Tag Archives: Dave Gelly

ELEGANTLY IMAGINATIVE: ECHOES OF SWING, “BLUE PEPPER”

I begin somberly . . . but there are more cheerful rewards to follow.

As the jazz audience changes, I sense that many people who “love jazz” love it most when it is neatly packed in a stylistically restrictive box of their choosing. I hear statements of position, usually in annoyed tones, about banjos, ride cymbals, Charlie Parker, purity, authenticity, and “what jazz is.”

I find this phenomenon oppressive, yet I try to understand it as an expression of taste.  One stimulus makes us vibrate; another makes us look for the exit.  Many people fall in love with an art form at a particular stage of it and their development and remain faithful to it, resisting change as an enemy.

And the most tenaciously restrictive “jazz fans” I know seem frightened of music that seems to transgress boundaries they have created .  They shrink back, appalled, as if you’d served them a pizza with olives, wood screws, mushrooms, and pencils.  They say that one group is “too swingy” or “too modern” or they say, “I can’t listen to that old stuff,” as if it were a statement of religious belief.  “Our people don’t [insert profanation here] ever.”

But some of this categorization, unfortunately, is dictated by the marketplace: if a group can tell a fairly uninformed concert promoter, “We sound like X [insert name of known and welcomed musical expression],” they might get a booking. “We incorporate everyone from Scott Joplin to Ornette Coleman and beyond,” might scare off people who like little boxes.

Certain musical expressions are sacred to me: Louis.  The Basie rhythm section. And their living evocations.  But I deeply admire musicians and groups, living in the present, that display the imaginative spirit.  These artists understand that creative improvised music playfully tends to peek around corners to see what possibilities exist in the merging of NOW and THEN and WHAT MIGHT BE.

One of the most satisfying of these playful groups is ECHOES OF SWING. Their clever title says that they are animated by wit, and this cheerful playfulness comes out in their music — not in “comedy” but in an amused ingenuity, a lightness of heart.  They have been in action since 1997, and when I saw them in person (the only time, alas) in 2007, they were wonderfully enlivening.

This action photograph by Sascha Kletzsch suggests the same thing:

EchoesOfSwingInAction1 (Foto Sascha Kletzsch, v.l. Lhotzky, Hopkins, Dawson, Mewes)

They are Colin T. Dawson, trumpet / vocal;  Chris Hopkins, alto sax; Bernd Lhotzky, piano; Oliver Mewes, drums.  And they are that rarity in modern times, a working group — which means that they know their routines, and their ensemble work is beautiful, offering the best springboards into exhilarating improvisatory flights. They are also “a working group,” which means that they have gigs.  Yes, gigs!  Check out their schedule here.

Here  is a 2013 post featuring their hot rendition of DIGA DIGA DOO, and an earlier one about their previous CD, MESSAGE FROM MARS, with other videos — as well as my favorite childhood joke about a Martian in New York City here.  And while we’re in the video archives, here is a delicious eleven-minute offering from in November 2014:

and here they are on German television with a late-period Ellington blues, BLUE PEPPER:

All this is lengthy prelude to their new CD, aptly titled BLUE PEPPER:

EchoesOfSwing  - BluePepperCover

The fifteen songs on the disc are thematically connected by BLUE, but they are happily varied, with associations from Ellington to Brubeck and Nat Cole, composers including Gordon Jenkins, Rodgers, Bechet, Waller, Strayhorn — and a traditional Mexican song and several originals by members of the band: BLUE PEPPER / AZZURRO / BLUE PRELUDE / LA PALOMA AZUL / BLUE & NAUGHTY / BLUE MOON / BLACK STICK BLUES / BLUE RIVER / OUT OF THE BLUE / AOI SAMMYAKU [BLUE MOUNTAIN RANGE] / THE SMURF / BLUE GARDENIA / THE BLUE MEDICINE [RADOVAN’S REMEDY] / WILD CAT BLUES / AZURE.

