The secret to keeping classic jazz alive: re-interpretation rather than replication
DEFINE classic jazz?” laughs Ken Mathieson. “Define jazz even. Some people have very narrow definitions; my view is that classic jazz is music that deserves to be heard, regardless of what era you happen to be in. It’s timeless music, and if it’s not recognised as such, then it deserves to be.”
As a veteran jazz drummer and presiding spirit of his Classic Jazz Orchestra, Mathieson is well qualified to pass comment. We’re discussing the kind of repertoire the CJO will be playing at their forthcoming gigs at Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar on 14 November, and Glasgow Art Club the following night. There will, says Mathieson, be “a bit of everything” – Louis Armstrong, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, Ellington… and particularly material by that wayward patriarch of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, whose material has been a cornerstone of the eight-piece band’s repertoire since Mathieson put it together in 2004 to fill an Edinburgh Jazz Festival slot.
The main thrust of the band’s musical policy, says Mathieson, “is to re-interpret – not replicate – jazz’s back catalogue, so we do attempt to say something new with every piece we play.” This doesn’t preclude them from performing new, original compositions, bearing in mind the band’s core line-up including such seasoned Scottish jazz names – of varying generations – as reedsmen Dick Lee, Martin Foster and Konrad Wiszniewski, pianist Tom Finlay and trombonist Phil O’Malley. “The guys who work in the CJO all have distinctive sounds,” says Mathieson, “and you start to write to play to their strengths, so the repertoire develops. While the thinking behind musical policy and the writing of the arrangements is mine, nothing could have been achieved without the versatility and musicianship of these individual players.”
Now 70, Mathieson himself is a seasoned player, having for many years juggled two careers as jazz drummer and accountant, but who served his time playing with semi-professional Dixieland outfits around Glasgow. During 15 years as resident drummer at the Black Bull Jazz club in this writer’s home town of Milngavie, he played with such greats as Sonny Stitt, Harry Edison and Lockjaw Davis. He also spent time in Brazil at the beginning of the 1970s, which left him with a love of Brazilian music that he continues to explore with his quintet Picante.
Under his leadership, the CJO has developed into a highly accomplished ensemble which won the best band category in the 2009 Scottish Jazz Awards, while their album of Benny Carter’s music, The Glasgow Suite, with saxophonist Alan Barnes, was warmly received last year, making the shortlist for Jazz Journal’s international critics’ poll for album of the year.
In these difficult times, Mathieson is particularly appreciative of fellow drummer and Jazz Bar proprietor Bill Kyle and his Bridge Music agency, which promotes jazz in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Despite the bar winning awards for its commitment as Scotland’s only seven-days-a-week jazz venue, Kyle struggles in the face of very limited funding from Creative Scotland, and foresees “a serious dearth of jazz on the ground”, when the present Bridge Music concerts end (see www.bridgejazz.co.uk).
In the meantime, Mathieson and his CJO continue to carry the torch for the early greats. Generations of new players since the 60s, Mathieson reckons, have tended to embrace rock and pop-oriented rhythms rather than jazz’s essential swing. “This in turn has resulted in pretty well all jazz before 1970, regardless of style, becoming an endangered species. It’s our policy to keep that pre-1970s music alive, and, since jazz has always placed great emphasis on ‘the latest thing’, to the detriment of what has gone before, show that it is in no way invalidated by later developments.
“One of the younger guys in the band remarked recently: ‘The great thing about this band is that you don’t read about jazz history or listen to old records – you get to play it.’”
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