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Ken Mathieson: Classic Jazz Redefined

By Published: June 22, 2005
Though the veteran drummer, arranger and bandleader Ken Mathieson shouldn't be confused with his fellow namesake the critic Kenny Mathieson, he's also a very articulate jazz thinker based in their native Scotland.

Ken began as a schoolboy drummer, and when still very young lived for a couple of years in Brazil and worked in Sao Paolo clubs thirty years ago. A gigging drummer in a variety of settings, and sometime jazz festival organiser, he has been arranging for a long time. The otherwise all-American band he wrote for and was to tour Europe with fell foul of post-1989 German economic problems, but before that his work was toured far and wide by Fat Sam's Band, an initially bistro-based Scottish ensemble programmed around Louis Jordan inspired R&B, and extending into the swing repertoire many 1940s sidemen had played earlier. Check their excellent website.

In 1994 Ken organised a septet to perform a Buck Clayton/ Buddy Tate programme, in his own realisations, for a smaller Scottish jazz festival (Dundee). The music and the band were revived at the 2002 Edinburgh International Jazz Festival, including one Dickie Wells item which orchestrated Wells's wonderfully individual Wells trombone style brilliantly.

In early 2004 Ken got to discussing with Roger Spence of Assembly Direct (Scotland's National Jazz Impresario) the need and advantages of a professional-standard band in Scotland to re-interpret what he has come to call Classic Jazz.

Thus his Classic Jazz Orchestra came into being, but not on the model of similarly named bands re-playing what Louis Armstrong did as a lad. Alyn Shipton's New History of Jazz makes clear how very many influences and elements came together when jazz came into being in the 1920s. Ken believes that between the Spanish tinge of Jelly Roll Morton and the Portuguese of Horace Silver nothing came into jazz which wasn't there in say 1930. Where there was an input from outside, it awakened what was already an aspect of existing jazz, and found a new prominence for that. Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer influenced the phrasing of some of their contemporaries. Doc Cheatham said that they "beautified" the music. Later on the harmonic implications of their work, developed for instance by Lester Young, received conscious analysis and development into bebop.

Where Dr. Michael White subtitles his recent compositon "Give it Up (Gypsy Second Line)", and speaks of influence from Gypsy and Klezmer music, this item from a 2004 Basin Street Records CD is of a piece with some slightly exotic things Tiny Parham and others recorded in late 1920s Chicago. John Pattitucci's very, very nice 2003 Songs, Stories and Spirituals CD is by contrast not the development of jazz some reviewers have said, but a set of mostly Latin, Gospel and even Protestant hymnal music, performed in styles influenced by what jazz developed out of these roots. Horace Silver however combined just these things in his music. Latin Jazz, which Doc Cheatham regarded as an enrichment of the music; and Ken himself performs with ensembles called Braziliance and Picante and sometimes on dates by the new Orchestra, is quite different from Latin music with a jazz tinge: Ruben Gonzales, say. For a friend wanting jazz-free Klezmer I unearthed a CD without a breath of jazz. The reedman's Herb Geller! No breath of jazz did he play there, but how could there be jazz-influenced musics if there was no distinct though complex jazz?

.The coming into being of what the sleevenotes of Miles Davis's Jack Johnson call "Rock-Jazz" was for Ken a (sorry!) milestone development. A marker for the future it might well have been, but Ken doesn't see it as a stage in the development of jazz. The Rock came out of Blues, but not directly from the earlier or pre-Blues which went into jazz. Rock picked up on an electrified descendant of rural, mainly Mississippi Blues, and picked up elements from jazz and gospel music. By no means incompatible with jazz but in truth something else. Jack Johnson has brilliant trumpet solos pasted in. It's integrated, together, but an attenuation of jazz.

