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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Thumbin’ a riff

Jim MullenI could have kicked myself, on arrival at Ronnie Scott’s to see Allen Toussaint a few nights ago,  for misreading the bill and not realising that the evening included an early set featuring a trio led by Jim Mullen, the great Scottish guitarist who was part of the soul band Kokomo and then co-led a fusion band for many years with the late saxophonist Dick Morrissey. The group at Ronnie’s was completed by another guitarist, Nigel Price, and the bassist Mick Hutton. I got there in time to hear only the last couple of choruses of a ballad and a complete “Yardbird Suite”, which closed the set, but that was enough time to appreciate the quality of their interplay, and in particular the appealing contrast between the approaches of Mullen, who has always played with his thumb, and Price, who uses a pick. It was, I suppose, the closest you can get in the 21st century to hearing Wes Montgomery (thumb) jamming with Grant Green (pick).

I was even more annoyed with myself because just a couple of days earlier I’d invested in the new album by the Jim Mullen Organ Trio. It’s called Catch My Drift, it’s released on the Diving Duck label, and it features Mike Gorman on Hammond B3 and Matt Skelton on drums. They play standards (“Deep in a Dream”, “Lonely Town”), the Ellington/Strayhorn “Day Dream”, a couple of Tom Jobim tunes (“Samba de Aviao” and “Esquecendo Voce”), Toots Thielemans’ “For My Lady”, Donald Fagen’s “Maxine”, Chick Corea’s “High Wire”, Georgie Fame’s “Declaration of Love”, and Earth, Wind and Fire’s “You Can’t Hide Love”. Again there’s a Wes Montgomery comparison: the format and the mood are strong reminiscent of the excellent trio with which Montgomery recorded for Riverside in 1959, with the organist Melvin Rhyne and the drummer Paul Parker.

Catch My Drift is not a record that’s going to redraw the boundaries of jazz, but in every other way it’s a beauty. Mullen’s own playing is wonderfully mellow, its air of relaxation almost obscuring its more profound qualities of melodic inventiveness and absolute rhythmic security, while Gorman locates an interesting space between the discreet, economical approach of the aforementioned Rhyne and the more adventurous style of Larry Young. Skelton provides unfailing swing and thoughtful shading; the solo with which he ends “Maxine”, improvising against the organ’s comping, is extremely stimulating, as is his light-fingered workout with the brushes on “Day Dream”.

Mullen, who is now 68, really deserves a lot more credit and attention than he has been given since the end of the Morrissey-Mullen band 25 years ago. The next time I get a chance to hear him in person, I’ll be sure to arrive on time.

(The other good news is that Mullen will be taking part in this year’s Kokomo reunion, along with his fellow guitarist Neil Hubbard, singers Dyan Birch, Paddy McHugh and Frank Collins, Tony O’Malley on keyboards and vocals, Mel Collins on tenor saxophone and Jody Linscott on congas, plus Jennifer Maidman on bass guitar and Ash Soan on drums. They’re playing half a dozen dates in August, including the 100 Club, the Half Moon in Putney and the Richmond Athletic Club.)

* The photograph of Jim Mullen is from the cover of Catch My Drift, and is uncredited.

Georgie Fame: back home in Soho

Georgie Fame 1“I never thought I’d get to sing a Bob Dylan song in Ronnie Scott’s jazz club,” George Fame said tonight, and proceeded to dedicate “Everything Is Broken” to David Cameron’s cabinet. He and his Blue Flames made it sound like a Mose Allison song set to a Horace Silver boogaloo rhythm, an arrangement that worked quite beautifully.

This was the first night of a week’s sold-out residency on Frith Street, and Fame’s serious illness last year meant that it was the first time he and the modern Blue Flames – Guy Barker (trumpet), Alan Skidmore (tenor), Anthony Kerr (vibes), Tristan Powell (guitar), Alec Dankworth (double bass) and James Powell (drums) — had played together in many months. The good news is that the leader was in great form, and that the reunion seemed to have infused the band, which includes his two sons, with a terrific freshness.

Between 1964 and 1966 there was no band I looked forward to seeing visit the Dungeon or the Beachcomber in Nottingham more than this one: the Blue Flames were the coolest of the cool. Put me near a Hammond organ — in my view, an invention to rank with moveable type and penicillin in the history of western civilisation — and I’m not going to stop smiling all night. Back then, the addition of musicians like Eddie Thornton, Mick Eve, Peter Coe, Glenn Hughes, Colin Green, Cliff Barton, Bill Eyden, Mitch Mitchell and Speedy Acquaye guaranteed a blissful experience.

