Tag Archives: Classic Jazz Orchestra

BRILLIANT VERSATILITY: KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA: THE GLASGOW SUITE / CLARINET GUMBO

Here’s what I wrote about Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra when I first heard their three CDs (one devoted to Louis, one to Jelly, one to a jazz panorama) in 2010.  Five years later, it’s just as true.

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, King Benny 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 two new CDs, he has managed to heed Ezra 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; Phil O’Malley, trombone; Dick Lee, soprano and alto sax, clarinet; Konrad Wiszniewski, tenor; Martin Foster, tenor, baritone, and bass sax, clarinet and bass clarinet; Tom Finlay or Paul Harrison, piano; Roy Percy, bass; Ken, drums and arrangements.

Ken and his players seem to have made a silent pact with the music to treat it as if it were new: 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?”

Now.  Here we are in 2015, with more good music on two new CDs.

The new CDs are KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA: CLARINET GUMBO /WITH EVAN CHRISTOPHER (Lake LACD 133) and ALAN BARNES with KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA: THE GLASGOW SUITE: THE MUSIC OF BENNY CARTER (Woodville WVCD 133).

CLARINET GUMBO, as you can guess, draws fervently and superbly on the New Orleans clarinet tradition, with delightful reed work from Evan, Dick, Konrad, and Martin — as well as several Jelly Roll Morton rarities which were part of the library of his abortive late big band, GANJAM, STOP AND GO, and JAZZ JUBILEE. evocations of Bechet, Bigard, Noone, Fazola, Simeon, and others — all voiced imaginatively and without cliche.  You can gather something about Ken and the CJO’s consistent ingenuity by noting this: the disc has five Morton pieces, including the venerable BLACK BOTTOM STOMP and the less well-known SUPERIOR RAG, but Ken has also reimagined Mingus’ JELLY ROLL as a musical scuffle between Messrs. Ferdinand and Chazz, each earnestly proposing that his way is the only right way.  Throughout the disc, even when the melodies are familiar (DARDANELLA, for instance, a tribute to Ed Hall) the scoring is fresh and lively without ever going against the essential nature of the song or its associations.  Beautifully recorded and nicely annotated, too.

Here’s FAZOLA from the clarinet CD: 

and the lovely, moody PELICAN DRAG: 

Tributes to Benny Carter are not as frequent as they might be, perhaps because his music is orchestral as well as featuring a saxophone soloist; it’s not easy to play well, and Carter himself created glowing examinations of his music while he was alive — which was only right, since his “old” charts still sounded wonderful. (I think of hearing his Swing Masters onstage at the first Newport in New York, in 1972.)

For this wonderfully varied tribute to Carter, the great Alan Barnes plays alto and clarinet — but as in the case of CLARINET GUMBO, he is one of many delights.  Those familiar with Carter’s recorded history will know A WALKIN’ THING, SYMPHONY IN RIFFS, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, MALIBU, DOOZY, and a few others, but it is Carter’s five-part GLASGOW SUITE, composed in 1987, that is the delight of this CD.  Mathieson had the opportunity to work with Carter, and the two became friends as well as colleagues, something that shines through this recording.  It is not at all the endeavor of musicians hired for the moment to play scores they don’t love deeply.  Again, beautiful sound and warmly personal notes.

From the Carter tribute, here’s the perfectly sprightly DOOZY: 

and EASY MONEY .

(As an aside, I have grave reservations about YouTube’s practice of offering CDs in this fashion — no doubt without asking permission of the artists or offering them a thousandth of a cent royalty per view.  But I also feel that people need to hear the music before deciding to buy the CD . . . so I hope that these glimpses propel some readers to purchase rather than to “get it for free,” which has unpleasant effects on artists everywhere.)

Details of the CJO’s history and current performing schedule can be found here, and he Lake Records site is here.

These two discs, as is the case with all the CJO’s efforts, show a bright path into the future that carries the past along with it in the most tender way — while understanding that the innovations of the past need to be treated in living ways.

May your happiness increase!

