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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

A threnody for Lou Reed

lou and jzIt’s already a year since Lou Reed died. You could mark the anniversary by saving up for the new super-deluxe edition of the Velvet Underground’s third album, now expanded to six CDs through the addition of alternative mixes and live stuff, or by reading the updated version of Jeremy Reed’s biography, Waiting for the Man. Or you could make a lateral move and listen to Transmigration of the Magus, written and recorded by John Zorn in memory of his late friend.

Just released on Zorn’s own Tzadik label, the album features the composer’s well established Gnostic Trio — Bill Frisell (guitar), Carol Emanuel (harp) and Kenny Wollesen (vibes and bells) — plus John Medeski (organ), Bridget Kibbey (harp) and Al Upowski (vibes and bells). The instrumentation along gives you an idea of what the music sounds like: a bright celestial noise reflecting Zorn’s interest in the numinous and his desire to write something to help Reed’s spirit through the bardo — the Tibetan word for the transitional state between death and the next incarnation.

Somewhere beneath the profanity of Reed’s music, the sacred was always lurking — whether in the exquisite melody of  “Pale Blue Eyes” or in Songs for Drella, the lovely elegy he and John Cale wrote for Andy Warhol. It’s not hard to glimpse him in the shimmering, tinkling haze of Zorn’s heavily arpeggiated compositions, but easier still in the handful of pieces where, without breaking the poise or the delicate weave of the ensemble, Frisell and Medeski get the chance to cut loose.

At the London Jazz Festival last week I listened to Frisell and Greg Leisz playing electric guitars on “Tired of Waiting for You” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” during the Guitar in the Space Age! show and was struck by how the silvery quality of the combined strings and a general feeling of ascension reminded me of two other partnerships: Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Frisell is equally wonderful here. The title track of Transmigration of the Magus is one of the loveliest and most powerful things I’ve heard all year.

* The photograph of Lou Reed and John Zorn was taken by Heung Heung Chin at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City on September 2, 2008, at a concert in celebration of Zorn’s 55th birthday.

The road to Plaistow

PlaistowIf the Mercury Prize-nominated GoGo Penguin are the One Direction of contemporary piano trios, Plaistow are the Radiohead: intense, demanding, sometimes thrilling, sometimes stubborn. They’re Swiss, they’ve been playing together since 2007, and they made their London debut today in a lunchtime concert at the Pizza Express on Dean Street. For me, the event confirmed the good impression made by their new album, Citadelle, just released on the Two Gentlemen label.

They are Johann Bourquenez (piano), Vincent Ruiz (double bass) and Cyril Bondi (drums). Apparently they acquired their name from the title of a Squarepusher track to which they took a fancy. I don’t know if they’ve been to Plaistow, which is in East London, but perhaps they know that the meaning of the word, in one interpretation derived from the Old English Plagestoue, is “place of play”.

The 75-minute set began with Bourquenez doing what he does a lot, which is to use both hands in the middle register to set up roiling waves of sound (you can hear him do it on “Lisa”, from the new album, and on the title track of its predecessor, Lacrimosa). We are verging on Charlemagne Palestine territory here, and the club’s excellent Steinway responded beautifully, allowing the overtones to speak clearly. After a few minutes Ruiz and Bondi joined in, both playing simple patterns, the former repeating a single note in a 3/4 pulse against the drummer’s 2/4 cymbal strokes. Then it got complicated.

Another point of reference might be the Necks, but whereas the Australian trio improvise from a standing start at every performance, Plaistow clearly prepare their material with great care. Compound time signatures are used, as are sudden and unpredictable stops and starts, but there is no hint of the flashiness such devices usually encourage. It’s hard to say how much is improvised, but it doesn’t seem to matter. What they have in common is a gift for what, if this were pop music, you would call hooks: the repeated phrases and, particularly, the harmonic shifts that engage the listener’s emotions. Like the Necks, they make you wait so long for the shift to take place that the eventual resolution comes as an exquisite relief.

