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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Mike Westbrook’s Bigger Show

The Uncommon Orchestra image 1The great English jazz composer and bandleader Mike Westbrook turns 80 next month — on March 21, to be exact. His long career is studded with extended works of great ambition and achievement: Marching Song, Metropolis, Citadel/Room 315, The Westbrook BlakeThe Cortège (his masterpiece, for my money), On Duke’s Birthday, London Bridge Is Broken Down, Mama Chicago, and others. What began in the late 1960s as a distinctively Westbrookian conception of jazz — with undertones of the approach Ellington and Mingus took to blending composition and improvisation — was broadened by an engagement with street theatre and brass bands, and by a collaboration with his wife, the singer and librettist Kate Westbrook, on pieces that reflected the influence of Berlin theatre song and British music hall.

And now there’s another magnum opus to celebrate. A Bigger Show is a piece in eight sections, lasting almost two hours, performed by Westbrook’s latest large ensemble, the Uncommon Orchestra, a 21-piece unit based around his home in Devon. Due to its size, it doesn’t often show its face. But last summer a recording of the piece was made at Exeter’s Barnfield Theatre, and the results — produced by Jon Hiseman — are out now on a 2CD set.

The suite was inspired by the old St Bartholomew’s Day fair, which took place in Smithfield, in the City of London, continuously between the 12th and 19th centuries until it was closed down in 1855 on the grounds of excessive rowdiness and debauchery. Back in 1975 Westbrook’s Brass Band took part in a production of Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair, and the idea grew into its present incarnation.

Once again the Westbrooks’ vision of modern life finds powerful expression in a work featuring rousing and often turbulent ensemble work with instrumental solos of real substance from such familiar figures as Alan Wakeman on soprano and tenor saxophones and Dave Holdsworth on pocket trumpet and Sousaphone, and newer names like the altoist Roz Harding, the trumpeter Sam Massey and the tenorist Gary Bayley. As has been the case with Mike Westbrook since the beginning of his career, the improvisations emerge from the arrangements in an organic and dramatically satisfying way — the work of composer who has paid close (but never imitative) attention to the lessons handed out by Ellington, Mingus and Gil Evans.

The tone is variously raucous and tender, celebratory and scathing. Kate Westbrook’s lyrics, sung by herself, Martine Waltier and Billy Bottle, are etched in acid (particularly in a song satirising the social media). Human nature and human behaviour, they suggest, are little altered since the days of Blake and Hogarth: in an era when the gap between affluence and poverty is widening rapidly, only the superficial symptoms of excess and deprivation differ.

All this is achieved with a courage, a vigour and a generosity of spirit always characteristic of Mike Westbrook’s work. A Bigger Show is ambitious, thought-provoking, and exhilarating; when it ends, you feel as though you’ve been on a journey. Perhaps one day his extended pieces will be acclaimed as belonging among the most acutely relevant cultural artefacts of our time. Until then, here’s a new one to treasure.

* A Bigger Show is released on ASC Records. Westbrook and the Uncommon Orchestra will perform the piece at the Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton on April 1, Kings Place in London on May 20, and the Plough Arts Centre in Torrington on June 10.

Larry Young rediscovered

Larry Young 4When a friend asked me this week to name the most memorable gig I’ve ever attended, I could answer him in a heartbeat: the Tony Williams Lifetime at the Marquee on October 6, 1970. Nothing has ever felt more like the future exploding in the audience’s ears.

The organist Larry Young was a part of that band, along with John McLaughlin on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass guitar and Williams on drums. Earlier in the year I’d heard them at Ungano’s, a New York club, without Bruce but with Miles Davis leaning against the bar in a tan suede patchwork suit, listening intently, his silver Lamborghini Miura parked at the kerb outside on West 70th Street.

In such places, i.e. clubs with a capacity of around 200, Lifetime were mercilessly volcanic. And Young, the least-known member of the band, was a vital component of a sound that surged and howled and crashed off the walls.

