Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for the ‘Jazz’ Category

Three clashing jazz festivals and one memorable show


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BRILLIANT: Canadian band The Shuffle Demons at Blue Frog, Mumbai, on November 26

THIS evening, three exciting jazz festivals are slated to begin. All of them will last three days, but while the Reclamation Jazz festival will be held in Mumbai and the Jazz Fest 2014 in Kolkata, keep guessing where the Goa International Jazz Live will take place. Sadly, nobody in the world has six feet to make it to all three places.

Such clashing of events is quite common in Hindustani classical music, where one often has to choose between five or six places on a single evening in the same city during season-time. But having three major jazz festivals on the same three days is unfortunate. If planned differently, the true-blue jazz fans could travel from one city to another and attend different shows.

While India has been hosting some fantastic jazz festivals of late, most of them are in November, when the music season has just begun. Besides the three festivals happening this weekend, you had the Jazz Utsav in Delhi and the Shisha Café International Jazz festival in Pune. Considering that at one time we only had the iconic Jazz Yatra, which eventually made way for Jazz Utsav, this trend of having multiple festivals is more than welcome. Yet, one feels some of them could happen at different times of the year.

Through the year, many cities have a fair number of one-off shows, some of which are organised by foreign diplomatic and educational bodies. Besides Mumbai and Delhi, one finds a lot of good stuff in Bangalore and Kolkata. Recently, Mumbai hosted a rare big band concert by Russian saxophonist Igor Butman and his group, and on December 1, the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, a fusion-jazz group consisting of musicians from India, Pakistan and the UK, plays at the Tata Theatre. While that’s good news, one hopes the jazz fever continues a little longer and doesn’t vanish by the year-end.

TALKING of jazz shows, the act that really blew me this year came from Toronto, Canada. Called The Shuffle Demons, they played at the Blue Frog on Wednesday in what was one of the most foot-tapping sets heard in Mumbai in a long time.

The band was brought in by the organisers of Ragasthan, the popular desert camping festival that is held near Jaisalmer, and whose dates for next year have been fixed for February 12 to 15. A host of Indian and international acts are slated to perform, and it promises to be a great experience.

What set The Shuffle Demons apart at the Ragasthan pre-event party was their sheer energy and vibrancy. Though their set lasted only 70 minutes and they played just seven numbers, they simply wowed the crowd with their brand of happy music.

The band played a well-blended amalgam of jazz, funk, hip-hop, reggae and world music, and never ceased to surprise with the directions their tunes took. Plus, all the five members were natural showmen, dressed in distinct costumes, jiving on stage and beginning and ending their show by doing a round of the venue.

The other unique thing about The Shuffle Demons was their line-up. While the rhythm section was manned by drummer Stich Wynston and bassist Chris Banks, they had three saxophonists – Richard Underhill, Ryan Oliver and Shawn Nykwist. There were no guitars or keyboards, and all five musicians chipped in with vocals.

The band began with the pieces ‘Perry’s Groove’ and ‘One Good Turn’. The other tunes included their favourites ‘Cheese on Bread’ and ‘Spadina Bus’, and a version of the Charles Mingus tune ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Tune’ lent variety. One only wished they had played another half an hour.

The Shuffle Demons will play tonight at the Goa festival, followed by appearances in Bangalore, Kolkata and Delhi. The tour is also being used to promote their latest CD ‘Clusterfunk’. Surely, their shows are not to be missed. So do try and shuffle across and hear them if you’re in one of these cities.

Charlie Haden and the other jazz bass masters


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LEGENDARY BASSIST: Charlie Haden

LIKE many people from my generation, I first got attracted to jazz bass guitar through the magical fingers of Jaco Pastorius of the band Weather Report. Very soon, I started appreciating Stanley Clarke of Return to Forever, and most of my early listening focused around the electric bass.

As I got deeper into jazz and began attending concerts regularly, I started getting exposed to some really talented musicians who played the upright bass or double bass. The whole image of them standing with an instrument larger than them and yet playing with such control was fascinating.

