Sunday, 28 October 2012

Zombie, Oh Zombie

Seun Kuti, Fela in the Background
Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 played their first post-Felabration gig at the New Africa Shrine in Lagos last night. The crowd was sparse since it was the long Sallah holiday weekend when many people travel out of the city, and besides much of the local musical energy had been spent earlier in the month. Seun and Egypt 80 had just played at the Shrine a week ago - their Felabration set didn't start until the middle of the night and I couldn't get anyone to go out into the daunting Lagos midnight to catch the show with me. What I missed last Saturday was that, unannounced, elder brother Femi Kuti sat in with Seun and their father's band, apparently the first time Femi has played with Egypt 80 in 15 years and the first time Fela's two sons played together with their father's band in Lagos since Fela's death in 1997. It was videoed by Sahara TV and can be seen on Youtube (my bandwidth here in Nigeria is terrible and I hope I will actually get to watch it one of these days). 

Last night was good for the listener as the smaller crowd made the Shrine more pleasant than usual. The show started at 11:00 pm. Showboy led the band through a longer-than-planned warm-up set since Seun did not appear until about 1:00 am. He kicked off with Fela's Zombie, his customary (and exciting) set opener. It was a good one, channeling his father on alto sax and vocals as well as in the hilarious Zombie dance. In the subsequent hour and a half I stayed around, Seun only played one other tune and had just started on a third when I left due to the late hour. He gives his band mates plenty of room to stretch out, plays a strong and confident alto, and in general has continued Fela's jazzy, improvisatory approach to afrobeat that keeps the music fresh and interesting. Having Fela's original rhythm section anchor the band doesn't hurt either.

Egypt 80's Rhythm Section - These Guys Played With Fela. No Wonder Egypt 80 Sounds So Good.
Showboy had been at my house earlier in the day for my weekly Afrobeat lesson and we worked on Zombie at my behest. I had jumped in a bit over my head; I found the tune impossible to master instantly and have been working on it for a couple of weeks just to get it under my fingers. The tempo is killer and on tenor sax, the primary lick jumps up and down across the break at high speed. Thanks to the marvel of modern digital technology, I slowed the 1977 album track down to 80% until I got my fingers moving and then sped it back up to 100% after about a hundred iterations. The instrumentals sound OK at slow speed but the vocals are just wrong! By the end of the day I got it, finally, finally. Showboy is a hard taskmaster since he was there at the creation of the original and I really had a sense of accomplishment when he smiled and said I could stop for now.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

New Acquisition - Kohlert '55 Tenor

During my recent trip to the US I picked up a Kohlert '55 tenor sax, a nice original lacquer horn in about as good a shape as you can expect from an instrument going on 60 years old. Pads are new and it plays easily from top to bottom.

Post-WWII Kohlerts were made in Winnenden, near Stuttgart in what was then West Germany. My '55 was actually made in 1956 and sports rolled tone holes, left hand bell keys, and a non-articulated G#. Not that many were made - Kohlert produced about 14,000 instruments of all types in 1955 and 1956 - so I imagine only a few hundred of these still exist, if that many. Kohlerts have a reputation as great R&B and rock 'n' roll horns and I will soon find out...I haven't had it out of the house yet.

Welcome to the family.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Again, A Bad Day for Tenor Sax Fans

This hasn't been a great week musically. Earlier in the month I wrote that I am almost afraid to read the jazz news these days. Then in comes the report that David S. Ware passed away from kidney failure on October 18. Another player I will not get the chance to hear live; fortunately his recorded legacy is substantial. 

Never a mainstream player, he hit the scene in the late 70's with the Cecil Taylor Unit and I first heard him playing his own music on Birth Of A Being (1977), an LP I came across while going through my collection in storage last summer. He is classified in the press as a "free jazz" player although I find that classification a misnomer that is often used pejoratively. For example, his biography makes the following statement which I find idiotic: "unlike a good many free players, Ware does not base his style on any particular technical shortcoming or theoretical misunderstanding." I don't know who these other players are the writer is referring to. I don't know of any free jazz players who base their playing on technical shortcomings or theoretical misunderstandings. Pure bunk, I'm sorry. 

