Meeting Georgie Fame: a rare and exclusive interview

Georgie Fame

Writer Mark Youll caught up with legendary singer and pianist Georgie Fame for a rare and exclusive interview

It's crazy to think that it's now been 57 years since Ronnie Scott's first opened its doors in the busy, effervescent heart of Soho. First, from a basement bar in Gerrard Street for six years, before switching sites to nearby Frith Street in the summer of 1965, where it still stands proudly today as the greatest jazz venue in London, if not the world.

In celebrating the big birthday of this grand establishment, four concerts from one of the club's resident fixtures over the years, Georgie Fame, were announced for late October. The shows sold out instantly and the 73-year-old Fame came and blew the roof off the place. Engaging and energetic, his distinct jazzy vocal soared across a packed room night after night, while his warm signature B3 Hammond whistled and purred around the brassy blare of Guy Barker's wonderful orchestra. The music selected for these special shows was naturally arranged for big band and drawn from Fame's five decades in the business. It also served as a reminder of just how much Fame - like Ronnie's - has always been open to musical change and the rich mix of blues, jazz, gospel, calypso, R&B, bop, bossa and bluebeat resonating from the stage luminously verified this.

Georgie Fame SurvivalShould you have missed out on the shows or are maybe new to Fame's work, a stunning new box set, Survival, is released later this month. A weighty set spread across six discs, it features a selection of nuggets from 1963-2015, beginning with some the first material he recorded as a leader following his formative years as a backing musician to such quiff-rockers as Tony Sheridan, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Back then he was still a naive, 15 year-old Clive Powell, a passionate pianist having just escaped the likely prospect of labouring in a cotton mill in his native Lancashire by winning a singing contest at a Butlins talent show in Wales. His big win that day earned him a regular gig for a year playing with Rory Blackwell's Blackjacks, before he found himself in London, on the books of pop manager and impresario Larry Parnes and receiving some serious schooling, touring with all the aforementioned quiffs.

Powell's vibrant piano style flourished on the road and by 1959 Parnes had rechristened him Fame after hearing the boy could sing. It was also in that same year that he was introduced to the music of Ray Charles, a game-changing moment that would direct Fame down a new musical path, towards the blues and the music of the church, the combination of which would exemplify much of his work in the years thereafter. In the winter of 1961 another significant shift in Fame's career followed an incident in Paris while touring with Billy Fury and the Blue Flames. Friction had flared during a sound-check and Fame finished up as the band's new front man. It was a position he would hold and find great success with over the next three years, sweating his way through late night sets with the Flames, now the new resident band at the infamous Flamingo Club on London's Wardour Street.

It was at the Flamingo, discovering more Blue Note and bluebeat, and tearing through tunes by James Brown, Mose Allison, Booker T and Tamla Motown, that Fame would start to make his name, fusing together a sound from a myriad of influences and relighting his Flames as an all-out R&B outfit. The band was also by now represented by the club's promoter Rik Gunnell, who kept them busy touting their sound around the country, as well other popular London hangouts like Klooks Kleek and The Roaring Twenties. To top all the excitement of the band's live show, in which sludgy Hammond had replaced tinkling piano, Fame and his Flames found fame in the pop charts with a tune called 'Yeh Yeh' in early 1965. The song was a huge hit, eventually furnishing the 22-year old Fame with his first number one and dropping the group into a kind of screamy pop hysteria fleetingly, thanks to appearances on TV shows such as Ready Steady Go and The Scene.

But a change was gonna come, and a year later, despite more chart success with tracks 'In the Meantime', 'Getaway' and 'Sitting in the Park', Fame would be pushed by Gunnell to disband the band that helped make him a household name. He was signed to CBS and was, for the first time, now recording and touring as a solo artist. For a while the hits kept coming too, thanks to the seductive 'Sunny' and the banjo-twanging 'Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde', but they were to be his last major sellers. The seventies were around the corner and it become all too clear that the sixties dream was over and his days in the mainstream were numbered.

Not that this stopped Georgie from generating more great music. In fact, many still believed in his star quality. Notably Island records boss Chris Blackwell, and also jazz pianist Ben Sidran, who in the late '80s helped revive Fame's status by plonking him in the studio with some top New York sessioners (Steve Gadd, Will Lee, Robben Ford and Richard Tee) to record the groovy Cool Cat Blues album for his Go Jazz imprint. Fame even toured and recorded with Van Morrison for ten years around this time, a back-breaking schedule he somehow managed to squeeze into his own active solo pursuits into the noughties, writing more great music, establishing his own record label, forming a successful trio with his two sons and collaborating with Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters and countless other great artists and musicians around the world.

Speaking exclusively to Mark Youll for Jazzwise the usually interview-shy Georgie Fame agreed to discuss his long, diverse career so far. The highs, the lows, the Ronnie's shows and where his motivation for the music lies now.

I'd like to begin by asking you about the birthday shows you did at Ronnie's. How did those go and how did you decide on material for these gigs?

The shows were a lot of fun. I called up some arrangements from my personal big band library that I did with the Harry South big band in 1965. I also included a lot of later stuff. One tune that I composed in honour of Mose Allison ('Go Down Moses') was arranged by Guy Barker and performed for the first time at these shows.

Do you remember anything about the first time you played the club, and could you tell about your relationship with the venue over the years?

I first played at Ronnie's in the late seventies I think, when I had a new version of my (Blue Flames) band. I'd done a recording for Pye records and we did a few nights there. When I moved further into the world of jazz and I'd recorded an album in England with Annie Ross of Hoagy Carmichael tunes (In Hoagland, 1981) I was then playing a lot in Europe with jazz combos. I remember I went back to the club around 1988 when I did an album associated with the songs of Chet Baker, this was with Peter King on alto and I think Ron Mathewson on bass.

