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Routes In Jazz ; A Music Retrospective of Dizzy Reece, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 26/01/2019.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Routes In Jazz ; A Music Retrospective of Dizzy Reece, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 26/01/2019.

Ian Mann is educated and entertained by the first date of a tour celebrating the life and music of trumpeter Dizzy Reece performed by pianist Trevor Watkis and a stellar international quintet.

“Routes In Jazz;  A music retrospective of the great Jamaican trumpet icon Alphonso “Dizzy” Reece featuring the Trevor Watkis Quintet, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 26/01/2019.

Trevor Watkis – piano, Byron Wallen – trumpet, Ralph Moore – tenor saxophone, Dezron Douglas – double bass, Willie Jones III – drums.

Tonight was the first date of a UK tour celebrating the life and music of the Jamaican born trumpeter and composer Alphonso Son “Dizzy” Reece.

Born in Kingston on 5th January 1931 Dizzy Reece is still very much with us, now aged eighty eight and living in The Bronx, New York City. His is a remarkable story, one that saw the seventeen year old Dizzy coming to the UK on the Windrush in 1948, landing in Liverpool and eventually settling in London where he performed with many of Britain’s leading jazz musicians. He also lived and worked in Paris, playing with expatriate American musicians such as saxophonist Dexter Gordon and Don Byas, an experience that eventually led him to relocate in 1959 to New York, the city that he still calls home.

My interest in tonight’s event was piqued by an email sent to me by the tour promoters, the London based Blue Soundscape Music and I’m grateful to both them and to Birmingham Town Hall / Symphony Hall for agreeing to place my wife and I on the guest list.

I’ll admit to knowing precious little about Dizzy Reece prior to this evening’s performance but even so his was a name that had been on my radar for a long time thanks to a couple of re-issued Victor Feldman albums on the Jasmine record label that I purchased long ago when I was first getting into jazz, probably sometime in the early 1980s.

Feldman (1934 -87), a British born pianist, vibraphonist and percussionist had made the move to the US in 1955. My two re-issues, “Transatlantic Alliance” and “Victor Feldman In London Vol. One; The Quartet” were recorded in 1956/7 with London based musicians and featured Feldman doubling on piano and vibes in a variety of different line ups. The personnel included Reece, fellow trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, saxophonists Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott and drummer Phil Seaman, all true British jazz legends. Having come to jazz from a rock direction my interest in Feldman had been sparked by his appearances as a session musician on numerous albums by Steely Dan, particularly his wonderful electric piano solo on the song “Black Cow” from the album “Aja”.

However in terms of Dizzy Reece I feel that I’m now starting to digress. The second reason for attending tonight’s gig was the presence of a stellar international quintet assembled by pianist Trevor Watkis, brother of the acclaimed jazz vocalist Cleveland Watkiss.

Watkis had intentionally chosen a Transatlantic line up in an attempt to mirror Reece’s own career trajectory. Thus we had the All American rhythm section of Douglas and Jones together with the London born Anglo-American Moore, who moved to California in 1972 aged sixteen to live with his father. Moore attended Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving to New York and and made his recorded début as a leader in 1985.  He is currently based in Los Angeles. I’d heard Moore’s playing before but had always assumed that he had been born and raised in the States.

Providing the British interest were Watkis and trumpeter Byron Wallen, the latter filling the role that it seems Reece himself was due to play. Reece is currently suffering from dental problems, a scourge common to trumpeters and saxophonists alike, but it’s always a pleasure to hear Wallen play and Watkis couldn’t have chosen a more able or appropriate deputy.

Besides the playing of five exceptional musicians tonight’s show also featured a strong visual element. A large screen was suspended above the band, upon which images relating to Dizzy Reece were projected. The great man was very much with us in spirit and thanks to the medium of modern technology he was also able to speak to us in a short film titled “One Love; Dizzy Reece” which was shown before a note was played. Speaking from his home in the Bronx Dizzy offered audiences New Year greetings, apologised for his absence due to those dental problems and told us something about his career, from coming to England on the Windrush to playing with Scott, Hayes, Feldman and others in London before making the move to New York.

