Archive for the Music Category

Two Sugars

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , on September 25, 2021 by telescoper

The song Sugar (That Sugar Baby Of Mine) was written by Maceo Pinkard, Edna Alexander and Sidney Mitchell way back in the 1920s and quickly became a jazz standard played in various ways by various musicians. To illustrate its versatility as a vehicle for improvisers here are two very different versions that are favourites of mine that I’ve had reason to remember recently.

In 1980 I bought an album by the extraordinarily underrated Scottish Jazz singer Jeanie Lambe with the Danny Moss Quartet when it first came out. The British tenor saxophonist Danny Moss was married to Jeanie Lambe from 1964 until his death in 2008. Jeanie passed away last year at the age of 79. Many versions of Sugar are slow and slushy but this a straight-ahead swinging take on it, played at a jaunty tempo, with a fine solo by Danny Moss in the middle.

The second version is totally different. It was performed by the Newport All-Stars at a midnight concert in Paris in 1961. The band was led by pianist George Wein who passed away on 13th September. As well as being a musician in his own right, George Wein owned and ran the famous Storyville club in Boston during the late 40s and early 50s but was perhaps most famous for being behind the annual Newport Jazz Festival, which began in 1954 and is still going to this day. It was quite usual at these festivals to have an all-star band playing in support of various solo artists, which is why Jack Teagarden and Buck Clayton turned up playing behind Chuck Berry at the 1958 Festival. George Wein also persuaded Thelonious Monk to allow Pee Wee Russell to sit in with his Quartet on clarinet for a set – I have the record of that gig and it’s every bit as strange and wonderful as you might imagine!

An eccentric character who struggled with alcoholism, Pee Wee Russell (real name Charles Ellsworth Russell) was somewhat unreliable as a musician but although he was frequently wayward he had a unique voice and, when he was on good form, a beautifully lyrical way of playing with a really original approach to harmony. It might surprise you to know that Sidney Bechet was a big fan of Pee Wee as – no less surprisingly – was Benny Goodman. The great Coleman Hawkins said of Pee Wee in 1961:

For thirty years, I’ve been listening to him play those funny notes. I used to think they were wrong, but they weren’t. He’s always been way out, but they didn’t have a name for it then.

I’ve always been drawn to very original musicians like Pee Wee Russell; the sort that when you hear just one note you recognize immediately who it is. It’s not all about technique. Pee Wee had soul. Messrs Bechet, Goodman and Hawkins et al knew that for all his technical deficiencies he was the genuine article, a complete original.

I’ve always felt that one should judge musicians by their best playing rather than their worst and, on that night in Paris, Pee Wee produced this achingly beautiful and hauntingly tender rendition of Sugar, played as a slow ballad. He’s introduced on this track by George Wein who aptly described him as “The Poet of the Clarinet”. You can of course listen to the track and decide for yourself, but I think this is gorgeous.

R.I.P. George Mraz (1944-2021)

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , on September 19, 2021 by telescoper

I find myself doing yet another R.I.P. post. The great bassist George Mraz passed away on 16th September at the age of 77. When I heard the news I immediately thought of the famous live sessions he did as a member of Art Pepper’s Quartet at the Village Vanguard in New York in July 1977. The quartet featured Art Pepper (mainly on alto sax but also on clarinet and tenor saxophone), Elvin Jones on drums, George Cables on piano and George Mraz on bass. I think Art Pepper was very close to the peak of his prowess on these albums, having spent large parts of his earlier life in prison for narcotics offences. I had the privilege of seeing him play live on a couple of occasions, and he was great, but sadly he died in 1982 at the age of just 56.

