Thursday, 22 August 2013

Saxophone Colossus

My tenor-playing compatriot Alan Breen, now located in Phnom Penh, sent me the link to this noteworthy article about Sonny Rollins. Rather lengthy in this short-attention-span world, but definitely worth the read.

One of the first jazz LPs I bought when I was a college student was Saxophone Colossus, and I remember playing it sparingly because it was so great I was worried about wearing it out. Sonny is just the best ever. Imagine jamming with Bird while still a teenager and keeping up, and now at age 82 still having the urge to practice every day – to get better. One of the only times Bird recorded on tenor was alongside young Sonny on Serpent's Tooth in 1953 (try to pick out who is who on that record). Sonny has produced just too much good music through the years to credibly say that one piece, or one era, or one band, or one album is his best. I particularly love the story about the classic Tenor Madness session with John Coltrane in 1956 where Trane reputedly grumbled that Sonny was just messing with him.

Reviews of Sonny’s 1960s RCA recordings – including the article in the link above – usually focus on his comeback album The Bridge, which is a jewel but ultra-conservative for 1962. I prefer the band from later that year with Don Cherry on trumpet, and the album from the following year alongside founding father Coleman Hawkins, which I find incredible. Sonny took some unique approaches during that session – some reviewers describe them as odd – merely to emphasize that he was not Hawk. Not long ago I came across some bootlegs from Ronnie Scott’s in the mid-60s that are undiscovered fun, where Sonny shares the stage with Ronnie himself (recently-discussed master Stan Tracey is on piano).

I've had the chance to see Sonny live twice through the years; once in 1981-82 in Philly in a club where I sat so close I could have shined his shoes. That night he was smokin’. In the mid-90’s I caught Sonny at Symphony Hall in Chicago. The venue was just wrong, the sound was bad, and the tickets were expensive. That gig was a disappointment, an off night.

2011’s Road Shows Vol. 2, where fellow octogenarians Sonny and Ornette Coleman have their first-ever meeting, is notable because Sonny mirrors Ornette’s style when they play together. Unbelievable that they never performed on the same stage before this.

There is a wonderful photo of Sonny on Ellery Eskelin’s blog from about a year ago where Ellery met Sonny sitting in the waiting lounge of Detroit airport. Here is the living link to every major jazz player since Coleman Hawkins and a player who is on absolutely everyone’s best-tenor-saxophonist-in-history list flying coach class and sitting on a hard seat in the public area. This man should be up in First Class and in the VIP Room. A sad commentary on the economics of a playing horn for a living, even at the top.

According to Mark Jacobson’s article, Sonny is suffering from a lung ailment and hasn't touched his Mark VI for a couple of months. Not good news at age 82. Here’s a prayer that he makes it back. We can’t do without him.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Bands With Horns

Before I forget, a few words about the live music scene in Glasgow, which appears like a foggy memory now that I have been back to the hustle of Lagos for a few weeks. Glasgow is a town of pubs and many of them support live bands. While in Glasgow I stayed in the city centre district known as Merchant City, serendipitously the hub of the live bar band scene. There was a pub called Maggie May’s right downstairs from my hotel room with live music (where I watched a stand-up comedy show one night and confirmed that we are indeed two nations separated by a common language); on the next corner was Blackfriar's, where I saw a rockabilly band on a Tuesday night replete with lead singer in red cowboy hat.

Not all the live music in Glasgow is precisely to my taste but live music in pubs has an inherent value of its own, and Glasgow is a great place to visit if only for a sampling of one of the world’s best bar band scenes. Local music in 2013 is all the more valuable in light of today’s article in The Independent about so-called big name acts using pre-recorded backing tracks during their (well-paid) “live” performances…

My best memory of Glasgow’s bar scene came about on a night when Blackfriar’s was dark; I asked the mountainous bouncer where there might be live music and he directed me a few blocks away to McChuill’s Public House. It didn't look too promising from the outside, like just another neighborhood pub, but when I entered and turned the corner two tenor saxes and a trumpet were staring me in the face. One of the tenors was a Mexi-Conn. Bar band heaven. The group was Republic of Soul and they put down two sets that took me back to Chicago. Almost an entire set of Wilson Pickett. Wicked.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Mark VI Overhaul by Top UK Tech Bryce Ferguson

Bryce Ferguson cradling my freshly
overhauled Mark VI tenor
Just returned to Lagos after two and a half weeks in the UK, primarily up in Scotland where I was attending a professional training course at the University of Glasgow. Believe or not, the weather was spectacular; I heard it was the best weather recorded in Scotland for 200 years!

My Mark VI tenor has had its Eb spring broken off in the post for about nine months now and I've been playing that primo horn with a rubber band wrapped around the key ever since. Nobody in Nigeria could fix it as the spring stub had seized up in the post; attempts to repair it there damaged the horn worse. Once I knew I would be travelling to Glasgow I started looking for a tech who could repair it properly. I had an email exchange with Alastair Haydock, who owns Glasgow’s leading music shop, and Alastair was forthcoming enough to refer me to Bryce Ferguson in neighboring Edinburgh, saying he knew what my horn was worth and Bryce was the best sax tech in Scotland, better than his own repairmen. Edinburgh is about an hour by train from Glasgow so I schlepped my horn to Scotland from Lagos on the plane and then took the train over to Edinburgh after class one night to drop it off with Bryce’s apprentice.

Talk about the importance of trust in business: I had never met Bryce before and here I was leaving an instrument worth as much as a small car with him, based on a couple of Skype conversations where it was obvious that he loved horns and knew exactly what to do. Bryce phoned me in the morning with the bad news – the horn needed a complete overhaul in his opinion, not just a new spring and a few adjustments. Cost would be about as much as the last horn I bought. Oh well – it would be like arguing with a brain surgeon. I asked him to go ahead and do the overhaul. It would mean not having my horn with me for the remaining days I was in Scotland, and any chance of sitting in at a local venue went out the window.

Bryce with project horns, Selmer and Borgani
Got the horn back on Saturday. Bryce had disassembled it, fixed the bad spring and re-soldered the post, cut off the keys on two stacks and straightened the rods as much as possible (he said nothing on a Selmer is straight to begin with), laser levelled the tone holes, and did an ultrasonic clean of the entire horn. This horn sounds righteous so it has been played intensely throughout its life, but previous owners were perhaps not so careful with repairs and maintenance. Springs were mostly OK but corks and felts had to be replaced and the finishing touch was installation of a set of Prestini pads, which Bryce said are the best and should last ten years. Play testing, adjustment, settling in overnight, testing again, and final tweaks. The horn is now set up like a “modern” horn. It always played easily but now its quirks are gone, lazy keys and such. Funny, because it always played great to me and I never would have suspected that so much work needed to be done. My friend Dotun Bankole from Femi Kuti’s band always preferred playing my Mark VI to his, and that was before the overhaul. It now blows effortlessly from top to bottom.

Now I have to make up for about three weeks without practice. It will be back to running laps and doing push-ups for a while.

Here’s the link to Bryce’s shop in Edinburgh, Scotland,