by Ian Mann
May 12, 2022
The soloing is fluent and imaginative throughout and there is also a genuine rapport between the players. An album that very much exceeded my expectations
Artie Zaitz & Mark Kavuma
“Back To Back”
(Banger Factory Records – BF003)
Artie Zaitz – Hammond C-3 organ, Mark Kavuma – Wurlitzer electric piano, Steinway grand piano, trumpet, Will Cleasby – drums
Artie Zaitz is best known as a guitarist and Mark Kavuma as a trumpeter, but this recent release which features the pair demonstrating their keyboard skills demands that each musician be awarded the title of multi-instrumentalist.
I recently saw Zaitz give a brilliant performance on the guitar as part of drummer and composer Moses Boyd’s band at the 2022 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, an event that is reviewed elsewhere on this site. As a guitarist Zaitz has been heard on albums by Boyd, Kavuma, tuba player Theon Cross and the community big band Kinetika Bloco. He is a regular member of the Moses Boyd group and of Kavuma’s band The Banger Factory.
Born in Uganda but long established in London Kavuma leads his own quartet as well as The Banger Factory, an extension of the smaller group and the band that has since given its name to Kavuma’s own record label. Kavuma is also a Music Leader for the Kinetika Bloco organisation and occupies a similar role with Tomorrow’s Warriors.
His other musical activities include membership of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra and of Jazz Jamaica and he has also been a guest soloist with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra. Kavuma has toured with world music stars Mulatu Astatke and Salif Keita and has also played with the visiting American jazz musicians Barry Harris (piano) and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts (drums).
The versatile Kavuma has also worked with the rock group Scritti Polliti, grime artist Kano, and has also been part of the pit orchestra at several theatre productions.
He has also co-ordinated residencies at two different Brixton venues, The Hootenanny (as part of The Floor Rippers, the hip hop infused house band) and The Prince of Wales. The Banger Factory project emerged from the regular sessions at the latter.
This album, the third release on the Banger Factory label is yet another product of lockdown as Zaitz and Kavuma utilised the downtime to polish up their keyboard skills. Zaitz is the proud owner of a 1961 Hammond C-3 that he has named ‘Big Bertha. Something of an organ aficionado he has named ‘Brother’ Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff and Shirley Scott as primary influences. He has also studied live performances by Booker T. Jones, Lonnie Liston Smith, Larry Goldings, Joey DeFrancesco and Corey Henry.
Meanwhile Kavuma names Thelonious Monk as his musical hero and the great man is quoted twice in the album liner notes.
“We got together during the lockdown and started doing some practise sessions and livestreams” explains Zaitz. The organ was set up facing the window and the Wurlitzer was the opposite side of the room, back to back. Not the most practical, but it looked cool”. This configuration helped to give the album its title.
Eventually the duo decided to commit their experimentations to disc, expanding the group to a trio with the addition of Will Cleasby, regular drummer with The Banger Factory and with Kansas Smitty’s. Cleasby has also worked with alto saxophonist Tom Smith. He’s the only musician on this recording primarily playing his ‘main’ instrument.
The album was recorded at London’s Fish Factory Studios with Ben Lamdin engineering and Zaitz and Kavuma producing. The programme consists of a mix of original compositions and Thelonious Monk tunes.
Things get under way with Monk’s “Evidence”, a complex composition that offers many challenges to the musicians thanks to its numerous rhythmic demands. Kavuma is on the Steinway and sounds suitably ‘Monkish’ as he delivers the first solo, impressing with his overall fluency and general command of the instrument. He’s well supported by Cleasby’s crisp and precise drumming. The Hammond is a shadowy presence at first, but the second half of the tune finds Zaitz cutting loose and putting ‘Bertha’ through her paces, and very convincingly too. There’s something of a feature for the impressive Cleasby towards the close.
The title of “Cedar Tree” represents a homage to Cedar Walton, another of Kavuma’s piano heroes.