Their successors live up to the legend, and so does Georgie, sprinkling his songs and introductions with anecdotes and references that illustrate his unflagging love of jazz and R&B. There were mentions of Count Suckle’s club on Carnaby Street and of Strickland’s, the jazz record shop on the corner of Old Compton and Dean Streets. Introducing “Preach and Teach” (the B-side of “Yeh Yeh”, the song with which he knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts in 1965), he mentioned its composer, the pianist Johnny Burch, whose wonderful octet — including Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker — happened to be the other featured attraction on the night Fame made his BBC radio debut on Jazz Club. When Dankworth took a lengthy and impassioned solo on the tune, his leader encouraged him with the famous utterances of Charles Mingus on “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me”: “Don’t let them drop it… stop it… bebop it!”

“Moondance”, in an arrangement borrowed from Van Morrison’s great 1993 live album A Night in San Francisco (on which Fame was the organist), cleverly adapted a chorus of “Blue Moon” to the song’s contours, while Barker’s solo made references to Johnny Coles and to Gil Evans’s arrangement of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” for Miles Davis, and Kerr showed how important he is to the band’s overall sound. Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’”, the battle hymn of the soul-jazz era, was given a first outing, with Georgie putting lyrics to Lee Morgan’s trumpet solo from the Jazz Messengers’ version and Barker responding with a dramatic solo of his own, and the singer also quoting from Nat Adderley’s “Work Song”. Introducing Willie Nelson’s “Funny (How Time Slips Away)”, a perennial Fame favourite and the last song of the night, he spoke fondly of the late Denny Cordell, who had produced the version on the 1966 album Sweet Things, the last real Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames album; the current arrangement gives it a mid-tempo Chicago soul feel, allowing the singer to namecheck Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, Billy Stewart, Phil Upchurch and other Windy City greats.

This was a great night on Frith Street, in the old style: a lesson in the kind of authentic hipster cool for which Soho was invented. If somebody were to record the show this week, in the spirit of Fame’s 1963 debut, Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo, they might find themselves with a candidate for the list of all-time great live albums.

* Quite properly, Ronnie Scott’s don’t allow photography while the musicians are performing, but they won’t mind this shot of the stage and Fame’s Hammond organ waiting for the band’s arrival.

Evan Parker w/strings

Evan Parker + 17In Munich for a football match a few years ago, I had a couple of hours to spare in the afternoon and paid a visit to Ludwig Beck, a department store on Marienplatz, the city’s central square. To me it’s a shop remarkable for its vast jazz department, where on the day in question I was able to count no fewer than 72 CDs by the improvising saxophonist Evan Parker: an indication of the esteem in which he is held in some parts of the world.

Tonight at Kings Place in London there was a concert in celebration of Parker’s 70th birthday. (Ten years ago, I interviewed him for the Guardian on the occasion of his 60th: here it is.) Talking to Sebastian Scotney in the current Kings Place magazine, he said this: “I like to have a space with an inspiring and supportive acoustic, a church or a church-like space. What I do in that context is more about intuition than analysis. There are things you try to control, with new combinations of reed behaviour and embouchure and cross-fingering. But that’s the starting point. The complexity of the partials and the overtones and the resonance will always be unique in the moment, and in the particular acoustic of the performance space. The saxophone is such a rich and flexible acoustic source, I will certainly run out of time before I discover all its possibilities.”

The concert featured 18 musicians: Phil Wachsmann, Alison Blunt, Sylvia Hallett and Dylan Bates (violins), Benedict Taylor and Aleksander Kolkowski (violas), Hannah Marshall, Alice Eldridge and Marcio Mattos (cellos), John Edwards, Adam Linson and David Leahy (basses), Django Bates (piano and peck horn), John Russell (guitar), Percy Purseglove (trumpet), John Rangecroft (clarinet), Neil Metcalfe (flute) and Parker himself. The first half consisted of collective improvisations by three quartets and two trios, the most effective of them consisting of Parker on tenor with Edwards and Russell, although Purseglove’s playing with the final quartet (rounded out by Bates, Hallett and Eldridge) sounded like the outstanding individual contribution. But nothing really caught fire: each group featured bowed strings in some form, and there was too little textural variety.