Then I returned to the club later with a larger band with King, Alan Skidmore on tenor and Guy Barker. I think that was the first time I worked with Guy. It was basically the be-bop singing bit and some Chet Baker trumpet solos which me and a friend added lyrics to. The original idea was to do an album with Chet and I spoke to him about it, but unfortunately he fell out of a window, or was pushed, and we'll never know the truth. Anyway, I went ahead and did that album (A Portrait of Chet, 1989) with some fine musicians in Holland and this led me to working at Ronnie's every year after that.

Your music has taken many shifts stylistically, what do you enjoy about working in a big band situation?

Well, playing with a jazz orchestra like Guy's is a luxury. I financed the first big band album I did in England with Harry South's band (1965's Sound Venture) and that band contained some of the greatest musicians of the time – Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Stan Tracey, Phil Seaman. I was a kid but I wanted to try and sing with a big band, so Harry and I put that thing together. I remember my manager at the time (Rik Gunnell) was all against it, he thought big bands were dead, and that it would be a waste of money. It was like my parents saying "what do you want to go gallivanting down to London for?", like I should stay in Lancashire working in a cotton mill factory.

Music has always been at the centre of things for you. What was the first music you remember hearing?

The first music I heard was every Sunday in the chapel, singing hymns. We also had a piano in the front room and my dad played a little bit. We would have regular social evenings. Things happened in the church hall and then there was Sunday School where there was a stage and a band in which my dad played accordion. It was in the church that I also learned the popular songs of the day.

Would you say music was imposed on you at a young age or did you naturally gravitate towards it?

Music was part of our lives. In the days when I was growing up, in Lancashire after the war, there was no television, and every house, no matter how poor you were, had a bloody piano in the front room.

During your shows you always make an effort to explain the history of the material you perform. Why is this?

I think it's very important to educate the audience. A lot of people don't know where the music came from. A lot of people in their innocence think that 'Yeh Yeh' began with Matt Bianco in 1986. That was a very fine record and people think it started with me and it didn't, so it's important that I inform the audience. Especially nowadays, with the way the media is, and life being so fast and flippant, people don't have any depth to their knowledge. I think it's important that people know where I got my inspiration from.

Where did you get your inspiration from?

I was inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, and by the age of sixteen I was touring with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent and I've never stopped learning. Colin Green, my first musical mentor and first guitarist in the Blue Flames, turned up at Ronnie's the other day, we worked together for donkey's years and we're both into our seventies now but still I'm learning. Ever since I left Lancashire I've been learning. So it was Jerry and Fats until I came to Soho and I started hanging out with other musicians, and then I heard Ray Charles and the sky opened.

Tell me about that time – how would you describe the impact Charles' music had on you?

We were called to a rehearsal in Gerrard Street, Soho by Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and it was there, along with a pool of musicians that Larry Parnes employed and Marty Wilde's band the Wildcats, that we found out who was gonna play with who. Eddie was sat on a stool with a Grestch guitar and asked if anyone had heard of Ray Charles and nobody put their hand up. So he started to play the intro to 'What'd I say' on his guitar and we all flipped. As it happened, the Wildcats were chosen to play with Eddie and we were selected to back Gene Vincent, but that was not how it worked out. You can ask any of the Beatles that are still alive, or Tom Jones who remembers me playing 'What'd I Say' with Eddie Cochran in Cardiff in 1960. Eddie Cochran was responsible for introducing the music of Ray Charles to the masses of this country. The Beatles were in the audience when we played at the Liverpool Empire and within three months of that tour every guitar player in Britain was trying to play 'What'd I say', most of them were playing it wrong too! Eddie played it perfectly.

When we first heard that recording by Ray Charles we didn't know what the instrument that opened the tune was. We'd heard of a Wurlitzer piano, but we thought it was some strange guitar sound. Ray Charles was so deeply rooted in gospel and jazz and it was the kind of music I wanted to play from day one. We all know that rock and roll, as white people call it, came from black rhythm and blues, but you couldn't mention that fifty bloody years ago, people just didn't want to know. When my band had its first hit with 'Yeh Yeh' we couldn't get booked in America because I had two black guys in the band. They had integrated bands in America in the early sixties but with the British invasion they just wanted the guitar bands. They didn't know how to place me. I had an African conga player and a Jamaican trumpet player and they couldn't be bothered to find us a place to play.

Let's not forget Ray Charles commercialised the gospel. He mixed the gospel and the blues together. In America the blues was known as the devil's music and so Ray Charles made a fundamental shift in that he combined the devil's music with the gospel, the Lord's music. When you look back on it it's one of the most radical things you can do.

How would you say working as a backing pianist for the likes of Gene Vincent, Tony Sheridan and Billy Fury helped you later as a leader?

Well you have to wear a different hat. There is an old legend, that's partly a joke, that the band leader is the worst musician in the band, mainly because leaders need to concentrate on other things like logistics and who's going to be in the band. It's important that members of an orchestra or band get on with each other. To start with, we formed the band because we were all friends together. When egos are flying around left right and centre it can turn unpleasant and I don't want that, which is why in the last 25 years or so I've only worked with friends.

What happened exactly in Paris with Billy Fury that resulted in you leading the Blue Flames?

As I remember it, we were doing a sound-check and the Olympia theatre was empty. Chubby Checker was top of the bill and the Shadows played without Cliff Richard. Colin Green had persuaded us to learn a song by the Percy Faith orchestra called 'Summer Place'. Because Billy wasn't at the sound-check there was no need to play any Fury numbers and so Colin was cheering us on to try other things. So we were playing that tune and the road manager came rushing down to the front of the stage yelling "It's not rocking, it's not rocking!" We told him to get stuffed and that was it, we got fired. Billy Fury didn't fire us, the road manager did.

The journey from Butlins to the big time was a short one. How quickly were things happening in the early sixties and how comfortable were you with your new role as ambassador of R&B in the UK?

