Thoughts on the Way

Writings by composer and pianist Mark Isaacs

Category: Tributes

Ike Isaacs 100th Anniversary

Ike Isaacs jamming with the great Wes Montgomery

Ike Isaacs jamming with the great Wes Montgomery

My forebears on both sides of the family are part of a colourful diaspora of Baghdadi Jews who lived in Burma from the 19th century. Again dispersed by the 1942 Japanese invasion of that country many trekked to India, with musicians among them gaining lodgings along the way by serenading British tea plantation owners. Some ended up in England, where my parents later met and I was born. Amongst the musicians was Ike Isaacs, my father’s elder brother, who became in due course a legend in the world of jazz guitar.

Ike Isaacs, born in Rangoon on December 1, 1919, figured as the most prominent British jazz guitarist in the 1950s and 1960s, subsequently touring and recording with the legendary jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. As well as numerous London recording sessions, playing in the BBC Show Band, plus many notable album releases of his own, from the late 1950s Ike led the resident group for the BBC’s weekly live radio show Guitar Club, which played a key role in popularising the guitar. Indeed, in his autobiography, guitarist Andy Summers from the band The Police reminisces that listening to Guitar Club on the BBC and hearing Ike Isaacs amongst other seminal British guitar talent was “the great inspiration of the week”.

Ike was accorded genuine respect by the most famous jazz guitarists in the world, with whom he nurtured warm friendships and who in turn admired his legendary harmonic facility as well as appreciating his warm and collegial hospitality. There are photos of Ike jamming in his music room with the great Wes Montgomery, and he also counted the likes of Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, George Benson and Jim Hall as buddies. Even Duke Ellington came to Ike’s home for lunch on one of the great man’s British tours.

Ike told me that in the 1960s a young (and then unknown) John McLaughlin used to visit him to talk about music and life. Like Ike, John was filling his time with commercial recording sessions but was frustrated with how this activity was taking him away from his own vision. Ike typically encouraged him to follow his heart, and, on a subsequent recording session he and Ike were booked for, McLaughlin simply chose not to show up, a sure-fire way to deliberately end one career and go on to make jazz fusion guitar history.

Never a great seeker of the limelight, Ike is remembered as much for the way he shared his musical discoveries with others as he was for his own performances and recordings.  I have met countless guitarists, whether noted professionals or amateurs, who told me how Ike’s joy in communicating his love and knowledge of the guitar at an informal get together had indelibly shaped their journey. At the very apex of the spectrum, guitarist Martin Taylor, one of the most distinguished jazz guitarists on the international scene today, cites Ike as his main mentor.

Ike’s most notable musical gift was his wistful lyricism, which was bolstered by his ability to find ways to play chords – and contrapuntal inner parts – on the guitar that should not be possible, and were in fact the result of a supreme and self-confessed effort to turn the instrument into a piano. It was most evident in his solo guitar work, and as a young musician I was frustrated that Ike had not documented this aspect of his playing in a recording. And so in 1991, when Ike lived in Sydney in semi-retirement, I was thrilled to produce his CD Intimate Interpretations, which documented his life’s work paraphrasing gems from the Great American Songbook in extraordinary solo guitar reworkings. Ike’s beautiful composition Starlight from that CD concludes this disk, and his whole recording is being reissued on all digital platforms this year through my own label.

Ike died in January 1996 in Sydney, and it seems the perfect way to honour the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday by not only reissuing his greatest musical achievement, but especially to have this CD of tribute tracks from guitarists and others from all around the world who were touched by him (including a track from my own late father, guitarist and songwriter Saul Isaacs, who enjoyed Ike as his lifetime elder-brother guitar mentor).

As does his wife, Moira, still with us, I feel that Ike joins me in spirit to thank from the bottom of our hearts composer Roger Frankham (another whom Ike inspired) for so generously producing this CD, as well as all the guitarists and other artists who shared their tribute tracks with such real warmth and deep respect for his memory.

