Take Five: John Fordham's month in jazz – December
John Fordham reflects on a month of departures, and celebrates the Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra festival. Plus, the jazz picks of this year and the next
South African Jazz and the spirit of Nelson Mandela
Watching the TV footage of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech and the accompanying partying took me back to a sunny room in south London on that day in May 1994. On a story for the Guardian, I’d gone to share that momentous episode with a group of London-resident South African jazz musicians – drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, pianist Mervyn Afrika, singer Pinise Saul and trumpeter Claude Deppa. Watching that news unfold with them became an unforgettable memory. It was like being present at a South African gig: there were convulsions of hilarity, outbursts of indignation, solemn speeches and snatches of song, bear hugs and pumping handshakes. Moholo-Moholo had just come back from witnessing the first multiracial elections in South Africa, and overseeing the unveiling of the first proper memorials in their homeland for four South African jazz giants – Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Chris McGregor and Johnny Dyani – who had died too young as exiles in Britain, and whose remains had been taken home to vanish, until liberation year, under anonymous patches of earth.
From the unruly hard bop and townships jive of the Blue Notes, who came to live and work in Britain in the early 1960s, to the shouting horn hooks of the Ellingtonesque Brotherhood of Breath big band, to vivacious outfits led by star alto saxist Pukwana, South African-inspired jazz bands had helped revitalise the London scene, and their influence is still felt.
On that day in 1994, the surviving jazz exiles recalled the dark absurdities of a musician’s life under apartheid, with a mixture of realism, determination, anger and humour that reflected Mandela’s own spirit. Pinise Saul recalled how bored white cops would stop her on the streets using a technicality of the pass laws, just to ask if she knew the South African singer Miriam Makeba. Moholo-Moholo recalled playing drums behind a curtain when working with white musicians, or taking the white pianist Chris McGregor for a drink in the townships with bootpolish on his face. And Mervyn Afrika memorably remarked: “Musicians are always a community, that’s true everywhere, they share something that isn’t spoken. But apartheid tried to kill that, like it did every other way the people would get together. How can you have music if it’s illegal for more than five black citizens to be in the same place? Yet still the music was beautiful, they couldn’t kill it. Beautiful music went too deep in South Africa.” These musicians’ influence on jazz around the world has been huge, as it has on many other musics.
Here’s an example, Brotherhood of Breath’s classic MRA.
Stan Tracey RIP
Within 20 hours of the Mandela news breaking, the story emerged that another pragmatic giant with his own huge influence – albeit in the much smaller world of British jazz – had also left the stage. And that, too, brought back a vivid personal memory, of my first meeting with the great British pianist, composer and bandleader Stan Tracey, in another south London room in 1974.
Tracey had come from a different world than the newly emerged jazz musicians of that decade. He had grown up when jazz was the era’s pop music, and as the six-nights-a-week house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s in the 1960s he had shaken hands and traded riffs with jazz’s aristocracy – Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz and scores more. In the interview we did that day, Tracey broke his usual policy of keeping every spoken statement to a handful of words, and became very open – about his life-changing crisis in the Ronnie Scott years, which had been exacerbated by drugs, but most of all about making music. Describing those extraordinary wordless communications with artists he had only just met on the bandstand, Tracey talked eloquently about how it felt on those long nights at Ronnie Scott’s. With some American stars, Tracey recalled: “If they played something that suggested an idea to you and you followed it up, you’d get the old elbow in the ribs through what they played – ‘Don’t fool about, you do that, I’ll do this.’ But with people like Rahsaan Roland Kirk or Sonny Rollins and Charlie Mariano, you’d make a little statement that embellished or embroidered something they’d done, and you’d feel them taking it up and considering it, and developing it … I couldn’t wait to get to work and pick up from where I was the night before.”
I was thrilled, and I still am, by the thought that such intimacy could be so quickly established without speech. Here’s one of Tracey’s most intimate, and long-lasting jazz relationships at work – with the Scottish saxophonist Bobby Wellins, on Starless and Bible Black, from the pianist’s famous Under Milk Wood suite.
Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra
The decade-old Glasgow Improvisers’ Orchestra (GIO) staged its sixth annual festival in its home city in November, with the unique American pianist Marilyn Crispell one of the star guests in a cast that also included British improv-vocals legend Maggie Nicols and composer and multi-instrumentalist Gino Robair, a former recording partner of Tom Waits’. The GIO has achieved the seemingly impossible in the sometimes austere world of no-holds-barred improvised music – in becoming a respected institution without being institutionalised into repetition, and by reaching beyond a specialised hardcore audience to make its festival an accessible event with open workshops, discussions and family shows. The 2013 GIO festival even included a BBC commission for a new work, saxophonist Raymond MacDonald‘s Parallel Moments Unbroken, composed for his duo with Crispell. Radio 3’s Jazz on 3 will broadcast a recording of the Crispell-MacDonald encounter on Monday 16 December at 11pm, and an interview with both of them. With thanks to Jazz on 3, here’s a short taster of the formidable Crispell – the classical pianist whose musical life was transformed the day she heard John Coltrane – at work in Glasgow on 30 November.
Highlights of 2013
Every year, a clamour of memories from special jazz performances make picking favourite moments almost impossible, but here’s a few of my personal standouts. Madeleine Peyroux, an artist I’ve sometimes found a shade impassive on a big stage, was warm, communicative and at her best in the intimate surroundings of Ronnie Scott’s Club in April.
The Polish trumpet star Tomasz Stanko‘s performance with his astonishing American band at the Barbican the following month was memorable for the cohesion and inventiveness of what is emerging as a great new jazz band, and for the continuing creativity of the man who has often been dubbed Poland’s Miles Davis.
Boston’s George Garzone, the saxophonist whom even the late Michael Brecker bowed to, played a freewheeling, effortlessly dynamic show at Chelsea’s 606 Club in June.
The genre-bending drummer Chris Dave, a frequent partner of Robert Glasper’s and the man who has adapted the jazz percussion tradition to the era of hip-hop and the drum machine, played two jaw-dropping late-night shows at Ronnie Scott’s in the summer, and the irrepressible funk collective Snarky Puppy were even hotter than the scorching July sunshine on the inaugural weekend of the new Love Supreme outdoor weekender in Sussex.
Django Bates’s Prom concert was impressive, and a typically diverse London jazz festival brought particularly powerful contributions from the octogenarian Wayne Shorter (though this symphonic version of his work wasn’t to everybody’s taste), the trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith at Cafe Oto, the ingenious Claudia Quartet, and British saxophonist John Surman, playing a valedictory performance of Stan Tracey’s Starless and Bible Black. Here’s Tomasz Stanko, on his late-career American resurgence.
Coming up in 2014
The first half of 2014 is already jostling with promising jazz prospects on the UK circuit – including the return of the ever-entertaining and original American pianist Robert Glasper with his Black Radio project (at Hammersmith Apollo on 12 March), an early-April tour by the all-star Spring Quartet of Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding, Leo Genovese and Jack DeJohnette, the arrival of the guitarist Pat Metheny’s powerful Unity Group with saxophonist Chris Potter in June, and Wynton Marsalis’s return for his ongoing Barbican residency with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO) from 30 June to 2 July. Marsalis’s trip will take an unusual world music twist, with a partnership between the LCJO and Lahore’s Sachal Studios Orchestra, the jazz-savvy band they call “the Buena Vista Social Club of Pakistan” because of its veteran members’ re-emergence from retirement. The Sachals explore western jazz and pop themes with traditional Pakistani musical thinking and instrumentation – which they would have introduced to London audiences last month at Kings Place, had the UK’s zealous Border Agency not stopped them from entering the country.
But maybe the biggest news of 2014 for British jazz listeners is the return of Loose Tubes, for a 30th Anniversary reunion. The Tubes will play the Cheltenham jazz festival on 3 May, and a season at Ronnie Scott’s from 5 to 10 May for which tickets will undoubtedly fly out of the box office. Django Bates, Julian Arguelles, Iain Ballamy, Eddie Parker, John Parricelli, former Freak Power frontman Ashley Slater and the full formidable 21-piece lineup will reconvene to remind listeners just why this unique “anarcho-syndicalist collective”, as they described themselves, not only became one of the most entertaining ensembles British jazz has ever generated, but transformed the art of large-scale jazzmaking across Europe.
Here’s a taste of Loose Tubes.