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A Mingus discovery

Mingus poster

While listening to Louis Moholo, Jason Yarde, John Edwards and Alex Hawkins come very close to taking the roof off Cafe Oto the other night, I started thinking about Charles Mingus. The ingredients of the music were so similar: the warmth, the drive, the spontaneity, the shouted cues, the sudden turns from brusque lyricism to maximum intensity, an extreme sophistication drenched in the blues at its most elemental, the way the past was metabolised into the present, the feeling that this summed up why jazz really is different from everything else.

Then, the next morning, an unexpected package dropped on to the mat: a five-CD box called Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden, a recording of a club gig by one of Mingus’s later quintets in February 1973, previously unheard and released with the approval of Sue Mingus, the great bassist’s widow and guardian of his legacy.

The recording was made by Roy Brooks, the fine drummer who was a member of the Mingus band during this period, while Dannie Richmond was off exploring the world of rock. A Detroit native who had replaced Louis Hayes in Horace Silver’s quintet in 1959, Brooks died in 2005; it is to his widow, Hermine, that we owe the discovery of the tapes.

Mingus went through something of a personal and artistic trough at the end of the ’60s. I saw him at the Village Gate one night in, I think, 1971, playing with a complete absence of fire and commitment — a devastatingly desolate experience for one who had grown up on the volcanic excitements of Blues and Roots and Oh Yeah. By 1973, however, he had recovered his appetite for battle and regained all his old characteristics, as we can hear in his Philharmonic Hall and Let My Children Hear Music recordings from the previous year.

Just about everything that was great about Mingus was on display at the Strata Concert Gallery at 46 Selden Street in Detroit’s Midtown. The band is superb: Joe Gardner on trumpet, big-toned and confident; John Stubblefield on tenor, bringing to mind the fluent bluesiness of Hank Mobley; the mercurial Don Pullen on piano, brilliantly spanning the eras as many of Mingus’s pianists (Jaki Byard, Roland Hanna) were expected to do; and Brooks himself, providing an unflagging, explosive drive.

The repertoire includes Mingus favourites such as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress (Then Blue Silk)”, and a handful of those compositions that demonstrate how beautifully he could structure and pace a fine melodic line: “Celia”. “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”, “Dizzy Profile” and “The Man Who Never Sleeps”. In that respect he was the peer of Benny Golson. And anyone who wants to hear a medium-up 4/4 walking bass that hustles without hurrying should listen to “Peggy’s”, where he gives a masterclass in that difficult art. And the slow blues called “Noddin’ Ya Head” is an after-hours symphony (complete with Brooks’s musical saw).

This was a club gig, so the atmosphere is relaxed and the customers’ voices are sometimes heard. But it was recorded on multi-track equipment and broadcast on a local radio station, WDET-FM, so the balance of informal atmosphere and undistorted instrumental sound is just about perfect. There’s also an interview with Brooks, and a soliloquy by the station’s jazz DJ, Bud Spangler.

As a representation of how Mingus sounded in a club, it would be hard to beat. One of the finds of the year, without a doubt.

* The box set is released in November on the Barely Breaking Even label. Mingus fans might like to note that the programme of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival includes an event called “Jazz Experiments: Exploring Jazz through the Music of Charles Mingus”, in which the excellent band Blues & Roots will encourage members of the audience to play with them before performing their own set. It’s in the South Bank’s Clore Ballroom on the afternoon of Sunday, November 18, and it’s free. If you want to play, apply via the website: efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk

Marc Ribot’s ‘Songs of Resistance’

My grandparents lost brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles in the Holocaust, and I’ve toured and have friends in Russia and Turkey; we recognise Trump, and it’s no mystery where we will wind up if we don’t push back.

Those are the words used by the guitarist Marc Ribot to introduce his new album, which seems to me to be one of the year’s most important releases. A series of protest songs aimed at our current discontents, Songs of Resistance is in the spirit of Charlie Haden’s first Liberation Music Orchestra album, back in 1968, in that it fuses music of the past with that of the present, adding historical perspective to the various struggles it depicts.

