1 November 2011

Not quite midnight in Paris

This was a night of many pleasures. Delightful swing, performed with real authenticity in a studio environment in the company of friends … and a few beers. The band was a trio of Matt Boden, Leigh Barker and Mark Sutton, with singer Heather Stewart sitting in for a few tunes. The location was Mark Sutton’s working studio which was celebrating the arrival of a Yamaha C5 grand piano. The beer was Coopers.

This night had me thinking of a film I’d just seen, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It’s a light entertainment about a writer who time warps back to the artistic, bon-vivant era of 1920s Paris of Scott-Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, Miro. The author arrives at a fine party with piano-man Cole Porter singing tuneful witticisms to the delight of various onlookers. We’ve all heard these tunes, but like Woody’s author-alter-ago, we seldom get to truly hear them in the playful glory of these stylish but desperate pre-bop times. At least not with this authenticity. The piano was clear and acoustic; the bass was unadorned, unamplified, gut-strung and surprisingly loud; the drums were minimal and mostly brushed. They swung with real ease and joy. This was all on par, but it was Heather’s singing that really defined the authenticity to me. The songs of tender lips and moonlight - and the high and imploring voice that cut to bridges of womanly strength in disappointment - got closest to the era for me. I spoke to Heather later and she talked of Bessie Smith and how she was claimed by both blues and jazz followers. And how jazz is a respectful and intelligent art that knows its history and draws on it. So when she sang chromatic lines they were nowhere out of place even if not on Bessie’s songsheet. Authentic and timely singing. Matt is in Paris these days, which just maintains my deceipts here. He was obviously enjoying the re-registered and tuned piano, firstly with Monkish non-conformity, but also with simple joy in the delightful melodies of the American songbook. Leigh worked hard with a high action but turned out frequent bass solos of lively lyricism. Mark amused me when he asked “another swing?” for this was the nature of the outing, but he filled the role with ease on a little kit that was perfect for the job: just adequate to state the four lines/limbs of drumming: kick, sock, snare and ride. All in theme. You won’t be surprised to hear of this setlist: How deep the ocean, Body & soul, Stomping at the Savoy, But not for me, an Ellington blues. There were only two vocal tunes: Sit right down and write myself a letter and The moonlight and you, but always with what irony!

Being in a studio, the music continued even when the band stopped. They were recorded, of course, and we huddled around to hear the effect of different mics and mic placements. It was just a rough mix, but it sounded clear and detailed, although obviously lacking the sheen that effects and processing and mastering will give to the final product. Mark and Greg have a fine studio with decent gear, digital and analogue options, several decent spaces, the skills of experienced musicians-cum-engineers and that lovely Yamaha C5.

Matt Boden (piano), Leigh Barker (bass), Mark Sutton (drums) and Heather Stewart (vocals) performed and recorded for a small audience at Mark’s recording studio. Greg Stott engineered on the night.

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