Charlie Haden, who passed away last week, was one of the double bassists who had a major impact on my jazz listening. It began with his works with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, especially on the landmark 1959 album ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. Then, I heard his collaborations with pianist Keith Jarrett and guitarist Pat Metheny – with the latter, ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ remains a classic. Another favourite was Haden’s ‘Nocturne’, which won the 2002 Grammy for best Latin jazz album.

Haden’s death marks a huge loss to the world of bass-playing. Clearly, he was one of the most prolific and versatile practitioners of the instrument, literally making it sing.

Over the years, the world has heard numerous bass greats. It was because of these masters that bass playing earned a respect of its own, especially in a world where audiences are largely more attracted to the saxophone, trumpet, piano or guitar. While it would be difficult to draw a list of greatest bassists, I am listing 20 whom I have personally admired. While the first eight were masters of the double bass, the other 12 have specialised in the electric bass. Either way, they have been true champions.

1. Ray Brown – Known for his extensive work with pianist Oscar Peterson and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, Brown was a huge name from the late 1940s to the 1960s. He also played the cello

2. Charles Mingus – A highly influential composer, bandleader and double bassist, Mingus had a style that blended jazz with gospel and classical music. His album ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ remains a jazz classic

3. Charlie Haden – Besides his collaborations with Coleman, Jarrett and Metheny, mentioned above, Haden was known for his work with the Liberation Music Orchestra, a group he co-led with pianist Carla Bley

4. Scott LaFaro – Best known for his seminal work with pianist Bill Evans and his trio, LaFaro died tragically in a road accident at the age of 25. His professional career lasted only six years, but he redefined jazz bass-playing

5. Paul Chambers – Another genius who died young, of tuberculosis at 33, Chambers played with many greats including trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, guitarist Wes Montgomery and pianist Wynton Kelly

6. Ron Carter – One of the most recorded bassists ever, Carter has appeared in 2,500 albums. His work with Miles Davis, pianists Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard have been hugely admired. He is an acclaimed cellist too

7. Dave Holland – A Britisher, Holland first earned a name playing at the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London, before he moved to the US. Besides many albums with Miles Davis, he has recorded with keyboardist Chick Corea and saxophonist Joe Henderson, among others

8. Christian McBride – One of those musicians who’s adept at both upright bass and electric bass, McBride has played with many artistes including guitarist John McLaughlin, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, pianist McCoy Tyner and singer Diana Krall

9. Marcus Miller – One of the foremost electric bass players, Miller has accompanied Miles Davis, Hancock, singer Luther Vandross, saxophonist David Sanborn and others. He also plays clarinet, keyboards, saxophone and guitar

10. Jaco Pastorius – The king of the electric bass, Pastorius was best known for his work with Weather Report, besides numerous solo projects. He died at the age of 35 after slipping into a coma following an altercation with a club bouncer

11. Stanley Clarke – Though adept at upright bass too, Clarke made his mark on the electric bass as part of the group Return to Forever with Chick Corea. A highlight of his career was the album ‘The Rite of Strings’, where he plays acoustic bass, with Al DiMeola on acoustic guitar and Jean Luc Ponty on acoustic violin

12. John Patitucci – Another musician who’s proficient at both double and electric bass. His best known stint was with Chick Corea’s Elektric Band and Akoustic Band, and he’s also played with blues legend BB King, rock group Bon Jovi and popular artiste Sting

13. Victor Wooten – A hugely talented bassist, Wooten has played extensively with banjo maestro Bela Fleck and his group the Flecktones. He was also part of a bass supergroup with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller

14. Jonas Hellborg – The Swedish bassist was part of the reunited Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1980s. He has collaborated with Indian musicians like sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan, tabla player Fazal Qureshi and kanjira exponent V Selvaganesh

15. Steve Swallow – One of the first double bassists to shift entirely to the electric bass, Swallow has had some outstanding recordings with saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre, vibraphonist Gary Burton, pianist Carla Bley and guitarist John Scofield

