Saturday, August 8, 2015

BIG BANDS: Colin Steele's Stramash

A change from some recent jottings, as I ease myself back into something at least resembling a comfort zone, avoiding the scatter gun of chuck everything at the browser, hoping some will stick of recent weeks. And, astonishingly, given my floundering ill-preparedly in the sea of big band jazz, this is partly jazz. But partly folk, with a tinge of classical chamber string quartet for good measure, and altogether the best damn piece of recorded music of the last decade. Sure, yeah, and other opinions are available but bear with me. It'll be worth it, I promise.

Colin Steele is a Scottish trumpeter. Trumpet to me is an instrument I always despised, smacking of the worst excesses of jazz, which to me, as a boy, meant Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen. Or it meant the hideous over instrumentation of 60s pop, wherein any and every band had to smothered in brass and strings. Even 'cool' bands ruined their reputations, Love and the Byrds for two, with the infernal parping I now know and love. Strangely, I can't claim it was Miles and Chet that put me right, although, ultimately, they did, it was more Chumbawamba who bludgeoned me into an acceptance of a trumpets worth. Anyhoo, Steele started his career in the late 80s, tinkering in the ranks of maverick Scots experimental soul boys, Hue and Cry, as they threw jazz and Latin into an ever smoother mix. Tiring of that and traveling through Europe, predominantly France, where bebop is still a potent groove, picking up more echoes of funk and worldbeat to his repertoire, he then formed his Quintet, up to now largely orthodox jazz, albeit well-received and acclaimed, within the minnow pool of UK jazz. This is by now the early years of this century. Jazz musicians traditionally don't make money from their muse, relying on outside projects to butter their bread, coming into contact with musicians from other spheres, and there has been a noble tradition of folk-jazz fusion in Scotland. Steele has thus found himself in the ranks of Scottish dance band, the wonderfully named Ceilidh Minogue and the unclassifiable The Unusual Suspects, themselves who could have been a shoo-in for this fortnights theme. But never had their been anything with with solo trumpet as a lead instrument.

"Stramash" burst into being after a visit to the Festival Interceltique, L'Orient in France, 2008, having immersed himself in Islay island life to prepare this immaculate gem. The folk purists at this meeting of the Celtic nations initially turned their noses up at this jazz trumpeter invading their domain, but not for long. The record followed in 2009, and was garlanded with accolades, becoming the Guardian national newspapers Jazz album of that year. Here's a wonderful review from All About Jazz. "Stramash" is a Scottish word meaning commotion or kerfuffle and is so apposite for the joyful ensemble pieces that flit between genre, effortlessly interwoven and interlinked. Enough of this, ye'll be wanting some music. Trumpet, sax, piano, bass, drums? Check. String quartet? Check. Fiddle and bagpipes? Check.....

3 consummate excerpts. I request you, nay, I require you to tarry no longer,
Buy it!!!!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Big Bands: The Pogues

Big Bands—small facts: I am related to Guy Lombardo. Mr. New Year’s Eve and his Royal Canadians. Lombardo, among other musical accomplishments, broadcast for 48 consecutive years on New Year’s Eve, over radio and television, from Time’s Square, NYC.  In this video clip, you can practically smell the martinis and cigarette smoke of “New York’s High Society.”  In 1976, this whole scene—Times Square, the Waldorf Astoria, the cookie cutter, pre-Kenny Gee Kenny Gee horn drone, elevator soundtrack hip sounds must have already come across as poorly chosen nostalgia--what with the Rolling Stones having already peaked, disco being in full, jumpsuit swing, Elvis nearly dead and punk already taking root just a few blocks south in the Bowery…Revel in this--your dead relatives will smile down on you from heaven. 

The Royal Canadians?—not my favorite, despite the familial connections. I feel ashamed to have devoted a paragraph of copy to it…Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman. Those are the names to come to mind when I think of “big band”, but then, I’m hardly a scholar of the Big Band era, so I’m just listing what anyone could. The idea of big band conjures up more image—smart suits, martinis and classy dames with great gams—but the sound itself eludes modern sensibility. Yeah, when Swingers came out there was a bit of a revival, but swing big band sounds just don’t really add up to much unless you’re a student of the era…sadly, as should be discernible here, I am not…

I do love that sound, though: orchestrated swinging, sharp, cracking drums, big rhythm, every musical angel sharpened and snapped into shape by horns horns horns, twirling, snappy punctuations and exclamations of melody. One of my favorites is Louis Prima, he of the Pennies from Heaven” and “Angelina & Zooma, Zooma” fame…you know, the songs that get played in Mafia movies, or by your stupid friends when they have you over for pasta and meatballs...

That’s about all I know concerning Big Band. I have intentions to dig deeper into that era, but I always get distracted. When you reflect on the genres and movements and eras that are said to define one epoch or another, it’s hard to choose where to devote your listening energy. The beauty of music, however, is that the interested listener will literally never run out of avenues to explore. Next time I have a martini, perhaps the urge to strike out into the wide, wide world of the swinging Big Band sound will strike and lead me to something new. Until then, I have my “Rat Pack Christmas” CD, which I pull out out once a year….

