Saturday 20 April 2019

Manchester – The Silver Age

The following is the full text of my recital at Manchester Jazz Society, April 18, 2019 

 A Silver Age presupposes a Golden Age and for that, the definitive guide is Bill Birch’s book, Keeper of the Flame. The Golden Age of Manchester jazz is Billie Holiday at the Free Trade Hall and Duke Ellington at Belle Vue, Sonny Rollins at Club 43 and Frank Gibson and Eddie Thompson at the Warren Bulkeley pub in Stockport. The Golden Age is what the stalwarts of Manchester Jazz Society were fortunate to experience first-hand. We know that Gold keeps its value. I suspect that Silver does too, but only time will tell. 

Here, I’m defining the Silver Age of Manchester jazz as the years between 1989 to 2010. Quite accidentally, this period coincides with my period as the jazz correspondent of City Life, the Manchester what’s-on magazine. It was, and From the vantage of 2019, as the Silver Age recedes into history, I appreciate what a privilege it was to view Manchester jazz at such close quarters. I expect it was the best job in the world, in every respect except the pay. 

So let’s start with a Silver Age standard. ‘Clockmaker’ by Mike Walker is to Manchester what ‘Take the A-Train’ is to Harlem. I have it in a few versions, actually, all of them good, but the interpretation by Mike Walker’s supergroup, The Impossible Gentlemen, demands to be heard. The players are Mike Walker, guitar; Gwilym Simcock, a graduate of Chetham’s School of Music, piano; Steve Swallow, bass; and Adam Nussbaum, drums. ‘Clockmaker’. Sometimes it has the definite article, but in this case it doesn’t. 

The Impossible Gentlemen, ‘Clockmaker’ (9:15)

My next choice is a band called Buhaina, an Afro-jazz ensemble with a line-up of Charles ‘Phred’ Farret on bass clarinet, Nii Kojo Yaw Saki, known as Kojo, on percussion, Matt Nickson on flute, Trevor Nxumalo on alto, Gerald N’Guijoel on percussion and Anthony Haller on double bass. The two best known names there, are Matt and Phred, who achieved immortality when they were donated to Manchester’s premier jazz club, Matt and Phred’s, which had previously been known as PJ Bell’s, and was an incubator of jazz in the city. Matt and Phred’s names are now eternally linked, though they had an unseemly bust-up in real life, but let’s dispense with the tittle-tattle. 

Buhaina included Mancunian and Ghanian players, which nicely flags the fact that cultural diversity is always a feature of the music. Think of the rejuvenating effect South African players – Dudu Pukwana, Chris McGregor, Louis Moholo, Johnny Dyani –   had on the London scene. Manchester had its equivalent culture shock, but with musicians from Ghana. Kojo’s father, Stanley Saki, founded Waduku, the most prominent hi-life/Afro jazz band in the North West. The tune ‘Sweet P’ was written by another Ghanian musician, Danny Okpoti, a saxophonist who played with ET Mensah in Accra and, upon moving to the UK in the sixties, first landed in Newcastle. He was in an early line-up of The Animals and jammed with Ian and Mike Carr. In terms of fame, it may have been a backward step to move to Manchester, but he was active at grassroots level. I heard him play at a jam session down the road from me at the Grants Arms in Hulme, and once I visited him in his flat on the Rochdale Road. It was impeccably tidy and had pictures of Jesus Christ and Bob Marley on the walls. He was a lovely man and died a year or so later, in the late nineties. So this is ‘Sweet P’ by Buhaina, written by Danny Okpoti, from the album Swallows and Africans on the Iroko label. Let’s play it for Danny Okpoti.   

Buhaina – ‘Sweet P’ (8:10)

Next up is the quartet Whirl. I’ll play it first and then give you the line-up. One of them is well known in Manchester jazz circles under another guise. 

Whirl, ‘Freewheeling’ (6:11) 

Right. Helen Pillinger played tenor saxophone, Nicki Dupuy was on double bass and Andy Hay played drums. The guitarist and composer was Steve Mead, who is better known as the artistic director of Manchester Jazz Festival, and a very charming fellow. Thinking about it, MJF could not have achieved what it has, without a creative musician in the driving seat.

