Friday 29 July 2011

Radio Tribute to Joe Lee Wilson on Seahaven FM

Keith B took over the Big Band spot on Seahaven FM last night and he devoted the second half to the music and life of Joe Lee Wilson. We chose choose that reflected the range of his singing style and were personal favourites.

Return of the Prodigal Son is a soul jazz track from 1969, not long after Joe Lee drew with Sly & The Family Stone in a national TV talent show. Sly Stone signed to Columbia and enjoyed huge commercial success. Joe Lee recorded for Columbia but they just sat on the tapes. A couple of singles appeared and disappeared (the first recording of He Ain't Heavy . . . He's My My Brother). The Return of the Prodigal Son is a big budget production (a nine piece band including Kenny Burrell and Kenny Barron) but first saw the light of day in Japan. Is this one of the Columbia tapes that they handed over to Joe Lee? Are there more out there?

How Deep Is The Ocean was recorded in Italy in 2008. Shows that Joe could still tell a story and move people with his voice.

Feelin' Good is from the album of the same name. A great session with Kirk Lightsey (piano), Steve Watts (bass), Julian Siegel (tenor), Dave Wickens (drums). Recorded in 2000 is shows Joe Lee on top form with  a great band, caught at the end of a UK tour. This is Joe Lee at his most joyful and positive.

Jazz Ain't Nothin' But Soul was recorded is 1972 as a live radio concert at Columbia University. When is was released two years later (on the Livin' High on Nickels and Dimes LP) it became a hit for Oblivion records. It describes jazz thus:

Jazz is makin' do with taters and grits
Standing up each time you get hit
Jazz ain't nothin' but soul

Jazz is livin' high on nickels and dimes
Telling folks what's on my mind
Jazz ain't nothin' but soul

Not financially rewarding but a kind of truth. Joe would have established his NYC loft (The Ladies Fort) at this time  and created many opportunities for himself and other musicians to entertain an audience. This song is another positive message from Joe.

You can hear the complete album here.

I Love You is from a 1981 session with guitarist Jimmy Ponder. Just the two of them. His voice is beautiful and the two musicians complement each other perfectly.

Goin' To Chicago (from Feelin' Good) is a straightforward blues. Joe Lee never considered himself a blues singer but he could certainly do justice to the blues, recalling blues shouters like Big Joe Turner.

Home in the Country (from Feelin' Good) was written by trumpet player and singer Kenny Dorham (KD). Joe Lee used to hand out in Tompkins Square Park with KD. Joe Lee was a country boy, raised a farm in Oklahoma, and this song talks about wanting to leave the city and get back to a home in the country. The story is dramatically told by Joe Lee with Kirk Lightsey:

The city's bright, bright like diamonds and hard like glittering stone
Ain't got some sweet place I can call my home
Your hair is soft, feels so fine, let's get out of New York City while we got time
I want a home in the country. Won't you come there with me.
Come to the country

Thanks to Seahaven FM for the opportunity to put some of Joe Lee's music on air and on the internet.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Joe Lee Wilson: December 22, 1935 - July 17, 2011

Sadly, Joe Lee Wilson passed away on Sunday. He was an inspirational singer, human being and friend who spread a message of peace, love and joy wherever he performed. I'm sure he will be missed by all the musicians who had the good fortune to play with him and the audiences who heard his magnificent voice first hand.
Joe Lee Wilson at kineojazz in 2010 by Yari Fontebasso
Joe Lee's voice was a gift and he accepted it with humility. Here is his prayer of thanks from the song Thoughts of a Season:

To you, I'm extending this special blessing
To include my family and friends, fans and musicians, promoters and organisers, who have helped me throughout my long singing career,
from gospel to blues, from blues to jazz (or perhaps I should say afro-american classical music!).
I thank God the Creator for presenting me with a unique artistic gift
to bring peace and love into every community in every corner of the world
Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus.

The Guardian has published a lengthy obituary that really does Joe Lee justice. Thank you John Fordham, Val Wilmer and The Guardian.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Geoff Simkins with Terry Seabrook and Paul Whitten, The Snowdrop, Lewes, 11th July

Brighton-based alto saxophonist Geoff Simkins was in his element last night - a small venue, an attentive audience and sensitive musicians to support him. It was the perfect opportunity to enjoy Geoff's music and reflect on the approach to improvisation that informs his teaching (there were several of Geoff's students in the audience, myself included).