But, this month’s theme is about big bands, not Big Bands.

Often times, big bands, like Arcade Fire, or the Polyphonic Spree, strike me as too big. A whole lot of sound comes out of what should be something much more cohesive and tightened up. Don’t get me wrong: big sound is fantastic, but I suppose I look to my rock music to be a little tighter and well-knit—knife edged and snapping, rather than sprawling— than the sound that comes out of large ensembles. I always feel a band like Arcade Fire, and similar artists, are trying to fit too much sound into a four minute song, as opposed to larger, horn-based ensembles that work to widen their soundscape and project a sound that is meant to be heard big and loud and unwieldy. Rock and roll can be chaotic, too, but it seems to work better with a variation of instruments, thus creating a sound with multi-textures. Multi-textures that add up to something cohesive, not something trying to achieve bombast without a reason.

So, I would say my favorite big band would have to be The Pogues. Upwards of eight members, blending traditional, “old-fashioned” instruments with modern, sounds and songs with a sometimes punked-up sensibility, the Pogues did big, roaring sound and rise and crescendo rock better than anyone. 

It’s hard to choose what to write about the band—what’s worth saying, and what’ not, has been committed to print a million times over, such is the devotion, revulsion and general amazement the band generates, in spite or despite of lead singer Shane MacGowan’s status as the drunkest man on the planet. The Pogues do Irish rebel music better than anyone—they also do Celtic rock, poetry, big band bombast, poetic conciseness, and drinking songs better, too. Live, they are a raucous act, and despite slowing down due to age and a history of shenanigans involving alcohol, and even more—despite the fact that they are pretty subdued when standing up there, delivering classics and traditional Irish folk songs—the audience at  a Pogues show carries the day. If you get a chance to see them in their now-rare touring schedule, do so, but watch out for flying shot glasses.

If you can’t see them live, listen and revel in the broad majesty of If Should Fall From Grace With God and Peace and Love, albums so steeped in their own legends as to come forth from your speakers like blessed streams of whiskey and holy water. MacGowan is a feeble-tongued, master poet; the band themselves has made some of the finest, most beautiful melodies and stomping sing-alongs ever recorded. They are past their prime, long past, Philip chevron has passed away, MacGowan is giving Keith Richards a run on the designation of most bafflingly still-alive human being.  Yet, the music they made—that string of albums they made from 1984 to 1990 will never be equaled in terms of instrumental brilliance, lyrical beauty and musical bravado. “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” will go down as classical poetry at some point; “Misty Morning Albert Bridge” is the song you should fall in love to…I could keep going, but, you should just start listening… The Pogues are special, blessed by the gods of music, and when I get to heaven (fingers crossed), this is the band I want playing me through the gates.

It’s not every song, but it’s pretty f#*king great.  At 38:50, Lullaby of London? Yeah…that’s all you need…pure grace.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Apropos the last posting, and the conclusion that none of us should be without a horn section, this is something I have only recently come around to fully appreciating, sax and brass being somehow affectations from evil jazz, that alien life force that only eventually, sometimes, sidles into a psyche. I am lucky, I think, enough to have finally “got” jazz, albeit something that required some deliberation, dedication (and derision!) But how big is a big band? When does a small band become a big band? And what is a medium band? And does it have to have the full parp of brass and reeds? (Sometimes it helps when they call it a big band, so as to rule out doubt, which takes me to my tale.)

Just over 5 years ago my then wife won us 2 tickets for an event at the Barbican, London, entitled ‘Big Band Britannia’, which could have possibly answered each and every of my questions. This was designed to be a history and showcase of jazz in the U.K., as played out with and by, um, big bands, which generally seemed to be upward of 15 souls, in rows, cantilevered into those hierarchical rows reminiscent of the Glenn Miller Orchestra in a wartime newsreel, each with their brand bedecked music stand ahead of them. So all the trumpets sit together, with a row also of trombones, and the saxes in another, ranging from petite soprano to massive baritone. Double bass and drums squeezed into another gap on the stage, with optional guitar/banjo/piano etc. etc. And it was wonderful stuff, kicking off with a tradjazz Dixieland selection, before moving through the decades up to date. Because Wynton Marsalis was in town with his Lincoln Center Orchestra, he popped in for a blow, before some belated British credibility in this most American of art forms, arrived in the form of a tribute to the largely South African influx of musicians who made up ‘Brotherhood of Breath’, a late 60s powerhouse of modern jazz, cascading between hard-bop, township influences and the wackier world of Sun-Ra. This was a wonderful moment, with the elderly participation of Harry Beckett, himself from Barbados, on trumpet. Here's a tune from their prime. It’s true other parts of the show weren’t so much to my choice, but it was a wonderful experience. Sadly I can find no archive material of the night. (Anyone looking for evenings of that calibre could do a lot worse than follow Sebastian Scotney’s excellent webzine London Jazz, allowing that living there would be a distinct advantage.)