16. Kai Eckhardt – The German-born bassist is best known for his work with McLaughlin and drummer Billy Cobham. His style blends jazz, funk and world music, and he’s been hugely influenced by Marcus Miller

17. Dominique di Piazza – A master of the electric bass, this French-born musician was part of the John McLaughlin Trio, which also featured percussionist Trilok Gurtu in the early 1990s. He’s a huge influence on many younger players

18. Nathan East – A very versatile bass player, who has played jazz, rhythm n’ blues, and even rock. He was part of the smooth jazz quartet Fourplay, and has accompanied renowned musicians like Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins and Joe Satriani

19. Etienne M’bappe – From Cameroon, M’bappe is one of the most popular bassists on the scene today, with a style that blends jazz, classical and world music. He has played with the Joe Zawinul Syndicate and Carlos Santana, and is currently part of McLaughlin’s band The 4th Dimension

20. Richard Bona – Also from Cameroon, Bona stayed in Germany and France before settling in the US. He has played with keyboardist Joe Zawinul, guitarists Larry Coryell, Mike Stern and George Benson, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis

Others: Besides these 20, the other names that immediately come to mind are Gary Peacock, Eddie Gomez, Phil Upchurch, Oscar Pettiford, Wilbur Ware, Victor Bailey of Weather Report, Rick Laird and Ralphe Armstrong of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Reuben Rogers. One must also mention Bootsy Collins, who revolutionised bass-playing in the funk field as part of singer James Brown’s band and later the group Parliament-Funkadelic.

There are many others who’ve contributed to the glorious world of bass-playing. Like the drums, the bass strengthens the rhythm section and acts as a backbone to most songs. Without a good bass line, a song is often empty.

The ideal ‘Person’ in jazz


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ONE wonders how many people knew Houston Person was celebrating his 79th birthday while performing at Mumbai’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre on Sunday night. In fact, going by the sheer brilliance with which the American played his tenor saxophone, and the charm he displayed in the few words he spoke, one would assume he would be a few years younger.

Compared to Saturday night’s near-full attendance at the three-day Jus’ Jazz festival, thanks mainly to the presence of the top-draw name of violinist Regina Carter, one saw many empty seats on Sunday. But most who attended would have been convinced Person gave one of the best jazz performances Mumbai has ever seen. While the second half featured the energetic mastery of saxophonist Igor Butman and the gorgeous voice of Fantine Pritoula, the impact created by Person and his quartet will be remembered for weeks to come.

Person isn’t such a well-known name in India, and I personally had never heard his music before. Even in the US, it’s said that he received his much-needed recognition rather late in his career. Among the general jazz audience, he was mainly known for his four-decade collaboration with singer Etta Jones, though the hardcore connoisseurs had recognised him way back in the 1960s for the sheer soulfulness of his playing. Yet, for most part, he has remained one of the under-rated geniuses.

That soulfulness still exists, as was evident in Sunday’s show. Each note he played had elegance, emotion and expression written all over. His interpretation of Duke Ellington’s ‘Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me’, Lester Young’s ‘Lester Leaps In’, the Louis Armstrong-popularised ‘What A Wonderful World’, or standards like ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘People’ and ‘Let’s Fall In Love’ exhibited true class. There were other tunes that seemed familiar, and though I couldn’t pinpoint their names, they left me spellbound.

It was the purest form of jazz one could hear. It was the jazz sound that ruled the 1940s and 1950s, before other elements were fused in to enhance its mass appeal. A mix of ballads and the blues, standards and swing, the music was intricate enough to make you appreciate its deeper nuances, and yet relaxing enough to help you unwind.

Add to that the fact that Sunday’s show featured a classic jazz quartet line-up of tenor saxophone, piano (John Di Martino), bass (Matthew Parish) and drums (Chip White), and the end result was pure magic. Each musician excelled, both in the accompanying parts and during the solos, and everything added up so wonderfully.

