CD review

Digby Fairweather – “Notes From A Jazz Life”

Digby Fairweather – Notes From A Jazz Life 
(Acrobat ADDCD3322. Double CD. Review by Leonard Weinreich)

Thirty-three tracks over two CDs performed by various combinations of artists include John Barnes, Roy Williams, Ron Russell, Keith Ingham, Fred Hunt, Chris Ellis, Brian Lemon, Pete Strange, Lennie Hastings, Stan Barker, Danny Moss, Martin Litton, George Melly, Wild Bill Davison and Julian Marc Stringle, recorded between 1971 and 2012.

In about 12-point type on the bottom of the album cover, you’ll find the word ‘retrospective’. Retrospectives display the paths taken in an artist’s development, from earliest gauche experiments in modishness full of references to great masters, to the moment when the distinctive personal voice and recognisable style emerge.

Then, afterwards, exiting via the gift shop, you collect a weighty catalogue written by the curator responsible for the exhibition. And now you have the idea of Notes From A Jazz Life, a major retrospective exhibition, spread over a couple of CDs: curated by D. Fairweather himself. The sleeve notes and photographs alone cover 27 pages, revealing that, if anyone ever lived a jazz life, it’s him.

But pause, please. Before expressing an opinion, I’m duty-bound to declare an interest. Some years ago, Digby and I sat among the trustees of the now-defunct Jazz Development Trust, an organisation founded by the late J. Dankworth to further the cause of jazz and enlarge its audience. And while I don’t remember the Trust achieving most of its lofty aims, it did serve as the springboard for the career of its last-ever director, Sebastian Scotney, publisher/editor of LondonJazz News. Furthermore, Digby’s band supplied the music at two of our family weddings and, on both occasions, I was permitted to sit in and fumble drunkenly on my clarinet. So much for due diligence.

This album finds Digby sauntering down Memory Lane or, more accurately, swinging down Mainstream Avenue, in the fast company of certified heavyweights. Fairweather, who actually wrote a book titled How To Play Trumpet, was unashamedly influenced not only by St. Louis of Armstrong, but also Islington-born Nat Gonella (whose biography he also dutifully wrote) and a fanfare of brass angels bearing the initial ‘B’: Ruby Braff, Billy Butterfield, Bobby Hackett and Bunny Berigan among others.

On the evidence of this retrospective, I’d venture that he was equally affected by the elegant precision of small units of the 1930s like the Chocolate Dandies, John Kirby, Andy Kirk and the varied celestial combinations drawn from members of the Ellington organisation. While their music was designed to entertain, it was left to later generations to discover that they’d created imperishable art whose echoes reverberate throughout this retrospective collection.

In terms of British jazz and its vicious internecine hostility, Digby was no tribal purist. Evidence can be found on one of the earliest tracks from 1971, a loose Condon-ish version of Fats Waller’s Yacht Club Swing, which finds the young Digby in prolix form, even quoting Dizzy Gillespie among others. On There’ll Be Some Changes Made (please try to ignore the supporting banjo), he enthusiastically scrambles all over the horn with rhythmic ingenuity. On One, Two, Button Your Shoe from 1975, in the fast company of John Barnes and Fred Hunt, the vitality of the Swing Era hits your ears, as does Digby’s tightly-muted contribution. As the decades proceed, mannerisms are shed and Digby’s virtuoso style emerges. Partially aided by his preference for the cornet, his tone becomes more burnished, warmer, softer and rounder. There are fewer notes, more judiciously chosen, and he expresses wit, swing and, particularly during ballads, touchingly intimate interpretations in duets like Jelly Roll Morton’s Sweet Substitute with pianist Keith Ingham in 1976, and But Beautiful and Nancy (With The Laughing Face) with pianist Stan Barker in 1984.

Highlights abound among these 33 performances: a perky duet in 1979 with the majestic Brian Lemon’s piano on Cole Porter’s Looking At You; on Louis Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue (‘Struttin’ incorrectly spelt with a ‘g’ on the end) appropriately American Hot, recorded at Pizza Express, Dean Street in ’78; on a vigorous a capella duet with Danny Moss’ tenor on Fine And Dandy, recorded live in Burnley in ’81; on a sensitive reading of Burke and Van Heusen’s Imagination over plump, juicy ensemble chords in 1997; and on the 1999 version of Rudy Vallee’s and Hoagy Carmichael’s Old Man Harlem with John Barnes’s incandescent alto joyously recalling the dandy small band mood of the ’30s.

Two tracks are worthy of special comment: from 1986, a surprise vocal on Bessie Couldn’t Help It from trumpeter Wild Bill Davis, and George Melly on Donaldson and Kahn’s When My Ship Comes In from 2003, complete with ravishing cornet over string quartet.

Two CDs containing the highlights of one man’s musical life. At any price, this must be the bargain of the year.

LINK: Acrobat Records website

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