What one hears immediately from this group is energy — not loud or fast unless the song needs either — a joyous leaping into the music.  Although this band is clearly well-rehearsed, there is no feeling of going through the motions. Everything is lively, precise, but it’s clear that as soloists and as an ensemble, they are happily ready to take risks. “Risks” doesn’t mean anarchy in swingtime, but it means a willingness to extend the boundaries: this group is dedicated to something more expansive than recreating already established music.

When I first heard the group (and was instantly smitten) they sounded, often, like a supercharged John Kirby group with Dizzy and Bird sitting in while at intervals the Lion shoved Al Haig off the piano stool.  I heard and liked their swinging intricacies, but now they seem even more adventurous.  And where some of the most endearing CDs can’t be listened to in one sitting because they offer seventy-five minutes of the same thing, this CD is alive, never boring.

A word about the four musicians.  Oliver Mewes loves the light-footed swing of Tough and Catlett, and he is a sly man with a rimshot in just the right place, but he isn’t tied hand and foot by the past.  Bernd Lhotzky is a divine solo pianist (he never rushes or drags) with a beautiful lucent orchestral conception, but he is also someone who is invaluable in an ensemble, providing with Oliver an oceanic swing that fifteen pieces could rest on.  I never listen to this group and say, “Oh, they would be so much better with a rhythm guitar or a string bassist.”

And the front line is just as eloquent.  Colin T. Dawson is a hot trumpet player with a searing edge to his phrases, but he knows where each note should land for the collective elegance of the group — and he’s a sweetly wooing singer in addition.  Chris Hopkins (quiet in person) is a blazing marvel on the alto saxophone — inventive and lyrical and unstoppable — in much the same way he plays the piano.

And here is what my wise friend Dave Gelly wrote: It’s hard to believe at first that there are only four instruments here. The arrangements are so ingenious, and the playing so nimble, that it could be at least twice that number. But listen closely and you will discover just a quartet of trumpet, alto saxophone, piano and drums – with absolutely no electronic tricks. The style is sophisticated small-band swing, the material a judicious mixture of originals and swing-era numbers and there is not a hint of whiskery nostalgia in any of it. It’s about time this idiom received some fresh attention and here’s the perfect curtain-raiser.

Here is their Facebook page, and their website.

We are fortunate that they exist and that they keep bringing us joyous surprises.

May your happiness increase!

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THANK YOU, DAVE GELLY!

JAZZ JOURNAL Feb

My dear friend Patti Durham* sent me a copy of two pages from the February issue of JAZZ JOURNAL  — Dave Gelly’s monthly column, “On The Other Hand,” which would have been fine reading matter any time.  I didn’t expect this bouquet, which I reprint with deep gratitude:

Swing You Cats!

Looking out for the reviews, after publishing a book or having a record released, was always a moderately nail-biting business, but at least one knew more or less where to look.  Nowadays, with websites, blogs and so forth, comment comes whizzing in from all directions and without watchful friends to tip you the wink you might miss it altogether.  One such friend of mine is Peter Vacher, who fielded a substantial review of my recent book, An Unholy Row, from a more than substantial website called Jazz Lives (“lives” being used as both noun and verb).

It is the work of Michael Steinman, who is Professor of English at Nassau Community College, Garden City, NY, although how he contrives to make time for that I can’t imagine.  Not only does his website carry reviews and opinion pieces, it comes up with an endless stream of live video recordings from clubs, parties, festivals etc. uploaded every day or so.  There are now around four thousand in his archive.  I have only been able to view a small sample of them, but they’re technically OK and most of them are musically excellent.  They also reflect the tastes of the author/editor/producer himself, which are well summed up in his list of heroes — among them Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young…  You get the picture.  Furthermore, they reveal a whole world of small-scale, local activity in the swing-mainstream style whose existence you would never suspect from reading the usual magazines.

There is an atmosphere about Jazz Lives, a literate, clubbable air of genuine dedication.  Each posting signs off with the motto: “May your happiness increase.” Mine certainly did when I read Michael Steinman’s glowing review of my book, which proves he’s the right man for the job! Not only that, he also sent for a copy of my previous one, Being Prez, thereby setting a good example for one and all.

