Dr John – Hanging with the Hoodoo Man

Dr John

To say Malcolm John ‘Mac’ Rebennack Jr, aka Dr John, has lived a colourful life would be something of an understatement: from spells in jail, being shot in the hand, scoring drugs and his upbringing in deepest, darkest New Orleans, he is the very embodiment of the Crescent City’s rich gumbo soul. With his riotous album Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, he celebrates another Big Easy scion, Louis Armstrong and his timeless trumpet and vocal legacies. The Good Doctor tells Michael Jackson how jazz has always woven itself into his work...

“Louis came to me in a dream and said ‘Cut my stuff yo’ way’,” recalls Rebennack, “and man, he never came to me in a dream before, even though we wuz both booked with (legendary boxing and jazz promoter) Joe Glaser back in the game.” Rebennack remembers Glaser’s vintage roster represented, ‘the spectorama of trumpet players’ including Dizzy Gillespie, who at the time thought Louis was Uncle Tomming (selling out to white audiences). “I told Dizz then ‘he can’t be Tommin’, he’s anything but that, he just knows the procedures to get across’.” Words of experience from a white man who infuriated segregated white and black unions in New Orleans by backing black musicians in the 1950s and 60s. Eventually, singer Joe ‘Mr. Google Eyes’ August brought Dizzy to a Dr John show and the bebop progenitor confessed he now concurred about Armstrong. “He totally agreed with me and that made me feel much better,” reflected Rebennack, who idolised both Gillespie and Armstrong.

Dr JohnIn honor of Pops a ‘spectorama’ of latter-day trumpet heroes are assembled for Ske-Dat-De-Dat including Nicholas Payton, Arturo Sandoval, Terence Blanchard, James Andrews and Wendell Brunious, who turn in cameos respectively on ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘Memories of You’, ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, ‘Dippermouth Blues’ and the warm and fuzzy ‘That’s My Home’. A signature track from the record is a funkified update of ‘Mack The Knife’, which features Blanchard and Paris-based rapper Mike Ladd. During his version of this storied narrative, originally titled ‘Die Moritat von Mackie Messer’ in the original Brecht/Weill iteration from 1928 (adopted as ‘Moritat’ by Sonny Rollins, the same year as Armstrong waxed it, by the by), Rebennack shouts out to star guests Bonnie Raitt and Shemekia Copeland, much as Armstrong tipped his hat to Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya in his 1956 version, an addition furthered by Bobby Darin. The merry murder ballad was also morphed by Ella Fitzgerald, who forgot the lyrics in Berlin in 1960 and improvised. Rebennack appreciated Fitzgerald and her simpatico with Armstrong and was once convinced Ella was looking out for him. “I was in this rehab years ago, having a vacation from my life in the psych ward and I was totally convinced this nurse was Ella Fitzgerald.”

Rebennack’s rambunctious life as wannabe hustler, songwriter and record producer is kaleidoscopically portrayed in his autobiography Under A Hoodoo Moon (St Martin’s 1994), in which, early on, he has his own Mac the Knife moment, trying to get even with his formative ‘junko pardna’, a sketchy character called Shank:

“One night, after he had pulled some bad issue on me, I tore over to [Shank’s] house, ready to stab him. I came in there with my knife out, and he croaked, ‘Is that all you got to use on me?’… he pulled this huge revolver out from somewhere, didn’t even point it at me, but he got me backpedaling fast. Later, I found out his gun not only wasn’t loaded; it didn’t even have a firing pin. It was some antique from the Wild West days.”

Rebennack’s days as a potential McHeath, mercifully, were fraught with misadventure, such as the time he fixed on shooting rhythm & blues singer Lloyd Price for stealing one of his songs, but the Price gig at which the showdown was supposed to occur was cancelled. In attempting to sue Price for the theft of ‘Try Not To Think About You’ (which Price recast as ‘Lady Luck’), Mac ultimately discovered the lawyer he enlisted was also on Price’s payroll.

A further rift involving blade and gun proved more hazardous. It’s an infamous road story involving Dr John’s defence of his greenhorn singer and Jesuit High School classmate Ronnie Barron, but Rebennack fleshed it out during our conversation:

“Ronnie’s mama was chopping some meat with a big knife and she said ‘I’m gonna chop your cajones off if you don’t look after my son, ’cos he’s way underage.’ So I took him on the road and I walk in his motel room and he’s getting pistol whipped by this guy, some big robbery guy in Florida; so I’m hitting this guy’s hand on a brick trying to get the gun out of his hand and pull his eyeball out and I thought my hand was over the handle but it was over the barrel.”

The resultant gunshot severely damaged Rebennack’s left ring finger and made him switch from guitar to keyboards after an unhappy spell playing bass in a Dixieland group at NOLA’s Famous Door lounge. Mac, who studied guitar with Fats Domino guitarist Papoose and the versatile Roy Montrell, recently demonstrated vernacular Telecaster chops in Chicago on a rousing version of Earl King’s rebellious ‘Mama and Papa’, otherwise sticking to piano or Nord, peppering ballsy cuts from Locked Down with such Rebennack perennials as ‘I Walk on Gilded Splinters’, ‘Make a Better World’ and ‘Such a Night’.

“Yeah, I play a little bit of guitar now. I never really stopped, even after I first got shot in my finger, but I remember Leo Fender at some point asked me to play his Jazzmaster guitar and I said ‘these things get outta tune’ and I didn’t play it, so he stopped endorsing me. If I had any of dem guitars now, I’d probably be rich. Aah well, that’s life.”

A precedent to Dr John’s Armstrong tribute was his pithy Ellington homage Duke Elegant (Blue Note, 2000), which featured guitarist Bobby Broom. Broom was backstage at Chicago Blues fest, along with this writer and his kids (it was father’s day after all and I knew the writer of ‘My Children, My Angels’ would be down with that). Dr John greeted us all and ‘jaw jerked’ benevolently.

Broom had this to say about his time with the Doctor: “I was in Mac’s band from 1994 to just about 2000. When I joined him, I knew about its place in the story of jazz music, but I had no idea about the strong influence on the creation of R&B that New Orleans had. During my time with him it all started making sense that, as with all melting pots, New Orleans always had the perfect traditional ingredients for any new, cultural creation – whether in food, religion, jazz or R&B.

“Mac embodied those musical traditions ­– in R&B, blues and jazz. He knew I was a jazz guitar player and a music lover who could lean a little in different directions and he let me bring that to the band.”

Talking of such inclusivity Ske-Dat-De-Dat is particularly generous in the space allotted to sidemen and women, even for a typically expansive Dr John project. That’s the product of formative years working at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary studio in New Orleans and thence with the Ace, Ron and Ric and Mercury labels, where he put sessions together, pooled talent and often wrote songs with others in mind. ‘Tight Like This’ for example is a steamy, Afro-Cuban tinged feature for Arturo Sandoval, where the leader is conspicuously hands off, and ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ is singer Andy Hamilton’s baby, the Doctor lets him have it.