The Art Pepper Quartet played on three consecutive nights and recordings were released on LP as Thursday Night at the Village Vanguard, Friday Night at the Village Vanguard and Saturday Night at the Village Vanguard; the latter being the source of this track. I bought all three albums and it’s worth quoting Art Pepper’s comment on Side 1 Track 1 of that album, the ballad You Go To My Head, on the sleeve of the LP

This is something I call a New York ballad. We played it a little faster that I usually play a ballad. Playing with George Mraz was great. When you play with a rhythm section, especially for the first time, sometimes everybody has their own ideas about the tune: the changes, the groove. But with George there’s a communication, he listens, and I can really feel what he’s doing.

Art Pepper, Sleeve Note for Saturday Night at the Village Vanguard

This is an object lesson for a bass player on how to provide a rich and swinging accompaniment at a relatively slow tempo:

Rest in peace, George Mraz (1944-2021).

Attica Blues

Posted in History, Jazz, Music with tags , , on September 9, 2021 by telescoper

I was reminded just now that today marks the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison Rebellion, the bloodiest prison riot in American history which began on 9th September 1971 as a protest against poor living conditions in the Attica “correctional facility” in New York state. Four days of violence ensued that ended in the deaths of 32 inmates and 11 prison officers, along with scores of wounded.

That episode inspired a brilliant album by Archie Shepp, which I have on LP (above), which is dedicated to George Jackson, a leading member of the Black Panthers who was shot dead while attempting to escape from San Quentin prison in California in August 1971, an event which contributed to the tensions in Attica prison that led to the riot a few weeks later.

Musically, the album is a fusion of soul, funk and avant-garde Jazz, the arrangements incorporating strings and vocals alongside the jazz soloists. The sound is absolutely redolent of the early 70s. Here’s the title track, Attica Blues:

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8, arranged for Wind Quintet

Posted in Biographical, Music, Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 7, 2021 by telescoper

One of the treasured items in my CD collection recently moved from Cardiff is a boxed set of the Shostakovich String Quartets by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet:

When I took it out of the packing case last night it suddenly reminded of the following video I saw a few weeks ago. I think the String Quartets contain some of Shostakovich’s finest music, and the 8th (Opus 110, in C Minor) – written in just three days after the composer saw the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden – is especially intense. I don’t usually like rearrangements of string quartets for other instruments – there’s something very special about the texture produced by string instruments which is difficult to improve upon – but this is really interesting. It’s arranged by David Walter for five wind instruments (clarinet, French horn, cor anglais, flute and bassoon) and played by the Aquillos Wind Quintet, an unusual combination that provides a very fresh take on this piece while maintaining its dark expressiveness and brooding atmosphere.

P.S. Regular readers of this blog might recognize the clarinet player…

Messers, Dreamers and Misfits

Posted in Art, Education, Music with tags , , , on September 5, 2021 by telescoper

After the death of Charlie Watts last week, Fintan O’Toole wrote a piece in the Irish Times (here, unfortunately behind a paywall) pointing out that, along with a large fraction of the English rock musicians that began their careers in the 1960s, Charlie Watts went to Art School; Harrow Art School in his case. O’Toole goes on to argue that society needs to find ways to nurture its creative talents and that modern education is far too utilitarian to allow space for “Messers, Dreamers and Misfits”.

I agree with the broad thrust of Fintan O’Toole’s argument. I think the School and University systems are far too focussed on examination and assessment at the expense of genuine education. What I disagree with is the idea that creativity is only to be found in the Arts. When I saw the phrase “Messers, Dreamers and Misfits” it struck me that this could very well describe many of my colleagues in physics, and in science generally – and I don’t mean that in any way as an insult!

There is an explicit assumption in much of the world that creativity is only to be found in the Arts. That’s just not true. Who can say that Einstein didn’t have a creative mind? It is true that if you want to be, say, a theoretical physicist you do have to do formal training in the methods used, especially mathematics. But that is no different from an art school really. To be a painter you have to learn the techniques needed to manage the media you are using. To be a musician you have to learn the basics of harmony and solve the technical problems involved with playing an instrument. Artists have to pay their dues just like scientists. I wrote about this here, in the context of the great Jazz pianist Bill Evans, where I said:

All subjects require technical skill, but there is more to being a great jazz musician than mastery of the instrument just as there’s more to being a research scientist than doing textbook problems. So here’s to creativity wherever it is found, and let’s have a bit more appreciation for the creative aspects of science and engineering!

