Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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Discovering Sharón Clark, Mattias Nilsson and the Cercle Suédois in Paris

October 19, 2018
bradspurgeon

Sharon Clark and Mattias Nilsson in Paris

Sharón Clark and Mattias Nilsson in Paris

PARIS – I grew up with jazz.  My father was an aficionado who not only built his own hi-fi equipment and had a sizeable collection of 78s and 33s of jazz from the beginning of time, but he also made sure to take me to concerts to see some of the masters.  So it was that I saw Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, and I heard play and then met at the age of seven, Gene Krupa, the great jazz drummer, in a small club in downtown Toronto in the mid-1960s.  The aural wallpaper of my childhood included voices like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan.  So it was that my jazz sensibilities, whether good or not, were accustomed to hearing the highest quality.  Perhaps it was for this that I have never much cared for listening to amateur jazz singers, and I go extremely rarely to jazz jams.  I just mention all of this as background to saying that I was bowled over last week attending a concert at the Cercle Suédois in Paris and hearing the astounding voice of Sharón Clark.  

It was all about her phrasing, her control, her range, her nuances.  It was all about authenticity.  About hearing so many of the songs she sang – lots of Sarah Vaughan, as she is a specialist on that one – in a way that sounded both familiar and new.  

So who the hell is Sharón Clark, and what was she doing at the Cercle Suédois of Paris?  And what brought ME there?!?!  

It turns out that Sharón, who is from Washington D.C., is on a tour of Europe – and Taiwan!! – accompanied by a fabulous, versatile young pianist named Mattias Nilsson, who is Swedish.  He is the boyfriend of an acquaintance of mine, and I was told he’d be doing this gig in Paris, maybe I’d like to go.  

I really did not expect much of anything – Mattias, Sharón OR the Cercle Suédois.  It turned out to be discoveries in every area, and proved once again how if you just get off your butt and check something out – outside of your regular stomping grounds – then you might find something really revitalising.

First back to Sharón.  Her story is fabulous.  Although she has sung all her life, starting out in church, as has often happened with American jazz and gospel singers (and she sings some gospel too), she only really emerged in recent years after she was fired from a full-time job – that she had as the mother of a now 15-year-old girl – and decided it was time to dive into the world of her passion and see if she could make a career out of her singing.  This answers the question that some media have asked, “Where has she been hiding???”  

No sooner did she fix her mind to it, than she scored a tour in Russia, and she has now made many contacts in Europe, with, in this case, Mattias Nilsson working hard with her – last week selling out the famous Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen.  And to quote her web site bio, “Ms. Clark appears regularly in DC at Blues Alley and Loews Madison Hotel. A featured soloist with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the Richmond Symphony, and the Baltimore Symphony, Clark has headlined the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, the Cape May Jazz Festival and the Savannah Music Festival. Both the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and The Ludacris Foundation chose Ms. Clark to perform for their separate tributes to Quincy Jones.

As to Nilsson, I am no more aware of his age than I am of Clark’s, but he looks around 35 and has already had a 15-year long career as a pianist, playing all around the world, and from jazz to classical and everything in between, including Swedish folk music.  In fact, while it has taken me a while to write about this Cercle Suédois evening, that also gave me time to listen to his CD, “Dreams of Belonging.” 

As I told him myself in a message after listening to it, it’s real mix of different styles, even some touches of Satie sound, jazz, everything.  Moments Keith Jarrett, Scott Joplin, hints of all this, but then the main thrust which is his Swedish sound.  

At the Cercle Suédois, the two were accompanied by a French bassist they had never played with before, but he added a fabulous layer of sound behind the piano and Clark’s voice.  It was a wonderful relaxed evening in this place I had never even known existed, but which has been in Paris in the same building since the 1930s, and prior to that, in another place since it was founded in the 1890s!