Though an inimitable frontman ever since he hatched his mythical moniker and caught the imagination of the psychedelic set in tumultuous 1968 with his eerie, eclectic cave-jam Gris-Gris (incidentally Mac was never a devotee of psychedelics), Dr John wasn’t desperate to be centre of attention. Many of the acts he supported, ‘back in the game’ – to borrow a nostalgic phrase his sandpaper rasp over the phone frequently delivers ­– he found disingenuous.

“My pa told me: ‘Kid, you got kicked outta three schools, my advice is go out on the Chitlins Circuit with dem old men’. But the whole thing about those frontmans (sic) was a lotta them had a three dollar bill attitude… it was in the days when nobody saw acts on the TV, so Sugar and Sweet would pass off as Shirley and Lee and Earl King would pass off as Chuck Berry or Guitar Slim, James Booker as Joe Tex. People didn’t even know who the real front guys was because there was so many shuck guys out there.” Rebennack refuses to bracket Marvin Gaye in that number however, “I loved that Marvin played good drums every soundcheck, better than his real drummer and I loved Big Joe Turner; I had a real blessing working for him.” Turner’s ‘Piney Brown Blues’ first heard in his father’s record store when he was in knee pants, made a big impression.

“My pa sold three kinds of records, there was what they call race music back then, which was blues and R&B, there was spiritual and gospel and there was jazz – bebop and traditional jazz.”

Though his primary influences included his wildly flamboyant confrère James Booker and crucial stylist Professor Longhair in New Orleans, Mac always craned an ear for jazz from further afield and comments in Under a Hoodoo Moon about checking McCoy Tyner: “Every break I used to get from working joints in the Quarter, I used to go to Vernon’s to hear John Coltrane when he was in town… I used to sit up behind McCoy Tyner, because I wanted to learn how he played piano. But Trane’s music would get so intense – and my head was getting so narcotised – that I’d nod out every time they started.”

Another jazz great Rebennack intersected with was Art Blakey, though at first not in ideal circumstances, when he, tubaist Ray Draper and pianist Walter Davis woke an angry Blakey as they night tripped through his apartment to score heroin in the early 1970s. Through the connection of Mac’s road manager Barbara Becker, Blakey would eventually record Bluesiana Triangle (Windham Hill, 1990) with Rebennack and David ‘Fathead’ Newman and during the session, “Art was sweet enough not to mention the way we’d first met,” Rebennack recalls. That date turned out to be prescient, given a somewhat chilling version of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ (more pertinent to the song’s somewhat apocalyptic lyrics than the touristic version) and Blakey’s croaky vocals on ‘For All We Know’, as Bu (Blakey’s Islamic nickname) would be dead within six months.

Before expedient DA Jim Garrison cleaned up New Orleans in the early 1960s, there had been a genuine 24/7 music scene embracing more of a community, less dog-eat-dog. Since there was plenty of work, musicians would swap out gigs and play several engagements a night. This has contributed to Rebennack’s laidback attitude and the peculiarly relaxed, yet rhythmically layered, crowd pleasing funk that emanates from NOLA. Musicians from the City all share a brotherhood and at Chicago Blues Festival, Rebennack was pleased to share the bill with Aaron Neville.

“I used him on the first session he was on, at Cosimo’s studio, when we was all dittyboppers,” Mac recalls fondly, “Me, Charles (Neville) and Aaron played ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ on this tribute to me in New Orleans, we’ve been playing that since we were kids, I love Percy Mayfield’s songs.” And indeed, he learnt the songwriting craft from the likes of Mayfield: “Me and Shine (guitarist Alvin Robinson) wrote a song that we thought was a killer for Percy, but when he heard it he said ‘You can’t take that long to get to the hook!’ We was writin’ songs but didn’t care how long it took to the hook, so Percy pulled our coattails to that and it made some kinda sense to both of us.”

In LA in 1967, a couple of years after release from spells in Angola, Fort Worth and Lexington correctional facilities, Mac Rebennack refashioned himself as Dr John, a throwback to a nineteenth century medicine man/freed slave/purported Senegalese Prince who ran a voodoo practice and whorehouse with a certain Pauline Rebennack. In many ways the connection with this original hoodoo hustler and journeyman made sense, since Rebennack himself was an itinerant troubadour who had dabbled in pimping and the dark arts (early on, goofer dust – graveyard dirt mixed with gunpowder and church-bell grease – was a favorite concoction to curse his enemies). By 2013 even his ‘Dr’ appellation was vindicated when Tulane University bestowed an honorary doctorate of fine arts, so he became Dr Dr John.

Another self-graduated entertainer, organist Dr Lonnie Smith, worked on a tribute record to Fats Domino in New Orleans with Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones and Rebennack and remembers his counterpart with affection: “Doc is very funny, very soulful and the strange thing is we both walk with a cane, don’t we? He plays from the heart, it’s not about anything that’s not real, and that’s the way his music comes across; he’s a very beautiful person.”

 

“I just feel blessed to play music and be doin’ what I’m doin’.”
– Dr John

 

So, getting back to the star studded new album – for which he owes thanks to his longtime “hellfire trombonist”, arranger and co-producer Sarah Morrow; such flirtatious duet partners as Raitt (‘I’ve Got The World on a String’) and Copeland (‘Sweet Hunk O’Trash’) and the Blind Boys of Alabama – did the Doctor ever meet his main man Satchmo, outside of a dream?

“I met him in Joe Glaser’s office where on the wall was a picture of Louis sittin’ on a rock right outside New Orleans. I knew he was sittin’ by the bridge which went to Bucktown and right there I knew he could see Ralph Schultz’ Fresh Hardware store and my pa’s shop.” Rebennack’s father’s appliance and record store, where he fixed turntables and amps and span records, had a defining influence on young Mac. “I was askin’ if he was looking at my pa’s shop – but Louis was laughing so hard at Schultz, because Schultz could marry you, give you your birth tag stickers, whatever ya needed at his hardware store – that I never got to finish the question.”

Subsequently, Dr John is as synonymous with New Orleans as Armstrong himself and has traveled a long and winding road since copping Louis Jordan and Joe Turner from his father’s Top 20 list. “Back then I thought I was gonna be a Liberace type guy or somethin’, I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna be, I had some dream of dat – you always have fantasias.” He adds, “Listen, whatever ya get, that’s what ya got and I don’t care, I just feel blessed to play music and be doin’ what I’m doin’.”

