Kirsty McGee & The Hobopop Collective –The Deafening Sound of Stars






Kirsty McGee writes songs you seem to have heard before. You can often guess how the melody is going to land. She can be coolly formal, constructing songs that sound like forgotten pages from the Great American Songbook. This skill could become mechanical, but for the profound emotion Kirsty invests in these strangely familiar new-minted songs. 

She can be tender, passionate, gay and mordant by turn. You can tap your toe to the jaunty C&W opener, ‘Moving On’, and endorse its message of optimism, but don't be misled. Kirsty thrives on life’s ironies and paradoxes, but is motivated most by its possibilities. She is drawn to multitudinous America with its hopeful dreams and edgy burlesque, but are these just means of escape by a discontented provincial English lass? This transcendental urge aligns her spiritually, if not musically, to P.J. Harvey.

The Deafening Sound of Stars is an embarrassment of riches, with more lyrical depth than most. Try… “Someone said enchantment is a human right / Pretty soon you’re gonna get your fill” (‘Scorpion in a Mason Jar’). And what’s more she does it with jazz, or at least she has the good sense to surround herself with players who can do it with jazz. 

Each will have his or her favourites. Here are some of mine: ‘Copenhagen’, as bare and intimate as the scene it commemorates; ‘Second Tuesday’, a song bruised by grace; ‘Greedy Little Things’, which dismisses all those irksome annoyances of modern life with a shrug couched as a lullaby; ‘I Take You In My Arms’ is a wry acknowledgement of a failure of resistance whilst remaining undeceived (she will never reach a mass audience if she is this deflating about romance). The spare, economical production – with nicely judged embellishments like Nick Walters’ trumpet on the latter, or Clive Mellor’s harmonica on ‘Moving On’, or the collective ethereal tinkling of ‘The Deafening Sound of Stars’ (I suspect her musical saw is somewhere in the mix) – perfectly matches the intimacy of her aesthetic. 

The title track finally breaks open new channels of feeling and communication. This is the one where Kirsty's voyage of mind finds an answering trance-like response in the listener. That is, in any listener prepared to listen. Or is Kirsty being saved for a future time, when all creatures are this honest, sensitive and intelligent? 


Some Webster Discoveries





Last night’s Manchester Jazz Society recital seemed to go down very well – thank you, Sid Toole, for your warm words of encouragement – and, as is customary, I shall post the full text as a blog for the greater good. NB I didn’t always stick to the script, and peppered my talk with ums and ahs and at one point forgot Lester Young’s name, all the sake of striking an authentic conversational tone. Plus, I didn’t get through it all. The bits in italics are things I prepared but omitted on the night because of time constraints. I shall link my selections to sound clips if any are available, but my lack of technical savvy and fear of MRPS presents me from doing the job myself. You’ll have to console yourself with a picture of the sleeve (if available). Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Some Webster Discoveries’…


‘Some Webster’s Discoveries’ doesn’t allude to Ben Webster but to Derek Webster. 

Who’s Derek Webster? 

On the 20th of August, I attended an auction at Capes and Dunn in Heaton Mersey, and came away with four boxes of jazz LPs from the collection of Derek Webster, a great jazz collector. I believe was a member of Manchester Jazz Society at one point. Does anyone remember Derek Webster?

Oh that Derek Webster. He was an inspector of taxes, Mike says. He was most active in the MJS when they met at The Millstone, but then stopped coming. Some uncertainty about his date of death. A long time ago, Mike thinks. Rob remembers going into a record shop in Burnley with him and Derek coming aways with stacks of records, while Rob only bought one. He was a great Bob Wilber expert and Rob thinks he might have collaborated on a Bob Wilber book. 

Yes, I came away with four job lots in four boxes and two miscellaneous smaller lots, one being some Blue Note reissues of Horace Parlan and related. The boxes were arranged alphabetically, so you’ll notice quite a few ‘B’s, ‘M’s, ‘R’s and ‘W’s in tonight’s selection.

