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Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Boys In The Band

On the face of it the history of jazz seems to be a history of individualists and soloists. When people speak of the history of jazz they name names – Miles, Monk, Trane, Ellington, Armstrong etc On the other hand when people speak of the history of pop music or rock music they name bands –Rolling Stones, The Beatles, U2, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Nirvana etc But if you look a little deeper into rock music history, you can see that there are a lot of important individuals as well – Hendrix, Clapton, Bowie etc. And similarly, if you look at the history of jazz, you can not only see that it is a music that featured a lot of out-and-out bands, but also that a lot of the innovations of the great individualists would not have been possible if they hadn't created those innovations within the vehicle of a great band, specifically designed to support those same innovations.

Of course the concept of a band is one that is well recognised in jazz, but I'm not sure if it's given its due in terms of its importance in the development of the music. And, for musicians, I'm not sure that the possibilities for developing your music that having a real band affords you is fully appreciated.

At various points in its history, without the input of great bands, the history of the music would have been much different. Take two of the icons of jazz - Miles and Coltrane. Both Miles and Coltrane did influential work outside the ambit of their regular bands - Miles with Gil Evans for example, and Coltrane recording Giant Steps etc. But the vast majority of their most influential music was created from within vehicles that they consciously created in order to best express their overarching musical ideas - their bands.

The importance of bands can be seen if we compare another great trumpeter with Miles - Freddie Hubbard. Hubbard was undoubtedly one of the greatest trumpet players in the history of jazz - brilliantly virtuosic, swinging, a great improviser who played on many great and historical recordings. And at various times he fronted bands that also consisted of great players. But with Hubbard you never really get a sense of a concept that requires more than the virtuosity of the individual players to bring the music into being. You never get the feeling that Hubbard absolutely needed this drummer and that pianist and this saxophonist to achieve the vision of the overall music.

Hubbard's bands were vehicles for the playing of Freddie Hubbard. Yes his phenomenal playing required collaborators who were strong enough to stay the course with him, but his sidemen could easily be thought of as being interchangeable. Herbie, McCoy or Billy Childs - Elvin, Tony Williams, Al Foster - Hubbard played great with all of them, but you never get the sense that he absolutely needed any particular one of those pianists or drummers to realise his overall musical vision, he played great with all of them - but not differently. There is a monumental Hubbard trumpet legacy, but not a Hubbard band legacy. There is no concept of a Hubbard band approach to a piece of music in the way that there would be a Miles band approach.

And to compare Miles to Hubbard in this regard, while Miles was technically not the trumpeter that Hubbard was (although he was stronger technically than he's usually given credit for - such as his playing here which is killing!), he had a band concept that was second to none. The members of his bands, (at least up to the very latest years), were chosen not only for their great individual playing, but for their ability to realize the overall vision of the music that Miles had. As a result, it wasn't just the playing of Miles that was influential, in fact the music of Miles' bands, and the way they played that music was probably even more influential than his playing. It is impossible to imagine the current development of modern mainstream jazz without the input of the classic Miles bands of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The same is true for Coltrane - his Classic Quartet was both a vehicle for his saxophone playing and a vehicle for the transmission of his overall musical concept. Again, like Miles, it is impossible to imagine the current development of mainstream contemporary jazz without the input of the Coltrane Quartet. Elvin and McCoy were themselves innovators and huge influences on players of their respective instruments, but the sound that the Coltrane Quartet made, and their approach to playing the music was at least as influential as the playing of the individuals within that quartet.

The same could be said for the Bill Evans Trio and the Ornette Coleman Quartet - both revealed a new way of playing in a group, of interacting, of creating music that was greater than the sum of its parts. Each group had a clear identity that was more than the identity of any one individual player. The same could be said for groups from both before this period (The Basie and Ellington bands) and after (Weather Report, Jarrett's American quartet, Dave Holland's quintet, Steve Coleman's Five Elements) and the band tradition continues into the present day with groups such as Jason Moran's Bandwagon, The Bad Plus, Tim Berne's Big Satan etc. All of these groups have a sound that is unique to the band, rather than being a showcase for any one member of the band.

There are different kinds of bands in jazz, (leaving aside the soloist with pick-up rhythm section genre, which is not really a band at all– it’s more like a marriage of convenience), but usually they fall into one of three categories

A collective

An out-and-out dictatorship

A benevolent dictatorship

The Collective

In the first example – the collective - there is no leader. Each member of the band has, (in theory anyway), an equal input into the material and the approach. A contemporary example of this would be the Bad Plus or James Farm. The advantage of this way of working is that, assuming everyone has a broadly similar aesthetic regarding the music, a group of people can shape the music collectively and through discussion and teamwork develop music that is unique to that collective.