Though the Night Tripper of yore has had health concerns of late, he remains sanguine and still tucks into a gamey gumbo of squirrel, alligator and specklebelly goose when back at the crib. “If ya eat squirrels that comes outta the swamps, ya get good, if you get ’em that’s close to the Gulf, that’s not good.” His gratitude to the open armed Spiritual Church of New Orleans (he learned bass in the Church band when he was a sprout) is evidenced in the purified modulations of ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’, delivered by soul singer Ledisi and gospel quintet the McCrary Sisters on Ske-Dat-De-Dat. ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, a more secular cure for life’s ills, along with James P Johnson’s ‘Sweet Hunk O’Trash’ (originally recorded in 1949 with Pops and Billie Holiday) typify Dr John’s taste for a hybrid of sacred and profane. It’s all grist to the mill or rather gris gris to the pot Broom refers to, a rich brew, with Rebennack re-stamping the legacy of Armstrong who stretched the canon and spiced it with humour. Such adaptation borne of dry joie de vivre was encapsulated by one of Dr John’s songwriting collaborators and sometime Sidney Bechet sideman, Pleasant Joe: “My old partner Cousin Joe used to play with all the bebop bands in New York and I could see why they would hire him, because he had funny lyrics to all the blues. Anyway he told me a long time ago, he said ‘The best way for a musician to croak is to fall over on the last song of the show – the band gets paid, and you don’t have to play an encore,’ that’s the way to go.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

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Diana Krall – Standing in the Smoky Haze

Diana Krall

Diana Krall has often walked a fine line between consummate jazz performer and canny crossover artist, not least with her recent vaudeville, jazz and blues inspired album Glad Rag Doll, and now even more so with Wallflower – her classy new, string-laden record peppered with songs by The Mamas & the Papas, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan. Peter Quinn spoke to the Canadian singer...

When you’re in that slightly euphoric, post-gig state, be careful what you agree to. You could end up doing a 10-day protest tour with a songwriting legend. Diana Krall was backstage in her dressing room with husband Elvis Costello at the 27th Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, California, earlier this year when fellow performer Neil Young popped his head around the door.

“Neil said, ‘Diane I’m going to do this thing against the tar sands, you wanna come?’ And I was, like, sure!” Krall tells me on the phone from Paris, where she’s about to bring her marathon Glad Rag Doll World Tour to a conclusion. Young was supporting the cause of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation community, who were presenting a legal challenge against tar sands expansion in their traditional Albertan homeland.

Diana Krall“And then I got a phone call,” Krall continues. “Neil Young’s asking you to go on this protest tour across Canada. And I went, ‘who else is doing it?’ And they went, ‘just you’.”

Cut to the first gig at Toronto’s Massey Hall. “I thought I had to do half an hour and they were like, no you have to do an hour – and there were a lot of flannel shirts out there! Neil said, ‘Diane just play whatever you want’. So I just walked out and opened with ‘Every Grain of Sand’, it was awesome. I’m so proud to say that I was actually part of something meaningful, a proper protest tour to make a statement. To be with Neil Young, to do that, I don’t think it’s really sunk in until now. It was really something else and something to tell my kids.” Diana Krall: vocalist, pianist, songwriter, mother and environmental campaigner. She even has the Neil Young/Diana Krall ‘Honor The Treaties’ hoodie and t-shirt to prove it. Sadly, the legal challenge didn’t succeed. “The fucking pipeline went through,” Krall notes. “I’m so mad about that and the way it was done.”

During my last conversation with Krall, an interview for The Arts Desk in 2012 when we talked about Glad Rag Doll, an album of vintage jazz and blues songs, it was very clear that she’d spent a lifetime contemplating the material. Produced by 16-time Grammy winner David Foster, the song list for Krall’s new album Wallflower is something quite different, a collection of some of the greatest pop songs from the late 1960s to the present day.

“I didn’t want to make a jazz-musician-making-new-jazz-standards record,” Krall says. “These aren’t the new standards, this is a classic pop record.” And, while Krall plays piano on the title track and contributes the occasional solo, it’s Foster who takes on the main piano duties. “David’s a great pianist, he’s a great accompanist, and I can’t play the way he plays. It’s not my style. It will take me a lot of practice to learn all of these songs and I’ll never play them the way David plays them.”

This also means that, as a listener, your focus is entirely on the voice, which is late night, grown up, über-sensual à la Julie London. The kind of voice, in other words, that chanteuses such as Melody Gardot can only dream about.

Having worked with some of the best arrangers around, including Johnny Mandel (When I Look In Your Eyes) and Claus Ogerman (The Look of Love, Quiet Nights), how did working with Foster compare?

“I picked all the songs, but it was what he did with them that was really incredible. He’s just kind of a genius. We recorded the Paul McCartney song [‘If I Take You Home Tonight’] and then the next day he came with that whole middle section, orchestrated. And I said, how did you come up with that? We’re both from Canada; we’re both from the same place – small towns 70 miles from each other. We have a lot of similar reference points and a love of jazz. I didn’t realise how amazing he was until I worked with him. I didn’t realise he had everything going on.”

I remark that it’s difficult to marry Foster’s love of jazz and his ability to create such incredible beauty with his support for the Republican presidential nominee in the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney (Foster spoke at a private fundraising event for Romney in September 2012). “I actually don’t even want to know that, OK,” Krall laughs. “Don’t make me look at that”. Krall, remember, is an artist who refused an invitation to the White House when George W. Bush was in office.

Framed by The Mamas and the Papas (‘California Dreamin’’) and Crowded House (‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’), and including duets with Michael Bublé on ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ and Bryan Adams on ‘Feels Like Home’, plus other hallowed classics such as ‘Superstar’ and ‘Desperado’, I wonder how she even begins to try and make these songs new.

“Well, it helps to be quite naïve and realise that they’re hallowed classics after you’ve done them,” she says. “You’ve got to put your head in the sand a little bit, you know, and not kind of think about it. I’ve spent my whole career doing that, because I’m singing songs that were done by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. After we did ‘Superstar’, they said you just can’t help thinking about Luther [Vandross] and I went ‘Luther? I forgot about that!’”

Hearing ‘Desperado’ and knowing that Krall is a huge Ray Charles fan, I’m reminded of the quote in the sleeve notes to The Very Best of The Eagles in which Don Henley states: ‘When I play it and sing it, I think of Ray Charles. It’s really a Southern gothic thing’.

Diana Krall

“Well, there you go,” Krall says. “And anybody who gives The Eagles a hard time should look at that quote. But I associate it more with Linda Ronstadt. I really love Linda and I heard a lot of her at home. My dad had those records she did with Nelson Riddle.”

