Showing respect: Gavin Minter and Tony Lakatos both explore the standards – but in very different ways

Most jazz standards didn’t start their lives in jazz. They started as the pop music earworms of their generation: tunes so irresistibly catchy that everybody was whistling them – including the jazz musicians. (It was the same all over the world. In South Africa, marabi piano-player Edward Sililo, working from the 1930s, noted: “Any tune that enters my mind, I play it.”)

But, being jazz players, they imposed on those songs a startling metamorphosis as they improvised around the chords – and, in South Africa, wove African polyrhythms and hockets neatly into a Western, three-chord structure. Today, relatively few people outside jazz may still sing Autumn Leaves, a French song from the mid 1940s, but inside that musical community you can sit down anywhere in the world, play the intro, and find enough people – including youngsters – who know it well enough to join in and jam. We talked about jazz standards (ours, theirs, yours) at a Sophiatown Heritage Centre seminar a few weeks back, and you can find an account of that conversation at http://www.theconmag.co.za/2015/07/29/kind-of-new-standard-issue-jazz/

But in today’s novelty-hungry context, why still return to such familiar material? Why does almost every jazz musician of note, anywhere, have (or aspire to release) an album of the standards? The answer is very simple: those old pop songs are still earworms. Hear them once, and you can’t forget them; hear them twice and you start identifying with and philosophizing about the emotional content of the lyrics. “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” concluded British dramatist and composer Noel Coward (who wrote a few memorable examples himself).

That truth is beautifully illustrated – and with nothing cheap about it – by South African singer/songwriter, instrumentalist and producer Gavin Minter on his latest release, A Beautiful Friendship (Real Wired Music) https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/a-beautiful-friendship/id844843546 .

Pietermaritzburg-born Minter has worked with everybody: the far-too-long-to-repeat list runs from work with The Genuines, Chris McGregor and Johnny Fourie to opening for Paul Simon and guesting with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder among others. This album is a South African/Swedish co-production recorded in Stockholm. Minter, pianist Andrew Lilley, reed player Amanda Sedgwick, guitarist James Scholfield and drummer Kevin Gibson are joined by two Swedish musicians South Africa knows well: bassist Martin Sjöstedt and saxman Fredrick Linborg, alongside horn player Karl Olandersson. The 12 songs are all familiar friends, from the title track through The Very Thought of You to a sprightly That’s All and a wistful concluding Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Minter has a classic voice that takes on the perfect emotional colour for each song, with just the right admixture of cabaret smoke, squeaky-clean diction and apparently effortless swing. (Nothing about good music is really effortless: it’s the result of years of hard work). Göran Strandberg has scored arrangements that are neither jarringly anachronistic, nor archly retro. And there is space for some beautiful soloing, particularly from Lilley and Linborg. It’s the kind of album you might buy for your dad, because he’ll know the songs, but end up borrowing far too often. Just buy two.

Saxophonist Tony Lakatos, who charmed the Cape Town International Jazz Festival Back in March, defines his standards rather differently on Standard Time (Skip) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Standard-McNeely-Nussbaum-Anderson-Lakatos/dp/B00HTGU9O0

Some titles are predictable in this context (Arthur Altman’s 1939 All Or Nothing At All; Cole Porter’s 1936 Easy To Love) but many are not. Lakatos has looked – in very much the way we were discussing in Sophiatown – for tunes that should be standards: for what trumpeter Marcus Wyatt called, in that debate “[songs that are] challenging and stimulating to play”. Many of those were written a generation later than the conventional canon, and by jazzmen. So we have, among others, Monk’s Ask Me Now, Sonny Rollins’ Why Don’t I, Bill Evans, Thad Jones and Herbie Hancock. From a newer generation yet, there’s trumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s 1988 Everybody’s Song But My Own (surely a comment on the constraints of the conventional repertoire?) and Lennon and McCartney’s Michelle – that last becoming a surprisingly lush, bluesy soprano ballad.

Standard Time was widely praised when it was released last year, and rightly so. The quartet is in impeccable form. Pianist Jim McNeely underlines the emotions with measured, thoughtful solos; bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Adam Nussbaum provide impeccable, delicately judged support. Like Minter, Lakatos’s playing creates the illusion of effortlessness. But he takes some very personal, expressive risks with his story. Some tunes may be from the past, but the playing is often also as edgy as tomorrow, as on a brisk, surprising Easy to Love. The album may be labelled “standards”, but the sound and the vision are wholly fresh.

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PLEASE TELL ME – do you want a regular listings section in this blog? It isn’t time-tied like a newspaper column. Some of you, I suspect, only catch up with it after the relevant calendar week. But if you’d like a quick round up of gig highlights, I’ll happily add one.

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