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Teenage Dreams: at school with Simon Rattle, Brad Mehldau

Joel Frahm (right) and Tim Whitehead (below)


There is a particular kind of teenager who finds her, or more likely his, refuge in music. It becomes the obsession, the motivator, plus it’s what gets him noticed. If it is going to be a job, that decision probably won’t have formed itself with any certainty yet. But there can be formative experiences, things accomplished with schoolmates which plant the idea that a career in music is the all-eclipsing imperative.

Two tenor saxophonists who were at school with younger, better-known musicians will be doing interesting gigs in small venues in March, and I’m tempted to get to both.

Liverpool College, England, late 1960’s

The principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic got moving early. Simon Rattle demanded a drum kit at four, he was in the violins of the Merseyside Youth Orchestra at eleven. His first conducting date was at Liverpool College- I calculate at either 13 or 14 – the ranks of the orchestra swelled by professionals from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra befriended by his father. The soloist in the Mozart clarinet concerto at that concert was the best musician around in the sixth form: a 17 year-old Tim Whitehead.

What happened to Simon Rattle? He went onwards, upwards. He never learnt to drive, but, hey, he doesn’t need to. And what happened to Whitehead? The coup de foudre was to come later, in London whan training to be a barrister, and experiencing, among other things , the live sound of Dexter Gordon. and these days? Peter Bacon of the Birmingham Post and the jazzbreakfast blog has, as ever, some choice words: “Whitehead has a highly personal, always gorgeous sound on tenor and an infinite vocabulary – in a country of fine saxophonists he is one of the finest.

Yes, Whitehead’s is an incredibly strong voice on tenor. It grabs you. By the lapels, if you choose to be polite…. And his regular quartet are powerful, imaginative and never-dull players: wall flowers would wither. It consists of the undeniably world-class Liam Noble on piano, with Oli Hayhurst on bass and Milo Fell at the drums. In the tight space of the RamJam in Kingston on Wednesday March11th, you will find that this quartet has all the immediacy and a directive energy you can handle. And then some.

William H. Hall High School, West Hartford Connecticut, late 1980’s

Here’s another four-year old with drive. Brad Mehldau was the son of a doctor in West Hartford, who at that age “started picking out melodies on the piano.”

As a teenager he was in the High School band, but some of the first paid gigging was out and about on the road in a duo fronted by year-older schoolmate Joel Frahm

What happened to Brad Mehldau? He picked up a Warner Music recording contract just a few years out of school, and has now clocked up 15 albums as leader. And Frahm? I last came across him on DVD as a member of Jane Monheit’s Rainbow Room band. His voice on tenor is characteristacally melodic, often gentle. But his the trio on his last album consists of luminaries Kenny Barron on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums.

Frahm has very interesting gigs featuring Mike Janisch and Jim Hart on vibes at the tiny Con Bar in Camden Town on Monday 23rd, and in the more comfortable surrondings of the Pizza in Dean Street on Monday 30th and Tuesday 31st.

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