If the Bob Dylan title track, written in 1971 but only released in 1991 as part of The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, sounds like a folk song that’s been around forever (“I have seen you standing in the smoky haze. And I know that you’re gonna be mine one of these days”) and ‘California Dreamin’ features harmonic substitutions that take the breath away, the real revelation of the album is McCartney’s ‘If I Take You Home Tonight’. It’s almost impossible to believe that the song is an outtake from his 2012 Grammy-winning standards album, Kisses on the Bottom – named after a line from the album’s lead-off song ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter’, as every Fats Waller fan will know – produced by Tommy LiPuma and for which Krall acted as musical director. The song is, quite simply, drop-dead gorgeous. “I know,” Krall agrees, “that’s why I did it. I think it’s my favourite song on the record, actually.” How it didn’t make the cut on Kisses is an unfathomable mystery.

Given that Wallflower is a collection of classic songs from the late 1960s to the present day, the one real surprise is that there’s nothing by Canada’s holy trinity of singer-songwriters: Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Except, there very nearly was. Krall did actually record ‘A Case of You’ for the album. At the time of our interview the track list had still not been finalised, although Krall tells me that the version of ‘A Case of You’, re-recorded with Vince Mendoza, was “stunning”. Tantalisingly, it’s one of a number of songs that didn’t make the final cut. Krall sings Mitchell, arranged by Mendoza. Now that I would love to hear. Perhaps at some point in the future an expanded edition of the album (The Complete Wallflower?) will be made available, complete with outtakes.

When you think of Krall’s die-hard jazz fans who’ve grown up with her early albums such as Only Trust Your Heart, All For You and Love Scenes, I wonder if – after Glad Rag Doll and Wallflower – they should be getting nervous now that she might be doing something similar to Nat King Cole and leaving her jazz material behind.

“No, no, because I’m not going to go out and tour this record,” she says. “I’m still doing jazz concerts, I’m doing my last Glad Rag Doll concert on Sunday with the whole stage set-up. I don’t want to abandon jazz and swing music and all the things I love. The same question happened to me with Look of Love. It was a similar thing; there wasn’t a lot of jazz playing in there. I’ll just figure it out as I go along and I’ll look forward to playing my next jazz record, I guess.”

This is good news for the music. In a feature in the July 2014 issue of DownBeat celebrating the magazine’s 80th anniversary, ‘The 80 Coolest Things in Jazz Today’, Krall is honoured as one of five so-called Gateway Artists, people ‘who have drawn listeners to the beauty of jazz’. Harry Connick Jr, Robert Glasper, Wynton Marsalis and Esperanza Spalding complete this select quintet.

“Well, if it wasn’t for Harry Connick and Wynton Marsalis I wouldn’t be doing this. When that Wynton record Think Of One came out I was like, wow! It was at the start of my college years. Then I went to see When Harry Met Sally and I heard Harry Connick and I thought: I want to do that. Harry’s a true jazz pianist and I have so much gratitude for him, so I’m glad he’s included in there because there’s only one of him and he’s an unbelievable musician.”

The one disappointing thing to note about the list – disappointing in that it doesn’t reflect the reality of the current scene at all – is that of the 80 coolest things, there are just six women. In addition to Krall and Spalding, the other four are guitarist Mary Halvorson, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, pianist Hiromi Uehara, plus the NYC-based concert producer and Blue Note Records exec producer, Megan Stabile.

“Well, that’s not very good,” Krall says. “What about Cassandra Wilson and Terri Lyne Carrington, and the million other people? Dianne Reeves, Renee Rosnes? It’s too bad there’s only six women.”

From the straight-ahead trio date of her debut Stepping Out (1993) to the perfect pop of Wallflower, Krall has carved out one of the most successful careers of any female jazz artist, with Grammy Awards and multi-platinum albums too numerous to mention. Let’s just hope that there’s a little more Frim Fram Sauce along the way.

Album Review

Diana Krall – Wallflower ★★★★

Diana Krall WallflowerVerve  

Diana Krall (v, p); plus various personnel including David Foster (p). Rec. date not stated. Buy from Amazon / Buy from iTunes

Produced by David Foster, who also takes on main piano duties, this new studio album from Diana Krall presents a 12-track collection of songs from the 1960s to the present day. Krall only plays piano on the title track – a Bob Dylan rarity that, once heard, immediately lodges itself in your consciousness – and the occasional solo, so you can’t help but focus on her voice (although Foster’s no slouch on the piano). And it’s captured here to perfection: late night, grown up, über-sensual à la Julie London. If the album’s two duets, ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ with Michael Bublé and ‘Feels Like Home’ with Bryan Adams, are largely forgettable, there are some genuine standouts including heartfelt arrangements of ‘California Dreamin’ and ‘Superstar’, plus a surprisingly touching take on the Crowded House hit, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. Best of all is Paul McCartney’s ‘If I Take You Home Tonight, an outtake from his 2012 Grammy-winning album, Kisses on the Bottom. Krall was musical director on that album and clearly recognises a great song when she hears it. – Peter Quinn

Photos: Top image by Verve; all other images by Tim Dickeson 

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

The 10 most memorable Louis Armstrong moments on YouTube

Louis Armstrong

The great trumpeter Miles Davis once said of Louis Armstrong: “I can’t even remember a time when he sounded bad playing the trumpet. Never. Not even one time.” Duke Ellington, too, paid tribute to Armstrong, saying: "He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way." Below are just a few of the memorable moments that Louis Armstrong left behind on film, courtesy of YouTube.

1) When the Saints go Marching in

Louis may look slightly embarrassed when Jewel Brown starts dancing but nobody can upstage Satchmo when he puts his trumpet to his lips.

2) Hello Dolly

Who cares about the lyrics? Louis gives up on singing the song part-way through the verse to play his trumpet instead. Keep watching to the end – nobody can end a note like Louis does at the climax of this raucous account.

3) Nobody Knows the Trouble I've seen

Louis couldn't help but sing with a smile, even when singing the lyric: "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen / Nobody knows my sorrow." Still, this is a surprisingly moving account of the Spiritual.

4) Umbrella Man

Two of the greatest Jazz trumpeters of all come together in a little comedy number that quickly transforms into a play-off followed by a scat-off in which Dizzy Gillespie gives Satchmo a good run for his money.

5) Birth of the Blues

Perhaps the greatest singer of the 20th century strolls onstage, cigarette in hand, and struggles to contain his laughter when Louis sings directly into his face. Here are two extraordinary musicians having the time of their lives.

6) Basin Street Blues  

Louis Armstrong clearly thrives on having a first-rate backing group in this recording from 1964 of a song that he first recorded in 1928. Each player is given a little chance to shine as Louis goes back to his roots.

7) Dinah

This film from 1933 shows that Armstrong always tended to move freely between the lyrics of the song and his own vocalisations. His joyous solo at the close of the track is pure sunlight.

8) What's My Line?

