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Adam Fairhall & Johnny Hunter

Winifred Atwell Revisited

by Ian Mann

January 10, 2022


The duo retain an obvious affection for their source material and their filtering of it through an ‘avant garde’ lens makes for a rewarding experience for the contemporary listener.

Adam Fairhall & Johnny Hunter

“Winifred Atwell Revisited”

(Efpi Records FP038)

Adam Fairhall – Piano
Johnny Hunter – Suitcase drums

Released on 7th January 2022 “Winifred Atwell Revisited” features the Manchester based duo of pianist Adam Fairhall and drummer Johnny Hunter, both regular presences on the Jazzmann web pages.

Fairhall has worked as a sideman in bands led by trumpeter Matthew Halsall and saxophonist Nat Birchall as well as pursuing a productive solo career. Recordings under his own name include “Second Hand Blues” and the excellent “The Imaginary Delta” (2012), both collaborations with the electronics artist Paul J. Rogers. “The Imaginary Delta” also included contributions from a wider ensemble of Manchester and London jazz musicians. My review of that exceptional recording can be read here;

In recent years Fairhall has become increasingly immersed in fully improvised music in a variety of different contexts including the groups Ant Traditions (with guitarist Dave Birchall), The Markov Chain (with bassist Tim Fairhall and drummer Paul Hession) and Spirit Farm (with Corey Mwamba on vibes and percussion, Christophe de Bezenac on sax, Dave Kane on bass, Anton Hunter on guitar and Johnny Hunter at the drums). Meanwhile The Revival Room features him playing organ alongside Johnny Hunter and saxophonist Mark Hanslip.

Fairhall and Hunter are regular collaborators and in 2019 linked up with the Leeds based musician Seth Bennett (double bass) on the album “Fragments”, a recording exploring the interstices between composition and improvisation. The above biographical details are largely sourced from my review of that album, which can be read in full here;

Johnny Hunter leads his own chordless post bop quartet featuring Bennett, Hanslip and trumpeter Graham South. Inspired by similar groups led by saxophonists Ornette Coleman, Joe Henderson, John Zorn and Chris Speed the Hunter Quartet has released the albums “Appropriations” (2013) and “While We Still Can” (2015), both for Efpi Records.

Hunter has also been a contributor to bands led by his guitarist brother Anton, appearing with Anton’s trio and with Anton’s large ensemble Article XI. The brothers also team up with saxophonist and bassoonist Mick Beck in the improvising trio Beck Hunters. They are also part of the jazz/ska/dub sextet Skamel.

Johnny Hunter is also a regular fixture in groups led by the London based saxophonist, composer and improviser Cath Roberts, among them Sloth Racket, Word of Moth and Favourite Animals. He and Roberts are also members of the Anglo-Swiss ensemble MoonMot.

Hunter has also worked with Nat Birchall and with the experimental quartet Mercury, led by saxophonist Tom Thorp. A busy musician who works all over the North of England and beyond he has also recorded with bands led by pianist Misha Gray and Laura Cole,  vocalist / songwriter Nishla Smith, bassist John Pope, saxophonists Martin Archer and Pete Lyons and with the bands Marley Chingus, Blind Monk Trio and Engine Room Favourites.  He has also drummed for the large ensemble the Manchester Jazz Collective.

Hunter’s 2020 solo album “Pale Blue Dot”, which appeared on his own Northern Contemporary imprint, was a live recording featuring an unusual sextet including drums, sax and bass plus three string players. This ambitious, but highly successful and often beautiful performance is reviewed here;

Also from 2020 his “Studies In Lockdown” album,  released on Efpi Records, examined the potential of remote improvising in the company of old friends Mark Hanslip (tenor sax), Graham South (trumpet) and Seth Bennett (double bass). A second volume, released in 2021 added the electronics of Herve Perez. A Jazzmann feature on the “Studies In Lockdown” project can be found here;

In September 2021 Hunter was named as one of the participants on the sixteenth Take Five Talent Development Programme, co-ordinated by London based promoter Serious.

