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LINER NOTES

Philip Clouts: Umoya     Uli Beckerhoff         Bobby Wellins        Leo Blanco: Pianoforte        

Tommy Smith KARMA      Scottish National Jazz Orchestra - Torah      Ryan Quigley Sextet      

The Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra      Mike Whellans     

Jim Mullen Organ Trio      Tower of Power           B.B. King

 

Uli Beckerhoff, Heroes (Dot Time Records)    

Everyone has heroes. Even musicians who have been said to have found their own voice as a composer or improviser will have drawn inspiration from someone, and Uli Beckerhoff is no different. A trumpeter who has made his mark across Europe over the past four decades, Beckerhoff has listened widely to music and jazz in particular and if you ask him about his origins as a musician and the people he learned from, he’ll speak warmly of a gallery of people who helped to shape his path.

Listening to Heroes, you might not pick up on Beckerhoff’s early admiration for the British trad jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton but an adopted Brit, the Canadian-born master Kenny Wheeler’s presence is instantly felt in the opening track, Ti Saluto, a solo trumpet dedication to a recently departed friend of many years. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett’s ‘Scandinavian’ Quartet, Weather Report, Jimi Hendrix and the Norwegian poet of the trumpet, Arve Henricksen are others who came into Beckerhoff’s thoughts as he guided his young accomplices – all students he encountered as a music professor in Essen – through a programme put together like a concert set-list.

As someone who likes – needs, in fact - to hear variety coming from the stage, Beckerhoff sketched out different moods, encouraging his rhythm section to go for atmosphere rather than form on Tango Tragico, to rock out with guest guitarist Tim Bücher on Heros, and to groove in a similar way without copying Jarrett’s group on Nach Vorne. Music, for Beckerhoff, has to evoke a feeling or a sense of place and in the thirteen tracks here he has captured locations, times and personalities in notes, tones and deeply expressed, myriad hues.

 

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Bobby Wellins, Birds of Brazil (Hep)

The history of jazz is littered with lost moments. For every classic solo that has been captured for posterity, there must have been dozens, perhaps equally good, that disappeared into the ether on live gigs. Then there’s the music that’s been composed in long form, performed a handful of times and consigned to the memories of musicians and audiences. Sometimes, like Birds of Brazil, it’s actually been recorded and released but has enjoyed only a short life in the catalogues.

Although he carved his name and tenor saxophone tone indelibly into British jazz history through his inimitable contribution to one well documented suite, Stan Tracey’s classic Under Milk Wood from 1965, Bobby Wellins hasn’t enjoyed much luck with his own extended compositions. His masterly Culloden Moor actually predates Under Milk Wood but lay, almost forgotten, for years until, happily, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra revived it in a new arrangement in 2011, with Wellins sounding every bit the majestic featured soloist at the age of seventy-five.

Birds of Brazil dates from a later period when, following a long absence from the jazz scene, Wellins was delighting audiences once again with his beautifully paced, sometimes mischievously phrased uptempo solo building and a style of playing ballads that could only come from a complete understanding of song form and a penchant for singers, an enthusiasm that began with hearing his mother singing during his Glasgow childhood.

Listening to the music now, it’s classic Wellins, if not quite in the style for which he’s best known. He’s long favoured quartets, although the inclusion of Kenny Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn adds another totally distinctive voice, and expanding the line-up with strings took Wellins into the ‘third stream’ area that had rewarded Stan Getz so handsomely on his Focus album.

Tony Coe’s orchestrations captured Wellins’ musical personality perfectly. There’s never a note wasted and the string shadings both subtly enhance the emotion of the tenor saxophone and lightly colour the atmosphere and sense of loss that the composer’s initial inspiration was surely striving to suggest.

The saxophonist himself plays at the top of his game. There’s a completely unaccompanied passage of improvisation roughly eleven minutes into the third movement that illustrates the quality of invention, sure sense of purpose and wonderfully personal sound that have made Wellins one of the British scene’s truly world class figures.

His long-time friend and accompanist, pianist Peter Jacobsen contributed mightily to Birds of Brazil, with his urgent momentum introducing the second movement and a superb example of painting with music in his deeply expressive improvisation that leads off from Spike Wells’ drum feature in the third movement. Jacobsen died, aged only fifty-one, in 2002 and Hep’s proprietor, Alastair Robertson, has added his own tribute to the pianist by inserting a lovely solo piece rescued from a previous Wellins session with trombonist Jimmy Knepper between Moonray and Thelonious Monk’s In Walked Bud.