What's My Line? is rendered farcical by having one of the most distinctive and famous voices in history on the show. Never was Armstrong so quiet on television, nevertheless, he still finds the opportunity for a little impromptu song:

9) Uncle Satchmo's Lullaby

One of the strangest duets in the history of music, and the little girl's dolly is truly the stuff of nightmares. From the 1959 film La Paloma, once watched, this scene can (unfortunately) never be forgotten...

10) What a Wonderful World

We couldn't leave any survey without including Satchmo's most famous song. Remarkably, this video has received more than 80 million views on YouTube, which just serves to demonstrate his enduring popularity today. 

Miles Davis – The Lost Quintet

Miles Davis

From the first electrifying notes of Miles Davis’ trumpet, hooked to the sheer ferocity of Jack DeJohnette’s drums, it’s clear that Live in Europe 1969 is an album of truly monumental music making – the like of which is rarely heard today. This groundbreaking quintet, often referred to as the ‘Lost Quintet’ was one of the most enigmatic of Davis’ groups and reveals a world of astonishing musical revelations, with the trumpeter at his most imperious and agile, backed by a band that shadowed his every move. Stuart Nicholson joins the dots of this remarkable, but little known, period of Davis’ life with recollections from Jack DeJohnette and Chick Corea, and examines the critical mass the group gathered at this tipping point in modern music at the birth of electric jazz  

Miles Davis Live in Europe 1969For as long as anyone can remember, the music business has floated on a cushion of hyperbole which has rendered terms like ‘astonishing,’ ‘amazing’ or ‘brilliant’ meaningless. It’s a shame, because once in a while an album comes along such as Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2 that knocks you sideways. Then you have to reach for such superlatives. But does ‘astonishing’, ‘amazing’ and ‘brilliant’ really do justice to a major four-disc release like this? One of such significance the history of jazz in the 1960s will have to be re-written? Even in his autobiography Davis was in no doubt about the importance of his Class of 1969: “Man, I wish this band had been recorded live because it was a really bad motherfucker… Columbia missed out on the whole fucking thing.”

Well, Columbia may have missed out back then, but they’re making-up for lost time in the here and now. Live in Europe 1969 comprises rare broadcast material recorded by European TV and radio stations and is among some of the most remarkable music made in the twentieth century. 1969 was the year when the Woodstock generation came of age. Musical change was in the air, and Miles Davis was the poster-boy of those dramatic changes occurring in jazz. When his in-demand group finished their set at the Garden State Jazz Festival in New Jersey in November 1969, Downbeat magazine reported: “During the second minute of the tumultuous ovation, the young lady seated behind me was still gasping, ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God.’ Her reaction was understandable. She had just witnessed contemporary jazz at its peak of perfection.”

Fifty years later, those judgements, from fan and critic alike, still hold good – and some. Yet extraordinary though it may seem, the 1969 quintet – the immediate successor of Davis’ renowned Shorter-Hancock-Carter-Williams group featured on Live in Europe ’67: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 – fell into what can only be described as a black hole as far as jazz history is concerned. As Peter Keepnews noted in a prescient feature for the Village Voice back in 1986: “One of the most serious problems confronted by jazz historians is that while recordings offer the only tangible evidence we have of the music’s development, some of the important stages in that development were insufficiently recorded… Miles spent a lot of time in the studio in 1969, and he came up with In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew... but [he] also spent a lot of time on the road that year, and music he made with his working band was even more extraordinary than the music on those two remarkable albums.”

Keepnews called Davis’s ensemble ‘The Last Quintet’, because, he said, “It was the last band Miles ever had that adhered to the standard instrumentation of trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass and drums.” Significantly, he added, “it might also be [called] the Lost Quintet, because for some reason it was never recorded.” The name stuck and ever after this band became known as The Lost Quintet.

Comprising Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on soprano and tenor saxophones; Chick Corea on Fender Rhodes piano; Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, they did record for Columbia, but jazz history was never going to be re-written on the strength of the 27 November, 1968 session that produced ‘Directions I’ and ‘Directions II’, released on the retrospective compilation double album Directions in 1981 when the quintet was augmented by Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock on electric pianos, or their 19 August, 1969 session, when it was augmented by Zawinul, John McLaughlin on guitar and Jumma Santos on percussion that produced ‘Sanctuary’, released as a part of the Bitches Brew double LP set in 1970.

These three tracks, plus a couple of bootleg albums of varying quality, was not the kind of evidence that suggested a major wrong was in need of righting. But now, with the in-depth examination of the Lost Quintet made possible by the release of Live in Europe 1969, we have the evidence that suggests this band was one of Davis’ greatest ensembles.

What Live in Europe 1969 gives us is a remarkable snapshot in time, showing Davis as the public conscience of his art by escaping the limits jazz had imposed on itself. It’s a simultaneous response to free jazz, rock music and Davis’ own musical past, plus a bit of good old fashioned futurism that gives us a glimpse of what could have been but never quite was. This is coruscating, exciting, magnificent jazz and it’s tempting to say Davis never played better than he does on these discs – certainly he never played with such technical assurance, range and invention plus a muscularity and aggressiveness that will come as a surprise to many. As drummer Jack DeJohnette recalled: “It was a great period, a really high point of creativity for Miles in that period. He wasn’t doing any drugs. He was straight into macrobiotic foods, and we all were. He was playing long, strong solos and hitting high notes – really nailing them.”

 

“The live stuff really should have been gotten on tape because that was when the band was burning.”
– Chick Corea

 

Then there was Wayne Shorter, also playing brilliantly with a technical assurance and ferocity you’d be hard-placed to match anywhere else in his discography, yet contrasted by a sensitivity that could only be matched by Stan Getz, one of his staunchest admirers. Both Davis and Shorter seemed intent on raising the musical stakes every time they took the solo microphone, with Corea, Holland and DeJohnette responding to the challenges of the moment with audible joy; Corea demonstrating a mastery of the Fender Rhodes that is probably unsurpassed to this day, Holland with those deep, powerful grooves he would become famous for (back then he was just 23 years old) and DeJohnette, emerging from the shadow of his predecessor Tony Williams and seemingly coming of age as a more rounded, complete musician.

Interestingly, these live performances show Davis had not entirely abandoned the standards repertoire as he had on his studio recordings since 1965’s E.S.P., as Live in Europe 1969 includes performances of ‘Round Midnight’, and ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily’. The rest of the set lists draw mostly from the repertoire of the second great quintet (Davis-Shorter-Hancock-Carter-Williams) as well as other long established Davis staples, but he was also drawing a line under the past by spending hours with his band rehearsing and working on new material that would soon emerge on Bitches Brew.