Anyway, here in Ireland, the Leaving Certificate results came out on Friday and next week we’ll begin the process that determines how many students we’ll have doing Mathematical and Theoretical Physics at Maynooth. It always surprises me how many students choose study subjects other than Physics, but then I remember that I went from School to Cambridge in 1982 to read Natural Sciences, fully expecting to specialize in Chemistry but just found Physics more interesting and, yes, more fun.

I don’t know whether I count as a creative person at all, but I’m definitely a misfit, prone to dreaming and – especially at the moment in the middle of unpacking my belongings – my house is a mess!

Anyway, here is a message for students just about the start their Third Level education here in Ireland or elsewhere. The most important advice I can give is to choose the subject that you will enjoy most, but pursue your other interests too. Charlie Watts was interested in music while at art school. There’s no reason why a theoretical physicist can’t pursue an interest in music too. I can think of at least one prominent example of a person who managed to become a pop musician and a physicist.

Given my own background I read Fintan O’Toole’s article as clear encouragement to students to pick theoretical physics.

R.I.P. Charlie Watts (1941-2021)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on August 24, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve just seen the sad news of the death at the age of 80 of the Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts. Tributes are justifiably pouring in, mainly concentrating on his career as a rock drummer. I’ll just say that while I’ve never seen the Rolling Stones play live, I did go and see Charlie Watts play at Ronnie Scott’s club in London with a jazz group. I thought they were pretty good actually, with Watts on drums not at all trying to hog the show but instead playing very unobtrusively thought still clearly enjoying himself in the more intimate surroundings of a Jazz club rather than a huge rock venue.

In fact Charlie Watts began as a jazz drummer and although he earned his fame and made a fortune after switching to rock and roll, he always kept an interest in jazz. Indeed he recorded an album of performances of Charlie Parker tunes from which I picked the track below. My Dad – himself a Jazz drummer who was never effusive in his praise of other drummers – rated Charlie Watts as technically sound rather than flashy which was the opposite to most rock drummers. At any rate he passed the test of holding the sticks “properly” (i.e. using the trad grip).

Anyway, by way of my own little tribute to an excellent musician and somewhat eccentric gentleman, here is Charlie Watts with his Quintet playing the Charlie Parker composition Bluebird.

Rest in Peace, Charlie Watts (1941-2021).

Ophelia – The Milcho Leviev Quartet, featuring Art Pepper

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2021 by telescoper

One of the LP records that struck a chord when I was going through my stuff in Cardiff last week was this one:

Looking back over the blog I discover that it was almost exactly ten years ago that I wrote about the very same album so I thought I’d post it again, in slightly amended form.

I first heard the track below on Humphrey Lyttelton*’s Radio 2 show The Best of Jazz, which I used to listen to every Monday night when I was at School. I must have heard this sometime around 1981, i.e. about thirty years ago. From the moment I heard the first achingly beautiful phrases of theme of this tune, called Ophelia, I was entranced and it did more than any other single record to fill me with a love of modern jazz. Although I’d always loved jazz, I had tended to think of it as music “of the past” – even the “modern” jazz of e.g. Charlie Parker fell into that category – and usually made in a recording studio. This sounded so new, so exciting, and indeed so beautiful, that it filled me with the urge to hear live jazz whenever and wherever I could. It cost me a lot of money and a lot of late nights, but I think it was worth it.

The performance was recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London in June 1980 and released on the small British record label Mole Jazz, an offshoot of the famous (and sadly now defunct) record shop of the same name that used to be on Gray’s Inn Road. I loved the track Humph played so much I got the album Blues for the Fisherman straight away (by mail order) and, although I still have it, I have almost worn it away by playing it so much. It’s a brilliant, brilliant album, with the intense atmosphere of a live performance adding to the superb playing of the musicians.