The current place is in one of the iconic looking buildings lining the Rue de Rivoli, near the Place de la Concorde – which is the last place I ever expected to find a jazz concert.  It is above all a private club for Swedish people, but it offers these concerts every Wednesday, and even if you are not a member you can attend, paying 15 euros for the music.  You can also order drinks, or even a meal. (Ornella and I had the salads, hers a salmon salad, mine the haddock salad.)

As  you can see from the photo and my short video excerpt, that the place is a beautiful ornate classic mansion inside – but as I said, the atmosphere is relaxed, and it also gave me naturally a taste of Sweden, including being able to touch the desk that I was told was the one that Alfred Nobel used to sign the decree launching the Nobel Prizes.  

Now that is class!  Like Clark, Nilsson and the place itself.  

The Inspirational Example of John McLaughlin, at the New Morning in Paris

March 4, 2017
bradspurgeon

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

PARIS – It was 1973, in Ottawa, and I had recently discovered Jimi Hendrix and was looking for another guitarist of equal genius. Perhaps it had to do with Hendrix being dead, perhaps it was because Hendrix was so good that I could not accept that one man alone have that level of talent. In any case, it was through a neighbour who was a little older than me, who passed on a few records of potential Hendrixes, that I found another guitar genius of a completely different kind. Among those records were Santana, which I liked but did not fall in love with, and this other guitarist with his album of the amazingly strange, almost psychedelic cover; this was no Hendrix, but in his own way, with something stricter, more ordered, and yet chaotically, bizarrely ordered, I discovered John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the album “Birds of Fire.”

Having been raised with jazz – from my father’s vast record collection – and having actually attended concerts by bands called The Duke Ellington Orchestra, or The Count Basie Orchestra, the idea of an “orchestra” that had nothing to do with symphonies was not foreign to me, despite my chest-length hair and hippie sensibilities. In fact, the clearly Eastern sound to the name of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was as intriguing as Hendrix’s hallucinogenic covers.

Then, as soon as I heard the first notes of the first piece – “Birds of Fire” – I knew I would go right out and buy that album. It was probably the only one of those that my friend lent me that I did buy. The Santana was far too soft for me, but while John McLaughlin was not at all like Jimi Hendrix, and could never “replace” the reality – or rather, irreality – that Hendrix offered me, this was clearly one of the coolest guitarists I had ever heard. His style was unmistakably his. The frenetic, manic, super fast playing was a wonder to listen to, but the songs also made up a world of their own to which I felt like some kind of initiate allowed to step in to a world that sounded to me like my own generation’s Bach.
John McLaughlin at New Morning fourth

In a time, now, when all of the heroes of my generation – and in fact, the heroes of all the popular music of the second half of the 20th century – are dying what seems like almost at a daily rate over the last couple of years, that a hero like John McLaughlin, is not just still alive, but playing as if he was still 30, at the age of 75, is not just an incredible gift, it is a wonder and an inspiration. It took me 44 years before I ever got to see McLaughlin in concert, but seeing him Wednesday night in Paris in the intimate New Morning venue, was like being invited into one of the local practice studios neighbouring this legendary music venue, and hearing and seeing this hero of my youth.
John McLaughlin at New Morning seventh

And it was fitting that almost immediately, McLaughlin and his latest band, the 4th Dimension, played “Miles Beyond,” from that very album, “Birds of Fire.” Unlike at so many concerts by heroes of the past, though, I found myself equally mesmerised and carried away by songs that I did not even know of, some of them from the most recent recordings of this amazing guitarist. McLaughlin is a treasure, and if you get a chance to go and see him on his upcoming tour in Europe, or his later tour this year in the U.S., which will be his first there in something like a decade or so, just don’t miss it. And take music lovers from the current generation, since McLaughlin is not just a jazzman, he is a rocker.
drummer scat stuff with John Mclaughlin at new morning eighth

He may have come of age with his jazz rock fusion, but the fabulous thing about McLaughlin is that anyone who studies much about the history of rock music will find that he came out of the same England that produced so many of the rock stars of the 60s, playing at one point with Alexis Koerner’s band, actually giving lessons to Jimmy Page at one point, and performing as a session musician for a vast swathe of other musicians-
John McLaughlin at the New Morning first

And then, of course, he played with Miles Davis and others, including segues into projects like his Band of Doom with Jaco Pastorius.