Yet this music is far removed from the approach of that historic album since the Lost Quintet continues and expands on the Davis-Shorter-Hancock-Carter-Williams approach on Live at the Plugged Nickel, by breaking open the compositions and exploring them from the perspective of time-no-changes that gave the improvisers the creative freedom to reshape the music to the needs of the moment. As Jack DeJohnette points out: “There has been this attitude about the period when I was with Miles – with Dave and Chick – as not being a very important period. But there was a whole lot of innovation going on then. It may have leaned a little towards the so-called avant-garde, but we incorporated both things. We did the funk thing, we did free playing.”

When the band made its debut in March 1969 at Duffy’s Tavern in Rochester, New York, Davis included ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ (from 1958), ‘So What’ (from 1959) and ‘No Blues’ (from 1961) and more recent material such as ‘Gingerbread Boy’ and ‘Footprints’ (from 1966) and ‘Paraphernalia’ (from 1968). From 4 June to 14 June, the quintet appeared at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago and included ‘Milestones’ (from 1958) in its playlist. Once again Downbeat magazine was present, this time in the person of reviewer Larry Kart: “Outside of Charlie Parker’s best units, I don’t think there’s ever been a group so at ease at up-tempos as Miles Davis’ current quintet. Their relaxation at top speed enables them to move at will from the ‘hotness’ up-tempo playing usually implies to a serene lyricism in the midst of turmoil… with this version of the Miles Davis Quintet, one aspect of jazz has been brought to a degree of ripeness that has few parallels in the history of the music. Now let’s hope that Davis and Columbia decide to record this group in person.” 

That prospect seemed about to be fulfilled a month later when Davis appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival on the afternoon of Saturday, 5 July when the group was recorded live for Columbia. The only problem was that Wayne Shorter was held up in the festival traffic, so what might have resulted in a contemporaneous album by the Lost Quintet – no-one thought this group was ‘lost’ back then – ended up as a quartet performance that remained in Columbia’s vaults until the release of the Bitches Brew Live collection in 2011. Here, some of the new material got a workout, including ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’, and ‘Sanctuary’. Photographer Burt Goldblatt was witness to the occasion, later recalling: “Miles Davis, with Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, went non-stop in what sounded like one continuous set, with Miles fiercely pugnacious and uncompromising.”

A few days later the band appeared in Central Park in New York and included ‘Spanish Key’, another piece that would also appear on Bitches Brew. On 25 and 26 July the band appeared at Festival Mondial du Jazz d’Antibes, held at La Pinéde, Juan-les Pins. These two dates comprise CD1 and CD2 of the Live in Europe 1969 set and they’re a revelation. Both performances segue into one continuous piece of music, the standard modus operandi of this band, and ran the gamut from the old (‘Round About Midnight’, ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily’ and ‘The Theme’) the established (‘Milestones’, ‘Footprints’, ‘No Blues’, ‘Nefertiti’, and ‘Masqualero’) to the new, (‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,’ Sanctuary’, ‘It’s About That Time’, ‘Spanish Key’ and ‘Directions’). At no time in Davis’s discography can he be heard playing such a wide variety of repertoire and styles as he did on these performances. This music assumes a momentum of its own, a majestic sweep of individual brilliance, acoustic and electronic sounds, swing and hints of rock rhythms, artful transitions, free maelstroms, effortless accelerandos and deccelarandos, all accomplished with breathtaking intensity. “That quintet developed some really beautiful improvised stuff,” recalled Chick Corea. “We would do two or three pieces that were just strung together, one right after another for the whole concert, and we would make this wonderful, wonderful composition.”

Miles Davis Quintet

The 25 July set was actually issued in 1993 by Sony Japan as 1969 Miles Festiva De Juan Pins, a hard to obtain import that quickly became deleted and a collector’s item. On their return from Europe, the Lost Quintet travelled to the West Coast to appear at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and once again Downbeat had a reporter on hand: “The group, as a whole, is an intellectual experience from start to non-stop,” observed its writer Harvey Siders. “Miles and his alter ego, Wayne Shorter, are gravitating ever closer to a free nirvana… rendering all conventional frames of reference obsolete. Tempos change and moods shift almost subliminally. The rhythm section follows with uncanny instinct… Miles’ chops are as firm as ever, his ideas cut through with clarity and appreciation of his playing could still approach excitement, even though the familiar yardstick of following the changes had been discarded.” 

After playing Philadelphia on 15 August, and just days after the Woodstock rock festival had changed the musical landscape, Davis launched into a series of recording sessions that produced the breakthrough two-LP set that many people believe is the fons et origo (source and origin) of the jazz-rock era, Bitches Brew. But here the Lost Quintet was indeed lost, since the band was augmented by a host of additional musicians, a move seemingly inspired by Jimi Hendrix, who filled his studio with musical extras for extended studio jams on ‘Rainy Day Dream Away’ and ‘Voodoo Chile’ on Electric Ladyland. Whether this approach got the best out of Hendrix’s or Davis’ music is open to question, especially since in Davis’ case we now have superior versions of several numbers that appeared on Bitches Brew, recorded live by the Lost Quintet. But there’s no doubt ‘Voodoo Chile’ was echoed by ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’, both artists appropriating voodoo symbolism, a holdover from West African mystical practices, to make a statement about their black identity.

Whatever the commercial success of Bitches Brew, it remains a turgid, dense rhythmic purée compared to the quicksilver creativity and brilliance of the Lost Quartet, who got the closest to being themselves on the first take of ‘Sanctuary’, which includes an interlude from ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily’, and was spliced onto ‘Take Two’ on the record. This naturally raises the question of why this remarkable band was not recorded in their own right since in sharing the floor with guest players – some of whom had never played with Davis before – their individuality was swamped, whereas live, as Live in Europe 1969 demonstrates, they could be stunning, as Chick Corea emphasises: “The live stuff really should have been gotten on tape because that was when the band was burning.”

One reason might have been the row between Miles Davis and the then new president of Columbia, Clive Davis. This apparently erupted when Clive Davis suggested Miles should play rock venues like the Fillmore, which prompted a telegram from Miles saying he would not record for Columbia again. It was widely reported that he was about to move to Motown Records, but this was a fantasy – Miles’ constant requests for ‘advances’ meant he was financially joined at the hip to Columbia and Clive Davis knew it. No doubt Miles did too, since after recording Bitches Brew he agreed to play the Fillmore. Another reason might have been the large backlog of studio jams Miles had instigated, extracts of which would subsequently be released in later years on compilations like Big Fun and Directions, but at the time may have convinced Columbia executives they had sufficient music in the can without having to go to the extra expense of sending a recording remote to capture the band live.

