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Remembering John and Margery Styles, founder members of Smith’s Academy.
16 February 2023
TRACKS OF DESIRE
A Musician's Playlist
On the release the London Bridge Live in Zurich album I was invited by Nick Lea, editor of the website Jazz Views, to choose ten albums that I am specially fond of. I hope you enjoy them too.
(detail from Visitors in the Music Room by Kate Westbrook)
Louis Armstrong Hot Five & Hot Seven (1925 – 28)
The first 78 record I bought was Cornet Chop Suey, I bought it for the title. Soon I was listening to classics like ‘Potato Head Blues’, ‘Struttin’ with Some Barbecue’, ‘West End Blues’, ‘Muskrat Ramble’, ‘Ory’s Creole Trombone’, – tracks that had proclaimed Louis Armstrong’s genius. By the time I saw Louis in concert in the 60s, he wasn’t playing much trumpet.
But what he played was pure gold. At the end of the show, he did eleven encores of ‘Hello Dolly’. It wasn’t about Jazz. It wasn’t about Art. It was about goodness. Any old tune would do. I would have stood for eleven more.
Duke Ellington 1940 – 42
When I was a teenager, my father bought me a 10inch LP of Duke’s 1940s band. ‘Conga Brava’, ‘Ko-Ko’, ‘Concerto for Cootie’, ‘Bojangles’, ‘Harlem Airshaft’, ‘Take the A Train’, every track a masterpiece. This became my bible, and I owned no other LP for years. I’ve still got it, scratched and torn, but a reminder of my introduction to the world of jazz.
Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale – Scottish Chamber Orchestra (1986)
Unable to pursue grander projects during the 1914 -1918 war, Stravinsky, in collaboration with the poet Ramuz, had the idea of a small scale, low-budget show that could tour around Switzerland. Ramuz supplied a libretto, a Faustian story about a soldier who sells his soul to the Devil. Stravinsky had seen transcripts of Ragtime and New Orleans Jazz.
The instrumentation that he chose was not unlike a small jazz band: cornet, trombone, clarinet, bassoon, violin, double bass and percussion. An actor played the parts of soldier and devil. As in ‘The Rite Of Spring’ Stravinsky’s music is a potent conjunction of Folk Art and cutting edge Modernism, like jazz itself, of Afro/American and European cultures.
He parodies popular idioms of waltz, march, tango, and ragtime, subverting them musically so that they become part of a new language. ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ is an innovative piece of what has come to be known as ‘music theatre’- a genre developed by Brecht, which has been of great interest and relevance to Kate and me.
Charles Mingus – The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (1963)
In the wake of the BeBop revolution jazz composers had to find ways of accommodating the new improvisational discoveries into their writing. Those of the ‘cool’ school drew on European classical techniques. Mingus’s approach was the opposite.
In The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady he went back to the roots of black music: Folk Song, Church Music, the Blues. He set contemporary improvising musicians loose on this material. He re-introduced New Orleans-style collective improvisation. He used open-ended structures, massive accelerandos, and cadenzas for Flamenco guitar and for Charlie Mariano’s alto saxophone.
There are Ellington references throughout, in the primal shout of Quentin Jackson’s trombone, in the trumpet riffs and in the heavy, lush saxophone sections. With this passionate masterwork Charles Mingus crashed through the doors of jazz orthodoxy.
Stan Getz – Anniversary (1987)
What grabbed me about this record was Getz’s performance of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Blood Count’. I knew that Strayhorn, terminally ill with throat cancer, had sent the piece to the band just before his final hospitalisation. I was familiar with Johnny Hodges’ defining performance with the Ellington Orchestra. I find Getz’s playing on ‘Blood Count’ unbearably poignant.
Perhaps this is partly because the transposition from alto puts it into the fragile upper range of the tenor. Plus, the knowledge that Getz himself was about to undergo surgery for cancer. Composer and soloist create Art of beauty from pain.
Gil Evans And The Monday Night Orchestra – Live At Sweet Basil (1984)
Gil Evans’ work with his own band tends to be overshadowed by the Miles Davis classics. Fine though these are, records under his own name give a fuller picture of the range and depth of his work. He told Kate and me that Duke Ellington, who he’d never met, once telephoned him to say that he, Gil was his ‘favourite arranger’. Often in Jazz ‘composer’ and ‘arranger’ are one and the same.
In Gil’s work you hear how arranging itself can be the real Art and a composition simply the raw material. Once in Florence after a gig, Kate and I stayed on to hear the Gil Evans Orchestra. They were late, travelling from Vienna by coach, and we waited for hours in a square looking at an empty open-air stage. It being Italy, nobody minded. The coach arrived.
Hannibal Peterson leapt on stage and started to play, while the other musicians rushed to set up. Soon that rich sound filled the night air. The band was basically the one we later saw at Sweet Basil’s in New York. That was the night Chris Hunter depped for Dave Sanborn. Chris later became a full-time member of the band.
Sonny Rollins – Way Out West (1957)
On the night of Sonny Rollins’ debut in London’s Gerrard Street the club held its breath. The rhythm section waited on stage. His height emphasised by an enormous Stetson, the massive figure of Rollins emerged playing from the back room, tenor saxophone held high. The Trio snapped into action. Rollins played ‘Three Little Words’ for an hour, then played all the way back to the dressing room, leaving us stunned.
Duke Ellington – Blues In Orbit (1958-59)
Peter Russell’s arrival in Plymouth in the late 1950s was a turning point for John Surman and me who were struggling to play Jazz. Peter’s Hot Record Store in Union Street became our Mecca. In the city’s notorious red-light district which served the Naval base and docks of Devonport, the shop’s location must have pleased Peter, with echoes of the Storyville district of New Orleans.
Never imposing his taste, Peter had subtle ways of making us aware of things we needed to hear. One day, either by accident or probably by design, as I went into the shop he had on the turntable the title track of Duke Ellington’s Blues in Orbit– one of the sounds that changed my life.
Betty Carter – Feed The Fire (1993)
For me Betty Carter has taken jazz singing further than anyone else. Musically she is wonderfully free. She makes every lyric her own. Her performance of ‘Lover Man’ is highly original and beautifully accompanied by Geri Allen, Dave Holland and Jack De Johnette. She uncovers depths in this familiar standard that made me want to find my own way to play it.
Duke Ellington – Ellington ‘55
My first experience of hearing live American Jazz was in 1956 when the Lionel Hampton band played the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth. During my National Service I was briefly stationed in Bournemouth. Hampton had a drum kit and vibes at the front of the stage, as well as the regular drummer at the back. At one point during ‘Flying Home’ he took off round the auditorium, juggling his sticks, accompanied by a screaming tenor player while the band roared behind.
The whole place erupted. I suppose it was a taste of what was to come when rock ’n roll took over. Jazz purists were appalled by such blatant showmanship. When I had a band of my own, I did an arrangement of ‘Flying Home’ which we played for many years. It included the whole band playing the original Illinois Jacquet solo, which by tradition is included in every performance.
The version of ‘Flying Home’ that I particularly like is the one recorded by Duke in 1955 when the Ellington Orchestra tore into the signature tunes of other big bands of the day: Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Count Basie as well as Lionel Hampton.
Mike Westbrook courtesy Jazz Views
Mike performs solo ’The Piano and Me’
March 6th Ashburton Arts Centre, Devon
March 12th Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho
see diary for details
Also available, The Piano and Me album
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