And then there was John McLaughlin’s Incredible 4th Dimension band

Not only is it worth seeing and hearing him now because he is in more than full control of his instrument at age 75, and still looking like a supercool dude from the rock generation rather than any kind of sit-down old fart bluesman – he stood up for the whole show while playing, and took just one minute break on a stool to take a drink, in a more than 2 hour show – but he also has accompanying him three outstanding musicians who all look like they are enjoying themselves as much as McLaughlin is.
John McLaughlin at the New Morning third

On bass was the fabulous Étienne M’Bappé, originally from Cameroon, who has a bass playing style equally aggressive as McLaughlin’s inimitable guitar playing. M’Bappé is the first bass player I have seen play with gloves, by the way. But his playing is so percussive that I’m not surprised he wants to protect those fingers – I just can’t figure out how he does it!
John McLaughlin at the New Morning again

On drums was Ranjit Barot, and Indian drummer who grew up in the tradition of Indian classical music, but has vast CV playing in numerous styles, and also has scored films, composed, arranges, everything. And he sings fabulously well too, and loved his sort of scat stuff.
John McLaughlin at the New Morning second

And on keyboards, and occasionally also on drums, was the incredible Gary Husband, who to my ears sounded equally as good on drums as on keyboards. Husband has played with Mike Stern, Jack Bruce, Robin Trower, Billy Cobham, Spectrum 40, Level 42, Andy Summers and Quincey Jones, among many others.

Some of the most touching moments of the evening were his pieces that Mclaughlin wrote for moments that clearly filled him with great emotion, like the song he wrote during the bombing of Gaza, or the song for his friend Paco de Lucia. The duelling drum moments between Husband and Barot were also a hugely entertaining bit that gave spectators a little of everything through the night in the intimate room for a band that could fill Paris’s biggest theatres.

Birds of Fire

Birds of Fire


What was really most inspiring about this show, aside from just listening to great music, was to think of a man of 75 playing as if he was 30, no impediments from age. He spoke in French most of the evening, too, by the way, as he lives in Monaco since the late 80s, and he said at one point that he had a broken collarbone on the mend. Having had my collarbone break on three different occasions as a slightly perturbed child, I know just how painful that is. And for a guitarist of 75 to stand up and move around and play with his guitar strapped over his shoulder with an injury like that, there’s nothing to say but that McLaughlin, in addition to everything else, is a real trouper.

Update of Thumbnail Guide to Barcelona Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music

May 27, 2016
bradspurgeon

Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona, Spain

I have updated my Thumbnail Guide to Barcelona Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music. I was most delighted to find that the Big Bang Bar has reinstated an open mic – of a different kind to the one it used to host, and which I had taken off the list after it was done away with. There are two or three other updates, including great Facebook page for finding open mics.

So take a visit to my Thumbnail Guide to Barcelona Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music.

So check it out!

Update of Thumbnail Guide to Shanghai Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music

April 19, 2016
bradspurgeon

Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China

I have updated my Thumbnail Guide to Shanghai Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music, after having returned yesterday – pretty good timing this time.

But the problem is, and this is slightly depressing, most of the updating I did on the list was to remove open mics and venues that no longer exist. I was unable to update with any new venue, although I was able to improve my section about the House of Blues & Jazz, as I had not actually played there until this trip….

So take a visit to my Thumbnail Guide to Shanghai Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music.

So check it out!

