Tag Archives: Anna Lyttle

“DIASPORA”: MICHAEL McQUAID, ANDREW OLIVER, NICHOLAS D. BALL

A few nights ago, I was sitting in my apartment, entertaining friends (one of them the fine guitarist Larry Scala) and I was playing 78s for them.  After a particularly delightful performance, which may have been the Keynote I WANT TO BE HAPPY with Roy, Emmett Berry, and Joe Thomas, or 46 WEST 52 with Chu Berry, Roy, and Sidney Catlett, I turned to them and quietly said, “Music like this is why some bands that everyone else goes wild about do not appeal to me.  I’ve been spoiled by the best.”

But there are glorious exceptions to my assessment of the present.  One of the shining musicians of this century is  Michael McQuaid — heard on a variety of reeds and cornet, even possibly breaking in to song when it seems right.  I first heard him live in 2010 and admired him powerfully, and although our paths don’t cross often (we meet every few years, not only in Newcastle but also in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and in New York City) he remains a model to me of what can be created within and without those venerable musics.  (Full disclosure: he quotes from JAZZ LIVES on his blog, but I simply take that as evidence of his good taste in literature.)

Michael, informally

If you’d like to read a brief biography of Michael, you can do just that here, but I will offer three salient facts: he is Australian by birth; he has been playing professionally for twenty years even though he is a mere 35; he and the lovely Ms. Anna Lyttle will take up residence in London in November 2017.

Michael, feeling the spirit

His newest CD, DIASPORA, is an exceptional pleasure.  It’s a trio CD — Michael’s first as a leader in this format — where he is nobly paired with pianist Andrew Oliver and percussionist Nicholas D. Ball.  When you click on the title above, you can hear selections from the disc, and if so moved, then purchase it from Bandcamp or CDBaby.

But enough commerce.  I’ve found it daunting to review this CD in a hurry, not, I assure you, because I had to dig for adjectives, but because each performance — none of them longer than a 12″ 78 — is so dense with sensation, feeling, and music, that I feel gloriously full and satisfied after each track.  I couldn’t compel myself to listen to this disc, stuffing in track after track at one sitting: too much glorious stuff was going on.  So I promise you that it will not only appeal at the first listening but for many more to come.  Michael, Andrew, and Nicholas D. are strong personalities but willing to merge their egos into a band, which in itself is a deep reward for us.

The music here is nicely contradictory: comforting but full of surprises, aesthetically familiar but never rote.  “Clarinet, piano, and traps,” as they would have written in 1928, lends itself to all sorts of formulae: the Goodman / Dodds / Noone “tribute” album.  Or, more loosely, “Chicago jazz.”  DIASPORA, it is true, nods affectionately to early Benny, Wingy, Leon, the Halfway House boys, Fats, Bud Jacobsen, Charles LaVere, and others, but it is not a series of copies: it’s as if Michael, Andrew, and Nicholas D. have made themselves so familiar with the individual songs and the idioms they came from that they are at ease and can thus speak for themselves.  There is so much shining energy in their playing: nothing seems forced or tense.  And although this would be marketed as “hot jazz,” some of the finest moments in this recital are sweet, rueful, tender: Fats’ CHELSEA, for one.

I asked Michael for his thoughts about the CD, especially because there are no liner notes, and he told me that he wanted to let the music speak for itself, and that DIASPORA has been on his mind for some time: “I wanted to do a project featuring my OWN playing rather than a larger group with a more democratic purpose. I also wanted to record in a very good studio, because I think the clarinet is rarely recorded well . . . it’s just me and my Albert system clarinet! And my colleagues, of course.”  [Note from Michael: the recorded sound is superbly natural.]

The songs Michael chose are admiring homages to various clarinetists without imitating them.  “For instance, ‘Do Something’ was imagined as a hypothetical Don Murray/Arthur Schutt/Vic Berton collaboration; ‘Tiger Rag’ asks ‘what if Rappolo and Jelly Roll made a trio side?’.”

I’d asked Michael about his original compositions.  “‘Black Spur’ takes its name from a treacherous mountain road to the north east of Melbourne, while ‘Diaspora’ is a Beguine/Jazz mix, paying tribute to the musical styles (and peoples) scattered widely throughout the world by the time of the 1920s/30s.  Of course, there’s a link there to the album title as well; an Australian, playing music of American origin (broadly speaking) with an American and a Briton, recorded and mixed in London and mastered in Helsinki!”

I hope all my readers take the opportunity to hear DIASPORA: it’s music that travels well.

May your happiness increase!

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JOHN SCURRY’S “REVERSE SWING”

One of the most gratifying things about being a jazz listener is the possibility of meeting one’s heroes in the flesh.  I could lament that I never saw Django or Charlie Christian or Teddy Bunn, but I’m happy and proud to be able to write, “I’ve met John Scurry.”

