Animal Jazz (Piano Book), Barbara Snow

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One of the things we try to remember to bring to Chico Chica gigs is a metal camera case which we call the shop. There are three items we sell: Mélangerie, our first CD, The Glow of Havana, a 10” vinyl release and a piano book written by Barbara Snow called Animal Jazz . This book, published by Edition HH,  sells surprisingly well.  After all, piano players are less numerous than listeners so one would expect this to be too niche.

 

A band can sell what it likes at a show and I have been looking for ideas for suitable items other than the obvious t-shirt. I thought of cufflinks and even started talking to jeweller Lee Renee. I envisaged Chico on the left and Chica on the right – or maybe the other way round. But sadly, this project became one of those myriad loose threads in my life which I hope one day to get back to.

 

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In our other lives Barbara, Hilary and I are peripatetic instrumental teachers. Teachers are constantly recommending the purchase of books so why not write one’s own?  Barbara Snow is more than adequately qualified. The fifteen pieces in Animal Jazz evince a natural mastery of melody which is both simple and playful. Listen here and I’m sure you’ll be as charmed by them as I am. You can buy a copy of Animal Jazz here.

 

Or even better, come to a Chico Chica show and buy direct:
  • Sicily Restaurant, London November 11, 2016 at 8:00 pm – 10:30 pm
  • Sandgate Hotel, Folkestone November 13, 2016 at 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
  • Bull’s Head, Barnes November 17, 2016 at 8:30 pm – 10:30 pm

Nice Guy With an Edge

There’s something compelling about an article consisting of ‘do’s and don’ts’. A couple of years ago, I saw one about online dating and being a complete sucker with too much time on his hands, I clicked it. The reader was told not to describe himself as a ‘nice guy with an edge’, presumably because the phrase was too common and it’s important to stand out. The phrase gave me the idea of a setting a fictionalised online dating profile to music. The result is Nice Guy With an Edge, track three of Chico Chica’s album The Glow of Havana released earlier in the year.

 

 

I has absolutely no hand in the either writing or performing the music. Barbara Snow was the composer and she even translated my choruses into Spanish, albeit with the help of bass player Andres Lafone. When performing the song I put the guitar down – I feel I can get a closer connection with the audience when I’m not hiding behind my instrument. 

 

 
The Glow of Havana is an unusual fusion of spoken word with an English sensibility and salsa, complete with percussion, horns and Spanish coros. The album was recorded at Cowshed Studio, London by Joe Leech. Joe has since moved to Western Australia with his family so it is likely to be the last of that happy and fruitful relationship. It can be purchased here

 

Chico Chica will be appearing as a trio at Sicily Restaurant, 2a Elizabeth St, London SW1W 9RB 8pm, Friday 11th November. Roberto, the owner, is really committed to live music and Sicily has now become a key component in the London jazz scene.

 

 I personally will be back at the Nova Restaurant, Chiswick High Rd 1pm tomorrow Sunday 30th October. 

If I Ever Lose This Heaven + I, Daniel Blake

 

 

Song of the Week is not really a feature on this blog but I make an exception in this case because this week I have been learning, playing and thinking about funk/soul classic If I Ever Lose This Heaven by the Average White Band.

 

 I left school in 1975 and in order to celebrate that glorious crossroads-of-my-life feeling I bought AWB’s Cut The Cake album and listened to it constantly throughout most of that carefree, long-ago summer. The song that particularly struck me was If I Ever Lose This Heaven. Recently I decided to return to it. Much of my playing at home has been song focussed – where I learn a song I love and see how it fits together and analyse why it appeals to me. More often than not, it’s a certain twist in the chord progression where it takes a less-travelled road yet still manages to sound natural and pleasing. The chords for If I Ever Lose This Heaven starts with a III  V  I movement which I have used in Chico Chica’s yet-to-be-recorded Red River. It also happens at the start of the verse in Marvin Gaye’s Sunny 

 

For years I assumed The Average White Band wrote If I Ever Lose This Heaven – I’ve never been one for reading credits so alas, will never become a ‘buff’ in anything.  In the previous year, Quincy Jones released Body Heat which features Minnie Ripperton, Al Jarreau and the song’s composer Leon Ware so it was natural for the boys from Aberdeen to pick it for Cut The Cake‘s sole cover. They borrowed a few of Quincy’s arranging ideas and I suspect they got the free blowing section at the beginning from Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay which came out in 1970.

