‘Petite Fleur’ – Christof Lauer & NDR Bigband play Sidney Bechet

Layout 1

TAKING THE MUSIC of one of New Orleans jazz’s pioneers, Sidney Bechet, and significantly reimagining it for present-day big band may seem a touch audacious, and even unlikely – but this new release from German saxophonist Christof Lauer and the NDR Bigband, focusing on the output of saxophonist and clarinettist Bechet and his contemporaries, confounds any doubt with a scintillating performance.

By accounts a cavalier and larger-than-life character known for his brash, wide vibrato, Sidney Bechet found success in the early 1920s, his quaint archive recordings now very much ‘of the period’. Moving on almost a century, it was ACT boss Siggi Loch (whose early introduction to jazz was via the music of Bechet) who prompted Christof Lauer to consider revisiting and reinterpreting his music. The resulting transformation is both striking and accessibly attractive, due to the insightful, lush big band arrangements of Rainer Tempel and their dynamic, meticulous execution by Lauer and the NDR.

Dans Les Rues D’Antibes is a stunning opener – tuneful, and brimming with bright harmonic and percussive verve (sample Bechet’s original to understand its metamorphosis into a 21st Century sound world!). The NDR Bigband have a history of recordings with great instrumental leaders (Joe Zawinul, Alan Broadbent, Mark Lockheart, Mike Gibbs, Norma Winstone…), and here they share a similar affinity with Christof Lauer who, perhaps echoing the flamboyance of Bechet, dazzles with rapid ascending and descending soprano runs. This arrangement grows with multi-layered complexity, including expansive piano work from Hubert Nuss; and a deliciously close-knit saxophone ensemble interlude crowns a tremendously joyful number.

The original, fast-paced quirkiness of Les Oignons is magically interpreted by Tempel into mid-tempo brassy and reedy sumptuousness, Fender Rhodes completing the downtown ’70s feel. Following Lauer’s own lissome solo interlude, September, the impetus of Bechet’s Petite Fleur is maintained by a muted, questioning big band backing, Lauer’s soprano showboating against Patrice Héral’s incisive drumming and a riproaring trumpet solo; meanwhile, the Arabic impressionism of Casbah – Song of the Medina smoulders to a mysterious Rhodes ostinato and trombone counterpoint, conjuring filmic images of subterfuge and high drama. Similarly, that twee, trad. memory of Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose that I carry in my mind now becomes, in the hands of Lauer and the NDR, a slowburning, eight-minute thriller movie prelude, bright unison brass and electronics supporting Lauer’s rich tenor lines.

The jaunty, homely Si Tu Vois Ma Mère connects more readily to Sidney Bechet’s Louisiana roots – a charming offering led by Lauer’s soprano, though not without a strangely sinister undercurrent; and Harry Barris’s Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams – a number Bechet would, no doubt, have held in his repertoire – is brought right up to date with a funky, smooth jazz slant. Finally, Jimmy McHugh’s classic On the Sunny Side of the Street melts the heart with Tempel’s sophisticated-yet-carefree big band arrangement, Lauer’s ‘Bechet’ taking the final, showy bow.

It’s a glorious project whose intention captures my imagination, recalling Sidney Bechet’s early contribution to the genre, but also demonstrating the relevance of our current jazz scene in arranging and improvising bygone standards for a new and, in my experience, receptive generation.

Released in the UK on 2 June 2014, further information and audio samples are available here.

 

Christof Lauer soprano & tenor saxophone
Hubert Nuss piano
Patrice Héral drums
NDR Bigband conducted by Rainer Tempel

ACT 0657-2 (2014)

’21st Century Acid Trad’ – Pigfoot

Pigfoot cover

THERE’S A REAL KICK to this debut album from Pigfoot. Not content with trotting out faithful, modest versions of 1920s and ’30s jazz standards, this acoustic ‘trad. quartet’ scratches at their familiar surface to explore – as the title hints – surprisingly gritty, off-the-wall interpretations of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, and so on.

Founded in 2013, it turns out that Pigfoot’s anarchic line-up is an exciting who’s-who of contemporary jazz innovators – trumpeter (and founder member of Loose Tubes) Chris Batchelor; tubist Oren Marshall (to be found alongside Shabaka Hutchings in Sons of Kemet); that most influential and imaginative of pianists, Liam Noble; and drummer Paul Clarvis (find me a more expansive CV!).

It’s quite possible to imagine the odd incredulous snipe at their brash, seemingly-irreverent approach – perhaps whispers of ‘king’s new clothes’ or Bonzo Dog references (remember their wonderfully mocking late ’60s parody, Jazz (Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold)?). But peel back the layers (see cover art), and there’s an unabashed and, I sense, affectionate desire to render these classic tunes in outlandish textures and colours to bring a freshness to them – and with that unexpectedness, they become increasingly absorbing. Indeed, I am now at the stage with this live recording – from London’s Vortex Jazz Club – that it’s difficult to eject it from the car CD player, such is the adroitness, humour and downright feel-good of these eight extended tracks.

Spencer Williams’ Basin Street Blues maintains its New Orleans origins, yet Liam Noble’s dissonant chords and Paul Clarvis’s deliberate, almost bumbling drum rhythms give it a fascinating edge. 12th Street Rag is positively outrageous with its haphazard tempi, although Oren Marshall’s steady, plodding tuba (plus a few liberties and a blustering solo) keeps some semblance of order, Chris Batchelor blasting melodies in various keys – perfect (or, happily, ‘imperfect’!). Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz rattles along impetuously, the improvisations becoming more and more jaunty and extreme until, ultimately, triple time breaks helplessly and wonderfully into Wilson Pickett’s In the Midnight Hour. Tennessee Waltz eases the pace, Batchelor stating its deep southern spiritual tune which Noble then carries away to extemporise in typically jarred invention (it works so well against fluttering drums and drawling tuba).

Gospel pairing Just a Closer Walk with Thee and His Eye is on the Sparrow teases with a fairly straight rendition, Batchelor’s bright trumpet melody eventually signalling disorder which includes a belting, bluesy tuba solo – and Clarvis takes full advantage of the mayhem before the four conclude ‘repentantly’. Pigfoot clearly revel in the Duke Ellington favourite Mood Indigo, disassembling it with ease, but never straying completely from its familiarity; Batchelor’s impressive muted and spurting trumpet techniques are a key feature. And there’s more than a touch of mischief to Sidney Bechet’s tangoing Petite Fleur – but the experience of these guys is evident as they hold it together with various random acts of rebellion.

1920s standard Nobody Knows You When You’re Down is a closing show-stealer. Batchelor’s forlorn, inebriated trumpet (“Once I lived the life of a millionaire, spendin’ my money, I didn’t care”) sets up this beautifully bold ten-minute slow blues, the quartet presenting a typically audacious and stoic response to its original themes of prosperity fail. The conviction and, yes, humour in this performance (especially Oren Marshall’s tuba) provides a suitably profuse conclusion to these fifty entertaining minutes of ‘acid trad’.

Released on 31 March 2014, with the quartet touring in the Autumn, this is a rollickingly great experience to seek out – it certainly brings a smile to my face. In fact, I happily concur with Bessie Smith – ‘Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)’!


Chris Batchelor
trumpet
Oren Marshall tuba
Liam Noble piano
Paul Clarvis drums

Village Life – 131112VL (2014)