That was a journalistic thing, I never called myself that. We were out of work after we got sacked from Fury's band. I stayed in a friend's apartment for two months with no work. Somebody came round and paid for me to have a haircut one day, I was looking a bit of a mess I suppose. But this friend took me round to the Flamingo club and introduced me to Rik Gunnell who was running the all-night sessions there. We stood in for the resident band and ended up staying for three years. That's where it became Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. Before that it was Billy Fury and the Blue Flames. We were all in this together and we played with lots of musicians down there. We were all living and learning at the same time. Once we were in the Flamingo we were working regularly. Then the club scene started in London and later places like Manchester and Sheffield opened up and we were playing up and down the country.

So 'Yeh Yeh' took you into the charts and to Number One, did you enjoy your time in the pop limelight?

I enjoyed some of it. 'Yeh Yeh' is still a strong song and I opened my gigs at Ronnie Scott's with a wonderful big band arrangement of it that Tubby Hayes did for me in 1967 for my first tour with Count Basie. That song opened a lot of doors for me, as Ray Charles did. It gave me the opportunity to play outside the country and to witness other cultures and languages, forming relationships through the music. In music there's no language barrier. And that's what I've done over the years. I've made a lot a friends all over the world, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, America, South Africa, Europe and that's the kind of places I work and those are the people I play with.

Were chart placements important to you at that time?

I think they were important to my manager and the business. I got a brand new Jaguar S Type for my birthday in 1965, it was a gift from my manager, but of course he used my money to pay for the bloody thing. So I financed a lot of people's livelihoods and with building up a business chart placements were fairly important. Even John Mayall, who worked out of the same office as us, was convinced to get in on the commercial end of it all and composed what would be for him a commercial song called 'Something'.

How busy did that period get for you?

We used to rehearse once a week and put new tunes in the programme. We could play four one hour sets without repeating ourselves. I wasn't composing much at the time. I didn't really start writing until I started to make records and my first attempts weren't very good. One of my compositions, about leaving the Flamingo and six o'clock in the morning, was 'Dawn Yawn' which I sang at Ronnie's last weekend too and it sounded ok.

I read that Prince Buster would often be escorted from town to town by mod fans on scooters whenever he toured in the UK. Did you ever get preferential similar treatment from the modernist fraternity?

In Tokyo and Northern Spain there are still large mod movements these days and I get fated every time I visit. In the old days, the Flamingo at first wasn't a mod joint; it was full of black American GIs that were stationed in the US air force. There were also a lot of West Indians, Africans, even gangsters. The week after the US air force authorities put the Flamingo off limits to the GIs it was suddenly taken over by the mods, once it was safe to go in there.

How did the Blue-Beat influence come about with tracks like 'Madness' and 'Tom Hark'?

It was the Jamaican friends we had at the Flamingo. There was also a great West Indian disc jockey called Count Suckle (one of the originators of Jamaican music in Britain) who had the best record collection of anybody I've ever met. We used to do blues dances down at a club in Ladbroke Grove and Suckle would have his sound-system and the Blues Flames would play with hardly any PA system. We'd play at the Porchester Hall and places like that, it would be full of West Indians and a few Africans. Suckle found a place to play in the basement of a place on Carnaby Street called the Roaring Twenties. This was, I think, 1962 before it was a big fashion street. We opened it with him on a Sunday from Midnight to 6am. That's where I met Prince Buster, Rico Rodriguez and all those guys. My first recordings on Hammond organ were with Prince Buster.

How much of an effect did the breakup of the Flames have on your career?

Personally it had a very detrimental effect on my state of mind, mainly because it was the band that had led the way. It was the reason we all did it in the first place. My manager had different ideas from a commercial point of view and I was very upset with that and spent quite a while in the wilderness trying to resolve all that. My manager had other plans for what my image should be. He thought the R&B and club scene was dead. People like John Mayall had moved to America and onto greater success and he thought I should become a solo artist. He also wouldn't have had the over-heads of having to worry about a band (laughs).

The new box-set features, for the first time, a steaming set from the Lyceum from 1974. What was the hold up on the release of this recording?

The recording quality was a disaster. I can't remember who the engineer was but it was a pretty hairy band, a bigger Blue Flames. I put it all together for (Island Records boss) Chris Blackwell. Other musicians heard about it and I had people like (saxophonist) Elton Dean asking if they could be in the band. It got too big and the recording of the gig at the Lyceum was so bad that nothing was usable. My son Tristan is a fully-qualified engineer and so Universal passed the original tapes to him and he worked and worked to make them sound acceptable. The original set lasted about an hour and a half but what's on the box set is all that was salvageable. Most of it was unlistenable and unplayable.

How would you describe the 1970s compared to the huge success you had in the 60s? Was it a challenging time for you musically?

Not a challenging time musically, it was a challenging time commercially, just trying to survive. My friend in America (musician) Ben Sidran and I sometimes talk about how the seventies were a dead decade for us. The suits had moved into the business and certainly the recording industry. This changed the whole procedure. But I kept on going and was lucky to get some work in TV commercials which helped to pay the mortgage, and I wrote some music for a couple of films.

But it was decided by the powers that be that it was the end of that whole sixties era. Bands like Led Zeppelin came in and cleaned up, made loads of money, and good luck to them. Our managers were telling us what to do, but if you look back at it all historically our managers didn't know what they were fucking talking about. Simply because they were still learning to be managers at the same time we were learning to play. And that unfortunately is the hard truth of why John Lennon and Paul McCartney do not own the copyright to the great early Beatle compositions. Their manager wasn't advised properly. I remember we were all told to go to a publisher and get our songs published. The publisher would agree on a 50/50 deal and they would have the copyright. We didn't know about the business side of it and our managers certainly didn't. We didn't care; we were just interested in the music.