Let’s begin at the beginning, or close to the beginning, with Mezz Mezzrow, from an album called appropriately, Mezzin’ Around. The personnel is Frank Newton, trumpet; Bud Freeman, tenor; Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, piano; Al Casey, guitar; Wellman Braud, bass; George Stafford, drums, and Mezz Mezzrow on clarinet. This is ‘I’se a-Muggin’’, recorded in 1936. Computer programming was in its infancy in 1936, so this is a very prescient record. You’ll know what I mean after a listen…



Mezz Mezzrow, ‘I’se a-Muggin’’ (5:14)




No, this is extraordinary – the group collectively count, substituting ‘uh’ for seven and ‘woof’ for ten, and any number containing a seven, or any number in which seven can be divided, is ‘uh uh’. Twenty, thirty and any number that ends in a zero, is ‘woof woof’. It works. My point being that the substitution of symbols for zeros was the basis for computer programming. Bruce gets it immediately. He (later) points out the significance of the date, 1936. Alan Turing published his paper On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem, in 1936, and it’s generally considered to signal the birth of modern computing. We speculate about who the mathematical genius in the line-up might be, and Bruce favours Willie the Lion Smith. 

Mezz Mezzrow was clearly Derek’s mainman when he was a kid. One early Mezzrow LP (that is, early for Derek, but not for Mezz), A La Schola Cantorum from 1956, houses some Mezzrow memorabilia, namely a homemade scrapbook detailing Mezz’s time in Paris in the early fifties, updated in 1972 with cuttings from Melody Maker and jazz magazines of Mezz obituaries. I’ll pass them around. 

Derek adored Louis Armstrong, like everyone else, but as Because I missed the box with the ‘A’s, we’ll have to skip Louis Armstrong and go straight to Sidney Bechet, Mezz’s old playmate. Here he is with The New Orleans Feetwarmers from 1932 in a tune called ‘Shag’.


Sidney Bechet, ‘Shag’ (3:03)


The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD has this to say about ‘Shag’:

Nothing more clearly establishes Bechet’s credentials as a harmonic improviser in the modern sense than his remarkable excursion on ‘Shag’, an athematic exploration from 1932 of the ‘I Got Rhythm’ chords. 

I hope you all got that.  


‘B’ is also for Buster Bailey, the great clarinetist from Memphis. Here he is playing, appropriately, ‘Memphis Blues’. The tune wasn’t always the venerable standard we know today. Bailey remembers W.C. Handy playing it for the first time in public in a schoolyard near his home. Indeed he was in W.C. Handy’s band for a while, but was only allowed to play out of town on condition that he was back in time for school the next day. All this was gleaned from Stanley Dance’s sleeve-notes on the back of the Felsted LP, All About Memphis, and it seems to me we’re reaching far back into early jazz history with Memphis Blues, although this version was of jazz was recorded in New York in the comparative late date of 1958. The line-up is – Buster Bailey, clarinet; Red Richards, piano; Gene Ramey, bass; Jimmie Crawford, drums.


Buster Bailey, ‘Memphis Blues’ (7:30)


As I say, the Webster of my title isn’t Ben Webster, but Ben Webster figures because I was fortunate enough to carry away the box with the ‘W’s. My major discovery here is that Ben Webster led a double life as an R ’n’ B  honker. The sides he cut with Jay McShann are choice examples of the genre. I think I knew that Kansas City pianist crossed over to R’n’B but this only theoretic knowledge until I heard this excellent collection, The Big Tenor: The Complete Ben Webster on EmArcy. This is ‘You Didn't Tell Me’ by Jay McShann And His Orchestra…


‘You Didn’t Tell Me’, Jay McShann And His Orchestra (3:20) 

I associate Ben Webster with big-toned, smoky balladry, and this next performance is characteristic… Some of you might be familiar with ‘My Romance’, but all I can say, to echo the title of a tune over on side one, is ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’   

‘My Romance’ comes from a 1962 LP by Ben Webster and Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison called Wanted To Do One Together. ‘Sweets’ Edison mostly sits this one out but pitches in on trumpet on the last line. The rhythm section comprises Hank Jones (piano) , George Duvivier (bass) and Clarence Johnston (drums). 