We’ve seen many musicians get standing ovations for their performance, but Person deserved something even more special, and got it too. After his encore, he had waved goodbye to the audience, and walked to the green room. Everybody wanted more, and kept screaming their requests, without giving up. Even after a few minutes, a large number stayed back in the hall, till Person returned and played another tune. The audience couldn’t contain the excitement.

STILL buzzing from the show, I decided to gather more information about Houston Person. There wasn’t much on the Net, but for a Wikipedia profile, a few other short descriptions of his career, a few reviews of his latest album ‘Nice ‘N Easy’ and only a couple of interviews or write-ups. He’s recorded over 75 albums as a bandleader, which is evidence of his prolificacy.

Luckily, there is a lot of material on YouTube, including his interpretations of the classic old numbers ‘Moonlight In Vermont’, ‘Mack The Knife’, ‘All The Things You Are’ and George Gershwin’s ‘Love Is Here To Stay’. But the one that moved me the most was his heavenly rendition of Richard Rodgers’ ‘My Romance’.

The few interviews and write-ups on him provide a good glimpse of his musical mindset. In an interview given in 2004 to allaboutjazz.com, he says: “It’s important that jazz is relaxing. Something that when the end of the day comes, after a hard and frustrating day out in the world, that relieves you. Relaxes you and makes you feel good.”

In an interview to noted jazz scholar and critic Nat Hentoff, Person said that, like Lester Young and Ben Webster, he always first learnt the lyrics of the songs he played. He also told critic-author Doug Ramsey: “The lyric gives the song its meaning and provides the springboard for the improviser. I never play a song the same way twice, and my music doesn’t disguise the melody or reshape it or convolute it so that it’s unrecognisable.”

Those few quotes surely sum up Person’s approach to his music. They also explain what makes him special in the world of the jazz saxophone. Those who saw him on this tour of Mumbai, Delhi and Pune were lucky. It’s not too often that we in India get to hear traditional jazz of his extra-extraordinary calibre.

The Houston Person Quartet played on the final day of the Jus’ Jazz festival, organised by the National Centre for the Performing Arts and Jazz Addicts, at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre from November 8 to 10. The other performers were the Renee Rosnes Quartet, the True School Manhattan Six Band, the Helen Sung Quartet featuring violinist Regina Carter, the James and Wes Legacy Band and the Igor Butman Quartet featuring vocalist Fantine Pritoula.

Too old to rock ‘n’ roll, too young for the blues and jazz


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Bill Wyman (left) and Mick Ralphs

A FEW weeks ago, the music press talked of the formation of the blues-rock supergroup The Rides, featuring the legendary Stephen Stills on vocals and guitar, the hugely talented Kenny Wayne Shepherd on guitar and Electric Flag veteran Barry Goldberg on keyboards.

Those who’ve grown up on rock and folk-rock of the late 1960s would be delighted to hear of the involvement of Stills, best known as a member of iconic bands like Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Having been diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer and recovering from it a few years ago, the master musician is taking his career in a new direction.

Like Stills, many musicians of the 1960s and 1970s have been working on new music or on side projects. We’re not talking of Mick Jagger, Ian Anderson and Ian Gillan who continue to be associated full-time with their earlier groups, or people like Eric Clapton, Robert Plant and David Gilmour who have been releasing solo material. Specifically, we’re mentioning musicians who are now doing more work in the blues and jazz, instead of continuing in the field of rock, which they were known for.

A few random searches on Google and YouTube revealed some very interesting results. Though this music and these bands may not get the kind of popularity that their earlier rock bands earned, they are definitely brilliant in quality. And though these musicians are making the occasional appearance at blues and jazz festivals, a lot of their new stuff is going unnoticed.

Let’s look at five such acts, which are definitely worth checking out:

Bill Wyman and the Rhythm Kings: The former, long-time bassist of the Rolling Stones, Wyman ventured into blues-rock with this group, which also consists of some veteran musicians like guitarist Albert Lee and keyboardist Georgie Fame.