Kavuma brought the outline of the tune along to one of the practice sessions and he and Zaitz worked together to complete it. Introduced solo by Zaitz at the organ the piece subsequently gathers momentum with the addition of Wurlitzer and drums. The Wurlitzer brings a fresh instrumental sound to the mix and it’s Kavuma who takes the first solo, supported by Zaitz’s organ comping and the bustle of Cleasby’s drums. Zaitz then takes over at the Hammond as the roles of the two keyboard players are reversed. The busy Cleasby continues to provide plenty of percussive propulsion and is again featured himself.
The trio’s version of Monk’s “Round Midnight” is inspired by Monk’s own live recording. The unusual combination of Hammond and Wurlitzer brings a unique and suitably nocturnal feel to the tune. It’s a genuine ballad performance, spacious and melancholic, with Cleasby deploying brushes throughout.
Zaitz’s “Lockdown Blues” is arguably the centrepiece of the album, a near eleven minute epic that begins slowly but gradually builds in intensity. Eddie Harris and Larry Young have been cited as influences here.
“I started working on this during the first lockdown, when I first moved the organ home”, explains Zaitz. “It’s a 16 bar structure and the rhythm makes it sound unlike 4/4 as we’re playing it so slow”
The piece unfolds slowly and organically, a low key, bluesy lament incorporating a gently meandering solo from Kavuma on Wurlitzer, subtly underscored by organ and drums. The playing gradually becomes more urgent, the ethereal trill of the Wurlitzer eventually replaced by the earthier tones of the Hammond as the music takes on a genuinely epic quality, but without ever losing its essential sense of melancholy, a point emphasised by a final long, slow diminuendo.
The ballad “Mia’s Waltz” originally came from Kavuma although it was subsequently worked on by him and Zaitz together. Kavuma actually plays trumpet on this one, his thoughtful and lyrical phrasing underscored by the swell of the Hammond and the sounds of Cleasby’s brushed drums. There’s also a thoughtful and expressive solo from Zaitz on the organ, with Milt Buckner suggested as an influence here. Kavuma ends the piece with a lyrical trumpet cadenza.
The album concludes with “Church”, a piece that first appeared on Kavuma’s 2018 début, the album simply titled “Kavuma”. The title references both Kavuma’s Christian faith and the late night jam at The Haggerston in East London, an event that has taken place every Sunday for the last twenty years. Kavuma has been part of this nocturnal congregation since he was a teenager and this alternative ‘church’ helps to give the tune its title. There’s a celebratory, gospel feel about the music here with Kavuma featuring on acoustic piano. He takes the first solo, supported by Zaitz’s pedal bass lines and the brisk swish of Cleasby’s cymbals. The music subsequently gather momentum as Kavuma solos joyously, to shouts of approval. Zaitz subsequently takes over at the Hammond, hands and feet both feverishly active. Zaitz cites Jimmy Smith and Joey DeFrancesco as influences on his nimble footwork, while Smith’s influence is also in the bluesy feel that Zaitz’s organ solo brings to the music.
Having first encountered, and more importantly enjoyed, the playing of Zaitz and Kavuma on guitar and trumpet respectively I wasn’t quite sure what I’d make of this album. I think it’s fair to say that it very much exceeded my expectations. Both musicians are highly accomplished keyboard players and Zaitz’s command of that temperamental beast that is the Hammond organ is particularly impressive.
Without prior knowledge I suspect that nobody would know that this is an album by a couple of guys playing their ‘second instruments’. The soloing is fluent and imaginative throughout and there is also a genuine rapport between the players, with both Zaitz and Kavuma also excelling as highly responsive accompanists. The core duo receive excellent support from Cleasby, who is flexible and empathic throughout and is also allowed the room to say something on his account.
Organ fans in particular will find much to enjoy about this album, but it can be recommended to all jazz listeners. Who said nothing good ever came of lockdown?
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