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Issue 1084

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Ronnie Scott's 50TH birthday at the BFI 12/13th June 09

Ronnie Scott's 50th Birthday @BFI 12/13th June 09
Ronnie Scott's 50th Birthday @BFI 12/13th June 09 James Pearson Quartet Feat. Paul Pace James Pearson Quartet Natty Bo from SKA Cubano with Emrys

The BFI's Jazz Weekender (in conjunction with Ronnie Scott's at 50) has been, on the whole, a largely successful affair and as welcome as... well, water to a parched throat. The event brought much joy to a capital sorely in need of a whole dose of Jazz and great film in one hit.

It's a shame jazz doesn't normally get this type of exposure and it's input and art form sadly lacking on television these days. So it was a special weekender when I got to see separate concerts/interviews and insights into Jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong.

FRIDAY JUNE 12TH:

First off, Friday night saw proceedings kicking off with 'The British Jazz Greats', featuring the one and only Johnny Dankworth whose contribution to Jazz and film has been enormous. It was a special treat to hear JD play some of his film compositions live along with pianist james Pearson - the track from Gangster No1 was a cool piece and exemplified JD's ear for melody and invention. It was a delight too to hear his stories about his involvement in the british film industry. His prodigious talents as a composer have graced films such as 'Accident' (which was previewed before his Q&A), 'The servant' (another Joseph Losey film) and 'Saturday Night & Sunday Morning' to name but a few - and there are many!

SATURDAY JUNE 13TH:

First up and thankfully not wiped by the BBC, I hasten to add! 'Ella Fitzgerald Swings' (1965) A fitting title for this astonishing and much loved popular singer of our time. This giant of a diva tore through her repertoire delivering knockout performances of Ellington's Just A Setting And A-Rockin', through to the ever so sentimental 'Cheek To Cheek'. The Oscar Peterson trio certainly did her proud. The consummate pianist firmly positioned at the top of his profession and a fellow household name, majestically presided and sizzled over the proceedings propelling the jazz goddess (resplendent in large frock and blonde wig! Go girl!) to new heights. 'Girl From Ipanema' or as Ella sang it 'Boy From Ipanema', really swung hard with a propulsive bossa beat from the great Ed Thigpen on drums - underpinned by (her then ex partner) another jazz heavyweight Ray Brown on double bass. However the absolute corker, show-stopper and quite frankly a scalper's delight was her glorious version of Ellington's 'A Train' Phewee! Ella did the mother of all scats surpassing anything I can remember. She mashed it! My god she's indescribable when she goes off on one there's no one to beat her live, hands down!

So after a welcome drink and a chance to catch some fine live jazz courtesy of man about town pianist James Pearson, who along with his Qt were in fine fettle. Their version of 'Donna Lee' so amply proved it was time for round two, and my second film featuring Nina Simone! Shot at Ronnie's Scott's in 1985, this was quite a different animal entirely. An intense and emotionally deep performance slowly ensued, interspersed with interviews about her upbringing and beliefs. It was a rare insight into a very graceful human being with a wry sense of humour, but perfectionist none the less. Nina, like James Brown use to put the fear of god into her musicians. But when you can add a soulful mystique to whatever music you care to interpret, you are in my book, allowed your foibles. None the less, it's quite ironic that she only had one other musician on the stand that night - drummer Paul Robinson, who was kept on his toes all night by an ever watchful Ms Simone!

Nina Simone was an exotic, fascinating creature. It's like secretly watching a beautiful black puma in the wild. She plumbs the depths of the human condition, as she amply displays and bares her soul- a true soul singer in it's proper meaning - Her eclectic material transcends all genre. She's at home with many styles be it Jazz, Soul, Blues, Gospel, Gershwin or Broadway. She runs the whole gamut with style and pathos in an unbridled passionate display of musicianship and womanhood! This is an exceptional piece of film from a talent and godly force woefully missed. Heart-wrenching stuff just hearing her pour out her heart to a lost lover in 'For a While'. It brings a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye, while her second love song 'If You Knew" offers no emotional respite to the misery of love's loneliness when it's gone. Nina's gone too but this wonderful film remains, a true godsend!

Next up a little light relief in the form of Louis Armstrong and his All stars. Filmed in 1968 catching Satchmo in his usual evervescent mood bolstered by his fabulous backing band, featuring top notch players who make swinging Louis even better. Trombone/vibes player Tyree Glenn holds his own and is the perfect fall guy for pop's antic. On one particular tune Tryee jovially sings to Louis "I'm gonna tan your hide" and satch beams back "my hide is already tanned!"

Danny Barcelona (drums) and Marty Napoleon (piano) keep the party swinging with 'Girl From Ipanema', 'What A Wonderful World" and a "Kiss To Build A Dream On" ensuring fun times and are lapped up by the television audience. Louis's contribution to the canon of jazz is sometimes blighted by his critics saying he tried too hard to appeal to white audiences and essentially becoming a caricature of himself. Some musicians also criticized Armstrong for playing in front of segregated audiences, and for not taking a strong enough stand in the civil rights movement (but then neither did Hendrix) - suggesting that he was an "Uncle Tom", however, "Of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart." History can be unkind but this film shows you exactly what an amazing musician and entertainer he really was, it was great to see him in the spotlight once more doing what he does best. it's just sheer happy music that will make your blue days feel much better.

Leaving the cinema with a big smile on my face, it was time for another drink and to catch some live jazz back by the swanky BFI bar. Propping up the bar I bumped into Natty Bo lead singer of Ska Cubano and together we sauntered over to the live stage area to hear the music - Jessica lauren was sounding muscular and reeling off some heavy tunes. Eddie Harris's 'Listen Here' bolstered beautifully with her B3 hammond style, intermeshed with some heavy bass driven lines courtesy of Andy Kremer and Zawinul's 'Mercy Mercy Mercy' held it's own intensity in the vast open space.

Paul Pace (Spice of Life), the live music organizer had worked hard all weekend to accommodate all the bands and lest I forget Michael Mwenzo put in a good show too. it was nice to hear guitarist Alan Weekes spinning off some cool jazz guitar that echoed sweetly round these filmic halls, and I really enjoyed Mike's wacky version of 'Fly Me To The Moon'

To round it up, the BFI and Ronnie Scott's have done londoners and jazz fans proud with their inventive programming. I maybe all jazzed out, but I'm still wondering whose birthday's up next?? A FULL ON weekend that I've really only just scratched the surface of.
Words Emrys Baird

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