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