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.)
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!