The disadvantage can be that it becomes music by committee, with everything ending up in the middle because nobody wants to make a decision, or every decision becomes a tortuous thing with endless discussions over tempos, tune order, solo order and everyone having an opinion on everything. In my experience this is by far the most common format for young bands coming out of jazz schools – there is no leader per se, and the music often lacks a unifying identity or directional thrust. In order for a collective to work you need people who a) believe in each other completely, and b) are prepared to lead if necessary and be lead if necessary.

The Out-and-Out Dictator

The out-and-out dictatorship model is well known in jazz and harks back to the ‘bandleader as star’ idea. In this model the band is principally formed around the leader and it’s clear that the leader of the band is supposed to be the cynosure of all eyes. These bands are primarily a vehicle for the playing of the leader and even though others may have opportunities to solo and play extensively, their input is required primarily to support the leader and not to detract attention away from him or her. There are so many examples of this in the music, it’s hard to know where to start in giving examples. But I think a good example would be Oscar Peterson’s various trios. Even the greatest of them, the trio that featured Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, is formed around Oscar’s playing and though Brown and Thigpen get lots of solo space the music clearly revolves around Oscar and inevitably everything leads back to him. I would think of Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio as being in the same mold – great as his sidemen are, and they make such a contribution to the group sound, ultimately the trio is all about Keith. I think he went from the benevolent dictatorship (see below) of his 1970s quartets, to the out-and-out dictatorship model of his current trio.

These bands can be great or terrible, everything depends on the leader, his or her leadership abilities and how good the sidemen are. Believe it or not, some leaders were known for deliberately hiring sidemen who were not very strong in order to make themselves look even better. That kind of thinking is all about the star system and not about the music. Having said that, much great music was played by bands in which the music was really all about one guy – Errol Garner for example, and the aforementioned Jarrett trio would be another.

The Benevolent Dictatorship

In this model the bandleader doesn’t just hire people to make him or her sound good, the sidemen are hired to do justice to the overall musical vision of the bandleader and are hired for their ability to be able to understand and enhance the bandleader’s vision. In this type of group the bandleader encourages the sidemen to be themselves and allows them the freedom within the music to do what they do.

The ultimate model of this type of bandleader is of course Miles. His ability to pick the right guys for his music over a period of more than 30 years was extraordinary. Although he was a guy who was very conscious of his image and his status in the jazz community, he was never happy to simply feature himself in his bands, he always wanted to play the MUSIC he thought should be presented to the listeners. And that meant getting the right saxophonist, the right pianist, bassist and drummer. He would choose the guys he wanted and then he would give them the freedom to develop the music – he would hire them for what they could do and then let them do it. He famously gave almost no verbal instructions, he would just allow the players to do what they felt was right in the moment.

It wasn’t a democracy – Miles chose the tune order on a gig, nearly always took the first solo and would think nothing of cutting off a player if he felt the music should finish or didn’t like what he was hearing. In all his bands it was very clear who was the leader, but at the same time the players in the band really got to express themselves because of Miles’ overarching concern about his music rather than merely his trumpet playing.

Coltrane’s Quartet was similar – Trane hired McCoy, Elvin and Jimmy Garrison and then gave them the freedom to do what they do. Again he was concerned about the music rather than just his own playing. He was clearly the leader, but the sidemen were hired because of what they could contribute to Coltrane’s musical vision, not because they simply made Trane sound good as a player, or were bit part players to his featuring act. Again, Coltrane was clearly the leader and they played only his compositions but he hired these guys for their ability to realize his musical concept, not just to make him sound good. A modern version of this type of band would be Wayne Shorter’s great quartet of recent years – they definitely play with a band concept, but Wayne is also clearly the leader. Here they are playing a phenomenal version of Wayne’s ‘Joy Rider’

Of the various models I’m probably fondest of the benevolent dictator mode, since it gives such a great scope to create ensemble music as a single entity, but at the same time it can accommodate the vision of one person. When I’m in bandleader mode myself, this is definitely the route I take – I get the guys who can best realize the ideas I have for the music, and then I let them get on with it, with minimum interference from myself. If you pick your guys well you can usually get results that are even beyond your expectations and the music can go places that you didn’t anticipate – true serendipity.