In October, the quintet was a part of George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival in Europe tour, opening in Milan on the 26 and playing Rome (27 Oct), Vienna (31 Oct), London (1 and 2 November), Paris (3 Nov), Copenhagen (4 Nov), Stockholm (5 Nov), Berlin (7 Nov), and Rotterdam (9 Nov). Live in Europe 1969 is rounded out by the complete Stockholm concert (on CD3 where Corea’s electric piano fails mid ‘Bitches Brew’ and he switches to acoustic piano for the rest of the concert) and the Berlin concert (on DVD which is of such extraordinary technical and artistic quality that must have been state-of-the-art for 1969), while the Copenhagen concert appeared on Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition in 2010 and as a DVD on Bitches Brew Live.

Of the Berlin date, Frankfurter Neue Press said, “Davis and his saxophonist Wayne Shorter showed a degree of maturity and melodic beauty that can have few parallels in the history of jazz,” while Val Wilmer, reviewing the event for Downbeat said, “I don’t think Miles has rated less than a glowing review anywhere over the past year, but this night he played like a god… Wayne Shorter played his tail off too… [but] without Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and their big ears, Miles would not have the freedom to tread so surely in his new, unrestricted direction.”

Back from Europe, the Lost Quintet rounded out a busy year at the Colonial Tavern in Toronto between 1-6 December. Here, Davis added guitarist Sonny Greenwich to the line-up; clearly he was gazing into the future since the 13 December issue of Rolling Stone magazine carried a feature headlined: “I could put together the greatest rock and roll band you ever heard – Miles Davis.” On 6 and 7 March 1970, Columbia recorded four sets of the Lost Quintet – albeit now a sextet with the addition of percussionist Airto Moreira – at New York’s premier rock venue Fillmore East where he opened for the Steve Miller Blues Band and Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But for whatever reason, the tapes lay in Columbia’s vault until their release in 2001 as Miles Davis: Live at Fillmore East (March 7 1970). Produced by Bob Belden, he observed: “It’s the last gasp of the Parker/Coltrane continuum and the first long look at Miles’ Sly Stone/Jimi Hendrix influenced rock/funk attack in action.”

The Fillmore date was Wayne Shorter’s last gig with the band, leaving the huge promise of the Lost Quintet unfulfilled on recordings of the time and a void where jazz history could have been constructed. After Shorter’s departure, Davis’s music would again be in flux, his performance at the Fillmore saying much about where he now saw his destiny. Taken together, the recorded evidence of Live in Europe 1969 makes it clear that the Lost Quintet was the last truly great Miles Davis ensemble as well as one of the great ensembles of jazz. Yet if jazz history remains set in stone and the Lost Quintet had continued to be lost, this would represent a terrible miscarriage of justice for a band that revealed jazz of the late 1960s at its most luminous.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise.

Photos: 1) Bob Cato / Sony Music Archives

2) Screens grabs from Berliner Jazztage 1969. Clockwise from top left: Chick Corea; Miles Davis; Jack DeJohnette; Dave Holland; Miles Davis Quintet; Wayne Shorter: courtesy Columbia Legacy

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EST – Three Falling Three

EST

Just months before Esbjörn Svensson died aged just 44 in 2008, EST – the groundbreaking and hugely influential piano trio that Svensson formed with Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström – recorded a great deal of material in a Sydney studio. Speaking to Stuart Nicholson, Berglund and Öström relive the course of that momentous marathon recording session that yielded some truly remarkable music, included on their stunning album, 301

Jazz albums like EST’s 301 don’t come around every day. Or every month, or even every year. In fact, rather like the Beast of Bodmin Moor, ocelots or the Abominable Snowman, albums as gob-smackingly good as this are a decided rarity. Suddenly, out of the blue (and appropriately the album cover art is strikingly blue), comes this session by pianist Esbjörn Svensson, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström from January 2007. Recorded in Sydney’s Studio 301 in their down-time during a tour of Australia, they amassed a total of nine hours of material, some of which was previously released as the album Leucocyte in 2008. Yet 301 sounds as if it was recorded on a different planet in a different universe – it roars where Leucocyte simmers, it powers where Leucocyte is polite and it packs a powerful emotional punch where Leucocyte gives you a peck on the cheek.

Since Esbjörn Svensson’s tragic death in June 2008, the tapes of these sessions had been in storage, the thought of revisiting the material too painful. The idea had been to release a double CD, or two consecutive albums, from their marathon Australian date, but Svensson’s untimely passing put an end to these plans and in the event, only Leucocyte was released. It was not until the summer of 2011 that Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström felt able to revisit the material, and they were delighted at what they discovered. “It had been sitting there all that time,” says Öström. “Esbjorn did most of the editing on Leucocyte, so where we listened to all that material before, I was not that careful, maybe. So when we came to listen to it again I was really surprised that it was on such a level. It sounded so fresh, so I was really happy about it, that we had some good quality material for release.” Berglund agrees, adding, “We were supposed to have released a double CD, but in the end we released a single but although we knew we had some more material I was surprised that there was so much that I really liked.”

Together with EST’s former sound engineer Åke Linton, who sat behind the mixing desk at over 500 EST concerts, they edited down some of the very best material for release. The idea behind the sessions was to go into the recording studio without any preparation and just play. “The idea was something like we tried in 2000, or 2002,” recalls Öström. “Just go in the studio and kind of redeem ourselves! Get whatever we had of ourselves out of our system and on to tape, like a catharsis thing. We just play for fun and see what comes out. With this recording we wanted to test the energy level we had during a tour, and also try and test the improvised parts that had grown bigger and bigger through the years we played live, and put that on tape. We had in mind maybe making a record, of course we didn’t know how it would turn out, but that was the thinking behind it. The approach was that we set up the gear, get a good sound – a good balance – and then push the ‘record’ button. It was all from scratch, we didn’t have any pre-planning, pre-thinking; one of us started and the other two followed and we went from there. Totally free, actually. We’d play one hour, one hour and a half, have a break – we just went for it!”

ESTOn tracks such as ‘Three Falling Free Part II’, ‘Inner City, Inner Lights’ and ‘The Childhood Dream’ you realise what an extraordinary pianist Esbjörn Svensson was. Not only in terms of his emotional range, but also that fact that in live performance and on record, he kept his extraordinary virtuoso technique under wraps. However, here we get a glimpse of Esbjörn unbridled. It brought to mind an EST recording session at the Atlantis recording studio in Stockholm I attended. Arriving early, Svensson was already at the piano warming up before the rest of the band arrived. His back was to the control room, facing Berglund’s bass, on its side on the studio floor, and Öström’s drum kit. He had no idea anyone else was in the studio other than recording engineer Janne Hansson, who was attending to the sound level while sipping a cup of strong, early morning black coffee. Svensson, midway through a Chopin étude, followed it with impeccably played sections from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto in C, his touch, technique and attention to dynamics of a concert pianist’s standard, and then he abruptly segued into a high tempo 12-bar blues that went on and on, never repeating himself, building and building to a wonderful, block chorded climax. Hansson, who had recorded several Abba hits in these very studios, looked across and smiled the smile of someone who had seen it all, but had witnessed something special. Svensson was stunning. Relaxing after the session in a sushi bar, I asked him why he never allowed this virtuosity to show through on either records or in live performance. “Because it’s not me,” he said simply.