How far can combinations of genres go without falling into bland indterminacy? Some current jazz musicians can demonstrated the intimacy now possible with sub-genres of European concert music which was avant-garde when Beiderbecke might have liked to hear it. Quite apart from "free music", there are fascinating improvised performances on whose legitimacy Ken casts no aspersions. They are no more jazz than is jazz-influenced Ravel, or Andre Previn playing Mozart with his young violinist wife. Mixed genres tend to turn into something else, Northern European music can overwhelm the jazz element with which musicians try to combine it: frosty. Elsewhere rhythmic hypertrophy, rather than the "plenty rhythm" Jelly Roll Morton commended, can knock out swing and phrasing. ALIGN=CENTER>

Seeking to answer the question, why speak of jazz at all, Ken's a working musician. His case is argued in performance.. Whereas under mass media influence especially Americans frequently, quickly, habitually seek to date some music without trying to listen, Ken's concern is to hear the music and render it audible.

Attempted modernisation can cripple, as can trying for a 1920s sound. The music winds up not being taken duly seriously, probably parodied, sent up or neutralised. There are a few bad moments of "doo-wacka-doo" on Wynton Marsalis's Unforgivable Blackness, and elsewhere that very different Jack Johnson set (which Ken admires) has on nasty harmonic crash between post-bop soloing and historical reconstruction.. Ken avoids reconstructions for history's sake, and walks the high-wire between Morton and the Silver Age, rather than taking jumps between platforms.

The new band is in what might be called the classic small big band format. Like Joe Lovano in his Tadd Dameron realisations (Dameron's music would also be an option for Ken's band), he has trumpet, trombone, three reeds, piano, bass and drums. The new Thad Jones realisations use the same line-up, playing music adapted from originals composed for big-band, small-band or even piano trio. The procedure is like that of working out a reduced big band score, by ear, trying to do the same things with different forces;. Even when scoring for forces close to those on an initial recording the ears have to do the work.

The necessary presence of solo improvisation challenges the arranger of older jazz. Copy period features, which some hearers if not listeners would expect, and the soloist is lost in imitative detail, or plain loses the place. The arrangements are in a real sense transcriptions, to help at least listeners and potential soloists hear. Ken's slogan is "re- interpret rather than recreate", find new ways to explore the music without losing the spirit of the originals. Musicians have to be themselves when soloing, and it's the rhythm section's job (says Ken the drummer) to smooth out stylistic differences between soloists.

The educational function of the band extends also to the arranger-composer. Between 1994 and 2002 Ken had the services of Jock Graham on alto saxophone. For Ken he was a luxury, with a magnificent tone, developed in a career beginning in with dance- band and big-band apprenticeship in the 1930s along with the ability to play anything from sight of a score. In only semi-retirement, Jock died recently aged 89, and the much younger veteran tenorist Jack Duff tragically didn't survive to play in 2002. These irreplaceables, when they go, demand rethinking of the whole band. Nw players aren't replacements but fresh potentials. For instance Martin Foster plays all the reeds, sopranino to the contrabass clarinet playable only on stilts. He and Dick Lee (another composer with a website) play several reeds, both with a marvellous jazz sound on clarinet. Keith Edwards plays tenor, the string bassist is Roy Percy, the newcomer on trombone (when not taken employed because of his high gifts) Phil O'Malley, with Billy Hunter on trumpet. Local authorities admire the sagacious selection from among the best available. The Grand (but not quite) Old lyrical Man and Fat Sam's veteran Tom Finlay plays piano.

Ken wasn't aware that Dave Burrell, pianist on the dates when Archie Shepp sowed his wildest oats, had more lately identified his greatest challenge yet, musically and pianistically, in Jelly Roll Morton. Morton was the difficult and valuable, pianistically. Ken has no reluctance to insist along with Dave Burrell that "joys" are needed (as Burrell is quited as saying in the notes to his Jelly Roll Joys CD. He also finds Morton's the most demanding music to score, and speaks of days if not weeks listening, playing through James Dapogny's piano transcriptions, to capture the inner voicings. Where Dick Hyman's Morton arrangements avoided numbers Morton made band recordings of, Ken takes some on, as well as things Morton recorded only as piano solos, or not at all.

Ken played me a demo CD, and after four very decent Morton performances there was a Buck Clayton number, to suggest range. On first hearing the Clayton seemed so entirely in the band's fingers is was startling to hear it was a new chart, recorded in one take after scarcely a play-through. Clayton's music is incredibly grateful to play. Morton's much more difficult.

As a wandering he heard an incredible range of so to speak pre.jazz music. There were what he called 'specialists', pianists with only the one number but expert in it. Bob Morton (no relation) was one, and when Little Brother Montgomery played "Bob Morton Blues" the origin of "Dippermouth Blues" became clear. Louis Armstrong's "Potato Head Blues" is a cousin of the Morton tune into which Ken incorporates the original classic trumpet solo. That's another way of getting inside the music, but it also recognises the unsurpassable, like Armstrong's last chorus in "Chicago Breakdown". Morton didn't record that at all, Ken builds supporting parts for the other instruments around solos which he handles in that way. Scholars will know that George Russell had rather more to work with when scoring the Miles Davis "So What" solo for band.

Remembering bluesmen who played items on one chord only (later recorded examples: George Noble and Robert Pete Williams) Morton composed, with a politically very uncorrect title, "Jungle Blues" for a band recording which pulls out every stop in terms of colour, though Johnny Dodds could solo normally on very blue note-bending clarinet. Ken refers to the extreme modernity of this first recorded modal blues, but his band realisation speculates on the prospects of solos on this. ALIGN=CENTER>

"King Porter Stomp", based on the piano style of the obscure unrecorded Porter King, is another matter. It inspired the two later unsurpassable orchestrations of which Ken has simply written reductions for five horns plus three rhythm: Fletcher Henderson in the 1930s, Gil Evans for New Bottles, Old Wine. Ken rightly remarks that the original arrangements survive reduction very well, though readers can be reminded that accurate translation's seldom easy.

He also emulates the late Nat Pierce's work in realisations of both 1950s Count Basie band music and Bill Challis's 1920s charts on Beiderbecke recordings. Pierce wrote the latter for a band with Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman and Ruby Braff. Ken of course worked with both Braff and Freeman, back when Sonny Stitt, Al Cohn and others played in the Black Bull outside Glasgow, a happily remembered touring venue. Some day Ken would like to lead a band in the apparently still never played charts Morton wrote for big band in the 1930s, when fashion had relegated that great musician as supposedly old hat. Sheer fashion has left too much jazz development unheard (not least by Ken Burns), I never mentioned Burns's tv series to Ken, whose own approach might stir even more interest internationally.

The band's programme on a recent date at Henry's in Edinburgh was:

Morton's "Mister Joe", "I'm Watchin' the Clock" - King Oliver's Dixie Syncopators; "Song of the Islands" based on Sy Oliver's chart for Satchmo's Musical Autobiography; "Down South Camp Meeting" - a reduction of the Fletcher Henderson chart; "Singin' the Blues" - trombone feature but including an orchestration of Bix's famous solo; "Dusk" - Ellington 1940 tone poem; "Dooji Wooji" - Johnny Hodges blues; "Stompy Jones" a reduction of Ellington's mid 1950s chart.

"Flight of the Foo Birds", "Late Date" and "The Kid from Red Bank" - reductions of Neal Hefti charts for Basie; "Groovy Samba - original chart on a Sergio Mendes theme in Shorty Rogers style; "Pra Dizer Adeus" - original chart on slow bossa ballad featuring alto; "Moondog" - Dicky Wells blower from Buddy Tate's Celebrity Club Orch; "Swingin' Along on Broadway" - Buck Clayton's Songs for Swingers album; "Caribbean Clipper" - Jerry Gray's Glenn Miller flagwaver; "When Lights are Low" - based on Benny Carter's own lead sheet.

Immediately upcoming gigs at time of writing are:

Glasgow Jazz Festival: 25 June
Edinburgh Jazz Festival: 2 August
Ayr Jazz festival: 23 October.

Plus regular appearances at Henry's in Edinburgh, very approximately monthly, and other one-off gigs all over Scotland and the North of England currently in discussion. European festivals are a possibility in 2006, depending on media publicity in the interim.

I hope continentals get to hear this inspired band.



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