Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Loss of Another Saxophone Great

Unfortunate news is that Red Holloway passed away this week at the age of 84. The tenor saxophone world has lost another great player and living link to giants of the past. Red was an alumnus of Chicago's fabled DuSable High. This link is a nice tribute to Red with a detailed biography.

Seems like most of the players I really like are in their 70s and 80s now. Last year we lost Sam Rivers and Fred Anderson. We can only hope for the continued good health of the elder statesmen of the saxophone – Sonny, Ornette, Vonski, Yusef Lateef the most prominent among them. This is one music that offers constant paths to growth and the best players just keep getting better as they get older.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Audio Files, China House on February 24

The audio from our China House gig on Friday, February 24, 2012, is available for download in 320k mp3 format at First Set and Second Set. The zip files decompress as individual tracks.

As a taste, here is our rendition of Eddie Harris' Cold Duck Time.

These are audience recordings on a Zoom H2. Plenty of noise from the bar!
First Set
  1. Killer Joe and band intro
  2. Equinox
  3. Doxy
  4. Bemsha Swing
  5. Blue Monk
  6. Lady's Blues
  7. Cold Duck Time
Second Set 
  1. Chitlins con Carne
  2. Folsom Prison Blues (Jackie vocal)
  3. Night Train
  4. Blue Bird
  5. Tequila
  6. Over the Rainbow
  7. Listen Here
The Chicago Jazz Quartet +1 Live at China House. Ron Ashkin, tenor sax; Jackie Ashkin, alto sax and vocals; Adrian Jones, bass; C.Y. Chee, guitar; James Peterson, drums. Recorded at China House, Georgetown heritage district, Penang, Malaysia, on February 24, 2012.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Performance Videos from China House, February 24, 2012

Here are some YouTube videos from last Friday night's gig at the Canteen at China House in Georgetown. First, Night Train, the Happy Go Lucky Local variant that was first a hit for Jimmy Forrest in 1951 and then famously covered by James Brown on Live at the Apollo in 1962:

Next, Kenny Burrell's Chitlins con Carne from his Midnight Blue album (1963) which originally had Stanley Turrentine on tenor:

The third video is Charlie Parker's Blue Bird, which was covered by Charles Mingus and his Jazz Workshop in the 1960's. Click on the link to go straight to YouTube.

The band was Jackie on alto and me on tenor, with Adrian Jones on bass and James Peterson on drums. C.Y. Chee on guitar completed the rhythm section and did a fine job. We plan to rehearse together in this format for future gigs. I will post the audio files soon.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Photos From Last Night's Gig

Here are some photos from last night's gig at China House. Another full house, good crowd. I am working on mastering the sound recordings and will post some videos to YouTube over the coming days. Currently hindered by the fact that the internet service in our neighborhood has been out for five days now.
Jackie backed by Adrian and Chee

Jackie, Adrian, and Ron

Ron and Chee

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Video Trailer - Upcoming Gig at China House

Here is a 30-second video trailer for our upcoming gig this Friday night, February 24, at the Canteen at China House:

Jackie and I will be playing with the excellent guitarist C.Y. Chee in the rhythm section along with Adrian Jones on bass and James Peterson on drums.

As is our habit to introduce new tunes each time we gig, there will be about 8 selections that we haven't performed previously and we've been working hard to get up to speed. Not so easy when everyone has a day gig and we're spread from the mainland to both sides of this very congested island. Come out to China House on the 24th if you are in Penang. Last time the house was packed and we hope for another full house and responsive audience. Jackie will sing one or two again and we'll be playing tunes by Monk, Trane, Sonny, Benny Golson, McCoy Tyner, Rahsaan, Eddie Harris and other greats.

The Canteen at China House is located at 183b Victoria Street in Georgetown's UNESCO Heritage District, Penang, Malaysia. The music starts at 9:45 pm.

By the way - Penang tourism hit the big time and was featured in the New York Times travel section about a week ago - check out the article, which features China House prominently, at http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/travel/36-hours-penang-malaysia.html.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Occam's Razor

Occam's razor is a principle of logic that is attributed to a Medieval English monk. Basically, it says that if there are (two or more) solutions to a problem, the simplest one is the best.

Occam's Razor applies to music just as well as it does to philosophy and the sciences. I find that after my 40 years of listening extensively to all kinds of music, my ear keeps returning to melodies and structures that are relatively simple. We've been listening to some 60's New Orleans tunes in the car lately and Allen Toussaint's version of Tequila keeps getting requested, as well as some Eddie Bo that is no more than a 2-note vamp with a ferocious beat.

