Sunday, 6 April 2014

Brief Encounter with Guitarist Nels Cline at Istanbul Airport

Standing in the passport queue at Istanbul Airport - modelled after a Disneyland switchback and just as crowded - I noticed a group of four or five arty-looking Americans in the row in front of me, two of them carrying guitar gig bags on their backs. It is easy to spot Americans when travelling internationally these days, not because of their loud mouths as in days of yore, but because we are few and far between in airports bursting at the seams with first time travellers from the so-called 'emerging world'. Anyway these Americans truly looked like artistes among the crowd of laptop, hand-phone and iPad twiddling tourists and businessmen.

The queue stalled endlessly and the tallest of the lot, a thin 50-something guitar-carrying traveller, stopped in front of me with the name tag on his gig bag dangling in my face: "Nels Cline. New York, NY". Nels Cline - Nels Cline Singers - guitar not my musical bag but he is known for creativity and my Google search a day later showed him playing alongside Ellery Eskelin and William Parker, Julius Hemphill and Tim Berne. Apparently he has hooked up with a rock band called Wilco (whom I have neither heard of nor heard), apparently a big deal which has exposed him to a much larger audience than his avant-garde jazz playing ever did. I've listened to his music without paying enough attention.

Ron: I see being a famous guitarist doesn't help you get through the passport line any faster.
Nels: No.
Ron: Its not easy travelling carrying your instruments and stuff.
Nels: Its not too bad.
Ron: Well anyway, congratulations on making it to this point in life playing music for a living.
Nels: Its the only thing I've ever wanted to do. Thank you.

Security opened the gate and let the line pass; he was gone.

Well, maybe I have to give his music a serious listen now. Humility and talent seldom go together. As Jackie said when I told her about the incident, "reasons to like musicians 101".

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Shola Eml – Jazz Africa Fusion

I phoned my sax playing buddy Shola Emmanuel in Abuja a few days ago to wish him Happy New Year and he asked me if I got the link. Link to what? A mystery until this morning when his email arrived.

The link inside led to an excellent three-minute video of Shola and his music shot by French filmmaker Libero Films. I don’t know too much about the clip’s genesis – possibly waiting for TV – but wanted to get it out as soon as possible. Apparently there is a second part in the works. If you are not familiar with altoist Shola from previous posts, we first met in Nigeria six years ago and have been on the same musical wavelength ever since. He is gifted with one of the quickest ears I've ever come across.

View Shola Eml – Jazz Africa Fusion below, or watch it in your browser by clicking the link here.


Shola’s web site Rhythm and Sax has a contact form if you'd like to get in touch with him directly.

You can read about Marseille-based Libero films here (French language site).

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Au Revoir, Yusef Lateef

I’m seriously getting tired of this. Seems like every horn man I admire has passed on. Maybe it is a function of the fact that I do not especially like neo-con jazz and do my best to avoid those young conservatory players who approach the music in the same way a classical violinist does, following the rules, loaded with technique but void of creativity and innovation. This week Yusef Lateef left the earth. At least Yusef made it to the advanced age of 93 – unlike most musicians of his generation, he must have had some health care.

Jackie mentioned to me last week that her high school concert band was chock-a-block with saxophonists and as one of the seniors she was asked to diversify and play either oboe or bari. At one time I played oboe in school and told her that my inspiration to do so was Yusef Lateef, maybe the only jazz player in history to do anything worthwhile on that cool-sounding but testy and inflexible double reed. I asked her to seek out some of Yusef’s music on YouTube. A premonition?

Yusef came up in 1940s bebop and blues when cities like Detroit had a thriving scene of their own; he was a tenor player at the core, but by the 1950s he began to introduce other instruments to his repertoire, pioneering what came to be labeled as “world music”. Unlike many pioneers, however, he was not shot dead in his tracks and survived to play music that nobody else had in their head. Like contemporary Rahsaan Roland Kirk, many admired him but nobody copied him. And he stood out from Trane’s mighty shadow.

In reading obits in the Detroit Free Press and New York Times, I find it ironic that Yusef gained academic music degrees only after he had already been one of jazz’ leading hornmen for decades. Who could possibly have been good enough to teach him? And subsequently, what became of his own students? Apparently he turned to academia to eat well, teaching at U. Mass. Amherst in the 1970s, a period when luminaries like Archie Shepp and Max Roach were on the faculty.

Although Yusef’s music took off for outer space, he was rooted in the blues, no better shown than in the 1960 recording 'Teef under Louis Hayes’ name on VeeJay, a straightahead workout which is a favorite of mine. I also particularly like Live at Pep's Vols. 1 and 2 on Impulse from the mid-60s. Yusef continued recording until earlier this year, his last, Light by the Universal Quartet, done in Denmark just this past spring at age 92.