These two standards, along with the simply stated Frank Sinatra favourite Angel Eyes, have featured often in Wellins’s career since this recording. His continuing relationship with Stan Tracey has prompted recorded tributes to both Monk and Sinatra, as well as revivals of Under Milk Wood, and the great Wellins quartet legacy has been enriched with recordings such as The Satin Album (an extended revisiting of Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin) and Time Gentlemen, Please, which celebrated Wellins’ seventy-fifth birthday year by making Jazz Journal magazine’s critics Top 10 in 2011.

At time of writing, Bobby Wellins is showing no signs of calling time on his saxophone adventures. It’s great to have him still around and in the case of Birds of Brazil, it’s great to have a lost classic restored to general availability.

CD available from www.hepjazz.com

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Ryan Quigley, Laphroaig-ian Slip (RQM)

If Ryan Quigley had his way, these words would have appeared on the back of a cardboard sleeve accommodating a vinyl LP. The Derry-born, Glasgow-based trumpeter has a great fondness for jazz on vinyl in general and the classic 1950s and 1960s Blue Notes in particular, and the music on this, his debut recording as a leader, certainly follows in the tradition of Sidewinders and Jazz Messengers while, like the best jazz, sounding as fresh as today.

The background to the recording also follows in the tradition of jazz session stories that Quigley relished reading while absorbing the music from his early teenage years onwards, although unlike the finished article’s authenticity, this wasn’t entirely by design.

Having chosen his line-up – they’re all old friends and all among the UK’s busiest musicians – Quigley ran into the familiar problem of availability. Finally, tenor saxophonist Paul Booth, touring with rock hero Steve Winwood, found a two-day window and pianist Steve Hamilton, in the throes of moving house, abandoned the packing cases to fit in.

Quigley duly booked a day’s rehearsal followed by the recording itself the next day at the acoustically ideal Alexander Gibson room in his alma mater, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Or so he thought. Five minutes in, the rehearsal was abruptly ended by officialdom, the result being that what you hear on this CD came together in an afternoon.

After spending the morning fixing microphone positions and sound levels with engineer Ross Hamilton, the musicians sight read and soloed through Quigley’s charts with admirable poise and vigour. No tune was given more than three takes and since the first run through often generated an unbeatable energy, many of these tracks are first attempts.

To those who know Quigley from a career that has seen him established him as an irresistible force in the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s trumpet section and an increasingly potent band leader, while building a freelance clientele that includes both Bob Geldof and minimalism icon Terry Riley, the quality and fire of this music will come as no surprise.

His writing is succinct and deftly orchestrated and his playing has strength in its concision as well as carrying a whole lot of heart, soul, sincerity and enthusiasm.

The funky, Jazz Messengers-like title track - its name a typical piece of musicianly wordplay for a tune written specially for a gig in a distillery at Islay Jazz Festival – encapsulates all these qualities. Duck Egg Blue wittily acknowledges the influence of Miles Davis’s A Kind of Blue, and if Lament has a certain defiance, this underlines Quigley’s ability to capture the personality of its dedicatee, the gloriously talented musical maverick Martyn Bennett, who died tragically young aged thirty-three in 2005.

Among tunes written for family – Buzzy Bee is for Quigley’s two boys, Michael and Connor – for friends, for love, and for fun (Feck betrays the composer’s Irish origins), Quigley has included two contrasting standards.

What is This Thing Called Love is the sextet in typically effervescent form and In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning a duet that Quigley and Hamilton recorded when the others had left for pre-arranged appointments. No afterthought, it illustrates the trumpeter’s firm adherence to the philosophy that, when playing a ballad, the lyrics are as important as the melody, while reinforcing the message that, with Laphroaig-ian Slip, Ryan Quigley’s recording career is off to a flyer.

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The Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra, Exploration (Spartacus) 

              

Their ages were given as fifteen to twenty-three and it turned out that some of them were a year or three shy of the lower end of that scale. But while they were way too young to be hanging around in bars, on a March 2003 night in Henry’s Jazz Cellar in Edinburgh they showed they had the musical maturity to play great jazz with confidence, panache and remarkable depth of feeling.