Geoff's approach to approach to improvisation is consistent and purposeful. I'll try and summarise it like so:
  • The foundation of his flowing line is a long, even exhalation of breath  - the breath vibrates the reed and the sax keys select the notes
  • Each breath lasts maybe 10 or so seconds, long enough to develop a melodic idea across quite a by number of bars (depending on the tempo of the tune) and across sections of the tune too
  • Each pause for breath is an opportunity to take stock, adapt the idea or perhaps change tack in response to what is going on around him or a new thought
The way Geoff develops musical ideas is significant to his style. Rather than following the chords changes and letting them dictate changes in ideas, he holds on to an idea (e.g. a short musical phrase) and adapts it to the new surroundings as the chords change. This might mean playing the same phrase but changing the pitch, sometimes fitting in with then new chord, sometimes deliberately at odds but ultimately seeking a resolution. The relationship between the notes is sometimes dictated by reason (actually, that idea will work in this context too) or art (if I play these notes against this chord it's going to sound quite unusual). Each breath is a thread that holds the ideas together.

It's clear that Geoff does not always know where a phrase it going to end up before he pauses for breath. Occasionally it sounds like he thinking his way out of the situation he finds himself in without losing the plot - solving a logic problem. Geoff rarely loses the plot in musical terms. He admitted to me that he occasionally runs out of ideas before he runs out of breath. This relationship between the length of the breath and the length of a line is an interesting one, worth investigating, even on guitar or piano.

This is pretty hard stuff and few people can do it like Geoff. It takes a lot of discipline to hang onto and develop those lines. It may be habit by now, but it takes a lot of practice too. I think it was Al Cohn who said: "If I don't practice for a day, I notice it; if I don't practice for two days, the other musicians notice it; if I don't practice for three days, the audience notices it." Geoff must be pretty disciplined in his practice regime. It's not just doing the things he does so well, it's all the bad habits he avoids - for example, using ideas sparingly and not wasting them by throwing them away too soon.

The vehicle for Geoff's improvisation is standard and modern jazz originals with interesting chord sequences - How Deep Is The Ocean, Donna Lee, Passport/Anthropology, Sophisticated Lady, Little, Willie Leaps, Cherokee, I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, Beija Flor a variation on All The Things You Are.

Some of these tunes force obvious comparisons with alto players who have shared his approach. I know Paul Desmond's version of I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face. Desmond has a beautiful tone and a rhapsodic quality to his lines. Geoff's tone is harsher and he often leans on the altered, non-diatonic notes which sometimes gives his playing a sardonic quality. He's perhaps closer to Lee Konitz but, to my ear, Konitz has a slightly mournful, elegiac quality. The truth is that it's unfair to label Geoff a "cool school" or Konitz/Desmond soundalike. Geoff's voice is is his own.

This was of course an ensemble performance and Terry Seabrook accompanied very sensitively and tastefully. The volume was just right and he kept to a path that complemented Geoff - mixing chords and lines, doing that six over four thing that pianists love. Likewise, Paul Whitten played very sensitively. His tone is sweet and woody - not too much bass or treble. I really like Paul's solo style. Unlike Geoff's, his lines are more like those you would want to sing. Where Geoff would quote a tune (Moondance for example), he will then play about with it. Paul just carries a nice melody without messing with it. I like that approach too.

I also liked the way they ended a few of the tunes. You could hear Geoff's final note dying away, Paul would bow a note in harmony, Geoff's note would reduce to a whisper then disappear.

Monday 11 July 2011

Smithville on The Brighton Bandstand

Thanks to the appreciative audience, photographers and passersby at The Brighton Bandstand yesterday. The weather was beautiful but it was unbelievable cold and windy for the musicians. Within minutes my fingers and strings seemed covered in a film of salt!  Eddie Myer did a great job depping for Keith and everybody said it sounded surprisingly good (surprising for us because it sounded as though the music was being blown all over the place).

Thanks to Brighton Council for organising. Hope we can play there again.

Will Vinson, Pizza Express Soho, 6 July

I was initially disappointed that Lage Lund was not able to make the Will Vinson gig last Wednesday. The brilliant young Norwegian guitarist was somehow indisposed (he went in a puff of on the verge of discovering a new close voice chord structure . . .). Still, we had Gwilym Simcock, brilliant young Welsh pianist, in his place.

Will Vinson is an English alto saxophonist who has been living in New York for over ten years, He's well respected, playing with Kurt Rosenwinkel and being a regular member of guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg's band. He's also one of the few young of alto saxophonists of note amongst the current crop - Perico Sambeat and Dave Binney are the only two other names that come to mind.