Ben Webster and Sweets Edison: ‘My Romance’ (4:11)


Count Basie? Joe Williams? Stomping in puddles and swinging from lampposts? Surely I mean Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds? No, I mean Count Basie and Joe Williams. This comes from a 1957 session released on Verve as The Greatest!!


Count Basie, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (2:24) 


I didn’t know about Lee Wiley... 

"You don't know Lee Wiley! She was married to Jess Stacy!" (Mike)  

...but my discovery here was not just a previously unknown sweet femme singer but a lovely song, ‘I Got Lost In His Arms’. This means a) that I haven’t seen Annie Get Your Gun, ["You're not missing much,": I think that was Mike too] or b), if I have, Doris Day doesn’t do it for me like Lee Wiley. It’s more cabaret rather than jazz, but there was lots of crossover between cabaret and jazz around the vicinity of 52nd Street. The poshest clubs of the day would be ashamed to hire one pianist when they could hire two. Stan Freeman and Cy Walter are the twin prestidigitators on Lee Wiley Sings Vincent Youmans and Irving Berlin. ‘I Got Lost In His Arms’… 


Lee Wiley, ‘I Got Lost In His Arms’ (2:55)


So I rushed to find out about Lee Wiley and learnt that she was the descendant of a Cherokee princess and an English missionary, making her a real-life Pocahontas, except this Pocahontas happened to sing with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Her recording career extended from the twenties to the seventies. That last comes from 1951, and my second Lee Wiley selection was recorded in 1971. The trombone solo is by Buddy Morrow and the trumpet obligato is by Rusty Dedrick. Dick Hyman is the pianist. You’ll recognise the song…  


Lee Wiley, ‘Moon River’ (3:30) 


To digress, I have a theory as to Why is ‘Moon River’ is so affecting. Isn’t it a description of homelessness, cast in pathetically romantic terms? The writer prefers ‘drifters’ to ‘vagrants’, and ‘off to see the world’, rather than ‘homeless. The singer self-identifies as Jim in Huckleberry Finn . Huck Finn and Jim were also outcasts, you’ll remember, thrown together by chance but locked in an insoluble bond. The word ‘Huckleberry’ is here an incantation to ward off evil, and ‘Moon River’ is the mighty Mississippi, majestic enough to make all our troubles seem small and trivial beside the force of nature. Johnny Mercer’s point would be entirely philosophical without Henry Mancini’s heartbreakingly beautiful tune. Then they gave it the most beautiful woman in the world to sing, but Aubrey Hepburn’s voice was a very frail reed. Instead of bing a liability, it adds another layer of poignancy to the song. Lee Wiley can sing, but she doesn’t let the fact spoil the enchantment of ‘Moon River’.  

Derek liked West Coast jazz.  I’ll pass around the sleeve of Shorty Rogers Meets Tarzan, a feast for the eye, and play the exemplary ‘Martians Go Home’ from The Swinging Mr Rogers by Shorty Rogers And His Giants. It’s a feature for Jimmy Giuffre’s clarinet, Shorty’s trumpet, Pete Jolly’s piano, Curtis Counce’s bass, Shelly Manne’s drums, and a half-dollar coin spun on a tom-tom.     



So far the trajectory is clear and follows the broad outline of the development of jazz – from New Orleans via Memphis and Kansas City, most of it recorded in New York. Ah but now we’ve reached the West Coast, a jazz centre to parallel the East Coast. The promised land of California represents the ultimate in modernity. The music of Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan and Bud Shank, so cool and streamlined and beautiful, is the pinnacle of the jazz art and can’t be improved upon. Well, it’s an opinion. 


