Chris Byars, the New York saxophonist, composer and band leader, was displaying the jazz musician’s hard-nosed realism when he opined that the supply of jazz would always exceed the demand for it. His ancillary point was that the suppliers would continue to offer their wares and the customers would not change much numerically, come what may. What’s come in the last few weeks has been yet another newspaper prophecy: that there is an ‘explosion’ going on in British jazz, meaning that it is undergoing one of its modestly seismic revivals. It’s been happening regularly since the 1980s, and has been of interest mainly to commercial people looking to make a buck out of a music curiously unable to turn what’s new into what’s moneymaking. Byars would recognise the scenario. Jazz, despite these unjustified tremors of excitement and to paraphrase Alan Bennett, just keeps on keeping on.
The ‘new’ usually means the young playing in a way different from their elders and usually for audiences of their coevals. It’s all very healthy but circumscribed in terms of a following. Its health is buttressed by the mainstream players who preserve traditions and give them interesting twists. This is true of the Wendy Kirkland Quartet, currently touring to promote her first album, a tribute to its eponymous ‘piano divas’, the women musicians who have made such an important contribution to the music. In her book these are vocalists who also accompany themselves at the keyboard, such as the New Orleans pianist-singer La Vergne Smith, a sophisticated performer who, however, did not figure in Kirkland’s selection for the end-of-the-month gig at Black Mountain Jazz Club, Abergavenny, but whose work is a paradigm of the deft musicianship, humour, and élan which Kirkland emulates.
Many did, including Blossom Dearie, Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, and Nina Simone. Sophistication seems to be the byword for these distaff jazzers, not least Kirkland herself, who for a long while (it’s impossible to believe that this is her début recording) has been perfecting the deceptively-simple art of singing over her own choice harmonisations, lightly picked out. Concentration tends to spread from her and her keyboard immediately to guitarist Pat Sprakes, a keystone talent in this kind of music and this sort of ensemble, in which it’s important to reflect in one’s playing an appreciation of the leader’s pre-eminence as well as how it can be enhanced by what is a rhythmic and melodic instrument. Bassist Paul Jefferies and drummer Stevie Smith know their place in the context of the music, Jefferies’s one extended solo and Smith’s opportunely taken breaks representing a judicious and proper assignment of roles, though their skill in maintaining relaxed motion, of rhythms both straight-walking and Latin, could not be under-estimated.
Interest in the album from the likes of critics Dave Gelly (The Observer) and Clive Davis (The Sunday Times) must have surprised the band, which has had to add more venues to its itinerary. This has resulted in a tighter schedule and a plethora of different surroundings that possibly accounted for some variable intonation on the night, though no diminution of the band’s pursuit of intimacy. Here, Smith’s sparing use of the sticks in favour of brushes was important. Such decisions were also crucial when it came to charts commemorating singers with different approaches. Blossom Dearie, for instance, in her own arrangement of Dave Frishberg’s I’m Hip, the only song in which Kirkland couldn’t resist a hint of imitation, elsewhere eschewed in favour of her own accomplished command of a lyric. Krall and Mark Whitfield inspired Sprakes to arrange Leonard Bernstein’s Some Other Time for an immaculate duo, and with Kirkland the guitarist contributed a joint composition, Bahia, which ought to be taken up by others. Both were responsible for a Latin version of It’s Not Unusual, brave departure in a place not far from Tom Jones’s old stamping ground, and Kirkland, no mean arranger herself throughout the set, paid tribute to the transposing skills of others, notable Carol Welsman in Hank Williams’s Hey, Good Lookin’ and Shirley Horn in the Cahn-Van Heusen number Come Dance With Me. These were performances involving original tunes, the creative interventions of others and the inspiring performances of others, too, such as Krall in Brooks Bowman’s East Of The Sun and Horn, Dena Derose and Mel Tormé in Kirkland’s arrangement of Peter Nero’s Sunday In New York.
Jazz, in other words, is a populous country, with lots of people contributing to what is a deceptively simple and easygoing branch of the art. That Kirkland makes it look so is itself a tribute to a musician who through her own devices and the collaboration of others is attracting the attention she has long deserved while newcomers, allegedly, are adding to the conventions she consolidates.