Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Big Band In The Backyard: John Altman in Leytonstone

© John Altman

It was like Lionel Hampton playing in your backyard, when I heard John Altman Big Band is going to play in my neighborhood in Northeast London. I had no idea that how "big" this band is going to be, so when in an icy night of 7th of February I headed for East Side Jazz Club, positioned in the back room of the Lord Roockwood pub, and faced the 18-piece band of Mr Altman in a modest and soulful place, I understood the business is more than serious.

The club was tight and intimate, and packed with people. Remembering what Frank Foster said about Birdland that "If the fellow next to you laugh at you, the people at ringside would know what he's laughing at," and that "every mistake can be heard" sounded true about this joint. John was there before anybody else, checking the charts and chatting to the old friends. Every tune in his book had a number, so now Dr Altman, like a severe math teacher, for instance would read out load "number 37!" and the band would take care of his original from Shall We Dance film or a standard of American songbook.

Standing up at the rear of the room for nearly three hours, I never stopped tapping my foot, swinging my head, and nodding to sidemen who were bursting into beautiful solos. John Altman formed this big band in 1985 and some of the musicians in the bandstand of East Side Jazz Club were the original members of the first line up, and some of them, probably were not born by then. 

John presented a vivid history of big bands from Machito and Basie up to more modern sounds of later big bands, and always charged with the elements of swing. Composers from Cole Porter and Harry Warren to Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter where in his repertoire, and arrangements for these pieces had something new, some joyous excitement that was trademark of Altman's pen. During two one-hour long sets Altman and his Big Band played more than 12 tunes.

It all started with Basie-esque Count me Out, written by John himself in which Ralph Salmins did some fireworks in the tradition of Sonny Payne.

We had an homage to West Coast jazz, especially Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker in West Coast Chatter with a nice solo by the young lady in charge of baritone sax, Claire McInerney. The performance was splendidly sublime since eighteen instruments were creating some rich textures, and at the same time they sounded as they are a pianoless quartet!

Though John is always busy with managing and conducting the band - and exemplary successful in such task - but we don't have to forget what a great solos he can execute as I heard in his treatment of Our Love Is Here to Stay.

Mambo Inn, composed by Bobby Woodlen that later became popular by George Shearing in his 1950s quintet recordings was a good excuse for some Latin flavors in the club, and adding a new color to John Altman's pallet of orchestral colors.

From Gigi Gryce catalog, John played Minority, a tune written in 1961 for quintet which ended the first set. How striking the accompanists are - most memorable Tony Fisher on trumpet (who filled the trumpet chair in Frank Sinatra band during the early 1990s) and Bob Sydor on tenor sax.

Nice parts written for John Etheridge's guitar, including one in Dizzy Gillespie's Manteca when his swinging guitar solo was backed by a powerful rhythmic support from miss McInerney.

Lester Left Town, often played by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, turned out to be not only a raising the hat for the one and only, Lester Young, but also for one of the mentors of John, master Benny Carter whose middle name is Lester too! Bob Sydor on tenor saxophone soloed skillfully on this one.

Joan Viskant, entered the scene to sing a couple of standards and complete the party. She reminded me of a British singer, Annie Ross, though Joan is a Chicagoan.

The gig was finished ten minuted past eleven, in a nastily cold winter night of Leytonstone area, and I had never heard a band in London, whoop in the last ride-out as this one. John Altman supplied a kind of  precise excitement that is very rare in today's live jazz scene. Every solo was written with immediate vitality and  his all-star band were articulate in giving the utmost pleasure to ears.

It was an auspicious evening, since it was coincided with the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens who was doing almost the same thing: make your mind move and swing with the power of the pen!

Walking back home on the frozen and icy sidewalks is another story, but if John Altman's playing, it worth every slip and stumble!

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