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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category


Loch_Siegfried_by_Barbara_EismannIn the full-fat era of the record industry, Siggi Loch was a very big cheese. Starting out as a teenaged Sidney Bechet fan in Hannover in the early 1950s, he played drums with his own band, the Red Onions, before taking a job as a sales rep with EMI-Electrola in 1960, aged 20. From there he became a label manager at Phonogram in Hamburg, making his first album as a producer with the saxophonist Klaus Doldinger in 1962. He moved on to Liberty/United Artists, where he was installed as managing director of a stable including Can and Amon Duul II, the pioneering German rock bands. In 1971 he joined WEA Hamburg, then the umbrella company for Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Elektra and their associated labels in Germany, becoming chairman of WEA International from 1983-87: an extremely powerful position within an industry then at the peak of its prosperity.

When he left WEA, it was with a plan that involved something more ambitious than staring at his collection of contemporary art. As he told me during a conversation over a cup of coffee in Berlin a few months ago, he wanted to return to jazz, his first love, and to put something back, via his own independent label. Based in Munich, ACT currently releases around two dozen albums a year, having become widely known for its successes with the Swedish trio of the late pianist Esbjörn Svensson and, more recently, the German piano prodigy Michael Wollny.

The obvious comparison is with another Munich-based label identified by three letters: Manfred Eicher’s ECM. But, despite their similarities (including a fondness for giving their artwork a unified look based on the founder’s personal aesthetic), the two diverge in important ways. ACT is less identified with a sound, or a particular way of recording. Loch’s taste — or at least his vision of what his label should present to the public — is looser and more eclectic. He also presents concerts, including the annual Jazz at the Philharmonie, which revives the old Berlin Jazz Festival tradition of staging events at the grand home of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

In recent months, while Loch has been celebrating his 75th birthday, ACT has put out two albums that, while unlikely to shift units in EST or Wollny quantities, seem to me to be among the year’s outstanding releases. As it happens, both are by quartets with similar instrumentation: saxophone, guitar, double bass and drums. Curiously — and, I’m sure, coincidentally — the two albums share a preoccupation more usually associated with the other Munich label: a desire to paint sound-pictures of winter landscapes.

Slow Snow is a set of quietly gorgeous tone poems that find the Norwegian saxophonist and composer Tore Brunborg accompanied by three compatriots: the guitarist Eivind Aarset, the bassist Steinar Raknes and the drummer Per Oddvar Johansen. Brunborg’s lovely melodies are enhanced by an almost subliminal but telling use of electronics (contributed by Aarset and Johansen), with the leader doubling to good effect on piano. On a piece like “Tune In” the air of restraint makes Aarset’s guitar distortion all the more telling, his chords creating a mood of suppressed hysteria as Brunborg deploys his fine tone in a solo against a background that rises and falls like a house-trained version of King Crimson’s “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic”. If this is the kind of jazz — calm, spacious, reflective, underplayed, sometimes pastoral in mood, with a muted but glowing lyricism — one has come to expect from Norwegians over the past 40 years, then the sheer brilliance of the writing and playing enables it to escape any charge of predictability with ease.

Winter Light is a more extrovert affair, under the leadership of the gifted American guitarist and composer Scott DuBois, who evokes the example of Claude Monet in his desire to capture shifting light in changing seasons. Completed by the German saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann, the double bassist Thomas Morgan and the drummer Kresten Osgood, the quartet has been together for eight years and its members show every sign of great familiarity with each other’s playing. DuBois’s compositions — with titles like “Late Morning Snow” and “Night Tundra” — are devised to make the most of the musicians’ ability to go from inside to outside with complete naturalness; on the opening “First Light Tundra”, in fact, the gentle textures of the main theme are occasionally and very effectively interrupted by squalls of free playing, most notably from the bass clarinet of the remarkable Ullmann, a veteran who deserves to be better known. My admiration of Morgan is underlined by his unflagging brilliance throughout this set, in partnership with Osgood’s vigorous drumming; together they rise to the challenge set by DuBois’s furiously inventive solo on “Early Morning Forest”.