 

Staying on the nostalgia theme, I remember as a boy going to the cinema to watch a film and I can’t remember which. It was common in those days to put on what in rock concert terms would be called a supporting act. The film was about a boy with a pet kestrel called Kes – a bit like calling your dog Doggy but there you go. I hated it for the first few minutes and then I slowly became drawn into the characters and story. The film was by Ken Loach. I had never seen another of his films until last night. I am not an avid film watcher and my cinephile friends are appalled at how few I have watched over the years. This is something I want to put to rights so last night I went to see I, Daniel Blake. This lack of cinematic education made me nervous about organising a cinema trip. Originally I wanted to see American Honey but the timings didn’t suit. The genre of  I, Daniel Blake is social realism. And it certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect. Daniel Blake is a man going through grim times, and in the course of the film they get ever grimmer and then (spoiler alert) he dies. Today I read a review. The writer said she cried. This made me feel bad because I stayed dry-eyed throughout which probably means I’m an emotional cripple.

 

Tomorrow (Sunday 23rd October 2016) 1pm-4pm, I will be performing solo guitar at Nova Restaurant and Bar,  20 Chiswick High Rd, London W4 2ND.  I may be performing If I Ever Lose This Heaven. I do hope you can support me. Nova have a very good, weekly Sunday carvery – highly recommended.

Marimba

Marimbist Rob Millett has just delivered his tracks for the new Chico Chica album. Rob plays tuned percussion and recorded the marimba for the song Birds. The marimba (a wooden xylophone of African origin) is no longer the obscure instrument it once was. In fact we hear it several times a day in the default ringtone for the iPhone . I fell in love with the sound of the  marimba on Donald Fagan’s The Goodbye Look  When I made up the demo for Birds, I, for no obvious reason,  put a steel drum sound on the keyboard. Barbara liked it but we didn’t know any steel drummers so we decided to go for marimba instead. Hilary recommended Rob Millett. She works with Rob in Big Band Metheney. Marimbas are large and unwieldy so Rob recorded at home. We loved what he did and look forward to working with it at the second and final mixing day this Friday 21st October at Porcupine Studio.
Last Wednesday I saw Luna Cohen at the 606 Club, Chelsea. Chico Chica’s percussionist Jansen Santana plays with her so it was interesting for me to hear him play in another band. Luna has a warm expressive voice and presented us with a selection of original songs, some from her album November Sky as well as a few she hadn’t written and which I didn’t recognise. The guitarist was Robert Loft whom I hadn’t heard before but made a good impression on the audience – his style involves repeated parking of his plectrum in his lips even for the shortest of phrases.   Christian Brewer played some alto saxophone and I had a brief chat with Christian. We tried, unsuccessfully, to pinpoint the year we last worked together. I have tremendous respect for Christian – an absolute jazz pro – never sacrificing his principles and always playing with honesty and integrity.
It’s also good to seek inspiration from outside one’s genre. So the following night I went to see The Kaiserchiefs at Kingston Hippodrome. Friends had a spare ticket and I thought what the hell, why not. I didn’t know the music because I never listen to indy rock. And I’d never heard of the Kingston Hippodrome. Before the show, security men were working their way down the queue asking for names and ID.  Only under 25s carry ID so we couldn’t provide any. Then they asked to photograph our bank cards. Naturally we refused – but still got in to see the show. It was good fun. If I started a Kaiserchiefs tribute band, and please don’t leave any snotty comments about this,  I’d call it The Handkerchiefs.

Mixing

People constituting an organisation are apt to give themselves pompous titles. Well a band is an organisation so there’s no reason we can’t join in the fun.

My role in Chico Chica is a combination of Project Manager or Artistic Director and the other band members are happy to indulge my deluded vanity. It’s generally down to me to push the band forward – booking recording and live dates. But I also do fun stuff like choosing the setlist and this, crucially,  defines the band’s character and direction. And there’s the small matter of writing words so in publicity blurb  I’m usually referred to as the lyricist.