Five years on, the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra has developed into both a concert attraction in its own right and a feeder group for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and various music college courses around the world.

Smith, who knows from personal experience all about being an outstanding teenage jazz musician looking to progress, formed the orchestra to channel a torrent of young talent that he realised was emerging in Scotland.

In May 2002, he contacted leaders of education departments throughout the country, seeking assistance in discovering the most promising players. Within weeks he had held auditions and begun monthly rehearsals in Glasgow. By the end of the year TSYJO had played support gigs for SNJO. Their monthly residency at Henry’s, then the hug of Edinburgh’s thriving jazz scene, began soon afterwards and festival appearances at Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen followed.

This recording took place at the end of a tour, made possible by the generous sponsorship of Shell, with the phenomenal New York-based vibes player Joe Locke. Hear how, bolstered by special guests Ryan Quigley (trumpet) and Mike Janisch (bass), they attack big band favourites A Night in Tunisia and Cottontail with relish and invest Oliver Nelson’s Hoedown with zestful enthusiasm and Kenny Wheeler’s beautifully ebbing and flowing Gentle Peace with detailed reflection.

Locke is a terrifically exciting soloist, a force of nature in any situation. Yet his young colleagues are inspired rather than daunted by his presence. Alan Benzie, who takes the solo before Locke’s on Tunisia, would become the first Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year just a few weeks later and is currently a star pupil at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Liam Heath actually hadn’t turned thirteen that night in Henry’s but he duels like a veteran with fellow trumpeter Tom MacNiven on Now, a minor blues by Swedish pianist Lars Jansson that also finds the trombone section sparring creatively as well as illustrating the orchestra’s intensity and togetherness.

There are more where these musicians come from and this is just the first documentation of a band that thrills with its vigour and ability. Welcome to the future of jazz.

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Mike Whellans, Fired-Up & Ready (Temple)

Mike Whellans is the real thing, a keeper of the one-man blues band flame that burned so passionately in the work of this highly specialised form’s masters, including Doctor Isaiah Ross, Jesse Fuller and Whellans’ great British forerunner, Tony ‘Duster’ Bennett.
 
Like all true bluesmen and women, when Whellans sings and plays, he means it. He can set a scene of darkness and foreboding as the Boogie Man lurks, play twelve-string guitar in the grand driving blues tradition to propel his Winding Track, and sing of hugging his baby’s deserted pillow so that you really feel his loss.
 
The one-man blues band is self-sufficient, of course, but as with Bennett, Whellans can call on other musicians to expand his palette and yet retain the spirit of individuality that is his major strength – even when guests such as the fabulous David Bromberg have recorded their parts on different continents.
 
If you’re already familiar with Whellans, you’ll know to expect blues that’s fired up and ready. But if this is your introduction, prepare to hear a talent who’s not only his own man as a singer, guitarist and ace blues harpist, he’s his own rhythm section, too. 

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Jim Mullen Organ Trio, 11 x 3 (Flamingo West)

If this CD is your first exposure to Jim Mullen’s guitar playing and you’re wondering what such a hip-sounding trio is doing recording in Glasgow studio for a new Scottish label, rather than one of New York City’s more prestigious venues under, say, the Blue Note banner where this music so obviously belongs, don’t worry. You’re not alone.

Over the past thirty years or so, more often than not, newcomers to Mullen have assumed that, like their heroes whose influences he has assimilated into a style at once readily recognisable as distinctively Mullenesque and yet firmly in the tradition, he must be American. It certainly wouldn’t be the first person who, having caught a Mullen gig, engaged the guitarist in conversation only to be taken aback at being answered in a clear and, despite long years resident in London, unmistakable Glaswegian brogue.

Indeed, during their mid 1970s New York sojourn, audiences turning up to hear Mullen and his long-time partner in jazz/funk, the wonderful and, sadly, recently deceased saxophonist Dick Morrissey, were invariably astonished to learn that the band leaders were a couple of imports. The fact that those audiences regularly included musicians of the calibre of the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn and others among the Big Apple’s first call session players, all eager to check out and sit in with the band, only emphasises Mullen and Morrissey’s authority as jazz musicians.

