The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: is randomly decrepid and is neo-bankrupt: is so analogue it's anal.
The Bookstore is christened the Beatnik because of Kerouac and Ginsberg’s association with jazz. The shop has a wholesale stash of jazz literature, a wonderful jazz CD cupboard painted (in fact on both sides) by artist Chris Vinz, and jazz performances each fortnight during term time that are its true calling card. With its silhouetted, scantily lit atmosphere you are transported to downtown Chicago in the 1930s, an illegal lock-in with moonshine for sale (that’s easily sorted by my mate Skunk in his garage) and the cops outside casing the joint.
No duo works better in the shop than violinist Christian Garrick and pianist Dave Gordon, frequent visitors. They have that urgent quality that fills the space and a bustle that keeps you tapping your toes. Theirs is a bright and shimmering sound, complementary and dovetailed, well rehearsed as they have ridden shotgun for each other over decades. They listen to each other at all times; either of them could play back the notes that ring if you drop a tray of cutlery (I’ve even done that mid-performance). And here they are in the Albion Beatnik performing Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing (the closing riff is from John Dankworth’s big band arrangement of that tune).
The violin is a troubled instrument in the history of jazz in spite of its proud history. Ellington, for example, used it to add to his orchestral colouring (in fact Ray Nance made a speciality of It Don’t Mean A Thing in the Ellington bands of the 1940s and 1950s), yet today it can sum up the great divide between the notated, prescriptive score and the earth moving and carefree freedom that is the stuff of jazz. Classical maestro Yehudi Menuhin teamed up throughout the 1970s with the French jazz icon Stephane Grappelli. Menuhin would arrive in the studio hours ahead to prepare his score thoroughly; Grappelli would breeze in, late, casual and with a grin, only to ask what they were playing and in which key. It shows in this TV recording: Menuhin’s rehearsed lines and serious demeanour somewhat at odds with Grappelli’s lackadaisical aspect.
There haven’t been that many noteworthy jazz violinists. Joe Venuti is the clan’s founding father, Eddie South, Stuff Smith and a few others; Grappelli and, I guess, Jean-Luc Ponty since then have made the headlines, Europeans both, and this might tend to suggest the violin is to be associated with a white man’s jazz learnt at school, slightly footnoted and not the stuff of hard living. (It has also been chain ganged to the guitar.) It would not be true however that violinists are generally a moral, clean-living bunch of folk who grow their own vegetables; the resin used to supple their bows, for instance, can be of notorious content. Chris Garrick is unusual in that he has sound classical provenance – outstanding achievements as an early teen and at the Royal Academy, at home on the South Bank, often performing with Nigel Kennedy who is a friend from childhood – but is a seasoned jazz trooper also: he is the delta of both a musical disquisition and musical delinquency. David Gordon is a seedy, vampiric jazz entity at night and a strait-laced classical musician by day, in fact an erstwhile continuo harpsichordist for Trevor Pinnock’s baroque English Concert Orchestra; his jazz playing hums, just ricochets from floor to ceiling with thumps of joy, and if there is perversion in his style, it is all his own for he is the master of his own idiosyncrasy. Their recent album together, Paper Jam, combines the disciplines of their formal study with the outrageous brio and swank that make a true jazz performance the sound of surprise.
The early jazz musicians honed their craft like prizefighters, often during after hour cutting sessions in rent houses where fierce individuality was fed by pyrotechnic abandon. This spirit of early jazz is here on this recording: two lone voices pitted against each other and with no bassist or drummer to provide a resting point along the way. There is a sense of danger and exposure with the very skeleton of their improvisatory craft on display. And when not prizefighters, Chris and David are cowboy gunslingers, urgent and dangerous both. Their pedigree of cattle rustling and gaming houses (or scales and music theory at their various academies and kaleidoscopic experience as jazzers) has led to this shootout at the OK Coral. The gold standard of such shootouts, of course, is Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines’ recordings in 1928, Weather Bird their apogee, where rivalry, ego and tension underpin but are washed away by bucketloads of rapport: call and response, cryptic copycat and overt playfulness abound.
It is one of the wonders of the jazz art that although its lineage is provocation – and on this CD we have two musicians who are supple enough technically and full to the brim with ideas to exploit this provocation – its lodestar is engagement, and, together, Chris and David cavort incredibly as though a complete jazz orchestra, yet with only catgut and chopsticks. Chris cascades and skinny-dips, David dives or bellyflops; we have joy, we have skittishness, the lingering, tender phrase and the throwaway thrill. We are taken from the Anglican (David Gordon’s chillingly beautiful English Isobars or William Walton’s account of Shakespeare), to the blues and back to the New Orleans cradle of jazz, bebop stuff from Bud Powell, clever stuff from the late English pianist John Taylor, Tin Pan Alley, Burt Bacharach’s sixties pop parade, and the embrace of world music – sambas, mambos and the hubbub of a South African township as heard by Abdullah Ibrahim. This duo has the energy and timbre to fill either a living room or a concert hall. It is always the most amazing of treats to hear them perform together live, or here on CD.
Here is English Isobars from the album:
And here are the duo again filmed in the shop, captured by a mobile phone while I was sitting on a plank of wood (mercifully the nail jutting upwards only shaved my backside): Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely (and here is the same tune from an earlier visit) and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Samba de Uma Nota Só, made a worldwide hit in 1962 by Stan Getz and Charlie Bird.
Simply: Chris and David’s is a musical craft that makes you glad to be alive.
sketches by Merlin Porter