After the seventies my manager moved to America and I decided I didn't need a manager, I knew what I wanted to do and I've pursued that ever since. I've obviously done something right because I'm one of the few people that play for a week at Ronnie Scott's and it's sold out before I have time to think about it.

As well as Alan Price, another major figure you ended up working with was Van Morrison. What kept you in his band for what was nearly a decade?

I liked it and he liked it. He came to see the show on Saturday and said it was the best fucking band he'd ever heard. We have a great relationship and it was only due to other commitments that I had to quit his band. It just so happened that after I left the band Bill Wyman called and asked me to join his Rhythm Kings group. These people are all friends and working with them doesn't stop me doing what I want to do. There's something in the pipeline possibly with Van next year and I'd be happy to do it because he's a fantastic performer and also a wonderful poet, like Bob Dylan. He bares his soul on stage. He bares his soul through his songs and his poetry, and he's always been an inspiration. He's also one musician that's made me cry on stage from pure emotion.

The music you made with Richard Tee, Steve Gadd and Will Lee in the early 1990s was quite special, how did those sessions come about?

It was around 1989 and I was in Australia working with an Australian band. I met up with Ben Sidran who told me about his plans for the Go Jazz label and asked if I would like to do an album. We agreed, started sending each other material and I went to New York I we did it. The first (Cool Cat Blues) album with those guys didn't take long to make because they are serious players, they don't take prisoners. It was a wonderful experience and I ended up doing three albums with Ben in New York. I think they are included in some of the best albums I've ever done. I did 'Rocking Chair' on Cool Cat Blues and sang in the piano room next to Richard Tee and he was a fantastic musician, a really warm guy as well.

Is there a particular style or setting you prefer working in these days?

Not at all. At the moment I work with a fantastic jazz quartet in Sweden featuring a wonderful female soprano sax player that plays bebop. I've done Guy Barker's big band at Ronnie's because it's what was needed and I've worked with Guy for over thirty years now. Soon I'm going to Hong Kong with Guy and a Chinese guitar player who we met through our frequent trips out there. I've got four concerts coming up in Holland with one of the great European jazz orchestras on a par with Guy's big band. I also like to play on my own at the piano sometimes. I'm actually looking for a quiet little place somewhere that I can just play on my own without any publicity, just word of mouth kind of thing. Because that's how it was in the beginning. No distractions, you know?

How do you think you managed to encapsulate so many genres into your work?

Well it's all part of the same tree. Its different branches coming from the same root and they all belong together.

Looking at all the material amassed on this amazing new box set, is there a particular era and recording you feel most proud of or that best represents you as an artist?

I would probably say some of the best things I've done in my career would be on my own Three Line Whip label, tracks with the latest and last edition of the Blue Flames with Alan Skidmore and Guy Barker. Those recordings are at the back end of the box set I think. I wanted control over it all and when I had new songs I wanted to just record them and having now owned a label I could because I was my own boss. I think that material is more representative of where I'm at, and they do encapsulate everything that I've been involved in from day one.

Finally, after five long decades what motivates you to keep going musically?

The emotion of actually performing. I don't play anything or sing anything I'm not happy with and it's a wonderful experience to have that adrenalin running through your system. It's an emotional thing and when I'm working with my two sons there's an added dimension to that emotion. Playing with your own flesh and blood adds another dimension. As long as I have my health, my enthusiasm for the music and I can still remember the words to the fucking songs then there's no reason to quit. I'll just keep doing what I do and keep my head down. Like Van Morrison, I bare my soul on stage.

Survival - A Career Anthology 1963-2015 is released on November 25th through Universal.

Kandace Springs – Soul Seeker

Kandace Springs

Precociously talented vocalist, pianist and songwriter Kandace Springs found her jazz feet and a ready audience with the release of Soul Eyes on Blue Note earlier this year. She spoke to Peter Quinn about acquiring her first instrument and the tutelage of heavyweights such as Prince, Don Was and Gregory Porter

Mentored by Prince, who was so taken by her cover of Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ that he flew her to Minneapolis to perform with him at the 30th anniversary celebration of Purple Rain. Offered a record deal by Blue Note’s President Don Was after hearing her perform just one song – an arrangement of Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ (from Raitt’s 1991 album Luck of the Draw, which Was co-produced). Vocalist, pianist and songwriter Kandace Springs seems to be the very epitome of overnight success. And yet, as is so often the case, the reality is rather more complex.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, her father, Scat Springs, is a session singer who still holds a residency downtown. Springs vividly recalls the day that a piano suddenly appeared in the family home, an event which was to profoundly shape the course of her life.

“We had a friend who was being evicted from her apartment,” she tells me on the phone from the US, “and she had this old, old upright piano, like an heirloom. They were going to throw it out in the street, so she called my dad and said please, please can you keep this. He didn’t want to take it because it was so big, but a few days later I saw the piano in the house. I remember trying to play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and my dad comes down and plays a ghetto version and I played it back real quick and he was like, ‘that ain’t normal!’”

As her father was close friends of the Nashville-based Wooten brothers, lessons with Regi Wooten soon followed. Then, at the age of 13, her musical path was sealed when a song from Norah Jones’s debut album Come Away With Me came on the radio.

“The last song on that record came on, the great jazz standard ‘The Nearness of You’. I was like, oh my gosh. I stopped everything and said I’ve got to learn this song.” Springs bought the sheet music and ended up performing the song at a music camp in Nashville. “That was my debut – I was hooked after that. I thought, I want to make a living doing this.” After that, her father gave her more albums to check out: Diana Krall, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald, who she cites as being one of her biggest influences.

An early demo caught the ears of Rogers and Sturken, writers for Shakira, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson and others, best known for discovering and signing Rihanna. Aged just 17, Springs had the opportunity to ink a deal with their production company, SRP, but felt that she couldn’t commit at that point. Instead, she threw herself into work at a downtown Nashville hotel, valet-parking cars by day and playing piano in the lounge at night (Springs is a self-confessed gearhead).