Ruiz played the quietest bass solo I’ve ever heard, barely touching the strings. Bondi broke out of the repetition to produce a wonderful series of clattering solos on “Cube”, a piece built around him (also from Lacrimosa). And Bourquenez, in addition to the waves-of-overtones thing, proved himself — on “Les Oiseaux”, a track from Citadelle — a virtuoso at the skill of using his left hand inside the piano to damp and bend the notes he was playing with his right hand, at times making the instrument sound like an oud or, as my neighbour suggested, like a cimbalom, the hammered dulcimer of Central and Eastern Europe. As with everything they did, the technique was put to good expressive purpose.

They make you think about sound and about time. They can sweep you away with a burst of lyricism or pin you to the spot. They’ve been one of the best surprises of this year’s London Jazz Festival. And the hauntingly beautiful “Orion”, from the new album, is likely to be one of my tracks of the year.

* The picture of Plaistow — left to right: Cyril Bondi, Johann Bourquenez, Vincent Ruiz — was taken by Raphaëlle Mueller.

 

Abdullah Ibrahim at 80

EkayaAbdullah Ibrahim opened last night’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall with the sort of extended solo-piano reverie for which he has long been celebrated, dipping reflectively in and out of various themes, occasionally hinting at the beautifully harmonised hymn tunes that bring such balm to his listeners’ hearts. Then the great South African did something completely different, introducing a new trio in which he is joined by Cleave Guyton on flute and clarinet and Noah Jackson on cello.

For the next half an hour or so they performed a series of gentle miniatures, containing little improvisation but concentrating on the close inspection of a limited tonal palette when applied to an equally restricted emotional range: the tempos were slow to medium, the dynamic range seldom venturing beyond a polite murmur. It was like walking slowly past a series of small, pale-hued watercolours of the same landscape, viewed from slightly different vantage points. That doesn’t sound very exciting. But it contained enough of Ibrahim’s seed to hold the attention, even in the occasional moments when the intonation of the cellist or the clarinetist wavered slightly.

The second half of this EFG London Jazz Festival concert saw the three men (with Guyton switching to alto saxophone and Jackson moving to double bass) joined by the other members of the latest edition of Ekaya, the septet whose membership has shifted on a fairly regular basis since Ibrahim created it around 30 years ago: Andrae Murchison (trombone), Lance Bryant (tenor saxophone), Marshall McDonald (baritone saxophone) and Will Terrill (drums).

The concert had been introduced by a Radio London presenter who promised the audience that they were in for a helping of townships jazz, suggesting that dancing would be on the agenda. But that is not what Ekaya do. Their music is characterised by an air of restraint that guides its lyrical exploration of the timbres created by the combination of its four horns.

It was fascinating to hear the softly stabbing figures of “Nisa” played by this line-up, in which Bryant occasionally stepped forward to reveal himself as a front-rank improviser of concise inventiveness and great authority. Confounding stereotypes, the stealthy “Calypso Minor” — which first appeared in Ibrahim’s soundtrack for Claire Denis’s 1990 film No Fear, No Die (S’en fou  la mort) — could have been something cooked up by, say, Johnny Mandel for a Hollywood thriller in the 1950s.

At times throughout the set there were hints of the bejewelled miniatures created by Ellington’s small groups of the ’30s. And when the rhythm section laid out on an acapella version of “The Wedding”, the mind turned back to the horns-only version of “Abide With Me” recorded by Thelonious Monk. In his brief piano opening to the encore, as if to reaffirm his allegiances, Ibrahim alluded briefly to Monk’s “Crepuscule With Nellie” and Ellington’s introduction to “Take the ‘A’ Train”.

Like all great jazz musicians, Abdullah Ibrahim metastasised the sources of his inspiration in the process of developing his own voice. At 80 he remains one of the most powerful and distinctive composer-performers in jazz, even when the dancing is being done in your head.

Mingus fingers

Whahay 1About 20 minutes into Whahay’s set at the Vortex last night, Paul Rogers dug out a small steel cylinder and slipped it over the little finger of his left hand. A few seconds later he was playing bottleneck double bass: a fantastic sound.

It helped that he was playing his seven-string instrument, a beautiful thing with sloping shoulders, custom-built for him by a luthier in Nîmes. The fifth string is where the extra string on a five-string bass can usually be found, tuned to B, a fourth below the lowest string on a conventional instrument. The sixth and seventh are at the upper end of the register, tuned to C and F. It also has 14 sympathetic strings, set longitudinally under the bridge and the tailpiece.

