St. THOMAS BREAKDOWN
When Mart Rodger asked me, in November 2007, to write the sleeve notes for ALL MART, his latest CD, I little realised it would lead me to two of the most fascinating days of my life and provide wonderful insights into how jazz arrangements are formed.
I thought if I was going to do the job properly, I should witness the recording rather than just review the actual end product. So I duly turn up at St. Thomas’s, Stockport, a place which Mart favours because of its excellent acoustics. I find myself seated in the vestry, otherwise known as the control room, surrounded by all manner of churchy stuff – a stock pile of gold candelabra, incense holders and pictures of parish priests going back to 1844.
There in the middle of a table, however, is the recording equipment, a Mackie 16-channel console and two digital tape-recorders. Presiding over it are sound engineer and producer, Richard Scott, and his assistant, Shaun Trotter. Richard is ‘a brilliant engineer’ according to Mart. They first worked together at the famous Strawberry Studios, more than sixteen years ago and have since collaborated on at least 10 other recording projects.
Mart, of course, has cut many records, including one to huge acclaim with the great American jazz singer Marion Montgomery, but it is quickly apparent that this one is something special to him. It is in every sense a labour of love, being dedicated to Janet in commemoration of their Golden Wedding anniversary. And Mart, ever the perfectionist, is even more determined to get everything without blemish. Janet sits there taking it all in, happily knitting for her church bazaar for Christmas 2008, some 14 months away!
Today’s recording is of a trio, Mart, Colin Smith, bass, and Charlie Bentley, guitar and banjo. The recording begins with a number quite unknown to me, ‘Act Naturally’, by the 1970’s pop singer and song writer Gilbert O’Sullivan. Mart’s thrilling vibrato, breathy and soulful, certainly brings out the best in what I discover is a really good tune. Mart, however, is not happy with it when it is played back. A second take is interrupted by a jet going overhead and it is decided to move on to The Old Rugged Cross.
Take one is absolutely beautiful, a George Lewis-influenced version, slow and sensitive, but it is thought to end too abruptly. Their second effort is much faster and its Blues’ feel has been replaced by something whose colour and dynamics are much jazzier. I mention my preference for the first version to Janet and she agrees, telling me that Mart never likes to play a piece the same twice. The upshot is that the third take reverts to the style of the first, but still the trio are not happy with it and go into deep discussion about whether it is best to come in with two notes or three.
The second number is Storyville Rag, which Mart had found on an L.P. by Keith Nichols. It is a catchy piece of Ragtime which the trio start and abandon at least three times. After the third, Mart swears mildly and says they will tackle it again tomorrow. From my point of view, everything being played sounds just like it is on record, which of course is the intention. And it is, indeed, noticeable that Mart’s solos are endlessly inventive.
Suddenly and without warning they are into a fantastic version of ‘East Coast Trot’, which is not on the schedule. They do it in one take, featuring a mesmeric banjo solo from Charlie. Mart says later that Storyville Rag had been a little too repetitious to allow much improvisation.
It is time for a break and the trio fall into extemporary discussion of Louis Armstrong’s penchant for turning up at a recording with the All Stars and playing in whatever key he fancied depending on his mood and physical fitness. Briefly they contemplate a similarly whimsical approach but quickly abandon the idea.
Suitably refreshed, the trio plunge into Errol Garner’s eternally haunting Misty, which they do three times. The final one features some breathtakingly soaring and expanding cadences. So sure are they of this one that they don’t even bother playing it back. Instead Mart cracks a joke about three swingers, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Albert Pierrepoint. Apparently these days the audience do not always get it.
Day two begins with some consternation. The microphone for the bass is picking up a scratching sound and Shaun departs in haste to put pads on the lead. Today, Roger Browne’s piano and Nigel Cretney’s drums have been added. They record Jelly Roll’s King Porter Stomp five times before they are certain they have got it to everyone’s satisfaction.
City of the Blues seems to take a little while to settle and they decide to ‘knock out, in effect, half the chorus’, as Mart puts it succinctly. It was composed by Tony Parenti, a clarinettist much admired by Mart, as one of the first to play in such a relaxed and romantic way. They stop suddenly after a squeak which Mart ascribes to a budgie getting it.
They move on to Frenesi and Mart says casually, ‘Let’s do one chorus in, piano chorus, clarinet solo and then one out.’ After a pause he adds, ‘We’ll do the breaks in the theme but not in the solos.’ Nigel tries out two different rhythms and also wants to listen to them being played back. As soon as they hear the bossa nova version, they know instinctively it is just right. By take four, they have decided to leave the breaks out. Take five get the job done to universal satisfaction.
Mart begins September Song with the often neglected verse but stops mid-bar, offended by the drum’s creaking foot pedal. Nigel promises to be ‘more conservative in its use’. Eventually it is lubricated and take two begins. They decide to do more with the bridge passage and go straight into take three which is perfection itself. There is an incredible poignance about this piece for anybody of a certain age. After we hear it played back, a reverential hush seems to descend on the church for a little while.
That’s All, a jazz standard composed as late as 1952, appears to be going extremely well, until they call a halt halfway through and decide to up the tempo. They get it in two and break for lunch.
Whilst eating a sandwich, Mart announces he is going to put an eight-bar lick into St Philip Street Breakdown. He uses most of the break experimenting with this, and they cut it in one, a thrilling piece of clarinet boogie at breakneck tempo. Mart decides to sing on S’posin which requires a pop shield to be attached to the microphone ‘to prevent the plosive consonants being too loudly voiced’, as Richard helpfully explains. They decide in advance to stick the theme, the vocal and the piano solo together with an eight-bar tag. On the first take Charlie drops his plectrum which is a pity because Mart’s vocal is spot on. It takes three more takes to get it as good again.
With one eye on the clock and conscious, no doubt, of Parkinson’s Law, they do So Rare in one. For Amazing Grace the band, now minus banjo, work out a nice, ‘very gospelly’ arrangement. Janet praises them for changing the counter melody when it is played back. Finally, Mart again pays homage to George Lewis with an incomparable version of the great man’s theme tune, Burgundy Street Blues.
I depart, whilst the boys are packing away all their equipment, and start formulating in my mind some of the things I intend to say when the record comes out. It is clear that Mart has painstakingly crafted a beautifully mellow and romantic anthology of traditional jazz, swing and mainstream favourites with a couple of religious classics for good measure. It seems to me the record will probably have much wider appeal than the just the type of people who regularly make up his audience. I decide to conclude ‘all jazzy lovers and lovers of jazz will adore it’.
The CD has now been released, and details can be found by clicking here