CASEY GREENE'S LATIN FIVE
A TRIBUTE TO CAL TJADER
SATURDAY 12TH JULY 2014
Ian Mann sees two local heroes present a classy tribute to Latin Jazz specialist Cal Tjader.
The following review can be found on the Jazzmann website
Multi instrumentalists Casey Greene and Paul Sawtell are local heroes of the jazz scene in Shrewsbury and the wider Midlands area.
Greene may hail from Sydney, Australia but the multi reeds player has lived long enough in Shrewsbury to be considered a local. He’s also a skilled composer as evidenced by the 2007 album release “Cous Cous” ( still available on the Birmingham based Rehab Records), a collection of original compositions featuring Greene’s six piece Latin Jazz ensemble Quiver.
Greene also runs his more generic Latin Five (sometimes truncated to Four) as well as appearing with many other Midlands and North Wales based musicians including guitarist Will Barnes’ gypsy jazz/bebop/Latin hybrid Inspector Gadjo – Greene guests on their 2010 album “Samba 48”.
My previous sightings of Sawtell have been of him with his pianist’s hat on, he regularly leads Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s “house trio” backing guest soloists at The Hive and elsewhere, among them saxophonists Peter King and Alan Barnes. A skilled accompanist and arranger he also works regularly with singers, among them the talented vocalist Laura Collins.
Recently Sawtell has also emerged as a top quality vibes soloist (he started playing the instrument in 2008) and these days seems to concentrate his energies on that instrument either in small group settings (quartet or quintet) or as a member of the Birmingham based Fat Chops Big Band. I hadn’t seen him play vibraphone before this evening’s show and can now confirm that he’s learnt astonishingly quickly and can now be considered right up there among Britain’s best.
Given Greene’s love of Latin flavoured jazz and Sawtell’s current enthusiasm for the vibes the idea of a Cal Tjader tribute must have seemed an ideal project for both musicians. A year in the making, allowing for arranging time and rehearsals, tonight’s tribute was delivered with verve and skill by a band featuring Greene exclusively on flute (plus incidental percussion), Sawtell on vibes, Andrzej Baranek on electric piano, Ben Markland on double bass, Simon King at the drum kit and Eddie McGuire on congas and other percussion. It’s to the credit of Greene and Sawtell that they had managed to recruit such a fine line up with Baranek, previously seen at The Hive as a member of the Magic Hat Ensemble coming down from Manchester and Markland (a bandleader in his own right) and McGuire travelling across from Birmingham. Ludlow based King, another formidable multi instrumentalist, was formerly the guitarist in Greene’s group Quiver. Tonight was the first public performance of this tribute and it was being filmed and recording, look out for the highlights on Youtube.
With Greene and Sawtell sharing announcing duties tonight’s programme consisted entirely of material associated with the late Cal Tjader (1925-82) with the co-leaders telling us something about their subject as the evening progressed. Callen Radcliffe Tjader was born of Swedish immigrant stock in St. Louis but spent most of his professional life in California. It was on a visit to New York that he met Tito Puente and fell in love with Latin music, soon returning to California where he began mixing Latin elements with the vocabulary of bebop, something already pioneered by Dizzy Gillespie, but doing so in a cool, decidedly West Coast manner. Tjader recorded prolifically but his output wasn’t always well received by the stuffier jazz critics who frequently accused his recordings of blandness.
Certainly his music was accessible and highly melodic and continues to hold considerable appeal for contemporary listeners. Indeed Tjader was cited as an influence on the nascent “Acid Jazz” movement of the late ‘80s and early 90s.
Unlike others who abandoned the Latin idiom after its first flush of commercial success in the 1950s Tjader stayed true to the style for the rest of his creative life and tonight’s performance suggested that his music is ripe for re-evaluation, not least by yours truly, someone who has paid him precious little regard previously – I don’t have ANY Cal Tjader albums. On tonight’s evidence either a “greatest hits” package or the widely featured “Soul Burst”, a 1966 studio session for Verve Records would appear to be the most suitable purchasing options.
In keeping with the “multi-instrumentalist” theme of the evening Tjader played drums and piano in addition to his usual vibraphone. Sawtell, always a congenial and frequently humorous announcer, revealed that his love of Tjader’s music was sparked by picking up an album from the bargain bin at Macro in Halesowen in 1992! From Cuba via the sunshine of the West Coast to the drizzle of the West Midlands, proof indeed that music is truly an international language!
Greene and his colleagues kicked off with Chano Pozo’s “Guachi Guaro”, meaning “Soul Sauce”, effectively the title track of Tjader’s 1964 album bearing the anglicised title. Here Sawtell immediately demonstrated his credentials as a top fight vibes soloist with a dazzling four mallet feature which saw him attacking the bars of his instrument with gusto. Baranek followed him on his Roland electric piano and the piece was also characterised by the lively flute and vibes exchanges between the co-leaders. Equally fascinating were the interlocking Latin rhythms of King and McGuire with Greene periodically adding to the percussive complexities by putting down his flute and picking up a clave – subsequent pieces also saw him playing a cowbell or scraper at moments when the flute was not required.
Ray Bright’s tune “Cuban Fantasy” was another to feature fluent flute and vibes exchanges and the piece also included features for Greene, Baranek and the consistently excellent Markland.
The bassist introduced “Black Orchid” a Tjader composed cha cha cha that seemed to owe something to the compositional style of the recently deceased Horace Silver. Baranek, Greene and Sawtell also impressed with their contributions as soloists.
A fast, fiercely swinging version of “The Way You Look Tonight” represented a first dip into the jazz standards repertoire, something of a vibes showcase as Greene sat out and let the mercurial Sawtell take over with a typically virtuoso feature. Baranek and Markland also took solos before a spirited series of exchanges between Sawtell and drummer Simon King as percussionist McGuire also kept a low profile.