The A-stounding, Out-standing, Still-standing, Last Stand at the Jam of the House of Blues & Jazz in Shanghai

April 18, 2016
bradspurgeon

House of Blues & Jazz

House of Blues & Jazz

I was really, seriously, beginning to lose faith in my last days in Shanghai. I mean, the trajectory of my worldwide open mic adventure has almost invariably been, up. Like every city I go to year after year there is a snowball effect of discovering new venues, new scenes, new musicians and a kind of inexorable growth sense. (Don’t mind me, I’ve just traveled 24 hours back to Paris from Shanghai after not sleeping for like about the same length of time before that.) And I began really feeling bad about things in Shanghai because it seemed that all of the places I had played in the past had disappeared: Bee Dees; Karma Lounge; Not Me; Oscar’s; and like, did the Melting Pot still have its Sunday jam?

No matter how much research I did every single day, I could not find evidence that an open mic I had attended in the past still existed today. And so it was that my open mic for my first four nights was my own hotel room. I played away, morning and night, whenever I could find a down moment between an otherwise massively busy weekend at the racetrack.

And I wrote emails to friends, acquaintances and fellow musicians I have met over the years in Shanghai. And either they did not respond, or they did not exist, or they now existed elsewhere.

And then…and then… finally, on the last night of my stay in China, I remembered the House of Blues & Jazz. I remembered they had a jam on the Sunday night. I remembered it was probably not too far from my hotel. I then learned it was 15 minutes’ walk from my hotel. And I went. I still could not tell if it was really still a jam session on the Sunday night.

And my music is neither blues nor jazz. And I remember this place made me feel a little insecure the first time I went there about three or four years ago, and I remember walking out without trying the jam, so much was I scared. But last night, waiting for my 7 AM flight back to Paris, I had no choice. If I did not play on the House of Blues & Jazz stage, then I would have lost my week in Shanghai in terms of the buzz I seek on the open mic stages of the world. What a horrible lost opportunity that would be.

But it was, honestly, very sad to go to this city where in the past at my peak I was able to play in maybe six different places, and find that nothing existed anymore. Or practically. The one I did last year on the Monday still exists, but it’s now Monday and I’m back in Paris….

So I went to the House of Blues & Jazz, and I found this fabulous stage again – big enough to hold a piano, drum set, bass player, lead player, a singer or two – and a great sound system, and a vibe somewhere between laid back and classy, with its wood panel interior, and the three or four television screens of the stage action ensuring that everyone gets to see and hear what’s happening.

And I listened to the fabulous house band led by Greg on the vocals and guitar. And when he announced the jam, the open stage, I finally knew I had to push for it, and that my drought of a week in Shanghai would end. And boy did it end. It was like, after four nights in the hotel playing to no audience, I suddenly had an audience, and I could explode.

I only got two songs, but it was enough to play with the backing band, and before this great, fabulous, large audience, and just let go. I had the time of my week in Shanghai. And I not only recommend this excellent jam – which has much more than jazz and blues – but I will definitely be returning myself. (If I have the good fortune to get back to Shanghai….)

Four Nights of a Week, Culminating in a Gig (And thence onward to Wynton Marsalis, the Olympia, the Giant, the Orgasmic Master and the Smelly Woman)

February 7, 2016
bradspurgeon

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis

PARIS – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Those were the nights out this week. More than lately as I work on various personal projects and the blog gets left a little bit behind. Where I would have done four posts in the past, I’m doing one. Things will no doubt change as the projects I’m working on get caught up…. But in any case, it was a great four nights out and it varied from regular open mics to a cool new jam to an incredible concert at the Olympia by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra!
Someone at Bliss

On Monday I dropped off at an open mic that just began its second year: The open mic of the Bliss bar near Les Halles. This is a posh back room to a sizeable bar brasserie, and the sound system is great, there are lots of musicians, a jam feel to the thing, but ultimately also if you are into live karaoke – i.e., you sing but need a backup band – then this is also the place for you. They say they accept basically all styles, but from what I saw, the accent is on soul – maybe funk too. I’ll have to return to confirm, as I got there too late to get up on stage, and I only stayed for around three songs.
Group at Some Girls