Like most Scottish musicians of his generation, Mullen’s first gigs were at church hall dances, having acquired his first guitar at the age of thirteen and gone public within a year. By his mid teens, by this time a committed jazz fan and working with American singer Billy Daniels and Glasgow band leader Andy Park’s ambitious, Gil Evans-influenced ten-piece, Mullen was playing double bass, an instrument that played a big part in fashioning his idiosyncratic guitar skills. A left-hander, Mullen didn’t bother to change the bass strings round. He played it right-handed and when he switched back to guitar, after watching his bass’s neck and body part company while he tried to hold it together and finish a gig, it felt natural to continue playing right-handed with his thumb like one idol – Wes Montgomery – while leading a guitar-vibes-bass trio like another idol, Tal Farlow.

Mullen’s thumb has been called many things over the years, including “bionic.” This certainly applied when, having moved to London in 1968, he was playing tear-it-up jazz/rock fusion with organist and now acid jazz god Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express in the early 1970s. As Auger and the musicians Mullen played with subsequently, including flautist Herbie Mann, soul/funk groups Kokomo and the Average White Band, and the peerless Morrissey-Mullen, concentrated more on feel and groove-based music, however, the directness and passion in Mullen’s playing made that thumb, for this listener, the best blues singer that Glasgow has ever produced.

For evidence of those blues singing qualities you need look no further than the ballads Isn’t It A Pity and For Heaven’s Sake here. On both melodies there’s a vocal warmth to Mullen’s phrasing that suggests he’s going over the song lyrics to himself as he plays notes that convey much more than mere words can say. Then having established a mood of such bereft regret, he goes on to expand on it with solos so poignant and yet simultaneously uplifting in their keen, on the edge articulation. Because as this recording also amply demonstrates, there’s an eagerness about Mullen’s playing that makes everything he plays sound fresh and exciting.

The line-up and concept here – guitar, organ and drums playing well-known, occasionally expected songs – may hark back to the 1960s heyday of Hammond organ pilots such as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott et al, but the energy and sense of swing are unmistakably current. Mullen has for long struck this listener as being capable of creating excitement out of the most commonplace, even mundane melody and his colleagues in this trio, organist James Watson and drummer Matt Skelton, are clearly young men after his own heart.

In these hands, I Wanna Be Like You, hackneyed to death by every cabaret turn in the land but a tune whose Jungle Book origins bring to mind Mullen’s enthusiasm for and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of cartoon music, develops an urban heat and urgency more redolent of a cop car chase than a children’s feature. Similarly, very few musicians I can think of other than Mullen could take It’s Impossible from the pipe and slippers comfort of Perry Como’s famous 1970s hit version and transform it into the jumping, soulful burn-up that you hear here. That he does so is a tribute not just to Mullen’s own highly evolved ability to turn on the soloing style at will but also to Skelton’s springy drumming and Watson’s talent for combining those tricky dual Hammond roles of providing filthy, itchy-fingered chords and commentaries manually while maintaining a swinging bottom end momentum with the bass pedals.

Elsewhere you’ll find all the other facets and Mullenisms that make Mullen such an inspirational, although far from over-recorded, figure. There’s the crisp, clear phrasing of Embraceable You and As Time Goes By, the unshowy and almost casual-seeming way he has of shaping a melody with the most sensitive and creative rhythm guitar interventions, and the habit of inserting quotes from other tunes, a common enough trait in jazz but one that Mullen has turned into a witty and often crucially directive art. (He once even managed to squeeze a quote from Miles Davis’s Jean-Pierre into a thirty second Yellow Pages television commercial, but that’s another story.)

I won’t detail every hidden gem here – that might spoil the fun – but I will highlight one on Mal Waldron’s gorgeous Soul Eyes, a favourite from the Morrissey-Mullen band book, which with the saxophonist’s untimely death has become an unintentional tribute. After a particularly steamy solo from Watson, who is no slouch at creative appropriation himself, Mullen enters in his inimitable style and somehow manages to make You and the Night and the Music a central plank in his brilliantly spontaneous discourse. But then, brilliant spontaneity, forged from a lifetime’s dedication to studying, absorbing and most of all, playing great music, is what Mullen watchers have come to expect from one of jazz’s true originals. And brilliant spontaneity is what you get here – by the bucketload.

See also: Jim Mullen, Somewhere in the Hills (Hep Records)

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Tower of Power, The CBS Years (Beat Goes On)

 

 
 
 

B.B. King, LA Midnight/To Know You is to Love You (Beat Goes On)