When I related this story to Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström, Berglund was first to respond: “He never was really interested in showing-off in records or in concerts,” he said. “That was not his way – we were interested in making good music together. I think when I listen to very good musicians you can feel if they can play very, very fast but they don’t. That’s even more interesting.”

 

"We were safe in that room and he went for it without any worries, he felt free"

 

However, both agree that the circumstances of the recording session, where the doors were closed and where any of them were free to take their playing in any direction they wanted had contributed to Svensson revealing a little of the inner-man that had remained under wraps to the public at large. “It could be it was the moment for trying out stuff, feeling free, in a way no-one listens,” reflects Öström. “You don’t have to have any borders in any sense, if he wanted to play more difficult stuff he felt safe, so to speak. No-one but us listening. We were safe in that room and he went for it without any worries, he felt free in his mind to do what he wanted and try what he wanted, he felt free, extraordinarily free and more confident, maybe, I don’t know, we never discussed it. I don’t know where it should have gone had he lived, I don’t know. It might be that he felt that this is working because he was always playing and always practising all the time and his level was moving ahead all the time, he was moving forward all the time, so maybe this was a new step to integrate it into his playing and integrate it into himself as well. Bring out the classical side more – I don’t know, I am just speculating.”

Certainly great art can be achieved by knowing how to limit yourself, and in jazz there is no better exemplar of the less-is-more ethic than Miles Davis, a player who once could have been mistaken for Dizzy Gillespie (check out his playing with the Metronome All Stars from January 3, 1949 on ‘Overtime’), yet chose to limit himself to the notes that really mattered. Equally Svensson, reflecting in part the influence of the great Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, chose to pare his playing down to the very essence of melody, rather than flaunt his remarkable technique. Of course, there are moments when we have glimpses of his technique, but always in service of the song, not himself, and never to the extent that is captured on 301.

The less-is-more analogy (and nobody is suggesting Esbjörn Svensson was another Miles Davis, only to suggest one of many precedents in jazz that include, among others Count Basie and Lester Young) is not the only one that might be made. From 1969 until Davis’ furlough from the music business in 1975, his albums were constructed largely through spontaneous, free flowing jams that were edited after the event by Teo Macero to produce some classic recordings, not least In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

Certainly EST were not thinking of Miles Davis when they went into Studio 301 in January 2007, but the modus operandi was coiincidentally similar, even though their aims were quite different (again, this is not to suggest Esbjörn was another Miles, but rather to highlight the circumstances of the album’s creation does have several precedents, from Davis to free jazz and many points in-between).

What is interesting, and perhaps the least commented aspect of the album 301 is the use of electronics, which is far greater than anything EST had done live or on record. Here, EST’s sound engineer Åke Linton participated in the creative process. During the recording he contributed to the music by running effects, overlaying distortions and add-ins live through the desk during the recording process onto tape. It’s a procedure that cannot be reversed in the re-mixing process. His electronic prestidigitation was in addition to that of Svensson’s electronics (who at one point also uses a transistor radio for effects) and the electronic sounds generated by the laptops of Magnus Öström and Dan Berglund.

“We wanted to experiment in the studio and we had the chance to do it,” says Berglund. “We did electronic improvisation on stage – between songs, and at the beginning and at the end of songs – so now we had a chance to really try that out, expand on that a little, and I think sometimes we were recording one song an hour, I like this approach – acoustic and electronics. Would it have meant we would have done more and more? – I don’t know really.” And in his role as drummer and arch percussionist within the EST ensemble, Magnus Öström was perhaps the main instigator of electronics in live performance, often colouring ensembles and interludes behind Svensson and Berglund. “When I think about myself as a drummer, I’m not really a ‘drummer, drummer’,” he says.

“I like sounds and different colours and that’s how I also approach electronics, it’s more like a new colour – it could be a new cymbal, a new drum sound – whatever, but sometimes it happens to be electronics and that’s how I approach it. I wanted to integrate it into the acoustic sound, then it hopefully becomes organic with ordinary drum sounds, that for me is very important, that it is not seen as ‘now it’s acoustic’ and ‘now it’s electronics’ and you go back and forth, but like it’s more new colours and some just happen to be electronics.”

Listening to 301, an inevitable question arises. Is there any more material suitable for release by EST in the vaults and if so, can fans look forward to further albums like this? Dan Berglund pauses, and says: “I think if we go through the material and we think there is more, then maybe, but for the moment that’s enough. Of course it would have to be very good quality to release it, if there was anything not that good we would not release it.” Magnus Öström nods in agreement.

EST

So if there are no plans for any more releases for the moment, are there plans for the bassist and drummer to collaborate in the future? Here, Öström replies, “At the moment, we have said this before, for a while we need to find our own path with our own projects. You never know, we did this celebration for Esbjorn together at a festival in Germany last summer, we played with Pat Metheny and other guys and it was really fun, so you never know what in the future might happen. Of course, it is easy to pick things up when we get together, but first we’ll have to find the right environment and find something that we really think it is worth it and that will be hard to do.” Berglund nods, adding: “I agree, for the moment I’m working with Tonbruket and Magnus is working with his band, I think we need to stand on our own for a while and then see if we really want to do something else together – but you never know.” So Dan and Magnus are not ruling anything out, but equally they are not ruling anything in. But you only have to hear the remarkable empathy they shared on 301, which by the nature of its spontaneous construction is perhaps more revealing of their sympathetic, spontaneous reaction to one another’s improvisational impulses than their playing within a preconceived original composition, to realise they have something special together. So would they rule out collaborating with another pianist? “I don’t know,” says Öström thoughtfully.

“It would be hard to think of doing that. As time goes by it may happen – you never know. For me, at the moment I am in a group with Lars Danielsson and Tigran, and we recorded an album out on ACT called Liberetto – of course it’s not a piano trio, it also has Arve Henriksen and John Parricelli – but I love the sound of the piano and I love the feeling, it might happen in the future. It will be something else, but I love the piano, the sound of the piano and love to play piano myself, so we’ll see. It’s not a closed door, but for the moment I am set up with Lars and I’m happy with that. We’ll see where it goes.” Berglund nods in agreement, adding: “I also think that would be hard, to start another trio. But as Magnus says, you never know. We’re doing this little thing with Jamie Cullum for his radio show, we’re going to play one or two songs together, but we have no plans to start a new EST!”

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Jazzwise. EST's 301 is also included in Jazzwise's Top 20 jazz albums of the last five years.

Photos: first image by Christian Coinbergh, second image byJoerg Grosse-Geldermann; third image by Tim Dickeson

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