Tag Archives: Alyn Shipton

QUIETLY ACCOMPLISHED: CHRIS BARBER’S “JAZZ ME BLUES”

The biographies of jazz musicians often follow a predictable path, from Mother at the organ or Dad’s 78s, precocious talent, hours of rigorous training, encounters with older professionals, early gigs, and then success.  If the musician is stable and fortunate, the narrative quiets down to a series of gigs and concerts; if the subject is tragic, the pages darken: alcohol, drugs, abusive relationships, auto accident, major illness, premature death.

The jazz eminences who have written autobiographies (excepting Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day, although I am sure some readers will add to that list) have been the more fortunate ones, and their books depict elders looking back on friendships and triumphs.  Often the narrator is justly proud, and his / her singular personality is a strong consistent presence.

Trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber, born in 1930, continues to have a wonderful career — one that began with “traditional jazz” and stretched the definition to include different music incorporated into his own.  He’s played and recorded for more than sixty years with British jazz legends Ben Cohen, Ottilie Patterson, Ken Colyer, Acker Bilk, Pat Halcox, Lonnie Donegan, Monty Sunshine, Bruce Turner, Ian Wheeler, Beryl Bryden; with American stars Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Jordan, Ed Hall, Ray Nance, Albert Nicholas, Joe Darensbourg, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Cecil Scott, Don Frye, Floyd Casey, Ed Allen, Sidney deParis, Hank Duncan, Wild Bill Davis, Russell Procope, Dr. John, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lewis and George Lewis, Clarence Williams, Aretha Franklin, Count Basie, Sam Theard, Jack Teagarden, Ornette Coleman, Scott LaFaro, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band . . .so the reader who opens a Barber autobiography hopes for good stories.

But this long list of names isn’t all there is to JAZZ ME BLUES (written with the very capable help of Alyn Shipton . . . Barber says in his acknowledgments that they first talked about this book in 1982) — published this year by Equinox in their Popular Music History series.

Barber follows the usual chronological path from his early encounter with jazz to becoming an international eminence. However, it took me about thirty-five pages (the book is 172 long) to settle in to JAZZ ME BLUES because of his distinctive personality.

He isn’t forceful or self-absorbed, telling us of the wonderful thing he did next. Barber comes across as a quietly modest man who has no need for us to admire him. Chronicling his life, he is so placidly matter-of-fact that it might take readers by surprise. But once we do, the absence of self-congratulation is refreshing, as if we were introduced to a very talented person who had been brought up to think self-praise was vulgar.

An interval for music.  First, STEAMBOAT BILL and HIGH SOCIETY from the Fifties:

GOIN’ HOME BLUES from 2013:

Aside from its subject’s remarkably modest approach to his own life, JAZZ ME BLUES has two great pleasures.  One is Barber’s unwillingness to stay neatly in the style that had brought him success. Beginning in the Sixties, his band takes on different shadings while not abandoning the music he loves: he brings in electric guitarist John Slaughter, altoist Joe Harriott, organist Brian Auger; he works and records with blues and gospel legends; he plays extended compositions. Again, since Barber speaks about these events with polite restraint, one must estimate the emotional effect of being booed by British traditionalist fans who wanted “their” music to stay the same. Barber is not making changes to woo a larger audience or to stay in the public eye, but because he is genuinely interested in adding other flavorings to a familiar dish. He is a determined seeker, and he grows more intriguing in his quests.

The other pleasure I alluded to at the start, delightful first-hand anecdotes. Readers deprived of their own contact with their heroes always want to know what the great men and women were like, and JAZZ ME BLUES — although never mean-spirited in its quick sketches — is a banquet here. Not only do we hear about Sonny Boy Williamson and Zutty Singleton (the latter saying he is most happy in a band without a piano because pianists all “lose time”) but about Van Morrison, George Harrison (who likes the 1930 BARNACLE BILL THE SAILOR) and colleagues Lennon and McCartney; we read of Howlin’ Wolf saying grace quietly and sweetly before a meal. Trumpeter Ed Allen tells Barber that he always used to learn the songs for Clarence Williams record dates in the taxi on the way to the studio.

