The Riviera Quartet

The French Riviera, 1962. An open-top convertible and sunshine, plenty of sunshine. Inspired by Dizzy Gillespie, Lalo Shifrin, Antonio Carlos Jobim and the sounds of the famous Art Farmer/Jim Hall quartet, the Riviera Quartet aim to render that feeling of endless summer in a heady mix of Bossa, Blues and Bebop.

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A Race Against Time and Lip

 

I am standing in the recording studio, staring at the microphone, waiting for the count-in. I am trying not to think of how much this is costing, and how much time we have. Time falls away like powder, and nine hours will easily become two if we’re not careful. Or if I mess up.

This is our first studio recording together, and we’re doing it live, a selection of tunes from our set. Nothing too ambitious, just four songs. Play each one through a couple of times, keep the best one, move on to the next. Shouldn’t be too difficult as we’ve already played them dozens of times on gigs, but this is a recording, and the rules are different. It’s a recording, and we don’t want to make mistakes. I don’t want to make mistakes, because mine are the only ones I will ever hear.

In the days of analogue, engineers were economical with tape, and you had to make a choice there and then as to whether you kept a track; play, stop, listen, play, stop, listen all day long. Now with digital, you can keep everything and save the hard choices for later – but you will still have to listen to it all at some point.

We are on our first take of the day. As we progress through the tune I start hearing a voice, one that hasn’t been there for a long time, but used to accompany me on gigs, saying, ‘okay, you’ve got through the first verse, now the chorus, you’ve not messed up yet…’ talking me through the tune. This isn’t a guiding voice, like Obi-wan Kenobi telling Luke to use the Force, this is more like Darth Vader; ‘You’ve not messed up yet, but it’s coming. Sooner or later you will, and the take will be ruined. You’ll never get this recording finished. You and your band, but you in particular, will sound crap.’

The voice is subdued and soon we are on the second take, then the third, by which time I’m beginning to feel the familiar looseness in my lips that says that very soon, my lips are going to give out. I’ve already played for about an hour this morning, just with warmup and mic checks. On a gig, I can last for about two hours. In terms of lip fatigue, today is going to be like playing four gigs. The voice returns.

I’ve been preparing for this date for a year. I didn’t want to do one at first, but the need grew for better recordings to get bigger gigs, to have something to sell, to have a record of what we’ve done. I’ve put in specific practise to ensure that what I end up playing on this date is worth listening to, that I will be happy with what goes down, that it will stand up to other recordings I love. Like the rest of the band, I’ve had plenty of experience in studios, but usually playing for other people. This is my chance, and it’s all about to go down the pan because my lips aren’t strong enough.

We get a passable version of the first tune, and we can come back if time, and my lip, permits. I haven’t looked at my watch yet because I don’t want to know how much time we’ve used so far. I’m thinking too much, about my lip, about the notes, about the fact that it’s Bank Holiday and these guys are here and not being paid. At least it’s raining. I need Obi-wan telling me to stop thinking and use the Force.

He appears in the form of Mark, the engineer. ‘Just treat it like a rehearsal,’ he says, adjusting my microphone, ‘you’re practising, I’m practising, we’re all just finding our way through.’ Uh huh.

The second tune goes down. Mark, our guitarist, isn’t happy with his take, but it sounds fine to me. He’s captured the mood of the piece and instead I feel I let everyone down with a particularly poorly-placed note in my solo. We press on, try to get the next two down before lunch.

I make it through the next number and play a decent solo, but eight bars from the end, my lip goes. I can’t hit the high notes. We keep playing, but the take is a scrub, and with it, probably the whole tune. Our last track before lunch features the drums and bass. They both sound great and Russ, our drummer, lays down a rhythm that I wish I could play to, but the chops have gone. We break for lunch.

We take a long lunch break. More money, the clock ticks, but I’m physically incapable of playing anything. Time to take stock; one tune that’s decent, three that need to be re-recorded. Once fed, I’m feeling optimistic again. We’ve still got three hours left. Plenty of time to get three tunes right.

The first one goes down. I’m feeling rejuvenated and relaxed, my range and stamina have returned, the niggling little Darth Vader voice has disappeared. We do multiple takes of all four tunes again, and with time to spare, lay down two more.