The result bears some resemblance to a medieval viola da gamba, or the Italian viola bastarda of the 16th and 17th centuries. And in Rogers’ hands it can sound not just like a contrabass but like a cello, a lute, an oud, a finger-picked acoustic guitar, and sometimes — when he grips the strings with the fingers of both hands before wrenching them violently away in opposite directions — like an explosion in a factory making industrial-strength rubber bands.

Rogers moved to London from his native Chester in the mid-’70s and was regular on the British improvising scene, notably in various groups with Keith Tippett, John Stevens, Elton Dean and others, for more than a decade before moving first to the US and then to France, where he has lived since 1992 (currently in Le Mans). He had the seven-string bass made because he wanted something lighter and more travel-friendly than his usual instrument, but it has given him an enlarged vocabulary that is brilliantly displayed in the context of his current group.

Whahay is a trio in which Rogers is joined by the tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Robin Fincker, who was born in France but has lived for several years in London, where he is a member of the Loop Collective, and the drummer Fabien Duscombs, who first met Fincker when they were both studying in Toulouse. Their newly released debut album applies the techniques of free improvisation to the music of Charles Mingus, a project they’ve been working on for a couple of years.

Here’s a way of describing their sound and approach. If you drew a line from Mingus’s Blues & Roots to Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, and called the distance x, and then continued the line until it reached Whahay, the distance between the first and third points would be something like 2.5x. That’s an attempt to explain the method by which Mingus’s tunes — including “Better Git It In Your Soul”, “Bird Calls”, “Ecclusiastics” and “Pithencanthropus Erectus” — are subjected not just to extreme abstraction but to the extended instrumental techniques that have evolved since Ayler’s heyday in the mid-’60s.

The album is terrific, but the gig was an absolute monster. After a slightly muted start, in which they sounded unexpectedly pastoral (more like a Jimmy Giuffre trio than an Ayler band), the three musicians hit their stride and didn’t pause for an hour, moving in and out of time, slipping easily from three-way conversations to duos to monologues, picking up cues with near-telepathic perception and showing how far they have advanced their interplay since the album was recorded in the spring.

Duscombs is an unusual player who seems constantly intent on taking his kit by surprise: his sticks appear to recoil from the playing surfaces, pulling the sound out of the startled drums and cymbals rather than hammering it in. Fincker, the least obviously assertive member of the group, is a hugely resourceful improviser who always found something interesting to add. Rogers was consistently astonishing in his combination of physicality and delicacy, whether sawing away with his big German bow or using all his fingers to tap out a filigree of shimmering harmonics.

What would Mingus have thought of it all? He was notoriously sceptical of free music. One summer’s day in 1972, over lunch at a table outside a cafe in Shepherd Market, he gave me a version of his standard line: “Some painters draw seriously, they draw precise lines and certain perspectives that correspond with something you’ve seen before. Then you get guys who throw paint at a canvas, throw some sand on top of it, and they say they paint. Some people let monkeys and little children use their fingers on it, and they call it good painting.” He looked up from his oxtail soup and glared at me. “It’s time for guys like you to decide what you want: bullshit, or something real.”

What Paul Rogers, Robin Fincker and Fabien Duscombs did last night was real enough. I think Mingus would have loved it.

* Whahay is distributed in the UK by the Babel label.

Blue Note at 75

Blue Note favouritesThis morning’s Guardian carried a prominent story announcing a collaboration between the record producer Mark Ronson and the novelist Michael Chabon, accompanied by a photograph of the two men casually posing against a display of Blue Note album covers: a couple of early Hank Mobleys, Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin’ and Dial ‘S’ for Sonny, and Kenny Dorham’s Afro-Cuban, all conferring a sense of impeccable cool. All very collectible, too, in their first-pressing incarnations. One of those Mobleys — this one — apparently went for $5,600 in an auction not long ago.