Reece was filmed both at his home and in Franz Sigel Park in the Bronx, which had been laid out by Dizzy’s namesake, the Luxembourg born architect Louis Aloys Risse. The trumpeter explained that it was only a short walk across the bridge to Harlem, the district where he lived for many years.

Although less musically active in recent years Reece has become something of a polymath, writing book and screenplays and exhibiting as a painter. Examples of his artworks were shown, paintings that combined abstraction with Afro-Futurist imagery. These were striking, vibrant, colourful, thought provoking works that I would be happy to see more of.

Watkis filled us in with more biographical details,  informing us that Reece had once lived in Birmingham and then in Lancashire before making the move to London.

There were also audio snippets of archive interviews with Reece in which the trumpeter explained that he had started on the instrument aged eleven. “I had a revolutionary streak and an evolutionary streak” he declared, “that’s been the matrix for my music”.

The music of the American bebop revolution had reached Jamaica fairly early and Reece fell in love with the sound, presumably earning his nickname from a devotion to Dizzy Gillespie, with whom ha later worked. It was a music that he was first to explore in Europe and the in the US itself. Following his move to New York Reece was at one time a member of drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and was himself signed to the Blue Note label on the recommendation of none other than Miles Davis.

As Watkis and the quintet began to play images were projected behind them, including photographs of Reece himself in performance plus those of some of the musicians he played with or was inspired by. Among those I recognised were the British contingent of Scott, Hayes and Feldman plus American icons such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and namesake Dizzy Gillespie.

There were also some terrific images of recordings that Reece had been involved with, including early British releases on the Tempo label founded by producer and jazz journalist Tony Hall. These included “A New Star” (1955/56) and “Progress Report” (1956-58). Reece’s Blue Note albums, featuring covers in the classic Blue Note style, were also depicted including 1960’s “Comin’ On”.
Later works for other labels included “Asia Minor” (1962), “Nirvana; The Zen of the Jazz Trumpet” (1968) “From In To Out” (1970) and Manhattan Project (1978), plus the Reece composed jazz themes for the soundtrack of the film “Nowhere To Go”.

Although he was never a prolific sideman there were also album covers featuring Reece’s work with others including Blakey, pianists Duke Jordan and Andrew Hill, saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley and trombonist Slide Hampton.

Other visual images that evoked particular interest were photographs taken on board the Windrush, an endorsement for Beson trumpets, and a classic photograph from 1961 taken at an informal jazz summit in New York’s Central Park and featuring no fewer than twenty one famous trumpeters of the day. Reece is seated between Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie in an image to rival Art Kane’s iconic “A Great Day In Harlem” photograph, which had been taken just three years earlier.

The images circulated on a loop as Watkis and the quintet played, giving the audience plenty of time to absorb all the details of the photo-montage. Arguably the visuals, which even included photographs of tonight’s band,  were a little distracting at times but in general I found it quite easy to switch my attention between the screen and the stage.

As far as I’m aware most of the material that was performed was written by Reece, although at least one Watkis original featured in the second set. I had no idea that Reece had been such a prolific composer with much of tonight’s material written in the classic hard bop, Blue Note style. A piece would typically start with an infectious hook or theme, typically stated by the two horns working in unison, before shading off into individual solos with Wallen, Moore and Watkis featuring on every tune and with others sometimes including features for Douglas and Jones.

The standard of the playing from this hand picked international quintet was exceptional with a well balanced, hard swinging ensemble sound enhanced by wonderfully fluent and inventive solos. Wallen has long been a mainstay of the UK jazz scene, a versatile musician who is equally at home in a variety of jazz contexts, but who clearly relished the opportunity of flexing his hard bop muscles and demonstrating his flawless chops here.

Moore is a master of the hard bop style and has recorded numerous discs in the idiom under his own name as well as working as a sideman with many of the jazz greats, among them pianists Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver, Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, drummer Roy Haynes and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. He too was extremely impressive as he combined with, or traded solos with, Wallen.

