute version of Jimmy Webb’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix on 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul). Anyone who doesn’t appreciate how massive was the Isaac Hayes phenomenon in the early 1970s should watch Wattstax, a highly entertaining doco in which Hayes is the headline act of the 1973 Stax artists concert in Watts. A moment in pop culture history indeed.

But back to Shaft. Everybody seems to forget that the film itself is rubbish – the best thing about it is the soundtrack. The video shows Hayes and his band rehearsing and writing the music in 1971 with director Gordon Parks, including an early cut of the immortal Theme .

Requiesce in pace, brother. Daaaaaamn right.

Chairman Humph, 1921-2008

Humphrey Lyttleton – One Man Went to Blow
From Platinum Series : [emusic]

Louis Armstrong referred to him as “that cat in England who swings his ass off“.

Humphrey Lyttleton led the sort of polymath life that most of us can only dream of: cartoonist, soldier, broadcaster, author, chairman of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue on BBC Radio Four, and one of the greatest jazz musicians to emerge from postwar Britain.


Humph died on Friday, and it’s unlikely the world will see anyone like him again. A member of the minor English nobility, he was schooled at Eton in the 1930s, but avoided a life of privilege by buying a trumpet and developing a deep love of jazz.

In 1943 he landed on the Salerno beaches with a gun in one hand and a trumpet in the other. On V-E day in 1945 he was paraded around in front of Buckingham Palace in a wheelbarrow, playing “Roll Out the Barrel”. After the war, he drew cartoons for the Daily Mail, played and toured with Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong.

In 1956 Humph’s band scored the first “jazz” hit in the UK Billboard charts – Bad Penny Blues reached number 19 and stayed there for 6 weeks: a real achievement when British ears were already picking up the intimations of a new kind of pop, courtesy of Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.

And from 1971 until his death Humph was the chairman of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, one of the longest running panel games on the BBC. A platform for the absurdist and surreal streaks in British humour, nobody had less idea about what was going on during the show than the ringmaster himself, Humphrey Lyttleton.

I hope that Humph is now jamming somewhere with his old friend Louis Armstrong. But I’d like to think that he’s also introducing the angels to the complex and ancient rules of the greatest game of them all, Mornington Crescent:

Mornington Crescent (Napoleon III Variation)
From the 2007 series of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue (BBC Radio 4)

The Independent has a good obituary, and Melvyn Bragg’s excellent 2007 TV documentary on Humph is on YouTube (in 6 parts).


A Voice in a Landscape

Graham Brazier – Friend (words by Hone Tuwhare)
From Tuwhare [Buy]

Hone Tuwhare
Hone Tuwhare with Prime Minister Helen Clark in 2003

It seems that everyone back home is worried about a summer shark epidemic, and meanwhile New Zealand is losing all its national treasures at once – last week it was Sir Ed, this week it’s Hone Tuwhare, (1922-2008) one of our most eminent poets.

It’s interesting to notice that Tuwhare’s life spanned the full stretch of our islands: a Ngapuhi son born in Kaikohe in the north of the North Island, he spent his final years in the remote deep south of the Catlins. Tuwhare’s poems always seem to me to place humans and their emotions at their centre, playing out stories of family and relationships in a landscape that could only be New Zealand.

In 2005 a collection of New Zealand musicians set some of Tuwhare’s poems to music, released on the album Tuwhare. Graham Brazier‘s acoustic version of Friend is a good example. It’s interesting to compare Brazier’s version to the natural, unaffected way Hone Tuwhare himself reads the poem (starting at 1’27 in the video below).

Sir Edmund Hillary, 1919-2008


Sir Edmund Hillary died today – he was the first man to climb Everest in 1953, alongside Tensing Norgay. He also led the first overland trek to the South Pole since Robert Falcon Scott, driving across the ice in Massey Ferguson tractors.

Sir Ed lived just up the road from us in Auckland, so I got to meet him in person a couple of times. More than his great achievements as an adventurer and his work for the poor of Nepal, what always impressed me about Edmund Hillary was his humility: he never came across as anything more than a human being, someone who revealed the greatness possible inside us all.

On reaching the summit of Everest, he summed up his thoughts thus:

“We didn’t feel we had conquered Everest. We felt that Everest had relented.”

A mighty kauri has fallen in the forest. Rest in Peace , Sir Ed.

More Passing Away

Alice Coltrane

You disappear for a weekend in Slovenia, and while you’re incommunicado, more great musicians die. I’m wondering if James Brown is currently recruiting for a new band in the sky…

Alice Coltrane and Michael Brecker were very different musicians in many ways, and although they both represented continuations of John Coltrane’s legacy, they accomplished their art in divergent fashions. Alice Coltrane pursued a mystic connection with the multiple spheres that her husband had so passionately explored. And Michael Brecker’s laser-sharp chops and tone that could break granite helped create a massive body of work as a leader and collaborator that stood astride the whole progression of jazz from the 1970s into the 21st Century.

Michael Brecker – obituaries at Song with Orange, Bagatellen and a personal appreciation at The Jazz Clinic

Alice Coltrane – mourning with mp3s at los amigos de durutti, wordsandmusic and Destination Out.

Given that there are currently a lot of Alice Coltrane mp3s floating out there (check the links above), here’s a Brecker classic: Michael and his brother Randy in full flight in New York in December 1976. The rest of the band isn’t too shabby either – it includes Terry Bozzio on drums, Patrick O’Hearn on bass, Ruth Underwood on percussion, Ronnie Cuber on baritone sax, and some hairy guitarist called Frank Zappa running the show.

Frank Zappa – The Purple Lagoon
From Läther: Rykodisc [Buy]

Michael Brecker