Regardless of classification, though, David definitely had his own conception of improvisation; his New York Times obituary quotes him as saying “I’m not interested in chord changes”. The press is full of hype about him although I doubt it ever paid off big in material terms. The best place to find out about David is on his own web site,

David, may you rest in peace. Thanks for not compromising your musical values.

Oh yeah, his death distracted me from writing about the other reason this week has not been great for me musically. Despite all the anticipation and buildup, this year's Felabration in Lagos has been a disappointment. It has been impossible to find out exactly who is playing when and as a result I missed out on most of the music. I went over to the Shrine three times this week and struck out each time. Next week the schedule gets back to normal and I am hoping to catch Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 at their regular end-of-month gig next Saturday to make it up.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Another Great Has Passed - John Tchicai RIP

I'm almost afraid to read the jazz news this year. Heard yesterday that saxophonist John Tchicai has passed away in France at the age of 76. One more great I will never have the chance to see perform live. Not much in the press yet but here is an obit from the Washington Post

He was one of the creators of the so-called "New Thing" in the early 1960s and recorded on John Coltrane's seminal Ascension as well as with Albert Ayler (New York Eye and Ear Control), Archie Shepp (New York Contemporary Five) and Roswell Rudd (New York Art Quartet). Maybe the only European player to record with Trane (the media always noted how he was born in Denmark of a Danish mother and Congolese father). He was one of the few accomplished players who was equally adept on soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones. 

John Tchicai didn't sound like anyone else and there aren't any music schools teaching the John Tchicai style, so we will have to be satisfied with his recorded legacy (which is fairly prolific but all on smaller labels). It is the greatest compliment to say that a musician stayed true to his creative self for his entire career, and that can truthfully be said about John Tchicai. Rest in peace and we will continue to listen to the sounds you created while you were here. The sound is timeless.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Joe Morris, William Parker and Marco Eneidi in Washington DC

The Joe Morris Trio at Bohemian Caverns: William Parker (b), Marco Eneidi (as), Joe Morris (g)

I flew into Washington DC from Lagos yesterday. Arrived early in the morning and the hotel didn't have any rooms ready. People were hanging out in the tiny lobby when I returned in the afternoon to check in. One man sitting on the sofa looked strangely familiar, like I knew him from somewhere before, but I couldn't quite place the face.

Coming down in the elevator I noticed that the guy standing next to me was holding an alto case so I struck up some small-talk conversation, you know...are you a musician, what kind of music do you like to play, what kind of horn do you play? He was Marco Eneidi, Viennese alto saxophonist with whom I was not previously familiar but who has played with the likes of Cecil Taylor, in town for a one-night stand at Bohemian Caverns. Marco said he was there with a trio, a guitar player and a bassist. So he proceeded to introduce me to the man sitting on the couch. "This is my bass player." I shook his hand and asked his name. "William Parker" was the reply.

William Parker and Marco Eneidi

My jaw dropped. William Parker? One of the best bass players on the planet, icon of creative free improvisation, and prolific recording artist who has been on my playlist for years? Then up walked the guitar player...Joe Morris, ostensible leader of the trio at Bohemian Caverns, who I knew from his recordings with great saxophonists like Ken Vandermark and Anthony Braxton...not your garden variety rhythm section by any means. Maybe one of the finest free jazz collaborations playing today. 
Joe Morris

We chatted for a while. William talked about how musicians create positive energy and help keep the world from imploding.

I went to 11th and U at 7:00 pm to hear the trio's gig. Two hours of sublime, cerebral free improvisation for an attentive but small audience, well less than a hundred, in a funky basement. The two one-hour sets passed like ten minutes. It was great for me to hear such high-level free improvisation after so long. I must thank Joe Morris, William Parker, and Marco Eneidi for not only staying dedicated to the cause but also making a success of it. Joe said that he is just a regular human being and that he has worked hard to be able to speak through his instrument. He told me that we should continue our conversation on line - too bad I don't do Facebook

You never know what is going to happen when you wake up in the morning; I certainly never expected to run into William Parker and hear such superb music when I got out of bed yesterday. One of the good surprises life holds.