This latest duo project has its roots in Fairhall’s interest in historic jazz piano styles and the ways in which they can be integrated into more contemporary contexts, including free jazz. These elements have previously found expression in aspects of both “The Imaginary Delta” and “Friendly Ghosts”.

He has also become fascinated by arcane keyboard instruments and regularly incorporates the sounds of toy pianos, Indian harmoniums and other mechanical keyboard instruments into his work,  often subjecting them to prepared piano techniques. This aspect of his work can be found on the digital EP “Little Instruments”, released on Efpi in 2019.

According to the press release accompanying this album Fairhall’s duo with Hunter was established as “a vehicle to explore early jazz forms through an avant garde lens – something for which this combination is perfectly suited, being a favoured combination in both Harlem stride and free music.”

On this album their lens focusses on Winifred Atwell (1914 – 83), the Trinidadian born pianist who became a huge star in both the UK and Australia and who enjoyed a run of huge instrumental hits in the 1950s. She was the first Black person to have a No. 1 hit single in the UK (“Let’s Have Another Party”, 1954) and enjoyed great acclaim as an instrumentalist at a time when it was unusual for a female to do so.

Growing up in rural England in the 1960s I can recall Atwell’s name being mentioned by my parents and grandparents. As I remember they enjoyed hearing Atwell’s hits being played on the radio, but I suspect that they had little knowledge of her origins.
I recall that they also enjoyed the music of Mrs Mills and Russ Conway, both of whom had piano instrumental hits in the 1950s and 60s.

As I grew into a heavy metal loving teenager the likes of Atwell, Conway and Mills became seriously uncool and I was to give Atwell and her music precious little thought for pretty much the next fifty years, until this album from Adam and Johnny dropped through my letterbox.

My ‘relationship’ with Atwell pretty much ties in with the remarks in the press release accompanying this album;
“Despite selling over 20 million records Atwell is barely a footnote in jazz histories and histories of popular music. In a sense her music falls between two stools, containing too little improvisation to be regarded as ‘genuinely’ jazz, but too much part of the murky pre-rock history of popular music to be considered by pop historians”.

Atwell’s music combined elements of the boogie woogie and honky tonk piano styles then sweeping America with aspects of British musical hall and the pub piano tradition. This resulted in a style that was immensely popular and which also tied in with the ragtime and trad jazz revivals in both the US and UK. The duo describe Atwell as “a nexus point of various streams of transatlantic popular music”.

Fairhall’s interest in Atwell’s music was sparked by conversations with promoter Tony Dudley-Evans and with academic and jazz historian George McKay, who has written extensively about Atwell.

Fairhall subsequently performed “If You Knew Susie”, a song associated with Atwell, at an event at the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival, evoking favourable comments from audience members. He then approached Hunter with a view to taking a more in depth exploration of Atwell’s music and the duo debuted the full project at the 2019 Manchester Jazz Festival.

Covid delayed the album recording until January 2021, with the finished product now emerging a full year later.

Fairhall says of the album;
“I’m particularly excited about this project. It’s been a chance for me to explore the mixture of early jazz piano and the avant garde that I’ve been working on for a long while. The music hall songs that are part of the ‘singalong’ repertoire that Atwell used for her medleys are classics with all sorts of possibilities. A neglected figure and a neglected repertoire too. We’ve been touring it and it’s wonderful to meet audience members who remember Atwell, but who are also hip to the free stuff”.

Atwell’s live appearances used to feature her playing not only a concert grand but also her “other piano”, in reality a succession of cheap, battered old uprights, usually purchased from junk shops, that signified the British pub piano tradition. Such an instrument features on the sketch for the album cover, alongside a ‘suitcase’ drum kit, typically just a snare drum and a pair of sticks or brushes.

