I have now been writing this blog once a week for two and a half months. Slowly it has emerged what it is ‘about’. Consequently it becomes harder to write. This week I didn’t know whether to share with you ponderings about Bill Viola’s video work ‘The Raft’, my travel to The Palace to see Roy Ayers and Kool & The Gang, my wandering up the road to see a friend’s jazz band, something about Nina Simone, whose birthday is this week…Well, you get the picture. How scary is the busyness of the mind. That said, I’ll just shut up and write.
For an uncharacteristic hangover, I’m blaming the generosity of the Plus One who accompanied me on this week’s travel to The Palace to see Roy Ayers and Kool & The Gang. Running late, we rushed through a bottle of wine over dinner, with me obeying M.’s frequent exhortations throughout the meal to ‘Drink!’ I don’t know why I was so acquiescent, knowing as I do that too much white wine introduces an unwelcome top note of emphatic into my personality blend. I was ‘enthusiastic’ by the time we walked through the doors of The Palace, bang on time to hear the opening bars to Roy Ayers’ classic ‘Everybody loves the sunshine’. Thank God, I said to M. If we’d missed that I would have had to kill us both. (You see what I mean?)
I became unreasonably enthralled with Roy Ayers’ drummer, commenting on his drumming prowess and his spectacularly broad chest. I then asserted without any evidence whatsoever that every singer secretly wants to be a drummer. Actually, I was drawing upon a sample size of one. ‘I would LOVE to be a drummer,’ I said to M. expansively. ‘Then BE a drummer,’ M. said. ‘Just stop looking at me with those Crazy Eyes.’ ‘You just spat on me,’ I replied, avoiding eye contact and noting that it was probably time for a glass of water and a little introspection.
These are the top three things I like about going out with M.:
- He’s like a brother, so the Real factor is high. I can just say ‘Stop spitting on me’, for example, and he can say ‘Stop looking at me with Crazy Eyes.’ No-one takes it personally.
- He’s passionate about music.
- He dances like he’s being electrocuted. Seriously. Some friends and I recently had a competition to see who could dance most like M. and I had to imagine the sensation of sprinting hard across a paddock and running into an invisible electric fence. Only then could I invoke his full body spasms, shoulder twitches and head jerks. I’d only ever seen something similar in a doco about voodoo exorcism.
So Roy Ayers and band have been doing their thing since the 60s and it shows, in a good way. These musicians could really get a groove going on. And they put on a show. Roy Ayers had fun playing with the call-and-response audience game. The bass player did an extended solo that involved rapid fire runs down the fret board and a stop in which the rest of the band attended him, shining his shoes and mopping his brow, after which he leaned into the mic and intoned: ‘I AM the bass player.’ Much to my chagrin I missed the drummer’s solo – M. kindly informed me it was incredible.
Roy Ayers, as well as creating possibly the coolest song for summer in ‘Everybody loves the sunshine’, has made an album with Fela Kuti, some house music and the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Coffy (which stars Pam Grier of Jackie Brown fame). He wore a black piece of silky material wrapped around his head and black pants, creating the overall effect of a vibes-playing ninja. “I want to play ping pong with that guy,” I said, nodding at Roy Ayers. “Do you think you’d win?” M. asked. “No, of course not,” I replied.
The band did a long and glorious version of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘A Night in Tunisia’. It made me smile in wry recollection of some folk I met recently declaring how much they hate jazz. Roy Ayers doesn’t play jazz. He plays music. One of my favourite musicians, Nina Simone, didn’t play jazz either but that didn’t stop people from describing her as a jazz singer. This is what she had to say about that: ‘To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt and that’s not what I play. I play black classical music. That’s why I don’t like the term “jazz,” and Duke Ellington didn’t like it either — it’s a term that’s simply used to identify black people.’ And ‘Calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background because I didn’t fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be.’
Often when people say they don’t like jazz they’re talking about bebop and I understand why people can find it hard to take – all that nervy noodling and random squawking of horns. Generally I find watching people play jazz mesmerizing. I guess it’s because unlike many other forms of music, jazz is a conversation being improvised in the moment. Like a verbal conversation it can be surprising, funny, philosophical, puzzling, fascinating, meandering…and yes, sometimes boring and irritating. One of my stand-out gigs of 2010 was James Carter’s band blowing apart Django Reinhardt tunes at the Django Reinhardt Festival in Samois-sur-Seine. Admittedly, this gig had the advantage of being held on an island in the middle of the Seine at a ridiculously cute French village. At some points that gig was like eavesdropping on an interesting conversation between old friends. At others it was an aural whitewater rafting experience in which my ears were hanging on to the drums and bass for dear life.
I appreciate that not everyone wants to work that hard. Some prefer a straight 4:4 and here comes the key change. Still, I think even those jazz-haters would have found something to like about Roy Ayers and band – Roy’s intricate vibes playing and sense of fun, the way the band set a groove but kept the ears interested, their respect and ease with each other and their showmanship.
As for Kool & The Gang, well, all I want to say is that their track pants-wearing sound guy actually limbered up before the gig. Yeah, really. I’m ashamed to say that M. and I actually pointed and giggled as he stretched and punched the air like a ‘Rocky’ montage. Meanwhile some other guy, possibly a spare sound guy in case the actual sound guy got KO’ed by the desk, sat behind him and spent the entire gig watching a show on his laptop about ocean fishing.
I woke up with ‘Jungle Boogie’ in my head, both literally and metaphorically, cursing myself for being persuaded to stop off at a bar on the way home. After a day of shaking off the tom-toms, I strolled to my local to see a friend’s jazz band, led by a clarinet player and a baritone saxophonist. Hearing these two wind instruments going head-to-head, plus a conversation with the saxophonist afterwards, made me think of Nina Simone, how her singing really made me ‘get’ the voice as a wind instrument. There is a song of Nina’s with a run of notes that particularly made me understand this. I first heard this song about 20 years ago and periodically since then I have tried to replicate that run of notes. I apologise to anyone who heard me as I walked home, trying and failing to sing like Nina ‘Plain Gold Ring’. Here it is, for the listening enjoyment of all those who love jazz and for all those who don’t. (You can hear what I’m talking about at 1:28).
And James Carter joins a jam at the Django Reinhardt Festival campsite. No pressure, guys!