Blue Note albums always seemed like pieces of art as well as a delivery system for great music. Francis Wolff’s fine photographs and the brilliant eye of the designer Reid Miles were combined with the use of thick card for the sleeves and, for the pressings, what seemed like twice as much unadulterated vinyl as the label’s competitors in order to enhance the sound lovingly captured by the microphones of Rudy Van Gelder. Something like Joe Henderson’s Page One or Grachan Moncur III’s Some Other Stuff has a special charisma; you know it when you look at it and you feel it when you hold it; actually listening to it is almost a bonus.

I’m not obsessive about such things myself, but it never surprises me that others happily devote themselves to the minutiae of Blue Note’s label copy, inner sleeves and run-off groove inscriptions. These albums are beautiful and precious artefacts, demanding the appreciation of the eye and the mind as well as the ears. And that’s certainly how I feel about the half-dozen I’ve assembled above, each a personal favourite from the label’s golden age (and all but one, I think, a first pressing…). A list of others for which I harbour a special fondness would include Sam Rivers’ Fuschia Swing Song, The Prophetic Herbie Nichols Vols 1 & 2, Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer, Stanley Turrentine and the Three Sounds’ Blue Hour, Lee Morgan’s Tom Cat and Sonic Boom, Larry Young’s Into Somethin’, Tina Brooks’s True Blue and Back to the Tracks, Grant Green’s Street of Dreams, Horace Silver’s Blowin’ the Blues Away, Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music and Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond. And about a hundred more.

Blue Note celebrates its 75th birthday this year, commemorating the initial success of Alfred Lion, a young German Jew who had recently left Berlin for New York, in persuading two great boogie-woogie pianists, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, to make the first recordings for the company whose name he had registered in March 1939. Before the end of the year Lion was joined by Francis Wolff, a friend from Berlin and another refugee from the Nazis. Together they gradually built a label that would become a pillar of jazz, a symbol of the music at its most fully realised.

Uncompromising Expression is Richard Havers’ illustrated biography of the label, published this week. The author — a consultant to the Universal group, the current owners of the catalogue — tells the story from boogie-woogie and Sidney Bechet through Thelonious Monk and Clifford Brown, Art Blakey and Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith and Lou Donaldson, Lee Morgan and Tina Brooks, Herbie Hancock and Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, Stanley Turrentine and Baby Face Willette, Jackie McLean and Andrew Hill, all the way to the present day of Norah Jones, Robert Glasper, Gregory Porter and Ambrose Akinmusire. If it’s not as deep and detailed as the late Richard Cook’s Blue Note history, published in 2001, its physical form is quite different from that modestly proportioned and text-dominated volume.

A Blue Note album has a special charisma, and Havers’ designer does a wonderful job of reflecting Reid Miles’s graphic genius in the large-format layout of the book. Among the most stunning pages are the early spreads consisting of dozens of sleeves, grouped together by some of Miles’s favourite visual themes: the moody combination of blue and green type against a black background, the use of brash typography and brutally cropped photographs against white, the occasional fondness for scarlet. There are also pages from Lion’s session notebooks and several of Wolff’s contact sheets.

Perhaps it’s not the book for people whose primary interest lies in tracking down copies of the original vinyl albums with the 47 W. 63rd Street address on the sleeve or the “RVG” stamp on the run-out. For the rest, including those of us happy to mop up this great music for £3 a time on CD at Fopp, it’s one of the treats of the year.

* Richard Havers’ Uncompromising Expression is published by Thames & Hudson (£48). Havers will be talking to Don Was, the label’s current president, on November 22 at the South Bank Centre as part of the EFH London Jazz Festival (tickets here). That night at the Festival Hall a celebratory concert features representatives of the label’s current roster, including Robert Glasper and Jason Moran.

Heavy makes you happy

Hedvig MollestadWhen it comes to heavy rock, I draw the line at Jimi Hendrix and the first Vanilla Fudge album: that’s a frontier beyond which I do not choose to venture. But a late-night gig at the Berlin Jazz Festival last weekend persuaded me that the Hedvig Mollestad Trio have found a way to make head-banging feel good.

Mollestad, a guitarist with a Valkyrie’s blonde tresses and a sparkly red mini-dress, studied musicology at the University of Oslo before spending five years at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Evidently all that academic training didn’t get in the way of a desire to turn her amp up to 11. She and her trio — Ellen Brekken on bass and Ivar Loe Bjornstad on drums — wail away with such intensity and at such volume that ear-plugs were being offered at the entrance: a first for a jazz gig, in my experience.