And Barber has been in the right place at the right time. When he comes to America, he sits in at Condon’s. After an uneventful beginning, “. . . suddenly the rhythm section started to swing. I looked round and Eddie had picked up his guitar and joined in. From then on, with him there, every tempo was just right, and everything swung. His presence was subtle, but it made the world of difference. I knew what a fine player he could be, as, when the band had appeared at the Royal Festival Hall in 1957. I’d gone along to their late night concert. The thing that sticks in my memory from that night was Eddie taking a half-chorus solo on a tune in the ballad medley. It was just perfect, and with the tuning of his four-string tenor guitar it had a very distinctive sound. It reminded me of Carmen Mastren, who was a true virtuoso.”

JAZZ ME BLUES is an engaging portrait of a continuing life in jazz (with rare photographs, a selective discography, and an index). It is available in North America exclusively through ISD ($34.95 hardcover): ISD, 70 Enterprise Drive, Suite 2, Bristol, CT 00610: orders@isdistribution.com.

May your happiness increase!

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ENRICO TOMASSO’S “AL DENTE”: TASTY!

Rico CD front better

It has been my great good fortune to meet and hear trumpeter / singer Enrico Tomasso several times at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party.  Because of his deep understanding of jazz from the beginnings to the present, Rico has often been asked to “be” someone else: Louis, George Mitchell, or Roy Eldridge, for a variety of jazz repertory projects.  A versatile player, he has no trouble summoning up the great demigods, but in the process, his own personality — subtle yet powerful — shines through.  He’s delightfully versatile — like a compelling stage actor who can be Lear one week, Stanley Kowalski the next, without strain.  (He’s also a marvelous singer.)

Now, at last, he’s made a small-group CD under his own name — just Rico and rhythm — and it’s delicious.  (In keeping with the beautiful productions of Woodville Records, the sound is first-rate; excellent notes by Alyn Shipton, and fine photographs by bassist Andrew Clyndert.)

Rico CD back

Although many of the songs on this disc have strong associations with great trumpet players (Louis, Roy, Bobby Hackett, Clark Terry) what we hear is a mature artist — playfully taking chances — creating his own paths through familiar material.

Many compact discs topple under the weight of sameness, offering ten or twenty performances in a row that sound so similar, but Rico has always held variety as an artistic principle, so he manages to change the sound and mood from track to track — with the help of three very sympathetic players, John Pearce, piano; Andrew Cleyndert, string bass; Bobby Worth, drums.

Here’s a taste of Rico in person, being himself:

You can feel his exuberant personality from the first note, and that personality comes through on the CD, whether he’s being tender (THE GOOD LIFE), gently swinging (GONE AND CRAZY), or witty (BROTHERHOOD OF MAN).  His tone, glossy, whispery, or gritty, is always a pleasure.

And even if you own the “originals” of LITTLE JAZZ, THE GOOD LIFE, JUBILEE, or others, this CD will be a delightful introduction or re-introduction to a great musician.

If Rico had the publicity he deserves, jazz listeners worldwide would be speaking of him in the same breath with Ruby Braff and Warren Vaché.  His music — deeply emotional yet always swinging — is consistently superb.  AL DENTE (which I take to mean “perfectly cooked” rather than “chewy”) is a beautiful representation of his art.

May your happiness increase!

“CLAYTONIA” IN BLOSSOM: THE BUCK CLAYTON LEGACY BAND

Claytonia-sibirica

I’m serious.  Rarely have I had a CD that made me so earnestly want to turn up the volume and dance around the kitchen — with the Beloved or solo.  It’s amazing music.

CLAYTONIA cover

I shall stop dancing (even metaphorically) and explain.  CLAYTONIA is the first disc issued by the UK-based Buck Clayton Legacy Band.

When I was a young jazz record collector, I sought out every record Buck played on, and I don’t remember ever being disappointed.  His Columbia JAM SESSIONS are (to me) among the most gratifying musical experiences ever put on record.  By the time I began to see jazz performances live, Buck had stopped playing — although I saw him once in a “comeback” concert tribute to Billie. But he was resilient, and channeled his energies into writing, arranging, and directing a small big band for the rest of his life — a wonderful unit in which some of my friends and heroes played.

There the story might have ended if it hadn’t been for the very special British writer, string bassist, and jazz broadcaster Alyn Shipton.  You might know Alyn in any of his roles, but I first encountered him as someone helping Buck finish and expand BUCK CLAYTON’S JAZZ WORLD — a very rewarding book, Buck’s candid and charming autobiography, written with Nancy Miller Elliott.  In his notes, Alyn recalls, “Just after Buck died in 1991, Nancy Miller Elliott contacted me, and handed over a box of his music, with a message from Buck saying, ‘You kept my memory alive with the book, maybe you can do the same with my music?'”

