The Wire

The world's greatest print and online music magazine. Independent since 1982

Audio

Wire Playlist: From Cleveland to Paris – the many sides of Bobby Few

July 2019

Pierre Crépon marks 50 years since the jazz pianist’s arrival in France with a career-spanning playlist

In 1969 US pianist Bobby Few flew to Paris as a member of The Noah Howard-Frank Wright quartet, beginning a 50 year plus relationship with France where he still resides. Born in Cleveland in 1935, Few started his jazz career in Ohio. At a young age he soon became a recurring name in the columns of the local press while working in the bebop idiom. At the advice of childhood friend Albert Ayler, Few moved to New York during the second half of the 1960s. Another tenant of the Lower East Side building where Few lived happened to be saxophonist Booker Ervin. Their encounter led to Few’s first recording date in early 1968 for the Blue Note label (1). The following year Few recorded in a very different style at Ayler’s final Impulse! sessions (2).

In France, which Few was soon to make his permanent home, the Howard-Wright band benefited from the French interest in the free jazz phenomenon. The band are heard on an America Records label date, playing on a Howard original (3). After bassist Alan Silva replaced Howard, the unit known as The Frank Wright Quartet or Center Of The World toured 1970s Europe extensively, with Paris as its base. Album-length explorations of compositions were an integral part of their sound, something that cannot be subsumed in a 15 minute extract (4). Interested listeners should certainly explore Church Number Nine and the rest of the group’s discography.

In the mid-1970s, Center Of The World used their cooperative self-production platform to issue solo outings by their members: “Few’s Blues” (5), in a trio with Silva and quartet drummer Muhammad Ali, and “El Torro”; (6), are solo Few originals. (Few’s first solo piano record, Few Coming Thru, has been omitted from this selection as a track can be heard in this Wire playlist.)

Few’s wide stylistic diversity, which remains a trademark today, is very clear. Although he was part of the first generation of pianists to acknowledge Cecil Taylor’s influence, he already had a solid number of years of activity under his belt. Fellow American expatriate in Paris Steve Lacy was among Few’s most ardent admirers. “I was crazy about Bobby right away,” Lacy told The Wire in 2002. “He was the first pianist I heard after Cecil that had something to say of his own. […​] He was a pianist that had his own thing post-Cecil and was not hung up on Cecil. In fact, he wasn’t hung up on anything.”

By 1981, The Frank Wright Quartet had disbanded and Few was now a permanent member of Lacy’s sextet. The soprano saxophonist was a notoriously prolific musician, and Few’s work with him until 1992 yielded more than 20 recordings. The present selection comes courtesy of Lacy scholar Jason Weiss (9). In addition to his main work, Few has remained open to varied collaborations. “Tree Tops” (7) comes from a date led by drummer Sunny Murray upon his 1979 European comeback record for Gérard Terronès’s Marge label. “Pope’s Blues” (10) was recorded in 1984 with saxophonist Byron Pope. Before becoming the fancy Paris jazz club it is today, the Duc des Lombards had modest beginnings. “Few’s Boogie” (11) quite possibly contains echoes of what the pianist remembers of his first night there in the 1980s, a bottle of whiskey smashing against a window adding to the Wild West atmosphere.

One of Few’s trademark compositions, “Continental Jazz Express” was first recorded in 1979 for the historic Vogue label (8). He later made it the backbone of a solo recital in New York, at the fifth Vision Festival in 2000 (12), a concert documented by Boxholder, the label responsible for a large part of Few’s 2000s output, notably with saxophonist Avram Fefer. Few and Fefer are heard here on a CIMP date (excerpted), in a dedication to saxophonist Frank Lowe (13).

That Thelonious Monk was Few’s first significant influence is acknowledged by Few’s and saxophonist Sonny Simmons’s remarkable rendition of the Monk classic “Round Midnight” in Paris in 2007 (14). To conclude, we move to a different but also important territory. “Let it Rain” (15) is another trademark, one of the many sung compositions in Few’s diverse repertoire.

Continental Jazz Express artwork (Vogue, 1979)

By Pierre Crépon

Comments

Prolific

Great, thanks! Well done, wide arranging, and long overdue!

Great player. He played in Amsterdam a few years ago and I was lucky enough to see him.

Did you know he once appeared in a Heineken commercial? If anyone is interested I can share a link.

His appearance on Hans Dulfer's El Saxofon is often forgotten too... He's on there with Wright and Ali.

And Few's first solo album on Center of the World is totally underrated... it needs a reissue.

Another favorite his his work with Noah Howard on Red Star... supurb album that also needs to be reissued.

Cheers!

Another important Bobby Few collaboration, ongoing for a decade, has been with French saxophonist Jacques de Lignières in the "JdL Quartet featuring Bobby Few", with Hervé Czak, bass, and Jean-Pascal Molina, drums. This work has been documented on the Engrenage CD on Musea Records that can be previewed here: http://jdlquartet.com/page3.html

The great jewel for free music. G.B.Producer in radio dedicated to avantgarde music.

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.