Friday, March 4, 2016

London Flat, London Sharp: Best of American Jazz Recorded in London

(A detail of ) London Jazz Festival poster, designed by Damien Frost

There are hundreds of live and studio recordings made by visiting or resident American jazz musicians in London. This list, a new installment in the series I started with Paris and jazz, picks those London albums that I've liked most. 

Since 1939, when Fats Waller paid a visit and composed a suite celebrating London's neighborhoods and monuments, most of the jazz greats have appeared in and around the city. The crippling union regulations stopped many musicians from performing in the clubs until the 1960s, and the life expenses and poor weather drove many of them towards the Continent for permanent or semi-permanent stays. Yet, thought the past century, London with its passionate jazz buffs and a good deal of jazz literature remained an unmissable temporary stop for the musicians, as well as musical ideas, travelling from the United States to Europe.

The 15 albums below, obviously emphasising a certain attitude or taste which might not be everybody's, are some personal favourites from the most vital decades of jazz in Britain. Be sure, there are still hundred or more to name. (While picking your favourite albums be aware that there are famous records - Basie in London, for one - which were never recorded in London!)

Here is the list of 15 favourite jazz albums recorded by visiting Americans in London:

details as above


Bud Freeman Quartet
Bud Freeman Esq
Fontana, 1966

In the 1960s, Bud Freeman was one of a dying breed whose style was outdated by continuous evolutions and revolutions in jazz since the 1930s. However, London has a soft spot for a warm, sweet tone of his on tenor saxophone, reminiscing the glory days of Swing Era. London was the place for reviving the past, its sounds and the masters who made it. The Chicagoan Freeman, a fan of anything English, moved to London in 1974 and stayed for the most part of the 70s when his regular appearances at the Pizza Express become an inseparable part of the jazz culture of the city.

For this London session, recorded for Fontana label in a studio near Marble Arch, Freeman formed an ad-hoc band overnight (Dick Katz on piano, Spike Heatley on bass, and Tony Crombie, drums), and
recorded 13 tracks the following day, later to be issued (only 12 of them) as Bud Freeman Esq.

50 years on, this swinging, "calm, good-humoured, hitchless" (Max Jones) session still reflects the breezy mood in which it was put together. Not a masterpiece, but a good example of an straightforward, mainstream affair which has always been part of the London Sound.


Earl Hines
Blues In Thirds
Black Lion, 1965

A tour de force of solo piano (and one vocal track), and one of Hines's best later period recordings. Recorded in London on April 20, 1965, this album, in its best moments, which are abundant, matches some of Art Tatum's solo recordings in the 50s. Included in the repertoire are two song homages, one to the English jazz critic, author, and producer Stanley Dance, and one to the label which recorded this, Black Lion [Blues]. The owner of the label, Alan Bates, remembers that the session started at 12:10 AM (21th) and was wrapped up in 1:40 AM -- only 90 minutes which considering the CD release, has produced more than an hour of formidable music.


Mary Lou Williams
The London Sessions
Vogue, 1953-54

The musical outcome of the two separate sessions that Mary Lou Williams had in London (accompanied by English musicians) is the kind of stuff one fancies listening to while meandering around the city in which they are recorded -- the best possible soundtrack to harmonies and surprises of London.

Philippe Baudoin, in his liner notes, points to the intimate mood reigning over the sessions, "subtlety in harmonisation, especially in pieces in minor key,"in addition to "the originality in the paraphrased exposition" of standards such as Perdido and Flying Home.


Nathan Davis
London By Night
Think! Records, 1987

This alluring session, recorded within the course of two days (August 17-18) at the Bothouse Studios ranks as one of the best American Jazz Recorded in London. Resembling the exquisite recordings of Art Farmer for the Contemporary, this hard-to-find album features a fantastically colourful instrumentation and a first rate rhythm section of Kenny Drew and Jimmy Woode. Dusko Goykovich, switching between tenor/soprano sax and flute, is the co-star of the session.


Ben Webster & Bill Coleman
Swingin' In London
Black Lion, 1967

An almost magically relaxed session from two veterans who plays with respect, wit, and affection. Alun Morgan, in his liner notes to the album, calls this one of the examples of the 'Golden Age Of Mainstream' in Britain of the late 1960s: "At one time it seemed that nearly every aeroplane landing at Heathrow was disgorging more stars from the swing era."

The session took place after one runs of concerts and gigs by these visitors. The original plan was to have Buck Clayton in the band, but he fell ill and the session proceeded without him. The last tune issued on the LP, For Max, is dedicated to English jazz critic Max Jones.


Bill Watrous
Bill Watrous in London
Mole, 1982

This is one of the greatest live trombone recordings in jazz, and Watrous plays most of the tunes in an insanely exciting double-time. Caught live in the Pizza Express and accompanied by a superb local rhythm section featuring the wonderful Martin Drew on drums, this is a first-rate Soho moment captured on record which should be cherished by anyone interested in jazz.


Shelly Manne
Alive In London
Contemporary Records, 1970

A fiercely modern Shelly Manne at Ronnie Scott's who brings to London some of his new musical ideas, previously explored in his late 1960s masterpiece, Perk Up. The record not only captures the feeling of being "alive" and "in" London, but also proves to be an intriguing example of Manne's looking for new sounds and directions in jazz.


Ella Fitzgerald
Ella In London
Pablo, 1974

The discovery of a VHS tape of Ella in London - with Tommy Flanagan, Joe Pass, Keter Betts, and Bobby Durham - was something that affected my teenage years, not only because I discovered Ella for the first time, but also facing the intensity and beauty of great music which can also be humorous, entertaining, and full of surprises.


