Elder flowering

A raft of ‘elders’ is coming to town, there’s a celebration of a legendary promoter at the Barbican and a brace of contrasting trumpet players

Thursday, 30th June — By Rob Ryan

Sun Ra Arkestra horns courtesy of Sun Ra Arkestra

The Sun Ra Arkestra. Photo: Sun Ra Arkestra

MUCH of jazz writing (and hype) now concentrates on young players barely out of music college and with much still to prove and learn, but those tyros, and everyone else interested in the music, would benefit from paying close attention a gathering of genuine jazz legends in London this July.

The Sun Ra Arkestra, led by Marshall Allen (98), ex-Miles and Nu Troop sax man Gary Bartz (81), keys player Bobby Lyle (78) and jazz/R&B drummer Norman Connors (75) all take the stage at the South Bank, alongside venerable vocalist Jean Carne (Earth, Wind and Fire, Lonnie Liston Smith). The latter is back in the spotlight thanks to Ali Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s excellent Jazz is Dead series of albums. As we’ve said before, it definitely isn’t.

Go along and pay your respects to the Elders for an evening of cosmic and spiritual voyaging performed by those who were there first time round. The Jazz Legends show is on July 16 at the Royal Festival Hall. Tickets: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/
Another bona fide legend, bass supremo Stanley Clarke – whom I first saw as an unfeasibly gifted young man in Chick Corea’s Return to Forever back in… well, never mind… plays Koko in Camden on July 13. Tickets: koko.co.uk

A bit of a clash here, because on the same night the elders play the South Bank, over at the Barbican, there is a celebration of the life of a pivotal figure in London’s jazz scene. The much-missed promoter John Cumming, late of this parish (Dartmouth Park, to be exact), helped create the Camden Jazz Festival and, subsequently, the whole EFG London Jazz Festival.

John was well known for being able to leap the barriers put up by managers (or “damagers” as he called them) and speak directly to musicians, who loved him for that. He died in May, 2020, at the height of the pandemic restrictions, and so the jazz community didn’t have a chance to say a proper goodbye and thank you.

The Barbican show rectifies that situation, with top names such as trumpeters Guy Barker and Yazz Ahmed, saxophonists Shabaka (he has dropped the surname), Andy Sheppard and John Surman, pianists Nikki Yeoh, Gwilym Simcock and Nik Bärtsch and many more, all sharing music and memories.

There are even more big names giving free afternoon performances on Level G of the building. The event, which is on July 16, is named after one of John’s favourite phrases, which some of us still expect to hear echoing around the bars of the city’s jazz clubs and concert venues: Time for one more? Tickets: barbican.org.uk

• Don’t miss consummate trumpet technician and Blue Note recording artist Ambrose Akinmusire at the Jazz Café on July 11. His ranges over straight jazz, free jazz, hip-hop, African chants and classical charts and it comes with a strong political and emotional content. It’s true, he is capable of challenging your ears as well as your musical preconceptions, but that’s what modern jazz is all about, right? Tickets: thejazzcafelondon.com

• Another fascinating horn player and composer – this time homegrown – is Laura Jurd. She pops up in many different settings – playing a modern take on early jazz with Giacomo Smith of Kansas Smitty’s, with her own group Dinosaur (whose To The Earth Album is highly recommended) or her occasional foray into composing for larger ensembles.

She has a penchant for wonderful, smeary, bluesy low growls as well as an ear for folk-influenced melodies (sometimes I am reminded of the great Danny Thompson’s Whatever group) mixed with a Miles-like elegance in her solos. Laura Jurd plays the Vortex with another group of inspiring musicians, including Ruth Goller on bass, on July 8 (two shows: tickets, vortexjazz.co.uk)

If vocal jazz is your thing, you could do a lot worse than grabbing a copy of Heart of Mine, which, unusually, showcases a contemporary songwriter as much as the singer. Although what a cast writer/pianist Ross Lorraine (who wrote all the music and lyrics) has gathered for the album – Lianne Carroll, Gwyneth Herbert, Luca Manning, Sara Coleman, Ian Shaw and Claire Martin (who co-produced for her new Soup for Nuts Recordings label) represent the cream of the UK’s best “song stylists”.

If you like any of them or, indeed, enjoy a well-crafted pop song a la Bacharach or King, you won’t be disappointed with Heart of Mine. Intriguingly, keyboard player Lorraine studied under Harrison Birtwhistle, but don’t worry – you wouldn’t guess that from this outing. There has been an invite-only album launch; we await public dates.

• JOEY DeFrancesco is very young to be considered a jazz “legend”. But legend he is. Mention the Hammond B3 organ (as we did recently, in regards to North Finchley’s re-opened B3 Lounge) to any jazz fan and three names will come up – Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, who put the sound at the centre of soul-jazz in the 50s and 60s, and Mr D. “Well,” Joey says from home in the US, “I started young, that’s why people think of me alongside Jimmy or Jack. But I’m only 51,” he mock protests.

Starting young is right. He was four when he started playing the organ, nine by the time he could reach the foot pedals, although he was already playing in clubs alongside his musician father. He was such a keyboard prodigy that by 17 he was in Miles Davis’ band. Like many people who heard that husky voice on the line summoning them to New York, he thought it was friends spoofing him. “I must have hung up on him four times.”

But eventually he went to that terrifying audition where Miles pointed to the piano and said: “Play something for me.” So Joey did and he was in the group (this being the late 80s Tutu era). I asked if Miles had given him any advice. “Yeah. I was playing a solo one night and he wondered over and said: ‘Leave some holes.’” Miles being the master of space in a solo.

Joey had to leave, though. “I had done my own record by then and Columbia wanted me to go on the road to promote it. Miles was mad at first, but he understood.”

That first album and his subsequent ones, plus a punishing touring schedule, meant that Joey brought the Hammond back front and centre after a few years in the jazz doldrums. “There were some people who thought I was the first to play it in jazz. It was Fats Waller back in the early 40s who was the first in with Jitterbug Waltz! But it was sort of phased out for a while. You had synthesizers, which are way more portable, then bands like Weather Report with a very different sound, which I love, and rock bands had gone towards the piano. But the Hammond was still there. All I did was remind people how great it sounds.”

On his latest album – his 39th – More Music, Joey demonstrates he is more than just a keyboard whizz. He also plays trumpet and sax. Well. “When I was with Miles, I was playing trumpet in secret. He was Miles, you know? But I played him one of his lines one day and he said: ‘You sound like me. Do it again.’ So, I did and he said it was better the first time. But he was very encouraging. He gave me some of his mouthpieces and a couple of Harmon mutes. I still miss him, man. The best times were when we weren’t on stage, just hangin’ out.” The trumpet is a hard mistress but seeing Joey playing Hammond with one hand and trumpet with the other a few years ago, I couldn’t help thinking – that’s almost Miles I’m hearing, jamming from the afterlife.

Joey’s new band, which features a second keyboard player/guitarist, which frees him to take sax solos, that again are remarkably adept considering he has only been playing a few years, will be at Ronnie Scott’s in July. Don’t worry, his obvious affection for other instruments will not overshadow what he is best known for – expect plenty of funky, gospely, soulful and swinging organ. In other words, the classic, compelling sound of a B3 in full flight.

Joey DeFrancesco plays four shows at Ronnie Scott’s July 27-28: see https://www.ronniescotts.co.uk/

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