This was no real surprise to those who’d heard his run of Blue Note albums, which started in 1965 with the release of Into Somethin’, on which he was joined by Sam Rivers (tenor), Grant Green (guitar) and Elvin Jones (drums). It’s one of those great recordings, like Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond, Grachan Moncur III’s Some Other Stuff, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure and Sam Rivers’ Fuchsia Swing Song, with which the label made a bridge between hard bop and the avant-garde, creating an inside-outside music that satisfied all kinds of demands.

Young came up in R&B bands, and it might have been expected that he would simply follow the example of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, John Patton, Freddie Roach, Baby Face Willette and all the other Hammond exponents whose playing was strongly influenced by the organ’s traditional role in gospel music. Young’s playing was soulful, certainly, but he steered absolutely clear of cliché. His chosen tone was rounder and softer than that preferred by most of his peers, although it lacked nothing in attack; his nimbleness around the B3 keyboard was unexampled, enabling him to absorb the influence of the new music, and he could more than hold his own alongside McLaughlin and Williams at their most ferocious (listen to “Spectrum” from the first Lifetime album, Emergency!, which is much better than its reputation might suggest, and where, before Bruce’s arrival, he is still using his pedals to supply the bass line).

Miles Davis had included him in the Bitches Brew sessions in 1969, and he had jammed with Hendrix the same year (a track released on Nine to the Universe) shortly before joining Williams’s project. I last saw him in a revamped version of Lifetime at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1971, with Ted Dunbar on guitar and Juni Booth on bass: a much less overwhelming proposition.

By that time he had renamed himself Khalid Yasin. He died in 1978, in slightly mysterious circumstances. Complaining of stomach pains, he checked himself into a hospital, but died there, apparently of untreated pneumonia. He was 37 years old and had just signed a contract with Warner Brothers.

Any new evidence of his talent, then, is to be welcomed, and the 2-CD set titled Larry Young in Paris is a real gift. Recorded in sessions for the ORTF radio network in 1965, the majority of the tracks at the station’s studios but others at the Locomotive night club, it presents him in generally favourable circumstances, with sidemen including the trumpeter Woody Shaw, the tenorist Nathan Davis and the drummers Billy Brooks and Franco Manzecchi.

The music is hard-swinging post-bop spiced with a strong Coltrane influence, signalled by the titles of two compositions: Davis’s “Trane of Thought” and Young’s “Talkin’ About J.C.” (which he had recorded the previous year on Grant Green’s Talkin’ About). More conventional than anything Lifetime attempted, these 105 minutes of music nevertheless offer an extended view of his brilliant melodic imagination and the great sense of swing evident in his comping for the other soloists. Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile” and Shaw’s “Zoltan” (which also appeared in a studio version on Young’s Unity) are among the tracks that inspire burning solos from Shaw and Davis. You can hear the music’s gathering sense of adventure starting to strain the seams of the players’ Italian suits.

Issued by Resonance Records with a well edited booklet featuring a great deal of valuable material from the sons of Young and Shaw, plus interviews with Dr Lonnie Smith and Bill Laswell, some background on the Paris scene, and photography by Francis Wolff and Jean-Pierre Leloir, this is a really wonderful discovery.

* The photograph of Larry Young was taken outside the ORTF studios by Francis Wolff.

Matana Roberts in Alphabet City

The StoneMatana Roberts was reminiscing about the first time she played with the great bassist Henry Grimes. It was during the New York blackout of 2004, when she was scheduled to appear at the Jazz Gallery with a group including Grimes and the pianist Vijay Iyer. She had been travelling on the L train from her home in Queens, and it had  just emerged from the tunnel under the East River when all power vanished across the length and breadth of the city.

The passengers were allowed to get out and clamber up to the surface, and she set off to cross Manhattan to the club, which in those days had its home on the west side. She got there to discover that she and Grimes were the only members of the band who had made it to Hudson Street. In response to the situation, they played duets for stranded workers. Afterwards she walked all the way back to Queens. “I would never wear heels again,” she said. “You never know when you might have to walk home.”

She told the story on Sunday, the last night of the season she was curating at the Stone, John Zorn’s bare-bones performance space in Alphabet City, on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street (seen in the photograph above). Twice nightly for six days, with a different line-up for each show, she invited groups varying in size from three to six members to improvise together for an hour or so. I made it to four of the shows, and some of the musicians I missed included the pianists Myra Melford and Jason Moran, the flautist Nicole Mitchell, the cellist Tomeka Reid, the trumpeter Peter Evans and the guitarist Liberty Ellman.

The first show I caught featured Roberts with Iyer and the koto player Miya Masaoka, creating three-part inventions of great delicacy and intricacy, the set culminating in a short piece in which they discovered a swelling, hymn-like lyricism. The following night I was impressed by the contributions of the trumpeters Nate Wooley, in the first set, and Forbes Graham, in the second.

Roberts was at pains to explain how important this season, first proposed two years ago, was to her. I suspect that the penultimate set, the one that featured a quartet including Grimes, the guitarist Kyp Malone and the drummer Mike Pride, offered particular satisfaction. Malone, she said, was one of the first people she played with after she arrived in New York. Pride had pointed her towards the paid work that kept her going. “And Mr Grimes,” she added, “has been an inspiration for ever.”

With Pride using bells and gongs as well as his regular kit and Malone flicking out fast-moving note clusters while Roberts deployed her throaty tone in a series of powerful incantations, the blend of textures and the rapt mood of the opening passages reminded me that Grimes had been a participant on Pharaoh Sanders’ Tauhid, a favourite (and nowadays somewhat under appreciated) album from 1966. But then the players stepped up their intensity, Roberts responding with passionate cries recalling Albert Ayler. It was a wonderful performance, full of wisdom and empathy, with Grimes — who turned 80 in November — a marvel throughout.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I think very highly of Matana Roberts (I wrote about her last year here and here). At the Stone she led off every performance that I saw with great energy, and listened to her colleagues with the same intensity with which she played. She could be proud of the whole mini-season, but of that hour on Sunday in particular.

Mette Henriette

Mette Henriette 5The fact that Mette Henriette, a young Norwegian saxophonist and composer, has made her recording debut with a double CD might seem to align her with the current phenomenon of “muchness” recently identified by the New York Times‘s Ben Ratliff in his review of 2015, in reference to the popular appetite for such recent large-scale works as the saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s self-explanatory The Epic and the novelist Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy (I’d add the 12-hour reading of Robert Fagles’ Iliad at the Almeida Theatre and the British Museum in August). But the hour and a half of music on Mette Henriette’s two discs consists mostly of a sequence of miniatures, some lasting less than a minute.

The scale of the music isn’t really important. What matters is that it makes an immediate impact, albeit a subtle and sometimes oblique one. Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg — to use her full name — manipulates space and texture like a watercolourist, allowing tones to blend and separate with a sure touch, hinting at melody, harmony and rhythm without getting too explicit about anything.

The first disc is performed by a trio in which she is joined by the pianist Johan Lindvall and the cellist Katrine Schiott. Limpid, restrained and conversational, this is a kind of jazz-inflected chamber music that has distant and almost certainly unconscious roots in the music of the Chico Hamilton Quintet in the 1950s and the Jimmy Giuffre Trio of the early ’60s (the one with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow), although it doesn’t sound remotely like either of them.

So far, so good. But the impact is greatly intensified on the second disc, where Mette Henriette assembles a 13-piece ensemble in which the members of the trio are augmented by trumpet, trombone, three violins, viola, a second cellist, bandoneon and drums (the only names familiar to me being those of the trumpeter Eivind Løning, the drummer Per Oddvar Johansen and the members of the Cikada Quartet). The music they make is quietly ravishing, again often devoid of familiar components but finding a compelling beauty in the juxtaposition of abraded or squeezed sounds. Occasionally space opens for the leader’s saxophone solos, bred amid the culture of free improvisation encouraged by the open-minded conservatory at which she studied in Trondheim. On the eight-minute “I”, the longest track, she demonstrates a wonderful poise as her improvisation unfurls, changing trajectory with a sense of contained drama.

