Friday, October 22, 2010

Jazz History: Revisiting Gil Evans' Tribute to Jimi Hendrix

JAZZ: Gil Evans & Jimi Hendrix

South African Business Day
Published: 2010/10/21 07:58:24 AM

FOR composer and bandleader Gil Evans, releasing an album of Jimi
Hendrix themes was a risky thing to do. The year was 1974, the US jazz scene remained relatively conservative, and guitarist Hendrix was seen as simply another ephemeral pop star.

For Evans, the gamble — based on his unerring instinct for good themes— paid off. His big-band arrangements of Hendrix tunes (most famously, Little Wing) won a worldwide following among open-minded listeners. And one of the most remarkable tracks on that first album was an audacious version of Voodoo Child, with the solo played on a fiery, rock ’n roll tuba by Howard Johnson.

Now Johnson will visit this country, for the 2010 Jazz Foundation
concerts. The theme this year is Jazz Meets Symphony, with a South
African orchestra accompanying South African soloists, trumpeter Feya
Faku and singer Gloria Bosman, and American guests, pianist Lynn
Arriale and Johnson. The concerts take place at the Durban Playhouse
on October 29 and the Kyalami Theatre on the Track on October 30.

Playing Hendrix with Evans wasn’t Johnson’s first encounter with
popular music. Born in Alabama in 1941, he first taught himself
baritone sax, but by the mid-60s had made the — for modern jazz —
idiosyncratic decision to switch to tuba.

Although the tuba had been a staple of the New Orleans marching bands, its mobile vamping role was not needed by on-stage jazz ensembles, and it had been almost completely superseded by the double bass by the 1920s.

Johnson, however, does far more than vamp. He worked with Charles
Mingus, Archie Shepp (he features on Shepp’s Newport Jazz Festival
recording) and in the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, as well as regularly
with Evans and in more conventional contexts, for example, with Buddy
Rich. He led his own all-tuba ensemble, Gravity, and has also featured
with the NDR Big Band and with a roll-call of jazz names, including
John Scofield and Abdullah Ibrahim.

But alongside those gigs, Johnson has also worked with Marvin Gaye,
conducted the Saturday Night Live Band, and created arrangements for blues players Taj Mahal, BB King and Paul Butterfield, as well as
featuring on the soundtracks of several Spike Lee movies.

Johnson’s career (like Evans’s repertoire choices) is living proof
that jazz has no walls. But although in SA we regularly hear jazz
versions of our historic popular standards — Ntyilo, Ntyilo is an
excellent example — few players here have the courage to try
stretching contemporary pop songs.

Faku, however, is a regular with Kesivan Naidoo’s band, The Lights,
which has drawn material from Bjork and Beyonce; he’s likely to have
empathy with Johnson’s catholic vision.

However, late October also offers another example of Gauteng’s feast
or famine musical context.

At the Sun City Superbowl, Selaelo Selota and Judith Sephuma share the stage on the same date that Johnson, Faku, Bosman and Arriale play Kyalami.

And at Newtown’s Market Theatre, the month’s whole final week is
devoted to music, with singer Lira on Thursday 28, multi-
instrumentalist Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse and singer Tshepo Tshola on
Friday 29, rockers Teargas on Saturday 30, and jazz singer Melanie
Scholtz with trumpeter Marcus Wyatt on Sunday 31.

Month-end is, of course, the one period when potential audiences may
have cash for tickets. But even well-heeled fans may not have the
stamina for so many music events in such a short period of time and,
in the case of the Selota/Jazz Foundation clash, no one can be in two
venues at once.

Almost certainly, more events will be announced as we near the end of
the month. Everyone suffers: artists find their audiences split;
venues cannot maximise takings and audiences are faced with
impossible, taxing or unaffordable choices.

At the Jazz Foundation launch, Bosman was particularly voluble about
the death of the Joburg jazz scene. This kind of crowding is one
reason. Rather than building new audiences by supporting
smaller-scale, regular gigs, promoters converge , vulture-like, simply
to feed on the fat carcass of payday.

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