For the second half all 18 musicians were assembled, and it became obvious that what the earlier music had lacked was a bit of mass and density. Parker led off on soprano, chewing up staccato phrases as the rest joined in. There was clearly some form of organisation, although evidently nothing in the way of themes or other notation, and the music gradually assumed tonal and dynamic shapes, sometimes creating an unstated but felt pulse (* see note below).

Again the strings dominated the sound, but the increased heft of the ensemble worked wonders. Occasionally the half-hour piece sounded like a concerto for soprano saxophone and chamber orchestra, but other instruments — notably Metcalfe’s pretty flute, Russell’s scrabbling guitar, Bates’s busy piano and Kolkowski’s weird skeletal viola, with its horn from a wire-recording device attached — periodically worked their way to the fore against the swirls, squalls and slow drift.

Parker dedicated the concert to the memory of John Stevens, the great drummer whom he met in 1966 and with whom he played in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. As he said in his dedication, Stevens was largely responsible for establishing and nurturing London’s free improvisation scene, which remains a vital field of musical research. The evening ended with a short unaccompanied soprano solo, demonstrating the new instrumental language Parker has been developing since those early days at the Little Theatre Club, one that continues to grow in complexity and richness of meaning.

* Alison Blunt read this and got in touch immediately to say that there had been no form of premeditated organisation.

Paul Bley: alone, again

Paul BleyAs a solo pianist, Paul Bley is a bit of a specialised taste. He doesn’t hypnotise like Keith Jarrett at his best or set the nerves jangling like Cecil Taylor, but his performances create a very distinctive universe in which substance triumphs over obvious displays of emotion or virtuosity. Astringent in tone and devoid of mannerisms, they make you listen closer and better. And here comes another one.

It was the appearance of a couple of records by the Canadian in the initial batches of releases from the ECM label at the beginning of the 1970s that persuaded me the new Munich-based independent label would be worth watching. Those albums, Paul Bley with Gary Peacock and Ballads, were trio sessions recorded by Bley himself in New York a few years earlier and entrusted to Manfred Eicher, ECM’s founder. The first Bley album actually recorded under Eicher’s supervision, with Jan Erik Kongshaug at the controls in Oslo’s Arne Bendicksen studio, came out in 1973. Titled Open, To Love, it was an intriguing solo recital of tunes by Bley and two of his former wives, Carla Bley and Annette Peacock.

Bley has since made many albums for other labels, such as SteepleChase, Soul Note and his own IAI imprint, but ECM’s standards of recording and presentation fit him perfectly. In fact I’ve always felt that his personal aesthetic — refined and somewhat austere but not lacking in passion or swing — helped define that of Eicher’s project. His new album, Play Blue, finds him returning to Oslo, but this time to the Kulturkirken Jakob, a 19th century church turned into an arts centre, where this live recording was made in 2008.

He is 81 now and was 76 when the concert took place, but his playing retains all the fine judgement of line and time and the tensile strength that distinguished the work of his earlier years, along with an exquisite and wholly characteristic ability to skirt the fringes of dissonance. If you were to play this and Open, To Love to someone who had never heard him before, I would defy them to say which was by a man in his fourth decade, and which by one in his eighth.

The record consists of four of Bley’s own compositions and an encore of Sonny Rollins’s “Pent-up House”. “Far North” and “Way Down South Suite”, 17 and 16 minutes long respectively, merge into each other without a break and are intense, discursive pieces full of movement and surprise, kaleidoscopic in their effect on the listener. But I love the more concise “Flame” and “Longer”, which display his unsentimental way with the material of a ballad. I can’t think of another pianist so effective at creating drama by alternating legato and staccato phrases — sometimes within the same arc — while sustaining a strong underlying lyricism, and his wonderfully precise touch is beautifully captured by the recording (four decades after his first ECM session, Kongshaug is once again the engineer).

Bley neither ingratiates himself nor sets out to shock. He just plays, with a sinewy restlessness and an apparently inexhaustible fund of ideas, and he has spent his long career proving that a natural reserve and an innate warmth are not mutually exclusive. I’m pretty sure this will be one of my albums of the year.

* The photograph of Paul Bley is from the sleeve of Play Blue and was taken by Carol Goss.