Ripple dissolve to a few years later. Springs now found herself in New York, focusing once more on songwriting and demo recordings. Hooking up with Rogers and Sturken, a self-titled debut EP garnered critical acclaim and appearances on Jimmy Kimmel and Letterman shows, but the R&B/hip hop direction her music had taken wasn’t sitting quite right with Springs. Following some soul searching, plus some invaluable advice from Prince to follow her own muse, she finally returned to the soul, jazz, pop sweet spot that had so captivated her on Come Away With Me.

That all-important audition with Mr Was then followed, and Springs became a Blue Note artist. But it’s been a long musical journey.

In addition to her smoky vocals and engaging piano playing, expressed almost as one musical thought with what album producer Larry Klein refers to as, “a sense of phrasing way beyond her years”, her distinguished debut album Soul Eyes is marked by her own distinctive compositional voice. Featuring the most beautiful trumpet solo by Terence Blanchard, Springs co-wrote the slow-burner ‘Too Good To Last’ with songwriters Greg Wells and Lindy Robbins, plus a brace of songs (‘Fall Guy’ and ‘Novocaine Heart’) with Rogers and Sturken. But it’s the entirely self-penned album closer, the almost conversational ‘Rain Falling’, which really captures your attention.

“I was 16 years old when I wrote that song. I just like that more poetic writing where it’s not just verse, chorus, back to the verse and into the bridge. I really like the song to tell a story,” she says. The imagery of water seems to thread its way through the album like a subliminal idťe fixe. Is this something she particularly responds to? “Actually, I do. No-one’s ever brought it up with me like that before, but I’m obsessed with water.” And will there be more of her own material, is there a back catalogue? “You better believe it,” she laughs.

Having performed across the UK earlier this year as support for Gregory Porter (“To play in front of his fans and see him up there was mind-blowing,” she tells me), Springs will doubtless win a whole host of new admirers when she plays her EFG London Jazz Festival debut at Rich Mix on Saturday 12 November.

Photo: Mathieu Bitton

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise magazine, visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman – Just the Two of Us

Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman

The dynamic top-tier pairing of Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman are seeking to elevate the status of the piano and sax formation with their new album on Nonesuch, Nearness. Ahead of their headline appearance at this year’s EFG London Jazz festival on November 12, Selwyn Harris spoke to them about their profitable partnerships and the relative paucity of high-profile precursors to their own designs on the duet

For whatever reasons, the piano-sax duo is one of the more unusual of what could be considered conventional jazz line-ups. It’s a setting that hasn’t had the same watershed moments or been talked about with anything like the same gravitas as the solo, trio, quartet, quintet format and so on. Of more recent contemporary recordings though, Marc Copland-Greg Osby, Lee Konitz-Dan Tepfer and Vijay Iyer-Rudresh Mahanthappa are notable pairings that have revealed the format’s potential for a freewheeling, intimate, one-on-one dialogue cut through with an intensity that can more than match any of the other more ‘classic’ settings. Add the new Brad Mehldau-Joshua Redman recording to that list. Their outstanding new release Nearness on Nonesuch is their first recording as a duo and captures the very essence of these values.

“My observation would be that there aren’t as many duos as there are trios, quartets, etc in any instrumentation,” says Mehldau. “I’m not sure why that is. Duo implies the opportunity for a direct confrontation with the other player, but there are also ways to make it more conventional of course, as with any instrumentation. Perhaps that directness is a put off for musicians. For me it’s what’s so fun and exciting. I’m not saying I’m a master at it at all; on the contrary, playing duo with an inspiring musician like Josh makes me feel less self-assured in the best sense of the word. I really value those musical situations where I am challenged, and this is one of them.”

Mehldau’s other musical half Joshua Redman, also considers the lack of role models in the duo setting. “It’s an interesting question and one that I’ve never thought of before,” says the tenor-soprano saxophonist on the line from LA, as inquisitive in conversation as he is improvising. “I’ve heard Herbie and Wayne play duo together and they sound amazing, Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron, but I would say not so much in the sense that there are so many touchstones as for a quartet or quintet, groups historically that have had huge influence and impact. With the duo it’s more just that the models are the great jazz improvisers that we’ve listened to. And it sounds a little strange but I think our duo thing was already established. All the pieces were already there from the lifetime of music making we’d had that preceded that together. In a way we were doing what we’ve always done, but maybe just without bass and drums. It felt very familiar and very natural from the first gig. That surprised me a little bit. Oh yeah, I’m playing with Brad and we’re doing what we do, but this time it’s just the two of us.”

The musical bromance between Redman and Mehldau has passed every endurance test since their first meeting in the early 1990s. That was when Mehldau got his first big break in Redman’s quartet touring and recording on the sax man’s 1994 Warner Bros album MoodSwing. The saxophonist, who’s the son of Dewey Redman – a former protagonist of a more avant-garde strain of jazz tenor – was one of the highly-gifted young generation of jazz musicians at the time riding the wave of a mainstream jazz renaissance. By his early twenties he’d already been nominated for a Grammy, won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition and copped a record deal with Warner Bros.

“It was by far the best gig I had ever had up until that point in my lifetime,” says Mehldau. “I had been gigging around New York and had some other road gigs since I was 18, and I think I started playing with Josh when I was 24. It was, needless to say, very exciting for me. I felt like I had won a lottery, getting that gig! It was a real happy moment in my life. Josh called me to play two nights at the Village Vanguard – he had a week there – to see how it would go. That in itself was daunting, to be playing in that room. I passed the test and he asked me to be a part of the band. Big event for me, for sure.”

