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Saxophonist captures natural phenomena on new album 

 

 

New Zealander Lucien Johnson releases his first digital album, Wax///Wane on April 1st. The saxophonist, who spent much of his twenties living and working in and out of Paris, has put together a set of compositions that reflect the natural surroundings of his life by the sea but also contain the energy and urgency of city living.

 

Setting his tenor saxophone in an intriguing line-up – vibes, harp, bass, drums and percussion – has enabled Johnson to capture the dream-like quality he wanted to convey. It also harks back to one of the many musical experiences – playing with Ethiopian jazz pioneer Mulutu Astatke - that have come his way as a result of leaving New Zealand for Europe as a twenty-two-year-old with no contacts and just a smattering of high school French.

 

“If you come from New Zealand, when you’re young anywhere else seems extremely exciting and desirable,” he says. “I talked myself into an English teaching job in Paris and stayed with a friend of a friend for a few days, then was in some hostels before finding a flat in the 11th arrondissement. My French was really bad but after a year or so it got much better and before long I was fluent.”

 

As he started to meet people, Johnson, who grew up in a musical family, was able to find work as a musician. He played in brasseries and gravitated towards theatre work, including a clown troupe, with whom he toured India. Another theatre gig took him to Haiti, where he spent four months and contracted malaria but also got to play with voodoo drummers.

 

Back in Paris he started to mingle with American and Japanese musicians, hanging out with drumming legend and long-time Paris resident Sunny Murray, pianist Bobby Few and saxophonist Steve Potts and playing in drummer John Betsch’s band. The brilliant Japanese drummer Makoto Sato introduced Johnson to free jazz bass titan Alan Silva, of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler fame, and they formed a trio, going on to record the album Stinging Nettles.

 

“Playing and recording with a musician of Alan’s stature was a real honour for me and meeting and gaining the respect of these American players who were of the 1960s and 1970s generation who had settled in Paris was amazing,” he says. “But it was often a struggle to pay the rent and after six years, I decided to return home.”

 

In Wellington he joined a band that toured the U.S. and Europe every year and got a taste of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. He then completed a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Victoria University and went on to compose music for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Dance Company while making music under his own name. His album West of the Sun, which was released on Japanese label Wonderful Noise, was shortlisted for New Zealand’s Jazz Album of the Year title in 2017.

 

Johnson’s travels and experiences led to him becoming the go-to musician for festival collaborations back home, which is how he came to work with pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Barre Phillips, and with Mulatu Astatke, both in Wellington and Addis Ababa.

 

Wax///Wane, he says, is the first album he has made in a really mature musical style and he’d like to think it marks the beginning of being able to concentrate exclusively on making his own music.

 

“I definitely chose the harp and the vibraphone for a reason,” he says. “For me, these instruments invoke, perhaps better than any other, the feeling of dreams. That's why composers like Debussy and Ravel liked the harp. The vibraphone can do that too when you use it with pedal and tremolo. The vibes give Mulatu's music a sense of mystery and one of my favourite Miles Davis albums, Blue Moods, gets this spacious, mysterious feeling with the vibes, as does Archie Shepp's New Thing at Newport with Bobby Hutcherson.”

 

The Wax/Wane instrumentation is one he would like to record with more and he feels there is more to explore in creating music that reflects the weather – winds and storms contrasting with blue skies – and the flora and fauna of the coast where he lives.

 

“It's a very different experience from, say, living in New York and going head-to-head with jazz virtuosos every night of the week,” he says. “My music probably doesn't have the same technical complexity as a lot of the music that is made in that context, but I do believe it has a certain level of emotional nuance nonetheless, and a feeling of mystique.”

 

Lucien Johnson’s Wax///Wane is available on Bandcamp and all major streaming services.

 

 

Rising saxophone star Matt Carmichael releases debut album

 

 

 

Saxophonist Matt Carmichael, like musicians everywhere, has barely played in public over the past twelve months. The set the twenty-one-year-old from Lenzie played in early November, however, reached as many people in twenty minutes as many jazz musicians will play to in a year or more.

 

Carmichael didn’t win the BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020 title that afternoon but just reaching the final of the competition and appearing on BBC Four in front of a nationwide audience fulfilled an ambition he’d had since his mid-teens.

 

“I remember watching the final on TV a few years ago and thinking, I’d love to do that,” he says. “I didn’t really think I’d ever get there, so it was kind of unreal to be standing playing in front of the cameras. It was also strange playing with musicians I’d only just met a few days before and I’m not sure I played as well as I could have done, but it was a great experience.”

 

Playing in front of a live audience numbering only a handful – the competition judges – was also quite unnerving. Matt left, though, if not with first prize then with the praise of musicians of the calibre of trumpeter and arranger – and chief judge - Guy Barker ringing in his ears.