I left my hearing unprotected, and I was glad I had. The conditions were ideal: a smallish darkened room with a bar and lots of standing room. It reminded me of the Marquee in the late ’60s, and so did the music — in a good way. The sound of Mollestad’s band might be that of heavy rock, the sort of thing that evolved from the British blues scene of the mid-’60s, but the heart is very different. Yes, there are riffs, but they’re not just riffs. Best of all, nobody tries to sing on top of such a hurricane of sound. And although this is a genre powerfully associated — thanks to a generation of British rockers — with gothic gloom, the trio make it sound like enormous fun (their energy is vivacious rather than bludgeoning), while making it clear that they’re serious about finding a new direction in which to take this music.

Mollestad met Brekken and Bjornstad during her time at the Academy, and all three bring to their work not just a high degree of technical command but a collective sense of imagination and, yes, subtlety. The leader uses her effects pedals to the full, but there’s always something wild and worthwhile happening in her solos, demonstrating a phenomenal deftness and gift for detail. Brakken plays both electric and acoustic basses with an impressive physicality, and it’s amusing that she drives the band just as hard on the latter instrument. Bjornstad can start a solo like a regular rock drummer, but then he flicks a switch and plays something of which Billy Higgins or Frank Butler would be proud. When they play a ballad, they’re so quiet that you strain forward to catch every nuance, as if that were Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian up there on the stage.

I wrote about Tony Williams’ Lifetime in a piece on Jack Bruce a week or so back, and that’s the group of which, in some respects, they remind me — along with the early Experience, just a bit. Not at that level of invention, unsurprisingly, but on the right path. Others have made comparisons with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Motorhead and Black Sabbath, but I don’t hear those, except in the very crudest terms. I suppose the Trio of Doom, which briefly united Williams, McLaughlin and Jaco Pastorius in 1979, might be a point of comparison, but Mollestad’s band are much less egocentric and actually more genuinely creative within the form.

What’s particularly interesting is to hear this kind of music, traditionally associated with male guitar-hero posturing, completely stripped of its machismo while retaining every ounce of what I suppose one can only call its heaviness. And, naturally, all the better for it.

They’re supporting McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension at the EFG London Jazz Festival on November 20. I don’t expect the Festival Hall will provide as helpful an environment as a small dark room packed with fans, but they’ll give the great man some competition.

* The photograph of Hedvig Mollestad is © Per Ole Hagen. It is used by permission of the photographer, and all rights are reserved. It’s one of a set that can be seen on his website: http://artistpicturesblog.com.

Pieces of Robert Wyatt

The Amazing BandWhen I read, in the new issue of Uncut magazine, that Robert Wyatt has decided to stop making music, I felt an immediate pang of dismay. So I rang him up to see if he really meant it. His reply was to tell me a little story about the novelist Jean Rhys, who, after a long period of inactivity, responded to her publisher’s gentle suggestion that she might like to write another book by asking him if he’d enjoyed her last one. “Yes, of course,” he answered. “Well, read it again,” Rhys said.

We could all do a lot worse than work our way through Robert’s albums, starting with 1970’s End of an Ear, which includes his fabulous deconstruction of Gil Evans’s “Las Vegas Tango”, and concluding with 2010’s magnificent ‘…for the ghosts within’, on which he shares the credit with the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and the violinist/arranger Ros Stephen. And we could cherish memories of live performances stretching, in my case, from the Soft Machine at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls in 1970 to Robert’s guest appearance — singing and whistling on “Rado de Nube” and playing cornet on “Song for Che” — with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra as part of Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown season at the Festival Hall in 2009.

We can also read Marcus O’Dair’s Different Every Time, an “authorised biography” of Robert, published today. Diligently researched and sympathetically told, it gives us the best all-round view we’re likely to get of the man who came to attention baring his torso behind a drum kit with Soft Machine everywhere from UFO to the Proms before the accident in 1973, at the age of 28, that cost him the use of his legs and propelled him into a different sort of existence, the one that produced Rock Bottom, “I’m a Believer”, Ruth is Stranger than Richard, “Shipbuilding”, “At Last I Am Free”, Old Rottenhat, Dondestan, Shleep and Comicopera, as well as collaborations with the likes of Carla Bley, Brian Eno, the Raincoats, Scritti Politti, Hot Chip and many others, most of them listed in O’Dair’s discography.