 By contrast, my colleague Barbara Snow looks after the actual music – composing the songs, choosing instrumentation, personnel and studio and overseeing sessions. So she’s what is what you could call the Musical Director.
Last Friday we were in the studio for the first day of mixing our latest batch of songs. We have been recording at Porcupine Studios, Mottingham, London SE9 with engineer Nick Taylor and we returned there to prepare the music for release. Barbara’s keen ears, which picked up all the errors in time and pitch during the recording, were now needed to help Nick blend the sounds to form a coherent whole. Particular attention was paid to the voices and lines where the flugelhorn and flute were playing together. Such is the mysterious art of mixing.
  It was interesting to listen back. We recorded last June which now seems ages ago. The material is heavily samba-influenced. We had a Brazilian rhythm section in for the day: Carlos Straatman, Jansen Santana and Xande Oliveira. Instead of the usual guitar,  I played cavaquinho throughout. Of the five tracks, four were songs and one an instrumental. The songs are tightly arranged and unlike our last album, there is no spoken word. There’s some excellent playing and I’m looking forward to hearing how the overall sound will be wrought. It’s going to be a huge contrast to The Glow of Havana.
  I arrived for the session early to make sure everything was okay, and drank an excellent coffee which Nick made from his cappuccino machine, but left soon after because there really wasn’t anything for me to do. You could say mixing is not part of my job description.

Now Where Was I

It’s been such an long time since my last post that you may be wondering about me, my health or my work. At least I hope this is the case. A more probable scenario is that you haven’t noticed and even if you had, are not that bothered. This, I must confess, weighs heavily on me as a man doing his utmost to, you know, do this excellence and immortality thingy.

Last December, I had the pleasure of meeting one Keren Lerner in the Bavarian Tent at Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. Keren runs a communications company called Top Left Design and is a whizz at digital marketing strategies. Now there’s something about loud oompah music that doesn’t lend itself well as a backdrop to a discussion of this mysterious topic so we agreed to meet later. The gist of what Keren told me was something that, deep down, I already knew – that is, I need to up my social media game. After a long summer of inertia, as I feel the autumn chill, I’m resuming my blogging habit. Keren also suggested a lot more, including giving away for free our expensively-produced music –  now this goes against my professional instincts though I see other bands doing just that. I have yet to decide on this matter but in the meantime you can buy our albums.

But I don’t want this to be post apologising for an absence of posts. So here’s what’s been happening. Chico Chica had a busy summer of shows up until the end of July. This was followed by  a series of low-key performances at The Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London. There we bumped into acquaintances who just happened to be visiting the Hockney exhibition. In recent weeks our attention has been taken up by recording. This week we will start to mix the five tracks. I will write about this music at greater length in a future post.

The summer also gave me the chance to visit Walberswick, Suffolk with friends and family (I wonder why I write all this inane stuff but there you go). My co-writer Barbara Snow also happened to be there with hers. In between the usual holiday stuff I read Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius, a man who tried his very best to reverse the decline of the Roman Empire while Justinian the emperor was too eaten up with jealousy to show any respect, admiration or gratitude.

After my teaching commitments had finished, I established a daily routine of playing (not too hard) classical guitar pieces. This is in accordance with my new principle of Pleasure Practice. I like inventing principles. After this guitar playing I’d go to the Wine Rooms on Hammersmith Grove W6 where I’d order a cappuccino and, after reading a newspaper (mostly about Brexit), I’d write verse in my little blue book – ah, the sweet, simple happiness of routine. By the end of the summer I had five sets of lyrics  – the subject matters covered were: white water rafting, finding things on the street, laziness, the night sky and wasps. Though the output was hardly prolific, I do spend time to ensure they are good and I’m proud of what I wrote.

The late summer gave us time for reflection about new material and the next recording session. Later this month, Barbara Snow, Hilary Cameron and I will be going away on a retreat to write, prepare the next recording session and rehearse a show with lots of new material. After we have recorded a song, we tend to drop it from the set so the more we record, the more we need to write, arrange and rehearse.

By clicking ‘Menu and Widgets’ in the top right-hand corner of this site, you will see a list of upcoming shows. These are the essence of Chico Chica’s entire existence so it’s important to check as often as you can. Music brings people together and our shows have a habit of turning into parties because everyone who comes seems so friendly and positive. However, it is the blue ribbon ticketed events which afford the optimum Chico Chica experience. We are essentially a cabaret act with a big emphasis on entertainment and this needs an intimate theatrical environment. For this reason, I’d like you to write the 17th November show at the Bull’s Head in your diary – prominently with a big fat marker pen.

One of the reasons I wasn’t feeling motivated to write is the thought that, judging from the paucity of feedback, few people read it. So if you are one of those kind people who have got this far, do let me know what you think. And I have resolved to post every week. Promise.

