by Ian Mann
March 26, 2012
Stu Brown's take on the music of Raymond Scott combines superb musicianship with a real knowledge of the man and his music.
Stu Brown Sextet, Twisted Toons, The Music of Raymond Scott
Black Mountain Jazz, Kings arms, Abergavenny, 25/02/2012.
Back in 2009 Scottish drummer Stu Brown released an album celebrating the music of the extraordinary Brooklyn born composer, pianist, bandleader and musical inventor Raymond Scott(1908-94). Scott’s “Quintette”, in reality a six piece, was a popular act of the 1930’s with their brand of “descriptive jazz” featuring such extraordinary titles such as “War Dance For Wooden Indians” and “Dinner Music For A Pack Of Hungry Cannibals”. Scott’s music later became familiar to generations of children when Warner Brothers bought up Scott’s publishing rights in 1943 and began using his music in their Loony Toons and Merry Melodies animated films (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck) etc. Scott’s music is thus instantly familiar to countless numbers of listeners yet with very few of these knowing the first thing about the man who wrote it. I’ll admit that I’d never heard of Scott prior to reviewing Brown’s CD despite the instant familiarity of some of the tunes contained therein- and very few of the gig goers I spoke to at the Kings Arms knew anything about Scott either.
Brown initially conceived his Scott project in 2008 as a celebration of the centenary of the composer’s birth but with the appeal of the music stretching far beyond the usual jazz constituency the project has taken on a life of its own. Tonight’s concert was part of a national tour supported by Jazz Services, The Rural Touring Network and in this instance the Arts Council of Wales’ Night Out Scheme. Some of the shows have seen the group collaborating with local children and tonight was no exception. During the afternoon a two hour animation workshop had been organised by the local arts association Arts Alive from nearby Crickhowell and the work of the ten local children who had participated was incorporated into the evening’s performance.
Under the benign directorship of drummer and leader Stuart Brown tonight’s event was part history lesson, part concert with some fascinating facts emerging about Scott, the man and his music. The evening began with an eight minute excerpt from a documentary film about Scott made by his son Stan Warnow, a cinematographer best known for his work on the Woodstock Festival documentary and the US TV series “The Wonder Years”. This included snippets of information and endorsements of Scott’s eccentric genius from a variety of “talking heads” before culminating in an animation of the Scott “Quintette” playing “War Dance For Wooden Indians” with Brown’s sextet subsequently picking up the baton to deliver their own version of a piece that remains highly “descriptive” even by Scott’s standards.
The band Brown has assembled to play Scott’s music contains some of Scotland’s finest jazz musicians. A three man horn section featured Tom McNiven on mainly muted trumpet, Brian Molley on tenor sax and occasional clarinet and Martin Kershaw on clarinet and occasional alto sax. Tom Gibbs took Scott’s role at the piano, here by necessity a contemporary electric model, and double bassist Roy Percy joined Brown in a flexible and inventive rhythm section. All six players are superb technicians and I was particularly impressed with Kershaw’s clarinet skills having previously thought of him as being an alto specialist. The combination of whimsicality and familiarity that has come to define Scott’s music means that many listeners, myself included, have come to regard it as being rather “throwaway”. Although I’d previously reviewed Brown’s album it was really only on seeing these fine musicians play Scott’s music in the flesh that I could begin to appreciate just how sophisticated and well written and arranged it is. Brown’s sextet, all reading, stuck largely to Scott’s densely scripted 30’s and 40’s arrangements with little scope for improvisation or re-interpretation (with a couple of notable exceptions which I’ll come to later). And yet, there’s a neat paradox here, in Scott’s original sextet the composer would hum a line to his instrumentalists and ask them to interpret it. Out of these improvisations came the tightly arranged scores we’re so familiar with today.