In the more familiar world of rock and pop, generally safer territory for SMM, perhaps the best known big band is that of ex-Squeeze piano tinkler, Jools Holland. His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra has become a national institution over here, the centrepiece of yearly New Years Eve extravaganzas (or Hootenanny’s, if you will) on the BBC main TV station, culminating in Big Ben counting down the chimes to midnight. Basically a big band blues and boogie woogie organisation, with tinges of jazz and swing, this single unit perhaps keeps much of the British jazz institution in paid work, thus affording them the time and opportunity to do their own thing for the rest of the year. OK, there is a big annual tour, often with special guests to add to the mix, much as on the TV show. Recent tours have included such as Dave Edmunds, Marc Almond, Alison Moyet and, each and every year, the very wonderful Ruby Turner, as in the extended clip above. LPs have included Eric Clapton, Dr John and Van Morrison. On the box guests tend towards the bigger, with Paul McCartney, Adele, and Annie Lennox appearing in recent years. Jools Holland also hosts the last remaining bastion of live music on british TV, the long running ‘Later,’ which brings always an eclectic assortment of bands and singers, performing a song or two in turn. Somehow, or despite these credentials, Holland has become a much derided figure, when, whether we like or not his boogie-woogie, he is flying a lone flag in mainstream television and deserves more credit. In the U.K. we call it tall poppy syndrome. I call him a national treasure. OK, a slightly irritating national treasure, but imperial garb has always been itchy.

Buy some Brotherhood of Breath
Buy some Jools

Sunday, August 2, 2015

It’s Elemental --> Big Bands: The Main Event: Tornado Special/Waterfalls/Ooh Nah Nay/Rebirth on Fire

Rebirth Brass Band: The Main Event: Tornado Special/Waterfalls/Ooh Nah Nay/Rebirth on Fire

I’ve often, and probably annoyingly, stated that, in music, everything is better with a horn section. That may well be true in life, too, I mean wouldn’t it be great to go to work, but always have a horn section around?

Starting probably with watching the great HBO series Tremé, I began to learn about New Orleans brass band music, and realized that it was, pretty much, all horn section (and drums, which are also great). What is incredible about this music is that it starts with a base of traditional marching band songs and layers on funk, soul, rock, R&B and rap into an incredible, infectious mix. So, when I went to New Orleans in June, one of my goals was to hear some brass band music in its native environment.

This plan paid off almost immediately, because our first day in the Crescent City included a walking tour of the French Quarter, and while we waited for the guide in Jackson Square, we got to hear a great band playing for tips outside the park. I linked to a video of them in my last New Orleans piece, but here’s a different one. And, as I also previously wrote, as part of the wedding that was the excuse for the trip, we second lined behind the Kinfolk Brass Band, who then played during the cocktail hour at the reception. Then, we went to hear Musical Expression, a group of seven college-age musicians featuring mostly horns, at the Maison on Frenchmen Street, and on the way back to the hotel after their show, in a cab, we passed a large band of young kids, maybe high schoolers or even younger, playing brass band music on the street.

Which brings me to the featured song, or songs, from a live album released in 1999 by the Rebirth Brass Band. Formed in 1983 by brothers Philip (tuba/sousaphone) and Keith Frazier (bass drum), along with trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and other members of the marching band from the Joseph S. Clark Senior High School in the Tremé neighborhood, I’m willing to bet that they started playing on the streets, too. Along with their predecessors, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and other like-minded musicians, Rebirth helped to revitalize the brass band genre by updating the sound, and by putting on intense, powerful live performances.

This live album was recorded in 1999 at the Maple Leaf Bar, a venerable New Orleans institution (where Rebirth currently appears to play regularly on Tuesdays), and you can almost feel the heat in the room. Settle in for almost a half hour of continuous music, starting with an original piece, “Tornado Special,” (an Air reference) which then segues into a cover of TLC’s “Waterfalls” (Water), which turns into the Mardi Gras Indian chant “Ooh Nah Nay,” and ends with a revised version of the 1984 Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three song, “The Roof Is On Fire” (Fire) You pretty much have all of the “elements” of the style, all in one medley. Playing that night was a pretty big band-- Phil Frazier (sousaphone), Keith Frazier (bass drum), Derek Tabb (snare drum), Shamarr Allan (trumpet), Glen Andrews (trumpet), James Durant (saxophone), and Tyrus Chapman (trombone).

Rebirth’s music was featured in a number of Tremé episodes, including the season 2 finale, which was named after their song, “Do What You Wanna.” In fact, late in the episode, a band of high school students plays the song on Frenchmen Street, maybe right where my wife and I saw the kids playing that night, and a few scenes later in the episode, Rebirth is shown playing at the Maple Leaf. Unfortunately, HBO is very good at taking down illegal videos of the episode, so I can’t link to it, but if you haven’t watched Tremé, you should.