Julian Arguelles

Julian ArguellesAmid the general euphoria and high-octane wackiness with which the performances of Loose Tubes lit up the London jazz scene in the second half of the 1980s, Julian Arguelles’s saxophone solos were always a highlight: calm, beautifully shaped, emotionally resonant. He was still in his teens, diminutive and boyish-looking, when he first appeared with that extraordinary collective, but his playing already possessed a maturity that suggested a long and rewarding career to come.

After Loose Tubes disbanded in 1990 (they’re reforming in May for dates at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Ronnie Scott’s) he formed an octet which made two albums that stand among the most stimulating documents of their time: Skull View (Babel, 1997) and Escapade (Provocateur, 1999) are full of memorable composing, resourceful arranging and fine improvising from the likes of Mike Walker (guitar), Mario Laginha (piano) and Django Bates (tenor horn). Arguelles managed to make the ensemble reflect his own qualities. This is music that manages to be supremely lyrical while staying cliche-free, and in which exquisite textures are coaxed from a seemingly limited palette. If you can find the discs, they’ll repay the investment.

Now he has a new album out: Circularity, on the Rome-based CamJazz label, in which he is joined by the pianist John Taylor, the bassist Dave Holland and the drummer Martin France. Back in 1990 Taylor and France featured on Arguelles’s recording debut as a leader, a quartet album on the Ah Um label called Phaedrus (on which Mick Hutton was the bassist), and the drummer was also present on the octet albums.

Arguelles is 48 now, no longer a precociously gifted youngster but a musician of poise and substance, equally eloquent on his soprano and tenor instruments, fully at home in this A-team company, capable of providing a set of compositions that play to his own strengths while providing a challenge for his companions, each of whom performs to the height of his known abilities. I don’t suppose Taylor has ever played an ungraceful note in his life, while Holland — a US resident since answering Miles Davis’s siren call in 1968 — gives every sign of enjoying the chance to play with compatriots. France keeps the whole thing cooking with a wonderfully light touch and an unflagging rhythmic imagination.

And if, like me, you have a weakness for jazz inflected by what Jelly Roll Morton famously called “the Spanish tinge”, meaning such things as John Coltrane’s “Ole”, Gil Evans’s “Las Vegas Tango”, Albert Mangelsdorff’s “Never Let It End” and Charlie Haden’s “Song for Che”, you’ll enjoy the Arguelles quartet’s “Unopened Letter”, which starts in the time-honoured manner with double-stopped bass strums and soprano trills and works its way through an exemplary seven minutes of intense but never forbidding collective invention.

* The photograph above is from the sleeve of Circularity, and was taken by the recording engineer, Curtis Schwartz. Left to right: John Taylor, Dave Holland, Julian Arguelles and Martin France. 

The N.E.W. thing

N.E.W. liveI could only stay for a single set of the trio called N.E.W. — Steve Noble (drums), John Edwards (double bass) and Alex Ward (guitar) — at Cafe Oto tonight, but it was enough to get excited about. This is an improvising group of ferocious intensity: for my taste, maybe the most effective high-volume band I’ve heard since Tony Williams’s Lifetime set the standard for such adventures more than 40 years ago.

The first piece lasted half an hour, in which everybody played without a break. They work with patterns rather than tempos, usually set by Noble’s relentlessly attacking sticks, mallets or brushes (he also has a way with cymbals that makes me think he’s the post-industrial Billy Higgins). Edwards, surely the most remarkable bassist ever produced by Britain, works off and around the drums, tugging and hammering the strings to produce huge surges of sound and in one passage bowing them above his left hand on the fingerboard while the drummer momentarily toyed  with a light Latin vamp. As for Ward, he is a constant astonishment: Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner”, Sonny Sharrock’s work with Herbie Mann and Last Exit, Robert Fripp’s solo on King Crimson’s “A Sailor’s Tale” and Derek Bailey’s amplified solo pieces — he doesn’t sound like any of them, but they might be some of the sources of inspiration behind the barrage of howling, squealing, chattering and whining but always coherent and compelling noise that he sets up.

They’ve been playing together in this configuration for half a dozen years, and the degree of empathy is phenomenal. You can hear it on their new album, Motion, a vinyl-only release on the Dancing Wayang label, limited to 300 copies (www.dancingwayang.com). The product of a studio session, it can’t possibly convey the impact of hearing them playing to an audience in a small room, but it has other, equally worthwhile qualities.