The first half of the concert continued to explore Scott’s library of some hundred compositions written between 1937 and 1939. “A Boy Scout In Switzerland” was dedicated to Brown’s uncle who had been in the scouting movement. Like much of Brown’s music the piece takes elements of traditional New Orleans jazz and filters them through Scott’s uniquely mischievous musical vision. This was music written in the three and a half minutes a side era of 78’s so extended soloing isn’t an option. For all this all the members of Brown’s group get their moment in the spotlight. Scott’s arrangements see the lead changing hands frequently, particularly among the horn players whose work is tightly integrated anyway. McNiven’s muted trumpet was the dominant instrumental voice here well supported by Brown’s martial sounding drums.
It’s interesting to speculate on the musical legacy of Raymond Scott. In my review of the album I suggested that some of jazz’s most celebrated musical mavericks such as Carla Bley and Django Bates may have been influenced by Scott’s wilfully wayward wackiness. In an evening packed full of fascinating facts Brown informed us that the drummer in Scott’s 30’s band was one Johnny Williams, father of the celebrated film composer John Williams of “Jaws” and “Star Wars” fame. Brown posited that the formative experience of hearing Scott’s music around the house may have filtered into Williams Jr’s own writing. As if to illustrate the point Percy drew his bow across the strings of his bass in an eerie approximation of the “Jaws” theme. As for “Devil Drums” itself Brown’s “tribal” drumming, a commonly used Scott device, and subsequent solo were obvious highlights alongside a fiery clarinet solo with Brown’s new arrangement allowing Kershaw the scope to improvise and the opportunity to soar above Percy’s slapped bass accompaniment.
“The Toy Trumpet”, not surprisingly a feature for the excellent McNiven has reached a new public through its deployment in the Ren and Stimpy cartoon series. Brown’s use of woodblocks was a particularly striking example of the “tick tock noises” that have been said to characterise Scott’s music.
Brown now took the opportunity to introduce the young participants from this afternoon’s workshop and to integrate their handiwork into the set. The piece chosen was “Powerhouse”, a piece inspired by the rhythms of factory machinery and often used as the background for industrial film sequences, particularly footage of assembly lines. In the world of cartoons it’s often used for chase sequences and we saw something of that here in an animation that was bright, colourful, active and creative drawing on the children’s own experiences and all the more remarkable for having been created in only two hours. Projected on to the screen behind the band it looked great and synchronised with the music superbly. Well done to all concerned.
The spooky “Suicide Cliff” lowered the tempo and was something of a feature for keyboard player Tom Gibbs who spent most of the evening peeping out from behind a pillar. His impressive contribution was matched by McNiven’s haunting vocalised trumpet solo. The trumpeter was also the stand-out performer on “Tobacco Auctioneer”, his instrument mimicking the bark and patter of the salesman. I also loved the slide projected behind the group, a photograph of an imposing Stetson wearing auctioneer wielding his gavel.
“The Penguin” has been widely utilised in cartoons and advertisements, including one for the English Tourist Board, and is one of Scott’s most recognised pieces. The blend of the three horns perfectly mirrored the gait of the comical penguin with Brown’s use of the cowbell adding extra comic effect. Great fun.
However that wasn’t all, the band then closed the first half by going straight into McNiven’s funk arrangement of the same piece featuring Kershaw on alto and powered by Gibbs’ dirty sounding Fender Rhodes. McNiven discarded the mute for the first time for a blistering open horn trumpet solo and leader Brown rounded things off with a salvo of solo drums.
At half time the general consensus was that people were surprised at just how much they had enjoyed Scott’s music. There was also plenty of praise for the abilities of the six very talented musicians and of course for the young local animators who were all encouraged to stand up and take a bow. Unfortunately it was now getting rather late and few of the youngsters were able to stay for an equally fascinating and entertaining second set.
With Brown again an assured and knowledgeable interlocutor the second set covered more of Scott’s 30’s work alongside examples of his 40’s output and later experimental pieces. Several of the pieces featured do not feature on the sextet’s album, suggesting that a follow up may be in the offing.