Shorty Rogers, ‘Martians Go Home’ (7:52) 



‘Martians Go Home’ is a cheat, because I know it already, but how nice to have the original LP on London Records. 


Have I time for one more before the interval? Ruby Braff might be at his best duetting with Ellis Larkins, but everybody is at their best duetting with Ellis Larkins, including Ella Fitzgerald. The trumpeter and pianist weave magic on Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Skylark’...


Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins, ‘Skylark’ (4:50) 


There will be more Webster discoveries after the break, folks.

****

There’s a bit of question and answer session at the break time. 

How did I know about the auction? 

I was tipped off that Capes and Dunn were auctioneering a jazz collection by Duncan, my local neighbourhood record dealer, and to be honest, I went part expecting to find Tim Stenhouse’s record collection. I was mistaken. It’s the auctioneer’s policy not to give away the name of the collector, but a few autographed albums dedicated to Derek Webster gave the game away. 

How much did they fetch? 

Two hipsters with deep pockets were stoking a bidding frenzy for every Miles Davis original on Esquire that came up. I confined myself (mostly) to the job lots and bid successfully on my boxes with bids of between £30 and £40. They each contained some collectors’ items. 

How many LPs were in each box? 

About 70. 

Did they all sell? 

No. I believe the practice then is to have a special auction for items that didn’t sell first time around. I missed that, unfortunately.   

Who gets the money? 


Capes and Dunn, with a cut for the widow, presumably.  

****

(The second set...) 

Leonard Feather was a music writer and broadcaster, a musician himself, he wrote songs for Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, and he could be trusted to assemble a good band. The group he organised for a record date in 1959, designed to illustrate his theory about 52nd Street being a hothouse of bop in the forties, has no name beside Leonard Feather Presents 52nd Street, and comprises Thad Jones on trumpet, Phil Woods on alto sax, George Wallington on piano, Curley Russell on bass and Art Taylor on drums. The singer here – do I mean singer? I mean the vocal interjection – is Charles Baird Parker, the five-year old son of the main begetter of bebop. Other discoveries include Interlude Records of Hollywood, California, a label with a first-class  jazz roster, based on the records tantalisingly advertised on the inner sleeve, which I shall pass around (you’ll notice it exudes a strong musty smell)….  


Leonard Feather Presents 52nd St, ‘Salt Peanuts’ (3:00)

The pianist on that date, George Wallington, Leonard Feather informs, played in Dizzy Gillespie’s first combo, and later with Charlie Parker. I remember Wallington was the subject of one of Frank Gibson’s talks, and I’ve been waiting to pick up an LP by him ever since. ‘Godchild’ puts me in mind of another neglected pianist and composer, Herbie Nichols. Teddy Kotick on bass and Nick Stabulas are the trio members.


George Wallington Trio, ‘Godchild’ (3:16) 


While on the subject of piano players who ought to be better known than they are, consider the case of John Williams, saddled with the misfortune of not being John Williams the classical guitarist or John Williams the Star Wars composer. This John Williams is a jazz pianist, born in 1929 in Vermont, and he played with Stan Getz. I first about him when my friend John Fagg went to see him at a gig  in South London. The promoter, Sue Robinson, asked if anyone could give him a lift back to his hotel in Hyde Park and John volunteered. Thus he found himself in a car with a jazz legend. He confesses he didn’t know what to say, but John did most of the talking, and was mostly complaining about the drummer on the date. He said, “the drummer was in the hole all night.” John worked out that this meant the drummer didn’t know where the beat was. Williams is such a propulsive player he probably doesn’t need a drummer at all. You’ll note his focus on thematic variation and his considerable rhythmic drive on the next track, ‘Williams Tell’. Bill Anthony on bass and Frank Isola on drums complete the trio. ‘Williams Tell’  was recorded on August 13, 1951. 


