Friday, 8 July 2011

What's your perfect evening?

Paul Ricard
A perfect evening for me is a night of music in a pub, with a good pint of Robin Hood Ale, followed by a quality single malt. If that music is jazz, then so much the better, and if that jazz is played on the piano and sung by a gifted musician, then 'beam me up Scotty', I'm ready to go where the angels fly.

Such a night was last night at the Test Match pub, listening again to a solo performance from Paul Ricard. It was also a night of celebration for Paul's wife, as it was her birthday, and she'd just won a major research grant from the University. As I was with someone who knew them well, I was included in the round of champagne, which is not my favourite drink, but hey, a free drink is a free drink - I actually ended up drinking two glasses, so I can only assume that I must have nicked a drink belonging to someone else. Shame on me, and my apologies.

I've posted a comment about Paul and the Midland Jazz Connexion here before, but dare I say that I almost prefer the solo performance, though I love the trio as well. The choice of music covers a range of era's and genre, but all given an unmistakable style. There's standard jazz classics, blues, latin and arrangements of the likes of Eric Clapton songs. I was particularly moved by songs sung in French - what is it about the French language that can produce goose pimples? Paul also writes his own pieces, and I was glad to hear again his 'Paris Blues'. Talking at the interval about McCoy Tyner, I was delighted that Paul said he would play the solo piano version of Tyner's 'Contemplation'. I also so much enjoyed his arrangements of 'St Louis Blues', 'Ol' Man River', and 'Summertime'. If you're unfamiliar with Paul and his work, make a start by clicking on the video below, where he plays his 'Paris Blues', and is being interviewed in Nottingham.

Coming home at the end of the evening, I couldn't help but think about some of the songs that Paul played, and their place in musical history. The choice of favourite versions and performers from the past will always invoke debate, but that's what free speech and free thinking is all about. So, let me give a brief comment on four pieces played by Paul, and post a clip of my favourite version and performer.

St Louis Blues is one of the oldest Blues pieces (arguably having almost started the Blues genre), composed by W.C. Handy and published in 1914. The list of performers who have included this piece in their repertoire is a veritable who's who in the music industry. My favourite version? This has got to be Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong from 1925.

Contemplation by McCoy Tyner is the second track on his 1967 album, "The Real McCoy". Tyner took up the piano at the age of 13, and in his later teens befriended the legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. By the age of 20 he was the first pianist to join Benny Golson's Jazztet. He introduced African rhythms and unusual scales to his improvisations, and in the view of many, he revolutionised the jazz world. The clip below is just wonderful.

Ol' Man River was written for the musical, 'Showboat' in the second version of 1936, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. The musical was about racism and love, and the theme has endured to this day. While the version of the song by William Warfield is extraordinarily powerful, I have to pick Paul Robeson as my favourite performer. He was already a well known singer and actor when he played the main role in the musical and later in a film. That rich voice just ouses pathos as he sings about the life of a slave. Try to listen to the words, some of which were changed from the original version.

Summertime is a song from the 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess, with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. For years, this has been my favourite song of all time, whether as a song or instrumental piece. As a song there can be no better performance than that given by Ella Fitzgerald. However, my favourite of all is an instrumental version that brings moistness to my eyes just writing about it. It's by Larry Adler (harmonica) and Itzhak Perlman (violin). This was a performance given on the Michael Parkinson show in 1980 - incidentally, Parky was the finest chat show there's ever been, and I still miss it. Marvel at the exquisite playing of these fantastic performers.

I've given you a lot to listen to, but you don't have to do it all in one go. I'm sharing with you some of my passion, and what's the point of having passion if it can't be shared with others?

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