The pieces chosen by Fairhall and Hunter for homage/re-interpretation are largely selected from the Atwell repertoire. The first piece to be selected is arguably the Atwell piece best known to modern audiences. “Black and White Rag”, written in 1908 by George Botsford was recorded as a B side by Atwell in 1952 but later enjoyed a new lease of life in the 1970s when it was chosen by BBC TV as the theme tune for the Pot Black snooker series.
In the hands of Fairhall and Hunter the tune retains its essential joyousness, opening in authentically jaunty fashion and still evoking the spirit of a bygone age despite the contemporary flourishes that the duo bring to the piece. Hunter shadows Fairhall very effectively and is very much an equal partner in the project. Here his vivacious performance on the snare is augmented by the sound of small percussion (woodblock, cymbal) and the clatter of sticks on rims. Following the opening statement of the familiar theme the duo shade off into more freely structured, contemporary sounding areas, embracing changes of mood and meter before eventually returning to the theme. No matter how far they push things Fairhall and Hunter always retain the essential spirit of this piece and of the others.

“Roll Out The Barrel”, also known as the “Beer Barrel Polka” was written in 1927 by Jaromir Vejvoda and became a popular song in World War 2 following the addition of English lyrics by Lew Brown and Wladimir Timm. Atwell included as part of her “Make It A Party” medley, a UK chart hit in 1956.
The duo take a different approach to this, subtly subverting the tune in a slowed down arrangement, giving the familiar boisterous singalong a melancholy tinge. Fairhall also injects elements of American blues, his piano ruminations augmented by Hunter’s empathic brushed support.

Inevitably the album had to include a version of “If You Knew Susie”, the song that kick-started the whole project. Written in 1925 by Buddy DeSylva and Joseph Meyer it was the first song on “Let’s Have A Party”,  Atwell’s hit medley from 1952.
Another popular singalong tune this is approached in a broadly ragtime style and incorporates some scintillating dialogue between piano and drums that expands into more contemporary free jazz territory, but again without sacrificing the spirit and joyousness of the piece.

“Taboo” was written by the Cuban singer and composer Margarita Lecuona in 1934. It was widely recorded and serves as a demonstration as to the importance of the influence of Latin American music with African roots on American popular music. Atwell released as a single with “Lady of Spain” in 1952.
This commences with an atmospheric solo drum / percussion introduction from Hunter, who coaxes an impressively broad variety of sounds from his ‘suitcase’  drum set up. Fairhall then enters to bring a sultry Latin tinge to the music, with Hunter now reverting to brushed snare drum accompaniment. The duo adopt a fairly straight-ahead approach, gradually accelerating the tune in its later stages.

“Boogie for Atwell” is a free improvisation by the duo that builds from a loosely structured piano / drum dialogue to combine elements of free jazz with the boogie woogie style that helped to make Atwell famous. It incorporates a quote from Atwell’s own composition “Cross Hands Boogie” and represents an excellent example of the way in which Fairhall is able to bring seemingly disparate strands of music together. The performance also includes a brief solo drum episode from the excellent Hunter.

The album concludes with “My Old Man (Said Follow The Van)”, sometimes referred to as “Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way”. This song, from the later stages of the music hall era, was written in 1919 by Fred W. Leigh and Charles Collins and became a popular pub singalong tune. Like the earlier “Roll Out the Barrel” it formed part of Atwell’s 1956 “Make It A Party” medley.
Fairhall and Hunter attack this with gusto, adding their own ragtime style syncopations but retaining the essential verve and humour of the piece. They give the music a more contemporary tweak too, flirting with free jazz and other more modern styles.

I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this album. Most of these tunes are embedded in the British psyche and it was both interesting and enjoyable to hear them being approached in a different style to the familiar.

The duo retain an obvious affection for their source material and their filtering of it through an ‘avant garde’ lens makes for a rewarding experience for the contemporary listener. Fairhall and Hunter stretch the fabric of the music, but without tearing it totally apart or being in any way disrespectful. This is homage combined with musical exploration and the sound is surprisingly rich and varied despite the apparent limitations of both the material and the instrumentation. It all makes for an intriguing and entertaining package and I’m not surprised that the duo have had such a positive reaction to their recent live performances of this project. It may all be a bit ‘niche’, but it’s a niche that a lot of people will thoroughly enjoy.

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