MARK ISAACS, September 2019

Notes written for the CD booklet of WE LIKE IKE 100th Birthday Tribute to Jazz Guitar Legend Ike Isaacs (Triangle7/MGM TR001) released on CD and on digital & streaming platforms October 25, 2019

 

Vale Kerrie Biddell

This article is published at Resonate magazine.

I was very saddened to hear of the passing of the great Australian singer Kerrie Biddell. She was someone with whom I had a strong professional and personal association.

I met Kerrie when I was in my early-to-mid teens. She was at the time the powerhouse featured singer with the Daly-Wilson Big Band (this band was then a household name in Australia). She was also a friend of my family, as her mother (a pianist) had done gigs with my father (a guitarist) and it was my parents who introduced us.

Later, at around the age of eighteen, I wrote a piece I called Indian Hemp for her band Compared to What and in 1978 at age nineteen I joined that same band. It was quite a remarkable ensemble, and very much under Kerrie’s stewardship. As well as accompanying her singing jazz standards or contemporary pop classics from the time by people like Stevie Wonder, we would perform our versions of the virtuosic instrumental jazz/fusion new music then very much in the forefront by artists like Jaco Pastorius, Brecker Brothers and Chick Corea. In these numbers, Kerrie used her voice quite remarkably (in terms of range and facility) as a wordless instrument. Under her encouragement I also wrote original compositions for the band. We played at least once every week, sometimes more often.

Later (in the 1980s and early 1990s) I would work with Kerrie in the recording studio when she sang on some of the television music I was composing and conducting at the time. She was a natural studio singer and at the time one heard her voice regularly on television ads and series themes. More recently we renewed our professional and personal association when I suggested her for a Freedman Jazz Award judging panel that I was on. She was a great panellist and fittingly we awarded the coveted prize to young Australian jazz singer Kristin Berardi.

In my opinion, Kerrie had a technical control of her instrument (including pristine diction), a versatility of genre and an ability to deliver palpable emotion that is unequalled by any Australian singer outside of classical music. As a youngster working in her band – virtually under her tutelage – was a salutary lesson in professionalism and exactitude. The renowned Australian “she’ll be right” ethos was still in full force in late 1970s (and perhaps has not fully retreated) but Kerrie was frighteningly demanding of herself and her collaborators. We rehearsed every week at her home in Bondi for an entire day, but there wasn’t always new material driving this. It was simply about maintaining and (hopefully) exceeding the already high standards set.

Kerrie was scary; no words were minced or foolishnesses suffered kindly. As well as the example she set by her own (fulfilled) aspirations towards real artistry and virtuosity she was the ideal nurturer of others’ talents. Not necessarily through what is commonly thought of as encouragement (although there was plenty of that, especially onstage – I learned to yearn for the little yelps of appreciation she would emit if you played something particularly noteworthy) but as often through “tough love”. I was a somewhat obnoxious 19-year old as I had been a child prodigy upon whom praise had been heaped from a very young age, so at that kind of bullish age I thought the world was my oyster. I remember once she turned to me – presumably after some smug recital on my part – and said “You know, you’re not that good”. She was dead right, and these are precious words for a 19-year old to hear and have helped spur me to strive to greater heights ever since. I know for a fact that she gave her gifts to many in this way, and in later life her formal teaching for the Sydney Conservatorium was renowned with a new crop of young singers benefitting from her expertise up until very recently. But in the end it will be her audiences – those who heard her live and/or have her many vinyl records and one CD – who will be the most transformed by being witness to one of Australia’s very few artists who have reached a truly international and singular level of accomplishment as a soloist.

Hopefully an Australian record label or distributor will have the foresight to – with the necessary co-operation of the current rights holders – digitally release  her many superb but out-of-print-vinyl recordings so that they are preserved for posterity in a facilitated way. Hers is a legacy of recent Australian musical history the significance of which is by no means properly acknowledged.