Only last week I became Facebook friends with Mick Waterfield, Steve Mead’s faithful lieutenant. He told me he’d quit MJF and gone back to his first trade, cabinet making, and was making bespoke furniture. This was news to me. I’ve missed the last two Manchester Jazz Festivals because I was away in Spain. It’s typical in a way because I always tended to be behind with the news as a roving jazz reporter. One day I bumped into Helen (Helen Pillinger, who played the saxophone there), and she told me that Richard and Nikki Iles had been separated for two years. I insisted on calling them a husband-and-wife team in the City Life jazz listings. A few weeks ago I bumped into Helen at Unicorn and she told me that the piece we’ve just heard is called ‘Freewheeling’. The information on the disc, a limited release made for promotional purposes, is lacking or confusing.

There’s a continuity, of course, because many Golden Age musicians were still active in the Silver Age. Mart Rodger Manchester Jazz epitomise a certain strand of vintage Manchester jazz, as their name suggests. The late Mart Rodger was not known primarily as a composer. Yet here he is on his own ‘Then It Changed’, a bittersweet evocation of bygone times…. 

Mart Rodger Manchester Jazz, ‘Then It Changed’ (4:04)

The line-up is Mart Rodger, clarinet; Allan Dent, trumpet; Terry Brunt, trombone; Alec Collins, piano; Tim Roberts, banjo; Colin Smith, bass; and Pete Staples, drums. It comes from Makin’ Whoopee, a 1993 collaboration with singer Marion Montgomery, who, needless to say, sat out on that performance. Mart Rodger Manchester Jazz, to my certain knowledge, never played the Manchester Jazz Festival.  

The title ‘Then It Changed’ tells you that Mart is remembering things past, but poignant, bitter-sweet nostalgia is not confined to the old-timers. This next comes from the Steve Chadwick/Ed Barnwell Quartet and is called ‘Going Back to the Village’…

Steve Chadwick/Ed Barnwell Quartet, ‘Going Back to the Village’ (7:19)

The line-up is Steve Chadwick on cornet, Ed Barnwell, piano, Matt Owens, bass and either Danny Ward or Rob Turner on drums. No line-up is given on my demo, which came wrapped in a piece of paper, and both were members of the band at different times. Steve Chadwick and Rob Turner will crop up again in my survey but I wanted to have something by Ed Barnwell, who is outstanding even in that crowded field of great Manchester pianists. In fact, Ed Barnwell comes from Harrogate, but he studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and adorned the Manchester music scene for a few years back there. ‘Going Back to the Village’ was written by Matt Owens. There’s a good version on Matt Owens’ album The Aviator’s Ball, but this version, without the sweeteners, has the edge, I think.

You’ll note that jazz musicians, if untethered from the music stand and allowed their own voice, will go pluck their hearts and place them directly on their sleeves. Both ‘Then It Changed’ and ‘Going Back to the Village’ illustrate the tendency. But one man’s tender warmth is another man’s sentimentality. Each listener must draw that line for themselves. This is called ‘The Generous Heart’, and it’s Jon Thorne’s heartfelt tribute to his mentor on bass, Danny Thompson. Gilad Atzmon takes the clarinet solo and JoJo Thorne is the singer.

Jon Thorne, ‘The Generous Heart’ (6:14)

Danny Thompson’s own musical idol was Charles Mingus, and so Jon absorbed Mingus by osmosis, and made the most of it by forming the Mingus tribute big band, Oedipus Complex. Mingus was known for his mercurial moods, but was never twee. I think we should be indulgent of his followers. It came from the heart, I think.

The Magic Hat Ensemble maintain the quest of some of the more searching hard boppers. ‘Speak No Evil’ is a Wayne Shorter tune, and the band contains the cream of the Silver Age players. I’ll identify them afterwards, but dig the way drummer Rob Turner changes metre at the drop of a magic hat. We can call off the search for Manchester’s Tony Williams. 

Magic Hat Ensemble, ‘Speak No Evil’ (8.10)

That’s from the album, Made in Gorton. I was in Gorton last Saturday, so I can appreciate the piquancy of the title. The Magic Hat Ensemble comprised Steve Chadwick on cornet, Andrzej Baranek on piano, Nick Blacka on bass, Tony Ormesher on guitar and Rob Turner on drums. Steve Chadwick moved to London, and  is now collaborating with Swedish folk musicians from what I read on Facebook. Andrzej Baranek is still active in the area, and Mike Hall, the saxophonist and jazz educator, wants to find a free night to go see him (that’s another Facebook snippet). Nick Blacka and Rob Turner have riding high with GoGo Penguin (I shall return to GoGo Penguin), and Tony Ormesher, who studied at the Guildhall School in London with John Parricelli, is now back in his hometown, Liverpool. (He gets around though and in 2006 won the Berlin Jazz and Blues award.) His father, Tony Ormesher Snr, plays guitar in the Original Panama Jazz Band, a carry-over from the Golden Age. Father and son have been known to play as a duo at Hillary Steppe, Chorlton, on a Sunday night.     