Having said that, I’ve also had fun in a few collective situations, including recently in a band called M├ętier, where we had the good fortune to be funded by our local town council as Ensemble in Residence and could devote time to rehearse and develop the music. This band was really fun to work with and we played many good concerts, and made one album that I’m very fond of. Here’s a track from that – a piece I wrote called ‘Cascade’

And while I wouldn’t recommend going the route of complete dictator to anyone contemplating putting a band together, it can be educational for a young musician to get into the band of one of these older dictator types - providing they’re really good musicians of course – and be told what to do by a more experienced musician for a while. You can learn a lot this way, so sometimes even these out-and-out dictator type bands can be good.

But whatever mode you choose, I do think it’s very important for people to think in terms of bands rather than of just being interested in being an individual soloist. By developing a band you’re not just developing yourself, you’re also developing something that goes beyond your individual playing and gets into the whole area of developing a musical concept. Think collective identity rather than individual showcasing, think music rather than instrument. See the big picture – develop a band!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Noel Kelehan

(Left to right - Jim Doherty, Martin Walsh, John Wadham, Louis Stewart, Noel Kelehan - late 1960s)

It's been a grim few months for jazz recently, with the departure of such giants as Bob Brookmeyer, Paul Motian, and Sam Rivers. Here in Ireland, we've just had a serious loss of our own with the passing of the pianist, arranger, conductor and composer Noel Kelehan.

Any non-Irish readers of this blog, and indeed possibly even some Irish readers, may not know who Noel Kelehan was. That's because, outside Ireland he was only well-known in the commercial music world, having the distinction of conducting more Eurovision Song Contest winners than anybody else in the history of the competition. He was also well-known as an arranger, and wrote orchestral arrangements for many commercial recordings, including U2's “Unforgettable Fire” album. In Ireland, he was very well-known, but again in the world of television and radio - as an arranger and MD of some of Ireland's best known TV shows. But though I knew Noel's work as an arranger and conductor, my relationship with him and admiration of him was related to his position as one of the finest jazz musicians this country has ever produced.

Noel was the staff arranger for RTE, the national radio and television company in Ireland, and having to produce arrangements to order for anyone, (mostly singers, both good and terrible), who might come within the orbit of RTE, kept him predictably busy. His busyness with his arranging day job, and his success and fame in the commercial music world, kept him from working as much as he should have, and would love to have done, in the jazz world. And it's been interesting reading all the tributes that have been paid to him recently here in Ireland, and how his jazz work usually just gets an honourable mention.

But jazz was his first love, and he was one of the first jazz musicians in Ireland to reach the kind of playing standard that would allow him to comfortably perform with people of the calibre of of Zoot Sims, Kenny Wheeler, and Art Farmer. To those of us on the Irish jazz scene, Noel was much more than solely a TV arranger, he was a great hard bop swinging pianist, an important bandleader, and someone from whom everyone of my generation learned a huge amount.

When I started playing on the Irish jazz scene over 30 years ago, there were very few players on the scene, and certainly very few really good players. But at least there were some players around the scene to look up to and learn from. And Noel was one of these. But when he and a few others began playing in Dublin at the end of the 1950s, they really had to invent the entire scene for themselves. Without pioneers such as Noel - who somehow in the conservative Ireland of the time, recognised the value of, and fell in love with jazz - the great strides that have been made in the music in this country over the past three decades would never have happened. I can't imagine what it must have been like to try and learn to play this difficult and virtually unknown music in the Ireland of those days, with no access to material, no access to a scene, no possibilities of hearing great players on regular basis, and probably no appreciation by the public of the music that they were practising like maniacs to be able to play.

(The Jazz Heralds, 1960)

But somehow they managed to figure stuff out by listening and copying as best they could, by organising sessions, and by doing all the things that players in a small, and at that time, isolated city, far from the jazz mainstream, had to do in order to learn the music. Most were never able to align their abilities with their aspirations, but Noel was one the exceptions that prove the rule. He was classically trained as a pianist, but self-taught as a composer, arranger and jazz pianist. I remember him telling me about hearing a George Shearing recording in the 50s when he was a teenager, and being blown away by it and trying to transcribe Shearing's solo from an EP - a process that involved much leaping up and down from the piano, and much replacing the needle, something that was wearing for the recording which evenutally got completely worn out. Noel told me he destroyed three copies of the recording before he was able to get what he wanted!

In 1963 he went to New York for a year but, thankfully for us, he returned a year later bringing with him even more knowledge about how the music should be played and the standard that needed to be aspired to, and he also became immediately involved in the commercial music world, writing for TV and radio. Jazz and commercial music were much more closely entwined in those days – jazz training would prepare you for work in the commercial world in a way that would be impossible now, so far have the two worlds diverged. Noel played jazz at every opportunity, organising big bands for which he wrote adventurous charts, writing pieces that involved string quartets and chamber groups playing alongside jazz musicians, playing in the bands of others and accompanying visiting international artists.

