Thursday, 19 September 2013

Blue Lester

In Penang to see Jackie perform at Short + Sweet Theatre 2013, I phoned journalist-cum-harpist Kim Gooi and asked him to come watch the show at Penang Performing Arts Centre. Kim came down and we talked music of course; blues, blues, and more blues. Kim had the idea to invite guitarist Joe Goh up from KL for one of our epic jams. The Penang Blues Brothers ride again.
The Penang Blues Brothers jump and wail: Joe Goh, Kim Gooi, Ron Ashkin
Joe caught the Katy up from Kuala Lumpur last Friday. I dropped by Kim’s and the three of us spent the afternoon working out on only three tunes – T-Bone Shuffle, Kidney Stew, and Blue Lester – all from the mid-to-late-1940s. I was on a roll a couple of weeks ago in Lagos and transcribed T-Bone Shuffle and Blue Lester from the original records and this was my chance to play them with others.

I particularly have had an ear worm for Blue Lester and I just can’t get that 1944 slow F-blues out of my head, Count Basie on piano backing Lester Young just prior to his military nightmare. I had first admired the tune on Von Freeman’s The Great Divide, where he calls it Blue Pres, and had half-transcribed it at the time – Vonski plays it at an even slower pace than Pres. A few weeks back I pulled up the original on my iTunes and re-discovered 10 choruses of pure bliss – Pres blows two choruses on the head, a single solo chorus, back to the head again, then Basie enters for three and Pres takes it out with three more, not bothering to return to the theme. Freddie Green anchors the proceedings with his steady rhythm guitar. Not a sound wasted. Nobody plays like that these days, when apparently both pianists and saxophonists are paid by the note. I can’t get the theme and Lester’s first solo chorus out of my head. I've transcribed that chorus and find Lester’s note choices deceptively simple, making me feel like I've been over-thinking my own improvisations.
PPAC echoes (literally) with the sound of 1944.

Unfortunately I left my trusty Zoom recorder back in Lagos and couldn't catch our version on tape. But on Saturday night, the three of us were invited to play for the cast party after Short + Sweet closed and we had a chance to perform Blue Lester in public for the first time. The tempo was set a bit fast and a young crowd more attuned to hip-hop got up and danced. Lester Young’s 16 bars connected with 2013 ears in Malaysia just as they had almost 70 years earlier in WWII-era America. It was not just me with the ear worm.

As Kim is fond of saying, if blues was money, I’d be millionaire.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Jackie Awarded Best Supporting Actor (Female)

Best Supporting Actor (Female) 2013
...also Playwright and Director
Short + Sweet Penang 2013 culminated in an awards ceremony on Saturday night and Jackie won the judges' prize for Best Supporting Actor (Female) for her role in Mark Sasse's 'No' In Spite of Itself, despite her limited on-stage time. Congrats! Jackie's behind-the scenes role as director helped that play win Best Script for the series, helped out immensely by Ciera Nash and Joseph Stoltzfus doing strong work as the leads. Congrats to all.

The Penang Blues Brothers entertained with some jump and urban blues both before the performance and afterwards at the cast party. Special thanks to KL guitar hero Joe Goh and harpist Kim Gooi for the down home sound.

Here is the final night's performance of 'No' In Spite of Itself on YouTube:

Friday, 13 September 2013

Short + Sweet Theatre 2013 @ Penang

Joseph Stoltzfus and Jackie Ashkin
"You talkin' to me?"
Short + Sweet Theatre has returned to Penang Performing Arts Centre for the second year, with Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham overseeing production of a series of ten original short plays for a four-night run. Jackie’s original script Noticed was selected as one of this year's ten plays, and Jackie chose to direct another play and act in it as well. Her script Smart Phones Stupid People, which was so popular at last year's Short + Sweet in Penang, is being produced independently in Kuala Lumpur this year.

Ironically, although scripts were selected anonymously, the script Jackie chose to direct turned out to be written by her Dalat International School drama coach Mark Sasse, and Mark’s choice as a director turned out to be Jackie’s script.
Director Jackie takes a bow

This year's run began on Wednesday, September 11 and finishes on Saturday, September 14. Jackie made her directorial debut with ‘No’ In Spite of Itself and also plays a supporting role, with Dalat friends Ciera Nash and Joseph Stoltzfus as the leads. Hope to have some YouTube clips up before long.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Biodun & Batik Afro Jazz Band at Freedom Park - Audio Tracks

On Stage at Freedom Park in Lagos
with Biodun & Batik Afro Jazz Band
I was invited to Freedom Park on Lagos Island on Friday night to perform as the guest of trumpeter Biodun with his Batik Afro Jazz Band. Freedom Park is a relatively new venue on the site of the former colonial prison, an open air stage inside a walled prison courtyard that has been converted into a green space – an urban performance place in a sculpture garden surrounded by food stalls. I had heard of Freedom Park as the site of occasional Seun Kuti gigs, but it is relatively far from where I stay and I had not previously ventured down there. It is a very nice spot to spend an evening and I recommend it to music fans in Lagos. Biodun met me at the gate and introduced me to the park director, who turns out to be Fela Kuti’s son-in-law.

Biodun is a fine Hugh Masakela-influenced trumpeter – I wrote about him when we first met in May of this year. His pedigree includes stints with Fela and Lagbaja. At Freedom Park, he fronted his Batik Afro Jazz Band of keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and occasional girl singer. I had met bass player Mike before at Biodun’s home studio, but the rest of the rhythm section was new to me, fairly young but highly competent players. When Biodun phoned me to make the gig, I asked for a set list. He said not to worry, no set list, they probably would not play any standards, just some pop tunes and highlife in I-IV-V progression, and I could just jam along.
Two Tenors -
With Saxophonist Seun Olota

I realized the morning after the gig that Biodun and Batik play an incredible diversity of music – from jazz tunes by John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter to reggae, Fela's afrobeat, Igbo and Yoruba highlife, Afro-pop, originals, 60’s rock, and even some requisite smooth jazz hits and pop covers by the likes of Whitney Houston. I played tenor on the jazz tunes, most of the highlife, and had my first experience performing a Fela tune live – Water No Get Enemy, which I learned from Showboy last year and actually remembered. During the second set, another tenor player, Seun Olota, joined the group, making it an octet. He and Biodun looked to be old friends and Seun fronted the band on two Fela tunes, singing and dancing Water and Lady to the crowd’s delight.

I have posted a few audio tracks from my Zoom: here are links to Water No Get EnemyFootprints, an Igbo highlife of unknown title, and Equinox (320 kbps MP3 sound files). That’s the good. The bad is that the sound system was not great, with the bass dominating, the snare drum too loud, and the piano down in the mix. The lead instruments were somewhat buried all night – especially the tenor sax, of course, which particularly gets drowned out by loud bass guitar since their frequencies overlap. But the music itself is nice.

There was no ugly.