If these albums certainly make a good accompaniment to the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere, it has to be said that they’d sound good in any season: the other quality that unites them, beneath their frost-bitten tune titles, is an underlying warmth. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

* The photograph of Siggi Loch is by Barbara Elsmann (c) ACT.

Between the world and the Black Panthers

Out to LunchOthers will be better qualified to talk about the substance of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Stanley Nelson’s documentary, which is currently showing in London. I found it extremely moving. There’s an initial sense of exhilaration at the spectacle of the human spirit responding to adversity with pride, resilience and creativity, only for that spirit to be crushed by the relentless efficiency of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI.

Nelson modulates the tone of the film to match its narrative arc with great sensitivity, and that is where the soundtrack plays its part. At the start of the story we see the Chi-Lites singing “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” in ruffled costumes on Soul Train and hear Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough For You”, Philadelphia International’s most confrontational moment. These are reminders of how the ideas represented by the Panthers were able to gatecrash mainstream culture. Later the musical backdrop is supplied by the stripped-down street-funk of the early ’70s (“Express Yourself” by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band being a good example). At the close, with the Panthers’ unity and sense of purpose destroyed by police bullets (notably in the assassination of Fred Hampton, the eloquent, charismatic 21-year-old who Hoover feared would become the movement’s “messiah”) and internal rivalries (the post-prison Huey P. Newton versus the exiled Eldridge Cleaver), the profound darkening of the mood is expressed through the voice of Gil Scott-Heron, singing “Winter in America”.

I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a recent best-seller which takes the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, relating Coates’s own experiences as a black boy growing up in America. His grandfather was a research librarian at Howard University in Washington DC, with a profound love of books: “…all over the house, books about black people, by black people, for black people spilling off shelves and out of the living room…” His parents were radicals: “We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God.” His father had been a captain in the Black Panther Party.

The book is a brilliant analysis of the journey taken by several generations of African Americans, always facing the same enemy. Coates was born in 1975: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth,” he writes, “was to be naked before all the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” He was 11 years old when another boy pulled a gun on him. His son’s reality is the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nelson’s film contains another music-related moment that made me catch my breath. We see photographs of the room in a Panther house on Chicago’s West Side where Fred Hampton was gunned down by police in December 1969, its layout revealed to them by an FBI informant. Amid the blood-spattered debris lying on the bedroom floor, it’s possible to glimpse the sleeve of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. On its appearance in 1964, Dolphy’s album represented a high point in the African American research project that jazz had become. It’s still being analysed and copied today. And to me it’s an affirmation of some sort that Out to Lunch was part of the soundtrack of that Panther household, and — or so we may infer — of Fred Hampton’s short life.

Dick Twardzik 30/4/31–21/10/55

Dick_TwardzikTomorrow evening it will be exactly 60 years since the pianist and composer Dick Twardzik was found dead in his room at the Hôtel de la Madeleine on the Rue de Surène, in Paris’s 8th arrondissement. He was on tour in Europe with the Chet Baker Quartet, and the previous night they had played at the Club Tabu, where they were joined by the great Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin. After returning to the hotel in the early hours, they were due to reconvene at 4pm for a recording session at the Pathé-Magellan studio. When, after an hour, he hadn’t showed up, a search party went back to the hotel and his body was discovered. A heroin overdose had killed him. He was 24 years old.

Twardzik was a prodigy. Born in Boston, the son of two artists, he had studied with Madame Margaret Chaloff of the New England Conservatory of Music, a renowned teacher who is better known to jazz fans as the mother of Serge Chaloff, one of the great post-war baritone saxophonists. Serge and Dick would play and record together. And share a heroin habit that eventually killed the other man, too.

By the time Twardzik was 21, he was good enough to play with Charlie Parker. You can hear the results on Boston 1952, a Parker album compiled from radio broadcasts recorded at the Hi-Hat Club and released on the Uptown label a few years ago. Symphony Sid Torin, the radio show’s announcer, can’t get the young man’s name right, but listen to the wonderful inventiveness of the piano solo on a relaxed “Don’t Blame Me”, to the way he spins out his double-time lines, shaping them so beautifully, allowing them to float and curl and wind before moving into a passage of contrapuntal and parallel lines, followed by the lightest of block chords. By that time, he had already been using heroin for three years.

After Bud Powell, he might have become Parker’s most stimulating keyboard partner, if they’d both lived and been given time to develop their partnership. Twardzik’s ear and imagination, and his knowledge of modern classical music, would surely have appealed to Bird, and might have inspired an escape from the bebop cul-de-sac into which Parker was heading by the time of his own death in 1955.

But that’s speculation. What we know is that Twardzik made a brilliant set of trio recordings for the Pacific Jazz in October 1954, half a dozen tracks first issued as one side of an LP called Trio which he shared with the group of Russ Freeman, his predecessor as Baker’s pianist, who had brought him to the attention of the label’s boss, Dick Bock. The tracks, with one addition, were later released by themselves as The Last Set. There are three standards — “Round Midnight”, “I’ll Remember April” and “Bess You is My Woman” — along with three of his own compositions, all of them immediately striking, and not just for their titles: “Albuquerque Social Swim”, “Yellow Tango”, “A Crutch for the Crab”. They’re as full of playful character and unexpected twists as those of Herbie Nichols — a comparison that also strikes Alexander Hawkins, the English pianist, who is a student of such matters and a confirmed Twardzik fan. Thinking you might like a break from my views, I asked Alex for a few words. Here’s some of what he sent me:

For me, he fits squarely within that magical clutch of pianists from mid-century who are just so wonderfully sui generis (Monk, Powell, Hope, Nichols, and a few years later, the likes of Hasaan etc). I think it naturally comes out most clearly in his compositions; and to me it’s extraordinary to reflect that we can get such a strong sense of a radical original from so few works. However, it’s also fascinating to listen to him play standards: his arranger’s touch was such that he could make such a ‘standard’ standard as “I’ll Remember April” all his own – in the way he mysteriously stalks the notes of the first eight bars of this over the swinging drums, I hear a weird pre-echo of Misha (Mengelberg) and Han (Bennink).

I love the headlong intensity and clarity of purpose, despite such knotty compositions: in this I hear a real kinship with Bud Powell (“Glass Enclosure”, etc). There’s also clearly an affinity with Bartok, Hindemith, and so on; and I hear elements of Bernstein and Sondheim, too. I can also hear a possible line through to early Cecil Taylor. In the way both composers graft together different melodic/rhythmic strands, I hear some deep similarity with (especially pre-Unit Structures) Cecil: in particular, I’m thinking of the session which produced ‘Pots’, ‘Bulbs’, and ‘Mixed’, and also tunes like ‘Excursion on a Wobbly Rail’. I also hear a kinship with Cecil in the love of contrary motion figures.

The historical context also fascinates me too: just like with Bird, Hasaan, Nichols – where on earth could this music have gone had he lived? It’s so much at the vanguard of what seemed possible at the time that trying to put oneself in contemporary shoes as far as possible and hearing the future directions is completely baffling, and as such, deeply inspiring as a player and composer.

After Twardzik arrived in Le Havre on the liner Île-de-France on September 13 with the rest of Baker’s rhythm section — the bassist Jimmy Bond and the drummer Peter Littman — and met up with the trumpeter, the band began their tour at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (supported by the Tony Crombie All Stars!) and continued through Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and France. There were 10 concerts in all, several of which were recorded and are available on various bootlegs. In Paris on October 11 and 14 they also recorded the nine tracks — eight compositions by Bob Zieff, a friend of Twardzik’s from Boston, and one by the pianist himself — that would make up one of the most remarkable small-group records of the 1950s.

Zieff’s cool little pieces have wonderful beatnik titles: “Rondette”, “Mid-Forte”, “Sad Walk”, “Pomp”, “Brash”. Perfectly balanced and slightly formal modernist mechanisms, they’re clean-lined but unpredictable, absolutely devoid of any hint of cliché (jazz or otherwise), stretching the musicians — particularly the trumpeter and pianist — in interesting ways without inducing contortions. It’s no surprise to discover that Gil Evans later became a fan of the composer, and a terrible shame that he was destined to remain in obscurity. And Twardzik’s tune, “The Girl from Greenland”, is typically intriguing and memorable.