“A LOVELY MAN”: PORTRAITS OF SPIKE MACKINTOSH

Thanks to Dave Gelly and his book AN UNHOLY ROW, I found out about the magnificently subtle musician, trumpeter Ian Robert “Spike” Mackintosh, and wrote this in his honor.

Ian Cuthbert, attentive and generous, pointed me to one volume of the British singer George Melly’s autobiography, OWNING-UP, where there was a brief but memorable “pen portrait” of my elusive hero.  Here it is — and I am pleased that Spike in person is as singular as his trumpet playing.

. . . there was a whole generation of jazz musicians in England who predated the revival [which Melly dates as beginning in 1951] and yet played swinging music in the Harlem style of the late thirties. Some were professionals . . . . Others were amateurs, and the most remarkable of these was a timber merchant called Ian “Spike” Mackintosh who played trumpet in the style of mid-period Louis Armstrong. Small and neat, a little mustache and horn-rimmed spectacles, he looked exactly what he was, two sons down at Public School and a house at Cuffley. But inside him was a wild man in chains. He played with extreme modesty, his back to the audience, and a green beret full of holes hanging over the bell of his trumpet. In conversation he was both courteous and restrained, but he could become very aggressive if anyone suggested that there was any other trumpet player except his hero.

At parties there was a psychological moment when he would lurch towards the gramophone and take off whatever record was playing if it hadn’t got a Louis on it, and substitute one that had. Another anti-social habit was his reaction when his host turned down the volume. He’d just wait until he wasn’t looking and turn it up again.

He once offered Mick [Mulligan] and me a lift home from a suburban jazz club in his car, and when we were safely inside, drove all the way out to Cuffley despite our protests. His wife was away, and he wanted us to sit up all night listening to Louis and drinking whisky. It was an enjoyable night, and it didn’t finish until three p.m. the following day when the local closed. It was just that we hadn’t planned on it. Mackintosh’s friends were another hazard: huge city men in waistcoats, and pre-war musicians with patent leather hair. . . . despite Mac’s party tricks and city mates, we all liked him very much. He was kind, loyal, and generous, and he could, when on form, play absolutely beautifully.

This comes from pages 100-1 of my paperback copy of OWNING-UP — a book whose spine was nearly broken at those pages.  Was its previous owner also looking for Spike?

And this reminiscence (in August 2014) by the very gracious Ralph Laing:

Spike was a well-off London timber merchant with a passion for jazz and Louis in particular. To my knowledge the only sides he cut commercially were the feature on Sandy Brown’s ‘Sandy’s Sidemen’ and the Wally Fawkes sides you have on Lake. Like Wally he was never a professional, and in his early days was an inveterate sitter-in. Sandy featured him usually on the 100 Club alfresco Thursday night. He had three loves – his sons (all well positioned, especially billionaire Cameron), Louis Armstrong and booze. As he got older the latter dominated and it was hard to get him to play, although he often carted his trumpet around. I persuaded him to do a few numbers with my band at a Edinburgh Festival sometime in the late 1980’s, and that was unusual. Stan Greig and I, though, did spend many hours with him at my flat in Edinburgh (he always attended the Festival), listening to Louis, Jabbo Smith and Jack Purvis.  He loved to talk about and listen to jazz, and was a founder member of the Codgers, a group of London musicians and ex-musicians who cared about music (and a drink) – Wally, Stan, Ian Christie and Jack Hutton (ex-Melody Maker editor) among them. When he died his sons mounted the greatest jazz wake in British history at the ‘Pizza On The Park’ taking over the downstairs supper/night club and dispensing endless refreshment to most of the jazz fraternity. Those present and still alive remember it with awe. The surviving Codgers still host an annual Xmas dinner in his memory. He was a lovely man, unlike most, endearing and funny in his cups. I miss him.

Leader of the Classic Jazz Orchestra Ken Mathieson came up with these anecdotes, “in the book THE BEST OF JAZZ SCORE, which consists of selected excerpts from the BBC radio programme of the same name”:

George Melly:
Spike McIntosh played trumpet with the Wally Fawkes Band in the late 1950s. He was a great fan of Messrs Gordon’s and Louis Armstrong. In fact I suspect his real reason for playing the trumpet was to capture other musicians and take them home with him in order to drink the product of one and listen to the product of the other.

