Jazz Journalists Association, Straight ahead

The Baker coordinates

I had been to Amsterdam before but never tracked down Chet Baker. I blame the city for this oversight because it swallows travellers whole, reorders their plans, confuses them with a multiplicity of offerings. You arrive, you drift through the alleys and before you know it, it’s time to check out. This time I was not to be distracted. As soon as I awoke I grabbed an early breakfast, noted down Chet’s address and headed for the red light district. His hotel was located in Prins Hendrikkade, a street on the edge of sanity. A quarter where bored women knit cardigans behind dimly lit shop windows.

At first, I missed the address as the hotel was being refurbished. I wandered up and down confused and eventually stopped for a coffee. After gulping it down I asked the young barista for directions. ‘Oh yeah – Chet’ he said shaking his head sadly. I was amazed that he had heard of Chet Baker as he looked about eighteen. He grabbed me by the arm and led me onto the pavement and pointed to a spot directly above us. A third story window was propped half open- and behind it – Chet in silhouette. “Talk to Pim next door”, he said. “He’s the man to help you”. I navigated my way around a stack of building offcuts and entered a crowded lobby. “Chet Baker”, I said and the man behind the desk beamed in my direction. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said, pointing me toward a glass cabinet containing a few items of Baker memorabilia. It was an odd assortment, a copper bugle, secondhand books on Chet, some faux Delftware and two paperweight trumpets.

When Pim was free of his duties he led us to a padlocked door which in turn led us to where the construction was happening. Inside, behind the plywood panels and stacked tools was another smaller door which hid a commemorative brass plaque. “He died right here,” he said, pointing to the ground below the plaque. We all stood silent for a time, reflecting on this gifted but flawed genius and his legacy. The beautiful youth with James Dean looks who morphed into a drug-ravaged parchment skull. The trumpeter who impressed Parker, the melodic improviser, the man with the mesmerizing androgynous voice. The man who could break your heart because he fell in love too easily. https://youtu.be/3zrSoHgAAWo

Looking up at the third-floor window I pondered over the many versions of his untimely death. I ran them past Pim who had clearly heard them all before: (1) he had nodded off in front the open window, (2) he owed money and was trying to escape angry drug dealers by climbing across to the next balcony, (3) he was pushed out the window by the drug dealers, (4) he was locked in his room by mistake and was trying to jump to the next balcony (5) suicide. Pim looked thoughtful for a minute and then spoke, “There’s another credible theory” he said as he paused for effect. We were all ears. “I believe that he was abducted by aliens because he was so uniquely talented, and after they had mapped his brain they tried to return him to his room. At this point, a tragic miscalculation occurred as their coordinates were out by a metre. It is rumoured that one of the younger aliens had forgotten to allow for the warping of time during transportation. A rookie mistake that robbed us of his musical genius”.

As we returned to the foyer I asked him if he would accept a tip as he had gone to so much trouble. He nodded happily and I handed him ten Euros. He held it up to the light, beaming as turned it over. “I like this so much,” he said, “that I will take it on holiday with me next week”. I now favour this new theory. It gives me hope that the aliens, appalled by their miscalculation, are working to correct it, planning to travel back in time and return Chet to his room in the Prins Hendrik. If they do I am certain that Chet and Pim will appreciate each other’s company.

Posted from San Francisco – John Fenton October 21, 2018.

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Concerts - visiting Musicians, Post Bop

James Ryan – Jazz without a parachute

James Ryan is a Sydney based tenor player and he has appeared at the CJC before.  On Wednesday nights gig he fronted a trio of saxophone, drums and bass.   In configurations like this where chordal instruments are absent, a band is taking a more adventurous route.   Guitars, pianos, horn-sections and jazz orchestras provide a safety net for horn soloists and in addition they tend to fill in much of the soundscape with colour and a variety of textures.  Without this underpinning, clean open spaces can be revealed and the bones of melodies can be unraveled or looked at afresh in their raw beauty.    This is jazz without a parachute.

The precedent for such trios goes back a long way.   Gerry Mulligan came close with his famous piano-less quartet of the 1950’s, but the addition of another horn (Chet Baker or Bobby Brookmeyer) allowed for chords and complex counterpoint.  The most notable historic piano-less trios were Sonny RollinsWay Out West‘, Lee Konitz, ‘Motion’ and the drummer led Elvin Jones ‘Ultimate’.    There are many others and I should also mention the Max RoachDizzy Gillespie duos with just trumpet and drums.  Our own Roger Manins has also explored saxophone trios and his well received album ‘Hip Flask’ is a notable example.

I did not hear James the last time he appeared, but I was soon to be impressed by what was on offer.  His choice of band-mates proved to be fortuitous as Tom Botting (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums) rose to the challenge with enthusiasm.   In this blue-sky environment each artist knew what needed to be done and more importantly what must be avoided.  The was no overplaying and the flow of musical ideas was engaging.

James introduced the first set by playing solo for a number of bars and we could hear immediately that he was brim full of interesting ideas.  This was a good way to open because when the bass and drums came in, their addition filled the space with possibilities.  The fourth tune of the night ‘Micky B’ (Ryan) was a good example of this interplay.   In this case the tune had been set up by the bass and it soon developed into a hard-driving bluesy exploration of the theme.   James drove deeper and deeper into the changes and freed of the need to avoid piano or guitar, he took the music where he wanted it to go.   While James took care of business Tom Botting found just the right responses and Ron Samsom showed us again why he is a master of the drum kit.

After a number of interesting originals had been performed the band switched seamlessly to the well-known standard ‘You and The Night And The Music”.    James explained afterward that this had not been on the set list, but because Tom had quoted from it during an earlier bass solo he added it on impulse.   It is when we hear a standard that  we can form the strongest views and make comparisons.    The audience will know where the tune has gone before and be interested to see just where this band is taking it.   This particular exploration was inventive without being disrespectful.   It had an element of surprise in the familiar and that is what the best Jazz is about.

As is so often the case when Ron Samsom is on the bandstand, the percussion work was extraordinary.   His use of mallets and his inventiveness riveted the audience again and again.   He can play tightly in the pocket or with an understated but completely engaging looseness.  We saw him as more than a drummer in this set up.  He was an instrumentalist capable of filling any space.

There was one free number during the night and it was a riot.    James announced that he would play a tune of his titled ‘Rocket No 7’.    This was an homage to Sun Ra and his much admired composition ‘Rocket No 9’.   A few bars in James just let rip and the band quickly followed him into what were obviously unchartered waters.  This decoupling from the changes was soon evident and the organic freedom took us on a wild and delightful ride.   While the music was as free as a skylark it was never directionless.    Both band and audience were smiling at the end and everyone in the room knew that they had experienced something special.

After the number James wiped the sweat from his brow and pulled the mike towards him.   “That was nothing like ‘Rocket No 7” he said to our delight.

As with many of the Australian visitors we look forward to his return.