Archive for Jazz

Book review – Written in Dead Wax (The Vinyl Detective #1)

I can’t quite recall how I got to reading the first installment of The Vinyl Detective – Written in Dead Wax (2016) by Andrew Cartmell.  I think perhaps it was something that Amazon’s algorithm thought I might like and recommended to me.  I don’t normally pay too much attention to what Amazon recommends to me but I guess I must have on this occasion.

The Vinyl Detective in question is a record collector / dealer, who lives a hand to mouth existence, based on his success or otherwise at acquiring rare and sought after gems in record stores and fairs, and fairs of the boot variety.  His social world, if it can be called that, is populated by the inhabitants of the aforementioned world, i.e. second-hand or specialist record store owners, hi-fi geeks, and his two cats.  His world is turned upside down following a visit from a beautiful woman who wants him to find a rare and priceless jazz record on behalf of her mysterious boss.  This triggers a hunt that takes us across London, including visits to innocuous locales such a church hall in Surbiton, to more glamorous locations such as LA.  On their journey our protagonist and beautiful accomplice compete for the prize with a couple of hoods and the body count racks up.

Record fairs and church halls evoke a quintessential England, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Cartmell has written for Doctor Who and Midsomer Murders, which might explain the easy co-existence between record fairs and a body count.  If anything, Dead Wax felt like a Nick Hornby novel but without the lists and with more chases.  Hornby’s world, if I continue with that comparison, also feels a little more believable.  I struggled to see our detective and his world as such; certainly not someone whom beautiful women seem to throw themselves at!  In fact, I found the latter to be more interesting than our protagonist.

At 320 pages long, the book isn’t a long read but it seemed to take a little longer than I would have hoped in its telling and could have benefited from a more ruthless edit.  Notwithstanding this, I enjoyed the tale which was more intriguing than I had expected it to be.  The boot and record fairs certainly brought forth some memories of my own, and which lent the book a certain charm.  Moreover, as a jazz fan, I always appreciate jazz being woven into fiction, such as in The Axeman’s Jazz.

I’m keeping my proverbial powder dry on the Vinyl Detective.  I like the idea so may well check out #2 at some point in the future.

Book review – The Axeman’s Jazz

I prefer personal recommendations to recommendations from websites like goodreads, etc.  While I’m a user of goodreads it’s hard to arrive at a book I want to read because of the thousands of books reviewed and with so many of them receiving positive reviews.  You really are spoilt for choice.  So when someone recommends something to me personally, I generally check it out.  This has been rewarding, having recently enjoyed Philip Kerr’s Berlin Trilogy and Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog.  Most recently The Axeman’s Jazz (2014), by British author Ray Celestin, was recommended to me.

The Axeman’s Jazz is based on the true story of the Axeman of New Orleans, a serial killer operating in New Orleans between 1918 and 1919.  The killer, who racked up 12 known victims and was never caught or even identified, wrote a threatening letter to a local newspaper, noting that ‘some of your people who do not jazz it out on that specific Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.’  I wasn’t aware that the letter was real when I read it in Axeman’s Jazz, but thinking about it as I type, it only demonstrates the great job Celestin has done at combining fact and fiction.

We find ourselves accompanying three individuals in their separate hunts for the Axeman: Detective Michael Talbot – a pariah in his department for having outed a colleague’s link with the Mob; Luca Andrea – ex-detective and Talbot’s former mentor and just released from prison (yep, he was sent down by Talbot); and Ida, a secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  Ida is accompanied by a trumpet player of the name Lewis Armstrong, who we will all come to know as Louis Armstrong; another blurring of fact and fiction as Armstrong himself was born and raised in New Orleans.  The race is on to catch the Axeman before more people ‘get the axe’ (unless they ‘jazz it out’).

You’ll have guessed that I really enjoyed the novel.  Being a fan of jazz and crime novels, it was always going to be up my street.  I don’t know whether Celestin has been to New Orleans (I haven’t) but he invokes a sense of the place and its inhabitants.  You can almost feel the humidity in the air and sweat running down your back as you’re taken on a journey through the musical, bustling and dangerous streets of downtown New Orleans.

Celestin has also conjured up some great characters, especially in the form of Talbot and Andrea and when it’s quite easy with this kind of book for the characters to be two-dimensional.  The most interesting thing is the way each of our hunters go about their task, unravelling the mystery by pulling at different strands, ultimately revealing different layers of the puzzle (or carpet if I continue with the metaphor!).  At over 400 pages in length, Axeman was a surprisingly swift read and a real page-turner, which I highly recommend.

Gig review – Wynton Marsalis quartet, 19 June 2018

One of the so-called “young lions” of jazz in the 1980s, Wynton Marsalis has carved out a name for himself in jazz and classical circles.  He’s the artistic director and the leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  Lauded for his technical prowess on the trumpet, I was expecting Marsalis to be a larger than life character when I saw his quartet play at London’s Barbican centre, which, according to the gig’s announcer, has been a long time coming.

Marsalis was joined by younger brother Jason on drums, Dan Nimmer on piano, and British talent Mark Lewandowski on bass.  Despite its size, the four musicians occupied a small and intimate section of the stage, which lent a certain charm to the gig.  Added to this was the choice of material.  Marsalis and his band served up some oldies, some of which I didn’t know – Goodbye (Gordon Jenkins, 1935), After You’ve Gone (Creamer and Layton, 1918) – and some which I did – Stardust (Hoagy Carmichael, 1927) and Ramblin’ (Ornette Coleman, 1959).  The best way I can describe the band and its music is natural.  Nothing was forced or out of place and every note seemed right. This was jazz at the highest level.  There is a certain thing that happens when you see players of the highest calibre; they make it look easy.  It’s only when you sit behind the piano (or whatever your choice of weapon) the next day when you appreciate that it takes a lot to look easy.

