I'm pleased to announce a new project and collaboration with fellow tenor player Max Ionata. Named after the 1994 album from Roy Hargrove of the same name that featured 5 US tenor saxophonists, 'Tenors of our Time' will be a swinging straight ahead mix of originals and standards and includes Ross Stanley on organ and Luca Santaniello on drums. There’s an album in the pipeline and some UK dates in May. More news and details coming soon...
Due to bad UK weather conditions we had two flights cancelled and our plans of making it out a day early to be less fraught were scuppered.
Left Brixton at 6:45am for a 9am flight from Heathrow on Eurowings. We were met at Berlin Tegel Airport and had a 2 hour car journey over extraordinarily bumpy roads to Szczecin. The city had that grey, solemn kind of Cold War look to it and it was about -5 degrees. Our hotel (Dana) was no exception from the outside, but inside was absolutely beautiful in an old fashioned no expenses spared kind of way - lots of chandeliers and heavy furniture.
It was 3pm and all we knew about our itinerary was that we were playing that night. So we did what touring musicians do and seized the opportunity to eat. The menu was fantastic and we had rare steaks and Polish red wine. By the time we’d finished we had been contacted and told we’d be taken in 20 minutes time to the venue. Nicely exhausted now, we changed into our suits and went to the spectacular Philharmonic Hall.
Soundcheck was challenging because we like to set up close and play very acoustic. However the support band was already set up and soundchecked and we were asked not to move anything before our set. The support group was about a 12-piece band including vocals, electronics, strings..... monitors everywhere and the drums miles away with swathes of damping taped to the snare.
Soundcheck finished at 7 and showtime was 8. We assumed we’d be on around 9. Backstage was a futuristic labyrinth like the Battlestar Galactica..... and yet there was pretty much zero hospitality other than bottles of water.
It was 10:30 before we went on in the end. The audience clapped in the right places but it was rare anyone cracked a smile until we suddenly got a standing ovation at the end! Afterwards we were locked out of our dressing room and the whole process of waiting to go back to the hotel was very Spinal Tap and seemed interminable.
I got to bed at 12:30 knowing I had to leave at 3:30am. Oh the glamour.
We did this the civilised way and caught an afternoon flight on Friday, arriving at Palermo airport on a beautiful sunset and in perfect time for dinner. Our host, Francesco, took us to a local restaurant where we did the set menu; ante pasta, pasta, main (all seafood) washed down with a carafe or two of the house wine. Afterwards we checked out a couple of the local bars that were busy and friendly, notable for the complete absence of lairy drunkenness.
The next day we had a good walk about. I went for a run around the harbour and to the Foro Italico. We had a 4pm set up and soundcheck at Sicily's oldest theatre - Real Teatro Santa Cecilia, built in 1693.
We had a beautiful dinner beforehand, Sicilian red wine, espresso and grappa. Perfect to energise us for our two well attended shows. The early set was the older folks and the later one well attended by the younger generation. The sound was good and we played two totally different sets with the exception of the compulsory Take Five that has everyone lurching for phones and iPads to video it. They always stop just after the head (the moment I start soloing!) - I’ve got used to it now but I used to find it most disconcerting....
The hotel was well appointed in the old town. The area was busy and noisy, and the air feels quite thick with pollution. By Sunday morning I had a better idea of the local geography and managed to find a running route to the Foro Italico via cobbled back alleys, whilst listening to radio commentary of England v New Zealand T20 cricket (a curious juxtaposition of cultures!)
The Mad Dog Social Club is a groovy subterranean, cave like cocktail bar, accessed through an unmarked doorway at street level. Apparently it’s the only regular gig in Turin for Jazz unsullied by such frippery as commerciality. The gig was fun after a day in the studio. We played a mixture of tricky originals and easy standards to an appreciative audience. It was all the more therapeutic for the excellent Mescal Negroni cocktails!
It meant a late-ish night, though, so waking up in the dark for a third day in a row hurt....
Considering our lack of sleep and the breakneck tempos we were attempting, the second day in the studio went well and we were done by 6pm.