At the end of the day we emerge from the studio. I’m happy with what we’ve done, and the rest of the guys seem satisfied. I don’t want to think about it too much though, I’ve done enough of that for one day.

Free Form

To be honest, the words Jazz, Sunday and pub occupy a similar space with Bank Holiday, wet and Garden centre in my Word Cloud of Malaise. This is entirely due to my early days in this country playing down on the South Coast, where pub owners seemed to think that putting on a jazz group in the middle of Sunday lunch was good for business. The number of quiet pints and anniversary meals that have been disrupted by a quartet trading fours over Rhythm Changes is too vast to count, and I know I’m complicit in the crime.

Funnily enough, this is where we found ourselves at the weekend, in a pub on Sunday evening, trading fours over Rhythm Changes. But the difference here, oh landlords who might be reading this, is that we were on in the evening, and the pub in question was the very cool Bridge Hotel in Newcastle, and rather than providing backing music for a carvery, we were playing to a roomful of jazz lovers. In fact, I would say that every music fan who wasn’t at the Iron Maiden concert across town was at our gig. Thank you Jazz Northeast. The upstairs room at the Bridge is a fine old venue with a mirrored bar, great acoustics and views of the Victorian railway arches outside. If I block out the old castle keep across the street, I’d swear I was in some cool bar back home in Tennessee.

Now, our bassist John is a bit of a free-form enthusiast and a big Ornette Coleman fan, whereas I’d rather listen to a good Lalo Schiffrin arrangement with some discernible harmonies and horn lines. He’s tried to explain the compositional philosophy behind free form, and while I appreciate his argument, the reality until now has proved otherwise – an evening of listening to Courtney Pine honking out chromatic scales on the bass clarinet springs to mind, which felt a little like watching the Emperor gad about in his new clothes.

Our partners on the bill at the Bridge, Manchester trio Early Nite, however, set me straight on this final note. They knocked out some pretty cool rhythms and then took what for me would have been unrelated melodic themes and wove them together into a complex musical narrative. It was compelling to watch as well as to hear, and I came away from their set wondering how to incorporate some of their concepts into the Riviera sound.

It can be risky putting two seemingly disparate acts on the same bill, and kudos to Jazz Northeast for taking that risk, because the Early Nite set was great and a good demonstration of why live music is so important – you don’t get to see the interplay between musicians on a cd. As for our set, I was pleased with how it went, and thanks to Adam Sinclair for helping us out on the drums. Our next stop is the recording studio.

Not bad for jazz at the pub on a Sunday.

If you see me walking down the street…

A busy weekend of playing has capped off a steady run of gigs. We’ve come away with some new arrangements and ideas for our recording date in May, and so now TRQ’s taking a little break. We shared the bill on Saturday night at the Jazz Café in in Newcastle with another group, Not Now Charlie, a tight outfit who have the feel of the bands I used to hear out in LA. They provided a pleasing counterpoint to our sparser, more acoustic feel. A highlight of the evening was hearing their arrangement of one of our tunes, You Don’t Smile Anymore, and then getting to play our reciprocal reworking of their tune, Mythos.

These events can have a knife-edge feel, especially when you’ve set up the gig, as was the case with me and the Not Now Charlie frontman, Jamie Toms. You want to satisfy the venue owner by pulling in a sizeable audience. As a bandleader, you also want to be able to pay your musicians. And always, you want to play well. We had Andy Champion filling in on bass for John Pope, and he slotted in seamlessly with just one rehearsal under his belt. I don’t like rehearsing TRQ too much anyway, and I’m lucky to have so many musicians of Andy’s calibre in town to work with. A consequence of this, however, is that on Saturday we were competing with four or five other gigs for an audience, but I was pleased with our turnout. The audience seemed to enjoy the evening, and I was able to pay my band: win-win.

Even better was being recognised in the street the next day by a woman who had been at the gig. She had seen us a couple of weeks earlier and had come back for more. A chance meeting, and an incredible incentive to do more, to practise more, play better, gig, record, get heard.

Thanks to everyone who continues to support us, and if you see me walking down the street, please stop and say hi.