Try to imagine how a combination of Hendrix, Charles Mingus and Keith Moon might sound, stripped of ego, transported to Dalston in 2014, with modern amplification turned all the way up. If that might be your idea of a good time, don’t miss ‘em.

A night of two halves

Christian Wallumrod 2Two great pianist-composers were at work within 400 yards of each other in Dalston last night. It was a tough call, so I compromised. The first half of the evening was spent at the Vortex in the company of the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble. The rest was devoted to a set by the Keith Tippett Octet at the Cafe Oto. Wallumrod was playing compositions from Outstairs, his latest ECM album, while Tippett was performing a recently commissioned suite, The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon. I was worried that by trying to catch both, I’d miss the best of either. But these were two such exalted experiences that by the end of the night I could only think what a extraordinary feeling it must be to create such music in your head and on paper and then have it brought to life by gifted and dedicated musicians.

Wallumrod’s six-piece band — with Eivind Lonning on trumpet, Espen Reinertsen on tenor, Gjermund Larsen on violin, viola and Hardanger fiddle, Tove Torngren on cello and Per Oddvar Johansen on drums — made a much greater impression on me in person than on record. Or perhaps it would be more sensible to say that they sent me back to Outstairs with a better understanding of what it is they’re doing. But I do think that in this case the live performance provides a vital extra dimension.

This is understated, reflective music, making great use of its Norwegian heritage (many of the themes sound as though they are inspired by folk songs), but the quiet power of the music’s physicality came as a surprise: when you actually witness Wallumrod gently pumping his portable harmonium, or Larsen playing soft-grained double-stops on the Hardanger fiddle, or Reinertsen discreetly using a  slap-tongue technique to turn his saxophone into an extra percussion instrument, or Lonning brushing the mouthpiece across his lips as he exhales to produce shushing sounds and bringing out a four-rotary-valve piccolo trumpet to add a new texture, it helps to bring it to life. A long track from the album, called “Bunadsbangla”, featured Johansen using his hands and a slack-tuned bass drum to produce a kind of Scandinavian Bo Diddley rhythm behind a beautifully structured and voiced horns-and-strings line; I think I speak for everyone in the room when I say that we’d have been happy for that one to have gone on all night.

A quick dash down from Gillett Square to Ashwin Street meant that I missed only the first couple of minutes of Tippett’s octet set; the band was already in full roiling Mingusian mode. This was the third performance of the work, written for Keith’s terrific new London-based band, mostly consisting of recent graduates: trombonists Kieran McLeod and Rob Harvey, saxophonists Sam Mayne and James Gardiner-Bateman, bassist Tom McCredie and the veteran drummer Peter Fairclough, with Ruben Fowler depping for Fulvio Sigurta on trumpet and flugelhorn. For me, the format of an octet often seems to locate the perfect middle ground between the flexibility of a smaller horns-and-rhythm combo and the mass and strength of a conventional big band. Tippett, who is writing and playing with a greater range and eloquence than at any time in his 45-year career, knows how best to exploit its potential to the full.

The nine movements were full of contrast, varying in mood from raucous shout-ups to a tiny, exquisite piano coda, enfolding a hymn-like horn chorale framing short unaccompanied piano improvisations, a kind of jig, and something that roared along at 80 bars per minute (that’s 320 of your “beats”, children), a tempo at which it is hard enough to think, never mind improvise coherently. I particularly loved Sam Mayne’s show-stopping alto, a flugel solo on which Fowler reminded me of the late, great Shake Keane, McLeod’s agile, thoughtful trombone, and the impressive maturity of McCredie, who coped nimbly with the demanding score but was always playing with his heart open. A sense of passion characterised the whole band as they negotiated a composition in which Tippett’s defining streak of lyricism never flagged, even when the music’s operating temperature was at its height.

They’ll be back in Dalston to play the piece again on April 11, this time at the Vortex. Keith is still waiting to hear whether the producers of the BBC’s Jazz on 3 are interested in broadcasting the piece. When he asked them, the response was that they wanted him to send a tape. After four decades in which his consistently distinguished work has brought him acclaim around the world, from Italy and France to Russia and India and South Africa, the gatekeepers of Britain’s jazz principal broadcasting outlet seem to be expecting him to audition. If he felt insulted by such a response, it would be hardly surprising or unjustified.

Last night, anyway, Wallumrod and Tippett — who share a gift for bringing the lessons learnt from jazz to bear on their respective native cultures — received the sort of response they deserve: sustained ovations from attentive listeners who know great music when they hear it, and are properly grateful for the experience.

* The photograph of the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble was taken by Christopher Tribble at Kings Place on their visit to London last year.

 

The precious legacy of Booker Little

Booker Little:Max RoachThe four studio albums recorded under the Memphis-born trumpeter Booker Little’s name between 1958 and 1961 were issued by four different labels. It’s always been my feeling that if he had signed a contract with Blue Note Records early in his career, his reputation today would more than match that of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard or Donald Byrd. But they did and he didn’t, and after his untimely death from uraemia, a kidney disease, at the age of 23, the piecemeal nature of his recorded output somehow prevented him from acquiring the stature he deserved.

For many years those four albums were hard to find and expensive to acquire. You might have gone without a few meals to buy one. Now, thanks to European copyright laws, all four are available in a single 2CD package for which I paid £12 the other day. Those copyright laws are problematic in some respects, but when they make it possible for independent companies to reissue music like this, in which the corporate successors to the original labels have seldom shown any constructive interest, it’s very hard to argue against them, so I won’t.

The original albums in question were called Booker Little 4 & Max Roach (United Artists, recorded 1958), Booker Little (Time, 1960), Out Front (Candid, 1961), and Booker Little and Friend (Bethlehem, 1961). The package in which they are assembled, titled Complete Recordings: Master Takes and issued on the American Jazz Classics label, has been put together with evident care, reproducing the original sleeves and notes, with full recording details and extra pictures.

The first of them reminds us that Little came to prominence as a member of the Max Roach Quintet, whom he joined just after his 20th birthday, following studies at the Chicago Conservatory. He made several albums with that band, and his qualities as a soloist were obvious from the start: his clean articulation, bright, burnished tone, rhythmic agility and harmonic acuity made him the obvious successor to Clifford Brown. And at a time when skilled hard-bop trumpeters were not exactly thin on the ground, his playing was immediately identifiable.

The Time album is by a quartet, with Wynton Kelly or Tommy Flanagan on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, and it still sounds pristine. But the remaining albums are the real jewels, since they place his improvisations in the context of a developing compositional gift. They feature sextets, both including the trombonist Julian Priester and the pianist Don Friedman, with Out Front also including Eric Dolphy and Max Roach while Booker Little and Friend (a coy reference to his trumpet) features George Coleman and another great drummer, Pete LaRoca. Little’s 14 tunes on these albums are distinguished by a gift for lyricism that was not always to be found in the composers of the post-bop era; perhaps the nearest equivalent would be the great Benny Golson, who also achieved a song-like quality in his themes for hard-driving horns-and-rhythm combos. Little, though, was a more sophisticated thinker than Golson. In pieces as breathtakingly gorgeous and structurally fascinating as “Forward Flight”, “Strength and Sanity” and “Moods in Free Time”, written in his very early twenties, there are unmissable signs of boundless potential.

His partnership with Dolphy would no doubt have borne further fruit. They were ideal partners, utterly dissimilar in instrumental style but clearly on the same musical and intellectual wavelength, as can be heard on Dolphy’s Far Cry, recorded for Prestige in December 1960, and in the three volumes of live recordings by their quintet, taped in July 1961, just three months before his death, and released as Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot (now also available in a complete edition, from Essential Jazz Classics).

Among the last things he played on, as a sideman, were John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass and Max Roach’s Percussion: Bitter Sweet. Wherever jazz was heading in that turbulent and exhilarating era, he was going to be part of it. We’ll never know what he might have achieved in the years that a fatal illness denied him, but the four albums under his own name — brimming with the amazing clarity of his playing and a talent for exploiting the resources of a small group — are evidence of a remarkable artist at work. It’s a legacy that all jazz fans should know about.

* The uncredited photograph of Booker Little (left) and Max Roach is taken from the booklet accompanying the American Jazz Classics package. 

Westbrook’s Blake

Mike Westbrook 3The parish church of St Giles-in-the-Fields turned out to be the perfect place for last night’s performance of Glad Day, Mike Westbrook’s settings of William Blake’s poetry. Situated close to the modern junction of Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, and known as the Poets’ Church, the present building was completed in 1733 on the site where first a monastery and chapel and then earlier churches had ministered to lepers (St Giles is their patron saint) since the 12th century. The first victims of the Great Plague of 1665 were buried in its garden.

Blake was born in nearby Soho and in his time the church stood next to the warren of dwellings known as the Rookery, London’s most notorious haunt of thieves and prostitutes, immortalised in Hogarth’s Gin Lane drawings and Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. It’s a gentler place now, although had Blake, Hogarth and Dickens been living today they might have been interested to leave the church, turn left down Denmark Street, cross Charing Cross Road and witness the sights of 21st century Soho on a Saturday night.

The concert was in aid of the Simon Community, which recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its work with London’s homeless population. In the church’s soft yellow light Westbrook was joined by two solo singers — his wife, Kate, and Phil Minton — and the 30-voice Queldryk Choral Ensemble, conducted by Paul Ayres, plus the violinist Billy Thompson, the accordionist Karen Street and the double bassist Steve Berry.

They began, appropriately enough, with the searing images of “London”, sung by Kate, before Minton delivered “Let the Slave” and Mike Westbrook himself recited “The Price of Experience” above a lulling choral vamp: “It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun / And in the vintage and to sing on the wagon loaded with corn. / It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted, / To speak of the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer…”

“Holy Thursday”, “The Tyger and the Lamb” and “Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell” were among the texts, most of them arranged by the late Adrian Mitchell and the others by Kate Westbrook. The audience remained silent between the individual pieces, reluctant to disturb the mood, but the dramatic conclusion of “The Poison Tree”, on which tango rhythms propelled Kate’s bitter vocal and Thompson’s dazzling fiddle solo, provoked spontaneous cheering.

The musicians were given plenty of space for unaccompanied solos, each one relevant to Westbrook’s overall structure while ensuring a constant variety of texture. They all shone, with Berry’s dark-toned bass outstanding throughout, and particularly when he launched “The Human Abstract” with an improvisation located somewhere between Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden, which is not a bad place to be. But nothing was more quietly electrifying than the transition from Minton’s open-hearted vocal to Thompson’s spirit-possessed violin which led from “The Fields” to the concluding “I See Thy Form”.

Westbrook has been working on this material for many years, and it is among his several masterpieces. Like his fellow pianist/composer Keith Tippett and his old associate John Surman, he came out of the jazz ferment of the 1960s and found his way to a music in which he can employ everything he has learnt while making profound use of his indigenous heritage. For his admirers who couldn’t make it to last night’s concert, there’s a new DVD and CD, called Glad Day Live, of a performance by the same singers and musicians, filmed at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel five years ago. Highly recommended, of course.

Apropos of Barney Wilen

Barney WilenLouis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold begins a season at the BFI in London this week, providing an opportunity to enjoy the conjunction of the director’s (and his cinematographer, Henri Decae’s) images and Miles Davis’s historically significant soundtrack. A classic of French film noir, made in 1957, it looks and sounds wonderful — particularly when experienced on a big screen in a proper cinema.

Miles recorded the music in a Paris studio, using four musicians with whom he had just embarked on a short tour: Rene Urtreger on piano, Pierre Michelot on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums, and — a surprising choice, and a particularly inspired one — the 20-year-old tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen, a prodigy who would become one of the most significant European jazz musicians of his generation. Together they took the conceptual leap that would lead Davis, within a couple of years, to Kind of Blue.

Wilen’s story is a fascinating one. Born in Nice in 1937 to a French mother and an American father, he left France with his family in 1940 and spent the next six years in America, where an uncle gave him a saxophone. On returning to Nice at the end of the war, he developed his interest in music; at 13 he was already playing with local jazz bands and at 16, having moved to Paris, he was performing at Le Tabou in Saint-Germain-des-Pres with his fellow saxophonist Bobby Jaspar and the pianist Henri Renaud. In 1957, a few weeks before answering Davis’s call, he made his first recordings under his own name, for the Vogue label: reissued on CD a few years ago under the title Tilt, they show a young man clearly fascinated by the compositions of Thelonious Monk and completely at ease with such pieces as “Round Midnight”, “Think of One”, “Hackensack”, “We See”, “Blue Monk”, “Let’s Call This” and “Misterioso”.