Also featured are vocalists Beverly Skeete and Gary US Bonds, guitarist Andy Fairweather Low (who accompanied Roger Waters on his India tour) and keyboardist Mike Sanchez. Guitar hero Peter Frampton, best-known for his mega-selling live album ‘Frampton Comes Alive’, appears as a regular guest, and even guitarists Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor have guested with this group.

Wyman and the Rhythm Kings have been around for a while, releasing five studio albums since 1997. Their versions of ‘Anyway the Wind Blows’, ‘Chicken Shack Boogie’, ‘Green River’ and ‘Melody’ are simply outstanding, and Skeete’s singing on the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins masterpiece ‘I Put A Spell On You’ takes you to another planet.

Peter Green and Friends: Vocalist and guitarist of Fleetwood Mac and writer of the Santana-popularised ‘Black Magic Woman’, Peter Green has had his roots in the blues, which was evident in some of the band’s early albums. This project marks his comeback in 2009, after a five-year hiatus.

Here, in fact, Green goes into exploring the blues even deeper. Accompanying him are Mike Dodd (rhythm guitar, vocals), Geraint Watkins (keyboards), Matt Radford (bass), Andrew Flude (drums) and Martin Winning (tenor sax).

The group’s versions of ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’, ‘The Stumble’, ‘Sitting in the Rain’, ‘Stranger Blues’ and ‘When the Lights Go Out’ are surely worth checking out.

Mick Ralphs Blues Band: Formerly with glam-rock group Mott the Hoople and then with the marvellous rock band Bad Company, Mick Ralphs is one of the most under-rated yet brilliant guitarists ever. His Mick Ralphs Blues Band totally showcases his talent and his proficiency with the blues.

Accompanying Ralphs are vocalist/ harmonica player Son Maxwell, slide guitarist Jim Maving, bassist Dicky Baldwin and drummer Sam Kelly. They’ve done some brilliant work on songs like ‘Can’t Do It All By Myself’, ‘ ‘Mister Charlie’, ‘Hideaway’, Just a Little Bit’, the classic Albert King song ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ and the Bad Company hit ‘Can’t Get Enough’.

John Densmore’s Tribaljazz: The former Doors drummer has been in the new more for his legal conflict with other band members Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, which he wrote about in his book ‘The Doors Unhinged’. Following Manzarek’s death in May, he has initiated a reunion with Krieger.

Over the past few years, Densmore has been actively involved with Tribaljazz, which explores a mix of jazz, African beats and world music. The group released its debut album in 2006, featuring songs like ‘Blues For Bali’, ‘The First Time I Heard Coltrane’ (dedicated to the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane) and ‘Violet Love’, besides a more jazzed-up version of the Doors classic ‘Riders On The Storm’.

Besides Densmore, the group features saxophonist/ flautist Art Ellis, pianist Quinn Johnson, Egyptian bassist Osama Afifi, Guatemalan conga player Miguel Rivera, Italian-born, Brazil-trained percussionist Cristina Berio and African drummers Marcel Adjibi and Aziz Faye. Going by that very line-up, one can imagine how eclectic the music will be.

Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion: One of the rock world’s best drummers, Baker had very successful stints with Cream (along with Eric Clapton and bassist Jac Bruce) and the short-lived Blind Faith (with Clapton, keyboardist Steve Winwood and bassist Rick Grech). He later teamed up with African musician Fela Kuti and explored world music.

Baker’s group Jazz Confusion is doing the rounds on the UK festival circuit, and is slated to play at next month’s Great British Blues Festival in Colne, Lancashire. Also featuring veteran saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth and conga player Abass Dodoo, the band plays a highly energetic blend of jazz and African music.

Superb stuff from all five. Just a quick tour of YouTube will unleash loads of pure magic.

Piano pizazz


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GIG REVIEW

Artiste: Sharik Hasan with the New York Quartet
Venue and date: Tata Theatre, Mumbai; June 19, 2013
Genre: Jazz
Rating: ****

FOR the past couple of years, there have been quite a few media reports about the talent of pianist Sharik Hasan. He’s done a few shows in Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, and many in the west, moreso in New York and Paris. Unfortunately, this blogger never got a chance to see him on stage.

