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Listening to jazz – where do you begin?

The other day after our Cadogan Hall gig in the London Jazz Festival a friend – who doesn’t listen to jazz – asked me: ‘Where do I start if I want to listen to this type of music?’.  It’s a difficult question to answer. Where do you start, especially for the non-jazz person?

As an aside, I’m reminded that jazz is mildly amusing for some pals who’re heavily into their indie-bands. The ‘Fast Show’ sketches on jazz of many years ago captured their perception.

Where do you start? They knew of Louis Armstrong.  The response to bebop was it was ‘a bit zigzag’. So, I gave this random, subjective answer. The request was for a few specific tracks only. I slightly overdid it.  Experts will probably loathe what follows, but here we go:

‘Cottontail’ – Duke Ellington featuring Ben Webster (tenor sax). A swing classic. Joyous. Remember, recording techniques were rudimentary at this time, c 1940. Jazz was still dance music. Count Basie was the equivalent of ‘Chic’. So, we have to move on from the quality of the recording and listen as best we can to what’s happening. Ellington was a superb composer and arranger. Ben Webster solos across a big band. No microphone for him; purely uses tone, rhythm, sound and what soloing lines….

Recorded in Hollywood, 1940 Wallace Jones, Ray Nance, Cootie Williams – tp Rex Stewart – cnt “Tricky” Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown – tb Juan Tizol – vtb Barney…

‘So What’ – Miles Davis. I urge that the entire album, ‘Kind of Blue’, be listened to. Jazz is no longer mainly dance music. It’s consciously elevating its artistic status, as was right to do.
Miles D, John Coltrane and  Cannonball Adderley(to a lesser degree. His glorious solos are drenched in the blues) are exploring what for jazz was a relatively new sonic world; the world of modal scales. They’ve moved on from the swing era. Pivotal album. Recording techniques already much better too. (Bill Evans was vital to this album; mainly his compositions and did Miles properly acknowledge this?)

‘Bags Groove’ – Miles D is forming his harmonic (and rhythmic language) as he leads up to ‘Kind of Blue’. Bags Groove is a blues. Simple? However, Miles D is creating a fresher atmosphere around a blues. If more curious listen to the tune ‘Oleo’ on same album as Bags Groove. Tangentially, the Sonny Rollins solo melts me. Oleo is a tune over the ‘I Got Rhythm’ chords.

All four Miles Davis albums: Workin’, Cookin, Smokin’, Relaxin’…These albums are gems. The context was Miles D needed to get out of his then contract with Prestige. So, he polished off four albums in a matter of days. A young Coltrane is brought in on tenor sax. He’s still getting his chops together. Fascinating albums while brilliant too. Mainly jazz standards. Miles D was later to acknowledge he had studied Sinatra’s phrasing. For example, ‘If I were a Bell’.

Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet Property of Prestige Records, Recorded 1956 Miles Davis – trumpet John Coltrane – tenor saxophone Red Garland – piano Paul …
 ‘Blue Trane’ – John Coltrane. 

John Coltrane – Blue Train: Mono and Stereo Versions Released 2014-06-06 on Not Now Music Download on Google Play . Recorded on September 15, 1957 at the Van Gelder …

Coltrane is worth exploring. He takes a lot of time to get into, I believe. Once achieved, he is rewarding. This is John Coltrane post-Miles Davis. This track is more accessible than his later material. (‘A Love Supreme’ was apparently John Coltrane playing his tenor while reading religious texts, the psalms. On that seminal album, he is vocalising on his tenor sax his actual reading of the words.) The tone reminds me of cold steel, devoid of vibrato. Compare his sound on the tenor to Ben Webster’s. Rather different. Coltrane is only starting out, on this album, on a new sound and harmonic journey. More to follow on this topic another time. Just enjoy this tune. For me there is a cry of pain in Coltrane, something compellingly troubling, dark. It’s analogous to reading Dostoyevsky.

… a different tack. Jumping to the more contemporary:

‘Weak’ – Gretchen Parlato;

Excellent jazz rendition of the classic SWV hit. Watch out for this girl, she’s bad. Saw her at the 2012 Newport Jazz Fest. She’s a beast. Very smooth…No copyright …

It’s in 6/4 time, I think. The sense of time, placement is immense. Robert Glasper is on keyboards. Just listen to his placement of chords, his rhythm as well as colours. Overall, a great groove.

‘From Gagarin’s Point of View’ – E.S.T. A Swedish trio who packed the halls out in the 90s. It all came to an abrupt end when the pianist died in a diving accident. Great sound.

