Benny Golson Quartet, Al Foster Quintent, Jeff 'Tain' Watts Quartet

This article is from 2007.

Roll with it

Jazz goes back to its roots in the Festival’s ‘American Icons’ strand, as Kenny Mathieson discovers

The rise and rise of European jazz has generated a lot of attention and debate in recent times, as often as not in the context of seeking an alternative approach to that of classic American jazz, an attempt to develop a distinctive European voice from a quintessentially American art form.

Scottish audiences have had plenty of opportunity to follow developments in Europe, and especially in Scandinavia, and the Edinburgh jazz programme this year offers another selection of musicians from France, Sweden and Norway.
Alongside that strand, the Festival organisers have programmed a number of concerts that they have informally dubbed ‘American Icons’. Taken together, they enshrine the heartbeat idioms of jazz, growing out of the Classic Jazz styles pioneered in New Orleans, Chicago and New York of the 20s, developing through the Swing Era of the 30s, and the more modern bop and cool styles of the 40s and 50s.

The legacy of that music has been international, and many of the British and European musicians in this year’s programme draw firmly on it as their chosen musical path. All of these canonic styles are represented in the Festival, from Duke Heitger and Evan Christopher’s updated version of classic New Orleans jazz to the contemporary take on bop served up by the Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts Quartet.

Jazz has been described as America’s only original contribution to the invention of new artforms in the 20th century. The Afro-American roots of the music ensured it had to struggle to achieve respectability in a racially-divided society in its formative years, and the complexity of much of the music has meant that it was America’s ‘pop’ music only for a brief period in the era of the swing big bands.

It has been taken up internationally, and while some musicians have striven to develop indigenous forms, many jazz practitioners in Europe (and well beyond) have been equally content to work with the given idioms.

There is no shortage of examples of that in the programme, from old-timers like Humphrey Lyttelton, Chris Barber and Bill Salmond through to some rising young contenders like Paul Towndrow and Konrad Wiszniewski (and Jacques Loussier’s trademark fusion of classical and jazz styles is firmly rooted in classic swing rhythms).

The source of all this remains the States, however, and the Festival’s celebration of these glorious American icons begins with a rare opportunity to hear saxophonist Benny Golson in action. Golson exudes jazz history. He came out of the same Philadelphia background as did John Coltrane, Red Garland, the Heath brothers and Philly Joe Jones, and he went on to write a number of tunes that have become staples of the jazz repertoire. These include ‘Stablemates’, ‘Killer Joe’, ‘Blues March’, ‘Whisper Not’, ‘Along Came Betty’ and his tribute-cum-memorial to trumpeter Clifford Brown, ‘I Remember Clifford’.
Golson established his credentials in a variety of settings before joining the most famous hard bop outfit of all, drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, in 1957. The saxophonist acknowledged the significant role the drummer played in the development of his own career.

‘Art Blakey was a teacher. He was didactic. He was a teacher and didn’t know that he was a teacher. Just by the things that he said, the things that he did, and the way that he played the drums. Being with him for about a year was like being enrolled in a college of higher education. He taught us things because he had vast experience. He had such a penchant for swinging. He didn’t know how not to swing and that really left a mark on me. So much so, that when I left him, I found I had great difficulty in playing with other drummers for a while.’

If less heralded than the Messengers, the band he co-led with trumpeter Art Farmer from 1959-62, The Jazztet, was another of hard bop’s most significant units. As Golson describes it, it was a group that seemed destined to be.
‘It was very sudden at the time. I was planning to start a sextet, and I heard that Art was leaving Gerry Mulligan’s band. I planned to ask him to join the sextet. In the meantime, unknown to me, he was planning a quintet, and he was thinking of asking me to join him. When I called him, he started laughing. So we got together and consolidated our plans.’

These two groups alone would have been enough to ensure Golson’s major standing in jazz, even though he chose to focus his energies on studio work and composing for television and films for a dozen years after the break-up of the original Jazztet.

He returned to jazz playing in the mid-1970s, and re-launched the Jazztet in the early 1980s. For this appearance, his very first at the Festival, he will lead a quartet that will feature a more familiar Edinburgh visitor, pianist George Colligan, who also leads his own trio down at the Lot.

Two master drummers can also be added to this American iconography. Al Foster is best known for his association with Miles Davis, and his quintet for this concert will include trumpeter Eddie Henderson (who is, incidentally, a real doctor of medicine), another major figure in his own right, and a man who, as a somewhat over-confident teenager studying trumpet at the San Francisco Conservatory, once told family friend Miles Davis that he wasn’t playing the trumpet correctly.

Davis’ music later became very important for him, and it is fitting that the quintet’s appearance with Foster will be a tribute to Miles. Although the drummer’s own time with the trumpeter was in the mid 1970s and 1980s, they will turn to the classic music of the 1950s and 1960s on this outing.

The utterly ubiquitous Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts is a man who belongs to a younger jazz generation, and came to wider attention in a long association with jazz/classical trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his saxophonist brother Branford Marsalis. For this appearance at the Festival, he leads a top-drawer quartet featuring Marcus Strickland on saxophones, Dave Kikoski on piano, and James Genus on bass.
A native of Pittsburgh, another city with a strong jazz history, his drum skills are constantly in demand (his CV reads like a who’s who of contemporary US jazz), but he has also been able to develop his own leadership and compositional skills, including five albums under his own name.

For many listeners, the bop-derived idioms at the core of the music of all of these musicians is the central sound of jazz, still vibrant and alive. Others will argue that it is backward-looking and nostalgic, a music mired in its own history and doomed to repetition.

The answer, surely, is that there is room for both classicism and innovation in a music as wide-ranging and protean as jazz, and that there is also room for innovation within classicism. Check them out.

Benny Golson Quartet, the Hub, Castle Hill, Royal Mile, 3 Aug, 7pm, £16 (£14); Al Foster Quintet, the Hub, Castle Hill, Royal Mile, 1 Aug, 7pm, £15; Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts Quartet, the Hub, Castle Hill, Royal Mile, 30 Jul, 7pm, £16 (£14). For all tickets call 0131 473 2000.

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