“I first met Brad and played with him shortly after I had moved to New York and he was God to me,” says Redman. “He was light years ahead of everyone else. He already had his own sound and identity. He was already clearly one of a kind, a one in a generation musician. He was in my band for a short period of time, but a very formative period. Then he started to do his own thing and we reconnected on another record I did called Timeless Tales in 1997 or so for a period of time.”

With new family commitments, managing their separate high-flying careers as well as living on different coasts, playing together became less of a regular occurrence. Even so they were still bumping into each other on the road and at the odd jam session. The tables had meanwhile turned. Mehldau’s star was the one in the ascendant; to many minds he’d become the most important new jazz pianist on the planet.

“For one thing, I would go to hear him play whenever,” says Redman. “At that time I had moved to New York and was living there up until 2002. So whenever he was in town, like playing with his trio at the Vanguard, I would always go down, often multiple nights because I’m one of the biggest Brad Mehldau fans and we’d always run into each other on tour. We did some double bills together too, his trio and my quartet. We were always in touch musically and I was always aware of what he was doing and listening to his latest records, so even though we’ve gone long periods of not playing together I’ve always felt in a very good way, very familiar with him musically.”

Their next notable musical exchange occurred in 2008 when they performed as a duo for the first time. Redman’s key appearance on Mehldau’s Highway Rider (2010) and Mehldau’s on Redman’s sax-and-strings Walking Shadows (2013) gave them the opportunity to cross musical paths again. But both longed for the kind of profoundly intimate experience they’d discovered as a duo. “Josh and I made a few duo performances together first, without much thought of where it would go, just to explore,” says Mehldau. “We had a really nice one as a part of a residency I did at the wonderful Wigmore Hall in London. We both felt strongly about that gig immediately; it felt like there was potential to grow. So we looked for more gigs. Indeed, what was appealing about the duo setting was how unhinged it felt in comparison to the two recording projects you mention, which were, relatively speaking, planned out affairs.”

“I didn’t know if I was ready to play duo with Brad Mehldau,” says Redman, with genuine modesty. “My question was about whether he even needed me. He’s one of the greatest solo pianists playing today, arguably of all time, so what am I going to add to the conversation? But, in a way, what I discovered was what I already knew, that exactly what I did add was myself to the conversation and that is one of the things that makes Brad such a great musician. I think one thing we share in common is this embrace of a real communicative conversational ethic. We’ve always had this even when we were playing together in larger configurations. That’s something we both love and it’s a source of our connection and I think it makes the duo situation feel so unique and special, at least for me. I think the challenge for me is to not let that love of interplay and conversation take over the music. We still have to be conscious of the song and trying to tell the story of the song, whatever that is. And to be conscious of architecture and form and organisation of the music so there is structure, there is a sense of purpose and directionality, there is a sense that there’s a larger narrative going on. That’s also something I think we both share, we’re aware that improvisation takes place in a larger context and you can be completely free and in the moment and interactive and conversational, and still be aware of the larger structure and architecture and hopefully serve it. You can have your cake and eat it too.”

In the making of Nearness, Mehldau approached Redman just over a year ago about them listening through some live concert tapes of them in duo. Redman compiled the recording, going through about 20 gigs and finding “special or unique versions of our repertoire”, a mix of bebop, standards and pop-rock tunes. They boiled it down to seven tracks, all of which come from a European tour in November 2011. Mehldau remembers it as “a fruitful series of gigs; we were really in the zone.” It’s highlighted by their elegantly scintillating versions of the bebop standards Charlie Parker/Benny Harris’ ‘Ornithology’ and Thelonious Monk’s ‘In Walked Bud’.

“When I first heard Brad I remember being struck by how much Wynton Kelly he had in his playing and I loved Wynton Kelly,” says Redman. “People don’t hear that now because there are so many layers. His thinking obviously wasn’t as fully developed as it became five years later. But we both loved bebop and we came up at a time when bebop was super important to what young cats were checking out. That music is a shared love for us for sure. So it was natural for us to play bebop tunes on the tour.”

Aside from the standard title theme, all are originals, one of them being Redman’s punning ‘Mehlsancholy’. Says Redman, “It’s a Brad-like tune in the feeling of the harmonic motion and has that beautiful tinge of melancholy which is something that’s at the core of his aesthetic. It reminded me of him and was influenced by him in a way. We’ve always shared musical values, whether in terms of our approach to improvisation or some of the same influences, and the importance of swing, blues and love of interesting popular music of our generation. All those things have been there from the beginning. Even though we grow and mature and change with our different projects, I feel, maybe because I’ve always listened to his music, that we’re changing together and growing together. There’s never been a point when I didn’t feel 100 per cent comfortable playing with Brad. This doesn’t take anything away from other musical relationships, but often when I go a long time without playing with a musician there’ll be an adjustment period. With him it’s never felt like that. It feels like we’re picking up where we left off, but with the added benefit of how many years and notes of making more music and being that more mature and hopefully wiser. At the same time, I’m always on the edge of my toes and it never feels too comfortable. It never feels like we’re just dialling it in, or just coasting. It’s not easy trying to keep up with Brad! But yeah, we both have a very playful spirit and not coming to the bandstand with any agenda. We both really embrace the moment.”

“Josh and I both value listening closely to the other player,” says Mehldau. “It definitely plays into this duo format. Having said that, there is always a counterintuitive possibility: sometimes there are exciting moments of rupture here when one of us just charges forward brazenly, independent of what the other guy is doing. This is interesting to me, this notion of respecting and trusting the other player enough to play something that is, on the face of it, disrespectful. All of these variables on the bandstand are applicable to friendships. Jazz is nothing if not a social music, a music of social interaction.” 