‘Polo Towers’ – John Scofield. Try this version.

With Metropole Orkest Orchestra

Modern big band. Not normally my thing. However, the Scofield – Vince Mendoza combination is special. Mendoza is a ‘go to’ arranger in the US; brilliant. Volume, and good speakers, provide additional enjoyment to this track.

Another final tip. Check out ‘GoGo Penguin’. Wonderful, contemporary Manchester band. Hear the E.S.T influence?



Saving the London Theatre ‘pit orchestras’

It was a fun and fascinating afternoon, spent ‘shadowing’ in the ‘pit orchestra’ of the London musical “Beautiful’, showcasing the songbook of Carole King. Of the many learning points were these: the level of musicianship is remarkable; the musicians’ professionalism is exemplary, the actual playing/performance is world-class and the sound quality is something else. It all adds up to the audience – often unknowingly – experiencing a far more exciting and fulfilling show.  Electronically reproduced music may mean more profit for show producers, but such music lacks intensity; musical tone, attack, phrasing and emotional input. Audiences – often unknowingly – appreciate this. Demand live music in your theatres. It  makes and often defines the evening. Thanks to for allowing me to watch, listen & learn.


Thank You – Joe

Sometimes you get lucky breaks. One of mine was a few years ago. I was on holiday in the UK, having returned for a couple of weeks from my then home in Sri Lanka. I met a pal, Jeremy Butler, for a coffee in the centre of London. He asked me: “Do you still play the saxophone?” I replied that funnily enough I was getting back into it; playing in a band in Colombo and listening to lots of music.  I had even bought my alto sax on holiday with me to blow through some scales each day. Two minutes later Jez offered up his iPhone screen. Unbeknownst to me , he’d contacted a former school pal of his who is, nowadays, Director of Music at ‘The Ivy’, in London’s Soho. A terrific pianist called Joe Thompson. The ‘ask’ was ‘…can a friend of mine sit in on a couple of tunes this evening?’ Joe had messaged back: “Yes, and if he’s shit I will hunt you down.” I couldn’t back down. I went to ‘The Ivy’. It was a nerve-wracking evening.

In short, I managed to get by that night. It was a year or more later when I moved back to London from Sri Lanka that I contacted Joe again. “May I drop by again please with a saxophone – this time it’s a baritone”. As ever, Joe was most generous and replied, “yes”. Now, two or more years on I’ve  had the immense privilege to regularly play alongside Joe Thompson, Rob Rickenburg, Alex Stanford, Dan Sheppard, Charlie Pyne and Sophie Alloway, among many other wonderful, brilliant musicians.

And the list gets much longer. I’ve had the pleasure of also playing on the stand with more leading UK musicians, such as: Dave Lewis, Nigel Hitchcock, Mark Ridout, Mark Armstrong & Mark Nightingale.

What an extraordinary learning opportunity. ‘Thank You’ Joe, and a big ‘thank you’ too to a longstanding friend from university days in Manchester, Jeremy Butler.

Espresso hit


Through good luck, just hit upon a great espresso. Was given a bag of the ‘organic peruvian’ bought from the Algerian Coffee Shop in London’s Soho.

It’s a medium roast and works well as an espresso, prepared using a stove top pot. Lovely lingering chocolate finish. The challenge will be not to have three or more this evening.

Coffee I

tomoca-ethiopian coffeeA few words about fine coffee I’ve had the pleasure of drinking while moving around whichever part of town I happen to be in.

‘Caravan’,  in London’s Kings Cross, prepares finest coffee. Beans are roasted on the premises and special blends prepared for the day. Hit their coffee menu – you won’t be disappointed. I was thrilled to see Ethiopian beans there; given my fondness for the rocket-fuelled style of coffee one finds in Addis Ababa. A top coffee shop in Addis is Tomoca, Invest in some of their finest. Be warned, just a few of their espressos and you’ll be hanging off the light-fittings. It’s worth it.

Shostakovich – look on the bright side


shostakovich bk
What a brilliant and absorbing read; Elizabeth Wilson’s ‘Shostakovich – A life Remembered’. Shostakovich lived during a period of immense political upheaval, spanning Tsarist and Soviet times. The book underlines how music provides solace and respite in some of the toughest settings; for individuals and communities. We learn too about the remarkable bravery and humour of the man; his music and work placed him in great peril, he was a whisker away from probable execution under Stalin. Luckily the man tasked with ‘sorting’ Shostakovich was himself bumped off on the eve of Shostakovich’s planned arrest. Humbling stuff.