An hour of unrehearsed live interaction on a festival stage back in 2007 provides John Fordham with ‘a rejuvenating late-career bonus at the end of a sombre year for performing artists’. He interviews reedsman Tony Coe and pianist John Horler as their quiet gem of a concert is released on Gearbox Records.
On a July lunchtime in 2007 at Cumbria’s fondly remembered Appleby Jazz Festival, one of the most inventive improvising woodwind players ever to have emerged on these shores played a sublime duet with a UK performer of likeminded ingenuity on the piano, and the result was the kind of clairvoyant conversation that jazz enthusiasts recognise as the sound of the art at its best.
The woodwind player was Tony Coe, by that time an internationally-respected soloist on saxophones, clarinet and flute across a swathe of styles (from Humphrey Lyttelton’s revivalism-to-swing music to Derek Bailey’s all-out improv), the canny tenor-sax interpreter of Henry Mancini’s famous Pink Panther theme, and the first non-American musician ever to win Denmark’s exalted Jazzpar Prize. The pianist was John Horler, eloquent regular accomplice for the late John Dankworth and for Cleo Laine, and a sidekick of Coe’s since the 1970s who shared the latter’s sophisticated grasp of the methods of 20th century classical music as well as jazz.
That Appleby hour has been an affectionate recollection in the minds of the performers and probably a good many of the witnesses ever since. But now it emerges that the whole show – with Coe on freewheelingly eloquent clarinet throughout, and Horler in all-but-psychic attendance on classic jazz vehicles like Body and Soul, Night and Day, Dancing in the Dark and Thelonious Monk’s famously flinty blues Blue Monk – was caught on tape, and finally debuts on an elegantly produced disc this month. For both Horler, who has long striven to make this happen, and Coe (a hardline perfectionist who took a while to recognise the concert’s magic but nowadays considers his role in it one of his best performances) it’s a rejuvenating late-career bonus at the end of a sombre year for performing artists.
“Well, like most live jazz recordings there was the odd blip here and there of course,” John Horler chuckles over a Zoom call. “I said to Tony ‘that’s the way it happens’ but he’s very precise – that’s why he’s so good – so for a while he wasn’t sure he wanted it to go out. I’d forgotten the recording existed until years afterwards, when I was going through some stuff and saw the tape, and when I played it I thought it sounded pretty good, and better still after Andy Cleyndert had done the mixing and mastering. I’m pretty sure Tony loves it now.”
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Tony Coe – now living in semi-retirement near his Canterbury birthplace, and sounding as warm and unhurriedly articulate on the phone in 2021 as he has through the mouthpiece of a musical instrument ever since the 1950s – concurs with his partner’s judgement of the music’s quality, and adds his own characteristically self-effacing appreciation of Horler’s role in the concert’s vitality and variety as well as its overdue arrival on record.
“Playing like that wouldn’t have been possible if John had not been the superb accompanist he is,” Coe says. “He’s very considerate, very inventive, he reads very well, and his responses are so quick that it allows us to play contrapuntally much of the time, which is what I’ve always liked doing. We didn’t rehearse, but we’d played those pieces together many times before in different contexts. But it was a snap decision for me to play the whole set on the clarinet. It was a lunchtime concert in a church, and when I got there I just felt I wanted to keep it simple.”
For a jazz performance closer to chamber-music than flat-out improvised swing, Dancing in the Dark nonetheless fizzes with urgent vitality, whether in the pair’s subtle originals, ageless anthems by Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk, or vivacious interpretations of American Songbook classics that seem to take their famous melodies through endlessly surprising plot-twists and quirky detours. Horler ushers in Bill Evans’ Re: Person I Knew with a delicately rippling piano intro before Coe’s clarinet arrives in soft, low-register musings that erupt into swirling long lines all over the register, with the pianist now nudging and pushing him at every turn. Coe launches Body and Soul in low notes that soar like skyrockets to flares of pure falsetto sound, the tune only sketched in after a tantalising delay before Horler eventually introduces a lazily-swaying groove.
Horler’s Piece for Poppy (a tribute to his wife) gets a poignant long-tone ballad opening from Coe, but after Horler picks up his partner’s quivery departing trill as the opening of his own solo, the piece slowly accelerates into a playfulness recalling another of the pianist’s keyboard heroes, Chick Corea. Tony Coe’s tone is almost violin-like on the theme statement of the title track, and his phrasing slithers and glides in haunting elisions on Horler’s bluesy Around In Three, and a straight-ahead account of Blue Monk. All that variety comes from long-honed instrumental mastery, but via distinctively different routes in Coe’s and Horler’s lives.
