WHEN jazz clarinettist and general reedsman extraordinaire Dick Lee leads his quintet, Dr Lee’s Prescription, into his suite The Games at the bandstand in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park in July, he’ll doubtless have many things on his mind, but at least he’ll breathe easy in the knowledge that he won’t have to play while leaping about coated in blue paint.
The Games is a suite of eight movements linked by poetry from Edinburgh’s official Makar, Ron Butlin, and incorporating dance from Alex Rigg. And it was Rigg, the inventive dancer, craftsman and event creator, who some years ago, at an event of his own at Kelvingrove, enlisted the talented but not normally terpsichoreally inclined Lee: “I was... well, painted blue, and had to leap about, playing the saxophone,” he recalls bemusedly.
The Games is one of the “20 for 14” commissions from the immense Culture 2014 programme associated with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games this summer. Lee leaves the dancing to Rigg, to produce music reflecting influences from cultures across the Commonwealth, with a final movement evoking the excitement of a race. With himself on saxes, clarinets and recorders, Dr Lee’s Prescription (and, yes, the slogan is “Music to cure all ills”) also comprises Phil Adams and Mike Nisbet on guitars, Jerry Forde on double bass and Stu Brown on drums, with Lee’s wife, Anne Evans, guesting on flute.
The work will have its Kelvingrove premiere on 24 July, then is reprised on 26 July in the Edinburgh Jazz Festival (venue yet to be finalised). And for those who’d like to follow it up, in conjunction with Edinburgh University’s Office of Lifelong Learning, Lee will deliver four morning lectures about the project, starting on 4 August.
In the meantime, however, later this month Lee teams up with the brilliantly virtuosic pianist Brian Kellock to present a series of eight weekly afternoon lectures under the title The Spirit of Jazz, at Edinburgh’s Bongo Club, starting on 29 April. Going by my experience of a previous series which Lee and Kellock delivered in the clarinettist’s regular Fringe venue of Valvona & Crolla, a more entertaining method of boning up on jazz history can’t be imagined. Quite apart from sparkling playing and droll repartee, Lee’s engagingly wayward spiel ushers you down what he terms “the leafy byways of music history”, while the pianist fires off virtuosic bursts and pithy asides.
Lee’s emergence as “reedsman and raconteur” has come about through his involvement with the aforementioned Office of Lifelong Learning, to which he was recommended by his bardic collaborator, Butlin. “I’m always worried the night before – how can I possibly fill two hours? Then when it comes to it I find I can’t actually fit everything in that I wanted to cover. It’s an embarrassment of riches, really, so much to tell that’s fascinating.
“I’m much less nervous than I used to be, in contrast to the very first time I did it, when I wrote out screeds. Now I just write down the topics and make sure I include them… then just babble.” Still improvising, but not on the clarinet? “That’s for sure,” he laughs.
Last time he counted, Lee reckoned he’s currently in 14 bands, counting one or two he only plays with every couple of years. He left his long-standing reeds chair with Swing 2014 (as it is this year) a year ago and can currently be heard in everything from his duo with accordionist David Vernon to the ranks of Kenny Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra.
His “main” outfits at the moment, however, are Dr Lee’s Prescription and his Swingtet. The former, playing largely his own often idiosyncratic compositions, is, he agrees, indescribable in style: “The one connecting strand is that no matter what the trappings are around the music, I like to write strong tunes.”
Dick Lee’s Swingtet, on the other hand, with guitarists Tom Davis and Marcus Ford and Owen MacDonald on bass, play tightly arranged swing by the likes of Goodman, Ellington and Reinhardt. They play a regular twice-monthly Sunday gig at Valvona & Crolla’s Vincaffe in Edinburgh, alternating as an instrumental quartet and as a quintet with singer Alison Affleck, best vocalist in last year’s Scottish Jazz Awards (Lee returns the favour by playing in her Vieux Carré hot jazz outfit).
“The Swingtet is aimed towards snappy swing, rather than the play-the-tune-play-the-solo-play-the-tune-again sort of thing,” explains Lee. And no blue paint.
• For further information and bookings for the Spirit of Jazz lectures, see www.dicklee.org.uk