So when one found out he was playing with the New York Quartet at the Tata Theatre on Wednesday, June 19, one didn’t want to miss the opportunity. It had been raining heavily from Sunday, but thankfully, the sun came out on the morning of the show.

The hall may have been 80 per cent full, with many seats empty at the side. Probably it was because of the rains. But whoever made it was in for a treat, as the quartet began sharp at 7 pm.

All four of them – Sharik, New York tenor saxophonist Adam Larson, double bassist Raviv Markovitz and Amsterdam-born drummer Philippe Lemm – were dressed in suits, with similar ties, with only Lemm taking off his coat and rolling up his sleeves. Musically, they were in uniform too, as they mostly played originals composed by Sharik, with a few older tunes thrown in.

The show was organised by the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in association with Jazz Addicts, with support from the True School of Music, Mumbai. For the next two hours or so, the four musicians impressed the crowd with some brilliant improvisations and great teamwork.

Both the adaptations were played in the first half. The great pianist and composer Thelonious Monk’s ‘I Mean You’ was played in a free-flowing manner, with Sharik excelling on the Steinway piano. Ace composer George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ had the saxophonist playing the standard melody in the beginning, before increasing the tempo to add loads of energy, to the accompaniment of a tight rhythm section.

The originals were charming too, with the compositions always introducing surprises. The band displayed marvellous coordination on ‘Waltz for Peach’, ‘Odyssey’, ‘Red’s Dilemma’ and ‘Ascension’, with the last seeing crisp bass-work and drumming. ‘Confluence’, which concluded the show, was loosely based on Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’, though Sharik added many layers to make it sound different.

In the end, one only wished the band had agreed to the crowd’s request and done an encore — maybe an interpretation of ‘Take Five’ as a tribute to late pianist Dave Brubeck, whom Sharik has seen in performance.

Born in Bangalore, Sharik has spent many years studying classical piano and jazz in the US and France. In Paris, he was part of an Indo-French trio, and in New York, he’s been playing with this quartet.

What was indeed heartening is that we saw a young Indian pianist who’s making waves on the international jazz circuit. In the past, Sharik has shared the stage with some masters like saxophonists Wayne Shorter, David Liebman and Joe Lovano, bassist John Patitucci and drummers Ralph Peterson and Adam Nussbaum.

Some of the others who are doing well in the west include alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who is of Indian origin, and pianist Vijay Iyer, both of whom are doing regular gigs in New York.

Over the next two weeks, Sharik and the New York Quartet are also scheduled to play in Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Goa. For jazz lovers in those cities, it would be definitely worth a visit.

RATING: * Terrible; ** Hmmm… okay; *** Decent; **** Super; ***** Simply out of the world

Norah Jones and one of the ultimate love songs


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It’s not the pale moon that excites me
That thrills and delights me
Oh no, it’s just the nearness of you

THE band had taken a break, when Norah Jones began the opening lines of the 75-year-old jazz standard ‘The Nearness of You’, with her piano providing the perfect backdrop for her solo rendition. She had sung the song in her Grammy-winning 2002 album ‘Come Away With Me’, and also made an appearance rendering it in the film ‘Two Weeks Notice’. This time, it was one of the clear highlights of her show at Mumbai’s Turf Club on March 3.

In her 90-minute set, Norah also rendered her biggest hits ‘Come Away With Me’, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Don’t’ Know Why’, besides ‘Happy Pills’, ‘Miriam’, ‘Say Goodbye’, ‘Lone Star’ and ‘What Am I To You?’, among others. Her back-up band was superb, using keyboards and Hammond organ, electric guitars, bass and drums, and on some of the rearranged country-converted numbers, a double bass, acoustic guitar and accordion.

After the smash success of her first two albums, Norah’s recent recordings have tended to get repetitive and formula-driven. This is something we covered in the blog ‘The rise and stagnancy of Norah Jones’, posted on June 4 last year. Yet, despite much variety in terms of compositions, her live show was a true surprise, moreso because one would have expected her to sound better in a closed, intimate setting, rather than an open-air venue like the Turf Club. She sang beautifully and consistently.