In terms of her arrangements, you never find yourself thinking, “Oh, there’s a string quartet” or “There’s a piece of writing for the horns.” What you’re hearing is an answer to the question she asked herself during her days as a student: “How could I sculpt something that would move the free improvisation in a different direction?” The result is a music that sometimes glows, sometimes rustles, sometimes shimmers, sometimes looms, sometimes evaporates.

“I” and the other long track, the six-minute tone poem “Wind on Rocks”, show that not everything has to be miniaturised and that she can handle a sonnet as well as a haiku. Throughout the album, however, concision and compression are brilliantly exploited. There’s as much music in the one minute and 53 seconds of the track called “Off the Beat” as in some people’s entire albums.

All in all, it’s one of the best things I’ve heard this year — and, as you might have surmised, it’s difficult to describe. So let’s simplify the task with a clumsy but not inaccurate analogy. If Wayne Shorter had been born a woman in Norway around 25 years ago, this is the music he (or rather she) might be making today.

* Mette Henriette: Trio/Ensemble is out now on ECM. The photograph is by Anton Corbijn.

Georgie Fame’s Swan Songs

Georgie Fame Swan SongCan it really be true that, as Georgie Fame intimates, we should take the title of his new album seriously? Swan Songs is credited to “Georgie Fame and the Last Blue Flames”. It is, he says, his final recording. “In the twilight of a long career / When dementia’s all I have to fear / If I ever get to lose these blues / I’ve learned to put my life to better use,” he sings, and the compositions with which he fills the album seem designed to provide both a summary and a valediction.

He sounds like he’s saying goodbye, at the age of 72, with a reasonably light heart. “I did my time with Van the Man / ‘Cos that’s the kind of fool I am,” he tells us in the same song, “The Diary Blues”. The album opens with a fragment of brass band music, which is how he started in his Lancashire youth, and a Caribbean-styled song reminds us of the days of “Humpty Dumpty” and “Dr Kitch”. He pays tribute to the late arranger and composer Steve Gray, a friend with whom he wrote a musical called Singer, in a song called “Gray’s March”, and to his mentor, Mose Allison, in the witty “Mose Knows”.

There’s a lesson in hip phrasing in the way Fame delivers these lines at a rapid tempo, every stressed, stretched and syncopated syllable adding to or adjusting the momentum on the fly: “He’s a country boy / Made his home in the city / At once bold and coy / Sometimes sombre, always witty / And his canny observations put to melody / Were meant to be heard by folks like you and me / A man so wise, indeed a sage / Who never fails to surprise when he walks on stage / You can raise the roof, you can tear it down / Don’t be square, just be there when Mose Allison’s in town…”

The 12 tracks — 10 of them written by Fame — canter through most of the familiar modes, from shuffle to swing, with space for a lovely ballad called “Lost in a Lover’s Dream”. The “Last Blue Flames” — Guy Barker (trumpet), Alan Skidmore (tenor), Anthony Kerr (vibes), Tristan Powell (guitar), Alec Dankworth (bass), James Powell (drums and Ralph Salmins (percussion) — acquit themselves with the customary excellence, particularly on a finger-snapping instrumental piece called “Spin Recovery” which sounds like something Lee Morgan and Lonnie Smith might have cooked up circa 1967.