A chilled evening off and back home via Milan airport the next day.
Getting roasted on some tricky charts at Carlo Miori's Music Studio With Tommaso Starace's new quartet project in Turin (see video).
8am pickup, in the studio til 6:30pm and then a gig at a club called The Mad Dog Social Club. Mad Dogs and Englishmen, eh?
Ironically it’s an icy 3 degrees here while apparently a balmy 12 in the Brixton Riviera....
Photo by Carlo Mogavero
Matt Bianco goes Dutch - Part One
Our flights on Thursday from Heathrow to Schipol (Amsterdam) were cancelled, rebooked, delayed, etc due to allegedly the worst winds in Holland for 100 years. We made it just in time to go straight to our gig in Hoofddorp at a stand up rock venue that reminded me a bit of the Jazz Cafe.
Mark Reilly, Clarissa Land (doing her first gig with the band), Martin Shaw, Rob Barron, Geoff Gascoyne and Sebastiaan de Krom gave it their all and after a long day we finally got to the hotel. The bad news was we’d have to leave at 6:30 sharp the next morning for a radio show.
The next morning arrived all too soon. We all made the call on time except Martin, whose fancy new iPhone 8 had failed to take note of the hour time change from UK!
We’d finished the show before dawn! (You can see it’s dark outside on the video)
We went from there straight to the next hotel in Den Bosch. What a beautiful town. So after a disorientating siesta and a walkabout it was time for another soundcheck. This venue was an elegantly converted old church and very reverberant as you would expect. The hospitality was magnificent. We had snacks on arrival, pre gig drinks, dinner, after show drinks and pizzas.....
Here's a video recorded at the radio show:
The great thing about touring Holland is that nowhere's more than 2 hours drive away. It’s also a pleasure to MD a band that’s so cooking. It was more like a four day holiday than a tour! The last gig especially was tremendous fun.
The only thing that didn’t go so well was the exit plan to get to my next gig in Turin...
So I left the warm hotel we were staying in with Matt Bianco in Hilversum, Holland, at 6:50am to head for the local train station - a freezing, rainy 10 minute walk away. No human beings to buy tickets from, just machines requiring “coins only”. Who carries €9 in coins? Anyway, I found one that accepted credit cards. In fact it unnervingly swallows your credit card.
I found the appropriate platform in time courtesy of Google maps, not thanks to any helpful sign posting. Sadly my train was delayed over and over, so the next one to the airport left from a different platform (apparently a very clear announcement had been made in Dutch). By the time I made it to Schipol Airport it was 'last call' for my flight and there was a sign saying “18 minutes to the gate”. I was wearing my Paul Smith leather soled stage shoes and I might as well have been trying to run on an ice rink with my sax on my back. I was the last person on the flight, everyone looking visibly miffed at me trundling on at the 18th hour...
Once at Turin I had instructions to catch a bus into town. The ticket machine didn’t work. After some comedic dithering about I just had a feeling the lottery vendor might sell bus tickets, and lo and behold....!
So I then had to find the bus, and when that arrived the driver didn’t get out to open the hold for people's cases, so I found myself in charge! Anyway, it all worked out and I got into town.
Tomasso Starace and drummer, Ruben Bellavia, met me at the stop and showed me to a nice little apartment up 106 steps (like starting at the bottom of the Northern Line) where I’d be staying for 3 nights.
We went from there to the Italian Premises Rehearsal Studio and spent 4 hours slaving over Tommaso's tricky themes, broken up with a little light relief in the form of 'Trinkle Tinkle' and 'Bebop'.
The guys dropped me back at the flat later so I bought some delicious take out ravioli from a pasta shop and a fine Primitivo to wash it down. Could only find a teaspoon to eat it with, but more importantly there was a bottle opener and a wine glass!
