Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Jazz Shorts 3 - Billy Harper

In an era where globalisation is cutting a swathe across everything, including culture, uniqueness is a scarce commodity these days, both in life and indeed in music. Billy Harper is one of those unique treasures, a sui generis master who is not even close to getting the type of recognition he deserves. He has that quality of uniqueness and genuine individuality which is at a premium in contemporary jazz. Like all great tenor players before him, he can play just one or two notes and you know it's him.

Harper is from Texas and he has the sound that defines the Texas tenor. Listen to Arnett Cobb and especially Booker Ervin and you will hear the classic sound of Harper's antecedents, a dark, powerful wail, the signature tenor sound of a sonic tradition for which he has been a flag bearer for more than fifty years.

In addition to his sound, Harper is a saxophonist of formidable power and technique, and one who plays with the kind of intensity only found in players of the generation who came to the fore in the late 60s, and were around New York when the post-Coltrane ferocity was at its height. But another thing I love about Harper's playing is the soulfulness and indeed spirituality of it. There's a powerful cry in all his playing and he writes extremely direct and grooving pieces, perfect vehicles for his blend of power and passionate forward motion.

One of my favourite Harper albums, one I bought on LP as a Japanese import many years ago, and long unavailable, is 'Soran Bushi', and here he is on the opening track "Trying To Get Ready" where, after the typical Harper declamatory melody, he hurtles into a ferocious solo, riding the crest of the waves created by TWO great drummers - Horacee Arnold and Billy Hart. Check out the 2nd solo where he takes on both drummers single-handedly, and wins!

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Jazz Shorts 2 - Andrea Keller

I'm guessing that any Australian reading this will know who Andrea Keller is, and others from elsewhere may not. If you don't know her music, then getting to know it will be one of the better things you will do this year. Andrea is a pianist and composer, living in Melbourne, who is rightfully lauded in her own country as being at the forefront of jazz and creative music in Australia. Her output is prodigious and encompasses many different formats from conventional quintet, quartet and trio formats, to more unusual instrumentation and various solo piano approaches, including looping.

I first met Andrea in an almost accidental way on a gig in Scotland in the early 2000s where she was part of a collaborative project put together by two jazz resource organisations, and I loved playing with her and playing her compositions. I asked her to send me a recording of her music and she sent me 'Thirteen Sketches', which blew me away and I've been a diehard fan ever since. A couple of years ago I had the good fortune of having her play on my 'Shy-Going Boy' project, and again it was a great experience.

Andrea's music is multi-faceted and multi-layered. Her playing and writing has a freshness about it that shines through in every project she undertakes. As a pianist every note she plays is genuine and musical, and there is not one lick or superfluous gesture. She makes a beautiful sound on the piano, is lyrical and her music is both completely informed by the jazz tradition while moving outward from that into all kinds of other sound worlds.

It's great for Australia that they have her as part of the scene there, but while showered with awards there, it's a shame, due to the geographical distance between Australia and the other major jazz scenes in the world, that her music is not better known elsewhere. Her output is quite prodigious, so it's hard to suggest a place to start (you could start anywhere frankly), but as a taster I could suggest the sublime solo piano album of Wayne Shorter's music that she made, or the 'Thirteen Sketches' album I mentioned earlier. Here's 'Blue Arsed Fly' from that recording.

Check her out!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

NHØP - Still A Giant

Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen, NHOP,  passed away in 2005. With that passing the jazz world, and indeed the wider music world, was deprived of one of the greatest players of the double bass who ever lived. That last statement is not hyperbole, it's just a simple statement of fact. NHOP played the instrument at a technical level that has perhaps never been equalled. His intonation, finesse, speed, lightness of touch, sound - all were of the very highest level. In addition to that he had fantastic time, harmonic knowledge and could swing as hard as anyone. Yet these days, among the younger generation of jazz musicians in particular, he's often a forgotten man. How could it be that such a giant of the instrument, who performed at the very highest level with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, have so soon become almost a marginal figure?

Niels was born in Denmark in 1946 and became that rare thing in jazz - a child prodigy. He began playing and studying the bass at the age of thirteen, but only two years later, at the age of fifteen, was already playing professionally on the Danish jazz scene, accompanying great players from that scene, as well as with leading visiting jazz musicians. In terms of a teenager playing with the very greatest players, and more than holding his own, perhaps only Tony Williams is comparable in jazz. Here is Niels, at the remarkably young age of 16, playing with one of the greatest ever jazz pianists, Bud Powell. Although there is no solo in this, the great note choice and time feel is already there. Hard to believe that Niels was only playing for three years at this point!

It's worth taking a look at this point at a particularly Danish aspect of bass technique that undoubtedly helped Niels to become the virtuoso he was, and to play the way he did. One of the giant figures of Denmark's jazz and broader music scene was the extraordinary bassist, producer, and force of nature, Erik Moseholm. I was lucky enough to get to know Erik in his later years and he was an amazing man, and someone who studied bass with a legendary Danish bass pedagog called Oscar Hegner. Hegner had a method that involved unorthodox left hand fingerings, using a cross-stringing technique that was closer to modern bass guitar technique than to traditional classical double bass techniques such as Simandl. Erik Moseholm adapted this technique for jazz playing and when Niels' father was looking for a teacher for his prodigy son, rather than take him on himself, Erik recommended he study directly with Hegner. Hegner's method undoubtedly contributed to the stream of wonderful bassists who came from Denmark and Scandinavia (Jesper Lundgaard, Mads Vindig, Anders Jormin etc.) and there's no doubt that Niels benefitted from this revolutionary teacher.

