Sunday, December 16, 2007

Jazz appeals to a niche audience, and this is why legendary figures can be found playing regularly in pubs and clubs with no need for giant video screens or opera glasses. I've lost count of the happy hours spent at the Bull's Head in Barnes listening to Stan Tracey and Bobby Wellins, with Andy Cleyndert on bass and Stan's son Clark on drums, and a host of special guests including Guy Barker, Don Weller and Ben Castle (son of Roy, and a superb tenor player). In particular, I remember Weller and Wellins raising the roof with a stunning version of 'Comme d'Habitude' a few years back. For the uninitiated, that's the original title of the song that Paul Anka ruined by turning it into 'My Way', so to hear Stan and the chaps attacking it as a ferocious samba is always a delight.

I've been to Dublin only a couple of times, but my first act on arrival has always been to find where and when Irish jazz guitarist Louis Stewart's playing that week. The quietest and most unassuming of men (I don't think he realises how good he is, or, if he does, it's still not good enough for him - no matter, the big name American players like Pat Martino all hold him in the highest esteem), Louis is nothing less than a god. His gorgeous, rounded tone is matched by a lightning speed and, most crucially, a great sensitivity and an unrivalled sense of when to hold back and when to let rip. Here he is, letting rip on 'Four'.

I first became aware of him on a Stephane Grappelli concert shown by BBC2 when I was 11. On that occasion, he was playing rhythm guitar to Martin Taylor's lead role, and for most of the show was blocking out chords. However, on the last number, 'Sweet Georgia Brown', he got to solo and I realised that - immense as my love of Martin Taylor is - this was no second banana. Over the years, I became more aware of Louis' work with Benny Goodman, Tubby Hayes and many, many others, and my respect for his playing just grew and grew. Recently, when I found this clip of him and Peter Ind (whose Tenor Clef club in Hoxton was a very important part of my late teens) performing on Q7, introduced by another hero of mine (a man who knew his jazz, too), I couldn't believe my luck.

I've met and spoken to Louis on a number of occasions, most memorably after the 60th birthday concert mounted in his honour by RTE in 2004. Shortly after that, I was asked by Crescendo magazine to interview Louis when he was in London. I travelled to Southend to see him play and set up the interview, and all was agreed over a drink in the interval. The next day I turned up at the agreed spot and Louis was nowhere to be seen. It became clear that he had 'gone shy'. If I'd had the recorder with me the previous night, he'd probably have talked, but given time to think about it, he had reconsidered and done a vanishing act. I'd have been angry with almost anyone else in the same situation, no matter how legendary, but knowing Louis a little, I realised I had to respect his decision and return to my editor empty-handed. And, no matter what stories he could have told me, sometimes, the music is all that matters. This version of 'Scrapple from the Apple' just takes flight.

These clips are only the tip of the iceberg. If you have even the slightest liking of jazz, I urge you to go to YouTube, put his name in the search box and watch everything that comes up. He's very special.

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