Zog Blog - Gigs 33 & 34
606 Club, London
This was the last date of the tour (number 34)! Appropriate it should be at the 606, where I’m in 3 or 4 of the old photos from the early 1990s on the wall…. I told James, the manager, that we’d like to play as acoustic as possible, so we would not need monitors and could he please set the PA to a quarter of it’s normal level. He looked a little sceptical, but nonetheless obliged. At the end everyone was saying how good the sound was. The packed club was silent whilst we played, and it was a really satisfying way to finish what’s been a great tour. Huge thanks to the guys: Geoff Gascoyne, Sebastiaan de Krom and Graham Harvey, also Rob Barron, Rod Youngs, Robin Aspland and Josh Morrison for their fantastic playing and the whole hang. Let’s do it again sometime!
Verdict Jazz, Brighton
It was an insanely cold night and we went to an Italian restaurant that was embracing Xmas very zealously to warm up beforehand. Back at the small club a decent turnout had gathered and we had a top gig. I’m not making setlist anymore as I can feel confident everyone knows the stuff 33-gigs into the tour. It’s nice just to be able to start something. I’m still changing things around and adding the odd new tune.
Gigs 30, 31 & 32
Coventry Albany Club
It was a wintery night when we arrived to load the gear in past a large, well oiled funeral party in the ground floor room.
Neil McGowan, who runs the Coventry Jazz evenings in the upstairs venue, is tirelessly enthusiastic and a generous host. It’s quite a big room, which ideally wants 150 people to pack it out. We got around 45-50, which looked ok but was a little disappointing after the promotional work Neil and I have done. Anyway, we still had a very good gig, and the audience, who took a little while to warm up, definitely found their voice by the end! We had the usual conversations at the end wondering how to get younger people to come out to the gigs, too, etc..... so anyone reading this in the Coventry area - please turn up and support these gigs! The venue, bands, and sound are all good and the drinks reasonably priced.
St Austell - The Lost Gardens of Heligan
We were scheduled to play at the regular St Austell's jazz venue, the Bosuns, which unfortunately was double booked relatively late in the day so the venue had to be switched in order to preserve the gig. The promoter, Phil Webb, did a great job sorting this out and moving it to the Lost Gardens of Heligan. The downside was that the new venue is more remote and therefore much harder to get the audience to go to. That said, we still had a respectable turnout. The setting was a summer holiday tropical garden cafe, that on a windy, rainy December night was more like the scary scene in Jurassic Park when everyone gets chowed by the AWOL dinosaurs.... the get in also had to rank as one of the most awkward imaginable!
Once we were in, it was great. We received handsome hospitality - terrific food and drinks, and an extremely enthusiastic audience. The band, wined and dined, rose to the occasion and played great. Graham Harvey used his Fender Rhodes and we played acoustic. I felt sorry for the poor chap, Eric, who'd lugged a mighty PA in. All we used it for was announcements and interval music (Nigel Price's excellent Heads and Tales Cd)
Cornwall College Workshop
This workshop was set up by Phil Webb with the college for 15 of their music students, aged around 17 years old. They were very receptive and capable. Graham Harvey and I taught them Sonnymoon For Two by ear, improvisation through call and response techniques, basic blues chord progressions, guide tones and rhythmic placement. I was really impressed by how engaged everyone was throughout and how readily everything we taught was assimilated and put into practice. It would be great to have workshops for this age group in all regions on national tours.
St Ives Jazz Club at the Western Hotel has been going for years and recently won “Jazz Venue of the Year” in the Parliamentary Jazz Awards. It’s a split level bar with a grand piano and a small PA. I’ve done many great gigs here over the years, and last night was certainly one of them. One of the committee running the show commented that it was the busiest November gig (though it's December, of course!) they’d had for some time, so we’d been doing something right with the PR. The audience was good and really got into it.
Along with Aberdeen, this gig is the furthest away from London you can get in the UK. The fees paid to the musicians are unfortunately amongst the lowest on the circuit and I was surprised after our respectable turnout that the band cut was as low as it was. The split came to a quarter of what I actually pay the guys (that’s the MU minimum rate, BTW). I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining about the gig, which is great and well run. I’m just suggesting that this should be reassessed more favourably from the musicians' perspective in order to respectfully maintain the high standard.