_ From Battersea to Birdland

Kenny Mathieson considers the contribution to jazz of pianist George Shearing.

By any standards. George Shearing has enjoyed an enormously successful musical career on the international jazz stage. beginning with the massive hit record .S'eptenrher In The Rain in 1949. That success. however. is all the more remarkable when you consider that the writer of Lullaby QfBirr/lunrl was the youngest of nine children ofa Battersca coalman. and was blind from birth.

His only formal musical training came at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind. where he mastered Braille music well enough to play Mozart with some of America‘s leading orchestras later in life. At the time. though. he relied more heavily on a different method one which led to a prescient observation by his teacher.

‘My teacher told my parents when I was sixteen that further study of classical music would not be very useful to me. because it was obvious to him that l was to become ajazz pianist. He got that from the fact that he would give me sixteen bars to read in Braille between one lesson and the next. I‘d come back with four bars learnt. and he would play the next twelve. and I would follow him right away by ear.

‘I really began to play jazz when I joined an all-blind band in 1937. A couple of those guys were very jazz- orientated pe0ple. and they used to buy all the latest 78s and bring them into the dressing room. where I would hear them. This would be anything from Lunceford and Basic to Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson, or Art Tatum solo,

and l was exposed to all of that around that time.‘

Shearing worked in London throughout the War, including a partnership with the temporarily exiled Stephane Grappelli. then. encouraged by jazz writer Leonard Feather, made the trip across the Atlantic in 1947. Success was not quite instant, but was not to be long in coming. He hit upon a novel quintet format with vibes and guitar alongside his piano. and developed his characteristic ‘locked- hands’ style of playing parallel patterned chords.

‘I picked up on that particular style by listening to Milt Buckner with the Lionel Hampton band, who did it primarily for the blues. By that time we were into the bop era, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie developing all those very complex harmonies. and I thought that the style might work very well on certain songs, and that was the

George Shearing basis on which I adopted it in l949.‘

Shearing ran his quintet right through to I978 and his style continued to expand both stylistically and in terms of the idioms which he absorbed within it. That process was enhanced when he broke up the band and reverted to trio, then to his current duo format with bass player Neil Swainson.

‘I decided to go back to addressing the piano more as a complete instrument, rather than be limited to any particular style. The more people you have on the stage, the more structured the music has to be. Neil and I could literally run through half a dozen tunes in a set which we had never played before, and just by watching my left hand, and having a similar kind of harmonic outlook anyway, he would play them so that you would never know they had not been rehearsed.‘

George Shearing and Neil Swainsmt play at the Festival Theatre on Wed 10.

_ Swing time

For those of a certain age and musical Inclination, the name Ted Heath does not conjure up the image of a former Tory Prime Minister, but a band leader. The Ted Heath in question died In 1969, but the band which carried his name from 1944 continues to pay tribute to his considerable achievements in the field of big band swing.

Heath served a lengthy apprenticeship as a trombonist and arranger In the dance bands of the 205 and 30s before finally getting the chance to lead his own wartime outfit, courtesy of the BBC. The band became Immenser popular, and with the lifting of the union bans In the mid- 50s, established a name for itself in the harder-to-crack American touring circuit as well.

Although it attracted many excellent

jazz soloists and imaginative arrangers, critics remained divided on its merits, especially In Britain. Heath appears, for example, in the most important American reference books, but was not included in ‘Jau: The Essential Companion’, authored by three eminent British jazz musicians -

one of whom later contributed a slightly grudglng entry to the ‘Hew Grove Dictionary of Jazz’.

The gripe with Heath was that, as Brian Priestley put it, he ‘preferred predictable excellence to unplanned excitement’, and maybe overdid the crowd-pleasing Showmanship. Against that, though, he insisted on very high musical standards, sprinkled the band with stellar soloists like trumpeter Kenny Baker and a succession of notable saxmen, and commissioned some of the best arrangers around to add to the band’s tightly-played charts.

Trombonlst non [usher now leads Its latter-day version, and will also be giving a masterclass In big band arranging, the first of three in an intriguing new addition to the festival. (Joe Alexander)

The Ted Heath Band play at the Festival Theatre on Mon 8 at 7.30pm. Don Lusher’s Masterclass is at The Queen’s Hall on Tue 9, followed by Andrew Speight (Wed 10) and John Etheridge (Thurs 11), all at noon.

'_ l

incurs .nevrsman , a .


Melanie O'Heilly L The Edinburgh Jazz Festival is weighted toward the traditional and mainstream areas of the music. but more

contemporary manifestations will again be featured at the Blue Note. now in the slightly tacky Minus One Club. One double-bill stands out as being of particular interest.

The confluence on the penultimate evening of Kevin MacKenzie‘s excellent quartet with London-based collaborators Julian Arguelles and Steve Watts. and singer Melanie O‘Reilly’s latest project. promises to provide great musical interest, with a strong local flavour underlying each project.

While MaeKenzie is Edinburgh born and bred. Melanie belongs here only by adoption. The new music which she will reveal owes more to her roots in her native Ireland. and is an extension of an " experiment in introducing a traditional Irish melody into her standards- orientated jazz set. It went down very well with audiences, and Melanie has decided to expand on the experiment with much more in the same vein.

‘When i first decided to sing the song. I didn‘t have any plans to do more than make it a feature in the jazz set. For various reasons. though. I have found myselfbeing drawn more and more into my Irish roots in the last year or so. and the response to it has led me to believe that it is something worth developing.

'There is a huge weight of tradition behind anybody trying to sing jazz standards now. but this project should allow me to express myself in fresh ways. and it has already started to create quite a lot of interest from sources that had been closed to me in the past.‘ (Kenny Mathieson) Melanie 0 'Reillv and lter Trio and the Kevin MueKertzie Quartet play at the Blue Note mt Wed 10 at 8pm.

The List 29 July—ll August 199419