And the hidden track from Made in Gorton by the Magic Hat Ensemble brings the first half to a close, thanks.  

Second set 

Alan Barnes, who was born in Altrincham, is a man out of time: chronologically he belongs to the Silver Age but spiritually, he comes from the Golden Age. Here he is with Scott Hamilton and the David Newman Trio on the Zoot Sims’ tune, ‘Zootcase’. It belong here because of Alan (on alto sax; Scott Hamilton is on tenor) but also because of bassist Matt Miles and drummer Steve Brown, who made their own contributions to Manchester jazz… 

Alan Barnes & Scott Hamilton, ‘Zootcase’ (5:50)… 

Matt Miles and Steve Brown studied by day at the RNCM, and woodshedded by night at PJ Bell’s. Steve Brown moved to London and the next time I saw him was at the Royal Exchange playing with Stan Tracey. It was only then I realised how good he was. I next caught him, reunited with Matt Miles, at an Alan Barnes gig at RNCM. Alan Barnes, one of the great wits of British jazz, introduced them thus: “If you don’t like their playing you haven’t got far to go to complain.” 

Another of Manchester’s favourite sons is the late, great piano-player John Taylor. This next is a collaboration with the Creative Jazz Orchestra, a Manchester-based ensemble with a floating line-up directed by Nick Purnell. And although every member was an outstanding soloist, as was John Taylor, here they opt for brevity, enigma and collectivity… 

John Taylor and the Creative Jazz Orchestra, ‘Without’ (2.00)

‘Without’ is probably the most accessible thing from Exits and Entrances, an album from 2001 of inner-directed self-exploration. Some of the same players – like Iain Dixon and Andy Schofield – can be heard to more rousing effect on a 1999 album, From Here to There, by flugelhorn player Richard Iles. This is a tune called ‘All Good Things’. Note the ‘Clockmaker’-like exultancy. That’s either a general feature of Manchester’s Silver Age or a sign that Mike Walker is in the room.… 

Richard Iles, ‘All Good Things’ (7:12)

Let us now praise the journeyman jazz musician. Manchester jazz would be nothing without its unsung heroes, the musicians who ply the North West circuit, perhaps playing standards in a pub with a guest soloist within a fifty-mile radius of Stockport. Bassist Ken Marley is one such, and doubtless he’s played many gigs since dropping in at The Railway on March 31, accompanying Alan Barnes and Mike Hall with Paul Hartley and Eryl Roberts. Once in a blue moon such journeymen will release a CD, and then, Lookout! That’s the name of the album by the Ken Marley Trio actually. His partners are Richard Wetherall on piano and Matt Home on drums. This is the closest we’ve got to a piano trio from the esteemed Richard Wetherall. He seizes the opportunity with both hands. 

Ken Marley Trio, ‘Tribute to L.A.’ (5:02)  

This next comes from Kathy and John Dyson who went under the name Inside Outside at the time of recording in 1998. I’m reminded of Herb and Lorraine Geller, and that very special rapport you sometimes get with musicians who happen to be married. It comes from the pure pleasure, pure tenderness and pure telepathy of two shared lives. 

Inside Outside, ‘No Time For the Blues’ (4:33) 

I’m told that GoGo Penguin were the sensation of the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival and I myself witnessed a similar eruption of euphoria at their MJF appearance in 2012. GoGo Penguin met whilst studying at RNCM. I can guess some of their inspirations, like the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, and some others I needed to be told about, like Aphex Twin. ‘Fanfares’, the title track of their debut album on Gondwana, Matt Halsall’s label, is additionally influenced, we’re told, by György Ligeti, mostly familiar from the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Einojuhani Rauavaara, a Finnish composer who died in 2016. It’s a tribute to RNCM that such arcane names are included on the syllabus.

GoGo Penguin, ‘Fanfares’ (4:51)

GoGo Penguin at that time were pianist Chris Illingworth, drummer Rob Turner, and bassist Grant Russell, although the bass chair is now occupied by Nick Blacka.  