Watkis is arguably less well known than his brother, Cleveland, but proved to be a versatile pianist, capably holding the quintet together but also cutting loose as a fluent and imaginative soloist. I have to confess to having heard little of him on record but I was impressed by his contribution here. Also an acclaimed jazz educator Watkis has worked with leading musicians from both sides of the Atlantic including UK saxophonists Jason Yarde and Tony Kofi and the American rhythm team of Reuben Rogers (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums).

Talking of rhythm teams I’d been fortunate enough to witness both Douglas and Jones perform live before, albeit not together. Both occasions occurred at the London Jazz Festival and both were at Ronnie Scott’s. Jones appeared there with the late, great Cedar Walton back in 2010, Douglas with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane two years later. Both impressed again tonight, particularly Jones who didn’t seem to have changed at all during the interim. Wiry and elegant he sat bolt upright behind the kit and drummed with a crisp, precise, swinging authority. He and the dexterous, propulsive Douglas, in conjunction with leader Watkis offered great support for the front line soloists. Wallen and Moore were given ample opportunity to fly with such a Rolls Royce rhythm section behind them. Meanwhile their individual bass and drum features were impressive and consistently absorbing.

For a reviewer the only thing missing tonight were actual tune announcements. Watkiss gave us plenty of biographical information about Reece but very few of the tunes were actually introduced by name. Of the four buoyant, fiercely swinging hard bop delights that we heard in the first half only “Rebound”, from Reece’s second Blue Note album, 1959’s “Star Bright” was actually named. I had hoped to button hole Watkis after the show to get a set list but by the time we had to leave nobody from the band had come out to the foyer.

If the focus in the first half had been very much on the hard bop, Blue Note sound the second set offered more variation. After a sturdy slice of more of the same to start the next piece began with a freely structured dialogue between Douglas’ bass and Watkis’ piano, these two subsequently joined by the sound of Wallen’s muted trumpet. Douglas’ bass motif and Jones’ rolling drum grooves then took the music into more modal, African influenced territory suggesting that Reece had adapted to the changes in jazz that Miles Davis, John Coltrane and others introduced in the 1960s. This provided the platform for a powerful solo from Wallen, now playing with an open bell, that combined stridency with fluency. Similarly impressive statements came from Moore and Watkis, plus the whip smart Jones at the drums.

With its piano trio introduction,  contrapuntal horn lines and expansive solos from Wallen, Moore and Watkis the pianist’s own “Star Gazing” offered something a little different, the piece written as a tribute to Reece and the trumpeter’s keen interest in astronomy.

Reece’s own “Big Fist”, written for Victor Feldman’s Big Band saw the quintet coming on like a mini version of that big beast in a dynamic performance featuring exuberantly racing horn lines and blazing solos from Wallen, Moore and Watkis plus a series of volcanic drum breaks from Jones that developed into a full blown solo, this rewarded with a terrific reception from the crowd.

Watkis himself introduced the final piece at the piano, his percussive motif answered by Douglas’ bass and then continuing throughout the tune in mesmeric, hypnotic fashion as he underpinned the squalling counterpoint of the horns. Presumably the piece was written by Reece, but it had something of an air of Monk or Mingus about it, I suspect it may have been called “Variations On Monk”.

The lack of tune titles aside, probably less of a concern to the other audience members than to myself, this was a hugely enjoyable performance that both entertained and educated. I came out of the concert knowing a lot more about Dizzy Reece than I had done previously. His musical story truly is a remarkable one and despite his physical absence he was still very much the star of the show.

Not that this detracts in any way from the contribution of Watkis and the quintet who played Reece’s music (and that of Watkis) with passion, skill and grace. This was a very classy outfit.

Tonight was the first night of the tour and I suspect that the presentation may become more polished as the tour progresses. There were no reservations about the playing though, which was terrific throughout.

This is a show that is both entertaining and educational and features a specially selected Anglo-American line up that is unlikely to be seen again any time soon.

The remaining British dates on the tour are listed below. The Routes In Jazz tour is also due to visit the USA and, of course, Jamaica.

30.01.19 - Manchester, England - Band On The Wall
31.01.19 - London, England – Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club
01.05.19 – Nottingham, England – Lakeside Arts


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