Mike’s Monthly Musings – May

Responding to our webmistress’s demand for more material, I’ve decided to start a monthly comment – not so much a blurb or a blog, just a few random thoughts brought about each month as I prepare the play list for the Listening to Jazz group.  This month’s remarks are occasioned as a result of catching a late night show on French television whilst on holiday recently in the south of France.  There are some odd instruments one comes across when listening to jazz – the programme I watched featured the longstanding harmonica player Toots Thielemans playing alongside a trio with the great pianist Fred Hersch, bassist Harvey Schwartz and drummer Adam Nussbaum (last seen over here as a member of the Anglo-American super group The Impossible Gentlemen – catch them is you can!).  Toots goes back to just after the end of the Second World War, going to the US initially as a guitarist and playing with pianist George Shearing’s famous quintet.  His harmonica sounds have appeared not only on many jazz records, but also on movie soundtracks and many pop records.  He is probably the best jazz sounding harmonica player around – there have been a few others, such as Max Geldray (always had a spot on the Goon Show if you were around in those days listening to steam radio) and of course Larry Adler could turn out a nice jazz sound if he wanted to.  Today South African born Adam Glasser continues as a major jazz player, often calling on the particular rhythms of African jazz as a background to his music.  And of course the harmonica features in many blues groups….
Another odd instrument is the xylophone and its more common successor the vibraphone.  Red Norvo featured the xylophone in the 1930s, and before that Adrian Rollini played it as one of the many instruments on which he could be heard.  Swing master Lionel Hampton came to fame as a member of the Benny Goodman quartet in the 1930s before going on to lead his own big band for around 50 years until the 1990s.  Of the post war bop influenced musicians Milt Jackson was the most interesting player, heavily blues influenced but sufficiently disciplined to remain with the Modern Jazz Quartet – the first chamber music sounding group to gain worldwide fame.  Later it was the sound of Gary Burton which came to fame: still playing today and some fifty years on Burton remains a jazz giant.  Today I think of two stars, one of whom is British.  First here is the American Joe Locke, with a whole range of recordings to his name and well worth searching out. The British name is one well known amongst Harborough Jazz fans – namely Jim Hart.  Like Hampton, Jim started out initially as a drummer, moved on to the vibes and has not looked back since.  Now based in Alsace, Jim plays all over Europe and North America, one of the most recent British jazzmen to establish an international reputation – and still a young man!
Less of an oddity is the violin – covered in jazz by everyone from Joe Venuti and Stuff Smith via the best known Stephane Grappelli to Detroit born star Regina Carter, recently heard at Ronnie Scott’s club in London.  All made the violin sound at home in the jazz world, sometimes not losing its classical tone, but also often making it a true jazz instrument.  Two British musicians who feature the violin are Chris Garrick (son of pianist the late Michael Garrick) and Ben Holder – again both are well worth hearing if the opportunity arises.
Last but not least there is the accordion and its relation, the bandoleon.  The accordion is long associated with the sound of French musette – think Edith Piaf and other 1950s/60s sounds.  Here it is Argentinian Astor Piazzola who is the main influence, his sound a feature of some of the best tango music around.  One name currently stands out in jazz as an accordion player – Frenchman Richard Galliano.  Galliano originally started out as a trombone player before picking up the accordion, finding it a natural partner for the kind of jazz sound he wanted to produce.  I have to admit that a Galliano concert is one of the few I’ve left before the end: the sound was a little too advanced for my ears and for my non-jazz friends who were with me!  Subsequently I’ve heard him on a number of recordings and TV soundtracks – producing a distinctive jazz sound which can swing like mad!
Though the saxophone and trumpet, piano, bass and drums are the instruments most closely associated with jazz, all the ‘oddities’ have brought something to the music – and in this respect Galliano is certainly right when he says it is not the instrument which plays jazz, but the musician who wants his instrument to produce jazz sounds!
Mike Goldsmith
SLU3A Listening to Jazz Group Organiser.