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John Etheridge Blue Spirits Trio

John Etheridge Blue Spirits Trio, Cheltenham Jazz Club, The Victory Club, Cheltenham, 30/06/2023.

by Ian Mann

July 02, 2023


An interesting and varied selection of tunes was combined with superb musicianship and a helping of good humour to make this a truly memorable evening.

John Etheridge Blue Spirits Trio, Cheltenham Jazz Club, The Victory Club, Cheltenham, 30/06/2023.

John Etheridge – guitar, Pete Whittaker – organ, George Double – drums

The final Cheltenham Jazz Club event before the organisation’s summer break saw the popular figure of guitarist John Etheridge returning to the Club.

Etheridge has played for CJC at a variety of locations over the years and the relaxed and informal atmosphere of the Victory Club represented the ideal setting for Blue Spirits, the guitarist’s long running ‘organ trio’ featuring Pete Whittaker on keys and George Double at the drums.

I recall seeing an earlier version of the group, featuring Etheridge, Whittaker and drummer Mark Fletcher at Brecon Jazz Festival back in 2013, but with a new drummer on board the band’s repertoire has changed considerably since then. Only two items from that Brecon show were performed at Cheltenham.

 I first heard Etheridge’s playing on the underrated 1974 album “Night Music” by Wolf, the band led by ex Curved Air violinist Darryl Way. This was a recording that even preceded Etheridge’s still ongoing tenure with Soft Machine, with the Softs scheduled to undertake a lengthy world tour in the Autumn of 2023, visiting the US, Canada and Europe, with several UK dates included in the schedule.

Arguably Etheridge, born in 1948, is best known for his involvement with Soft Machine but he’s an astonishingly versatile guitarist who has also played gypsy jazz with Stephane Grappelli, this probably representing his second most famous engagement. Grappelli isn’t the only famous violinist Etheridge has worked with, he’s also collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin, Nigel Kennedy, Ric Sanders and Didier Lockwood.

A phenomenal technician Etheridge is capable of moving seamlessly between a variety of jazz and rock styles and has appeared regularly on the Jazzmann web pages in a variety of musical contexts, including his own gypsy jazz group Sweet Chorus, featuring violinist Christian Garrick.

Etheridge and Garrick also work as a duo and the guitarist has also worked in the duo format with vocalist Vimala Rowe. He has been part of bassist Ben Crosland’s ‘Ray Davies Song Book’ quintet, playing Crosland’s ingenious jazz arrangements of Kinks songs.

Etheridge also loves performing with other guitarists, among them Remi Harris, Pete Oxley and Kit Holmes and even bigger names such as John Williams, Andy Summers, Pat Metheny, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. He’s paid tribute to Frank Zappa with the still ongoing Zappatistas and he and Whittaker are currently working with blues vocalist Paul Jones, of Manfred Mann fame.

All of the above is just the tip of the iceberg as regards Etheridge’s long and incredibly varied career. At seventy five he retains a boyish enthusiasm for music and clearly loves working with the Blue Spirits Trio. Tonight’s show was presented with Etheridge’s characteristic good humour as he bantered with his band mates and with the audience.

The first set was largely centred around a ‘love’ theme, or the ‘Darts of Eros’, as the guitarist put it, rather poetically. Not that there was anything overly sentimental or romantic about the playing as the trio opened with a hard grooving arrangement of “Careless Love”, introduced by a short passage of unaccompanied guitar. As Whittaker and Double joined the proceedings Etheridge’s solo embraced a degree of Americana style twang and saw him deploying a range of techniques, playing using both fingers and plectrum, the latter deployed to sharpen his attack, and using his thumb to produce bass lines, these complementing those of the organ. I’ve seen Etheridge perform in a variety of different contexts over the years but I don’t recall him ever making such extensive use of the thumb. I was reminded of both Wes Montgomery and the UK’s own Jim Mullen. Whittaker, one of this country’s leading jazz organists, followed, playing a dual manual instrument manufactured by the Crumar company. Finally drummer George Double was featured as he ‘traded fours’ with the guitar and organ. Double was a supportive figure throughout, unspectacular until his specialist features but always providing the necessary swing and propulsion that the music needed.

The subject of unrequited love was addressed on “You Don’t Know Me”, which was again introduced by a short passage of unaccompanied guitar. The song was then interpreted as a slow blues with Whittaker taking the first solo on organ, followed by Etheridge, whose soaring solo saw him making effective use of the tremolo arm.

Introducing an arrangement of the song “Once I Had A Secret Love” Etheridge reminisced about the hit versions recorded by singers Doris Day and Kathy Kirby, with Double interjecting to say that the tune had also been covered by the American jazz guitarist John Scofield. Inevitably the trio’s rendition owed most to the Scofield version as Etheridge and Whittaker expounded on the familiar melody, with Double weighing in with a powerful drum feature towards the close.

The trio had hitherto taken a fairly robust approach to these love themed jazz standards. Their version of pianist Mal Waldron’s most famous composition “Soul Eyes” represented the first true ballad, with Double deploying brushes almost throughout. Solos came from Whittaker and Etheridge, with the guitarist wringing maximum emotion from the song.