Give the site a try: jazzlives.wordpress.com or email Michael at swingyoucats@gmail.com for more information.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

To say I am delighted would be inadequate: not only because of the praise, not only for possibly bringing this site to more people who would enjoy it, but because honest gratitude, publicly expressed, is not always easy to find. Blessings on Dave, and Patti, too.

Three postscripts: *Patti doesn’t play an instrument but she certainly does heroic work for those who do and those who appreciate: she is the kind motivator behind the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party after Mike’s death (it’s now the Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party). I’ll be there in November, grinning.

And — being a speaker of American English even though I’ve read British and Irish authors all my life — I thought it would be best to look up “clubbable,” even though I thought I sensed its meaning.  JAZZ LIVES can’t frequent coffeehouses, even though I am drinking that beverage as I write (the first citation seems to have been Boswell’s 1783 description of Dr. Johnson), but I translate “suitable for membership of a club because of one’s sociability or popularity” into “welcoming” and hope that the idea transfers undamaged across the Atlantic.

If you are swept away by Dave’s praise and would like to meet the phenomenon who does my laundry, types at my computer, and holds the camera — you’d have to be close to New York City on February 24 — here are the details.

And with even more heartfelt enthusiasm, I write:

May your happiness increase!

A BEAUTIFULLY REALIZED BOOK: “BEING PREZ” by DAVE GELLY

In the decades after his death in 1959, Lester Young has been the subject of many published pages, both research and memoir, by Frank Buchmann-Moller, Lewis Porter, Douglas Henry Daniels, Whitney Balliett — as well as anecdotes that continue to crop up even now (even on Facebook).

One would think that there was no need for more writing on the subject, especially since Lester’s life seems to fall in to clearly discernable and well-documented acts in his own play: his childhood experiences in the Young family band; early exposure to Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer; professional gigs with King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and then his glorious time in the Count Basie orchestra; small group work with Billie Holiday; his attempts to lead his own small groups; his unhappy time in the United States military; increasing fame balanced against ill-health and a feeling of being overwhelmed by people copying him; his brief final decline and early death.

Would another book on Lester would be superfluous, or it would provide the same stories with new prose connecting them?

BEING PREZ

I write this to draw my readers to one of the best books on a jazz artist I have ever read — Dave Gelly’s BEING PREZ -(Oxford University Press) – which, although published in 2007, I have only read in the last few months.  (I came to it because I was so very impressed with Gelly’s AN UNHOLY ROW — a book I commend to anyone interested in the delicate, shifting relationships between music and its audiences.)

There are some writers I read with difficulty because their prose is efficient but graceless ways; others are so ornate that meaning gets submerged. I can tolerate either or both if the chosen subject is appealing.

But Gelly is that rare creation: a subtle writer, not in love with the sound of his own rhetorical flourishes, whose work is a pleasure to read for its own sake.  Add that he is writing about one of my heroes: this book couldn’t be better.  In fact, when I first received a copy of this slim volume — slightly over 170 pages — I put myself on a reader’s diet, putting the book out of sight after each chapter so that I wouldn’t finish it too quickly, wouldn’t get to Lester’s sad end too fast.

Gelly handles the facts with grace, but his is not simply a compact retelling of what Buchmann-Moller and Daniels have done more expansively. His book is thoroughly adult in his emotional relation to his subject.  He clearly loves Lester, but can at points step back and gently say that a career choice was not something that served Prez well.  So his admiration and adoration are fair and moderated by kindness.  When some writers depict a subject who has, let us say, cut his life short by alcohol or drugs, there is a constant soundtrack of quiet parental disapproval.  The word SHOULD hangs over the book.  “Oh, if _____ had only done this, he would be with us today,” as if the writer is trying to hide his annoyance that the subject didn’t live longer, record more, give us more pleasure.