Complicating things doesn't usually help in life and music is no different. I find that adding complexity to music impresses other musicians (and the maestro) but seldom the audience, and I personally tend to favor simple approaches. I never get tired of the blues. I find nothing better than a quartet or quintet on a night when everyone is on (saxophone mandatory). I like head arrangements and unison lines. "Plain Vanilla" comping often sounds better behind a soloist than complex chord substitutions.

Seems like loads of great saxophone players reach a point in their playing career when feel they must have a string orchestra behind them. Charlie Parker with Strings is, in my opinion, his weakest work and can be passed up without missing anything. What got into great players like Johnny Griffin, and more recently James Carter and even David Murray? Come on, guys. The saxophone-with-strings shtick reminds me of Squidward on Sponge Bob and his hopeless quest for high culture. The music is almost always better left alone in its raw form. I can do without the strings.

As the incomparable Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

Friday, 10 February 2012

African Sax Players (Mostly Central and West Africa)

There are some great African tenor sax players out there, some well known, others under-recognized. But that is the case with horn players in general. Probably the best-known African horn players are Fela Kuti and Manu Dibango. Fela is gone but Manu is still around. 

Fela had a rough life and in the great American tradition, was recognized by a Broadway musical long after he passed away. Fela’s music speaks for itself and practically established a whole genre, Afro-beat, which is undergoing a revival of sorts in the West (shades of jazz repertory) although it is difficult to find in his native Nigeria any more since hip-hop is just so much better (nudge nudge, wink wink). There are easily more than 50 Fela albums available through various sources. Two of his sons, Femi and Seun, carry on the tradition with bands of their own that play respectable updated Afro-beat, although they can’t shake a stick at Dad even if their audiences are bigger, kind of like Joshua Redman and Dewey Redman. 

I keep coming across posts on sites like Sax On The Web where people dis Fela’s playing, not technical enough I suppose, too much emotion and not enough chord substitutions. I don’t get it. You don’t listen to Fela’s band and expect to hear the Johnny Carson Tonight Show Orchestra. Fela actually was a trained musician who created a unique playing style rooted in rhythm; it wasn’t an analytical style by any means but it sure does connect. I’d rather listen to Fela play tenor than Warne Marsh any day. 

Manu Dibango is best known for Soul Makossa which was a pop radio hit in the US back in my high school days. We didn’t know what the heck it was back then. Jonny, my Nigerian sax playing friend and bandstand mentor, puts Manu #1 on his list. There are plenty of Manu’s recordings available and I particularly like CubAfrica

Five other tenor sax greats who are lesser known but definitely worth seeking out if you are interested in hearing original styles not cloned out of the conservatory are Jean Serge Essous, Dexter Johnson, Verckys, Issa Sissoko, and Getatchew Mekurya. The last three are still alive and the last two are still musically active.

Issa Sissoko is the saxophone player in Orchestre Baobab from Senegal. Baobab has undergone a revival on the world music circuit and if you are lucky and live in a major urban area, it is still possible to see them perform without watering down their music in any way, fortunately. Amazing stuff. Getatchew Mekurya is from Ethiopia and likewise has seen his fortunes revive recently. 

Verckys is apparently still around although he hasn't been making music for a while. He was with Franco in TPOK Jazz and then formed Orchestre Vévé. Some of his recordings with Vévé are just wild; check out Vivita.

From the past, virtually anything played by Essous or Johnson is worth hearing. Like Verckys, Essous is from Congo and is primarily associated with the Latin-based rumba and proto-soukous music that came out of Central Africa in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Essous played with Franco’s early OK Jazz and then with Les Bantous de la Capitale and Rock-A-Mambo. Dexter Johnson is mostly known for his work with Senegal’s Super Star de Dakar, the band that spawned Youssou N’Dour. Why the saxophone went out of style in Central and West Africa is baffling; by the 70s saxophones were becoming rare and there are hardly any recordings from the 1980s that feature other than guitars (and then the dreaded synth arrived…). 