An interpretation of the Hank Williams song “Cold, Cold Heart” saw the trio exploring beyond the usual jazz repertoire with Double’s martial rhythms underpinning an Etheridge solo that saw the guitarist coming over like a more forceful Bill Frisell.

The name of John Scofield cropped up again, and not for the last time, as the first set closed with a version of Scofield’s composition “Do Like Eddie”. The tune is a dedication to tenor saxophonist and composer Eddie Harris and is sourced from Scofield’s 1994 album “Hand Jive”, an album upon which Harris actually appeared. Tonight’s version featured some chunky riffing with Etheridge making impressive use of a range of effects on a blistering solo that at one point featured just guitar and drums as Whittaker temporarily set out.

Clocking in at just over an hour this had been an excellent first set that had featured some interesting tune selections and some superb playing from all three musicians.

Etheridge often performs as a solo artist and the second set began with the guitarist delivering a solo version of “M’Sanduza”, a composition by the great South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, a musician that Etheridge still likes to refer to as Dollar Brand.
“M’ Sanduza” has been in Etheridge’s repertoire for many years and was also performed solo at Brecon, on that occasion alongside a solo version of Charles Mingus’ beautiful elegy to Lester Young “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.
Tonight’s rendition of   “M’Sanduza” combined Etheridge’s great dexterity as a guitarist with the use of live looping technology to create a lattice of interlocking South African melody lines and rhythms. “M’Sanduza” is a particularly joyous example of ‘Township Jazz’ and Etheridge orchestrated an audience clap along. Alongside the looping effects Etheridge also made effective use of a more humble form of technology, jamming a piece of cardboard under the strings to deliver that distinctive high register guitar jangling that is so characteristic of African music.

Whittaker and Double rejoined the leader for a terrific version of the spiritual “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”. Gospel drenched organ combined with
soaring, sustain heavy guitar to brilliant effect, all underpinned by Double’s deft drumming.

While introducing a second John Scofield composition Etheridge was quick to express his admiration for both ‘Sco’ and fellow guitarist Mike Stern. The tune “Wabash III” appeared on Scofield’s 1990 album “Time On My Hands” and is heavily influenced by earlier jazz styles, notably bebop. Etheridge relished the opportunities to dig into the complexities of Scofield’s writing with a high octane solo that also quoted from jazz and bop standards. When not soloing Etheridge is also a skilled accompanist, as he frequently demonstrated with his comping behind Whittaker’s solos.

The only other song to survive from that Brecon performance was Stevie Wonder’s “’’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers”, which Etheridge dedicated to the memory of the recently departed Jeff Beck, about whom he also recounted several anecdotes. A version of Wonder’s tune appears on Back’s landmark 1975 album “Blow by Blow”.
Tonight’s rendition began in atmospheric with Etheridge’s guitar FX and the shimmer of Double’s cymbals, the guitarist looping and layering his sound in quasi-orchestral fashion. As the piece gathered momentum Etheridge embarked on another of those soaring, sustain heavy guitar solos, underpinned by the swell of Whittaker’s keyboards. The organist was also to feature as a soloist on a piece that made effective use of dynamics through contrasting soft / loud sections.

Further anecdotes included stories about Etheridge’s involvement with “The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball” alongside Beck, Clapton, bassist Neil Murray, drummer Simon Phillips and members of the cast of Monty Python. All this was by way of introducing the last number, “I’m Comin’ Home Baby”, a 1962 hit for Mel Torme and later revived by the dreadful Michael Buble. The Blue Spirits Trio took a hard grooving, rock influenced approach to the song, with Etheridge giving a brief rendition of the lyrics before stretching out instrumentally. Scorching solos from both Whittaker and Etheridge were propelled by Double’s dynamic drumming.

As he thanked the band CJC’s Spencer Evans observed that this had probably been the loudest event the Club had ever hosted, but although there was a strong rock element, inevitable perhaps given Etheridge’s background, this was still emphatically a jazz performance with improvisation at its heart. An interesting and varied selection of tunes was combined with superb musicianship and a helping of good humour to make this a truly memorable evening. Etheridge can sometimes talk too much but his banter tonight was both informative and genuinely funny.

My thanks to Gil Emery of Cheltenham Jazz Club for organising press tickets for my wife and I. Thanks too to the band members for speaking with me and to John Etheridge for signing my copy of his excellent 1993 album “Ash”, recorded for bassist Danny Thompson’s ‘The Jazz Label’ and featuring a quartet including Steve Franklin (keyboards), Henry Thomas (electric bass) and Mark Fletcher (drums). Dudley Phillips guests on acoustic bass on one track. On hearing that Etheridge was visiting Cheltenham I dug out “Ash” for the first time in ages and I’m delighted to report that it still sounds good thirty years after its release. From the album Etheridge’s own “Venerable Bede” and Cedar Walton’s “Ugetsu” have since formed part of the Blue Spirits repertoire.

I’m not sure whether “Ash” is still available and unless I’m mistaken the music of Blue Spirits has never been documented on disc, which is a pity.

Cheltenham Jazz Club will resume its activities in the Autumn with the following events;

The John Law Re-Creations Quartet 18 September at the Everyman Studio

Edgar Macias/Tom Hill Latin Jazz Quartet 23 October at the Everyman Studio

Greg Abate Quartet 10 November at The Victory Club

Please visit for further details

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