Issued on the Barclay label in France soon afterwards, this set is still available and is, I’d say, essential — not just for itself, but also because it represents the last view we would ever get of a great talent taken away, like so many others, by a plague that is still with us, and still taking lives.

* If you want to know more, I warmly recommend Jack Chambers’ excellent biography, Bouncin’ with Bartok: The Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik, published in Canada by the Mercury Press in 2008, from which the photograph is taken. There’s also an interesting CD of Twardzik’s home rehearsal recordings called 1954 Improvisations, all variations on standards, released by the New Artists label in 1990. Recordings of the Baker Quartet’s concerts in Cologne, Amsterdam and elsewhere are available on various bootlegs.

Matana Roberts in Hackney

Matana Roberts Oslo 2Matana Roberts asked for “comments, questions and critiques” at the end of her remarkable performance at Oslo in Hackney last night (“Well, maybe not the critiques,” she added). That doesn’t happen at every gig. There were many questions from an enthusiastic audience, and she answered them all — whether on David Cameron’s attitude to reparations for slavery or the influence of early ’60s free jazz on her music — with conviction, insight and wit.

A genuinely extraordinary artist of our time, she pursues a vision that places her beyond category. Last night she gave us a version of her latest record, the third chapter of the Coin Coin series, in which she is exploring various aspects of American history. On Oslo’s low stage she sat in front of a screen showing a loop of film she created with the use of family ephemera and other images, and divided her time between cueing and modifying the sound bed created from all sorts of audio sources (the “panoramic sound quilting” of which she speaks) and playing brief alto saxophone passages with her fibrous tone and hymn-like delivery, singing snatches of seemingly half-remembered songs, and reading from an old, scuffed, pocket-sized Bible into which she had pasted the various texts used in Chapter Three: River Run Thee.

She is a natural actor, with a powerful presence even in repose. She can draw us in with the warmest of smiles but suddenly switch and flash her eyes with a Simone-like disdain. Her powerful voice sometimes dissolves into strange mumblings and twitterings.

Some thematic fragments recurred. “Come away with me,” she crooned. “Black lives matter / All lives matter.” “I pledge allegiance to… I pledge allegiance to… I pledge allegiance… to a flag with liberty and justice for some.” And, frequently repeated, “I like to tell stories…” That, most of all, was how it felt. In her voluminous skirt, grey shawl, face paint and wild locks, patiently thumbing through her defaced Bible, fiddling with her laptop and electronics, taking her time as the story unwound, she had brought the meaning and textures of the lives of her ancestors into her own existence — and, quite unforgettably, into ours.

Phil Woods 1931-2015

Phil Woods 2Phil Woods, the great alto saxophonist, died yesterday, aged 83. He was featured on the first jazz LP I ever bought, with money saved from a paper round: East Meets West: The Birdland All Stars on Tour, recorded in 1956, with Kenny Dorham, Conte Candoli, Al Cohn, Hank Jones, John Simmons and Kenny Clarke. It was a second-hand copy, found on a market stall. Not a great album, but not a bad place to start, either. More important, Woods went on to play a wonderful solo on one of my very favourite records: the version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” on the expanded reissue of The Individualism of Gil Evans, recorded in 1964.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of things I love about music that are contained in this 14-minute piece, from the deepest blues to the most sophisticated modern jazz. In strategic terms, it creates, intensifies and sustains an extraordinary mood that is quite unlike anything else I know. The tactical details include Gil’s Zen piano and his at times almost subliminal arrangement (those woodwinds painted across the horizon!), the magical combination of Paul Chambers’ calm bass and Elvin Jones’s brooding drums, Kenny Burrell’s super-cool guitar ruminations, Johnny Coles’ heart-piercing trumpet, the brilliant use of Harry Lookofsky’s tenor violin… and the sense of space, space, space, and time, time, time. Time and space became what Gil made of them, and never more so than here.