I first heard John — guitarist, banjoist, composer, and not incidentally an artist — on several NifNuf CDs that came out of Bob Barnard’s Jazz Parties (a glorious series of celebrations running for a decade). 

I would put the CD into the player, most often in my car, and just listen, not knowing who the players were aside from Bob and one or two others.  But when I got to my destination or at a stoplight, I would look at the personnel to see exactly who that most impressive (unidentified) player was.  Sometimes it was Fred Parkes, other times Chris Taperell or George Washingmachine. 

But I came to know John Scurry’s work quickly: his ringing lines that didn’t go in familiar paths, his solid rhythm, his interesting voicings.  I then heard him on CDs with Allan Browne and Judy Carmichael and continued to be impressed.

And it would have stayed that way except for this summer’s trip to England and the long thrilling jazz weekend at the 2010 Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival. 

One night before the festival actually began, there was a concert devoted to the great British dance bands of the Thirties.  After we found seats on the little bus that was to take us to the hall, I recognized some people I’d met at the previous year’s festival — the multi-instrumentalist Michael McQuaid and his sweetheart Anna Lyttle. . . then Michael introduced me quickly to his colleagues, “there’s Jason, and John, and Ian.”  I’m not terribly good with names the first time I’m introduced, so I let the new bits of data wash over me.   (Eventually I came to meet and admire Jason Downes and Ian Smith.)

Later on, though, someone pointed out “John” and gave him his full title . . . and I went up to him and said, “You’re John Scurry?  I’ve been admiring your work for a long time . . . ” and on.  When he played with Michael’s Late Hour Boys, he was even better in person.  (I’ve posted a number of clips on YouTube that will bear me out.)

I’ve been listening John’s winding, curious compositions on some other CDs with Allan Browne recently.  I regret that he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to make a solo or duo CD.  In a world full of guitarists, he surely stands out.

I was both delighted and a bit puzzled by the portrait top left — even though I could understand that it is summer in Australia while we are worrying about the effects of the first frost on the plants . . . so I asked John to explain:

The band is a drumless quartet with Eugene Ball trumpet, Mike McQuaid
reeds, Leigh Barker bass, and myself on guitar.  We are unrehearsed and
playing standards, some of my so called originals and whatever comes
to mind in the balmy summer eve atmosphere of the lovely interior
spanish mission style courtyard of the Mission to Seafarers in
Melbourne, and old circa 1910 building.  The painting is by Antoine Watteau and I think it may be in the Met.  Jed Perl who writes for The New Republic did an article on it a few  years back. The painting if I remember correctly was recently rediscovered: I downloaded the image from his article, which was called  ‘A Big Surprise”.  A very beautiful work, don’t you think?  Sort of
encopasses everything really.

 As to “reverse swing”.  It’s a cricketing term, wherein the ball when
bowled swings the other way unexpectantly and contrary to Mr. Isaac
Newton’s expectations.  I like the name, I’m left-handed and happen to
play cricket…and I’m a bowler.  At this stage up until Christmas the gig is only for three weeks, however as  with all things we live in hope and joyful anticipation that more music may be had from the seafarers in the New Year.
I did this gig last year with Mike and Leigh, it’s a lot of fun
working with an acoustically based group without drums……it’s good
to  find one’s voice for better or worse without certain aural
encumbrances.

I only wish that New York was closer to Australia, or the reverse.  Perhaps someone will record REVERSE SWING with a video camera and share the results with us?  It won’t be the same, but it will tamp down my “Something wonderful is happening far away and I can’t get to it.” 

May John Scurry and his friends — not only in the Australian summer — prosper.

MICHAEL McQUAID’S GOOD WORKS

Whitley Bay 7 09 and earlier 045

I was impressed by Michael McQuaid before I met him in person, which is always a pleasant state. 

A disclaimer: he doesn’t ordinarily pose for photographs in front of the American flag, but the room in which Bent Persson’s band was rehearsing at Whitley Bay was festooned, United Nations-style, with the flags of many countries.  No political statement expressed or implied!

Why was I impressed?  I had been asked to write notes for a new NifNuf CD capturing highlights from Bob Barnard’s 2008 jazz party, sadly his last one.  The first track paired Bob with a band led by Michael — then new to me — and they roared through STOMP OFF, LET’S GO with the force of a very intelligent swinging whirlwind — not speed but hot intensity.  I know it’s a cliche, but I sat up much straighter in my chair, and played this track several times before I decided to move on to the rest of the CD, which, by the way, is a wonderful assortment, taken from different sessions, and hugely gratifying. 