The difference is that Ribot varies the musical approach from track to track, using guest singers and different instrumental groupings. So Tom Waits — with whom he has collaborated more more than 30 years — delivers a ballad called “Bella Ciao”, sung by the Italian partisans of the Second World War. Fay Victor fronts a irresistible funked-up “John Brown”, one of several tracks alluding to the civil rights movement. Steve Earle takes his turn on a Ribot tune about a Sikh immigrant murdered in Texas by a racist who mistook him for a Muslim (“A madman pulled the trigger / Donald Trump loaded the gun”), containing fragments of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” and “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”. Meshell Ndegeocello sings Ribot’s elegant “The Militant Ecologist”, based on another Italian song. The homespun “Knock That Statue Down”, attacking the resistance to the removal of memorials to the Confederacy, is delivered by Ribot himself. The last of the 11 tracks features Justin Vivian Bond singing “We’re Never Turning Back”, Ribot’s comment on gender politics.

Throughout his long career, the guitarist has been noted for the inclusiveness of his approach. Although the settings here reflect his diversity of musical interests, veering from folk songs and country music through go-go to free jazz, he succeeds in tying the whole sequence together through a unity of emotion, showing us how many shades of “stirring” there can be.

It’s a record that, in Ribot’s own phrase, chooses to fight the good fight. As such, it’s in a great and honourable tradition. And at this moment in history, it feels more necessary than ever.

* Songs of Resistance is out now on the Anti- label.

Forever Aretha

Aretha Lee F

Most of what I feel about the Queen of Soul went into the obituary I wrote for the Guardian. Here’s a little extra thing about the record of hers that I’d choose if I could only keep one.

Aretha Franklin made three passes at Van McCoy’s “Sweet Bitter Love”. It’s my guess that this means it was a song with a special significance for her, one she sang not just to her audience but to herself.

The first version came in 1965, during her unhappy time with Columbia Records. The producer was Clyde Otis, the song was given an off-the-peg string arrangement, and the outcome was mundane, even though her singing is lovely. The third was made in 1985, during her time with the Arista label. She produced that one herself, directing an ace band including Nat Adderley Jnr on keys, Steve Khan on guitar, Louis Johnson on bass and Yogi Horton on drums, adding Paul Riser’s arrangement for strings, brass and woodwind. Beneath the sumptuous surface, it dug a lot deeper. It would even serve as her definitive version of a fine song, but for . . .

. . . her second go, which stands for me as the most mesmerising and revelatory recording of her entire career. She taped it at the end of 1966, as part of a demo session immediately after signing with Atlantic Records, which explains the rough sound quality. Among other songs recorded that day, with Aretha at the piano supported by an anonymous double bassist and drummer, were try-outs of “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)” and “Dr Feelgood”, which became two of her classics. For me, however, “Sweet Bitter Love” is the one that seems to have cut deepest into her soul.

Sweet bitter love / The taste still lingers / Though through my helpless fingers / You slipped away / Sweet bitter love / What joy you taught me / What pain you brought me . . . 

Listen to it and then try telling me she isn’t singing to and about herself, drawing on everything she had already lived in her 25 years.

Oh my sweet bitter love / Why have you awakened /And then forsaken / A trusting heart like mine . . .

It’s also the perfect example of how her best work always came when she was sitting at the piano, providing her own accompaniment, establishing the groove and the flow. With that security she could explore her full range of phrasing and intonation: some of the single words here are enunciated and flighted with astonishing creativity, every scrap of decoration seeming absolutely essential. Over the whole piece, voice and keyboard ebb and flow together in great deep, dark surges of powerful emotion which she brings to an ending that is both elegant and brusque, as if everything has been said.

I love so many of her records. But if I had to keep just one, I’d tell myself that none of the others encapsulates the intimacy, the intensity, the superlative control, the sheer shattering open-hearted and heart-breaking Aretha-ness of her quite as rivetingly as this, which was never intended for public consumption but brings us as close to her as we could ever want to get.

* The photographs of Aretha were taken by the great Lee Friedlander, during the time he was working on album covers for Atlantic Records in the 1960s. They’re in his book American Musicians, published in 1998 by D.A.P. / Distributed Art Publishers, Inc. You’ll find links to the other two versions of the song on YouTube. I didn’t include them because I wanted to make sure that you listen to this one.

A period of silence . . .

 

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To all those who’ve read The Blue Moment over the past five and a half years, I’d like to say thank you for your interest and your comments. I started the blog out of a desire to recreate the pleasure I had in the days when I was fortunate enough to be able to choose the music I wrote about and the manner in which I did it. This time around I wasn’t really expecting much of an audience, so it’s been a pleasant surprise to discover how many people seem to enjoy these pieces.

