Artists On Albums: AOA#42 (Oliver Cherer on Festival Session)

Oliver Cherer on…

Duke Ellington And His Orchestra’s Festival Session (Columbia/Philips, 1959)

Duke Ellington And His Orchestra’s - Festival Session (Oliver Cherer's original family copy)

Duke Ellington And His Orchestra – Festival Session (Oliver Cherer’s ‘much-loved’ family copy)

I grew up with music in the house.  My mum played Beethoven and Mozart on an upright piano and my dad listened to Stravinsky records and BBC Radio 3, but in amongst his collection of Deutsche Gramaphon classics, were two or three jazz albums, including Duke Ellington’s Festival Session from 1959.  This was an instant hit with me and was instantly my first favourite record.

In the years since, it’s become more and more obvious that, up against other towering milestones in jazz that year (Kind Of Blue, Mingus Ah Um, The Shape of Jazz To Come and numerous others), this is a record of a great man and his band marking time rather than stepping out.

Nevertheless, it had a huge impact on me and has remained an almost private pleasure.

The cover, for starters, with its ‘Jazz Map’ populated by little jazzmen characters (a bit like the Clouseau cartoons) was fascinating to an eight year old who couldn’t play a note of anything.  For years I would doodle similar beret-wearing cats in little round shades and if asked to draw a bicycle, I’ll still give you something based on the tandem from this sleeve.  It’s just cool.

Back in the ’70s, before I knew who Miles, Mingus and Ornette Coleman were, this record was just exuberant and exciting. It’s Duke with his touring big band in a kind of post-festival season précis of the summer’s events.  They trot out a couple of Ellington classics (“Perdido” and “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”) in amongst new stuff that they’d premiered that year at Newport, French Lick, Monterey etc. – and it includes a show-time drum battle which was (and still is) probably obligatory on a jazz festival stage.  But it’s an odd square peg of a record, in a way, as it’s missing a vital ingredient – an audience.  You first become aware of this when Duke shouts “Jimmy Johnson!” at the end of the first drum solo, and you can hear a huge empty room reverberating his voice back at the band.  There’s even an attempt to replace an appreciative audience by the band members, who clap and cheer at one point with the same effect of underlining the absence of a real crowd.  It chimes a slightly sad and awkward note, I think.  Jazz had moved on fairly decisively that year and this big beast of a touring band was probably beginning to find they didn’t fit quite as well as they had only a few years earlier.

But it’s still a glorious record.  After the rallying call of the familiar classic, “Perdido,” the band hit the Johnny Staccato cool of “Copout Extension.”  This tune, more than any other on the album, taught me stuff about music that hasn’t always been easy to quantify but has always felt important.  The opening bars seem to echo the Stravinsky I heard at home – the piano stabs are reminiscent of those terrifying and impossible rhythms in The Rite of Spring.  It’s there again in the stiletto-jab triplets that introduce the ‘extension’ section of the tune.  From this point Paul Gonsalves plays a long tenor sax solo over chorus after chorus after chorus, to dizzying effect. It has none of the squeals and squawks that Coltrane and Coleman were making in 1959, but it has invention and muscle and a kind of breath taking, tumbling, sinewy stamina. Duke’s arrangement is masterful too, knowing exactly how much or how little to support Gonsalves on his blistering tenor trip, whether it be his perfect two-note piano stabs or the horn section’s occasional vamps and crescendos, it’s all just right. It’s all cool.

Once this record had been with me a few years, and after I had started to learn to play the piano, it occurred to me that this ‘extension’ was really like a Bach keyboard piece. It was the bass line that seemed to dance around in cycles. It seemed to have his left hand – the apparently independent pattern of wide intervals in perfect counterpoint to the more linear soloing of the saxophone – divorced and in harmony all at once. The idea that this jazz record might have anything to do with what my dad used to call ‘serious music’ was a revelation to me, and is an idea that has remained with me ever since. If that’s Bach in there, it’s fine. If it’s Stravinsky, that’s cool too; it’s all just music, it’s all valid. And who says I can’t play that note or use that instrument?  Like the man said, If it sounds good it IS good,” right?

He saves the best to last on “Copout Extension,” though, and I mean the very last note. The band have been vamping and soloing in F major for a full eight minutes when they hit those cop show triplets again, suspend on some kind of C chord, and then almost fall apart on a lovely F9 (or something cleverer than that!), but then Duke twists it all beautifully by hitting a single low D on the piano. It ends in complete suspense. It’s very unsettling. It feels like exactly the right ‘wrong’ note. I have copied this idea again and again over the years but never let it remain in place on a record. I wonder why.

OK, so it’s not one of the ‘great’ jazz records. It’s probably not even one of Duke’s ‘great’ records, but it contains all that made Duke Ellington great and it taught me things about music that have remained important to me. I got as much from Festival Session as I did from Psychocandy or The Velvet Underground & Nico, and that makes it ‘great’ to me.

Notes On The Artist:

Oliver Cherer

Oliver Cherer

After some largely forgotten feet-finding in the ‘80s (with the goth-slanted Kiss The Blade) and ‘90s (as part of big beat outfit Cooler), the Hastings-based Oliver Cherer has spent the last ten or so years forging esoteric and experimental routes through his Dollboy alias, via a raft of low-key collaborations and more latterly under his own name.

As Dollboy, Cherer has cut a diverse string of albums and short-form releases for niche and boutique labels such as Static Caravan, Awkward Formats, Front And Follow and Second Language.  This has included fruitful forays into restful minimalism (2004’s Plans For A Modern City), balmy folktronica (2009’s Beard Of Stars and 2006’s Casual Nudism), skewed art-pop (2012’s Further Excursions Into The Ulu With Dollboy) and ambient conceptualism (2010’s Ghost Stations and 2014’s Tuning Loops).

In-between Dollboy recordings, Cherer has deployed his talents as a guest performer, studio aide and remixer across wares from Woodcraft Folk, ISAN’s Robin Saville, Piano Magic, Tunng, Angèle David-Guillou and Littlebow.

Most recently, Cherer has subtly shifted further to the fore of his chosen trade, with the gently stunning solo-monikered Sir Ollife Leigh & Other Ghosts LP and through co-fronting the Silver Servants’ eponymous debut album with Piano Magic’s Glen Johnson, both on the natural label home of Second Language.

Whilst the Dollboy name may or may not be retired, Cherer still retains another alias, for his kosmische-inclined Rhododendron side-project, which has a 10” vinyl set in the works for The Great Pop Supplement’s sister label Deep Distance, following on from 2013’s appearance on the highly-collectable Grasshopper Mind split-EP.  If that all that wasn’t enough productivity for one decade, Oliver Cherer promises that more musical produce – solo and otherwise – is also being harvested for near-future consumption.