Part of the distinctive attraction of jazz is that it is best experienced live, in real time. While pedestrian live performances can’t match the quality of great recordings nothing can beat experiencing an inspirational jazz performance in real time. I had just that experience in the unaccustomed surroundings of London’s Wigmore Hall where with Andy, my oldest friend and most frequent co-gig attender, where we witnessed a truly sensational performance by the Christian McBride trio.
The experience got me thinking about how many live gigs that I have attended over more than 50 years that can genuinely be categorized as virtuosic. So, today’s blog allows me to set the memory bar very high and share with you my own live jazz experiences that came close to what Christian McBride’s trio achieved in the august surroundings of the Wigmore Hall in March 2022.
I’ll focus initially on Christian McBride, now 50 and a virtuoso bass player since he sprang on the scene over thirty years ago and move on to briefly describe live gigs that I have attended that showcased five other jazz masters, two bassists, a drummer a pianist and (inevitably) Sonny Rollins on tenor sax.
London’s Wigmore Hall is a temple to chamber music, known for its pin-sharp acoustic. World class classical musicians have been appearing here for 120 years, and the hall has carved a distinctive niche for itself within the European classical music scene. In recent years Wigmore has opened its doors a crack to engage as a designated associate an eminent jazz artist to appear three times through the year. This year Christian McBride got the call. In previous years Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and Dave Holland have been accorded this rare privilege. On this occasion, McBride who has been touring Europe with his Inside Straight quintet chose to appear with two thirds of that band: pianist Peter Martin, and vibraphonist Warren Wolf. He chose wisely because this hall demands an acoustic, unamplified approach. It is such a rare experience these days to hear unamplified jazz, particularly of this quality.
The performance lasted almost two hours with a selection of original tunes bookending solo performances showcasing each performer’s individual artistry. Wolf played Chick Corea’s Spain, McBride reinvented Baubles Bangles and Beads, and Martin a offered a slow and haunting rendition of Embraceable You. The trio performances were all masterpieces with short improvisations reflecting an astonishing degree of responsiveness between the three musicians. These guys are so confident in their musicianship and togetherness that they had no need to flaunt their credentials in any kind of showy manner. Each instrument contributed equally to both the melody and harmony lines in ways that are rarely heard. The classic Bill Evans trio of the early 60’s would be a good reference point for this style and quality of improvisational music.
While the trio were exceptional throughout plaudits must go to McBride himself, a true virtuoso on the string bass. His sound, touch, fluency, and finesse were astonishing. His short improvisations were among the greatest bass solos I have ever heard. Just as importantly he contributed distinctively to the group approach, listened intently throughout, and was clearly having a ball.
The old hall was packed, mainly it seemed with young students from London’s music conservatoires who listened with rapt attention and greeted each improvisation, each tune with un-Wigmore like raucous ovations.
Christian McBride will return in May with Joshua Redman and Andy, and I will be there. For more background to Christian McBride, here’s a link to his website. christianmcbride.com
The McBride selections on the playlist exemplify his range- chamber jazz, big bands, jazz funk
The McBride gig had me searching my memory bank for similar live experiences of an equivalent standard. So here are five examples, the first four heard at Ronnie Scott’s in London, the last on the West Coast.
Elvin Jones: Drums
Elvin is best known for the seven years he spent with the classic John Coltrane quartet in the 1960’s. While Elvin’s reputation was already established among jazz cognoscenti pre-Trane, his years with Coltrane secured his reputation. His playing is distinctively poly rhythmic and is frequently volcanic. Post Trane Elvin led his own Jazz Machine ensemble touring intensively and recorded numerously as a side man with fellow jazz greats until his death in 2004. Elvin had a particular affinity with McCoy Tyner, the pianist in Coltrane’s quartet.
I was fortunate to hear Elvin numerously over the years. He is one of my all-time favourite drummers, one of the few who are instantly recognisable. My standout memory is from the mid-70’s. In those days bands played three sets through the evening. Unusually I was still present when Elvin’s quartet came on for their final set after 1AM. The club was half empty. The band played all four movements of John Coltrane’s Love Supreme. While this was probably Trane’s most famous recording, he only played it live once and it has rarely been played since. On this occasion I recall the tenor player was Steve Grossman. On a subsequent occasion at Ronnie’s a few years later Elvin included Ravi Coltrane, John’s son, on tenor. That set too was magical.