In the eighth minute the tension rises as the arrangement prepares the way for a passage of two and a half minutes in which Woods’s improvisation makes the most of the landscape Gil has established, exploiting the freedom offered by the modal framework to drill down from a different angle into the essence of the blues. As elegantly funky phrases coalesce into a double-time flurry, the solo reaches its climax — the climax of the whole 14 minutes, in effect — before meandering carefully back to its starting point, finally decompressing though a series of beautifully syncopated two-note phrases into a light-fingered imitation of the walking bass, deliberately lowering the temperature before an ensemble section leads to the drifting, dissolving finale.

I have no idea whether for Woods this represented more than just another good day’s work in the middle of a long and distinguished career. For me, it’s an example of perfection.

Remembering Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond Down Beat 2Fifty years ago this month, Paul Desmond was on the cover of Down Beat. The other day, when I was buying a new reissue of some of his early recordings, the man behind the counter told me his theory, which in essence was that if it hadn’t have been for Desmond, we’d never have heard of Dave Brubeck.

I had to agree with him, for two reasons. First, the graceful sound of Desmond’s alto saxophone was the first thing you heard when you heard the Brubeck Quartet. It was the identifier. Just as important, Desmond wrote “Take Five”, the group’s biggest hit, the one you heard on Sunday lunchtimes on Two-Way Family Favourites. Probably a lot of people assumed that it had come from Brubeck’s pen, the one that wrote two genuine jazz standards, “The Duke” and “In Your Own Sweet Way”. But its ingenuity was the altoist’s work.

The Fresh Sound album, Desmond: Here I Am, starts with five 1954 tracks with a quintet featuring the bassist Bob Bates and the drummer Joe Dodge from the early Brubeck group, and continues with four from the same year with the Bob Bates Singers, originally issued together as Desmond’s first solo album, on the Fantasy label; then come eight tracks recorded two years later with a quartet for the same label.

Interestingly, there is no piano to be heard on any of the three sessions. One could make a mildly cruel joke about the relief of being temporarily free from Brubeck’s heavy-handed accompaniment, but it would be neither fair nor entirely true. But the pianoless setting certainly suited Desmond: there’s an airiness appropriate to his sound.

Desmond was noted for his dry wit. In the Down Beat interview, talking to Dan Morgenstern, he discussed Brubeck’s most recent attempt to team the quartet with a symphony orchestra, in an extended piece called Elementals. “I kind of hope it stays the last,” he said. “That sort of thing is more gratifying to the composer; to perform it is a kind of struggle. It’s a little frustrating when you’re on stage with 80 symphony musicians and succeed in functioning just about as well as you ordinarily do, and it’s considered a great accomplishment — like tap dancing under water.”

He was a bit of a curmudgeon, in an amusing way. “Between the discotheques and the avant-garde and the folk scene, there isn’t much left,” he observed. But he had kind words for Charles Mingus — “He can be fascinating and very moving to listen to, as well as hitting you with something very difficult” — and his idea of a discotheque would be something that played the music of Muddy Waters, Count Basie and Mose Allison, which sounds pretty good to me.

There was never a sense of struggle or difficulty in Desmond’s music. He was even capable of rising above the kitschy sound of the Bates Singers (although not to the degree that he transcended Bob Prince’s workaday arrangements for strings and woodwind on the RCA album Desmond Blue a few years later). The 1956 quartet tracks, with Don Elliott switching between mellophone and trumpet, require no allowances to be made: these are gloriously lucid, lyrical inventions on standards and originals, the absence of strain and challenge more than offset by the calm, balanced inventiveness of the leader’s improvisations.

By 1965, however, the caravan of jazz was moving on. I remember feeling a surge of righteous anger, after handing over half a crown for this copy of the magazine, when I noticed that the editors had chosen to feature him on the cover rather than the second-billed Ornette Coleman. Desmond died of lung cancer in 1977, aged 52, and time has told the truth about him, which is that he was a player of genuine originality who couldn’t have played a banal phrase if he’d tried.

* Desmond: Here I Am is on the Fresh Sound label. Desmond Blue is available on a six-CD box called The Complete RCA Albums Collection, released by Sony Legacy and including his much admired collaborations with the guitarist Jim Hall.

