Music - Pop: Underground movement against the men in suits

The act is pure showbiz, but it's surprisingly moving. Phil Johnson spent an evening listening to and talking with saxophonist Courtney Pine

It's late in last Tuesday's concert and you're trying to move towards the exit or perhaps got to the bar for a last drink before they close. As you push against the crowd, you're suddenly aware of a large obstacle blocking your way.

Yep, it's Courtney Pine on his travels with his radio-mike again, going round the houses in the time-honoured fashion before he does his encore. It could almost be a running gag in The Fast Show, where groups of people gathered for various social functions - a wedding, a funeral, queuing for a cinema or a football match - find themselves interrupted by the tootling saxophonist trying to find his way back to the stage.

Sometimes it looks like he'll never return, as at this year's Cheltenham Jazz Festival where the town hall venue was so labyrinthine that you feared he'd got lost in a committee room on the way, and it was several minutes before he reappeared.

While most jazz performers find it almost too stressful just to say "Hello", Pine exults in his celebrity to the extent that his shows are powerful, and often quite moving, celebrations. Sure it's showbiz, but, come to that, what isn't?

There's the part where he divides the audience into two choruses and gets them to mimic the increasingly complex voicings of his saxophone; the long, circular-breathing routine where he keeps a note going for what seems like hours, and the bit where we have to, well, wave our hands in the air. Sometimes it seems a little like forced entertainment, but mostly it's great, for Pine's audience loves him in a way that few performers in the history of jazz can have been.

If there was ever a British cinema re-make of High Society, Courtney would be a dead cert for the Louis Armstong role. And, lest we forget, he continues to play the saxophone superbly well.

There are still criticisms that Pine is no longer playing "in the tradition" - but in truth he hasn't really been doing that for most of this decade. Instead, he's been working, steadily. It's 11 years since his first album, Journey to the Urge Within, which sold (incredibly for jazz) more than 100,000 copies and help to kick-start the Eighties jazz revival.

At 33, his latest album, Underground, once again documents a fascination with dance-forms - hip-hop and drum and bass particularly - and its release sees him playing up and down the country to promote it.

He said: "As a jazz musician in England you can wear a black tie and play to 2,000 people once a year, playing the classical repertoire of jazz history, or you can go the other way, looking into your own surroundings and using those elements.

"I played so many large halls, wearing a tie, going through the jazz changes, that I just couldn't do any more of it. I'd finish a show and then I'd go back to the hotel room and play a jungle record. It was like, there must be some way of bringing that side into what I was doing."

He was also beginning to regret the money spent on his suits. "Ironing shirts every night... finding another pounds 900 suit to wear, and musically, I was running out of people who could play in that particular way. In America there's an abundance of musicians who are schooled in that particular sound but in the UK we have to be more cosmopolitan in what we do. Young musicians just can't specialise in jazz. So I was running out of guys who could come on stage, don the suits and play the traditional way, which is not really our way as Europeans anyway, it's something we love and appreciate but it's an American art-form and we will always be considered second-rate. The itch to play something my younger sister could hear and appreciate without having to know the history of jazz was important to me."

The move into more popular forms of jazz was also a commercial consideration: while his debut sold substantially more than any jazz album had ever done in Britain, his last album for island sold only 7,500 copies, while a quickie reggae album, Closer to Home - which he had recorded partly in order to fulfil his quota and get out of his contract - did much better both here and in the US.

"There were other British saxophonists who were getting nominated ahead of me in polls and I was beginning to get a negative critical response, so I had to really do something so individual that the record companies couldn't pitch anyone against me. And no one else was going to do a reggae album."

Reggae was also the music he had first played for a living, when he left school at 16 to join Clint Eastwood and General Saint on tour. "With them, I'd seen what it takes to hype up a crowd. After that, going into a room wearing a suit was a bit like putting on handcuffs. It's also an energy thing. You go out and see someone and say `Wow! That was bad', whether it was the Prodigy at the Phoenix Festival or Roni Size when we both played Montreux this year. It was this thing that grabbed you and made you feel glad to be alive."

Ironically, the musicians on his new album are mostly impeccably jazz- schooled American players like pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Jeff Watts, who are normally part of the suit and tie brigade, but who, according to Courtney, are keen to mix in with more popular forms.

"Some of them don't listen to drum and bass, but they've all come up through the Seventies and they know all of that funky stuff. In the studio when they were changing reels they'd be jamming on Stevie Wonder tunes. At the moment the going thing in America is to be playing straight-ahead jazz and acting like a keeper of the flame, because that's what all the critics are talking about."

If a change is going to come, it will have to come, Pine thinks, from the chief suit himself.

"Until Wynton Marsalis makes a record that uses modern-day sounds, things will continue to stay the same." Meanwhile, if you go to a Courtney Pine gig, watch your back.

`Underground' is available now on Mercury Records. Courtney Pine and guest DJs play The Forum, Kentish Town, tonight, tel: 0171- 284 1001

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Life and Style
life
News
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
News
i100
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
News
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Research and Insight Analyst (Mathematics Graduate)

    £25000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

    Nursery assistants required in Cambridgeshire

    £10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

    IT Support Manager - Staffordshire - £35,000

    £30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Manager - Near...

    Nursery assistants required for day to day roles in Cambridge

    £10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone