Few British jazz players can boast the global reach that Courtney Pine has made—as Roger Levesque reports in this article for Phoenix’s Star.
The stellar reedman has explored everything from his own Afro-Caribbean musical ethnicity to contemporary jazz heroes in the United Kingdom, to soul grooves and electronica, even when it brought him the derision of the jazz establishment at home.
Pine’s career was already warming up in the mid-1980s when Island Records founder Chris Blackwell (who helped make Bob Marley a superstar) signed him to the label’s Antilles imprint, and marketed him like a pop artist.
And surprise, Pine’s 1987 debut disc Journey to the Urge Within hit Britain’s Top-40 pop chart, selling more than 100,000 copies (ditto for the followup Destiny’s Song), a previously unknown feat. Suddenly he was the toast of a newly evolving ethno-jazz scene. But …
“There was a huge backlash,” Pine recalls. “I would just get these looks, negative press and hate mail from the so-called learned jazz critics.”
Ironically, Pine was bent on trying to win more attention for jazz in the popular consciousness. Around that same time, his first North American tours brought him to Edmonton in 1990-91.
“It was simply to get the music to a wider audience. We were dealing with a wash of popular names from George Michael to Madonna, who seemed like they were pretending to play music, and I couldn’t work out why jazz musicians weren’t given the time of day. At that time a lot of the jazz musicians in Britain were session musicians who could only play jazz in a wine bar after-hours.”
In a sense, Pine was only taking note of the strong Afro-Caribbean presence in British culture, which had already spawned pop ska and reggae groups like The Specials and Steel Pulse. Along the way, he started getting offers to take his career the smooth jazz route.
“At one point I had six record labels pushing me to become a smooth jazz Kenny G guy.”
Today, few question Pine’s achievements, given his solid technique and obvious understanding of various musical traditions, jazz included. More critics are giving him four-or five-star reviews, voting him awards and calling him “a trailblazer.” He quit caring years ago and started putting his efforts into a BBC Radio show, music education initiatives, and launching his own Destin-E music label, which has released his last five albums.
Pine’s latest disc, House of Legends, is a tribute to some of the unsung heroes of the British jazz scene. It has drawn rave reviews for his potent strengths as an improviser on one hand and his uplifting integration of dance grooves on the other.
Growing up in 1960s London, Pine was exposed to some far-flung sounds, starting at home, thanks to his parents, Jamaican immigrants to Britain.
“My parents had a one-room apartment in Notting Hill and the first sound that I can remember hearing was ska music. They would play the B-sides of the old vinyl singles that often had another version of the tune without the vocalist. I came to prefer the instrumental versions. I found out later on that these were jazz musicians like Earnest Ranglin, Doc Drummond, Tommy McCook and the Skatallites. So I guess that sowed the seeds of my jazz pursuits.”
He admits he knew nothing about jazz when he picked up Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West album, intrigued by the cover photo of Rollins in cowboy gear. But he was fascinated when he heard Rollins’s sound, not unlike some of the Caribbean players he’d come to know.
Pine began his apprenticeship playing in bop, reggae and funk bands while he was still in high school. He later joined John Ste-vens’s Freebop group and the Charlie Watts Orchestra and even toured briefly with American great Art Blakey. In the mid-1980s he formed the large ensemble Jazz Warriors. That’s when Island Records founder Chris Blackwell heard about him.
Though Pine started out playing clarinet in school, hearing Rollins and John Coltrane inspired him to take up sax and to develop a muscular style that has served him well. Today, he’s a multi-instrumentalist who adds occasional keyboards and electronics to his use of soprano and tenor sax, flute and clarinet. On his 2011 album Europa, he stuck solely with the bass clarinet to explore elements of eastern European music. The current tour will see him focus on soprano sax. It’s been well over a decade since Pine has done extended touring in North America.
His unique quintet uses drums, guitar, bass and Caribbean steel pans to capture a range of jazz styles.
“The steel pans are a striking instrument because they allow (Samuel Dubois) to play melody and chord changes. Then you’ve got the guitar, which I use as much as a rhythm instrument. It’s a different kind of propulsion. I feared without the piano there might be something missing but our sound is full of rich harmony and more scope. We’re tapping rhythms from right across the Caribbean too, soca, mento, ska, reggae.”
COURTNEY PINE PRESENTS
House of Legends
When: Saturday at The Bassment 7 p.m. and 9: 30 p.m.
Tickets: $17, saskjazz.com
For the original report go to http://www.thestarphoenix.com/entertainment/British+saxman+stays+true+jazz/8579323/story.html#ixzz2XJr3nh9m