Loud, louder, loudest…

BerghainThis building, for those who don’t already know it, is Berghain, probably the world’s most famous techno club. It opened in 2004 in a building formerly used by East Berlin’s electricity company, now surrounded by waste ground near the Ostbahnhof station. Its sound system is said to be the best of its kind in the world, and it was put to good use this week at the opening night of a four-day festival called A l’Arme!, which is billed by its curator, Louis Rastig, as an “international jazz and sound-art meeting”.

The first highlight was the opening DJ set by Mieko Suzuki, who spent an hour making a simple drone evolve into something rich and strange, with mesmerising subtlety. Then came a duo performance by the saxophonist Colin Stetson and the bass guitarist Bill Laswell, who exploited that legendary sound system to the full.

In my time I’ve stood next to a nitro-burning Top Fuel dragster as it warmed up for a four-second, 300mph quarter-mile run, underneath a Vulcan bomber as a combined 80,000lb of thrust propelled it in a steep climb from low level, and within spitting distance of the Who’s PA. All of those would be in the range of 120-150 decibels. Stetson and Laswell were louder than any of them.

For the best part of an hour they made great waves of noise in which pulse and pitch were subordinate to the overall intention of filling every cranny of the concrete and steel space. The muscular, athletic Stetson made his bass saxophone howl and groan, using effects to produce many simultaneous sound-layers. The expressionless Laswell prodded at his pedal-board and picked at his strings with a deceptively delicate touch while filling the room with stomach-loosening lines. If you were standing a few feet from one of the speaker stacks, the volume generated a breeze that ruffled your hair and made the fabric of your clothes ripple. Ear plugs were available.

It was brutally exhausting, but somehow magnificent. Goodness knows what Adolphe Sax and Leo Fender, creators of the instruments that Stetson and Laswell were taking to the limits and beyond, would have made of it.

Ornette Coleman 1930-2015

Ornette by Ian DuryIt was 1961 when I first heard the sound of Ornette Coleman. I was 14 years old and I’d somehow scraped together the money to buy This Is Our Music, his latest release. I’d been getting interested in jazz, devouring anything I could find. Every word I read about Ornette, even the scornfully dismissive stuff that was about at the time, made him sound interesting. And, of course, I loved the cover, with its Lee Friedlander photograph of four young men — Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Ornette, and Charlie Haden — looking impossibly cool.

So I took it home, put it on the Dansette, switched off the lights, and lay down on the floor. For the next 40 minutes I moved only to get up and turn it over. And then I listened to it again. The effect has never gone away.

To me, Ornette’s music sounded like the most natural thing in the world. Nothing about it — the raw timbre of the horns, the lack of conventional chord sequences — bothered me in the slightest. What it had, apart from undoubted modernity, was the “cry” that went back to the origins of the blues.

(That sound impressed me so much that three or four years later I bought a white plastic Grafton alto saxophone, just like Ornette’s, and invested in some lessons with the lead altoist in a local dance band, who also worked the music shop from which I bought it, and was more of a Paul Desmond man. I didn’t get far. Particularly after the night when, during a club gig with the R&B band in which I played, I got up from behind the drums and attempted to insert a bit of free-form improvising into the middle of a Bo Diddley medley. This was 1965: eat your hearts out, Magic Band, Contortions, Pop Group. And even Prime Time, come to that. But it didn’t go down well, and I couldn’t afford to keep the horn. I think I got £30 for it. They’re rare now, not least because they stopped making them in the ’60s, after which the tools and jigs were destroyed. If you dropped them, they cracked and couldn’t be repaired. The last one I saw for sale in a shop, a couple of years ago, had a price tag of £1,500.)

Later on I was fortunate enough to meet Ornette several times, and to discover his unusual mode of verbal expression. Like Captain Beefheart and Van Dyke Parks, he had a way of answering your questions by taking off in a wholly unexpected direction, making several detours, and finally ending up with a completely logical pay-off. That process could take several minutes, and you had to align yourself to the cadences of his thinking if you wanted to get the most from it.

The most striking encounter was at Abbey Road in 1972, when he was recording The Skies of America, his extended orchestral piece, with the LSO, conducted by David Measham. The work had been written to feature his quartet alongside the orchestra, but union rules made that an impossibility. So it was just Ornette and the straight players, some of whom displayed a ready disdain for his score. To be fair, it did make some unorthodox and occasionally severe demands — usually in terms of the upper range of the wind instruments — on a bunch of players including one or two who liked to fill the gaps between takes by propping a copy of the FT on their music stands and checking the progress of their shares. Some inaccurate copying of the parts didn’t help.

The trumpeters made an informal deal between themselves to alternate the highest notes in order to save their lips from damage. At one point, after the orchestra’s percussionist had observed, quite seriously, that it would help to have three conductors working simultaneously, Ornette took a pair of sticks and showed him exactly what he wanted.

So a degree of pain and struggle was certainly involved in the recording, but it sounded marvellous as the composer took out his alto to play along with them. He was wearing a charcoal mohair suit with a flared flap in the back, a silky cream shirt, and multicoloured patchwork leather boots. Ornette’s self-designed wardrobe was just another facet of his originality.

When the album appeared, it was with a sleeve note in which Ornette wrote: “The skies of America have had more changes to occur under them this century than any other country: assassinations, political wars, gangster wars, racial wars, space races, women’s rights, sex, drugs and the death of god, all for the betterment of the American people.” And somehow he managed to get a sense of all that into his 41 minutes of pure American music.

I heard it performed live a couple of times in New York and London, featuring the quartet with the larger ensemble, as originally intended. As time went by it was gussied up a little to smooth away some of the rough edges and make the orchestra players’ lives a little easier, but I don’t think it ever sounded nearly as good. It needed those tensions to bring out the ideas behind its conception. To me, it still sounds like a masterpiece, the product of a mind in which simplicity and complexity achieved a perfect coexistence.

* The image of Ornette Coleman is from Ian Dury’s design for the first UK edition of Four Lives in the Bebop Business, A.B. Spellman’s classic portrait of Ornette, Herbie Nichols, Jackie McLean and Cecil Taylor, published by MacGibbon and Kee in 1967. You can find a short piece I wrote about Ornette’s significance for the Guardian’s music blog here:

On the tracks of Tina Brooks

Tina BrooksTina is certainly an unusual name for a man. But 50 years ago, in a world including an Ornette and a Thelonious, it didn’t seem all that strange. What mattered was the way Tina Brooks — born Harold, but rechristened with a corruption of Teenie, a childhood nickname — played the tenor saxophone.

Born in North Carolina in 1932, at the age of 12 he moved with his family to New York, where he studied music and took his first gigs with R&B bands in the early 1950s. Subsequently he became one of the many gifted jazz musicians whose lives were blighted, either through early death or prolonged inactivity, by the heroin plague of the post-war years. He died in obscurity in 1974, after more than a decade of silence.

The years of notable activity were brief. The trumpeter Little Benny Harris recommended him to Alfred Lion, Blue Note’s co-founder, and in 1958 he took part in his first session for the label, Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon. Sessions as a sideman with Kenny Burrell, Jackie McLean and Freddie Hubbard would follow. Of his own four Blue Note albums, only one — True Blue — was issued during his lifetime. The others — Minor Move, Back to the Tracks and The Waiting Game — were put on the shelf, for reasons about which we can only speculate. They appeared long after his death, when it had become apparent that a coterie of fans cherished his special qualities.

All those albums are now available together on a two-CD package called Tina Brooks Quintet: The Complete Recordings (Master Takes), released on the Phono label, one of those companies shrewdly taking advantage of music falling out of copyright. To say it represents a bargain is an understatement, and since none of the musicians involved is still alive, I don’t suppose anyone is going to suffer financial duress as a result.

Brooks was a middleweight tenorist, like Hank Mobley or Oliver Nelson, with the fluid inventiveness of the former and the graceful balance of the latter. In terms of substance, his improvising was exceptionally creative. Every solo contained something worth hearing. And, within the hard bop idiom, he was a composer of the highest quality: listen to “Street Singer”, which has the graceful melodic shapes associated with Benny Golson (and is an interloper, being borrowed from the McLean session, in which the quintet became a sextet).