Knowing I had failed to arrive early enough, I moved on fast to the Some Girls open mic on the Rue de Lappe, which is quickly becoming a personal favorite, and which is quickly become a personal favorite for many other musicians, I can see that! From there I went up the street to the Yellow Mad Monkey, but I was too late to play there as well, alas.
Someone at Some Girls

On Tuesday, I decided to drop over to the Zebre Rouge to see if the open mic was still happening there, as they now have a new open mic and jam on Thursdays. In fact, no. The old open mic was not happening, but there was a wild and cool jam in the basement. This was jazz, funk, far out stuff, sax players, drummer, guitar, bass, all sorts of mad stuff. Very free and easy and worth it if you want a classic cool instrumental jam.
Jam at Zebre Rouge

I went from there to La Féline to take part again in this, hopefully, growing open mic on the amazing stage of this popular bar near the Menilmontant metro. I know it would be a much wilder success already if it took place on one of the bar’s busier nights – but in fact the bar does not need the open mic on the busier nights, obviously, because the place is packed on those nights….
Another at the Feline

From there I wandered over to the Café Oz open mic where things were just booming. It felt at that time of around 10:30 PM as if the verdict is in and the old Coolin vibe – of one of Paris’s then best open mics now defunct – has now transferred to the Café Oz. Again, though, I was too late to get my name on the list. But I had a great time talking to friends….
One at the Cafe Oz

And thence onward to Wynton Marsalis, the Olympia, the Giant, the Orgasmic Master and the Smelly Woman

Thursday was the day of being a spectator, no playing music for me – although I still find it difficult to go somewhere as a spectator alone. And I must say, although attending a concert by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was a musical experience I will remember for the rest of my life, the seating arrangement as a spectator was something that made the trip nearly persuade me that I never wanted to be a spectator again!
Threesome at the Feline

I bought a very, very expensive ticket of 90 euros in order to get as close as my bank account would reasonably allow, and I found myself in a triple disaster situation: Sitting two rows ahead of me was the tallest man in the audience, which blocked my view of the stage (which was still half the hall away). Sitting behind me was a man of perhaps 60, 65 years old who seemed to enjoy the music so much that during periods when the entire audience was quiet due to being enthralled by the virtuosos onstage – particularly during a solo, piano, sax, trumpet or other – the man seemed to have mini-orgasms, letting out high-pitched, rather feminine cries of joy that while intended for no one but him, seemed to come directly into my ear on every important note of the solo. But the final horror outweighed both the orgasmic master seated behind, and the giant seated in front. This was the woman sitting one seat away from mine on my right, who smelled of some absolute horror killing odor that was impossible to identify. As soon as she came in and sat down, looks from all around – including the orgasmic master right behind – centered on the woman and whatever her smell was. It was so bad that you gagged. In fact, I had to breathe through my mouth for the entire concert. Had she failed to correctly dry her coat after a wash, and it spoiled? Had she spilt milk all over the whole thing a few hours before and let it dry out? Did the putrid chemical smell in fact come from her???!!! It was this latter possibility that led me to hold my breath on speaking to the usher and asking that I be moved to some better seat – but the place was pretty much full….
Communal Well at les Agapes

But still, the concert was so good, I mean the music, that I had no regrets about my fluke seating situation. These were amongst the tightest playing, most modern jazz musicians I’ve ever heard live. My references range from seeing as a child or teenager both the Duke Ellington Orchestra (with Ellington) and the Count Basie Orchestra (with Basie) and this Lincoln Center orchestra with Marsalis was just so crisp and hot. The sound quality reminded me that however good recorded sound is, live sound is better. These people played those saxes and trumpets like they were keyboards – just astounding. Hearing the clarinet of Rhapsody in Blue in a live situation for the first time, was an amazing experience like few I’ve had before, musically. (And I even enjoyed the Tuba rendition at the end of the Jackson’s song “Blame it on the boogie.”)