 

He's since had a lot more praise from prominent observers as he prepares to release his first album, Where Will the River Flow on Friday March 12. Early reviews and comments from presenters on radio stations such as Jazz FM have enthused about Carmichael’s musicianship and the attractiveness of his original compositions.

 

Saxophone wasn’t Carmichael’s first choice of instrument. He took piano lessons for six months at the age of seven before deciding that the piano wasn’t for him. He has since revised that opinion and composes exclusively on the piano. Even the first single he released from his album, The Spey, a fast-as-fury reel that conveys the rushing quality of Scotland’s fastest river in full spate and sounds like a saxophone test piece was created at the keyboard.

 

He was, he remembers, about eleven when the chance to try a saxophone came up at school. After his brief interest in the piano, his parents might have been justified in being sceptical about his keenness for this new instrument. Depending on who’s telling the story – his teacher sensed a real aptitude in his young student; Matt’s version is that he was able to produce some sort of sound on it –the coming together was either a natural development or a fluke.

 

“I don’t think I’d even seen anyone playing the sax before,” says Matt. “I’m not even sure that I’d heard one played before either and I think my first reaction was, this is something different, it’ll be cool to learn to play.”

 

Group lessons at school didn’t bode well. Then, when private lessons were arranged with Allon Beauvoisin, the baritone saxophonist and brilliantly dependable backbone in Scottish horn quartet Brass Jaw and sometime saxophone section “anchor” for the Scottish National jazz Orchestra, Matt didn’t really appreciate the jazz his teacher let him hear.

 

“Allon was really nice,” he says. “He made me a compilation disc of Charlie Parker, Michael Brecker, Chris Potter and other saxophonists, who were obviously brilliant but didn’t really appeal to me musically for some reason. But then I heard Brass Jaw and there was this really soulful solo that Konrad Wiszniewski played on one track and I thought, that’s what I want to do.”

 

Improvising, he says, seemed to come naturally, although that didn’t make his first experience of standing up and taking a solo with the East Dunbartonshire Schools’ Jazz Orchestra any easier.

 

“I think I was thirteen or fourteen when I joined the orchestra,” he says. “I’d obviously never done anything like that before, so it was great to get a chance to play in a band onstage. But that first solo was absolutely terrifying. I was shaking. Of course, everyone in the band knows how it feels because your first solo – and everyone has to play their first solo at some point – is a rite of passage. But I didn’t realise that everyone else was shaking as they waited their turn too. Anyway, I got through my chorus, or whatever it was, and the feeling of achievement was amazing. I can still get nervous if I have to stand up and solo in an orchestra even now but I think that feeling of overcoming the fear makes you play better. The adrenaline maybe makes you concentrate more.”

 

It was while he was with the East Dunbartonshire Schools Jazz Orchestra that Carmichael heard a pianist on the radio who made him think, I want to play with him some day. This was Fergus McCreadie, the pianist in Carmichael’s quartet as it now happens, a serial award-winner who is currently earning rave reviews for his own second album, Cairn.

 

McCreadie was fifteen at the time and was competing in the Under 17 section of the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year competition, which he went on to win twice.

 

“I thought his playing was so advanced,” says Carmichael, “and I couldn’t believe he was so young from listening to him.”

 

It wasn’t long before his wish to play with McCreadie was granted. Having joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland, Carmichael found himself in the same band as McCreadie and playing music that has become one of his main sources of inspiration as the English saxophonist Iain Ballamy took the orchestra through some of his compositions in readiness for NYJOS’ summer tour.

 

“Apart from Brass Jaw, I’d only heard American jazz at that point,” says Carmichael. “Iain’s music was beautiful and very European. It made me want to check out other stuff that I listen to now, the whole ECM Records thing for example. At the end of that NYJOS tour, Fergus came up to me and said we should play together more. That was fantastic to hear and he obviously meant it because we’re still playing together.”

 

Playing with NYJOS gave Carmichael easy access to the jamming sessions that were taking place in and around the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow and eventually he auditioned and was accepted onto the jazz course there. His course leader, the internationally recognised saxophonist Tommy Smith promptly invited Carmichael to join his youth jazz orchestra and has since gone on record as saying that Carmichael “is better than I was at his age.”

 

Once enrolled at the RCS, Carmichael took Fergus McCreadie up on his suggestion that they play together more. He invited the pianist to join his quartet, along with bassist Ali Watson and drummer Tom Potter, and the group is now an established unit.

 

“I wanted to have a band that kept a stable line-up because that’s the best way to develop the music,” he says, adding that as a saxophonist the onus is on you to form a band and look for work whereas drummers and bass players get asked to play.