Eddie Gomez: Bass
Eddie Gomez had the unenviable task of taking over the bass chair in Bill Evans’s trio following the death at 26 in a highway accident of the virtuosic bassist Scot La Faro. Joining Evans in 1966 when only 21 he stayed with Bill’s trio for the next 11 years, touring and recording extensively. Bill Evans took time out to recover from the loss of La Faro and felt a renewed commitment to the style of piano jazz which he essentially invented once Gomez came into the band. One of the features of Bill’s trio from 1966 onwards was the extraordinary musical interplay between himself and Gomez.
I saw Bill Evans in the early-70’s. I was spellbound and recall a programme of music that interspersed ballads at achingly slow tempi with swingers. I remember getting into a fierce argument wit a Ronnie Scott habitue who claimed that Bill couldn’t swing- of course he could swing his ass off and for all those years Gomez was his ideal accompanist and collaborator.
My memory of Gomez is unusual and exemplifies his extraordinary ears (there is no greater tribute in jazz parlance than to say someone has “big ears”) Anyway, Eddie was setting up and the PA was playing a medium tempo jazz tune, Gomez immediately picked up the melody, harmonized it in about three contrasting ways and was then ready to go. The playlist showcases some of Gomez’s finest work with Bill Evans.
Stanley Clarke and Ron Carter
Stanley Clarke: Bass
I was of course aware of Stanley Clarke’s musical journey-early collaborations with Miles Davis in the late 60’s and early 70’s, founder member with Chick Corea of the extraordinarily successful jazz funk band -Return to Forever through the 70’s- garlanded with five Grammys and playing large stadium venues around the world. After leaving Return Clarke carved out a distinctive presence in the funk scene, becoming a first call electric bassist both within his own aggregations and with rock superstars such as Paul McCartney, Keith Copeland and Keith Richard. For most of this time Clarke was known primarily for his sophisticated and funky electric bass playing. However, Clarke continued to identify himself as a classically trained jazz musician (his original ambition was to join he Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra).
So, I was intrigued when Stanley Clarke showed up for sell out performances at Ronnie’s in the late 2000’s as part of an acoustic trio with Hiromi on piano and Lenny White on drums. And that he was playing an upright string bass! What struck me was Stanley’s total mastery of his instrument, his deep, booming tone, his fluency and subtlety, and most noticeably the almost telepathic interplay with the extraordinarily talented Hiromi on piano. This wasn’t an occasion for Stanley Clarke to dust down his jazz chops, more a gentle reminder of his virtuoso status. The playlist contains two selections from this trio’s album Jazz in the Garden
Sonny Rollins: Sax
Regulars to this blog will know about my affinity with Sonny Rollins to my mind the greatest living saxophonist. I’m including him here to reference the only time I saw him in a club setting, Ronnie Scott’s in London in the early 70’s. Two memories stand out; the presence of Rufus Harley nominally a soprano sax player, kitted out in a kilt and full Scot’s attire and playing bagpipes. The band set up with Harley’s drone slowly weaving into a pulsating backdrop to Swing Low Sweet Chariot. No sign of Rollins. Time passes, the groove deepens, and the sound of a saxophone emerges from the back of the club. Rollins walking in from the street, through the audience and onto the stage and picking up Swing Low as if to say this was a normal day at the office. You’ll find this band’s recording of Swing Low on the playlist.
Image courtesy of georgecables.com
George Cables: Piano
George Cables is not an immediately recognisable name even to jazz aficionados. Born in New York in 1944 a classically trained pianist. Following a lengthy west coast tour with Sonny Rollins in 1969, Cables relocated to the west coast and spent much of his career there working and recording steadily with Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, and Art Pepper. More recently playing with The Cookers a collaboration of top line players all in their 70’s.
My personal memory takes me back to L.A.in 1979. Pasquale’s in Malibu a small club built on a promontory overlooking the ocean. George was playing beautifully that night with a trio. Coming to the end of a ballad he ended the tune to the accompaniment of the sound of the incoming waves. A truly magical moment. 10 or so years later I caught George Cables playing at Peter Ind’s Bass Clef in London. We got talking and I started to tell the story. Before I had got very far, George interrupted and said, “Was that the gig when…”? and then proceeded to recount that moment just as I had remembered it All those gigs later and George remembered it perfectly.