Photo: Michael Wilson

Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau Duo play the Barbican on 12 November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

 

Interview: Dominic J Marshall on studying jazz at university

Dominic J Marshall

Rising star pianist Dominic J Marshall has produced four impressive albums to date, his latest being The Triolithic, featuring his molten blend of hard hitting melodic jazz underpinned with slugged hip hop grooves and daring dynamics. He’s also keyboardist with internally acclaimed trip hop pioneers Cinematic Orchestra, and is currently on a world tour with them, while he also moonlights as an electronica artist under the moniker DJM. Born in Scotland, Marshall moved to England when he was three years old, with music running in his family: his father an Oxford graduate, classical piano player and teacher and his mother a self-taught pianist. Attending both Leeds College of Music and Conservatorium van Amsterdam, where he studied jazz piano and obtained Bachelors and Masters diplomas respectively, before turning professional. Fellow Leeds and University of Amsterdam alumnus, musicologist Rokas Kucinskas, interviewed Dominic this summer in Amsterdam about his life in music so far...

Before attending higher music education, what were your piano studies like?

My father was my first piano teacher, introducing me to the instrument and giving me lessons. At the beginning they were mainly classical music focused, but with time my father also introduced me to improvisation and composition via scales, and how rearranging notes in them affects the music I was playing. It also was something that I really liked, being a bit of an opposite direction to what my main focus at the time was – classical music. I did develop an appreciation for playing, and it became a daily habit that after school I would come home and play for two hours. Just improvise and what not. I had a few lessons with jazz pianists before my auditions, as people told me I should consult with people who know about jazz more than my father, but he was my only true teacher until I enrolled in Leeds College of Music.

So you were not really playing jazz until you enrolled in LCM?

I was, but it was quite a low standard playing. I mean we had gigs and all. There was one in a pub, across from my house just before I left for Leeds, where together with my friend I was trying to play “Giant Steps” (by John Coltrane), but had to stop after 20 bars. We just couldn’t follow the form [laughs]. The thing is, that I never learned the simple stuff, like say “Satin Doll”. I wanted to play things like “Giant Steps”. The first jazz tunes I learned were “Turn Out the Stars”, “Time Remembered”, “Waltz for Debby”.

You started playing Bill Evans’ compositions straight away?

Yes [laughs]. I had books with his transcriptions, and I read some of his pieces.

How did your study habits change in LCM then?

I spent a lot of time practicing. Especially from the second year onwards. I realized that I didn’t have dexterity in my fingers. The speed in my hands was nowhere near the speed I wanted to have. It sort of developed into an inferiority complex, and I became anxious that other students had something I didn’t. All the first year I overlooked it by not being strict with myself, so during my second year I started practicing seven hours a day. Scales, arpeggios, J. S. Bach, transcribing other pianists’ solos, learning new songs – all became a daily routine for me.

Working with a metronome?

I’m doing that now [laughs]. It’s funny, because during one of the workshops [bassist and educator] Jeff Berlin came to LCM and told everybody not to practice with a metronome. He was very confident about it, and it did affect many of us, students. Suddenly we all were like “wow, he must be right”. Looking back, I appreciate what he said. Time comes from inside not from a machine; rhythm is not mechanical. But today, musicians work in highly technological environments, recording studios, and so forth. One needs to be aware of that, and the metronome becomes very important tool, especially if you consider something like BPM – an essential aspect in today’s music world.

Did you escape from that inferiority complex regarding the speed of your playing?

Well, it became one of the many things I want to have in my playing. But that’s the thing, you can never have anything in music – it just doesn’t belong to you. Now we’re sitting here, talking, and where is the music? Nowhere. If I sit down and start playing after a few beers, my hands will act very differently to what I am used to, and the whole speed element becomes something you shouldn’t solely focus on, because same beers might enhance my creativity, but the speed might suffer.

That’s an interesting way of looking at it. When did you start thinking about the matter in this way?

Just a little before I graduated from my Masters. I stopped being strict on myself in general, because the goal where you want to be, which is essentially why one practices, is always moving. It’s a moving target, and it can become a trap, if you do not have it set. You should practice for something, and if you do that for 5 years, there needs to come a time when you stop, look back, and say: “Did I achieve what I wanted? Because if I did, then I don’t need to practice it anymore”.

But when do you know that you have achieved your goal?

It’s funny, because I’m reminded of another workshop I went to LCM, when one of the fellow students asked a person, I can’t remember his name, leading the workshop: “How do you know when you have to stop practicing something?” And the person gave such a great answer: “How do you know when you fall in love?” It’s a feeling – you just know.

Dominic J Marsall

Going back to the beginning of the topic, Leeds, how would you describe your three years spent in there? How would you describe the institution itself?

Just a lot of work. A lot of time spent in classrooms; some great teachers. Mark Donlon, my principal teacher during my last year, for example, suggested me that I could do the Masters. Jamil Sheriff was also great. He was strict, but great because of that. I learned a lot from Mulele Matondo, too. Just by playing with him I learned a lot about rhythm and melody. These people make the institutions, and because of this institutions are always changing. I mean it was great back when I studied there. There were some lectures I didn’t attend, especially during my second year, but I was constantly working. I sort of made selective sacrifices for my individual practicing. Also, I learned as much from different musicians in LCM as I did from the teachers; made some good friends. In the end, I got a lot from it.

Do you miss it?

Do I miss it? Well, I never really missed schools. You take what you can from them and you move on. It’s like attending swimming lessons – once you know how to swim, you don’t think: “Oh, I want to go back to swimming lessons” [laughs]. That’s the thing with institutions that I said before – they’re always changing. I went and did a workshop there after I graduated, and it already felt like a different place. Some people were still there, but it did feel like a different place from what I remember. I do miss playing basketball though [smiles].

Ok, let’s talk about your Masters programme. Did you enroll in Conservatorium van Amsterdam straight after Leeds?

Yes, straight away. As I said, Mark Donlon gave me the idea to do the Masters programme. Perhaps he saw me practicing a lot and thought it could be something for me. I applied for a few programmes, and was accepted in Amsterdam. It wasn’t my first choice, but it turned out to be the best one for me. For my auditions I played Bill Evans’ and Robert Glasper’s tunes. As it turned out, piano teachers in Amsterdam are fond of Bill Evans, and maybe because of that I was given the place in the programme [smiles].