In summer 2001 an Asian lad, a clarinet player, brimful with energy, knocked on my door and dropped off a demo for my listening pleasure. This was not common. As a general rule jazz musicians are rubbish at self-promotion. He had the usual suspects with him, namely Stuart McCallum, Jon Thorne and Danny Ward. This is what it sounded like.

Arun Ghosh, ‘I’ll Swing For You’ 

 His name was Arun Ghosh. The tune is optimistically entitled ‘I’ll Swing For You’. Naturally, I filed it away without giving it a second thought or a second play, and Arun Ghosh didn’t appear on my radar again until perhaps ten years down the line, and this is what he sounded like then… 

Arun Ghosh, ‘Caliban’s Revenge’ 

‘Caliban’s Revenge’ was commissioned by the Royal Exchange for a production of ‘The Tempest’. In the ten years I wasn’t looking, Arun pioneered a form of Indo-jazz fusion he called ‘Northern Namaste’ and moved to London where he enlarged his musical circle with the players on Primal Odyssey, from which ‘Caliban’s Revenge’ comes: Idris Rahman on tenor sax, Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet, bassist Liran Donin and drummer Pat Illingworth.  

Seamus Cater is not a native but comes from Derbyshire and spent some time in Essex and Devon. He moved to the North West in 1995 to take up a place at Salford College (it was still Salford College in 1995). He formed a band circa 1998 with guitarist Mike Outram, a local lad, who took lessons from Mike Walker and earlier, my dear pal Pete Bocking. I remember being with Pete seeing John Ellis’ Big Bang featuring Mike Outram headline at Manchester Jazz Festival in 1996, and Pete was murmuring approvingly, ‘That’s my boy’ throughout. Milo Fell is one of those drummers who propel things nicely with delicately placed accents, and bassist Gary Culshaw was in Some Other Country with Mike Walker. They are collectively known as Rare Birds. Birds of passage might be more apt, since Mike Outram and Milo Fell were shortly to decamp to London and Seamus Cater was last seen in Amsterdam. They left behind one cracking album, the eponymous Rare Birds. It has a good version of ‘Clockmaker’, but ‘E.G.T.’, a co-composition by Seamus Cater and Mike Outram, attains similar heights. 

Rare Birds, ‘E.G.T.’ 

One of the most extraordinary nights as  a jazz correspondent came at Manchester Jazz Festival in July, 2011, at a night at BOTW headed The Imaginary Delta. It was an extended tribute by a very advanced pianist, Adam Fairhall, to his musical ancestors, It had shouts and yells and jollity and elegance and chaos and catharsis, and it seemed to me a more authentic recreation of antebellum New Orleans than anything ventured by the trad revivalists. They were greatly aided by enlisting technology to access the actual voices of Victoria Spivey and Ivy Smith, so there was a ghostly element too. The Imaginary Delta was resurrected by James Allsopp on clarinet, Chris Bridges on trombone, our old friend Steve Chadwick on cornet, Adam Fairhall on piano, Tim Fairhall on bass, and Gaz Hughes on drums. Paul J Rogers who fed the voices of the blues singers from a laptop and manipulated them on-stage via a gizmo he called the diddley bow. This is ‘Harlem Fast Shout’… 

Adam Fairhall – The Imaginary Delta, ‘Harlem Fast Shout’ (6:01) 

The concert was recorded and issued on a CD – Adam Fairhall - The Imaginary Delta on Slam Records. By the way, that clearly audible whooahhaaa is my standard whoop of euphoria. So there you go, I actually feature on one of the records on the playlist tonight. 

A guitar duo, I think, to play us out after the anarchy of The Imaginary Delta. 

Stuart McCallum is a player who utilises loops and pedals and other electronic paraphernalia and might even forfeit the jazz tag, except he’s been a fixture at Matt and Phred’s since it opened and no-one works harder or is more committed to the principle of musical freedom. Here he forsakes the gizmos and favours straightforward beauty. And Mike Walker is a player of such emotional intensity that I’ve seen him weep as he plays, and sometimes you get the feeling he lashes himself and his audience into frenzy to sublimate depthless agony and joy. So I rejoice at the serenity he’s found at this late stage of his career. I’m sure you’ll recognise the tune.

Stuart McCallum & Mike Walker, ‘Alfie’ (5:28)

Does it follow that we now languish in the Bronze Age? I hope not. Remains of silver can still readily be found and possibly even some gold if you look hard enough. It’s just that I now hunt for treasure on a voluntary basis, like everyone else. 

That was Manchester’s Silver Age, ladies and gentlemen. 


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