 

He’s certainly gone about the bandleader’s job diligently. Before the pandemic brought live music to a halt his quartet had already toured the UK and played London venues including the hallowed Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho.

 

Carmichael’s own music, like that of McCreadie, has a very Scottish quality. Both musicians listen to traditional music, although Carmichael cites Irish musicians such as Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, the hardanger fiddle player who plays alongside the revered County Clare fiddler Martin Hayes in folk supergroup the Gloaming, as favourites as much as Scottish players.

 

“I think Fergus sees his music as folk music played with jazz attitude and technique,” he says. “He certainly captures the landscape in his compositions and that’s what I try to do too. When I wrote The Spey, Firth and Cononbridge, which are all tunes on Where Will the River Flow, I was thinking of these places where I spent the early part of my life. I haven’t lived there for quite a few years now but I still have a strong feeling for that area.”

 

Before the pandemic forced him to return to Glasgow, Carmichael was studying in Oslo on an Erasmus exchange from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Nordic influence can be heard in another track on his album, Sognsvann. He graduates from the RCS this summer and is already planning his second album.

 

“It was a real pity that the Erasmus exchange had to end,” he says. “I really enjoyed Oslo – Sognsvann is named after a lake just outside the city with a lovely, peaceful atmosphere. When we’re allowed to go out and play concerts again, it would be great to take that tune to Norway. Right now, though, I’d love just to go out with the quartet and play the music from the album anywhere.”   

 

From The Courier, Saturday, March 13, 2021

 

 

 

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Among the snippets of information I didn’t imagine gleaning from Bruce Lindsay’s book about Norfolk folk singers Sam Larner and Harry Cox is that, at the beginning of the 1960s, Harry took on the job of coypu control in the local marshland.

 

In the grand scheme of things, this is possibly trivia and the South American, beaver-like rodents, which, it turns out, once proliferated in the Norfolk broads to the point of nuisance, don’t seem to have played any significant role in Mr Cox’s story beyond this, probably brief, job.

 

But it illustrates the sort of research that Lindsay has put into capturing the lives of two men who never achieved household name status but who possibly played crucial parts in the lives of others who did. As bearers of traditional songs, they can quite likely be credited with passing on – via Ewan MacColl - The Black Velvet Band, a 1967 chart success for the Dubliners, and The Wild Rover, with which everyone with even the slightest knowledge of folksong is familiar.  

 

Lindsay does a great job of putting flesh on the bones of Larner and Cox’s characters. His research has been assiduous and he takes the reader right into the homes the two men created, and where they worked up their songs and later held court, and into the village pubs. There they took part in sessions, singing, step dancing (Larner on the tables, Cox more discreetly) and, in Harry’s case, played fiddle and melodeon and operated his jig dolls.

 

If his coypu ridding shows a minor side of Cox’s resourcefulness and practicality, the jig dolls are more central to this. Wooden dolls that could be made to dance on a plank of wood held under the operator’s buttocks while he or she sang or diddled, jig dolls were popular in different parts of the UK, and possibly further afield. Anyone who saw the great Scottish folk group Jock Tamson’s Bairns in their pomp will have encountered their concertina-player-whistle-player-percussionist Norman Chalmers’ dancing wooden figures.  

 

The two singers, despite being close contemporaries (Larner born in 1878, Cox in 1885) and living only a few miles apart, never met. They seem to have had quite different natures, as their step dancing preferences show. Larner was a fisherman who followed the shoals of herring from Yarmouth round Britain to the Atlantic and who revelled in the sailor’s girl in every port reputation. His wife, who went blind, may have paid the price of his unfaithfulness.

 

Cox, on the other hand, was more stolid, a farm worker who was astute enough to negotiate his own terms as a self-employed man, a bit better off than most rural workers.

 

Both men survived from the Victorian era, served their country in the First World and lived to see the 1960s, along the way encountering song collectors and without becoming rich through their music, coming into contact with music promoters and recorders of varying degrees of scrupulousness.

 

Among happier associations Lindsay details were the “man who recorded the world” American Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. MacColl based his classic song The Shoals of Herring on Larner’s memories (Peggy enlarged upon his “twinkle eyed” demeanour by describing him as ”randy”) and both Larner and Cox had an input in MacColl and Seeger’s radio ballads series.

 

Sam and Harry’s influence extended into inspiring some of the outstanding singers of the folk revival. Shirley Collins, Frankie Armstrong, Martin Carthy and the late Peter Bellamy all learned from the techniques the Norfolk men developed naturally that make singing – or “telling” – narrative songs as much of an art form as opera or lieder.

 

The book works as a very readable and often fascinating source of both folk music lore and social history and while its subjects’ lives were largely based in a small part of East Anglia, its reach extends to some legendary London folk pubs and Shetland, where Sam won singing competitions while on shore leave from herring fishing. Recommended reading for anyone interested in folk song, folk singing and where folk singers got their songs from.          