In 2004 Alyn and the brilliant reedman / arranger / composer Matthias Seuffert assembled this great band, and CLAYTONIA was recorded during their first British tour in 2011.

It’s a humming band — these fellows know deep in their souls how to swing, and the easeful yet intense performances tick along like well-tuned engines, hinting at great strength but never relying on volume to get their point across. Alyn and Matthias (tenor saxophone, clarinet, arrangements) are co-leaders; Norman Emberson, drums; Martin Wheatley, acoustic guitar; Martin Litton, piano, make up a splendid rhythm section — nothing artificial, nothing self-consciously “old school,” just hitting on all cylinders with sweet style.  There are no efforts to imitate anyone: they simply Rock.  And Wheatley’s single-string solos are delicious interludes . . . rather like finding a clump of ripe blackberries on your morning walk.  The rest of the band is equally stellar: soloists who have something to say but know how to say it concisely / great supportive ensemble players: Menno Daams and Ian Smith, trumpet; Adrian Fry, trombone; Alan Barnes, alto saxophone, clarinet.

CLAYTONIA has none of the “all-star” nature of some recorded gatherings, where you feel the impatience of Soloist 4 while Soloist 3 is playing.  This, dearly beloved children of all ages, sounds like a working band — and is there anything better?

And they play Buck’s compositions — which have a built-in momentum: OUTER DRIVE (memorable from the SONGS FOR SWINGERS album and 1961 live performances); I’LL MAKE BELIEVE (a priceless rhythm ballad); PARTY TIME; HORN OF PLENTY; SCORPIO; CLAYTONIA (a gritty blues, first recorded by Buck and friends for Vanguard); SMOOTHIE; SIR HUMPHREY (for Buck’s dear friend and trumpet colleague Humph).

And the sound is great, too — recorded at The Sage Gateshead by Hywel Jones for BBC 3.

CLAYTONIA is an irresistible musical offering.  You can follow the band and buy the CD here.  And the flowers at the top?  They’re Claytonia, too.

May your happiness increase! 

BUCK CLAYTON’S JAZZ WORLD

People who listen to jazz, read about it, write about it, seem to be entranced by drama.  So many of them are drawn to artists whose careers and lives are boldly delineated: the arc of early promise and a life cut short through self-destructive behavior or illness; the narrative of great achievement that tails off into stark decline.  Early Fame, Great Decline.  Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Jimmie Blanton, Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young . . . the list is long.

But what of those musicians who had long careers, functioned at a high level of creativity, were undramatic in their professionalism?  They get less media attention in life and in death; their sheer reliability makes them almost shadowy figures.  (Of course, if they happen to live long lives — Doc Cheatham, Benny Waters, Eubie Blake, Hank Jones, Lionel Ferbos — then they may get a story in the paper.  But that’s another subject.)

One of the greatest trumpet players — also a wonderful composer and arranger — doesn’t get the attention he should: Buck Clayton from Parsons, Kansas, whose recordings over a thirty-year span are exceptional but not always celebrated as they should be.  Anyone familiar with the best music of that period can call to mind a dozen sessions that Buck not only plays on, but elevates: consider the dates with Basie, the Kansas City Five and Six and Seven, Billie, Mildred, Teddy and Ben, Hawkins on Keynote, Ike Quebec on Blue Note, his own dates for HRS, the Jam Sessions for Columbia and the later ones for Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label, his recordings with Mel Powell at Carnegie Hall, the Vanguard sessions, a Verve date with Harry Edison, his own small band (circa 1961), recordings with Jimmy Rushing and Ada Moore and Mae Barnes, with Earl Hines, Bill Coleman, Don Byas, Flip Phillips, Horace Henderson, Sir Charles Thompson, Charlie Parker, Ed Hall, Alex Combelle, Joe Turner, Big Joe Turner, “Jazz From A Swinging Era,” Humphrey Lyttelton, Eddie Condon, J. J. Johnson, Benny Goodman . . . and I am sure I am leaving out many sessions.