“I learned clarinet first, before the saxophones and flute,” Tony Coe recalls. “My teacher was an ex-pupil of Charles Draper, a very influential classical clarinettist and teacher in the early 20th century, so I learned formally before my technique was affected by jazz, and I’ve always been interested in playing classical music too -– I was in the classical clarinettist Alan Hacker’s Matrix in the 1970s at the same time as I was playing in the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band. As a saxophonist, I was also influenced by Rabbit – Johnny Hodges – and it was on the cards for me to join Duke Ellington’s band and sit right next to him at one stage, though that didn’t work out. I was into Lee Konitz early on, and Paul Gonsalves, who streamlined Ben Webster’s sound, and who became a friend. That day in Appleby when this recording was made, I was also playing free-jazz with Evan Parker, as I have with Derek Bailey and Peter Brotzmann – all these things give you ideas for improvisation, and for composing too.”
John Horler also studied music classically at first, at the Royal Academy of Music in the 1960s, but his subsequent jazz apprenticeship happened on the road from the ’70s onward – in postbop quartets led by Tony Coe, with the saxophonists Tommy Whittle, Peter King and Jimmy Hastings, with a raft of international touring stars, and from 1983 with John Dankworth and Cleo Laine.
“I was delighted to do that Appleby gig,” Horler reflects. “It’s a great partnership, clarinet and piano, especially the way Tony plays, and it was a lovely atmosphere. That’s why I was so keen to put this out. When one reaches a certain age, as you might say, to have a duo with Tony out there for people to listen to, that would be one of the highlights of my musical life, I think. Tony always thought we were on an equal footing, but in the years before that gig I never did, I was in total awe of him. But around about this time, I’d started to think ‘maybe I know what I’m doing as well’. There’s a lot of interplay in what we did that day, but I don’t like to lead people too much – I’ve always been very conscious of accompanying, it’s something that I’m really into, and which I think I learned as much from singers as instrumentalists – particular Cleo (Laine) of course.”
Horler, never far from an infectious guffaw, reminisces about Gerald Moore, the late classical pianist and renowned sidekick to star virtuosi who wrote a book called The Unashamed Accompanist – “I think I might write a book called The Ashamed Accompanist. But you have to learn about the other performer’s space and timing. Cleo has never liked a lot of splashing and roaring about from pianists, she’s always wanted her own space. I remember the first time I heard Bill Evans play My Foolish Heart on the Village Vanguard recordings – I’d ever heard somebody play a couple of notes from a well-known tune and then leave four seconds of silence before they continue with it, I thought it was incredible.”
The thought brings to mind a story about Billie Holiday’s time with Artie Shaw’s band, when the pianist Johnny Guarnieri responded to the star’s request for a four-bar intro but found it greeted by a long silence, which prompted him to repeat it. Guarnieri related that he suddenly felt a tap on the back of his head, and heard the words “don’t worry ’bout me – I’ll be there”.
Horler nods appreciatively. “Accompanist’s nightmare isn’t it?” he says. “The singer doesn’t come in! What do you do? I remember doing a cabaret when I was first starting, and this singer said to me ‘make sure I get that down-note won’t you?’ and I was saying ‘no worries’ and then she started chatting away to the audience for ages, and I’m bashing this F over and over, and in the end she turns round to me and says ‘I know’. But working with Cleo has always been fantastic, and John’s arrangements too – I’ve learned so much from those years with them. I’m sure it all went into Dancing in the Dark one way and another, and on top of that you never get tired of those great old standard songs. They weren’t jazz tunes, they were pop songs. But different generations of jazz musicians look at them and think ‘oh, I’ll do that’ and everybody’s got their own slant on it. It’s pure creative improvisation.”
Horler played a gig with his old saxophone sparring-partner Jimmy Hastings recently, and though he isn’t planning on any world tours, a post-lockdown return to the jazz circuit excites this self-effacingly multi-talented septuagenarian still. Tony Coe, four months shy of his 87th birthday, puts his embouchure through a daily practice routine (he says he’s experimenting with a double-lip modification at the moment), and can celebrate two new releases bearing his work this year – Dancing in the Dark, and the Gemini chamber ensemble’s For Clarinet and Strings, which includes his Dream Odyssey suite, one of several sophisticated contemporary-classical works this remarkably complete musician has crafted down the years. The liner notes to Dancing in the Dark include an awestruck tribute by the film-maker Mike Figgis, whose Leaving Las Vegas movie soundtrack Coe played on in 1995. “For me, working with a great musician is the same as working with a great actor,” Figgis writes of Coe’s contribution. “Great musicianship makes the world a much more complex and interesting place.” The Observer critic and musician Dave Gelly implied much the same of Dancing in the Dark‘s Coe/Horler partnership in his own liner-note accolade, when he described “two unique musical imaginations on the loose without a safety net…You can’t really pick out the best from a programme like this. It’s all one single accomplished and inspiring performance.”
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