Thursday, May 31, 2007

Just written an article

Together with Selwyn Harris, I've done an article on jazz on Babel/Vortex/East London on the fly web site. Probably not new for many, but I'm proud of what's going on.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Comedy and jazz

John Fordham writes in the Guardian blog about the duo of Stefano Bollani and Stian Carstensen at Bath, and points out that ""comedy" had a lot of other meanings before it came to be defined as the art of raising a laugh - like testing the endurance of stereotypes, challenging authorities and received wisdoms, or simply resolving chaotic beginnings as happy endings. The balletic flourish, the haunted gaze into the distance, doesn't necessarily point to a more fundamental truth being in the air than the gale of laughter does."
As long as that's true I wholeheartedly agree with him. If comedy is there to hide technical inadequacy or to fill creative gaps, then it grates. But certainly, in being privileged to release albums by Billy Jenkins, he shows that technical genius can be combined with an ability to make us think about ourselves. However, the jazz world is too full of lovers of the music who feel that jazz's role is too serious and comedy hijacks it. I believe that, for too many years, the jazz world just couldn't get to grips with Billy. Maybe in fact it was too frightened.
Comedy can be used to great effect to get over very complex ideas. Not just Billy, but also performers such as Han Bennink, and, over here, Tom Bancroft's Kidsamonium bringing jazz to the new generation. Or even the Fast Show, which to me was one of the best advertisements that jazz had in the last decade - jazz is such a strong music form that it can surely laugh at itself too from time to time. I know several people curious to listen to the "real thing" as a result of watching the show. Here for example is their take on new British jazz.

While here's a track of Billy from Songs Of Praise. (Album out in September.)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I am a bouncer

There's a really good article on First Post about being a bouncer. It points out that the exam system is rubbish. I have passed my door supervisor Part 2 exam, having spent 4 days at Hackney College last November. (Ah, the things that you do as a jazz club director!) The article is right that it's all about talk and no action. Actually, I still haven't got the actual badge from the SIA, partly because of the time it takes to come through. I certainly found it useful from a "theoretical" viewpoint and it helps in talking to Jay, who does the door at the Vortex. The key is EMPATHY. The article points out that there is no way of learning about what's called reasonable force, which you might need if there's trouble. In fact, when I asked at the course about it, the lecturer (an ex copper) was clearly frustrated, as he launched into a long soliloquy about why it needed a separate course, and kept referring back to this frequently during the remaining 4 days.
So, can most doormen really sort out problems? Fortunately, it made me realise that I could just about deal with a place like the Vortex, but anywhere else would be disastrous.
It's probably because there's a shortage of bouncers and doormen. But certainly just to think that anyone is sufficiently qualified by spending 4 days and £150 is certainly rubbish.
By the way, I also have passed the BIIAB exam and am a personal licensee for the venue. So, I'm becoming really well qualified at last. (Forget degrees from Oxford University and LSE!)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Football and jazz - the worrying parallels

Liverpool fans were turned away from the European Champions' League Final yesterday partly because so many tickets were being taken by corporates and similar. This has parallels for me as to what has just now been happening at Ronnie Scott's or the large festivals. The "fans" have been locked out, and put off by the high prices. The true fans are the life blood of the music, as much as the musicians. The atmosphere is as much a part of the whole listening experience as the music itself. Just as with football, where most fans will no longer get the chance to go regularly to see their club, it could become the same with jazz if the Ronnie's model becomes the norm. And this atmosphere is partly created by people who want to be there and appreciate it beyond just paying the money at the door.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Led Bib - one of the 25 acts not to be missed this summer.

According to the Observer Music Magazine, Led Bib were ranked at 16, putting them above White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys, Bjork and Spinal Tap. Of course there's a degree of randomness to such a list, but it's good that they are there!
You can read the full list by clicking here.

Visas, work permits, airlines - it's getting harder to travel for jazz musicians

The cost of work permits has already impacted on jazz. It now costs £190, whether it be for a 100 piece orchestra on a 20 date tour or for one musician to come in once. I recall musicians like Marc Copland coming in regularly to play with Stan Sulzmann because he was on tour in Europe. No longer.
Yesterday I learnt that to come over with a visa is 310 euros - even if you have already been living in Europe for 15 years. This was the case for Cynthia Liao, violist with the Radio String Quartet, which played the Vortex yesterday. She's from Taipei and has lived in Vienna for 15 years. This means no problem for her travelling round those EU countries covered by the Schengen agreement. But not only did she have to pay 310 euros to come here (which is around 15 euros an hour for the time she spent here), she had to spend hours trying to fill in the online application and have an interview at the Embassy. Thanks to the help of Siggi Loch and her record label ACT, we could absorb it. But it is absolutely crazy. Until last month it was just £85.
Allied to this, I found out that basses can only be taken on planes if they weigh less than 32 kg. So, now it's more and more essential for venues to have access to local good quality instruments. But it also can affect the quality of recordings if musicians have to use instruments to which they aren't accustomed, or aren't of the quality. For about 5 years, we had a wonderful time when it was easy to fly around Europe as a musician. No longer.
Meanwhile, small operations like the Vortex or Babel just get their options more and more limited.
By the way, check out the Radio String Quartet if you have a chance. Their take on Mahavishnu Orchestra is amazing, all the more so if you think that none of them were born at the time the original music came out.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Awards and prizes - are they worth it?