One less legend around to inspire us. Jackie ended up choosing baritone.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Unfortunately, I Was Right About Stan Tracey

I wish there would be some news in the jazz world other than the greats leaving us one-by-one. My premonition last July was correct in the case of Stan Tracey, as I went out of my way while in Scotland last summer to see him at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, only to be disappointed when he was a no-show at his own gig. I thought it perhaps my last chance to see the legendary house pianist from Ronnie Scott’s, and unfortunately I was right; Stan passed away this week. No more to be heard from the man for whom accompanying the likes of Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster every night for seven years was like "Christmas every day" (shades of Elmo). See his lengthy Guardian obit here.

Jim Hall left us this week as well. Most notable in my book for joining Sonny Rollins’ 1962 re-entry-from-outer-space album The Bridge, Jim played subtle guitar with virtually everybody in jazz, proving that you don’t have to be a million-note-a-minute twiddler to be a great player. If only more would listen and adopt his approach. From his New York Times obit: Mr. Hall never took his mastery of the guitar for granted. “The instrument keeps me humble…Sometimes I pick it up and it seems to say, ‘No, you can’t play today.’ I keep at it anyway, though.”

To think that someone whose mastery of the instrument appeared so effortless was actually still intimidated by it after playing for 73 years. I don't feel so bad now on those days when practice seems like work and I feel like a small child picking up my horn for the first time.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, R.I.P.

A fallow period for me musically and a shame to break the blogging silence with a report on the passing of yet another one of my favorites, A.A.C.M. tenor saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, at the age of 77. I found the news in an obtuse reference on a music blog I occasionally visit, but haven’t seen an official obituary yet. Kalaparusha was the subject of the great Guardian video “That’s Not a Horn, It’s a Starvation Box” in 2010, which I have previously referenced in my rants about true musical creators being underappreciated. I've told my own stories about Kalaparusha on this blog before.

Kalaparusha, "Humility in the Light of the Creator", rest in peace. Your sound and your message did touch those who paid attention, and they live on.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Blue Lester

In Penang to see Jackie perform at Short + Sweet Theatre 2013, I phoned journalist-cum-harpist Kim Gooi and asked him to come watch the show at Penang Performing Arts Centre. Kim came down and we talked music of course; blues, blues, and more blues. Kim had the idea to invite guitarist Joe Goh up from KL for one of our epic jams. The Penang Blues Brothers ride again.
The Penang Blues Brothers jump and wail: Joe Goh, Kim Gooi, Ron Ashkin
Joe caught the Katy up from Kuala Lumpur last Friday. I dropped by Kim’s and the three of us spent the afternoon working out on only three tunes – T-Bone Shuffle, Kidney Stew, and Blue Lester – all from the mid-to-late-1940s. I was on a roll a couple of weeks ago in Lagos and transcribed T-Bone Shuffle and Blue Lester from the original records and this was my chance to play them with others.

I particularly have had an ear worm for Blue Lester and I just can’t get that 1944 slow F-blues out of my head, Count Basie on piano backing Lester Young just prior to his military nightmare. I had first admired the tune on Von Freeman’s The Great Divide, where he calls it Blue Pres, and had half-transcribed it at the time – Vonski plays it at an even slower pace than Pres. A few weeks back I pulled up the original on my iTunes and re-discovered 10 choruses of pure bliss – Pres blows two choruses on the head, a single solo chorus, back to the head again, then Basie enters for three and Pres takes it out with three more, not bothering to return to the theme. Freddie Green anchors the proceedings with his steady rhythm guitar. Not a sound wasted. Nobody plays like that these days, when apparently both pianists and saxophonists are paid by the note. I can’t get the theme and Lester’s first solo chorus out of my head. I've transcribed that chorus and find Lester’s note choices deceptively simple, making me feel like I've been over-thinking my own improvisations.
PPAC echoes (literally) with the sound of 1944.

Unfortunately I left my trusty Zoom recorder back in Lagos and couldn't catch our version on tape. But on Saturday night, the three of us were invited to play for the cast party after Short + Sweet closed and we had a chance to perform Blue Lester in public for the first time. The tempo was set a bit fast and a young crowd more attuned to hip-hop got up and danced. Lester Young’s 16 bars connected with 2013 ears in Malaysia just as they had almost 70 years earlier in WWII-era America. It was not just me with the ear worm.

As Kim is fond of saying, if blues was money, I’d be millionaire.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Jackie Awarded Best Supporting Actor (Female)

Best Supporting Actor (Female) 2013
...also Playwright and Director
Short + Sweet Penang 2013 culminated in an awards ceremony on Saturday night and Jackie won the judges' prize for Best Supporting Actor (Female) for her role in Mark Sasse's 'No' In Spite of Itself, despite her limited on-stage time. Congrats! Jackie's behind-the scenes role as director helped that play win Best Script for the series, helped out immensely by Ciera Nash and Joseph Stoltzfus doing strong work as the leads. Congrats to all.

The Penang Blues Brothers entertained with some jump and urban blues both before the performance and afterwards at the cast party. Special thanks to KL guitar hero Joe Goh and harpist Kim Gooi for the down home sound.

Here is the final night's performance of 'No' In Spite of Itself on YouTube: