September 20, 2012
Courtney Pine is not so much a musician as an experience. The event was the opening night of the Ipswich Music Festival and the venue was the grand hall of Ipswich High School-grander than most school halls granted but not the sort of venue Pine would normally be associated with. The last time I saw him in action was just over a year ago at Snape Music Festival, where he gave an unforgettable performance, interspersing free playing with well known standards, as well as music from his last album, Europa
(Distin-E, 2011). Pine was at his most indulgent, adapting the mood and program to suit the crowd, introducing many skeptics to jazz by taking standards and tweaking them just enough to make them fun, before returning to the tune. Since then, Snape has offered more jazz of all genres to its audiences.
I wondered what the festival goers would make of Pine. As I looked around there was the mayor, aldermen, councilors and various officials-well it was opening night and Pine was headlining. I asked the county councilor next to me if he knew Pine's music, and he said he did not but liked Humphrey Lyttleton and traditional jazz.
Pine appeared onstage in a wondrous costume and headband. He greeted the audience and made a few jokes about playing in a school hall. He explained his tour was titled Europa and largely based around his album of the same name. He began to play.
First, Pine restricted himself to playing a per musica'
-reading off a score and only intermittently straying from the tune. He introduced his band-violist Amanda Drummond, pianist Zoe Rahman
(currently up for a MOBO award) , drummer Robert Fordjour, double bassist Darren Taylor and mandolinist/guitarist Cameron Pierre
. Pine began "Da Kom Fra Nord" before Drummond took the tune and played with it. Her playing was incredible; she made her viola laugh, sing, chirrup and pop; she displayed the full, lustrous range of the instrument. The viola brought depth to the music and offered rich, resonant undertones. She also let it rip in the most unseemly fashion, but more happened in that direction as the set progressed.
Pine is a great raconteur, and gets better each time I see him. He chatted to the audience, tried a few jokes and got the measure of them. There was a definite glint in Pine's eyes tonight.
The set progressed with more songs from the album-a diverse range with darker, haunting tunes like "Da Kom Fra Nord" and "Deuteronomy," and light, haunting airs such as "The First Flower of Spring" and "Druids Lyre." "Greek Fire" offered the chance of solos for nearly all the band including Taylor, who showed just what a bass could do in terms of range as he plucked, bowed and used the deep-throated echoes of the instrument, as well as including high, piercing notes at the top of the instrument's range.
It was impossible to pick any one of the musicians as being better than the others. Suffice to say, Pine has chosen well and his group offered solos and support to Pine in the way that only a finely tuned band could. This was clearly the result of hard work, excellent musicianship and a love for the kind of jazz the band played, which was hard to place in any genre as it transcended several and yet sat firmly into none. Pine could relax, knowing the band would cover, pick up and support him and each other. After each solo, Pine congratulated the player with a fist-to-fist touch, giving the players center stage during their solos by moving off to the wings.
Pine felt just a little reserved and, on occasion, he could no longer stay within the constraints of the tune. He closed his eyes and soared free.
The interval followed and the bar filled. Drinks in hand to steady their nerves, people returned to their seats. My councilor friend said he felt drawn to the music, amazed but also a bit confused as to exactly what Pine was doing with the tunes.
The second half was even better than the first. Pine did play tunes but he also played with them, toying with the riffs, tossing them like feathers to the wind and seeing what he could make of them-delicious. When Pine is into the music he nods back and forwards like a man possessed. And maybe this is because the notes he squeezes from his bass clarinet sometimes have such an impossible and ethereal quality that they might have been given a hand by some mischievous spirit or demon.
Each musician's solo held the audience spellbound, from mandolin to drums. One melody morphed into an explosion of throbbing drum 'n' bass at one point; a nod to the modern world, the school's teenagers in the audience, and Pine's relative youth, it then turned back to the original tune as if by magic.
Drummond took her viola on a journey of discovery and made pops, clicks, slides, off-key cadences and melodious tunes with a brilliance readily acknowledged by the audience. Rahman gave her piano a life of its own. She plays with such fervor and devotion that she seems to disappear into its depths at some points, sending sweet, heartrending notes back. Then she lets rip with harsh, off key scales which tear your heart apart again-wonderful.
Taylor took his double bass into realms no double bass should ever go, guided it, cajoled and then returned to the tune with a grin of such divinity on his face you might think he were fresh out of the seminary. The drums underpinned everything-sometimes with a gentle touch of brushes, other times the heavy, rhythmic thud of a bass drum. Pierre gave me a new respect for the mandolin. Pierre played a range of tunes and harmonies-yes there was some plucking but it felt more like a conversation between the musician and the instrument.
Pine played solos, carried the tunes and backed the band up with dexterity, musicianship and a character that came through in his playing. He looked not quite at home onstage, which is endearing, and when he played, whatever spirit possessed him was benign in nature and served only to draw the audience in. There were several moments when Pine took riffs and tunes, squashed them beneath his metaphorical feet and then carefully gathered up the precious pieces to recreate the melodies.
He finished with something for everyone, in a pastiche of tunes blending into each other, from "Happy Birthday" and "Wondering Star" to "Daughters of Elysium," some pop songs and too many others to mention.
Pine's rapport with the audience was really good. He regaled between numbers with tales about his wife and when he arrived at a barn dance and was stared at because they, "had never seen a jazz musician before." He exuded a warmth which the audience picked up readily. Pine also said he was amazed at how warmly he had been received. He said he had, at times, arrived at gigs only to be "blanked" by management, shown the stage and set, and basically told to get on with it.
So it seems that here, in the heart of middle England, Pine felt at home and I, for one, was glad he did. I have seen him before and what is great about him is that he tailors his playing to suit the audience, so you get a different gig every time. Yes, he wants to show off his latest album and yes, he wants to shock a little if he can get away with it and yes, oh yes, he wants to play some free jazz in there; but above everything, Pine is the consummate commercial jazz artist, ensuring his audience enjoys the performance, making it a show, tweaking the amount of straight-ahead or free jazz in the program according to who is listening, working hard and ensuring people will listen to his music and help maintain his huge presence on the British music scene.
In one concert he managed to include a bit of drum 'n' bass, mainstream jazz, free form (his Peter Brötzmann
moments), straight-ahead and standards while, at the same time, letting people know what he is about right now. Something for everyone can be found if you listen long enough.
Over time, Pine has presented the British public with several images, from young rebel to mature jazz player, and you get the feeling that now Pine is totally happy in his skin in and completely at ease where he is with his music. The standing ovation he received at the end of the gig was a surprise to him-or so he let us believe-but well deserved.
At the end of the evening, I was happy because Pine had included some free form, but he had also made sure he included material to suit the audience-another time there would be more unfettered blowing. I also liked the rest of the material and my unwilling beloved, who I had persuaded to come along, enjoyed the gig as well, surprising both of us. That little demon which possesses Pine when he plays definitely had a ball.
On a final coda, Pine rashly announced at the end of the concert, that he would sign any programs which had not sold (the monies were going to charity) or that people had bought. As I left, I could not help but grin because Pine was standing signing at the head of a queue of about 200 people. He would be there for some time.