Check these guys out; as much as I love Trane and compatriots it does a lot of good to hear great tenor sax players who have developed in another equally valid tradition, whose music deserves to be more widely known and incorporated.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Nageswaram Duo at Thaipusam Festival

We went to see the closing procession of this year's Thaipusam Festival along Waterfall Road in Penang and were lucky enough to catch a duo of temple musicians playing nageswaram as they led the main chariot through the street accompanied by two thavil drummers. Here is a video clip I put up on YouTube:

The sound of the nageswaram always reminds me of Trane on soprano (listen to India with Eric Dolphy from the 1961 Village Vanguard sessions); Trane must have listened to South Indian music, the sound of which is much closer to his than the North Indian ragas he is reputed to have studied with Ravi Shankar.

Nageswaram music is associated with Hindu temple rituals and it is a living music. It is not studied in school so it can be reproduced in a concert hall for formally-dressed patrons who sit silently in attention; as you can see from the video, in this case the music was played on the move on a hot night for a thronging crowd of thousands. It was an integral part of the event. The musicians were surrounded by the crowd and it was difficult to get close enough to film this clip.

As the world's culture becomes more and more homogeneous (built, I am afraid, around having some dorky device stuck in your face regardless of where you are and what you are otherwise doing), it is encouraging to see the vitality of nageswaram music and an ages-old festival (Thaipusam is a Tamil festival celebrating the full moon). One of the rituals associated with Thaipusam, the kavadi, involves body piercing, pain, fasting, and sacrifice and I wonder how long that will last.

Nageswaram itself is a double-reed instrument made from ebony wood. It is difficult to play as it is not tempered and pitch must be mastered by a combination of embouchure and fingering. I had the fortune to study nageswaram with master Thilagar from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, a few years back when he was assigned to Penang as a musician in the Sri Mariamman Temple on Queen Street, Penang's oldest Hindu temple dating back to 1833. We would sit on the temple floor or he would come over to my house and teach me all by ear, as he didn't speak English nor I Tamil.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Return Engagement - China House on February 24

We're booked into Georgetown's Canteen at China House on Friday night, February 24. This is a return engagement after our initial gig there on January 13.
(L to R) Ron Ashkin, tenor sax; Jackie Ashkin, alto sax
and vocals; James Peterson, drums; Adrian Jones, bass

I'll be getting the set lists together over the next couple of days; likely to include some Mingus this time so Adrian can be featured. Jackie's vocal last time was a big hit with the crowd and I have asked her to prepare a few more tunes for the 24th. As usual we will introduce some new music at the gig. 

The Canteen at China House is located at 183b Victoria Street in Georgetown's heritage district; you may also enter from the opposite side at 153-155 Beach Street. Armenian is the nearest cross street. Music starts around 9:45pm and China House is set up so you can make an evening of it – have dinner up front at one of the nicest restaurants in Penang and then come back to the Canteen afterwards for live music.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Nigeria Retrospective - Performance Videos

I have a few performance videos from 2008 when I spent the year in Nigeria. These are worth pulling out of the can and posting. I was playing with saxophonist and bandleader Dare Peter, who calls his band The Music Pyramids. Three of the videos come from the Arts and Crafts Village in Abuja, an outdoor venue, and were filmed at about 3:00am on a hot August night when Dare and I sat in with the house rhythm section. A fourth video comes from the Elephant Bar in Abuja with the Nigerian Hendrix, King Faj, fronting Dare’s rhythm section. The video on that one is terrible but the music more than makes up for it. 
First, Dare’s signature tune, Mr. Magic, from the Arts and Crafts Village: 

Next, King Faj plays All Along the Watchtower; I’m on tenor sax: 

Then, two more from the Arts and Crafts Village – the warhorse C Jam Blues and an original highlife tune of Dare’s:

Friday, 3 February 2012

Who's on My Turntable (or CD Player or iPod)

Surprise, all horn players.

Basic everyday vocabulary: 
Coleman Hawkins
Lester Young
Charlie Parker
Dexter Gordon
John Coltrane
Sonny Rollins (*)
Ornette Coleman (*)

And onward, I'm sure I'm inadvertently leaving some out:
Billy Harper (*)
Booker Ervin
Budd Johnson
Charles Brackeen (*)
Chris Potter (*)
Dewey Redman
Eddie Harris
Edward Wilkerson (*)
Ellery Eskelin (*)
Eric Dolphy
Frank Lowe
Fred Anderson
Gene Ammons
Jemeel Moondoc (*)
Joe Harriott
Joe Henderson
John Gilmore
John Tchicai (*)
Julius Hemphill
Kalaparusha (*)
Ken Vandermark (*)
Lucky Thompson
Odean Pope (*)
Paul Gonsalves
Paul Jeffrey (*)
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Rob Brown (*)
Sam Rivers
Sean Bergin (*)
Tina Brooks
Tony Malaby (*)
Von Freeman (*)

(*) These guys are still around; seek them out and support their performances.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

My Musical Biography, Part 6 (Conclusion for Now)

I am never satisfied with my own music – I know every mistake I make – but I also know that you are not taking creative chances if you don’t make some mistakes. The literature about high performance and innovation in every field, not just music, agrees that you have to take chances to advance and that mistakes are part of the learning process. However, street reality is that mistakes are usually penalized. 50 years after Ornette, the thing about 'wrong notes' is still going around...like Monk said as he stared at the piano keyboard, "Show me which note is wrong."