I did a bit of online research on Michael and found that he is the leader or co-leader of two fine bands, both websites listed on my blogroll: the Red Hot Rhythmakers (www.redhotrhythmakers.com) and the Sweet Lowdowns ( http://www.sweetlowdowns.com.au/about.htm) .  Happily for us, the RHR have clips on YouTube, and both bands have CDs.

RHR 2

 The RHR are a galloping group with every energetic nuance of the late-Twenties jazz style in place: hot solos, shouting ensembles, although they can slow down and play lovely dance music, even rhythm ballads (I’LL BE SEEING YOU, for instance).  But that’s not the best part.  Half of the twenty selections on SWEET LIKE THIS, their second CD, were new to me — some of them Michael’s own compositions, others by fellow Oz composers.  I listened to the CD for the first time without access to the liner notes, so I got one pleasant surprise after another — as the “new” compositions or originals seemed wholly idiomatic even when I couldn’t place them.  Wonderful to hear a band that’s not only faithful to the old recordings but busy adding to the music.  Michael told me that this was an Oz jazz tradition: musicians at recording sessions were required to bring along a certain percentage of originals, which seems like a first-rate idea. 

Did I mention that Michael is a first-class jazz improviser on a variety of reeds as well as the trumpet?  When I saw him as a member of Bent Persson’s all-star big band, paying tribute to Thirties Louis, he shifted from one to the other, turning slightly in his chair to become a member of the brass section, then back to the reeds.  Easy, unaffected mastery, quite impressive!

SL_Band

The Sweet Lowdowns, who take their bandname from the Woody Allen film, are something different: a tidy, fervent quartet of vocals and drums (Sandra Talty), reeds (Michael), guitar (Liam O’Connell), and bass (Richard Mander).  They suggest a light-hearted combination of all things good between, say, 1930 and 1945 — a Mildred meets Ed Hall meets Django jam session, but no heavy-handed copying.  The CD sounds as if four gifted musicians had decided to get together after the gig and play some nice tunes that reminded them of the intimate jass masterpieces, as well as a few emotionally-affecting originals.  No striving for effects, just fine chamber music with deep feeling and innate swing, sparked by Sandra’s neat, perfectly-focused singing and the telepathic interplay of the group. 

As a postscript: the stereotypical jazz musician of great inarticulateness who can speak only to the fellows on the stand is by now an unaccurate caricature.  But when I met Michael and his sweetheart Anna Lyttle (a fine young actress and trumpet player — see their portrait in an earlier Whitley Bay post), we had a wonderfully thoughtful conversation about the invisible barriers between musicians and “fans,” about working in academia, about making a living from your art — serious, necessary topics.

Michael and his friends are inspiring jazz players and people to watch — if you can’t meet them in person, the CDs are well worth dipping into the disposible income.  Let the grandchildren look out for themselves!

PORTRAITS: WHITLEY BAY, 2009

Whose honey are you?  In the hotel breakfast bar, Billie oversees the butter, buttery spread, jam, and honey

Whose honey are you? In the hotel breakfast bar, Billie oversees the butter, buttery spread, jam, and honey

I’ve just returned from the nineteenth Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival, which was delightful.  I didn’t take as many still pictures as I should have, perhaps because I had my video camera glued to my eye . . . the results will, I hope, emerge soon.  But here are some portraits from the three days of elation and emotion:

Mike Durham's bass sax waits for true fulfillment -- to be played majestically by Frans Sjostrom

Mike Durham's bass sax waits for true fulfillment -- to be played majestically by Frans Sjostrom

Warming up before a rehearsal

Warming up before a rehearsal

Warming up with long tones

Warming up with long tones

Bent Persson listens

Bent Persson listens

Martin Litton

Martin Litton

Elena P. Paynes, vocalist with the Chicago Stompers, at rehearsal

Elena P. Paynes, vocalist with the Chicago Stompers, at rehearsal

Nick Ward, having a ball

Nick Ward, having a ball

John Carstairs Hallam, thinking it through

John Carstairs Hallam, thinking it through

In the brass section

In the brass section

Cousin Bob

Cousin Bob

Cousin John

Cousin John

On Bent Persson's music stand

On Bent Persson's music stand

Mike Durham (left) and Rene Hagmann listen intently to jazz erudition from an off-camera Norman Field

Mike Durham (left) and Rene Hagmann listen intently to jazz erudition from an off-camera Norman Field

Elena, onstage

Elena, onstage

Elena, successfully wooing the crowd

Elena, successfully wooing the crowd

Once more!

Once more!

Anna Lyttle (trumpet), Michael McQuaid (reeds)

Anna Lyttle (trumpet), Michael McQuaid (reeds)