Many of us will be hoping that this isn’t the end. But if it is, there’s further consolation to be found in the release of The Whole World’s Shaking, a five-CD box containing all Fame’s recordings for the Columbia label between 1963 and 1966, including the albums Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo, Fame at Last, Sound Venture and Sweet Things, plus many singles, EPs, out-takes and BBC broadcasts — 106 tracks in all, very nicely packaged, including a handsome book with an extensive sleeve essay from Chris Welch. I’ve always thought of Fame at Last, with its exquisite version of “Moody’s Mood for Love”, as a perfect album, so it’s good to have it available in this form, with so much else besides, like the moment Colin Green cuts into “Last Night” with the guitar riff from “Nowhere to Run”, or Bill Eyden’s triplet figures on “Green Onions”, or Jimmy Deuchar’s muted trumpet obligato on the gorgeous “Lil’ Darlin'”. Oh, I could go on. I just hope he does.

* Swan Songs is released on Fame’s own Three Line Whip label. The Whole World’s Shaking is on Universal/Polydor. The photograph is taken from the sleeve of the new album.

The Bridge

Sonny Rollins 1I heard Sonny Rollins play his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge once and only once live one afternoon so many years ago I can’t recall the walkway’s colour back then. Definitely not the pale red of my tongue when I wag it at myself each morning in the mirror, the walkway’s colour today at the intersection of Delancey and Clinton Streets where I enter it by passing through monumental stone portals, then under a framework of steel girders that span the 118-foot width of the bridge and display steel letters announcing its name. Iron fences painted cotton-candy pink guard the walkway’s flanks, and just beyond their shoulder-high rails much taller barriers of heavier-gauge steel chicken wire bolted to sturdy steel posts guard the fences. Steel crossbeams, spaced four yards or so apart, form a kind of serial roof over the walkway, too high by about a foot for me to jump up and touch, even on my best days playing hoop…

That’s an early passage from one of the best things I’ve read in a magazine this year, a short story called “Williamsburg Bridge” by John Edgar Wideman. I don’t always buy Harper’s magazine, but I seldom regret it when I do and the November issue was worth all of the €12.50 it cost at an airport news stand last week just for that piece alone, an extended monologue delivered by a man perched high on the bridge, with his back to the water, having removed all his clothes except his undershorts, preparing to jump off while allowing his mind to run through the thoughts that prefaced that decision.

Wideman, aged 74, is a novelist whose past honours include the PEN/Faulkner award and a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called “genius grant”. The several mentions of Sonny Rollins by the protagonist of “Williamsburg Bridge” take me back to the time I first got interested in jazz, around 1960, when Rollins was on his self-imposed sabbatical, reassessing his own work in the light of innovations of John Coltrane and working it all out en plein air on the iron structure over New York’s East River, where he could sometimes be glimpsed (and heard). It was part of an attempt to change his life, a regime that included giving up smoking, practising yoga and studying Eastern religions.

He re-emerged in 1961. The New Yorker‘s Whitney Balliett went to hear him and famously proclaimed: “Sonny Rollins isn’t merely back; he’s looming.” The following year Rollins marked his comeback with a very fine album called The Bridge, which — despite the obvious reference to his unconventional sabbatical — surprised critics by its conservative approach. He was accompanied by the guitarist Jim Hall, the bassist Bob Cranshaw and the drummer Ben Riley on a programme of standards and originals. At a time when Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman had thrown jazz into a ferment, there was no sign here that Rollins had returned to action with a plan to play them at their own game. (That would come a few months later, when he recruited Don Cherry and Billy Higgins into a quartet that adopted some of Coleman’s freedoms.)

The point of this, however, is to recommend Wideman’s story. The reader is never quite sure whether the protagonist — a writer, we learn — is really up there on the bridge, preparing to jump, or perhaps lying safely in his bed visualising the possibility, or even just writing a story about someone readying himself for the act. But, like one of those stream-of-consciousness improvisations in which Rollins used to specialise, scrolling through his thoughts with absolute confidence and unshakeable internal logic, it takes a grip and doesn’t let go.

* You can read the story here:  The photograph of Sonny Rollins is adapted from the cover image of The Bridge, taken by Chuck Stewart.


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.


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