Marsalis lived up to all of my expectations, his playing and otherwise.  He reminiscences of Ornette Coleman and others kept the audience enrapt, as did his ventures out into the stalls. The gig felt like a real event rather than just another gig and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for when Marsalis next visits these shores.

Gig review – Chris Potter’s Underground, 13 March 2018

Looking back at my gig reviews, I noticed that it’s been a few months since my last gig.  My recent visit, however, to Ronnie Scott’s jazz club to see Chris Potter’s Underground sees the belated start to my 2018 campaign.  I’ve already a few in the diary, including The Cure, Wynton Marsalis, Harold Budd, and Cigarettes After Sex, so there’ll be plenty more to come in terms of gig reviews.

I’ve a few Chris Potter albums, mainly, I admit, because of the company he keeps.  His albums feature top pianists/keyboard players, including the likes of Craig Taborn, Kevin Hays, and David Virelles.  As a pianist I’m always going to be interested in what my fellow instrumentalists are up to.  Chris Potter is equally revered, especially by saxophonists, and has garnered numerous plaudits over his career.  So it wasn’t a hard decision when invited to go along and see his band play.  My only reservation was that the quartet didn’t include a keyboard player.  The quartet was completed by Adam Rogers (guitar), Fima Ephron (bass) and Dan Weiss (drums).  As you’d expect, they’re all top players in their own right.

Potter didn’t appear to be much of a talker (if this gig was anything to go by), letting his horn do it for him.  The set was varied with the band serving up a fusion of jazz, blues, funk and rock.  I can’t recall most of the names of the tunes played but can tell you that they played The Dreamer is the Dream, the title track of Potter’s 2017 album, and The Wheel, from Potter’s 2006 album underground, the closing tune of the evening.

What most of the tunes had in common was groove. Dan Weiss (who was for me the star of the evening) and Fima Ephron looked after the groove, taking you on all sorts of interesting rhythmic journeys but always dropping you off in the right place at the right time.  Potter was a never-ending fountain of creativity and invention. His ability to conjure so many interesting ideas within the space of a tune, while not trading this for musicality is why he’s so revered.  Rogers sounded slightly schizophrenic on guitar, his solos often alternating between chordal lines and flurries of bebop lines.  For my money, the band got better as the night went on but was at its best on the slower, more sparse Dreamer is the Dream.

For all this, I found myself disengaged with the music on a basic emotional level.  I appreciated the musicality but just didn’t warm to what was served up.  I should note that the audience as a whole certainly enjoyed the experience, as did my companion, so I’ll put this down to personal preference.

Album review – Never Stop II, The Bad Plus

Never Stop II is the 13th studio album released by The Bad Plus and their second album featuring all of their own material; the first being, you guessed it, Never Stop.  The title seems appropriate for another reason.  It’s the first album featuring Orrin Evans in the piano chair, recently vacated by Ethan Iverson, one of the band’s co-founders.  So perhaps, the title reflects the fact that the band continues despite one of the original trio leaving.  And if you suspect that the reference to a piano suggests that we’re not talking a rock band here, you’d be right.  TBP are a jazz trio but not a jazz piano trio in the classic sense.  The bass (Reid Anderson) and drums (Dave King) aren’t just there to support the pianist; it’s a far more democratic affair than that.  TBP are also a little different from the typical jazz trio.  They’re well known for their cover versions, including Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit, Aphex Twin’s Flim, and the Pixies’ Velouria.

Image result for bad plus never stop ii

Whether the band plays their own material or cover versions, it’s always clear that it’s TBP.  So I guess there are two questions that need to be answered:  is the album any good; and has the band lost its distinctive sound now that Orrin Evans has arrived?

The answer is yes and no (to coin a Wayne Shorter tune!), respectively.  From the first few seconds you know that this is a Bad Plus album and that remains the case for the rest of the album.  I mentioned earlier that this is a democratic affair and that’s the case with the writing.  Each band member has always contributed tunes and looking back over the band’s output over the last 18 years, I can see that some of my favourites have been penned by bassist Reid Anderson (including Physical Cities, and Seven Minute Mind).  So the loss of Iverson, at least in writing terms, hasn’t dented the band’s capacity to knock out a great tune.

Like Iverson, Evans is no slouch on the piano.  His 2015 album, The Evolution of Oneself was one of my favourites of that year and you can hear from that album alone that he’d have no problem joining TBP.  Evans and Iverson have their own styles but it’s clear that there’s someone else at the keyboard.  Evans has the same sense of anarchic abandon that Iverson possesses but has, it seems to me anyway, a more slippery sense of time, something which I appreciated on his aforementioned album.  The tracks on Soundcloud are three of the ten (if you include the two bonus tracks) and are representative of what you’ll be getting yourself into.

Never Stop II isn’t available for streaming, at least at the moment.  Nevertheless, it’s an investment well worth making, whether or not you know TBP.  I’ve seen the band a couple of times and hope they’ll be making a visit to these shores sometime soon.  They’re a great live band, so, like Pokemon, you should try and catch ‘em if you can.