My expectations for the visit of Pete Churchill and his musicians were based on hearing his CD and the recommendations of people who’d heard him perform live or had been taught by him.
His appearance at CJC greatly exceeded my expectations. The band’s approach was exactly as Pete described to Phil Hewitt for his article in the Chichester Observer: ‘I wanted it to sound loose in the best sense of the word. My feeling is that if you have got the right musicians together, you don’t really need tight arrangements. You can let people do what they do, which is to play the music.’ Pete was referring to the band’s album but the same approach was even more effective at CJC, with the added value of the live occasion.
Certainly Pete’s ‘right musicians’ set the evening alight:
• Bobby Wellins on tenor saxophone is masterly in his work with singers, to which he devotes more and more of his time. His obbligatos behind Pete’s singing were a delight but remained strictly there, behind the singing. ‘People must always be able to hear the singer’, he explains and adds, ‘The whole quartet has developed such a close understanding that it is always so enjoyable to play with and I have enough freedom to express myself in solos.’
• Drummer Dave Wickins, who is also a longstanding member of Bobby’s number one quartet, always plays with exceptional variety and subtlety – with an array of ‘ancillary percussion’ complementing his drum kit. Very sensitive to Pete’s vocals and the playing of his other colleagues he is not averse to occasional musical jokes.
• Steve Watts on bass was drive and solidity personified in the band’s ensemble. He also played many solos – but certainly not the standard one-solo-per-number that can become tedious – and they were without exception appropriate and interesting, enhanced by the rich tone of his bass.
• And what of Pete himself? As a leader he conveyed his enthusiasm and knowledge of the music in a relaxed, witty and friendly manner that created an atmosphere that was appreciated by the audience but also inspired his colleagues. A few of Pete’s announcements became anecdotes that were delivered with such confident fluency and style that you could almost imagine him onstage in a one-man show. As a pianist he surprised me. His sensitivity and command of his instrument were evident from his CD but in the live setting his playing contained extra drive and passion, which turned up the heat in the whole band. As a vocalist Pete did not disappoint me at all. His ‘laid back, lived in’ vocal quality seems to mirror what he is. On stage there were opportunities to hear in his singing flashes of humour, self-parody and, I suspect, parody of earlier singing styles. Like good jazz singers, indeed good jazz instrumentalists also, Pete’s phrasing of the lyrics was always interesting and often surprising.
• To complete the evening there was a surprise star guest, Kirk Lightsey, an American piano virtuoso, in the middle of a European tour and working with among others Bobby Wellins and Dave Wickens. For the first set Kirk sat towards the back of the room, listening to and clearly loving the music. He emitted regular squeals and solo bursts of applause. Early in the second half Pete introduced Kirk to the audience and invited him on stage to play piano with the band on what proved to be a rousing version of the Joe Williams favourite, Every Day I Have The Blues. Kirk, still laughing, left the stage to loud applause.
I seem to have filled my usual space without crediting the music that made the evening so impressive and enjoyable. Some particular highlights for me were:
• Duke Ellington’s lovely, bluesy Lucky So And So and another Duke favourite, I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good.
• Lou Spence’s one and only famous number, made famous by Frank Sinatra, Nice ‘N Easy.
• Cole Porter’s Just One Of Those Things, with a lovely intro by Pe