There is a perennial debate about the value of awards and prizes. A number of Babel releases have received, or been nominated for, awards over the past decade, ranging from the nomination of "Held On The Tips Of Fingers" by Polar Bear for the Mercury Prize through various BBC Jazz Awards downwards. In general, I am a fan, but based on the one proviso that the awards have a decent objective assessment of the categories. As long as the results are "reasonable" I think that they do a good job in helping to promote the music. Usually, many of the jazz awards are OK (though I always think that Babel albums and artists on the label should be winners).
However, they get shown up by some of the strange nominations and choices. These devalue the actual awards themselves. For example, Jamie Cullum was shortlisted for a prize as top European jazz musician. As an entertainer and someone who uses a jazz trio as backing, I would have no problem. But his artistic creativity is surely at issue. (The winner was Bobo Stenson.) Similarly, the Ronnie Scott's Awards were to a great degree a travesty in terms of some of the "international" categories. Scott Hamilton as best saxophonist? Jane Monheit as best vocalist? Kyle Eastwood as best bassist? Certainly there are better than a Zoot Sims soundalike and a man with a famous film star father. The UK awards were actually much better. I think that choosing the likes of Courtney Pine, Dennis Rollins as trombonist, and Fraud as UK newcomer present very little problem. But those international choices really devalued their overall value.
Anyway, those choices also highlight the difficulties about Ronnie Scott's today. It's difficult to be too critical because the refurbishment is great and the history of the club is second to none. That is, until two years ago. They are trading on their history and the club has lost so much of its support for jazz musicians and jazz lovers. They are being trampled under foot for the sake of tourists and excessive commercial criteria.
Two entries on the Guardian blog cover this, by Richard Williams and John Fordham.

Monday, May 07, 2007

I'm immortalised?

I've been immortalised for my evening antics - washing up glasses at the Vortex - on the Guardian blog. I'm sure that this is what my mum and dad really expected of me when they proudly celebrated my passing the Oxford entrance exam in 1973? Anyway, once we have our dressing rooms in place, then we won't be losing bass spikes so easily again, I hope.

Friday, May 04, 2007

What is jazz?

Sid Caesar tells us in 90 seconds.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

To punk jazz or not to punk jazz?

We like to show our fairness and not just put up the good reviews. So here are two, by Phil Johnson from the Independent on Sunday (of Led Bib) and Jack Massarik (of the Evening Standard) of Finn Peters.

Reviewers are just privileged punters with just the chance to have their own views in the printed media. That makes them as fallible as the rest of us. For example, Phil Johnson is really just taking it out on punk jazz, and the likes of Soft Machine, rather than on Led Bib per se.

"As with most things, you can blame post-modernism. But what irks about the punk-jazz trend, apart from music college grads squawking like they're down and dirty Bowery boys, is hearing something that wasn't that great in the first place, done so much worse. Drummer/ composer Mark Holub's quintet Led Bib have an unusual two-alto front- line, add Soft Machine-prog to the normal Ornettelite, and there are even electric bass solos. But Soft Machine had Elton Dean, who was a master. Having sat cross-legged through the original without having much fun, I'm unwilling to concede that this has much reason to exist at all."

Jack Massarik on Finn Peters.
"The best jazz, we know, is supposed to be the sound of surprise. Yet even so it was a bit much last night to catch what was billed as a promotional gig for Finn Peters's new album, Su-Ling, only to find the altoist using another line-up and playing different music altogether. Gone were bassist Tom Herbert and guitarist David Okumu, replaced by tuba specialist Oren Marshall and trombonist Trevor Mires.

And without warning, his album's glossy multi-cultural sophistication was substituted by a raucous old-fashioned free-improv free-for-all. Blame the full moon. Peters, a Jekyll and Hyde saxman if ever there was one, had somehow transmuted from versatile but glib neo-bop sessionman to discordant, self-indulgent iconoclast, mangling Sixties themes by the liberated likes of pianist Mischa Mengelberg and altoist Carlos Ward.

Presented as lofty original compositions were negligible whole-tone phrases of the kind wittily used in passing by true improvising masters like Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. Apart from Peters's broad flute tone on Ballad Boy, the only truly enjoyable moment came when Marshall produced an extraordinary series of deep burping and bubbling noises which suggested that his giant bass-tuba had suddenly turned nasty and was about to eat him alive."

P.S. The second set was fully devoted to the music from the album. So no guesses as to who didn't hang around for it. And what's so wrong with Mischa Mengelberg anyway?

Claudia Quintet at Vortex

At the Vortex tomorrow (Thursday), The Claudia Quintet. Led by John Hollenbeck, the band includes Drew Gress, Chris Speed and others. Be there!!!! 020 7254 4097. Just £9, or £7 if you're a concession. Much cheaper than when they play in Cheltenham at the weekend....