Gelly never treats Lester like a bad child; his recital of the facts of Lester’s life is empathic.  It is that sensitivity to what this most sensitive man must have felt that makes BEING PREZ especially poignant and wise.  Gelly does not psychoanalyze, but he has great psychological acuity, offered lightly.  He does, for instance, see Lester’s character being formed in childhood by his being taken away from his beloved mother, Lizetta (who outlived him) and his often tense relationships with his severe father, Billy Young.  BEING PREZ quietly offers these factors to make Lester’s behavior, once viewed as inexplicable, completely logical: a man who cannot tolerate conflict and confrontation instead chooses avoidance — he runs away and disappears. (Gelly is just as wise when it comes to influential figures in Lester’s life, such as Count Basie.)

Gelly is old-fashioned in his love of his subject (he does not seek to make Lester small, ever) but he is also that most ancient creation, a moralist.  I mean that as a great compliment: someone who knows that there are right and wrong actions, each with its own set of consequences.  Consider this, on Lester’s abduction as a child:

Much has been written about the estimable personal qualities of Willis Handy Young — his unwavering devotion to study and self-advancement, his grim determination to succeed against the odds, his considerable musical gifts, his talent for administration and his dignified conduct under the barely tolerable yoke of Southern racism. But among all these splendid qualities at least one attribute was plainly missing — a tender heart. To take a child away from its mother by means of a trick is a wicked thing to do.  When that child is a shy, sensitive little boy with a deep mutual attachment to his mother, it is unforgivable. According to Irma, Lester wept bitterly for a long time afterwards. No doubt Lizetta wept, too.

That passage — on page four — so struck me that I sought out the Beloved to read it to her.  “Wicked” is not a word we use often in this century, but a biographer with righteous indignation, a moral sense, and a tender heart is a rare artist indeed.

BEING PREZ also has one great and endearing advantage over any other book on Lester: Gelly is a professional jazz musician whose instrument is the tenor saxophone.  And he is humanely articulate about that instrument and what it requires.  We aren’t barraged by a Schuller-styled musicological analysis of what Lester is doing (did you hear his implied Db diminished thirteenth over the grace note in the last beat of bar 127?) which makes those who aren’t grounded in music theory turn pale and opt for a newspaper instead, but Gelly conveys certain information about the mechanics of what Lester does better than anyone else I’ve ever read, without intimidating or overwhelming the reader.  His musical analyses are brief but convincing, and his explanations of how Lester got certain sounds make what was once completely mysterious clear.

Finally, Gelly does a superb job of balancing his narrative between the two selves: Lester the quiet, tender man who often wants simply to play among congenial souls and then to be left alone in solitude, and Lester the musician who amazes and continues to amaze.  Gelly’s aims in this book are noble yet simple — free from a particular ideological slant.  He says in his introduction that he took on this book because Lester was always fragmented in this way, and that he wanted to do what he could to bring this elusive, enigmatic man to light.  He’s succeeded.

Gelly is not combative, but he is somewhat impatient with the teetering myths of Lester’s life — for one, that Lester was so broken by his army experience that he couldn’t create (many recordings give the lie to that) and that he was so downtrodden by his imitators that he despaired.

Other biographies of Lester have their own delights: first-hand testimony from musicians who played alongside Lester, or extensive data on Lester’s childhood. But BEING PREZ is as beautifully and completely realized as any long solo Lester ever created, and I wait with eagerness for whatever Gelly will write in future.

Lester once told pianist Horace Silver (he spoke of himself in the third person), “I just don’t feel like nobody likes old Prez.”  BEING PREZ, had he known of it, would have made him feel better.  “Bells!” indeed.

And here’s Prez (in a 1944 masterpiece justly celebrated in this book).  He’s never left town:

May your happiness increase! 

“HIS HEART WAS IN JAZZ”: IAN ROBERT “SPIKE” MACKINTOSH

I have to thank the writer / musician Dave Gelly for increasing my happiness immeasurably. In Gelly’s AN UNHOLY ROW (Equinox), his delightful book on British jazz and its audiences between 1945-60, this sentence appears on page 93, in Gelly’s survey of the Fifties work of clarinetist Wally Fawkes: “Particularly revealing is the playing of Spike Mackintosh (1918-1986) who, perhaps more than any other trumpeter, catches the grave elegance of classic Armstrong.”