Making Love Languorously

It’s time to the world out of its misery. It’s been months since my last post and there must be so many people waiting for my next. Well wait no longer – here it is.  Last Wednesday’s album launch at St James Theatre, London was a spectacular success – good turn out, sizzling performance, a warm reception for the new material and lots of albums sold. The set list was:

I Am a Playgirl

The Perfect Moment

Private Hands

Casa Flamenco

Red River

Literally

Quand Tu Me Touches

It’s Not A Laughing Matter

The Happy Pain of Love

The Lizard  

Falling, Falling

Richard Says

A Moment of Madness

Flauta Chorona 

Ever Since

Mon Oiseau c’est Enfui

Birds

C’est Ta Chanson

As keen observers may have noticed, we changed the old order about, dropped a few favourites and introduced some new ones.  Flauta Chorona (a working title), was written and rehearsed a couple of days before the show – I fluffed the cavaquinho intro – but apart from that it went swimmingly. It was all up to the minute stuff. There seems to be a better balance to the show with the lead vocal and introduction duties shared more equally.

The highlight, for me at least, was the first public performance of Quand Tu Me Touches. I wrote the words when I was in Marseille last summer. I remember asking a lady if she knew a rhyme for heureusement. She was a criminal lawyer of Algerian extraction and very beautiful. If she hadn’t been I probably wouldn’t have asked her. She replied langoureusement. As she said the word, I detected in her dark eyes a fleeting thought of her slowly making love to me. This may well be the delusion of a middle-aged man. But maybe not. So the line faison l’amour langourousement appears in the chorus.

Barbara was given an accordion as a birthday present last November and decided to write the song with her new instrument. She hurriedly learned the basics and wrote a simple waltz in G minor. But it didn’t allow for a conventional verse/chorus structure. So in order to include my precious  heureusement/langoureusement rhyme we decided to use the chorus words as a spoken middle section. So you may well wonder where we get these cutting edge ideas from. The answer is Françoise Hardy. Here she is singing  Comment Te Dire Adieu? 

The Glow of Havana – a preview

Chico Chica will be releasing their second album, The Glow of Havana, in February 2016. Here is a preview of three of the songs:

There is something about a second album that gives a band a certain standing. There are plenty of one-album bands but a follow-up announces to the world: ‘we’re here for the long term’. And about time too. Mélangerie was released in 2011 and since then, despite plentiful writing, there there have been a mere two singles: Pense à Moi and Ali’s Song.

So this paucity of output will be put to rights with an ambitious series of 10’’ vinyl releases, each showing a different stylistic side to the band. In the summer of 2014, we enlisted the help of Roberto Pla to cover for Michel Drees’s absence. Barbara Snow had worked with Roberto for fifteen years and was keen for him to add a salsa dimension to the band’s sound. So when we came to the next session we chose those songs in the set which would best benefit from such a treatment. The result is The Glow of Havana. The title is taken from an Ernest Hemingway novel – either The Old Man and the Sea or To Have and Have Not, I can’t remember which. It is an album of which we are immensely proud and is certainly a big departure from what we had done before. We have prioritised quality over quantity and made this a four song album. Some may call it a mini-album or an EP. Some may even call it a song cycle.  But it’s none of those things. It’s an album.

So why vinyl? For fun of course. It also means we can engage a proper artist, Phil Bartle. Phil will paint the picture and design the whole package. Not just this album, but the whole series. Yes, it will be what marketing people call a premium product.

Next week, I will be off to the Womex show in Budapest. It will be the first time I set eyes on the Danube. It can’t wait. Womex is a music fair specialising in world music. I have no idea what I will do there or who I’ll meet but I will try to talk to people about the album without becoming a bore – a hard balance to strike, I know.

Chico Chica’s pianist Hilary Cameron and I were out drinking the other night and popped into St James Theatre in Victoria. We spoke to James Albrecht the artistic director and pencilled in Wednesday 17th February 2016 for the launch party. It is going to be a memorable night so make a note of that date.

Marseille

I have just come back from a five week adventure in Marseille. It was a combination of a business trip, a holiday, a writing retreat, working (a few solo concerts) and meeting friends I haven’t seen for years. So I call it an adventure.

Why Marseille? I find it hard to justify five weeks lazing about. I have to have a ‘project’ otherwise I feel guilty. And as I’m sure you can guess, it’s about Chico Chica. In my head I drew this complicated Venn diagram.  French people, I discovered, are unfamiliar with Venn diagrams. I tried to explain with a napkin and biro but, judging from the look on their faces, I don’t think I did a good job.