It’s time, however, to take a break. A book project, not music-related, will be occupying me for the next few months. It’s something I’ve been carrying in my head for a long time, and I’m lucky enough to have a publisher who shares my enthusiasm. I want to give it priority, so I’m pressing “pause” on The Blue Moment until the book has been researched and written. And when normal service is resumed in this space, I’d be very pleased to find you still with me.

— Richard Williams

Blue shadows, etc

Chuck-Jackson-LP

Sometimes I think Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now” must be the greatest pop record ever made. What could better the elegant turns of Burt Bacharach’s melody, the striking imagery of Bob Hilliard’s lyric (those “blue shadows” falling all over town), the piping organ, muffled tympani and grieving femme chorale of Bert Keyes’ imaginative arrangement, and the deep emotion of Jackson’s restrained baritone, the instrument that made him the epitome of the male mid-’60s uptown soul singer?

The excuse for mentioning it, if one were needed, is the vinyl release of Chuck Jackson: The Best of the Wand Years, an Ady Croasdell compilation for Ace Records, in which “Any Day Now” is just one of 14 treats. “I Keep Forgetting”, with Teacho Wiltshire arranging the staccato boo-bams and tuba on behalf of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, leads the way, and other well known tracks include the beautifully poised “Since I Don’t Have You”, the operatic “Tell Him I’m Not Home” (with Doris Troy singing the title line), and “I Don’t Want to Cry”, Jackson’s first Wand single from 1961, with its sprightly Carole King string arrangement.

My other favourites are a magnificent King/Gerry Goffin song, “I Need You”, which I wrote about here, Van McCoy’s stately “I Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, and the unutterably groovy “Two Stupid Feet”, a song whose writers, Cara Browne and Luther Dixon, manage to feed Jackson the phrase “comfy and cozy” without disturbing his credibility. But really there isn’t a track here that isn’t outstanding, nothing that doesn’t make the world a better place.

Anthony Braxton at Cafe Oto

Anthony Braxton

By Anthony Braxton’s standards, his ZIM Music septet is a relatively modest affair. But the hour and a quarter of unbroken music they produced during the second of their three nights at Cafe Oto this week proved to be astonishingly rich and complex in its range of gesture and effect.

The musicians — Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn and trombone), Jacqueline Kerrod and Miriam Overlach (concert harps), Jean Cook (violin), Adam Matlock (accordion, recorders and voice) and Dan Peck (tuba) — responded with great enthusiasm and devotion to Braxton’s scores and to his methods of internal organisation. He supplied most of the visual cues — holding up fingers, making a diamond shape with both hands, giving nods — but sometimes letting others take over, notably Barnum but also Matlock, who seemed at one stage to be supplying pre-arranged prompts to one of the harpists.

This was a music of nudge and feint, of swells and silences, of stutter and blurt. Bynum alternated passages of a glowing beauty (his flugel reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler) with the expressive use of mutes, notably on cornet in a Bubber Miley-style wa-wa outburst which was immediately answered by the leader’s cackling alto saxophone. Matlock’s accordion was sometimes the glue that held the music together, but he also provided vocal embellishments and added the winsome sound of two recorders blown simultaneously. Kerrod and Overlach employed unorthodox as well as traditional techniques, sometimes sliding small steel rods between the strings or tapping the frames of their instruments, the combined effect not unlike that of Derek Bailey in full flow. Peck twice launched into a kind of walking-bass pattern before disrupting the tempo, like a man alternately strolling, sprinting and jogging in order to throw off a pursuer. Cook played one compelling solo that seemed to consist almost entirely of harmonics and yet somehow simultaneously employed a scraping of double and triple stops.

Braxton, who alternated between sopranino, soprano and alto saxophones, made his strongest individual contribution right at the start, with a tumbling, paper-toned alto improvisation that seemed to be powered by a perpetual-motion engine as it wove in and out of the ensemble. But the point of the evening was the way his success in blending premeditation with spontaneity gave rise to a constantly shifting set of textures and a dynamic flow that kept the audience, as well as the musicians, on their toes.