(left to right - Keith Donald, Noel, Mike Nolan, John Wadham, Johnny Griffin, Ronnie Matthews, Frank Hess)

He also lead several small groups, one of which, The Noel Kelehan Quintet, became hugely influential on me around the time I got really serious about jazz in the late 70s. Noel’s quintet played in a hotel every Sunday night for over two years, and going to see them was like a pilgrimage for me. The music was hard bop and post hard bop (music by Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Miles etc. As well as Noel’s originals), and the band were great, with the rhythm section in particular, (which featured another international standard musician, the drummer John Wadham) being outstanding. This was for me the first chance to hear jazz being played live, week after week, at a very high standard, and it made a huge impression on me.

I don’t have any recordings of those gigs (unfortunately.....), but here is a trio version of "Gone With The Wind' recorded by me around that time, on one of the first recording Walkmans (remember those!?) which shows how Noel sounded in those days. On this gig he was battling with a cottage piano (even smaller than a normal upright), and playing in a bar, complete with casual conversations going on in the background. The music is compressed by the Walkman’s built-in mic, and the version you’ll be hearing has been transferred three times – but despite all this, you can still hear what a great swinging pianist Noel was, with a tremendous vocabulary. There are shades of Red Garland, Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans in there, but I would recognise Noel’s playing anywhere.......... He is accompanied by two stalwarts of the Irish scene of those days, the bassist Jimmy McKay and the drummer Peter Ainscough.

Gone With The Wind

It was around this time that I first began playing with Noel, and it was an education. It was an education trying to keep up with him. He was a very busy player – lots of notes and lots of chord substitutions, which would appear out of nowhere. Speaking as a bassist, unless you really paid attention, he could leave you for dead in a split second. But with Noel it wasn’t just teaching by musical example, he was also one of the few players of that era who would actually sit down and show you stuff if you asked him. Some of the other players took a delight in playing tunes you didn’t know and making you look foolish, but Noel never did anything malicious. He was always positive and supportive to me despite being light years ahead of me in knowledge and experience.

This musical and personal generosity was something he was renowned for, both in jazz and in his dealings with everyone. Here’s an example of it, and an hilarious moment of Irish musical history. The event is a ‘talent’ competition from 1961, in which the talent was so bad that the engineer in the studio decided to capture it for posterity. Noel was leading the backing trio, and in this track has to deal with the most incredible rendition of a maudlin Irish ballad in which ‘Mrs. Daly’ wanders through numerous keys, with the band in hot pursuit. It’s hilarious, but notice both how brilliant Noel is in following her harmonic trail, and how generous he is to the singer, trying to accompany and help her out as best he can.


And the generosity he displayed here is a recurring theme whenever musicians discuss Noel. When I was starting out trying to do some writing, Noel gave me several invaluable arranging lessons for which he refused to take any payment, a typical gesture on his part. And I also remember when I got my first orchestral music commission, the first thing I did was call Noel, plaintively asking for help. I’d taken the commission without having any experience of writing for an orchestra, and the euphoria having worn off, was faced with the reality of my situation. Noel, as always, helped enormously and I can still remember him saying “Number 1, don’t panic, and number 2, get a copy of ‘Orchestration’, by Gordon Jacob” - both great pieces of advice, the second of which undoubtedly saved my bacon, and I’ve used and recommended the Jacob book ever since.

Noel was a great musician, a pioneer for jazz in Ireland, a musical and personal example to younger musicians and when he became ill a few years ago it was a real blow to the scene here to have one of its real heavyweights sidelined like this. About a year ago he came to a gig I was playing with my group Trilogue – I caught sight of him out of the corner of my eye and felt the usual mixture of delight and nervousness that his presence at any of my gigs always brought on. We chatted afterwards and he was his usual generous and witty self, complimenting Izumi and Sarah and saying how much he enjoyed the music. As far as I know, it was the last gig he went to and I feel both sad about that, and privileged............

I remember seeing Noel play with Art Farmer and play an exquisite solo on ‘Blame It On My Youth’. At the end of the piece Art took the microphone and said ‘As it turned out, that tune featured Noel Kelehan on piano’, a generous and honest acknowledgement of a great musician by a great musician.

Here is Noel, as most of us here will remember him, burning through ‘This I Dig of You’ with Michael Buckley, Michael Coady on bass, and Peter Ainscough on drums. Michael’s solo is pretty savage too.... Yeah guys!

This I Dig Of You