The sidemen chosen for these albums form a roll-call of Blue Note favourites. The trumpeters: Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Blue Mitchell and Johnny Coles. The pianists: Sonny Clark, Duke Jordan and Kenny Drew. The bassists: Doug Watkins, Sam Jones, Paul Chambers and Wilbur Ware. The drummers: Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Art Taylor, who never sounded better in his life, as you can hear on “Street Singer”.

I know of only one piece of film featuring Brooks: a DVD of Ray Charles in São Paulo in 1963 titled O Gênio: Live in Brazil. issued by Warner Music Vision in 2004. He’s in the reed section alongside the altoists Danny Turner and Geezil Minerve, his fellow tenorist Fathead Newman and the baritone-player Hog Cooper. Newman, the band’s music director, gets most of the solo space, but on Quincy Jones’s “Birth of a Band” he’s joined by Brooks, with whom he trades choruses and fours. Clearly new to the band, Brooks appears unsure of the routine, and his more oblique style is somewhat overshadowed by Newman’s robust bluesiness, but you could just about close your eyes and know it’s him. See it here.

I’ve always thought that if I could put together a dream quintet of musicians who fell victim to the infernal plague, he’d be there alongside Dupree Bolton, Dick Twardzik, Albert Stinson and Frank Butler. What a band that would have been. But his own four albums form an imperishable legacy, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

* One of Tina Brooks’s few pieces of certified good luck was to have found himself in front of the lens of the great Roy DeCarava at the Blue Morocco club in the Bronx one night in 1956, when he shared the stage with Benny Harris. I’ve used one of DeCarava’s shots from that evening at the top of this piece; it’s taken from the Mosaic vinyl box set of complete quintet recordings, compiled by Michael Cuscuna and released 30 years ago this month. If you don’t know DeCarava’s work, look for The Sound I Saw, his classic essay on the jazz life. He put it together in 1962, but had to wait until 2001 — eight years before his death at the age of 89 — to see it published, thanks to the good offices of the Phaidon Press. Here, if you’re interested, is the obituary I wrote for the Guardian.

Introducing Anna-Lena Schnabel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of a long afternoon of listening to German bands at the Jazzahead festival in Bremen last weekend, I heard something that really brought the senses alive: the alto saxophone of Anna-Lena Schnabel, a 22-year-old musician from Hamburg appearing in the Aquarian Jazz Ensemble, a quintet led by the drummer Björn Lücker.

The group was impressive all round, notably the leader’s thoughtful, highly melodic compositions and the restrained lyricism of the trumpeter and flügelhornist Claas Ueberschaer. But it was when Schnabel stepped forward for her first solo that the music really took wing.

There’s a poise to her delivery, a fibrous, pliable quality to her tone and a sustained intensity that remind me a little of the young Mike Osborne. In the context of a half-hour set featuring several tunes, it was interesting to hear how much substance she was able to get into each of her short solos — an endangered art. The varied contouring of her phrases makes you feel as though you’re being taken for a very interesting ride. And on the occasional improvised duets between the two horns, she more than held her own with the experienced Ueberschaer.

The next day I was telling someone about what I’d heard, and he told me a little story about Schnabel. It came from a while ago, when she was a member of the national youth jazz orchestra. They were undertaking a project with one of Germany’s several radio big bands, which are stuffed full of case-hardened professionals, and she was due to be featured on one particular piece. She is, apparently, not the most organised of people, and on this day she got her transport arrangements mixed up and arrived late in a bit of a flurry. My informant mimed the looks of exasperation on the faces of the senior players as they watched this flustered novice unpack her horn. But as soon as the first notes came out, he said, they started taking surreptitious looks over their music stands to confirm that such a stream of eloquence really could be coming from this young woman. Yes, they discovered, it could.

You don’t need to take my word for it: the performance in Bremen was filmed, and here it is. It’s worth a half-hour of anybody’s time, and her longest solo of the set, beginning at 25:50 and climbing out of a lovely ballad with surprising chord changes called “Mellow”, is a particular beauty. I suspect, and very much hope, that we’ll be hearing a lot more from the rather extraordinary Ms Schnabel.


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