Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Scott Hamilton: Jazz Standards

The Vancouver International Jazz Festival has just ended. Every year I thoroughly scour the festival brochure to see if there is anything that I and my friends might like to take in, and every year the list of possibilities seems to get shorter and shorter. What has traditionally been called mainstream jazz—and is now called “traditional”—is giving way steadily to alt/indie/noise, avant/free/improv/experimental, electro/ambient, fusion/jazz rock/nu jazz, and post bop.

I grew up with the jazz standards—“Body and Soul,” “Lullaby of Birdland,” “September Song”—played or sung by the likes of Stan Getz, Lester Young, Art Tatum, and Sarah Vaughn. To my mind, there are enough ways to improvise on the gorgeous ballad “Tenderly” to sustain one through a thousand hearings. As the old Duke Ellington tune says, "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing." Funk and fusion and hard bop just don't do it for me.

So when I look through the jazz festival brochure, I am looking for a band that will give me a generous portion of those old-time standards. And did I ever get lucky this year.

There is an old jazz club in Vancouver called The Cellar. It has been around since I was a teenager and has gone through some rough years and has changed ownership numerous times. Some time ago the club was taken over by a local musician, a tenor sax man by the name of Cory Weeds, and Mr. Weeds, who seems to have an entrepreneurial bent and a great deal of courage in addition to substantial musical chops, has transformed the old place into a significant jazz venue in the Pacific Northwest. The Cellar,which also serves pretty good food, is one of the featured venues of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

This year the name of one of the performers booked into The Cellar for jazzfest caught my eye; it was a name I was quite familiar with but had not heard in some years: tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton. Hamilton was to be accompanied by a local group of stellar musicians led by guitarist Oliver Gannon.

There is something about jazz in a club atmosphere that jazz performed in a concert hall cannot match. Our table was right up against one end of the stage, so we had a great view of the musicians and could hear all the instruments—piano, bass, and drums, in addition to Hamilton and Gannon—clearly. It was fascinating to watch the beautifully expressive faces of the musicians as they played solos, accompanied their fellow band members, or simply listened as another played. On those faces was passion, humour, deep concentration, and an obvious love for the music they played and for the people they played with.

Scott Hamilton is an American, but he has lived in Italy for the past several years. Before arriving in Vancouver from Florence, he had been traveling for 38 hours. The four cans of Red Bull under the piano at the end of the evening (and the fifth we saw in his hand outside the club as we passed him on the way to the car) attested to the jet lag he must have been feeling. Yet after the first couple of choruses of the opening number—“What is this Thing Called Love?”—I knew we were going to have a wonderful musical evening. These five musicians, who had just met the previous day, played as if they had been together for years. They established a relaxed and swinging groove from the first tune that did not let up for the entire two-set, two-hour performance. Ballads, swing tunes, and blues filled the packed room with a mellow joy that the best of jazz can only inspire.

And just about every song they played was a jazz standard that I was familiar with.

God is good indeed.

Photo Credits

by guyman22

by estwo

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