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From left: Roland Fernandes, Frank Dubier, Raymond Murray and Denzil Ignatius


He nurtures jazz classics

Frank Dubier, jazz trumpeter, breathes the classics and leads a band that's a treat to jazz lovers

When I first heard Frank Dubier in the early '90s at the Oberoi in Bangalore, he started the evening off with Duke Ellington's theme song, Take the 'A' Train by Billy Strayhorn. The effect on me of hearing the signature tune of the most famous big band in jazz history and of the Voice of America's Jazz Hour, and incidentally a tune that I have some 17 versions of on record, was electric.

I mentioned this to Dubier when I met him the other day at A Pinch of Jazz, the restaurant at the Central Park Hotel. The band hadn't started for the evening yet, but the CD being played had Ella Fitzgerald singing 'A' Train with the Ellington orchestra (one of my 17 versions). He reminisced over the old days when he had a big band and used to always open his performances, just like the Duke did, with 'A' Train. The band at the Oberoi had been some nine- or ten-strong, including a trombone, a tenor sax and another trumpet apart from Dubier's own, as well as a singer.

At A Pinch of Jazz, where he's into the fourth month of a one-year contract, Dubier's outfit is down to four, with Denzil Igantius on drums, Raymond Murray on electric bass and Roland Fernandes on guitar and keyboards. Dubier occasionally switches to tenor sax, E-flat horn (it sounds a bit like a trombone) or flute, so altogether there's more variety of sound textures than one would expect from a quartet of single-instrumentalists.

Dubier has just passed the Biblical milestone of three score years and ten. That's still an age when many jazz artistes are performing an art that's got, like them, plenty of staying power. But for an Indian performing for Indian audiences, half a century of loyalty to jazz despite its having had only a small loyal following speaks volumes.

If audience interest picks up for jazz, especially the mainstream fare Dubier offers, he'll surely keep going for many more years and encourage his present, younger, colleagues to stay with it. Ignatius is the oldest of them, an accomplished drummer with a preference for cymbals and unmoved by the loud styles that have come in with jazz-rock. Murray and Fernandes are just as much jazz purists, playing as yet a mainly supporting role. (Murray did take a couple of solos and Fernandes, who plays guitar more than keyboards, may have been deferring to the presence on stage of a guest artiste, Amit Heri, who shared the solos with Dubier.)

Dubier's repertoire has changed somewhat over the years, from the swing and Dixieland of the Oberoi concert to a mix of swing, be-bop and hard bop. The tinge of anxiety I'd felt about a swing exponent and a modern experimenter mixing well turned out to be groundless. Dubier and his men were as comfortable with Charlie Parker's Now's the time, Thelonious Monk's 'Round midnight, Dizzy Gillespie's A night in Tunisia (played as a closing number in response to an audience request) and the Art Blakey hit Moanin' as with Ellington's Satin doll and C-jam blues. As was Heri.

I personally would have had my day made if C-jam blues had included a violin solo. Fanciful, you might say? But for many years Ellington's star trumpeter Ray Nance used to occasionally solo on violin, most famously and invariably on this number. And Dubier's father was a violinist. With his mother, a pianist, he used to take time off from Western classical music to lead a dance band in Chennai in which Dubier made his debut over five decades ago.

With such a start, it's no wonder Dubier took up jazz as a vocation, even if his ability to keep it going through all these years is remarkable. Now I wonder if his father ever sat in with his band and pitched in with violin solos on C-jam blues...

Maybe he didn't. However that may be, for the next several months, diners at A Pinch of Jazz on any night but Monday are assured of a sumptuous diet of mainstream jazz from a veteran performer who has parked his Caravan (another Ellington hit he's partial to) in our town. Chennai's temporary loss is Bangalore's gain.


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