Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Jamming with Trumpeter Biodun Batik

Blowing tenor up on the roof at Bogobiri in Ikoyi, Lagos late last month, I was approached by a gentleman who handed me his business card – it said Biodun Adebiyi B., Department of Theatre Arts and Music, Lagos State University – and gave the “call me” hand signal. So I did; I called him the next afternoon. He introduced himself as Biodun Batik, trumpeter and lecturer in music. He had been playing downstairs at a jazz event with his band while I played upstairs. He heard the sound of a saxophone and came up to introduce himself. On the phone he identified himself a fan of Clifford Brown and we discussed music we liked in common – hard bop, Jazz Messengers... He invited me to his house to jam.

After work one evening last week I went to his place in Egbeda, another district of Lagos. On the map it was not far from where I work in Ikeja, but in the nightmarish Lagos traffic it took almost two hours of sheer punishment to get there. It was worth it, though. When I arrived at his house there was a full studio in semi-open air, with drum set, keyboards, and amplifiers. His guitarist Kazzy and bassist Mike were there too, set up and jamming. We had never played together before and didn't have a chance to discuss tunes. I pulled out Blues March based on our earlier phone conversation and we jumped straight into it in unison, Biodun showcasing his fluegelhorn. Really nice sound. He then went into Equinox on keyboards (without asking, how did he know it is one of my faves?) and switched to drums when I started my solo – his drumming is as impressive as his horn playing. We continued through a set mostly of my choosing since I had my book with me – stuff I am comfortable with like Watermelon Man, Night In Tunisia, Moanin’. We ended with Blue Train. I recorded the night on my Zoom and you can hear some of the tracks by clicking on the track names that are highlighted. I even had a go on the drums which is a blast and got me thinking I should buy a kit, which I’m sure the neighbors would appreciate (…not).

The next day I googled Biodun Batik and came to find out that he is one of Nigeria’s most famous and well traveled brass players. He spent two years in Fela’s Egypt 80 (alongside Showboy on bari), from 1989 to 1991, and has played and recorded with a virtual Who’s Who of Nigerian old-school stars including Sunny Okosuns and Tony Allen. Here is a long article in Nigerian Compass profiling him. Probably the best trumpeter I've had the pleasure of playing alongside. Hopefully more jams and some gigs to come. Again, unfortunately, he bemoaned the current state of the Nigerian live music scene and doesn't gig with his own band, Batik, as often as he would like. But he made his name in the heyday of Nigerian music and earned his stripes from the demanding master, Fela, who only selected the best sidemen.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Hidden Gems – Billie Harris and Joe Alexander

I've been listening to jazz and improvised music steadily since the 1970's and am constantly exploring new music with a heavy emphasis on saxophone players, especially tenor sax players. Many, if not most, of the players I like have absolutely no commercial following. Just when I thought I’d heard them all, last week I stumbled upon two hidden gems of saxophone playing – from different times and places, but great nonetheless and definitely worth seeking out and listening to. If players this great can go through life without having a visible impact on the music or attaining any sort of wide recognition, is there any hope for the rest of us minor league players?

The first hidden gem is Billie Harris of Los Angeles. I recently heard his album I Want Some Water for the first time, recorded in 1980 and released much later on Nimbus.

Billie’s album is dominated by legendary L.A. pianist Horace Tapscott, and in some ways it is as much Tapscott’s session as Billie’s even though Billie wrote all the tunes; Tapscott is just such a commanding presence. I'm not a great jazz piano aficionado but I find anything that Horace Tapscott comes close to worth a listen. Billie plays tenor, soprano, and flute. His tenor, from photos of the session, is a Martin Committee, which proves that you don’t need to play a Selmer to get that spiritual ‘Coltrane sound’. Photographer Mark Weber was at the studio that day, apparently Billie’s only time on record, and has memorialized the day on his web site. Billie Harris is still around, at age 76, and lives in Lancaster, California. Time for another studio date, better late than never? 

The second hidden gem is Joe Alexander, who spent his career in Cleveland and left behind only one recording of his own, the quartet session Blue Jubilee on Jazzland from 1960 (he also appears in a larger group setting on Tadd Dameron's Fontainebleau).

Apparently Joe had quite a local following but never broke out to the national scene. There is an entire web page dedicated to his story on the city of Cleveland’s web site. He is a tough hard bopper who doesn't make a single wrong move on his record, and was good enough a player that Cannonball Adderley produced Blue Jubilee with the rhythm section of Bobby Timmons, Sam Jones, and Tootie Heath! I wonder how many other players this great and unheralded graced America’s lounges and bar rooms in my father’s generation? Joe died at the young age of 41 in 1970. I'm sure being a saxophonist during the 1950's and 60's didn't come with health care. Check out his disc which has been re-released on Fresh Sound.

I find it refreshing that the music itself is so deep that after almost 40 years of listening, there is still plenty of great stuff out there waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Sitting In at Bogobiri, Ikoyi – Audio Tracks

After a year, I finally found a decent place to play in Lagos – Bogobiri House in Ikoyi*, one of the most interesting and friendly spots in this too-harsh environment. Bogobiri is a small boutique hotel tucked in a residential neighborhood that features an in-house art gallery and at least three live music venues on premise, decorated throughout with one-off Africanisms. Bogobiri celebrates Nigeria in a way that many of today’s consumption-driven wannabe hipsters wish to ignore. I found the place refreshing. Check out the web site at http://www.bogobiri.com (admittedly, more hotel- than music-oriented).

Last Sunday night, I was invited to sit in at Bogobiri’s outdoor rooftop stage with Jagger and his rock band. There was a local jazz event going on simultaneously downstairs. I came with my tenor at 4 to rehearse but a private party had booked the space and that didn't happen. I sat around for a couple of hours and simply took my chances when the gig started at 7. I haven’t gigged much at all this year but have taken Monk’s advice to Steve Lacy to heart, “Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig, + when it comes, he’s out of shape + can’t make it.

I had neither met nor played with Jagger before; there was no rehearsal, no sheet music, no set list, no notes at all. His music was rock, pop, highlife, reggae, and blues. I didn't know what the tunes were until I heard them. No pre-determined solos, no patterns to fit, no memorized parts; I had to find the key, listen to the tempo, the rhythm, the form, the cadence, the drummer’s signals, watch the eye contact. Spontaneous creation, I had to listen with my ears. The music only existed in that moment and can’t be repeated. After the gig, I thought about an interview I had read with the late saxophonist Bob Berg, where he expressed that no matter how good a musician he was, he constantly lived in fear of being discovered as a fraud since he was essentially “faking it” every time he improvised. But Sunday night, the feedback was good. 

This was the first time in ages that I actually liked some of the recordings. I've posted two tunes from Sunday that you can download and listen to – Kuchi Kuchi, a highlife tune, and Bob Marley’s Turn Your Lights Down Low. Although the equipment wasn't great and there were typical problems with mikes and cables, Jagger’s set up was clear and well balanced, and I also solved some technical problems with my Zoom recorder. In retrospect, it is like the music was playing itself for a change. 

* Shades of Fela’s Ikoyi Blindness from 1976 – Ikoyi is an expensive up-scale neighborhood in this nation of 90% poverty – Ikoyi Blindness refers to those social climbers whose behavior is oblivious to the situation all around them.