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Ming Hat

Jam Ming

by Ian Mann

November 09, 2006


This is an excellent record and is head and shoulders above the glut of "bop by numbers" albums on the market.

Ming Hat is the latest release from producer Geoff Haslam who now lives in semi retirement in Leominster, Herefordshire. However, there was a time when Haslam was a staff producer for Atlantic Records in New York City. He worked with rock legends ‘The Velvet Underground’ on their 1970 album “Loaded” and also produced other artists on the Atlantic roster ranging from the J.Geils Band to Bette Midler. The label also had a jazz catalogue and Haslam worked with multi- instrumentalist Eddie Harris and flautist Herbie Mann. In the 1980’s he produced trumpeter Hugh Masakela for Pendulum records. This was Haslam’s last major project.

Prior to his production duties Haslam had been a musician himself playing tenor saxophone in rock and soul bands on the London scene of the 1960’s often in the company of Ming Hat pianist Ralph Freeman.

The idea for Ming Hat came about when Haslam jammed with Freeman and drummer Rod Coombes at a mutual friend’s 60th birthday party. They enjoyed it so much that they decided to record a jazz album. With Haslam opting for the producer’s chair they drafted alto saxophonist Chris Francis into the band together with bassist Marcus Vergette.

The quality of the writing and playing on “Jam Ming” makes one wonder why these musicians are not better known. However each member is something of a “renaissance man” and music is only one part of their artistic personalities.

Pianist Ralph Freeman is also an exhibiting artist in the modern idiom. He lives in St. Ives, Cornwall, something of an artistic enclave, and also finds time to run the St. Ives Jazz Club.

Rod Coombes still earns his living as a session drummer with a wide range of rock and pop artists. Back in 1968 he was voted young musician of the year on classical percussion. Later he had a spell as drummer with Stealers Wheel of “Stuck In The Middle With You” fame. Currently he is still the first choice drummer for The Strawbs when they go out on tour. His jazz credentials include work with late 70’s band Earth Transit. Besides his percussive skills he has a degree in Islamic glass.

Chris Francis played with many jazz and blues artists in the early 70’s from Alexis Korner to Dudu Pukwana and also led his own band Naima. He later concentrated on his career as a graphic artist and photographer but is still active as a music teacher and educator.

Bassist Marcus Vergette was born in Illinois and listened to a good deal of American jazz in his formative years. A British citizen, he subsequently moved to the UK and has since worked with Peter King, Jean Toussaint and Scott Hamilton among others. He lives in Devon where he works as a sculptor when not involved in projects as a session musician.

Given the busy artistic lives of the musicians it was decided to record the album very quickly and to try and recapture the 50’s and 60’s ethos of recording. “Jam Ming” was recorded over a five-day period in summer 2001. Monday and Tuesday were spent rehearsing, with recording taking place on Wednesday and Thursday. All the tunes were recorded on the first or second take. It was intended that the album should be mixed on the Friday but in the end this took a little longer. However to all intents and purposes the album was completed in a week, just like the old days.

The idea worked brilliantly. Both Freeman and Coombes are excellent jazz composers and working on their strong themes the band were able to recreate an authentic hard bop “blowing session” feel. The music is reminiscent of the great Blue Note recordings of the fifties and sixties-think Blakey, Hancock, Mobley, Morgan and McLean.

The blues influenced compositions of Charles Mingus are another major influence. Mingus of course helped to provide the band with its name, probably in conjunction with his homage to Lester Young “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.

“Jam Ming” gets off to a rousing start with Freeman’s “Spectral Thing” which has classic hard bop feel to it and swings mightily thanks to Coombes, Vergette and Freeman. Francis’ wailing alto cuts a swathe through the rhythm and Coombes solos briefly.

Freeman also contributes “Modal Warning” which has a strong modal theme, an excellent solo from the composer and an irresistible rhythmic drive.

Coombes’ “Mingus”, a dedication to the great man is darker and more complex. It is a fitting tribute to a brilliant but complicated and often tragic figure.

Freeman’s “Grasshopper” marks a return to the hard bop virtues with a walloping soul jazz theme. It also boasts a relaxed blues inflected piano solo and a feature for the rich tones of Vergette’s bass.

“Flamingo Allnighter” written by Coombes pays tribute to London’s Flamingo Club on Wardour Street where he and Freeman played in the sixties. This keeps the pot bubbling nicely with great playing from Francis on soprano, Freeman and Coombes himself.

There is no let up with Freeman’s composition “Riff Raff”. The first part of the composition is based around a piano/horn riff and features yet another flowing solo from Freeman. The second half features Francis’ alto soloing dynamically over Freeman’s insistent piano figure with fine support from Coombes and Vergette.

“AM PM” also by Freeman is a return to more sombre territory and features Vergette on arco bass and Francis’ atmospheric flute. The drumming of Coombes is a fine example of controlled dynamics and features dramatic use of the cymbals.

Coombes takes up the composer’s mantle again for July 52nd a short piece based around Freeman’s jerky piano motif.  Francis features on alto and there is a short solo from Vergette. It doesn’t go anywhere much and is the least distinguished track on the album.

Freeman’s “Turkish Coffee” closes the album. Francis’ alto solos dramatically over another hypnotic piano riff. There is a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour to Francis’ playing as his horn wails and he slurs and bends the notes. It’s a great way to close the album.

This is an excellent record and is head and shoulders above the glut of “bop by numbers” albums on the market. The writing of Freeman and Coombes is of a very high standard and the playing of the whole band is exemplary. The enthusiasm and sheer joy of music making comes across with every note and the spontaneity of the project is infectious.

Haslam does an exemplary job in the producer’s role. The overall sound is excellent and the balance between the instruments is spot on. The album is well produced but, crucially, not over-produced. Haslam maintains the feeling of immediacy that permeated the session and with the assistance of his engineers Roland Jones and Gareth Williams captures something of the spirit of the great Rudy Van Gelder.

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