His style was never one that cried out for attention, but it evolved into an approach that could hold its own among the hard-bop giants of the day, such as Roy Haynes, Milt Jackson and Donald Byrd, with whom he also recorded during the 1950s. (In 1959 he wrote a film soundtrack of his own, for Edouard Molinaro’s Un Temoin dans la ville, which he recorded with a band including the trumpeter Kenny Dorham.) Although his playing never lacked strength, there was no sense of trying to grab the listener by the lapels. He could swing forcefully while still seeming to take his time, and it’s hard to think of anyone who would have fitted so beautifully into the soundtrack recording with Miles, where subtlety and light-footedness were crucial. He had a lovely tone and a frictionless sense of swing; if there were a missing link between Lucky Thompson and Wayne Shorter, perhaps it would be him. He knew how to be cool without being cold.

He also possessed an inquiring and unorthodox mind, and was keen to venture beyond the confines of an idiom he had so quickly mastered. Seduced by the possibilities of free jazz, and encouraged by the adventurous German record producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt, in 1968 he recorded an album called Auto Jazz: The Tragic Destiny of Lorenzo Bandini, in which he and his quartet improvised against a recording of the commentary from the previous year’s Monaco Grand Prix, during which Bandini had been burnt to death at the wheel of his Ferrari. It was released on the MPS label, and is now hard to find.

“I have a French passport and I live in  Paris,” he once observed. “I consider myself a musician of the world, temporarily French.” In 1969, having grown his hair, adopted a more relaxed wardrobe and befriended such leading lights of the Parisian counter-culture as the film director Philippe Garrel and the actor Pierre Clementi, he and his girlfriend, the English-born model Caroline de Bendern, went to Africa, where they spent several months travelling in a Land Rover through Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Mali, Upper Volta and Senegal, recording with with local musicians as they went. The first results were issued under the title Moshi in 1972, on the Saravah label; about a year ago de Bendern  issued a second instalment of this fascinating Afro-funk trance music — with bits of conversation and street song interpolated and overlapping — under the title Moshi Too, on the Sonorama label.

Then, in effect, he disappeared. The next couple of decades were apparently spent back on the Cote d’Azur, where he played occasionally with a local group, effectively off the scene and out of the mainstream. Until, in 1988, an illustrator named Jacques de Loustal and my old friend Philippe Paringaux, a former editor of Rock & Folk magazine, collaborated on what we would nowadays call a graphic novel titled Barney et la note bleu, a romanticised version of Wilen’s life as an itinerant saxophonist on the jazz scene. Stylish and evocative, it was a huge hit (it’s still in print) and prompted Wilen to record a new album, titled La Note Bleu and using Loustal’s artwork. Accompanied by an excellent rhythm section, he proved that his old skills — particularly as a ballad player, on Gordon Jenkins’ “Good-Bye” and a short unaccompanied version of “Besame Mucho” — had not atrophied. His tone was, if anything, even more perfectly formed.

People suddenly remembered how good he was, and he was invited to make more recordings. I have a lovely quartet recording with the guitarist Jimmy Gourley from 1987 (Double Action, on the Elabeth label) and a fine duo album with the pianist Alain Jean Marie, his longtime associate, from 1992 (Dreamtime, on Nocturne). Both, coincidentally, contain versions of “Good-Bye”; along with “Besame Mucho”, it’s among my very favourite songs, and although his fondness for revisiting both these tunes at every opportunity is not why I’m such a fan of his, it probably helps.

According to Blue Melody, a short biography written by Yves Buin and published in France by Castor in 2011, Wilen already knew that he was suffering from stomach cancer by the time he travelled to the US in 1994. There he recorded an album called New York Romance at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, with an A-team rhythm section: the pianist Kenny Barron, the bassist Ira Coleman and the drummer Lewis Nash. The following year he made Passione with his own musicians plus the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava. It would be his last recording; the man who was as great a ballad player as any produced by the European jazz scene died on May 25, 1996, aged 59. Go and see Lift to the Scaffold and marvel not just at an ageless film but at how good Barney Wilen had already become when his 20th birthday was still a recent memory.

And if you want to know more, spend 55 minutes watching The Rest of Your Life, Stephane Sinde’s terrific biographical film, made in 2005:

* The photograph of Barney Wilen (and the bassist Beb Guerin) is from the back cover of Auto Jazz: The Tragic Destiny of Lorenzo Bandini and was taken by Jean Maurice Pioton on February 13, 1968 while the musicians improvised the soundtrack as they watched the footage on a screen in the Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg.

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