Back from the Big Apple, the Jazz Gardener

It’s been a relatively quiet week of recovering from jet lag and practice – tri-tone substitutions – after hearing so many fantastic musicians during our brief excursion to New York City. You don’t have to go looking hard for jazz in New York; on the ground, and underground in the subway, music underpins the language of the city, as big a part of the vocabulary as car horns honking and trains rattling past. It’s easy to romanticise New York; watch any footage of a cab cruising down 7th Avenue and there’s likely to be a jazz soundtrack playing. And then when you’re actually there, you find out that it’s all for real – a quartet playing in the Times Square subway station, a percussionist beating out Latin rhythms in front of the New York Public Library, a horn case slung over the shoulder of a passing commuter – all real and no big deal. So normal as to not warrant mention at all, like seeing an empty Lucozade bottle by the side of an English road, only better because it’s jazz.

I got talking about music with a guy selling t-shirts emblazoned with famous jazz silhouettes and between us we named all of Art Blakey’s trumpet players. He showed me a photo of Wynton Marsalis buying one of his t-shirts; another Blakey alumnus. This city is stuffed to the gills with musicians. This is IT.

It’s no surprise that jazz exploded here, or uptown in Harlem to be precise, in the 1930s and 1940s. With all these people living so close together, often on the same street, ideas are going to ferment mighty quickly. And then just a few blocks downtown in Manhattan, those ideas find their way onto the airwaves and get broadcast around the country, and then the world.

From where I’m sitting here in Rivieraville right now, that all seems a world away, not just geographically, but culturally as well. We have a die-hard little band of jazz enthusiasts here, but the audiences are indeed dying off, and if you’re a musician, you have a fair way to travel for your next gig. Your audience will have assembled under the aegis of a jazz club, set up in a church hall or lounge, and you travel from audience to audience like a gardener trying to keep several separate flowerbeds watered. With jazz. I tried keeping plants when I was in college, but they all died of neglect or got smoked. Such is the danger of a tenuous metaphor.

Mind you, if I lived in New York, I’d have to compete with Wynton Marsalis for gigs – and audiences. I might be a mediocre gardener, but I’ll take what I can get, and I don’t mind travelling for a gig. Please remember that if you’re looking to book a band.

But our gig had a raffle

Our first gig of the new year is an out-of-towner – we’ve hit all the venues in our locale already and we’re branching out – to Carlisle, where we have the distinction of being the first act to perform in the newly refurbished quarters of the Carlisle Jazz Club, which also happens to be the HQ of the Carlisle Rugby Club – two disparate groups united by the love of drink and the need to sit down while doing so.

So here we are, bringing our heady mix of Bossa, Blues and Bebop to the good people of Carlisle. Only, the good people of Carlisle appear to be elsewhere when John and I arrive, late, at the venue. Mark and Russ are already set up and jamming – we can hear them from outside in the car park and at first I fear they’ve started the gig without us. It turns out they’re playing to an empty room. The room remains empty  until roughly ten minutes before our start time.

Just as I’m checking my voicemail to make sure we’ve actually set up in the correct place, the organiser appears and introduces himself. He apologises for the lack of an audience. The Chris Barber Big Band is in town, he explains, so half of the Carlisle Jazz Club are elsewhere. I can’t blame them; nobody knows who we are, and this is CB’s final tour – just like Black Sabbath. I’d do the same, only Black Sabbath was sold out. Not to worry, says the organiser, the raffle will still go on.

This has become a familiar pattern for us, turning up at a venue only to be told that the crowd won’t be there due to a fun run, rail strike, lumbago epidemic, or some such. It’s jazz, and the audiences are small anyway, and in the case of clubs like Carlisle, dying off. We play for anyone who wants to listen, and the forty or so people at Carlisle Jazz Club listen attentively- our rehearsal last week has paid off.

During the break, the organiser asks us if it’s okay if we finish at 10.30. A large proportion of the audience need to get to bed early, apparently, and it’s snowing outside. Sure, I say – maybe we can catch Chris Barber. But first, there’s the raffle. It wouldn’t be England without a raffle.

I don’t know about how Chris Barber’s gig has gone, but our set is tight. I can feel the extra practice in my fingers and range and I feel like we’re communicating better; in fact, tonight marks a step forward in our cohesion as a unit. Russ even smiles during the set. Afterwards, when the room is empty again, we sit around and discuss how it went. Tonight everyone is satisfied. I’m grateful to them for coming out here with me to play; I owe these three more than our fee and a few quid for petrol, but the only thing I can think to do at the moment is try to get more gigs like Carlisle.