Ian Dove talks to two trad giants and finds different outlooks
‘A TASTE OF Honey’ and ‘Sukiyaki’ — two very different discs by the leaders of the British trad jazz business, Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball — are in the NME Chart.
Mr. Bilk’s is jazz-with-strings. Mr. Ball gives a straightforward jazz with no strings attached and the accent on his Jazzmen as well.
And Mr Bilk hasn’t had a hit with his Paramount Jazz Band for a long time. I asked him about this.
Said Acker: “I think there are twin markets now… one group, certainly the larger group, goes for the strings behind my clarinet and another group goes for the Acker Bilk band sound.
“The two groups overlap to a certain extent. Certainly a lot of people who like the string sound would turn up at concerts and I hardly think they expect to just see me with a 40-piece string section. But I reckon we send them away happy.
“I’d like a hit with the band naturally and we’re thinking of ways to feature them on record as well. It will probably be something along the lines of a ‘Mr. Acker Bilk Presents…’ series.
“My trombone player John Mortimer has brought out a disc by himself, ‘Boola Boola’ which is great. I’d like the boys to do more of this kind of thing…”
Kenny Ball’s hits have been with his band. His immediate reaction was: “And why not! I’m a jazz man and I go best with a band.
“I have thought about recording by myself — but NOT with strings. I’m actually toying with the idea of doing a trumpet and rhythm record of ‘Liebestraum’, the famous classical piece.
“I’d do it with a shuffle rhythm, a kind of Louis Prima sound. Our first hit, ‘Samantha’, I think owed a lot to Louis Prima and his approach.”
(A point worth noting: Acker also thinks a lot of Louis Prima. They appeared together on the Ed Sullivan TV Show in New York last year. Acker recalled: “Even the studio technicians applauded him and they are supposed to be really hard-boiled!”)
Next question for Acker was: ‘A Taste Of Honey’ has been recorded twice before by Lenny Welch and Victor Feldman (as an instrumental) and neither made the chart. Why did you decide to record it?
Admitted Acker: “I didn’t give it a thought. Denis Preston, my recording manager, gave me a bundle of likely possibilities to record. ‘Taste Of Honey’ was among them and I liked it. I knew it from the film and decided to record it. It was as simple as that.”
Kenny Ball and ‘Sukiyaki’ was not quite so simple. It was given to him by Pye Records boss, Louis Benjamin after Mr. Benjamin had visited Japan.
Kenny told me: “I’d just returned from Australia and New Zealand at the time and I had a lot of material from all over the world. Louis and I sat around swopping Oriental tunes and Maori melodies. I was even considering recording some Hawaiian numbers I’d heard, which is fantastic stuff.
“But as soon as I heard ‘Sukiyaki’, I knew it was for me.
“The Japanese title means ‘I’m Walking Forward With My Head In The Air’. I wanted to call it this but add the word ‘Crunch’ after it.
“I like it fine but I think the hand was a little tired when we recorded it. We could have swung a little more I think. But seeing that we’d just returned from that round-the-world trip I think we did the best we could.
“Now there’s a chance we’ll be doing some more Japanese material including some folk gear for a children’s album, to be released in Japan.”
Both Kenny and Acker talked about “mistakes” they’d made.
Acker’s was his celebrated Christmas Show at the Prince Of Wales theatre which was a band pantomime that closed early because of bad weather.
He told me: “I don’t think the idea of the show was a mistake and I don’t regret what happened, but there were a lot of mistakes in it. We didn’t have long enough to rehearse. In the end the weather knocked up out: we were getting more cancellations than bookings.
“Originally we planned to do the same thing for a summer season somewhere but that idea has been dropped.
“We have our reasons and the main one is the enormous amount of enquiries we’ve had to go abroad. We’ve accepted a lot of them and this means we have to spend the rest of the time touring Britain — not just confined in one spot doing a summer season.
“Let’s face it, the big work is in England and we owe everything to the British fans.”
Overseas work for the Bilk band is plentiful. The Australia-New Zealand tour planned for March will probably extend to include Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. South Africa wants the Bilk band, so does Scandinavia. Germany and Ireland.
Prospects are bright for a tour of South America in the Autumn and they are wanted back in New York, at the Blue Angel niterie or the Village Vanguard club, says band manager David Bilk.
Kenny Ball didn’t regret his “mistake” either — his last disc ‘The Pay Off’.
Kenny admitted: “It just nibbled at the charts and after hearing it a lot I think it gets pretty boring. Still we wanted to record it to satisfy our own egos in doing a modern version of a jazz standard — the tune was written by the great Sidney Bechet.
“I’m glad we tried.”
Both bands and bandleaders are involved in film deals at the time. Both are very quiet about it all.
Kenny contents himself by saying there’s “something in mind for the boys.” Nothing else. He admits that the original idea of doing a film Band Of Buskers has vanished without trace.
“It would have been illogical for my band to do what was a follow up to Acker’s Band Of Thieves. There would be no value in it. It wasn’t a bad script… for Acker.
“But for us. No.”
Acker has dropped his original idea of filming the literary classic Under The Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. But he isn’t saying what he is filming.
He does say, however, that he gets down to it in May and June.
© Ian Dove, New Musical Express, 1 February 1963