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Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra

The Cinema, Newton Stewart, Sunday, October 27

Although Newton Stewart and District Music Club has given us jazz in the past, it made a wise choice for its first venture with a larger band by presenting Ken Mathieson’s Classic Jazz Orchestra.

The versatility of this band was recognised in the 2009 Scottish Jazz Awards, in which CJO won the Best Band Category, and in Jazz Journal International magazine’s 2011 critics’ poll the band’s CD with Alan Barnes of the music of Benny Carter was nominated for New CD of the Year.

The CJO octet explores jazz from its beginnings in New Orleans through orchestras of the 20s, 30s and 40s to the present day and celebrates the genius of musicians, composers and arrangers such as Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Benny Carter and Charles Mingus. Its aim is to re-interpret, not replicate, the music these men pioneered and Ken Mathieson, as arranger, does this by putting their music into new settings. The repertoire of the Classic Jazz Orchestra is wide-ranging and as a result audiences are treated to a short history of jazz in a single concert.

The band’s core members are Billy Hunter, lead trumpeter; Phil O’Malley, trombonist; Dick Lee on clarinet and saxophones; Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor saxophone; Martin Foster, who plays the entire families of clarinet and saxophone as well as flute; Tom Finlay, pianist; Roy Percy, bass; and Ken Mathieson, drummer, arranger and band leader. For the concert on Sunday, due to long-standing commitments, four of the original members were replaced by Lee Hallam on trombone, Brian Molley on tenor saxophone, Neil Cameron on bass and Paul Harrison on piano.

The programme of music was wide ranging and featured “Grandpa’s Spells” and “Black Bottom Stomp”, two compositions from Jelly Roll Morton. “Grandpa’s Spells” featured solos from Hallam, Hunter, Molley and Foster on baritone saxophone. “Black Bottom Stomp” featured Lee on clarinet riding high over the initial ensemble. This was followed by impeccable stop-time breaks by Hunter and the final ride-out ensemble had breaks by Hallam, Molley, Hunter, Harrison and Foster.

Duke Ellington was heavily featured. Two numbers written for his 1940/41 band, “Take The A-Train” and “Jack The Bear”, were re-interpreted by Mathieson. The former, which was actually written by Billy Strayhorn, had wonderful ensemble playing by the band and featured Hunter’s beautiful reading of the original Ray Nance trumpet solo from 1941. “Jack The Bear” was originally a showcase for Jimmy Blanton, whose short-lived career with Duke lasted only two years until his untimely death in 1942. Cameron featured with a wonderful bass solo.

There were two other compositions included in the programme which were written by Ellington: “Stompy Jones”, (recorded in 1933) and “Happy Go Lucky Local” from 1946. The former had an extended solo by Hallam and solos by Foster on clarinet, Lee on soprano, Hunter on trumpet, Molley on tenor and Harrison on piano. “Happy Go Lucky Local” opened with Harrison on piano and Cameron on bass with train noises by Mathieson on drums. There followed atmospheric solos by Hunter on muted trumpet, Foster on baritone. Cameron on bass, Foster again on clarinet and ending with some wonderful plunger trombone by Hallam.

Foster and Lee were showcased in two further Ellington compositions: “Lament For Javanette” and “Charlie The Chulo”. “Lament” was full of eastern promise with Foster on bass clarinet and Lee on clarinet beautifully interpreting what has been called “perfumed music”. “Charlie The Chulo” was an up-tempo romp with a tour-de-force of clarinet playing which rightly drew enthusiastic applause.

A final Ellington tribute was Mathieson’s composition “Carney”, which was dedicated to the great baritone saxophone player who was with Duke from 1927. This lovely little composition featured the wonderful baritone saxophone playing of Foster which evoked happy memories of the great man.

Another giant, Benny Carter, was also remembered by Mathieson, whose association with Benny goes back to 1984 when he played with him in Edinburgh and they subsequently became friends in 1987 when Ken ran the Glasgow International Jazz Festival and Benny was composer-in-residence. The number “Symphony in Riffs” was written by Carter in 1933 and demonstrates his wonderful writing for the saxophone section. This has been beautifully interpreted and scaled down by Ken for the octet and featured superb playing by Dick Lee with excellent solos all round.

The early jazz pioneers were represented by Ken’s re-interpretations of “Old Stack O’Lee Blues” which again featured Martin and Dick on clarinets with wonderful solos by both and some excellent piano by Paul Harrison.

The great Louis Armstrong number “Mahogany Hall Stomp” originally recorded by Louis in 1929 and given the Mathieson treatment featured the superb trumpet playing of Hunter in a bravura performance. The other early legendary jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke was remembered by “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans”. This was taken at a lovely loping tempo with solos by Lee on alto, a Bixian Billy Hunter, Molley on tenor and Foster on clarinet.

The early jazz pioneers “The Original Dixieland Jazz Band” who first recorded in 1917 were represented by “Eccentric” which featured Lee and Foster and the rest of the band in some joyful music.

Pianist composers were also included in the programme with two numbers “Hallelujah Time” by Oscar Peterson featuring the exciting boppish tenor saxophone playing of guest Molley and “Jitterbug Waltz” by Fats Waller beautifully interpreted by Harrison.

Brazilian music was represented by Antonio Carlos Jobim. The composition “Waters Of March” is a beautiful piece of music consisting of recurring themes which subtly alter as they are repeated. Each change of theme was interspersed by solos from members of the band.

This was a wonderful evening of jazz for which Ken Mathieson should be justly proud for he is a peerless arranger as well as being a great drummer. He is also blessed with a wonderful group of musicians who more than do justice to his arranging talents.

Newton Stewart and District Music Club are also to be warmly congratulated for their continuing support of good music.

Robin Aitken