That much about Norah’s performance, which she dedicated to her father, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Let’s now talk of the ever-so-popular ‘The Nearness Of You’, with which we began this feature.

Composed in 1938 by Hoagy Carmichael with lyrics by Ned Washington, this is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. A marvellous tune, often backed by piano, and wonderful and simple words make it a classic. After the opening lines mentioned above, it continues with:

It isn’t your sweet conversation
That brings this sensation
Oh no, it’s just the nearness of you

When you’re in my arms
And I feel you so close to me
All my wildest dreams came true

I need no soft lights to enchant me
If you will only grant me
The right to hold you ever so tight
And to feel in the night
The nearness of you

Interestingly, it is also one of the most-covered songs ever. Like the other great standards ‘Summertime’, ‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘Fever’, it has been performed by numerous artistes in a variety of styles. And while Norah’s version is definitely popular among her fans, there have been many breath-taking and lesser-known versions by others.

The song was first featured in the 1938 film Romance In The Dark. The first really popular version, which begins with a long orchestral passage, was recorded by bandleader Glenn Miller. Ever since, we’ve had male versions, female versions, duets, instrumental jazz versions, vocal versions with jazz instrumentation, and even country, soul and blues versions.

The earlier generation of men who sang this song include Frank Sinatra, Matt Monro, Pat Boone, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Paul Anka. Rod Stewart has rendered it in his inimitable style, and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has added his own touch in a bootleg recording, playing the piano himself.

Country superstar Willie Nelson, soul sensation James Brown and bluesman Dr John have adapted the tune to their genres. And there’s an absolute beauty (this blogger’s personal favourite) by super-singer James Taylor, with Michael Brecker on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano and Pat Metheny on guitar, on the album ‘The Ballad Book: Nearness of You’.

The women who have covered this song include Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Bassey, Etta James, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Jo Stafford,  Sheena Easton, Diana Krall and Diane Reeves, besides Norah, of course. The collaborations include the great Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong on trumpet and vocals, Abbey Lincoln with pianist Hank Jones and Nancy Wilson with pianist George Shearing.

Some of the instrumental jazz versions are astounding. The great saxophonist Stan Getz has rendered it with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, trumpeter Chet Baker has teamed up with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and saxophonist Joshua Redman has played a 12-minute improvisation with pianist Brad Mehldau. Another memorable collaboration was between alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, clarinettist Woody Herman and percussionist Tito Puente.

Saxophonists Ben Webster, Branford Marsalis, Sonny Stitt and Frank Morgan, pianist Red Garland, trumpeter Chris Botti, violinist Stephane Grappelli and vibraphonist Mike Manieri have also done commendable versions.

Besides these, there are many others who have covered this song. With so many fabulous versions over the years, where does Norah’s recording stand? Well, more than anybody else, she has introduced it to today’s younger generation. Though her fans are more likely to prefer her songs ‘Come Away With Me’, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Don’t Know Why’, they have become aware of this jazz classic thanks to Norah. We wish more of the younger singers take such standards and carry them forward in a similar way.

Donald Byrd and the other great jazz trumpeters


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FOR jazz fans, this month began on a rather sad note, following the demise of ace trumpeter Donald Byrd at age 80 on February 4. As his family took time to confirm the news, the media obituaries have been appearing only over the past four days or so, with each writer remembering the enormous contribution made by him.

Byrd had a rich tone, clear phrasing and distinct style, which old-timers initially admired on his work with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He released some remarkable albums with Blue Note Records, including ‘Byrd in Hand’, ‘A New Perspective’, ‘Kofi’, ‘Electric Byrd’ and ‘Places and Spaces’, besides venturing into rhythm and blues. And though his biggest seller ‘Black Byrd’ was sadly criticised by purists for being too pop, he actually introduced jazz to younger audiences through that 1973 effort.

