It’s possible that you haven’t heard of Ken Mathieson, the leader-percussionist-arranger of the Classic Jazz Orchestra, but this post is designed to remedy this omission right away.
For Ken Mathieson is a truly ingenious man who has made the CJO an equally flexible, innovative orchestra.
The CJO has been working since 2004, and Ken is a veteran leader, arrangger, and drummer with impeccable credits. For fifteen years, he was the resident drummer at the famous Black Bull Club near Glasgow — where he supported and learned from Bud Freeman, the aforementioned King, Mr. Carter, Wild Bill Davison, Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer, Bobby Hackett, Al Cohn, Johnny Griffin, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Teddy Wilson, Tal Farlow, and more.
And he’s offered his own solution to one of the problems of classic jazz performance. Suppose the leader of a “classic” jazz ensemble wants to pay tribute to Ellington, Morton, Carter, or Armstrong. Commendable enough. One way is to transcribe every note and aural flutter on the great records. Then, the imaginary leader can gather the musicians, rehearse them for long hours until they sound just like a twenty-first century rendition of this or that hallowed disc.
Admirable, but somewhat limited. Emerson said that imitation is suicide, and although I would love to have my own private ensemble on call to reproduce the Morton Victors, what would be the point? (In concert, hearing a band pretend to be the Red Hot Peppers can be thrilling in the same way watching acrobats — but on record, it seems less compelling.)
Getting free of this “repertory” experience, although liberating, has its disadvantages for some who take their new freedom too energetically. Is POTATO HEAD BLUES still true to its essential self if played in 5/4. as a waltz, as a dirge, by a flute quintet? Is it possible to lose the thread?
Faced with these binary extremes — wanting to praise the past while remembering that the innovations we so prize were, in fact, innovations, Mathieson has steered an imaginative middle course. On three CDs, he has managed to heed Exra Pound’s MAKE IT NEW while keeping the original essences.
Ken and the CJO have an open-ended and open-minded approach to jazz history and performance. The original compositions stay recognizable but the stylistic approach to each one is modified. Listening to the CJO, I heard not only powerful swinging reflections of the original recordings and period idioms, but also a flexibility that suggested that Mingus, Morton, Oliver Nelson, and Benny Carter were on an equal footing, respectfully swapping ideas.
The CJO has an unusual instrumentation which allows it to simulate a Swing Era big band or a hot trio: Billy Hunter plays trumpet and fluegelhorn; Ewan McAllan or Phil O’Malley, trombone; Dick Lee, soprano and alto sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Keith Edwards or Konrad Wiszniewski, tenor; Martin Foster, alto, baritone, and bass sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Paul Kirby or Tom Finlay, piano; Roy Percy, bass.
And what’s most refreshing is that both Ken and his players seem to have made a silent pact with the music to treat it as if it were new: so the solos on CORNET CHOP SUEY do not emulate Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory; the ensemble work on SORRY doesn’t hark back to 1928 Bix and his Gang; the sound of BOJANGLES reflects on 1940 Ellington without copying it. And the solos exist in a broadly-defined area of modern Mainstream: thus, you are much more likely to think of Roy Williams or Scott Robinson than of Clarence Williams or Prince Robinson.
I’ll leave the surprises on these three CDs to the buyers and listeners. But in almost every case I found myself hearing the music with a delighted grim, thinking, “Wow! That’s what they’re doing with that old chestnut?”
(Ironically, one of Matheson’s triumphs as an arranger is the wisdom to leave well enough alone. So one of the memorable tracks on his Louis CD (with the glowing Duke Heitger in the lead) is a very simple and touching AMONG MY SOUVENIRS.)
The experience of listening to these discs was as if my old friends had gotten new wardrobes and hairstyles — immensely flattering but startling at first. And Ken seems to have the same playful idea, for his Morton CD is called JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES. On the back there is the famous portrait of Jelly, his arms raised to conduct, wearing a suit with six huge buttons and pressed white trousers. On the front, Mathieson has reinvented Jelly as a twenty-first century hip teenager, wearing a short-sleeved yellow t-shirt, earbuds around his neck, the cable leading to an iPod, baggy denim jeans, running shoes. And Jelly looks happy!
Their three CDs are KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA SALUTES THE KINGS OF JAZZ (Lake LACD 261), JELLY’S NEW CLOTHES (CJO 001), and CELEBRATING SATCHMO, featuring Duke Heitger (LACD 286).
Details of the CJO’s history and current performing schedule can be found at http://www.classicjazzorchestra.org.uk/diary.htm.
Information about their Lake Records CDs is available here: http://www.fellside.com/Shop/Results1.asp?Category=2