“Grave elegance” is a lovely phrase, and since I am a continuing student in what Ruby Braff called the University of Armstrong, it stuck in my mind. About ten days ago, I ordered a copy of the Lake Records CD compilation, FLOOK DIGS JAZZ (Lake LACD 143).

The original vinyl issue of FLOOK DIGS JAZZ on Decca

The original vinyl issue of FLOOK DIGS JAZZ on Decca

The first track, Cole Porter’s WHY CAN’T YOU BEHAVE, so affected me that I played it over and over again.  Listen and you will understand (even though my homemade video presentation is amateurish):

That’s Wally, clarinet; Eddie Harvey, trombone; Ian Armit, piano; Lennie Bush, string bass; Eddie Taylor, drums — recorded March 24, 1957. Wally, of course, always catches my ear because of the depth of his beautiful sound, his placement of notes, and the rest of the band is quite fine.

But hearing Spike Mackintosh was a wonderful revelation to me.  (He was another rebuke to Philip Larkin’s “Larkin’s Law” that states if a musician or band was any good, you would have heard of him / her / them by now.)  Spike, at first, might sound to the casual listener an expert Louis-copyist, but that isn’t the case.

Spike does so much more than put one Louis phrase next to the other to create a solo; he has his own beautiful, graceful sense of that idiom while making it his own.  Rather like Joe Thomas, he is delicate rather than overstated; he builds a solo from melodic embellishment to grand architecture, with the effect being sun bursting through clouds. Love, not caricature, drives his lyricism. No handkerchiefs.

I wanted to find out more about Spike, and was very pleased to see that writer Ralph M. Laing devoted half of his beautiful liner notes on the man himself. Since he knew Spike, these words are precious.

I first heard Spike play around 1956 in the regular Thursday night session at the ‘100’ Club in Oxford Street. He was an unlikely icon, always dressed in jacket, shirt and tie, relatively small in stature, with black semi-chastened hair, and RAF moustache and accent to match. On stage he drank what he fondly imagined we all believed to be tea from a cup and saucer (in those days the ‘100’ Club had no liquor license). And he played quite beautifully, in the later style of his idol, Louis. He was featured by Al Fairweather and Sandy Brown in 1956 on the seminal SANDY’S SIDEMEN (on LAKE LACD133); indeed his feature High Time is the most melodic of the eight Al Fairweather originals which made the album so remarkable. The melody was sold by Spike with such majesty and melodic simplicity that it remains for me one of British trad’s finer moments.

More derivative of Louis than Al, his nearest stylistic contemporary, Spike concentrated on tone and economical phrasing. While both had a gorgeous sound for which most other British brass players would kill their mothers, Al strove to create his own style. Spike on the other hand believed that there would never be another sound as perfect as mid-period Louis. All his life he sought to emulate this majesty. And, on the basis of these recordings alone, it is fairly evident that, at his peak, he has yet to be equalled in Europe. His solo on Talk of the Town is a masterpiece of subtle simplicity, while he roared above the band on When You’re Smiling with the same sort of regal authority which we think of as Louis’ sole province. Half a dozen of Britain’s finest trumpet players, including Spike, congregated to greet Louis on the Heathrow tarmac when he briefly flew into London in December 1956 to play for the Hungarian Relief Fund at the Royal Festival Hall. The player who caught Louis’ ear was Spike.

Wally and Spike had much in common. To begin with their musical education was similarly weighted towards the swing music of the 1930s. Today’s readers will find it difficult to realise that any British players who had reached any prominence by the mid-1950s were probably self-educated from a relatively small number of 78rpm records. Most of what little jazz was available in our shops came from Parlophone, HMV and Columbia, and we bought everything we could. Then we played it until the black grooves turned grey. Stylistically we didn’t really care. Although, of course, we could differentiate between, say, the type of music played by the Hot Five, the Goodman Quartet, Fats Waller, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson, we were so grateful to get our hands on any new re-releases at all that ideology was a non-starter. Sectarian warfare was only to raise its head with the Born Again movement, which surrounded Ken Colyer on his return from the promised land of New Orleans. But for most of us, by the mid-1950s our fate was cast. Our tastes were catholic and fundamentalism was unlikely to recruit us as converts. Both Wally and Spike, to be sure, fell into this category.

