James Tartaglia - Kooky Steps
Review by Cedari Rey
Kooky Steps combines swinging jazz with edgy experimentation in a compelling and varied mix of four originals and four neglected classics.
The title track is suitably ‘kooky’, with the kind of melody you soon find yourself involuntarily humming (but not minding it), and showcases Tartaglia’s distinctive tenor, which in approach and timbre hovers somewhere between Ornette and Rollins. After this helter-skelter ride comes ‘Schopenhauer’s Blues’, an intriguing conceptual piece, in which Dagmar Wilhelm, an academic philosopher by trade, provides a gloomy reading about the woes of the world, accompanied by a grinding minor blues. Vocalist Sonja Morgenstern becomes increasingly distressed as she listens, while the blues grows in intensity until everything breaks down, including, apparently, Morgenstern’s sanity; the only clear precedent I could think of for this highly original piece was Mingus’s ‘The Clown’. Next up is a re-make of ‘Video Games’ from Ornette’s seminal Song X collaboration with Pat Metheny, with Jennifer Maidman’s broad and assertive electric bass bringing out some of the implied harmony of the original. British jazz stalwart Annie Whitehead takes the first explorative solo with her wonderfully rich and expressive sound, then Tartaglia and hyperkinetic guitarist Thomas Seminar Ford play video games together; collective improvisation is one of the hallmarks of this album. Some light relief follows in the form of a little-known Lalo Schifrin composition, ‘You, Me and the Spring’, that appeared on Stan Getz’s Children of the World album; stripped of the lush backgrounds on the original, the wistful, romantic melody breathes more easily here.
The ‘B-Side’, as it were, opens with Albert Ayler’s messianic ‘Change has Come’, and although this version lacks the intensity of the original (as if anyone familiar with Ayler would expect otherwise!), it is anything but a walk in the woods, with Morgenstern’s contributions providing it with its own distinctive flavour. The oddly titled ‘It’s just his bleedin’ mouth’ takes us back to the contemporary mainstream, with Ford and Tartaglia chewing up the interesting chord changes, driven ever onwards by Mark Huggett’s inventive drumming. Then follows a second Ornette number, ‘Friends and Neighbors’, with the psychedelic vocal rather more tuneful here than on the original; it is fascinating to hear Maidman take Charlie Haden’s original hints at funkiness to their logical conclusion, behind Whitehead’s colourful contributions to the collective improvisation. The ending, a duet between Maidman and Huggett, is explosive. Finally, ‘Gibbons’ consists in Tartaglia, Maidman and Huggett blending in with a field recording of gibbons singing.
This is the fourth album by Tartaglia, and with this one, you feel his attempt to fuse interesting harmony and melody with a little conceptual art and a lot of free jazz fire, has really come together for the first time. The band, consisting of his old collaborators Huggett and Morgenstern, British jazz luminaries Maidman and Whitehead, and rising star Ford, gels perfectly, and everything you hear was played live in one or two takes; you can hear the spontaneity fizzle throughout. Each track is its own, unique thing, making this one of those albums where you relish the prospect of the next track as each draws to its conclusion. This is original music that deserves a wide audience.
James Tartaglia (Tenor Sax)
James Tartaglia won the soloist award in the Daily Telegraph Young Jazz Musician of the Year 1991 competition, and shortly afterwards received a major scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied with tenor saxophonist George Garzone. He has written over 100 jazz compositions, recorded 4 albums under his own name, and has played professionally for over 25 years. He is currently Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Keele University.
Annie Whitehead (trombone)
Annie Whitehead was a member of Chris MacGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, The Carla Bley Very Big Band and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and has worked with many well-known artists, including Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, Joan Armatrading, Chis Rea, The Style Council, Robert Wyatt and Jah Wobble. She has made 4 albums under her own name, and was described by The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Jazz (1988) as ‘one of the brightest and most versatile musicians in Britain’ and by Radio 4 (2004) as ‘one of the country’s great trombonists’.
Mark Huggett (drums)
Mark Huggett has toured extensively in Europe and South Africa, and made many TV and radio appearances; he has worked with many Jazz, Rock and Ska musicians in including Prince Buster. He has produced several albums, including the South African Music Awards nominated and critically acclaimed ‘Max Roach Park’, and is the founder of the independent record label Jazz Direct. In addition to a busy schedule as a session drummer, playing Jazz, Rock, Blues, Ska and World Music, he also works as a music and visual arts educator.
Jennifer Maidman (electric bass)
Jennifer Maidman has played with many well-known artists including Joan Armatrading, Gerry Rafferty, David Sylvian, The Proclaimers, Shakespears Sister, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morisson, Sam Brown and Boy George; she co-wrote many songs with George, including "No Clause 28". She was a long-standing member of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, performed on Robert Wyatt's recent album ‘Cuckooland’, which was nominated for a Mercury award, and has worked extensively as a music producer. She has also produced and written soundtracks for various films, such as ‘All the Little Animals’ featuring John Hurt.
Thomas Seminar Ford (electric guitar)
Thomas Seminar Ford is a fixture on the Birmingham jazz scene. Since returning from studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston, he has been making his name playing alongside musicians such as Michael Fletcher, Reuben James, Rachael Cohen and Sam Watts; he has also played with UK jazz luminaries such as Clark Tracey and Fred Baker. He has appeared at several jazz festivals, including Cheltenham and Mostly Jazz, and has also performed at established venues such as the 606 and Ronnie Scott’s. He is currently working on his own material with various line-ups.
Sonja Morgenstern (vocals)
Sonja Morgenstern is a trained actress and has worked in the UK and abroad as a singer, voice over, and model. She started singing professionally at the age of 11 (‘Hansel and Gretel’), and her experience includes theatre, film, television and music. She has sung in opera, musicals (‘Dr Faustus’, ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’) and a cappella music-hall (‘Hitler killed my Canary’), and was featured vocalist on two previous jazz albums by James Tartaglia (‘A Free Jazz Treatise Concerning Current Affairs’, ‘Dark Metaphysic’).
Dagmar Wilhelm (vocals)
Dagmar is a professional philosopher who worked in the theatre in Germany before moving to Scotland to study philosophy at the universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow. At Glasgow, she produced ‘philosophical theatre’: stage productions of philosophical texts (‘The Symposium’, ‘The Apology’, ‘The Blood of Others’). She subsequently went on to teach philosophy at Keele University, and is now lecturing at the University of Bristol.
Mark Huggett's Kooky Steppers featuring Annie Whitehead