Milt Jackson
A London Bridge
Pablo, 1982

Another brilliant session from Ronnie Scott's, suggesting that in musical terms London Live has probably paid better off than London Studio. The album has no connection whatsoever with London Bridge the urban monument and it's a way of saying that this super band (featuring pianist Monty Alexander, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Mickey Roker) has played and recorded it in London.

It has all the key elements of a good album and a wide range of material. The opening tune, John Coltrane's Impressions, is like driving at 75 mph on a mountainous road. Yet, when they move on to the next tune, the much slower ballad Flamingo, the eventfulness of music remains amazingly intact.


Oscar Peterson
The London Concert
Pablo, 1978

Recorded at the Royal Festival Hall in October 21, 1978, this remains a real gem in Peterson's discography. Played in a less frenetic pace than Peterson's usual concert delivery, it gives the listener a jazz "at its most sophisticated, its most subtle, and, paradoxically, its most direct form." (Benny Green)


Zoot Sims
At Ronnie Scott's
Fontana, 1961

This club appearance by the legendary swing saxophonist Zoot Sims was important beyond its musical values: It was the first time since the 1930s that an American visitor was playing in London, bypassing the musicians union ban on such acts. In fact, it was pure genious of Ronnie Scott who negotiated the exchange of talents with the union by exporting Tubby Hayes to New York City and in return booking Sims for his then two-year-old club.

During his four-week long engagement at the club, Sims played in all formats from solo to sextet, sometime accompanied by Scott in person. Benny Green remembers the historical visit:

"It is often the sad truth that when a visiting luminary come to London people are slightly disappointed with the performance. Somehow the records sounded better. But with Sims nobody ever thought of suggesting this. From the very first night of his visit Zoot fitted into the musical atmosphere as though he had been part of it for years.
American imports are now part of the regular policy at Scott's, but no matter who Ronnie might choose to invite in the future, it is doubtful if he will ever find anyone to produce better jazz than Zoot Sims turned out every night of the four weeks he was in London."


Paul Gonsalves
Humming Bird
Deram, 1970

There might come a moment in the lives of those who idolize Gonsalves when they start searching for something to prove the tenor saxophonist could go beyond what he had already achieved in Duke Ellington's band as, in Barry McRae's words, a mere"purveyor of blustering blues choruses."

A recommendation for the doubt-ridden could be Humming Bird, one of my favorite solo albums by a member of Duke Ellington Orchestra (there are some other good ones by Jimmy Hamilton, Ray Nance, and of course Cootie Williams).

McRae has also pointed out to the ways in which the album delivers various moods, ranging from "the almost elegiac to the gushingly rhapsodic." Featuring a firm, imaginative support from the London-based Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, the favorite tracks are the title tune, a ballad medley, and X.O.X.

London happened to be Gonsalves's last stop, if not in 1970 but four years later when he suddenly died during visit. 10 days later, his mentor and boss, Ellington, followed him to eternity.

Stan Getz
Verve, 1971

Almost a flawless live album, again recorded at Ronnie Scott's on the occasion of a three-week engagement and embellished with superb arrangements and breathtaking ensemble playing from French musicians (the volcanic Eddy Louiss on organ, Rene Thomas on guitar, and Bernard Lubat, drums) whom Getz had discovered at the Blue Note, Paris.

The double-LP opens with a mysteriously brooding Dum! Dum!, a Louiss composition who has also composed most of the tunes on the album. The death of Getz's father in the middle of his London gigs has given a more contemplative, passive/aggressive quality to his playing which is manifested in
Ballad For Leo and Ballad For My Dad.

Benny Green, a regular at the the club, wrote for The Observer that "It is doubtful of Stan Getz has ever played better in his life." In retrospect, I can safely second that.

Al Haig
Spotlite, 1974

Recorded in Olympic Sound Studios in Barnes (south-west London), January 7, 1974, with a rhythm section imported from France featuring American expat Kenny Clark on drums and former Duke Ellington employee Gilbert "Bibi" Rovere on bass. The recital covers swing to bop, Ellington to Tad Dameron. Because of this diversity, or the sheer joy of listening to an intense interplay, Brian Morton and Richard Cook were brought to the highly plausible conclusion that "if ever there was a performance to assert Haig's complete mastery of not just bebop but the wider refinements of piano jazz, this is it...both hands engaged in immensely detailed yet extraordinary graceful lines."

From the very first lines of the opening track, the classical influenced Holyland, Haig engages in blithely inserting It Don't Mean A Thing while a lush rhythm accompaniment sparkles behind him. Invitation and Enigma, too, are played in gold, and of Haig's own compositions, the mid-tempo, bossa nova influenced Sambalhasa is impossible to forget.


Thelonious Monk
The London Collection
Black Lion, 1971

Monk's last commercial recording was the result of spending only six hours at the Chappell Studios in London in November 1971. The session produced one of the greatest documents of jazz, the last testament to the Monk's art as a performer, composer, and improviser, while his health was in a steady decline.

Present in London as a part of the Giants of Jazz tour, Monk and his rhythm section (Art Blakey and Al McKibbon) was brought to the studio by Alan Bates to cut original classics (Criss Cross, Ruby My Dear), as well as standards (The Man I Love, Darn That Dream). Monk started with a slow, impressionist solo entitled Chordially. More that a warming up or an act of improvisation, it was a spell-binding statement whose limitations were also part of its artistic expression and uniqueness. Always at the verge of being stopped, the sense of suspense and Monk's poetic roaming continued for nearly 10 minutes. London has seen no greater glory.

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