Humphrey Lyttelton:
There is a lovely story about Spike McIntosh being at a party at Wally Fawkes’ house. In those days Wally had a large divider in his main room which was covered in pottery, glassware, bowls of fruit and that sort of thing. Typically, Spike was among the last to leave and, as he got himself out of an armchair, he stumbled into this divider which crashed to the floor with Spike sprawled across the wreckage.

The crash woke up Wally’s daughter, then about nine years old. She came out on to the landing in some distress. Prostrate in the middle of the wreckage, Spike saw her at the top of stairs and, with as much dignity as he could muster, he said “Shouldn’t that child be in bed?”

Although his famous son, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, has been acerbic when mentioning his father in interviews, he was more affectionate in his extended sketch for the book, DADS: A CELEBRATION OF FATHERHOOD BY BRITAIN’S FINEST AND FUNNIEST, ed. Sarah Brown and Gil McNeil (Random House, 2008). This excerpt begins with Spike in the Second World War:

. . . . he was blown up . . .in the Egyptian desert during Montgomery’s rout of Rommel, at the Battle of El Alamein, and was rescued by some passing Bedouins who took him back to Cairo where he lay unconscious for three months. While recuperating, he was summoned to play for King Farouk, whose son loved jazz. Throughout his adventures, Dad’s trusted trumpet never left his side or his hospital bed.

Jazz was his life and he played with a veritable Who’s Who of British jazz (Humphrey Lyttelton, Wally Fawkes, Sandy Brown to name but a few). He even played with his hero Louis Armstrong whose style he closely mirrored, and, at one impromptu gig, Louis borrowed Dad’s treasured Selmer trumpet so he could join in. However, Dad had to make a living as a timber merchant to feed and educate three hungry boys — especially me — as jazz simply didn’t pay that much. The fact that Dad couldn’t make music his sole profession had one silver lining for myself and my two brothers, Nicky and Robert, as he always encouraged us to do anything we wanted as a career. His other great example was that he always went through life thinking the best of people — ‘jolly good chap’ — and was genuinely disappointed if they turned out to be ‘a rotter.’  This was counterbalanced by our mother’s far more beady approach to life.

Having met my mother Diana in Naples towards the end of the war, when they were both working for E.N.S.A., the Army’s entertainment division, he was no stranger to the flamboyance of show business, so I had no opposition to my dreams of being a theatre producer, nor did my youngest brother, Nicky, in becoming a chef or my middle brother Robert, in going into the music business, as both a writer and a record producer. Dad still managed to play regularly throughout his life and made several terrific recordings with his colleagues.

In retrospect, one of his other great gifts to us was taking us to see many of the jazz greats in their prime and sometimes introducing us to them after the show. Who could forget the dazzling concerts of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong? The brilliant trombone playing of Jack Teagarden, the haunting saxophone of Johnny Hodges, the dazzling piano playing of Art Tatum and Earl Hines, and going to an intimate Ronnie Scott’s to see Ella Fitzgerald.

Every time I hear these great artists on the radio, I go, ‘Thanks Dad,’ and hear him ‘Zaba Doo Zatz’ in his inimitable musical ‘Satchmo’ growl, as he gratefully sips another pint.  

Two more visual portraits: the front and back cover of the vinyl issue of SANDY’S SIDEMEN, devoted to compositions by trumpeter Al Fairweather:

SANDY'S SIDEMEN lp cover

Spike, caricatured, at the top.

SANDY'S SIDEMEN lp backand a few words by Sandy Brown about Spike and his work on the “straight ballad,” HIGH TIME.

But the most affecting portrait of Spike Mackintosh I can offer is his music. Here is my homemade video of HIGH TIME, where his playing is both delicate and powerful. (The volume level is low, but you can always repair that.):

I need to know more about the reticent creator of such beauty.

May your happiness increase!

KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA

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