I read a lot about music and get a kick out of academic critics who earn their living by making brilliant statements like “Dexter came in a beat too soon on this phrase” or “Bud played a clashing note while comping in measure 4” or “Sonny hit a clam”. Ha ha, you dimwit. You get behind the horn at 200mph and do something you have never done before, in company of players as good as or better than you who are also creating in the moment. All that said I can’t hardly stand listening to my own playing once I finish mastering the recordings (that’s one thing I have in common with Sonny anyhow). I love playing with other horn players who are better than me. I tend to favor blues and riff tunes and minor scales and disfavor Tin Pan Alley standards (which I never listened to the original of in the first place), although if Pres or Dexter played it, it can’t be all bad. I try to expand my repertoire continually and always introduce new tunes on gigs. My recent repertoire comes from Sam Rivers, Horace Silver, Trane, Rahsaan, Sonny, Monk of course, Cleanhead Vinson, Eddie Harris, Mingus, Cannonball…

Bless the guys who are keeping the music alive. I know you are starving.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

My Musical Biography, Part 5

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world while still young enough to appreciate it, and since Kazakhstan I travel with a tenor over my shoulder. I acquired a small form-fitting hard shell case to make airline travel less of a hassle. Work led me to Azerbaijan in 2007, where the driver picked me up one night and delivered me to Baku’s basement jazz club. When the band hit ‘Round Midnight I felt compelled to get over my trepidation, so I got up on the stand and jammed – my first public performance since who remembers when. I got an “ochin harasho” from the drummer…

Steve Black
Dare and George
The next year found me in Fela-land and my very first week in Nigeria I met some local musicians which led to several gigs per week for the rest of the year in bar bands, jazz bands, and highlife bands. What an amazing musical experience. The years of listening to Fela had gotten into my blood – I had been turned on to Fela by Kwame Olatunji in college – and I could play the music intuitively. The Nigerian musicians and fans treated me great – almost reverse discrimination – calling me white brother and asking me how I learned to play like an African. I played with guys whose instruments were held together with tape and rubber bands, real pieces of junk that didn’t stop great music from coming out. The same lesson Charlie Parker taught Phil Woods, I guess. Guys who hadn’t eaten a decent meal in days. I played mostly with bandleader and alto saxophonist Dare Peter and had some fantastic musicians for colleagues like the polyrhythmic drummer George, guitarist King Faj (the Nigerian Hendrix), scat-and-James Brown singer Steve Black, and tenor saxophonist Jonny who taught me highlife licks by ear as I stood next to him on the outdoor bandstand at the legendary Blake. One night one of Fela’s former music directors sat in with us. I actually got asked back for more. 50-year-old basically self-taught white man. There are some videos up on YouTube which I will post later.

I’ve subsequently played in Colombo with a straight-ahead jazz quartet (I made it a quintet), had a bi-weekly gig in the Caribbean with Hans and the Hillbillies acting as horn section for a Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash-inspired country rock band (Hans does a killer version of Folsom Prison Blues), in Holland, and even had a few gigs in musically-barren Abu Dhabi at a high-end cigar club. Recently I’ve been in Malaysia and fortunately our multi-talented and good-at-everything daughter Jackie has decided to play alto sax (she already has a killer singing voice, a quick ear, and way more musical talent than I ever had) so we’ve been going out on gigs together. I am getting back at the musical Thatcherites by performing Trane, Miles, Jug, Sonny, Rahsaan, Duke, etc. with her when she's at an age when I hadn't even heard of these guys. It rubs off; she can recognize Dexter on the stereo. We record everything we do in both audio and video. I’m trying to teach her to feel the music, to truly improvise and never play the same thing twice (do you ever feel exactly the same way twice?), to hear the solo inside her head, and to get in the spirit of the music when playing. Oh yeah, and to play long tones.