Personally, I began listening to Byrd around 10 or 11 years after I became a jazz fan. Nobody had specifically recommended him to me, but I found his cassette ‘Caricatures’ at a record store. It had no liner notes, but seeing a trumpet on the cover, I picked it up. I heard him closely later, though there are still many albums from his enormous catalogue I am yet to hear. And while I have had many favourite trumpeters, Byrd’s style has always been special.

The news of Byrd’s demise also prompts me to recall my own fascination with the trumpet and think of some of the greatest trumpeters who have graced the world of jazz. After all, when one asks me about my favourite jazz instrument, I always say it is a toss-up between the trumpet and saxophone. But the former has a nostalgic advantage because I first got into jazz more by listening to some fabulous trumpet players.

In fact, rather than the trumpet, my jazz journey actually began in 1983 with Chuck Mangione’s rendition of the similar but somewhat sweeter-sounding flugelhorn. Mangione played more melodic pop-jazz, but tunes like ‘Feels So Good’, ‘Children of Sanchez’ and ‘Memories of Sirocco’ had me hooked.

The first trumpeter I saw live was the remarkable Woody Shaw at the 1984 Jazz Yatra in Delhi. He played with the great trombonist Steve Turre, and the show still buzzes in my brain. After that concert, I wanted to hear the trumpet more than anything else. And the LP I picked up next was ‘In Flagranti Delicto’ by trumpeter Ian Carr and his band Nucleus. Its sound was very much in keeping with the jazz-rock trend of the day.

Soon, there was a conscious effort to discover more trumpeters. The three biggest names came first. Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Each had a different style, and each of them was a pioneer. I always loved Armstrong’s voice and his trumpet-playing, especially in those recordings with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. But it was Miles who initially created a bigger impact on me with albums like ‘Kind of Blue’, ‘Sketches of Spain’ and ‘Bitches Brew’, even though I admired the last one more for its amalgamation of various instruments.

Much later, there was a long Dizzy Gillespie phase, after I heard his recordings with saxophonists Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, and also some of his early recordings. Simultaneously, I got into Chet Baker, and besides his trumpet, I simply loved the way he sang, especially on the album ‘Chet Baker Sings’. His version of the Rodgers-Hart standard ‘My Funny Valentine’ is a classic.

Over the years, other trumpeters to attract my attention were Freddie Hubbard, Herb Albert, Maynard Ferguson, Randy Brecker, Lee Morgan, Roy Hargrove and Clark Terry, besides old-timers like Roy Eldridge, Clifford Brown and Cat Anderson of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I heard Don Cherry primarily for his fusion work rather than his jazz. And there was Bix Beiderbecke on the cornet, an instrument similar to the trumpet.

Interestingly, I first heard neo-classicist Wynton Marsalis a few months after I got into Byrd. But I was already so impressed by Byrd’s style that I found Marsalis dry, an opinion which thankfully changed later, on hearing his album ‘Hothouse Flowers’.

My later favourites include Arturo Sandoval, Nicholas Payton and Dave Douglas. Sandoval has a distinct style, blending Afro-Cuban music with jazz.  Payton did a marvellous dedication to Louis Armstrong on ‘Dear Louis’, whereas Douglas did a superb show in Mumbai at the Jazz Yatra over a decade ago. Chris Botti had a smooth tone but concentrated mainly on smooth jazz, rather than the rapidfire improvisation I always prefer. In a more relaxed mood, I would hear him.

There are some who I have heard sparingly or not at all. I saw South African concert great Hugh Masekela at a memorable concert in Mumbai, and on a DVD with Paul Simon, but haven’t heard his recordings. Doc Cheatham, Thad Jones, Kenny Dorham and Art Farmer are some well-known names whose records I haven’t found in Indian stores.

Obviously, the field of jazz trumpet has been filled with extraordinary talent. I may have missed some names because I wasn’t exposed to them, or by sheer oversight. And with so many great artistes, it’s always difficult to pinpoint one’s favourite. But Donald Byrd was always somewhere at the top. He shall be missed.

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