Form the first notes of I Am James Bond (hear it here), Will had a beautiful, clear tone. The intonation was spot on (sometimes alto players are a bit cavalier with their tuning). It had a direct, passionate quality to it. His soloing throughout was clear, intelligent and easy to follow. At times it reminded me of Seamus Blake (another passionate, clear communicator) and Mark Turner (physically and musically bobbing up and down the arpeggios). Though there are stylistic similarities, it's definitely an individual sound.

On a table a few inches from Gwilym Simcock, we could see him work his way into some very unfamiliar tunes. His playing was exciting, his fingers mesmerising, venturing into the unknown, finding plenty of interesting things to see. I liked the way he definitely plays lines, rather than textures. At times, Will looked on in awe, joking that the audience were showing a bit too much appreciation.

That said, Will was definitely centre of the band. I enjoyed his compositions and have bought his latest live CD The World (Through My Shoes) to get to know them better. The one familiar tone was Work by Thelonious Monk - a tune I like but not one I have ever heard live before. He also kept on top of everything. His playing was always thoughtful and expressive, if not as edgy as Gwilym's.

The rhythm section were a tight, singing unit. Jochen Rueckert (Drums) and Sean Fasciani (bass) were obviously familiar with the material and playing as one. Will is obviously a bit of a character - very sardonic: "I'd like now to welcome Gwilym Simcock back and as for the rhythm section - you're fired!"

The night was a really enjoyable introduction to WIll's music. I was very surprised that the Pizza Express was only half full ("We've just coming from playing in France - to audiences of 500 plus. Notice the heavy-handed reference to the size of the audience there . . ."). I hope that it doesn't put him off coming back. It was great having Gwilym but I would like to see him with Lage Lund, capturing the spirit found on his live album.

Sunday 3 July 2011

My Top 5 Organ Trios

According to Wikipedia:
"An organ trio, in a jazz context, is a group of three jazz musicians, typically consisting of a Hammond organ player, a drummer, and either a jazz guitarist or a saxophone player."
Organ trios are one of the best units for a guitarist to play in. The organ and guitar sound well together - peaches and cream a friend once called it. The single note lines of the guitarist sit very comfortably on the chords from the organ without clashing. It's difficult (though not impossible) for a guitarist to play runs and chords at the same time. The organ can supply the chords (as a piano would) but the organ has the addition of the bass too. It's like a quartet with three instruments. The organ trio was great for clubs, notably in Philadelphia - loud yet intimate and low cost (not sure what the bass players thought of this).

This list is of my Top 5 organ trio, in no particular order, based on the ones I have listened to and enjoyed most - either live, on record or both. There are notable exceptions - Wes and Kenny Burrell with Jimmy Smith. Unfortunately,  don't have any in my record collection, and perhaps I go for a slightly cooler sound . . .

Grant Green, J.C. Moses, Larry Young by georgeheid
Grant Green, J.C. Moses, Larry Young, a photo by georgeheid on Flickr.
Grant Green, Larry Young, Elvin Jones
These are Larry Young's first recordings and they show him applying the lessons of John Coltrane to the organ, notably on Talkin' about J.C. from Talkin' About. Grant is inspired by the young organist on some of the last recordings he made from Blue Note before returning with a new, funky style.

John Abercrombie, Dan Wall, Adan Nussbaum
I've been listening to these organ trio recordings (Tactics and Speak of the Devil) for about 15 years. They seem to be inexhaustibly interesting. I've always heard echoes of the Bill Evans Trio in them. They take the traditional organ line-up and update it. Some great interplay. Long flowing lines from Abercrombie. Plenty of listening going on.

Dr Lonnie Smith, Jonathan Kreisberg, Jamire Williams
Lonnie is a one-off. His sound has a broad appeal yet pushes the boundaries and he has a great choice in side men. I saw this band at Ronnie's a couple of years ago and then ago a couple of week ago. They've come a long way. They work brilliantly as a unit. Three very different personalities working as one. Plenty of spontaneity and very tight. It's a unique sound. 

Grant Green Jr, Bernard Purdie, Reuben Wilson
It's a few years since I saw this band. Bernard Purdie is the one of the funkiest drummers in the world and this band captured the spirit of the early Sixties' chitlins circuit with the  grooviness of the Motown and Atlantic soul recordings. Grant Green Jr can't help but sound like his father and they they had a contagious sense of fun.

Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, Bill Stewart
This has got to be one of the greatest organ trios of all time. These three do justice to the tradition and deliver the highest levels of inspired, emotive improvisation. I haven't seen the three play together but I have seen the DVD Peter Bernstein Trio: Live At Smoke. It's worth watching just to see Peter screwing up his face and squeezing out the notes from his guitar.