HMV Group

Blue Notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 March, 2009, 12:00am


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Music retailing in Britain is one of the first casualties of the economic downturn.

London used to have an abundance of specialist record shops. Classical music, jazz, blues, folk, country and arcane rock albums all had their own dedicated outlets, staffed by knowledgeable enthusiasts who were keen to help.

Almost all of those vanished during the 1990s with the emergence of a duopoly of entertainment retailers: HMV and the Virgin Group, the latter becoming Zavvi after a 2007 management buyout.

With the collapse of Zavvi, which closed its last store on February 20, HMV has a virtual monopoly, which is dispiriting news for fans of 'roots' music who don't enjoy shopping on the internet.

Not that Zavvi paid much attention to albums that weren't going to appear on the pop charts, but it had taken over the flagship Tower Records store in Piccadilly where it inherited good jazz, blues and folk departments.

HMV's services to the jazz and blues fans, at least in its Oxford Street stores, are better than they are in Hong Kong, but still limited. I went shopping there for new releases by well-known artists that had been reviewed in recent issues of British jazz magazines, and they didn't have any of them.

The good news is you can still get old-fashioned service and real expertise at Ray's Jazz on the third floor of Foyle's bookshop in Charing Cross Road. Ray's used to be in Covent Garden. A few years ago the shop was about to go out of business, until it was offered space to open a store and jazz caf? on the first floor of Foyles.

The caf? is still there, and hosts regular live performances on its small stage, but the store has expanded and moved upstairs to the third floor. It is a real pleasure to browse there, and the counter staff are friendly and well informed.

As far as live performances are concerned, jazz seems to be holding its own, with all the major venues presenting something worth hearing most nights of the week.

Even Ronnie Scott's, which has been criticised for a dumbed-down approach to jazz under its new management, had a strong bill of artists for February, among them saxophonist Courtney Pine presenting a stirring tribute to Sidney Bechet.

Pine's next album offers his take on Bechet's music and features reggae rhythms rubbing shoulders with the New Orleans second line. Although he had played at Ronnie's in the past with various bands, last month's gig marked his first appearance as a leader.

Meanwhile, at PizzaExpress on Dean Street, a packed house listened to Australian pianist Paul Grabowsky lead a fine quintet featuring trumpeter Guy Barker.

Barker is keen to play in Hong Kong again, and it would be wonderful to have his Amadeus Project set featured in the next Hong Kong Arts Festival. It would be good to hear Grabowsky play here as well. He passes through town regularly on his way from Europe to Sydney.

Barker was on his usual blistering form, and I doubt that there is a trumpet player in the world who plays with a more consistently lovely tone from the lowest to the highest register of the instrument.

Lean times are no novelty for jazz musicians. Much of the music was made for them. Here's hoping that in Britain - and here - it turns out to be recession-proof.