* The ZIM Septet’s final performance in London tonight is sold out, but on Thursday at 3pm Anthony Braxton returns to Cafe Oto for a conversation with Alexander Hawkins.

New tango in Paris

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Léonor Seraille’s Jeune Femme is a funny, affecting and occasionally jolting film about what happens to an attractive but rather unfocused young woman (brilliantly portrayed by Laetitia Dosch) when she becomes untethered from her former life. She’s a character who, in the writer-director’s words, “chooses discomfort”. It won the Caméra d’Or award at last year’s Cannes Festival and was released in the UK a couple of weeks ago.

The soundtrack, by Julie Roué, is mostly clubby. However, to my surprise and delight, brief extracts from Gil Evans’s Las Vegas Tango pop up quite unexpectedly, its wonderful bass riff — borrowed from Maurice Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera and played by Paul Chambers — and anguished upper-register horns adding a very different kind of exoticism to a couple of scenes.

Gil’s composition is a favourite of many. I’m also fond of versions by Robert Wyatt, who stretched and dismembered it on The End of an Ear, his first solo album, in 1970, and Michael Shrieve, the Santana drummer, who arranged a rather straighter treatment for a small band including the trumpeter Mark Isham and the guitarist David Torn on his album Stiletto in 1989. But the original is unsurpassable, as is the album from which it comes: The Individualism of Gil Evans (Verve), which belongs, whether in its 1964 vinyl incarnation or as the expanded CD, in every home.

Lou Gare: a souvenir

Lou Gare album

There was a special magic about Lou Gare’s saxophone playing, as many people rediscovered when going back to his slender discography on hearing of his death towards the end of last year, at the age of 78. Now Mike Westbrook, in whose bands Gare played in the 1960s and again in recent years, has done us an enormous favour by assembling and releasing a CD containing nine examples of his mature playing in latter-day concert and club performances with the Uncommon Orchestra.

I don’t know what effect his years as a free-improvisation pioneer with AMM had on Gare’s approach to music, but these performances show that he could infuse what you might call a fundamentally mainstream-modern approach with freshness and substance. In his conception, an almost old-fashioned warmth was no barrier to modernity.

In Memory of Lou Gare, as the compilation is titled, begins with the 12-minute version of Westbrook’s “D.T.T.M.”, an adaptation of a section of the suite On Duke’s Birthday, that I mentioned in a post written for this blog soon after his death. It’s a compellin extended meditation on the blues, including a marvellous unaccompanied section, and the inclusion of an earlier version gives us the chance to appreciate Gare’s reluctance to repeat himself.

There are shout-ups, like the stomping arrangement of Chris McGregor’s “Manje” which Westbrook created for the Dedication Orchestra, and moments of exquisite invention, like Gare’s spellbindingly allusive treatment of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”, almost entirely unaccompanied and bearing, as Westbrook remarks, traces of the influence of Paul Gonsalves. The extract from Westbrook’s extended rearrangement of “Johnny Come Lately”, another slice of Strayhorn, features a Mingus-like bass introduction from Marcus Vergette leading to a beautifully “down” groove over which Gare wails before the rest of the saxophone section join him for an exuberant collective improvisation.

“These are not studio performances,” Westbrook writes in his sleeve note. “There are rough edges and the sound balance is not always ideal. Yet, captured in the real world, in the heat of the moment, ad hoc recordings like this… perhaps offer an insight into Lou’s instant creativity… that a more controlled studio session might never achieve.” Exactly so.

* Mike Westbrook: In Memory of Lou Gare is on the Westbrook Records label: http://www.westbrookjazz.co.uk.

Spector / Hopper

 

Phil Spector noir

These days, nobody talks about him. I hardly ever listen to the string of epic records he made in the 1960s, and I once wrote a book about him. He’s nine years into a 19-year sentence for second-degree murder, and currently being held at a prison hospital in Stockton, California. He’ll be 88 when he comes out.

So there he was this afternoon, hanging on a wall in Somerset House at this year’s Photo London exhibition, immortalised by his friend Dennis Hopper in 1965.

Back in the days when Phil Spector was making his classic records at the Gold Star studio in Los Angeles, Hopper, who had acted with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, was one of those who sometimes dropped by. Spector always liked an audience.