The band is listed as the “Milcho Leviev Quartet featuring Art Pepper”, although that was probably for contractual reasons, as this was the same band that toured extensively as “The Art Pepper Quartet”: Art Pepper on alto saxophone, Milcho Leviev on piano, Tony Dumas on bass and Carl Burnett on drums. I was lucky enough to see this band play live at the Newcastle Jazz festival not long after I got the record and they were great then too. Art Pepper sadly passed away in 1982.

As far as I’m aware this record wasn’t released on CD until very recently and, fortunately, a public-spirited person has put the tracks from the original album and some previous unreleased material on Youtube, so I’ve seized the opportunity to post the track which did so much to inspire me about jazz when I was 18 years old. There’s so much to enjoy in this piece, including the superb drumming of Carl Burnett and virtuosic piano of Milcho Leviev, but the star of the performance for me is Art Pepper (who also wrote the tune). His playing is at times lyrical and at times agonized, but always compelling and this band was especially good at spontaneous transitions of mood and dynamic. I love this performance, and I hope some of you will too.

P.S. Incidentally, Humphrey Lyttelton was born in May 1921 so he would have been 100 this May had he lived.

Kush – Art Blakey & Buddy De Franco

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , on August 13, 2021 by telescoper

One of the things I did during my recent visit to Wales was to pack up my old vinyl LPs for removal to Ireland. I have quite a lot of them on digital formats now but that’s not true of all of them so I’m looking forward to listening to the others very soon.

I bought this particular album Blues Bag as a curiosity as it features the unlikely combination of Buddy De Franco on clarinet (bass clarinet on several tracks, including the one below) and Art Blakey on drums.

Whatever I thought the combination of the smooth style and impeccable technical virtuosity of Buddy De Franco with the powerful and aggressive drum foundryman Art Blakey would be like before I bought the LP, when I first heard it the thing that struck me was how superbly they complemented each other.

Anyway, I thought I would post a track so you can decide what you think. This is Dizzy Gillespie tune called Kush. I think this version is great, with very fine work on the drums by Blakey.

Eye Level

Posted in Music, Television with tags , , on August 2, 2021 by telescoper

Last week I saw an old episode of the TV Series Van der Valk (the original series, starring Barry Foster). I thought it was very good, actually. It brought back a lot of memories as I watched the series avidly first time round, right from the first programme, which was broadcast in 1972 when I was still at junior school. In those days, Amsterdam was as distant to me as Timbuktu! The theme tune, Eye Level played by the Simon Park Orchestra became a surprise hit and reached Number 1 in the charts in 1973. It’s a simple tune but very catchy. We even played it in recorder class in the school. I wonder what the Dutch word for “ear worm” is?

I also watched this edition Top of the Pops when it was first broadcast. I was – and still am – amused by the audience teeny boppers wondering whether and how to dance to this number! What I didn’t notice then was that there’s some very fine camera work in this short clip…

Pennies from Heaven – Lester Young

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on July 27, 2021 by telescoper

Well, some proper rain has arrived at last. I think the plants in my garden are pleased so I thought I’d celebrate with this lovely version of Pennies from Heaven (“Every time it rains it rains Pennies from Heaven”) by the great Lester Young recorded live in a small club, Olivia Davis’s Patio Lounge in Washington D.C., in 1956. In about 1981 bought a set of several LPs recorded over this six-night residency with a house trio led by Bill Potts on piano. People say that “Pres” was in decline at this stage of his life, but it doesn’t sound like that to me from the recrods. The band was a bit nervous when they met their esteemed guest before the first night’s performance as there was no time for a rehearsal, but they gelled immediately playing a selection of blues and standards. Lester Young didn’t need much to send him on his thoughtful way – he often paid even less attention to the tune than he does here – and he clearly enjoyed himself in this modest setting.