So you didn’t play some well-known jazz standard? Was it always like that for you?

Absolutely. I need to like the tune to perform it well, and if I played something like “Autumn Leaves” for my audition in Amsterdam, I don’t think I would have gotten in [laughs]. Even in Leeds with all the mandatory repertoire of jazz standards, I didn’t play many of them. I remember completely rearranging “All The Things You Are” because I didn’t like it, and I must admit, I’m still very much like that today. It’s all about the composition for me, and not so much about improvisation – I care about the framework in which I improvise. I met a lot of people during my time in both Leeds and Amsterdam, who complained to me how boxed-in they feel having to play all those jazz standards, but somehow I always managed to avoid this.

Are there big differences between BA and MA courses?

I think that both of them are similar, except that the MA programme is like a bigger pool to swim in, with more challenges. Most of my time spent in Amsterdam, however, I was doing the same things as in Leeds. I was behind the piano practicing, playing with people, learning from my fellow students, and some very good teachers. I could have socialized more than I did. I could have benefited from that. There’s definitely more freedom in the Masters. Teachers expect you to know what you want, and how to go there. For me that was perfect, because I knew where to go to in terms of my goals. Where the BA programme was more like: “You don’t know what you’re doing, so just come this way” [laughs].

Did you meet people in Amsterdam who were doing BA programme in jazz?

Of course.

Have you ever looked at them and compared them to yourself when you were studying in LCM? Maybe you thought about differences between the two institutions you studied in?

To be honest, I think that both LCM and CvA are very similar. They both are very big schools, which offer places to a lot of people, more than some other schools. I really like such approach, because it’s more sociable and you meet more people; rather than feeling isolated, you feel being a part of something bigger. I can imagine that in some schools that admit less people, you might run into troubles if you don’t like playing with them. What if you don’t like a bass player, but there isn’t any other to play with? What happens if he can’t play a funk groove, and you love playing it?

I don’t think you’re allowed to play funk in such schools…

No, you’re not – it’s bad [laughs]. Perhaps the basic difference between Leeds and Amsterdam is how much more international Amsterdam is. I really liked it, and because of that, while doing my Masters, I played in Germany, Russia, and Latvia. If you live in Amsterdam then all of the big European capitals, where one can find gigs more easily, are reachable by trains in a matter of hours, which is so great. In Leeds, you have the whole UK, but it’s not the same. It isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not the same. The problem I’m experiencing is that people don’t want to go and listen to jazz anymore. Hence, it doesn’t matter where you live – Leeds or Amsterdam – the audience for jazz is getting older and older. It’s sad, but to me it feels like jazz scene in the world is dying, and I don’t want to be tied up to it, that is to say jazz.

The best of Bobby Wellins on record

Jazzwise is saddened to hear of Bobby Wellins' death. Peter Vacher interviewed the great saxophonist in the magazine 10 years ago, and he provided this list of Wellins' finest recordings:

WellinsStan Tracey Quartet

Under Milk Wood (1965)

Trio TR564

Tracey had Wellins in mind when he composed his suite inspired by Dylan Thomas’ famous radio play. Both men rose to the occasion magnificently; Wellins is especially eloquent on ‘Starless and Bible Black’. A defining career moment.

 

 

wellinsStan Tracey Quartet

With Love From Jazz (1967)

Trio TR569

Newly remastered and reissued, Tracey’s later suite evokes “the tragic-comedy of human love” and has the two protagonists at their quirky best. Wellins swings hard on Two-Part Intention’ supported by Dave Green’s purring bass and is hauntingly fragile on the lovely ‘Amoroso Only Moreso'.

 

 

 

WellinsBobby Wellins

The Satin Album (1996)

Jazzizit JITCD 9607

Wellins is a ballad master and excels on this sublime examination of the songs from Billie Holiday’s 1958 recording, Lady In Satin. The late pianist Colin Purbrook plays sparingly but sweetly and Bobby’s tenor improvisations, spacious and quite sensual, are among his best on record.

 

 

 

WellinsBobby Wellins Quartet

The Best Is Yet To Come (2000)

Jazzizit JITCD0024

Wellins was inspired by a rather different vocalist in this fine album of songs associated with Tony Bennett. His unique sound, plaintive yet robust, is beautifully caught and there’s plenty of thoughtful piano from Bobby’s current associate, Liam Noble.

 

 

 

wellinsBobby Wellins

Fun (2003)

Jazzizit JITCD 0434

And it is, with Mark Edwards playing Hammond or piano as drummer Spike Wells clatters away. Wellins hoots and hollers as only he can and everyone seems to be having a ball. Fun? Just listen to the ‘The Odd Couple’ or the swingy ‘Smouldering’.

 

 

 

 

wellinsBobby Wellins/Wells/Edwards/Cleyndert

When The Sun Comes Out (2005)

Trio TR572

Recorded live at the Appleby Festival, this retains the Fun quartet and is another breezy affair. Wellins is a fund of ideas and Edwards presses hard over Cleyndert’s bass and the inspirational drumming of Wells.

 

 

 

 

And don't miss...

wellinsBobby Wellins/SNJO

Culloden Moor Suite (2014)

Spartacus STS 020

Although there are solo cameos for Tom MacNiven, Steve Hamilton and drummer Alyn Cosker (who also provides the militaristic underbed for the ‘March’ movement) this is really all about Bobby Wellins. His tone is as blurry and magnificent as it was in the 1960s, his phrasing as oblique, yet centred, and his ability to channel forceful feelings while appearing not to, is quite magical. His duet with the drums on ‘Battle’ and his reflective keening on ‘Epilogue’ are as fine as anything he has ever recorded.

 

 

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