 

Published by Equinox 

 

 

Thunderstruck helps take word of piping genius worldwide

 

 

 

When Gordon Duncan introduced his arrangement for bagpipes of the AC/DC song Thunderstruck at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1999, he was probably expecting to make mischievous ripples rather than waves that have washed up on four continents and inspired an international award-winning play.

 

An essentially shy, quiet man who had earned his own international reputation as a piper while holding down a job as a refuse collector in Pitlochry, Gordon was a self-effacing virtuoso. A journalist once described Gordon’s fluency on the pipes as akin to the great jazz musician Charlie Parker’s playing on the alto saxophone, only to be gently rebuffed by Gordon’s suggestion that the journalist stop being so daft.

 

It wasn’t such a daft comparison because Gordon took the pipes to a level of proficiency and expression up there with Dame Evelyn Glennie’ on percussion or Nicola Benedetti’s on violin. Not everyone valued Gordon’s ability to play on the pipes apparently any piece of music – or any musical scale – he could hear in his imagination.

 

His first album, Just for Seamus, was dedicated to a piping competition adjudicator who had responded to Gordon’s free-wheeling brilliance by saying that if this was where piping was heading, he wished he himself had taken up the fiddle instead.

 

Plenty of others did appreciate Gordon’s musicality and compositional flair, though. By the time he unleashed Thunderstruck, Gordon’s tunes such as Andy Renwick’s Ferret and The Sleeping Tune were so popular with other musicians and folk bands that they had virtually passed into the tradition, possibly the ultimate compliment for a composer in the traditional music style.

 

In terms of audacity, Thunderstruck arguably surpassed everything Gordon had produced to date, even his magnificent Pressed for Time. On first hearing, at that Edinburgh Festival concert in 1999, Thunderstruck appeared to encompass such staples of the electric guitarist’s art as feedback and whammy bar manipulation. Although signed off with a grin and a casual mopping of the brow, the performance itself was a tacit challenge to “follow that”.

 

And many have taken up the challenge. Go onto the internet and you will find Australian buskers playing Thunderstruck on bagpipes whose drones spit flames. There’s a version that marries dubstep and Indian traditions with Gordon’s inspiration and others that feature Spain’s Rondalla Santa Eulalia de Mos pipe band both taking it onto the streets and choreographing it extravagantly in a theatre.

 

And while the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, formed by a Gordon devotee, now retired, used Thunderstruck as a blueprint for taking rock music on bagpipes onto the international touring circuit with their bagrock schtick, possibly the ultimate tribute is to have the six times world champions, Canada’s Simon Fraser University Pipe Band playing Thunderstruck.

 

It was, after all, the pipe band arena where Gordon developed much of his boldness for musical arrangement. As the musical director of the vale of Atholl Pipe Band, while still in his teens, Gordon began to introduce the music and techniques he heard in Ireland, Brittany and Galicia into the Scottish piping lexicon.   

 

Fife-born actor, and piper, David Colvin was a member of the Lochgelly High School Pipe Band when he first encountered Gordon. His admiration for his hero has led to him writing and performing in a play, Thunderstruck, that has now won major awards at the Edinburgh Fringe and at festivals in Adelaide and Perth in Australia.

 

David’s play, which was due to feature at this year’s Perth Festival of the Arts in Scotland before the current health crisis, tells the story of his own experiences in pipe bands (and contains language that, he concedes, follows the saying that “you can take the boy out of Ballingry but you can’t take Ballingry out of the boy”).

 

Gordon’s presence hovers throughout the piece, though, and David, who acted and played the pipes in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, is enough of a musician to play Thunderstruck towards the end.

 

“I’m not Gordon Duncan and wouldn’t claim to be,” he says. “The play wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t play the tune it’s named after but the reason the play came about was to try and spread the word more widely about this fantastic musician who was known around the world in piping and traditional music circles but is largely unappreciated by the general public.”

 

Winning a coveted Herald Angel at the Edinburgh Fringe last year for the play was a thrill for David as Gordon, who died in 2005, had been given the same recognition, as had Gordon’s father, the ballad singer Jock Duncan, and his brother, Ian, in his capacity as pipe major of the Vale of Atholl band.

 

“People who’ve been to see the play often say, Wow, an AC/DC tune on the pipes and it’s great that they appreciate what Gordon did with that arrangement,” says David. “What I hope they’ll go on to discover, though, is that Gordon’s audaciousness created a lot more truly fantastic music. He was an amazing composer and a real musical visionary. If Thunderstruck, the play, inspires people to investigate Gordon’s music, I’ll have done my job.”

 

From The Courier, Saturday, March 28, 2020

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