I say “most of them” because I’ve noticed an omission: a 1970 session with the Amazing Band, featuring the great cartoonist/illustrator Mal Dean on trumpet, Rab Spall on violin and accordion, Maia Spall on voice, Mick Brennan and Chris Francis on alto saxophones, Jim Mullen on bass and harmonica and Wyatt on drums and voice. Soon after they recorded it, Robert gave me an acetate of the proposed album, with a sleeve he’d made up himself, featuring the collage you see above. It wasn’t until 1997 that the music — just under 40 minutes of free improvisation — finally saw the light of day, released under the title Roar on the FMR label.

I listened to the acetate again last night and it remains a lovely example of the kind of open-minded, non-idiomatic, anti-materialistic music that was in the air back then. And still is, if you look hard enough. I’m sorry, of course, that seemingly there won’t be any more of it from Robert himself. But what he’s given us is quite enough to be going on with.

* Different Every Time is published by Serpent’s Tail (£20). Robert Wyatt will be talking to Marcus O’Dair at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on November 23, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

Jack Bruce 1943-2014

Jack BruceIt was around two o’clock in the morning, and a few minutes earlier the band called VSOP — Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams — had just finished playing to an audience of record industry folk in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. The occasion was the 1977 Columbia Records international sales convention, and the salesmen’s minds had been elsewhere, following their bodies out into the night as the performance went on. Few were left by the time the set ended.

The restroom door swung open. A short figure lurched out and stumbled straight into me. His eyes took a couple of seconds to focus before he recognised someone he had met a handful of times. “You used to be Richard Williams,” he said. “I used to be Jack Bruce.”

And now, following the announcement of his death today, at the age of 71, he really did used to be Jack Bruce. Here was a musician whose achievements now seems mind-boggling in their stylistic breadth. Who else spanned such a range of music — from Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” to Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill — in those years when a generation of young players, bursting with creative energy, were spending their lives venturing into uncharted territory?

The further out Jack got, the more compelling I found him. When I saw Cream on their first go-round of clubs, I couldn’t hear anything interesting. For me, that didn’t change. But the John Burch Octet of 1963: now that was a band, especially if you were fond of Blues & Roots-era Charles Mingus. They never released a record, but just before he died eight years ago Burch gave me a precious cassette of a couple of BBC broadcasts they made.

With Jack on double bass, Peter “Ginger” Baker on drums, Burch himself on piano, Mike Falana on trumpet, John Mumford on trombone, Graham Bond on alto saxophone, Stan Robinson on tenor (depping for Dick Heckstall-Smith) and “Miff” Moule on baritone, they played Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'”, Oliver Nelson’s “Going Up North” (from Afro-American Sketches), Jimmy Heath’s “All Members”, Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford”, Sam Jones’s “Del Sasser”, Burch’s own “Nightwalk” and, best of all, Ginger’s wild arrangement of the prison work song “Early in the Mornin'”, first heard with the edition of Blues Incorporated in which most of the octet also appeared.

A couple of years later there was the amazing album by the pianist Mike Taylor, Trio, on which Bruce and Ron Rubin shared the bass duties: sometimes together, sometimes alternating. Taylor’s conception was that of an English Dick Twardzik, abstract and cerebral even on standards like “All the Things You Are” and “The End of a Love Affair”, and Jack was the perfect fit.

When I interviewed him a few years later, he’d made his fortune and there was a very nice Ferrari Daytona parked outside his manager’s office. But nothing could stop him joining Tony Williams’ Lifetime, a band who were never going to fill stadiums, even though they played two of the loudest (in terms of decibels per cubic foot) and most powerful gigs I’ve ever heard. The first, before Bruce joined, was in the early weeks of 1970 at a club called Ungano’s in New York. As Williams, John McLaughlin and Larry Young shook the walls, Miles Davis slouched elegantly at the bar, checking out his protégés.

