For a man who says that he’s “taking it easy these days”, Brian Smith is remarkably active. He has been a strong supporter of the recent CJC Sunday Jam sessions, he still teaches and regularly fronts CJC gigs. Many regard him as the elder statesman of the tenor saxophone in New Zealand and he certainly has the credentials to fit that title. It is only when you see him playing his Cannonball or Selmer tenor that you realise just how youthful he is. Like many experienced tenor players he appears ageless on the bandstand. That is the alchemy of the instrument and the alchemy of the born improviser.
Advertised as Brian Smith (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Kevin Haines (bass) Frank Gibson (drums) but on the night Oli Holland replaced Kevin Haines on bass.
It takes a lot of space to list Brian’s musical credentials and it is all too easy to miss out important elements, but here is a brief summary that I have gleaned from elsewhere;
‘Brian relocated to London in 1964, performing at Ronnie Scott’s and working & touring with such names as: Humphrey Littleton, Alexis Korner, T-Bone walker, Georgie Fame,Alan Price, Annie Ross, Bing Crosby, Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, John Dankworth, & Tubby Hayes. He was a founder member of ‘Nucleus’ alongside Ian Carr, which won the European Band competition in Montreaux in 1970, resulting in gigs at Newport Jazz Fest and tours of Italy, Germany, Holland, and America. In 1969 he started working in the Maynard Ferguson band, staying with them until 1975 including touring and recording. He also backed acts like Nancy Wilson, The 4 Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Donovan, Dusty Springfield, Sandy Shaw and Lulu.’
The programming at the CJC is mostly centred around musicians projects. The gigs are therefore heavily focused on original material or perhaps an oblique take on a particular oeuvre. We do hear standards but seldom more than one or two a gig. The exception occurs when international artists arrive in town or when iconic musicians like Brian Smith front a gig. On occasion it is nice just to sit back and enjoy familiar tunes. Letting them wash over you, being able to anticipate the lines and comparing them in your head to the versions that you have grown up with. The very fact that some tunes become standards implies that they have a special enduring quality. These are vehicles well suited for improvisation and having musical hooks that invite endless exploration for listener and musician alike. Standards composers are the greatest writers of the song form, but the inside joke is that these wonderful tunes often came from musicals which failed miserably.
It was great to hear the quartet play ‘You and the night and the music’ which is a firm favourite of mine. Composed by Arthur Schwartz (lyrics Howard Dietz), it came from the musical ‘Revenge with music’ which closed on Broadway after a few months. Frank Sinatra and Mario Lanza revived it and it became popular with Jazz musicians for a while during the 50’s and 60’s. While the earlier popular renderings tended toward the saccharine, Jazz musicians like Mal Waldren purged the tune of its syrupy connotations. It was the obscure tartly voiced Lennie Niehaus Octet version (with Lennie on alto, Jimmy Giuffre on baritone and Shelley Manne drums) which won me over. Over a decade ago I heard HNOP and Ulf Wakenius perform a killing version of it at the Bruce Mason centre and I had not heard it since. That is until last Wednesday.
Another great standard was Horace Silvers ‘Song for my father’. Standards have the power to move us deeply and this tune in particular brought a lump to my throat as my father was slipping away that very week. One of pianist Kevin Field’s tunes ‘Offering’ was also played and while not a standard it is a favourite about town. Everyone played well that night with Oli Holland and Kevin Field up to their usual high standard; Frank Gibson on drums was in exceptional form. His brush work and often delicate stick work was perfect and it reminded everyone why he is so highly regarded about town.
I have chosen a video clip from the gig which is arguably the most famous standard of all. Cole Porters ‘What is this thing called love’. Cole Porter would always say that the song and lyrics wrote themselves and this version is certainly a worthwhile addition to the selection. Unlike many of the vocal versions it is fast paced and authoritative.
Who: Brian Smith Quartet – Brian Smith (tenor saxophone), Kevin Field (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Frank Gibson Jr (drums).
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand – June 25th 2014 http://www.creativejazzclub.co.nz