“We hit it off right from the beginning, hanging out at Canter’s, chasing girls,” Hopper told Mick Brown, the author of Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, the definitive Spector biography. Hopper was also pursuing a side-career as a photographer, and after attending the sessions for “River Deep — Mountain High” he shot the cover photo for Ike and Tina Turner’s only Philles album.

In 1967 Spector became involved in a Hopper film project, The Last Movie, which collapsed the following year (and was revived and completed in 1970). In 1968 he played a coke dealer in the era-defining Easy Rider, written by Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, produced by Fonda and directed by Hopper. The Christmas following the movie’s release, Spector sent his friends a card featuring a still from his scene and the motto “A little snow at Christmas never hurt anyone…”

Hopper’s photograph of Spector laughing maniacally — blurred so that it looks oddly like one of Francis Bacon’s screaming Popes — catches him at his peak. Or just after it, actually. 1965 was the year of the Ronettes’ “Born to be Together”, the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” and Tom Wolfe’s essay for the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune, “The First Tycoon of Teen”. It was the year after the matchless triumph of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”, the year before the crippling debacle of “River Deep”.

The framed gelatin silver print is being offered by the Johannes Faber gallery of Vienna. It’s yours for £16,000.

* Photo London ends on Sunday, May 20.

Regarding Françoise Hardy

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One thing Françoise Hardy and I have in common is that we both gave Paris a wide berth in May ’68. In my case it was a question of force majeure: with my girlfriend, I was on my way from London to Istanbul on the Direct Orient Express (third class, £40 return each, three and a half days there and three and a half back, £5 supplement for a couchette on the homeward journey), and the general strike in France meant a detour via Brussels. For Hardy, it was a matter of choice: she and her new boyfriend, the singer Jacques Dutronc, were advised by their publicist to get out of town to avoid the évenements.

“We didn’t need to be told twice,” she wrote 10 years ago in Le désespoir des singes et autres bagatelles, her fine and extremely candid autobiography. “We left for Corsica, where we spent several idyllic weeks — the first and the last of our long and strange relationship.”

Neither of them would have found a natural home on the barricades. “My political awareness was nulle, and it was the same for Jacques.” What she did know was that she disliked violence, which she believed would solve nothing. “Contrary to things I’ve heard Daniel Cohn-Bendit say,” she continues, “May ’68 didn’t transform society; it was because society had already been transformed that May ’68 could take place.” That’s quite an interesting argument.

Fifty years later, at the age of 74, she has a new album out. It’s one she never expected to make, her recent years having been occupied by treatment for lymphoma, from which she recovered after being given a new kind of chemotherapy. Created in collaboration with Erick Benzi, who produced and played many of the instruments, Personne d’autre fits very nicely into the sequence of Hardy albums of the last three decades: Décalages (1988), Le Danger (1996), Clair-obscur (2000), Tant de belles choses (2004), Parenthèses (2006), La pluie sans parapluie (2010) and L’Amour fou (2013).

There may be others that I don’t know, just as I didn’t know a much earlier album, La question (1971), until I was steered in its direction by Sean O’Hagan’s excellent interview with Hardy in the Observer a couple of weeks ago, in which it was described as her own favourite. I sent off for it straight away, and once I heard it I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been in my life for the past 47 years.

Her principal collaborator on this one was a Brazilian guitarist, songwriter, arranger and producer known as Tuca, born Valeniza Zagni da Silva. Together she and Hardy achieve a blend of the elegance of chanson and the lightness of bossa nova, using the latter’s familiar gut-string acoustic guitar but not the rhythms. There are strings everywhere, romantic but not cloying, and the occasional support of a double bass. Only in the latter stages of the album do an electric guitar, a piano, a swirl of organ and a brass section make brief and discreet appearances.

La question is a concept album in the sense that it constructs a wistful mood which endures and evolves without strain throughout its dozen songs and 32 minutes. In 1971 Hardy herself was still sounding like a girl rather than the woman she is on Personne d’autre, but this is nevertheless a grown-up record. To achieve such weightless poise takes time, talent and touch. And for me, at least, better late than never.

* Personne d’autre and La question are both on Parlophone. “Viens”, a track from the latter, is featured on Paris in the Spring, a new anthology of French pop from the late ’60s and early ’70s compiled by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs for Ace Records. An English translation of Hardy’s autobiography is due at the end of the month, titled The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles, published by Feral House. I haven’t seen it, so the translations included here are mine.