The Tjader original “Souled Out”affected a 60’s smooth jazz sound with Baranek deploying a string synth sound behind opening soloist Sawtell. For his own solo the pianist adopted a more traditional electric piano sound and he was followed by Greene on softly vocalised flute as the leader approximated the sounds of a more laid back Roland Kirk.
Tjader did as much as anybody to popularise Cuban music, and particularly salsa, with US and UK audiences. Mark Levine’s tune “Linda Chicana” was delivered in the most obvious “salsa” style yet, driven by McGuire’s congas and scraper and featuring solos from Greene and Baranek. A big band version of the tune was recorded by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) back in the 1970’s, another source of inspiration for Greene and Sawtell.
The first half ended with a rousing version of “Ritmo Caliente”, a percussion heavy interpretation featuring McGuire on both congas and timbales and Greene on clave and cowbell. Elsewhere there were solos from Baranek on piano, Greene on flute, Sawtell on vibes and King at the drum kit. King’s solo was well constructed and highly musical, eventually developing into a full on percussive duet with McGuire which ended the first half on a suitably invigorating note.
“Mamblues” (the title presumably a conflation of the words “mambo” and “blues”) kicked off the second half pretty much where the first set had left off with features for the group’s three percussionists, Sawtell on vibes, McGuire on congas and King at the drums. Percussionist McGuire is a veteran of legendary Birmingham salsa band Como No and their small group offshoot Otra Vez and is the “go to” conganista for any Latin influenced band in the Midlands and beyond.
“Cuchy Frito Man” was equally heavy on the percussion with McGuire playing congas and cowbell and Greene striking a clave before sharing the soloing duties with Sawtell.
“Tres Palabras” was an extended feature for the double bass of Ben Markland. An experienced player on the Midlands jazz scene Markland’s melodic sense was perfectly demonstrated on this piece with an unaccompanied intro plus subsequent stating of the theme with attendant variations above a sympathetic backdrop of piano, drums and congas. With Sawtell sitting out completely the other featured soloists were Baranek and Greene, the flautist only joining the proceedings in the latter stages of the piece.
An unusual flute led arrangement of “Moanin’”, the hard bop classic written by pianist Bobby Timmons for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers represented another visit to the jazz standards repertoire with solos from Greene, Sawtell and Baranek. Although best known for working with Latino musicians (he was often regarded as the finest non Latino leader of a Latin band) Tjader also played with many of the finest jazz musicians of the 50’s and 60’s, particularly those associated with the west Coast
“Cool School”, among them trumpeter Chet Baker and saxophonists Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan.
A young Chick Corea was the pianist in one of Tjader’s ‘60s bands and contributed the mambo “Oran” to the 1966 album “Soul Burst”. It’s an embryonic piece that nevertheless exhibits many of the hallmarks characteristic of Corea’s writing including his own individual “Spanish Tinge”. With solos from Greene, Sawtell and Baranek tonight’s band brought this little bit of compositional history back to joyous life.
From the same album the jazz waltz “Curacao”, a Tjader original, offered a pleasing change of rhythm and tempo with melodic, lyrical soloing from Sawtell, Baranek, Markland and Greene as McGuire largely sat out.
The evening concluded with a rousing take on “Sabor” with its tricky, snaking theme challenging the musicians and brining out the best in them. Here, more than ever, one could appreciate just how commendably tight and together this band was with every member fulfilling their part admirably.
Sawtell relished the opportunity for a final flight of four mallet fancy on the vibes and the piece concluded with an exuberant set of exchanges between Sawtell, McGuire and King (supported by the comping of Baranek and Markland) in a percussive extravaganza that prompted the inevitable shouts for an encore. This proved to be “Morning”, written by the composer Clare Fischer and yet another piece to be sourced from Tjader’s “Soul Burst” album. This relaxed cha cha cha featured the sounds of scrapers and cowbells with the opening solos coming from flute and vibes with the impish Sawtell squeezing a quote from “It Ain’t Necessarily So” into his solo.
In a spirit of democracy there were also features from Baranek and Markland.
Tjader died suddenly of a heart attack in 1982 aged just fifty six. Typically this hard working and prolific musician was out on tour at the time and it’s interesting to speculate as to which direction his music might have taken had he lived. Greene and his colleagues certainly delivered an excellent tribute here with some excellent ensemble playing enhanced by the frequent brilliance of the solos. It certainly made me want to check out Tjader’s music for myself.
My only reservation would be that we didn’t get to hear any of Greene’s considerable skills as a saxophonist. Tjader may have worked regularly with flautists (including the recently deceased Paul Horn) but he recorded with saxophonists too, most notably with Stan Getz, and it’s a shame that we didn’t enjoy something of the flavour of those encounters.
Nevertheless the band’s efforts were keenly appreciated by a substantial audience (eighty plus), the size of which was a tribute to the quality of the musicianship on offer, particularly given the rival attractions of the World Cup and the appearance of Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra at an open air concert in Shrewsbury Quarry Park grounds. His audience got caught in a particularly heavy shower, not much fun for them but enough to give us jazz fans the warm glow of having made the right decision.
However there’s no room for complacency. In her closing address Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s Hilary Hannaford made a passionate plea on behalf of Jazz Services who have just had their funding withdrawn by the Arts Council of Great Britain. Hilary warned us that if that funding is not restored or if alternative body steps into the breach then the jazz programme at The Hive in 2015 may have to be severely curtailed. I can see the same problem occurring at many of the other jazz venues I visit regularly too. A sobering thought to end a celebratory night of music making, but one that must be of concern to both musicians and audiences alike.