Sunday, 18 November 2012

Saxophonist Shola Emmanuel

In the shed with Shola Emmanuel
Nigerian saxophonist, composer, and arranger Shola Emmanuel visited me in Lagos recently. He was introduced four and a half years ago as the best saxophonist in Abuja and his skills have only improved since then. He is playing music nobody else in Nigeria is doing today. Hip hop and so-called contemporary R&B have eradicated local music like afrobeat and juju from the West African airwaves, and jazz, which never had that strong of a local scene, is low-profile. Shola is one of the foremost musicans keeping jazz alive and vibrant in Nigeria today, blending a strong grounding in African rhythms with fluid and creative improvisation.

Shola just self-produced his first CD, Nine Lessons by the Rhythm & Sax Orchestra, nine original compositions and arrangements with Shola up front on alto and tenor saxes (and trumpet on one track) over large group backings. The CD was launched at a concert in Abuja on October 21 which, by all accounts, was a sellout. Shola primarily plays alto although he pointed out to me that he, like many hornmen in Nigeria, started out on trumpet. Here is a Youtube video of Shola playing one of his originals, Into D Woods

We jammed for six or seven hours, part of the time joined by friend Tunde who plays alto. I played tenor and Shola split his time between his alto and borrowing my second tenor. He got a powerful sound out of the Kohlert. We mostly played out of my book which meant a heavy dose of Gene Ammons tunes, Jammin' with Gene, Treux Blue, and Happy Blues. Showboy dropped by and gave us all a workout in afrobeat; we played the horn sections of several Fela tunes and jammed through Night In Tunisia. I caught the proceedings on my Zoom recorder and have sampled two tracks for download, duets with Shola on alto and me on tenor: Caravan and Doxy, which we played in tribute to our mutual colleague, the late Dare Peter; click to listen. It is easy to identify each of us and Shola's fluent sound is apparent. 

Shola is a musician who has advanced significantly since I met him and will definitely be going places. His web site is currently under construction as of this writing, but check back soon for downloads and gig notices. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

Tribute to the Late Nigerian Saxophonist Dare Peter

Nigerian Saxophonist Dare Peter
Saxophonist Shola Emmanuel came down from Abuja to visit and we jammed for a quick hour before heading off to the New Africa Shrine to hear Femi Kuti. Shola and I hadn't seen each other in four years but it didn't seem to matter, either musically or in friendship. I was taking the opportunity to catch up on hap'nin's of some of our other musician mates in Abuja when I learned some shocking news: in Shola's words, Dare is no more.

Bandleader and saxophonist Dare Peter passed away last month after struggling with a long illness. I don't know Dare's exact age but he couldn't have yet reached 40. He came across as kind of a hard-nosed Rasta type with his dreadlocks and Rastaman hat, but that hard exterior was far from the full reality as Dare proved himself to be a musician of heart and integrity in the time I knew him.
Dare Peter and Ron Ashkin in Abuja, 2008

Back in 2008, I walked in to the legendary Elephant Bar in Abuja and heard Dare playing Sonny Rollins' Doxy on alto, supported by a great local rhythm section. He immediately invited me up on stage to join him (here is an audio track of us doing Doxy). That cemented a musical relationship for the rest of the year when I became his second saxophonist, playing tenor, and we played his regular Elephant Bar gig as well as going out to other venues like Silver Spoon and the Arts & Crafts Village. It was at Silver Spoon with Dare's band that I backed up Dede Mabiaku, not knowing at the time that Dede was Fela Kuti's protégé and famous throughout Nigeria. Someone in the audience dashed me a bottle of Champagne that night.

Dare was inclusive and accepting as a bandleader, giving me plenty of chance to stretch out and improvise as the ideas flowed; not competing with me, cutting me off, getting in the way, or making me feel like I was stepping on his toes. There were plenty of times where he gave me the feeling that I was being featured by the band and not just playing a supporting role. He had a repertoire that spanned from jazz to highlife to pop and often a set would progress through all three styles; I'd usually play the jazz opening set and the highlife closer but usually chose to sit out on a lot of the chick singer vocals. Playing with Dare really opened up my desire to perform.

As a musician, Dare had an easy facility on alto sax with a screaming altissimo. His signature tune was Grover Washington's Mr. Magic. Here is a video Dare playing Mr. Magic in 2008:

I've posted this before, but this time it is for posterity (more videos can be found here as well). I understand that Dare married soon after I left Nigeria and leaves behind his wife and young son. Dare Peter, Nigeria's Mr. Magic, rest in peace.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Sean Bergin Has Left Us

Sean Bergin in Amsterdam, 2008
Belated sad news that Amsterdam tenor saxophonist Sean Bergin passed away on September 1. Sean was a great player and I got to know him a bit back in 2008. That year I was working in Nigeria and had a regular transit through Amsterdam Schiphol on my journeys back to Malaysia. One trip through, I stopped off for a lesson with composer and former Willem Breuker Kollektief tenor saxophonist Maarten Van Norden, and Maarten told me about this great locally-famous tenor player who had a regular Sunday afternoon gig. He suggested that I stop by to hear him after our lesson. 

I walked from Maarten's place to De Engelbewaarder (translation: The Guardian Angel), a lovely little canal-side bar at Kloveniersburgwal 59. Sean Bergin was playing with a piano-bass-drums trio and he sounded fantastic on his beat-up bare-brass Mark VI tenor. Great beer and great music. Blue Monk sticks in my mind, with a couple of local horn players sitting in. I chatted a bit with Sean; I recall that he was having reed problems and I offered him a reed out of my case, a 2-1/2, which was too soft for him so he declined. Sean played at De Engelbewaarder every Sunday and I stopped by a couple more times through the coming months to hear him. I brought Jackie by to listen during the summer of 2009 when she was in Holland riding with Coby and Marlies Van Baalen, but unfortunately Sean was on hiatus that Sunday and we missed out. 

Sean was one of those unsung local heroes who didn't build much of a following outside of his hometown but sure was a great, no, world class, player. He had recorded with Mal Waldron, a piano player who at one point had called Eric Dolphy as a sideman, so his musical abilities put him up there in good company. When I saw Sean, it didn't look to me like his music career had been too remunerative, though. Deep in my mind I had hoped to schlep my tenor to Amsterdam some Sunday afternoon and jam with Sean along the canal, but now that chance is foregone. Sean Bergin, RIP.

I'm getting tired of writing regrets and obituaries.