John Williams, ‘Williams Tell’ (3:11) 

What do we know about Max Bennett? I know only what I could glean from the sleeve; born in Iowa in 1928, a bass player, served with Stan Kenton. The record Max Bennett Plays, on Bethlehem, finds him in the company of Charlie Mariano on alto sax, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Claude Williamson on piano and Mel Lewis or possibly Stan Levey on drums. The line-up raises expectations and the music – this is ‘Rubberneck’ by Frank Rosolino – surpasses them. 


Max Bennett, ‘Rubberneck’ (3:23)


Another obscure record label, Tampa, and another obscure name, Oscar Moore, a guitarist. 

"Don't you know Oscar Moore? Nat King Cole!" (Mike White, again) 

Right, I was put off by esoteric symbols devices on the sleeve and the exotic material. He substitutes drums with bongos. Mike Pacheco is on bongos ("I don't know him!"), Joe Comfort is on bass, and you'll know the piano player, Carl Perkins, famous for playing with his left hand at an angle of 90 degrees to the keyboard and dying young.


Oscar Moore, ‘Samson & Delilah’ (3:14)


Paul Desmond and MJQ only made just one record together, as the title boldly asserts – The Only Recorded Performance of Paul Desmond and the Modern Jazz Quartet. It’s a live recording that took place  at New York City Town Hall on Christmas Day 1971, and the nearest it gets to a seasonal tune is an unlikely cover of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. I’ve opted for ‘Greensleeves’ here. 



Paul Desmond and MJQ, ‘Greensleeves’ (3:20) 



(Don strides up and examines the sleeve. Quite by chance, he'd been playing it on CD that morning. The best track, he says, is 'Blue Dove'). 

The next track suggests to me that John Lewis knew his Terry Riley and Steve Reich and that minimalist music is the natural outcome of his interest in integrating fugal writing and jazz form. In 1971, the MJQ were still putting the Modern in Modern Jazz Quartet.


MJQ, ‘Trav’lin’’ (4:41) 


(Danny walks up and examines the sleeve. He comments on the striking cover.) 

The next track, ‘Ragamuffin’ by Frank Rosolino, transports us back to the West Coast and has many of the same players as the earlier ‘Rubberneck’, including Frank Rosolino (trombone), Charlie Mariano (alto sax), Max Bennett (bass) and Mel Lewis on drums. Sam Noto is the trumpeter and Pete Jolly is the pianist. ‘Jolly’ is the right word. To quote the liner notes: “A sprightly thing, ragtag as its title, this serves nicely to introduce the group. The first impression that strikes you is the general agility, the neat-but-knockabout blowing, of the horns. It is quickly apparent that Rosolino has surrounded himself with the lightest-hearted of the moderns, and that a cooperative jollity is the order of the day.” 


Frank Rosolino, ‘Ragamuffin’ (5:50) 


In 1973 Jazz A Confronto 4 found Frank Rosolino in Rome playing with an Italian band. The pace is still sprightly, but the tone isn’t quite so knockabout. Indeed the intensity is the other end of the emotional scale from jolly. The pianist is Franco D’Andrea, Bruno Tommasi is on bass and Bruno Biriaco is the drummer. This track, ‘Alex’, also has saxophonist Gianni Basso. A new name to me, Basso was apparently one of the leading saxophonists on the Italian jazz scene at the time. 


Frank Rosolino, ‘Alex’ (7:34)


There’s a darkening of mood between ‘Ragamuffin’ and ‘Alex’ but the final tragedy was completely unexpected. In the autumn of 1978, suffering from depression, Frank Rosolino murdered his children and then took his own life. 

This got me thinking, how many murderers do I have in my record collection? Not suicides, mind, but known murderers? I could only think of three off the top of my head – Leadbelly (Matthew points out that Leadbelly was charged with manslaughter), and Phil Spector (ah, but did he do it? Charles asks. Anyway, it seems he's still locked up and not making records anymore).   