As well as being good friends, Wally and Spike also shared another bond. In the heady days when these recordings were made it was perfectly sensible (and eminently feasible) for talented semi-professional jazz musicians to turn professional. Most of my pals, several with university degrees and all with their heads well screwed on, made the jump. Others, however, had occupations which it would have been foolhardy completely to jettison. For example, Sandy Brown was bent on building his practice in acoustic architecture. By 1957 Wally was one of Britain’s most respected cartoonists, and Spike ran a sizeable family timber business. And neither relished life on the road.

I was lucky enough to know Spike reasonably well towards the end of his life, as he religiously made the annual trip to the Edinburgh Festival. He, Stan Greig and I would usually end up indulging in Spike’s two favorite pastime — listening to jazz records and indulging in good conversation until the small hours. He was still dapper, and, although he always carried his trumpet with him, was inordinately reticent about playing. These 21 tracks (plus High Time on Sandy’s Sidemen) represent, to the best of my knowledge, his entire recorded work. It is a relatively small legacy in size, but a substantial one indeed in quality. British jazz may never see his like again, more’s the pity.

At this point, I must thank Paul Adams of LAKE Records for issuing both FLOOK DIGS JAZZ and SANDY’S SIDEMEN, and direct readers to the LAKE site, as well as being grateful to Ralph M. Laing for his memoir.

I could find very little information on Spike online. Here, for example, is the only photograph that emerged — from the LAKE reissue of SANDY’S SIDEMEN, with Spike the barely visible figure third from right, “dapper” indeed:

Sandys+Sidemen

I was astonished to find that Ian Robert “Spike” Mackintosh was father of Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the famous West End theatre producer, responsible for LES MISERABLES and CATS. When Sir Cameron was interviewed in THE SCOTSMAN, September 20, 2012, he had a few words — a little more derisive than affectionate, perhaps — about his father, once the interviewer set the stage:

[Sir Cameron’s] connections to Scotland go back through generations. His grandfather came from the east coast, his great-grandfather from Raasay, and his great-grandmother from Skye. His father was Scottish: a brilliant jazz trumpeter who put aside his instrument to take over the family timber yard.

“His heart was in jazz. He played with Louis Armstrong, who gave him one of his trumpets. The great clarinet player Ian Christie said that ‘between drinks three and nine Spike Mackintosh was a genius’.” He roars with laughter. “After that, beware…”

His Maltese mother was the pragmatist to his father’s dreamer. “I inherited her drive and his dreaming,” Sir Cameron says. “We had very little money. A chicken on a Sunday was a treat. My mother was amazing at keeping the family together.”

Another mention of Spike came from the obituary for Melody Maker editor Jack Hutton, 28 August 2008, THE INDEPENDENT:

Hutton’s retirement from Spotlight in 1987 was celebrated with a party at Ronnie Scott’s club in London, where he played trumpet on stage in a jam session. In later years he enjoyed playing trumpet regularly with a trad jazz group and was a founder member of the Codgers Club with former Fleet Street pals Ian Christie (clarinet), Peter York (bass) and fellow trumpeter Spike Mackintosh, the father of Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the theatre producer. The club met regularly in Covent Garden and Hutton played trumpet with their band, dubbed “The Codgers” by his wife, inspired by the Daily Mirror’s “Old Codgers” letters column.

I think that someone who created such beauty and was also so “reticent” deserves even more attention than I have been able to offer here.  I have asked people here and in the UK for information and memories of Spike. I have written to Wally Fawkes (now ninety and no longer playing); I have sent an email to the official Sir Cameron Mackintosh site, but so far no revelations. Spike should be better known and more fervently celebrated. Inspired by our greatest hero, he shone his own light for us.

May your happiness increase!