Shanghai, 1934

Even though Buck was playing jazz in Shanghai in 1934, before he came home and stopped off in Kansas City, he seems to have been a rather undramatic man for all his exploits.  He showed up on time for the gig; he could talk to the audience; he wrote excellent charts and swinging originals; he was beautifully dressed; he transcended late-in-life health problems to launch a new career as a bandleader when the trumpet no longer responded to his urgings.  How unfortunate to be so bourgeois.

I only encountered him in person once: in 1971, there was a New York Jazz Museum Christmas party (if I have this right) where he was among a large number of musicians advertised as performing.  Buck was there, not playing, but splendidly dressed and very polite to a young fan who asked for his autograph.  (A side story: the musicians who actually did play, beautifully, were Chuck Folds, Gene Ramey, and Jackie Williams.  Someone requested MISTY and Ramey, upon hearing the song title, said, quietly, “I don’t play that shit,” and leaned his bass against the wall for the next three minutes, returning when the music was more to his liking.)

I also saw Buck — perhaps in 1980 — at a Newport in New York concert possibly paying tribute to Billie, with musicians including Zoot Sims and Harry Edison — attempting to return to playing.  His beautiful tone was intact on a fairly fast SUGAR, but he was having trouble hitting the notes one could sense he was aiming for . . . heroic but painful.)

Let’s listen to Buck again.

Here are the two takes of WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS from the 1938 Kansas City Six session for Commodore — with Lester Young, Eddie Durham, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Jo Jones.  It’s hard not to focus on Lester — but it can be done. Hear Buck, golden, easeful, and lithe . . . the only trumpet player I know who approaches his sly mobility is Bill Coleman of the same period.  Like Louis, he constructs his solos logically, one phrase building on its predecessors and looking forward to the next, each one acting as a small melodic building block in a larger arching structure — melodic embellishment with a larger purpose:

Any improvising musician would say that Buck’s solo choruses are not the work of an immature musician and not easy to do; his graceful ensemble playing is the work of a master.  But it sounds so easy, as if he were singing through his horn.  And that tone!

Here he is in a 1954 session that few know of — a Mel Powell-led jam session at Carnegie Hall, with Ruby Braff, Jay Brower (trumpet), Vernon Brown, Urbie Green (trombone), Tony Scott (clarinet), Lem Davis (alto sax), Buddy Tate, Eddie Shu (tenor sax), Romeo Penque (baritone sax), Mel Powell (piano), Steve Jordan (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Jo Jones, Gene Krupa (drums):

Buck appears near the end –just before Gene and Jo trade phrases.  And, yes, you read that correctly.  A marvel!

Here’s Buck with Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, Hank Jones, George Duvivier, and Jo Jones in C JAM BLUES (1959):

And after his playing days had ended, as leader / composer / arranger of his own Swing Band, captured in France (1991) on RAMPAGE IN G MINOR:

The other swingers on that stage are Gerry Dodgion, alto; James Chirillo, guitar; Joe Temperley, baritone sax; Randy Sandke, trumpet; Matt Finders, trombone; Doug Lawrence and Arthur “Babe” Clarke, tenor saxophones; Phillipe Combell, drums.; Dick Katz, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Bobby Pring, trombone; John Eckert, Greg Gisbert; trumpet.

Someone who hasn’t forgotten Buck Clayton is the UK bassist / writer / radio host Alyn Shipton, who has performed often with Buck’s compositions and arrangements as the Buck Clayton Legacy Band.  Here they are in this century performing Buck’s tribute to his friend and fellow brassman Humph, SIR HUMPHREY:

That band is full of people who understand Buck and his music (some of them heroes of mine): Menno Daams, Ian Smith, Adrian Fry, Alan Barnes, Matthias Seuffert, Martin Litton, Martin Wheatley, Alyn Shipton and Norman Emberson.

I would encourage anyone reading this post to go to his or her shelves and take down a recording by Buck and revel in its glories.  Milt Hinton used to have a memo pad with this heading (because of his nickname “The Judge”):”You are hereby sentenced to thirty days of listening to good music.”  If you were to explore and re-explore Buck Clayton’s jazz world, you would have more than a month of pleasure.

He never provoked controversy; I doubt he will ever have his own online forum with vigorous acrimonious discussion of the minutiae of his life . . . but he created beauty whenever he raised his trumpet, composed a melody, or led a band.

May your happiness increase.