Work, life and finances have conspired to limit my sampling of the 250+ gigs in this year’s London Jazz festival to a single sample. But what a sample. The Roy Haynes experience led to a little epiphany for me of which more in a moment, and a thoroughly entertaining evening. I arrived at the Queen Elizabeth Hall to a buzzy atmosphere with Phil Bancroft’s ‘Home: As Small As The World’ project revving up on the free stage with a large audience lapping up the antics, video and scorching playing from his band. I had been lured by Haynes’ legend status and the realisation that because he’s played on so many iconic recordings, I’d been listening to him as long as I’ve been listening to jazz without necessarily registering it. So, there for full immersion, I ducked into into the pre-gig interview with the ‘hey groovy’ title “Here me talking at ya”.
Kevin Le Grende elicited a quietly heartfelt response in his arm chair style chat with Roy Haynes. The octogenarian life force is focused on ‘what next’, no matter how much we might want to rub the hem of his robe. “These are the guys I want to play with at the moment” he said when asked how it felt to play with musicians of such a different generation. After hearing a snatch of Oliver Nelson’s band from 1961, he commented that he’d been the oldest member of the band that had also included Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evan, Paul Chambers and seemed genuinely reflective and sad at the recognition that none of them were here now. Nudged to reminisce a bit more, he bridled and insisted ‘I want to swim forward’. Another message to jazz lovers; its all about the feel and the feelings. In a passage about his early life when asked what his first memory of drumming was, Haynes looked puzzled and then talked about how he got his first drum kit ( as if couldn’t remember ever not drumming) and then talked about his feel for rhythm and swing, thumping his chest as if to say its in there.. its part of your body, ” people thought I could swing” he said. Lester Young certainly thought so, hiring him when he was 19. His rhythmic sense is still visceral, the impromptu bit of tap dancing in a very fine pair of cowboy boots was an eloquent demonstration of that.
The Fountain of Youth band’s set started with a frisky Roy Haynes larking about, shimmying around the drums, doing a little tap dance, grabbing the announcement mic and encouraging each of the band (Jaleel Shaw on alto, Martin Bejerano on piano and David Wong on bass) to play a few phrases as if to check they were all in order. It certainly whetted my appetite. Bejerano’s touch on the piano is exquisite, lush moving harmonies given a twist with little rhythmic stabs of different weights between the hands; Shaw’s sound, warm and sweet on alto contrasting with his angular phrases that spin off one from another. Then the leader leapt onto the drums, using beaters to pound up a storm before the band, picking up on the groove, went straight into Pat Metheney’s ‘James’. Following it up with Monk’s ‘Trinkle Tinkle’ a heart stopping reading of the ballad ‘Everything Happens to Me’ and a version of My Heart belongs to Daddy that turned into a sort of rolling modal work out in Coltrane-esqe style made it seem like we were visiting all the corners of Haynes’ journey in jazz. And here’s that little epiphany (students of jazz will think me a bit slow on the up take, I’ve only been listening 20 years or so after all). As the band ramped up the excitement on ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, there was Haynes, utterly relaxed driving the swing feel with his cymbals (just dah, dah de dah as he’d put it earlier except he implies and embellishes it rather than spells it out) , Jaleel Shaw’s solo of almost unbearable intensity getting approving whoops from the audience around me, the occasional artfully placed cracks on the snare drum emphasising the momentum, it was all just so right, exhilarating and just, to my ears, what its supposed to sound like – except that its Roy Haynes who originated/ exemplified that way of playing as the subsequently digested program notes tell me and a biog summarises nicely. I said I was slow on the uptake. This man helped make ‘that sound, that feel’, the right one. There was more knockabout banter with the audience and the band, but when they got down to the serious business of playing, (am I being fanciful?) all human emotions were there. Yes led by Roy Haynes, but what a great band. The roars for an encore bought Roy back on stage, with someone there to hold onto (a reminder he is 86) not to play but to thank us, bid us well and declare ‘ the party’s over’. Let’s hope just til the next time. As I was shuffling out, I overheard some one confiding to a mate “I didn’t think it would be that good”. Thanks Roy.