In October of that year, with Bruce on board, Lifetime played a British tour. I went to see them at the Marquee with Robert Fripp, and we spent the evening glancing at each other in wonderment as the storm raged through the club, threatening to strip the black paint from the walls. I don’t believe the sheer ferocity of it, the unstoppable outpouring, the brutal intensity and sometimes ecstatic interplay, could ever be recreated. Sadly, their records didn’t even begin to tell the story.

The Berlin variations

Dylan Howe 2Dylan Howe and his band wrapped up their short tour in front of a full house at Warwick University’s Arts Centre last night, performing the versions of David Bowie’s Berlin-era instrumentals heard on the drummer’s excellent new CD, Subterranean. Only the pianist Ross Stanley remained from the recording line-up; for the tour, he and Howe were joined by Andy Sheppard (soprano and tenor saxophones), Steve Lodder (synthesiser) and Dave Whitford (double bass), creating a compact line-up fully capable of the subtlety and range of gesture demanded by the project. And the timing could hardly have been better, given that Bowie himself has just revealed an intriguing and vaguely jazzical track called “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”, the result of a collaboration with Maria Schneider’s big band.

The instrumentals adapted for Subterranean from Low and Heroes — among them “Neuköln”, “Warszawa” and “Moss Garden” — happen to represent the Bowie I like best, and Howe’s arrangements work with the original moods through careful use of texture (often via the restrained employment of Lodder’s Korg) while opening them up to thoughtful improvisation. Sheppard responded like the master he now is, never straining for a climax as he unfurled his variations, and Stanley’s solos displayed a lovely open-hearted lyricism. Whitford, a member of the new generation of bassists who decline to show off, made a telling contribution both in support and as a soloist.

Above and behind the players, a screen showed evocative Cold War-era documentary footage of West and East Berlin. The visual counterpoint slightly lost its freshness in the second half, when the same sequences were reshuffled, but at the end of two hour-long sets the audience responded with great — and, for the drummer-leader, surely very gratifying — enthusiasm.

* Dylan Howe’s Subterraneans at Warwick Arts Centre (left to right): Steve Lodder, Ross Stanley, Dave Whitford, Andy Sheppard, Howe.

 

Remembering Laura Nyro

Laura Nyro 1Laura Nyro had missed her intended flight from New York to London, forcing her to take a plane that arrived at six o’clock in the morning. Now here she was, barely 12 hours later, warming up before recording a performance before an invited audience in a small auditorium at the BBC’s Television Centre, for a series called In Concert.

This was in May 1971, three months after she had made her British debut at the Royal Festival Hall, giving a solo concert in which the first set was performed by her then boyfriend, Jackson Browne, who was also appearing in the UK for the first time. It had been a wonderful recital: she started with “Stoney End”, included “Timer”, “Been on a Train”, “Emmie”, “Map to the Treasure” and “Christmas in My Soul”, read a poem called “Coal Truck”, and finished with a lovely medley of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Spanish Harlem”. Such range, such composure, such deep connection with her audience seemed exceptional in one who was still only 23 years old.

Now here she was, getting ready for the BBC’s cameras, in a voluptuously flowing mauve and lilac dress with lace half-sleeves: a typically dramatic costume. As she sat at the piano, I was struck by the way that she could turn her head to look like at one moment like a exquisitely soulful contessa from a Velasquez painting and at the next like a lusty young maid from one of Chaucer’s tales.

As well as her manager of the time, Richard Chiaro, there was a new boyfriend along for the ride. “You’ve got to sit somewhere I can see you,” she told him. But a few minutes later she was scolding him for singing along while she ran through some of her numbers.

In such an intimate setting, the evening was unforgettable: opening with a medley in which “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” sandwiched “Natural Woman”, she sang “Buy and Sell”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, the then-unrecorded “I Am the Blues”, “Christmas in My Soul”, a medley of “Timer”, “Ooo Child” and “Up on the Roof”, and “Mother Earth”; she delivered “Stoney End” as an encore. It was transmitted on BBC2, but in the intervening years it seems to have vanished. Long ago I asked Alan Yentob, a senior arts person at the corporation, to see if he could unearth it, but there was no trace.