“Dinner Music For a Pack Of Hungry Cannibals” got things off to a great start with Brown utilising the old “tribal” drumming pattern again beneath a backdrop of an anxious looking Bugs Bunny trussed up in a cooking pot.
From the 40’s version of Scott’s Quintette “Snake Women”, the first piece not to be sourced from the album. The slinky, “temple” flavoured music of the piece suggested that the Scott of the 40’s had lost none of his descriptive powers. It’s interesting to note that even back in the 30’s and 40’s Scott’s music was making use of what we might now regard as world music elements.
Brown explained that Scott had been a great musical inventor, developing the forerunner of the modern sequencer and producing the “clavivox”, a keyboard instrument generating a similar sound to the theremin. A highly secretive man he was reluctant to shares his discoveries but Brown revealed that Scott was a significant influence on Bob Moog, who later became acknowledged as the pioneer of the synthesiser. Between 1972 and ‘77 Scott worked as “head of electronic music invention” at Motown and his Electronium, an early attempt to generate music via computers, can be heard on several later Motown releases. Scott was restlessly inventive and developed many other instruments and devices. His work as a pioneer of electronic music remains sadly underrated. The piece chosen to illustrate this phase of Scott’s career, “When Will It End” was originally played on electronic instruments and has been significantly re-arranged for a quintet line up that saw McNiven sitting out. Brown’s drum groove sounded remarkably contemporary as did Gibbs’ keyboard solo. It was left to the twin clarinets of Kershaw and Molley to bring an element of period charm to a piece that was also characterised by the suddenness of its ending (hence the title, I guess).
Molley’s arrangement of another electronic piece, “Portafino”, returns the music to a 1930’s jazz style with space left for a string of instrumental solos from Gibbs, McNiven (both with and without the mute) and Molley. All delivered superbly powered along by Brown’s brushed grooves. It’s to Molley’s credit that he managed to retain the quirkiness of Scott’s spirit throughout, including what sounded like a veiled quote from “When You’re Smiling”.
Although not yet recorded by the Brown group “Manhattan Minuet” with it’s vibes like electric piano sound dates back to the 1930’s .
From the album “At An Arabian House Party” was originally written for a big band but Brown’s arrangement manages to retain something of the scope of the original with the horns intertwining sinuously as well as soloing individually with McNiven’s trumpet growl particularly distinctive. We also heard from Gibbs at the piano and Percy on vigorously slapped bass.
“New Year’s Eve In A Haunted House” maintained the energy levels and even increased the quirkiness quotient as McNiven and Kershaw backed Molley’s tenor solo with the sound of a variety of squeaky toys. “Square Dance For Eight Egyptian Mummies” took things storming out with Brown’s opening drum salvo paving the way for a spirited romp featuring McNiven’s open horn trumpet. An encore was inevitable and the sextet remained in situ to deliver a fun version of “Ali Baba’s Gone To Town”. I’d stopped taking notes by now and just sat back and enjoyed it.
This had been one of Black Mountain Jazz’s most unusual events ( and credit where it’s due they offer plenty of variety anyway) but it was an evening that was both educational and entertaining, and of course tremendous fun. The involvement of the local community via the animation workshop is something to be commended and of course the presence of the parents of the children participating helped to swell the numbers and make for a sizeable and appreciative audience that also included many BMJ regulars. Promoter Mike Skilton was pleased with the turnout and delighted at just how well things had gone. Ironically both Kershaw and Molley have previously played with BMJ’s next scheduled visitors Brass Jaw. The Scottish horn quartet will visit on April 29th 2012.
Stu Brown’s take on the music of Raymond Scott combines superb musicianship with a real knowledge of the man and his music. The nature of Brown’s presentation ensures that this act is likely to have wide across the board appeal and would be a suitable booking for local arts centres and festivals as well as more specialised jazz events, especially so when the educational element is also taken into account.
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