Mike departs and I worry if perhaps I'm running out of time. How much time have I got left. "Oh, ten minutes," Eddie replies. I amend my selection. 

Do we need some light relief? Do we need Dick Wellstood and Marty Grosz? 


The Dick Wellstood–Marty Grosz Quartet, ‘We’re in the Money’ (2:30) 

Dick Wellstood, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Mickey Galizio, bass; Tommy Benford, drums. It comes from the album, Take Me to the Land of Jazz, on Aviva from 1978. 

It wasn’t really a brave reawakening, it was more a trickle, starting in the seventies, of conscious throwbacks like Scott Hamilton, whose example gave permission for the coming generation to play pick and mix with their favourite jazz idioms. Suddenly, Marty Grosz no longer seemed so oddbod for playing guitar like Eddie Condon, or Ruby Braff for playing trumpet like Louis Armstrong, or Bob Wilber for playing clarinet like Sidney Bechet. Instead of being anomalous eccentrics, they were simply ahead of their time with their nostalgia. This was all welcome news to Derek, who didn’t own a single record by Ornette Coleman and not a single example of British jazz, excepting Victor Feldman, who redeemed himself by emigrating to California. There’s a school of opinion among jazz lovers that says that Miles’ adoption of the trappings of rock was a disaster to set alongside the untimely demise of Clifford Brown, and that John Coltrane fell off a cliff between leaving Atlantic and signing with Impulse. According to this same school, any verb in the present participle is commendable – Steamin’, Workin’, Relaxin’, and Cookin’ etc – and Bitches Brew is a step too far. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but I will say that I have more Bob Wilber and Red Rodney records than I know what to do with.  

I can’t really pass Bob Wilber by, because he was the object of the same kind of devotion earlier lavished on Mezz Mezzrow. Am I right in thinking Derek was planning a book on the clarinetist/saxophonist? (Robert earlier told me he collaborated with someone on a book about Bob Wilber.) Here’s evidence – Derek has set down every album on which Wilber appears as a sideman and it’s a formidable list (I shall pass it around). This feat of scholarship was entrusted to a cardboard LP divider which shows a) he was a true jazz autodidact and b) he never managed to cross to the computer age. 

For me, a little Bob Wilber goes a long way, but I was intrigued by one Wilber item, attracted by the sleeve as much as anything. The music is as mysterious and atypical. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. Its opening track is a tune called ‘Ghost of the Blues’. 


Bob Wilber, ‘Ghost of the Blues’ (3:00)


Spreadin’ Joy by the Bob Wilber Quintet/Septet is devoted to Sidney Bechet’s own compositions, and Wilber has unearthed many such rarities as ‘Ghost of the Blues’. It proves, I think, that Bechet outshone his Crescent City compatriot, Louis Armstrong, for compositional skill. 

The cover I worked out is Sidney Bechet boarding a train somewhere in Paris, circa 1954, to the obliviousness of the looming figure in the foreground.

My closer is ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ by Horace Parlan. Parlan is a pianist best known for his contributions to Mingus’ Ah Um and Blues & Roots, and he formed his own aesthetic by channeling the gospel energy of ‘Better Get Hit in Your Soul’ and ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’. I commend you to ‘Us 3’ from the Blue Note album of the same name, which I haven’t got time to play. 


‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, comes from a session Parlan made in 1978, issued as Blue Parlan on Steeplechase. It’s as bluesy and as passionate as any version I’ve heard. Mingus wrote ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ as an elegy for Lester Young, of course, but the tune makes an all-purpose valediction. I’ll dedicate it tonight to Derek Webster. 


Horace Parlan, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (8:05)


You need to know that Dannie Richmond is on drums and Wilbur Little is the bassist. Those were a few of my favourite Webster things. 


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