Here's NHØP three years after the Powell video, age 19, in very heavy company - with Sonny Rollins and Alan Dawson, soloing on Oleo and already showing the beginnings of the ability that was to go on to make him one of the greatest bass soloists in jazz.

At this point his right hand technique is more conventional than it later became. Shortly after this video was made, he adopted a very unusual three-finger approach for pizzicato, starting phrases with the ring finger, followed by the middle and then index finger. It's a technically difficult technique to master, especially in trying to have a good time feel and give equal weight to each note. But it's one he mastered early on, and here he is again with Rollins, (with Kenny Drew and Tootie Heath - more heavy company!), just two years on from the previous video, and the three-finger technique is in full flow.

At this point, at the age of only 21, he was probably the pre-eminent bassist in Europe in the field of playing with great American masters of the tradition, the number one call in Europe for such giants such as Rollins, Ben Webster, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, etc.

Given his virtuosity and comfort with the standard tradition, it was probably inevitable that he would end up playing with the biggest public name in that traditional world, Oscar Peterson. Originally hired as a last minute replacement for Ray Brown he played as a regular member of Peterson's trio from 1974 till 1987, and given the kind of marquee gigs that Peterson commanded, his time with Oscar gave him his greatest public exposure.

Although the music created by the meeting of two such virtuosi could become a little glib at times, in this next video, from 1974,  you can see how suited Niels' technical brilliance and great time feel was to Peterson's world. Oscar doesn't even give him a chance to warm up, and Niels barely has the bass in his hands before Oscar launches into the quicksilver arrangement of 'Just Friends'. I don't think there was any other bassist of that time who could have played something this difficult, this relaxed. Check out the great walking time too

Around this time he also formed a duo partnership with Joe Pass and this was also a very popular pairing ensuring a lot of representation on Norman Granz' Pablo label, and copper-fastening him as one of the leading mainstream jazz bassists in the world.

And this was where his musical world was largely situated - in the standard repertoire, with swinging tunes and great players from that idiom. He made several albums under his own name, mainly for the Steeplechase label, and they did show some other sides of him, but he never strayed far from his traditional swinging jazz roots. Apart from his gifts as a straight ahead bassist, he also showed himself to be a great melody player and could play beautifully on ballads and Danish folk songs, (which he liked to play from time to time)

Here he is playing an exquisite version of 'Old Folks' with Joe Pass - his delivery of the melody is sublime in its lyricism, and the whole performance shows two masters playing as only masters can

So since he was such a giant of the instrument and the music, how is it that he is such a marginal figure now? When I was young, myself and all the bassists of my generation would have named him immediately if asked to name the top five bassists in the world at that time. If you did the same today with young bassists, not only have many not heard him, but have never even heard of him!

In thinking about this I've come to the conclusion that his chronological situation in arriving when he did acted against him when it comes to the view of him for jazz posterity. Niels came to the forefront at an amazingly young age and was immediately playing with the great masters of jazz, all of whom were in their late maturity while Niels was in his teens. He played with them extensively as a sideman, but over the next twenty years or so they all passed away, leaving him playing more with his peers. But by the time this happened, in the late 80s/early 90s, the music itself had changed hugely, and Niels was not someone with the experience, (or probably desire), to play in more free environments, (though he did play with both Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler), in the post-Miles electric/fusion world, in the ECM leaning European jazz scene, or in the more complex rhythmic music that was gaining a toe-hold in the early 90s. He was in some ways a man out of time with his age.

If we look at the age group of other prominent bassists who came up around the same time we can see that many famous bassists were around the same age as Niels but played completely different music. Niels was born in '46, and here are the birth dates of other prominent bassists who dominated and developed contemporary bass playing for many years in the same period that Niels was most active:

Dave Holland ('46), Miroslav Vitous ('47), George Mraz ('44), Eddie Gomez ('44), Stanley Clarke ('51), Jaco Pastorius ('51)

This is a list of great contemporary bassists who covered a huge range of music between them, and even the most straight ahead of them - George Mraz - played with John Abercrombie's Quartet and with Dave Liebman's groups. Niels on the other hand played in a narrower stylistic area, and when the great figures of that music passed on, in some ways his role as the super sideman to the giants disappeared too and I think he struggled to find something new and relevant to do in his latter years. If you've played blues and rhythm changes with Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster and Count Basie, how do you keep your interest and motivation playing that same material when they've all gone?

And his association with these great players as a sideman meant that he never really got involved in the contemporary jazz of his own time, nor recorded a groundbreaking album of his own, nor was part of a groundbreaking recording in the way that the other bassists mentioned above were. So when he passed at the shockingly young age of 59, his legacy passed with him in some respects. And since his recorded legacy is mostly as that of a sideman, his phenomenal playing is unfamiliar to those who weren't lucky enough to see him play while he was still around.

That's my theory for what it's worth.

But he should never be forgotten, because he still is one of the greatest jazz bassists of all time and played the instrument at a technical level, in the tradition, in a way that still hasn't been surpassed.

To finish, here he is in a casual masterclass situation, playing that hoariest of old chestnuts, 'Autumn
Leaves' - the intro alone would be enough to ensure his place in the pantheon of the greatest instrumentalists in jazz