It was 23 years later, in November 1994, that Laura made her final British appearance, accompanied by her three backing singers in the ideal 19th century Gothic environment of the Union Chapel in Islington. The set finished with her lovely version of “Walk on By”. And then she was gone, to be carried away by ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49.

She remains a powerful and enduring presence among those who fell under the spell of her extraordinary talent. One of those fans is Billy Childs, an American jazz pianist — known for his work with Freddie Hubbard and Dianne Reeves, among others — who has just released an album called Map to the Treasure, on Sony’s Masterworks label, in which his arrangements of 10 Nyro songs are delivered by different singers.

It’s a risky undertaking. Nyro’s first success came with other people’s versions of her songs (the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues”, Blood Sweat & Tears’ “And When I Die”, Barbra Streisand’s “Stoney End”, Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”), but it didn’t take long for her listeners to realise that the composer’s own versions far outstripped those of her interpreters. Nyro’s full-strength personality suffused her writing, as became apparent in her two masterpiece albums, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969), and their successors. Only she could properly explore the duality of the Madonna/streetchild persona (which she encouraged through her choice of jacket photos for those two albums). So to attempt cover versions at this stage of the game might seem otiose. Who, after all, can add anything new to such cherished pieces as “The Confession” and “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”?

Amazingly, Childs manages it — not by attempting to match or emulate the raw, romantic power of the originals, but by looking for facets of the songs to which he can apply his considerable resources, and by recruiting a group of singers who do not set out to sound like Nyro but bring their own voices, along with an unmistakeable admiration for the source of the material.

A string quartet appears on every track, with guests soloists featured alongside the singers: Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone with Esperanza Spalding on “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”, Chris Botti’s trumpet with Shawn Colvin on “Save the Country”, Steve Wilson’s alto saxophone with Susan Tedeschi on “Gibsom Street”, and Jerry Douglas’s dobro with Alison Krauss on “And When I Die”. Childs is the pianist throughout, supported by the impeccable rhythm team of Scott Colley (double bass) and Brian Blade (drums).

Childs jumps in straight at the deep end by opening the album with “New York Tendaberry”, one of Nyro’s most personal songs, delivered by the operatic soprano Renée Fleming and the cellist Yo Yo Ma. So right away you know we’re not in for a set of mere recreations. The beauty of Fleming’s tone and the sensitive formality of her phrasing takes the piece away from Nyro’s uptown-soul sensibility and into a different dimension.

That’s one of the highlights. Another comes straight afterwards, with Becca Stevens’s equally poised but comparatively uncorseted tilt at “The Confession”. At the centre of the whole thing, in structural and emotional terms, is Rickie Lee Jones: out of all the singers in the project, she is the one who most resembles Nyro in style and delivery (and, as she has often said, is most influenced by her), making her perfectly suited to bring out the tragedy of “Been on a Train”, helped by a most imaginative arrangement for the string quartet. Her presence makes me wish Childs had also called upon Mary Margaret O’Hara, the other singer I think of as an heir to Nyro’s legacy.

But once you get the measure of what Childs is up to, there isn’t a bad track here. What he gives us is a beautifully conceived and meticulously executed song cycle, a fitting tribute to one of the most original and gifted artists of our time. Yes, it’s polished thing, far more polished than Nyro’s own records ever were, but that polish is no superficial gloss: it’s the patina of a profound respect. And beneath it beats the heart of an extraordinary woman.

Laura Nyro BBC ticket

* The photograph of Laura Nyro comes from the cover of her 1984 album Mother’s Spiritual and was taken by Irene Young. The ticket for the 1971 BBC TV concert is mine. Anyone who loves Nyro’s music and hasn’t already read Michele Kort’s excellent biography — Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, published by Thomas Dunne Books in the US in 2002 — should do so. And here, for free, is a link to an interesting piece by an academic, Patricia S. Rudden, from a 2006 edition of the newsletter of the Emily Dickinson Society (you’ll need to scroll down to the third page). Clips of Nyro on YouTube tend to get taken down quickly, but here’s a beauty: her performance of “Poverty Train” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, giving the lie (despite a lame band of session men) to the myth that it was a total disaster. And here’s a real oddity from 1969.

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