Though the band have toured around the UK, we have decided that it is easier and more lucrative to focus on London and the South East. But we wanted to expand our horizons especially for August when so much of our fanbase goes on holiday. I wanted a place where:

1) they speak the languages we sing in: English, Spanish, Arabic (one song: Majda Al Han) and French.

2) they speak a language where I can at least order a coffee. That leaves France and England.

3) I wanted somewhere warm. Sorry England.

4) I wanted a mode of transport which doesn’t force me to put my instrument in the hold and turn up three hours before departure so I have to stare at billboards while drinking over-priced coffee.

So when I saw  a bus drive past with an advert saying Marseille non-stop Eurostar for £80, my mind was made up. I also happen to know a Marseillaise who used to live in London years ago.

Chico Chica have been writing and performing songs in French:

C’est Ta Chanson,

Pense à Moi

and Mon Oiseau S’est Enfui. So the idea emerged of recording a French mini-album in France.

Marseille is a marvel. New arrivals to a city tend to look up to take in the architecture and vistas. It’s a hilly city with the church of Notre Dame occupying the top slot the same way the Cristo Redentor does in Rio. Walking through the street I come across vistas I never imagined: the iron bridge over Rue D’Aubagne has a curvaceous elegance unlike those found in England. L’Hotel de Ville. L’Opera and the Bourse are exceptional buildings that rival anything else Europe. If the  monument at Longchamp has a London equivalent it would be the Albert Memorial. But Longchamp has more. It is a rococo expression of La Gloire that only the French can do.

But the eye starts to take in the tall houses. They are primarily Napoleon III 1860s. These were built on a grand Haussman scale – bourgeois with wooden shutters, wrought iron balustrades and countless statues of Madonnas on corner alcoves. The evident decay is charming, and in many other cities these areas would be ripe for gentrification.

Lowering the eye further still and we realise why Marseille is so exceptional. The first thing we notice is it’s covered in graffiti. But the graffitti blends into the local artwork. Many businesses paint murals so it’s hard to know where one stops and the other starts. There are things we see which exist in London but with the help of strict laws and generous welfare, we keep hidden: prostitution, rats, migrant families rummaging in bins, homeless men bedding down on the city’s ornate bandstands, countless beggars, hawkers and street musicians. The less talented the musicians the more aggressive they tend to be. There were some great buskers in the tourist area of the Vieux Port. The music venues tend to close for the holiday season because everyone likes to eat outside. This makes it difficult to promote concerts. I did a few gigs using the ‘chapeau’ means of payment. I am not used to this way of working but, with the help of my friends Celia and Amar, it worked really well.

And yet. There is something which I really loved. The people are warm, open and it’s easy to make friends. Tourists are rare compared to Nice and Provence in fact I only met one English person in my whole visit (yes you Emily). My AirBnB flat was near Cours Julien. This is the true Marseille, away from the yachts and over-priced food of the Vieux Port. Cours Julien is, among other things, home to a community of homeless Africans. I noticed a different attitude to low life. In England, there is a separation from normality. We pass them by privately cursing the state for failing to keep misfortune out of sight and out of mind. Marseille is different. For example, the prostitutes, as they sit in their doorways, are greeted by passers-by and pleasantries are exchanged. One character who was obviously severely mentally deranged, was allowed to sit with the locals at coffee tables, not joining in the conversation but somehow feeling part of communal life.

The Marseillaises love pizza and for good reason – it’s better that ours. There pizza tends to be rectangular rather than circular, I don’t know why that should make a difference but it does. For a change I would go to Cours Jus, run by two Nathalies, one, ‘le patron’, is tall and serious the other is the big hearted chef helped by the silent, ever-smiling Senegalese Baba. The Nathalies prevented my stay becoming too cheesy. And then, at Cafe St Julien there’s the lovely Leila. She has invited me to play Facebook Soda Crush which obviously means she fancies me.

What I admired more than anything is the free spirit of Marseille. They do really naughty stuff like smoke indoors. I saw twelve year olds riding motor cycles on pavement without helmets (naturellement) and many of the motor cyclists make their way around the town using the rear wheel only. I think it’s a courting ritual.

I made trips to Nice, Cannes, Nîmes, Frejus and Aix and have made some enough contacts to put in place a Chico Chica tour culminating in a studio date with Henry Frampton at his studio in Provence.