Friday was more relaxed. I was invited to perform a gig, as a warm up act for a local Paris band of Americana and blues, called, The Communal Well. I had met one of the members a couple of years ago, and had been meaning to go for some time to see a gig. Well, when I announced my CD being out a couple of weeks or so ago, the guy invited me to perform as an opening act in a 30 minute set for them at show they were putting on at a bar/brasserie in the 16th Arrondissement in Paris, a restaurant called, “Les Agapes.” I jumped at the chance, asked Félix Beguin if he could join me on lead (yes, he said), and so went and had a fabulously fun 45 minute or so set just before the main act.
Another Communal Well at les Agapes

Communal Well were very cool, a cross between The Band and … their band…! Very much how they describe themselves, in fact: between Americana and blues, a little of both, and more. I took some short videos to put up here.
Woman singer with Communal Well

From there, I went on to celebrate the birthday of a friend, and we ended up, of all places, spending quite some time drinking down the Pigalle Country Club, which is where the photo on my CD was taken….
Yet another Communal Well

A fabulous week, all in all…. Oh, and now it’s time to go watch the Super Bowl. So excuse me….

Great Vibes, Great Music, a New Haven Discovery and Just Plain Great Fun on the Rue de Lappe in Paris

January 26, 2016
bradspurgeon

Some Girls

Some Girls

PARIS – For a while last night I felt I had stepped back in time three years to the Ptit Bonheur la Chance open mic in Paris. That was one of the best open mics in Paris until it closed in 2013, and since then, the city has not matched anything quite like that intimate and hip vibe. I’m not saying there are not lots of fabulous other open mics, but nothing quite like that one. Last night, still in the opening stages of this new open mic at the Some Girls bar on the Rue de Lappe, near Bastille, suddenly, it felt like the Ptit Bonheur. Of course, the fact that it’s the same Ollie hosting this one who hosted that one might have something to do with it.

Greg Sherrod Album

Greg Sherrod Album

Other things that have to do with it are the perfect mix of the small size of the bar, the clients who come not for the music but for socializing – but who like the music – and the clients who come for the music. And then, there were the musicians. Oh, yes, last night was a great one. Some of the people from the Ptit Bonheur came around, now having learned of Ollie’s new joint, and then there were the unexpected guests, the discoveries, the people from out of town who just suddenly show up on their European tour to take in a Paris open mic and have some singing fun. That was the high point of the night, was that: Greg Sherrod, a blues, soul, rock singer from New England. Having come to Europe to play in England, Belgium, France and the Netherlands – did I miss anything? – Greg was on the last leg of his journey, visiting Paris. And the people in the Some Girls bar last night were in for a treat.
First Greg song at Some Girls

When he told me he sang the blues, I prepared myself to hear the usual guttural howl of the blues voice we know all over the world that is transmitted like some kind of disease for which there seems to be no cure. But then I heard Greg, and suddenly the room lit up, and I knew I had to get a bit of him on film, and I knew he was a bona fide original.
Girls duet at Some Girls

When we posed for a photo afterwards, Greg and Ollie and I, I said to him, “I feel like I’m about to get my photo taken with Jimmy Rushing.” Actually, it’s not really true. I’d say, Greg’s voice falls somewhere between Rushing and Joe Williams. But really neither. He’s got his own voice.
Girl at Some Girls

He sang a couple of classics, with Ollie on the guitar, he invited Aurelia to join him, and today as I looked up a few details about Greg on the Internet, I found that he was just doing what he does all the time: Tying together the band and the public in a single bond. Great and cool surprise at the open mic, in any case, was this Greg Sherrod of New England, a local legend in New Haven.
Another at Some Girls

I had intended to take part in two or three open mics last night, but the vibe was so good at Some Girls on the rue de Lappe that there was nowhere else to go….
First one at Some Girls

Another bit at the Some Girls

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