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The man who remade the Beach Boys

One day in 1971 a man called Jack Rieley called me up at the Melody Maker. He’d read a piece in which I’d attempted to persuade readers to listen again to the Beach Boys, who had fallen into disfavour as the evolution of rock gathered momentum in the late ’60s. Rieley told me that he’d recently taken over as the group’s manager. He was, he said, a former journalist and disc jockey. He liked what I’d written and started to tell me about his plans, which majored on the idea of restoring Brian Wilson to his role as the centre of the group’s creativity. Amen to that, I said. And when he added that his initial step was to get “Surf’s Up” — the legendary lost track from the lost album, Smile — into shape for release, I was completely on his side.

We met in London and talked several times, and before long he proved to be as good as his word. The song “Surf’s Up” became the title track of the first Rieley-era Beach Boys album, released that August, and was, in its completed form, the masterpiece one had always dreamed it would be. The album also contained new songs that signalled a change of emphasis, in which the band pivoted away from their old cars-and-surfboards image towards an engagement with a new generation.

Mike Love’s “Student Demonstration Time”, a riff on Leiber and Stoller’s “Riot on Cell Block No 9”, was the most blatant and clumsiest of those signs, but other songs demonstrated a more profound change of consciousness — particularly Carl Wilson’s introspective “Feel Flows” and “Long Promised Road”, to which Rieley contributed lyrics, Al Jardine’s “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)” and “A Day in the Life of a Tree”, a collaboration between Brian and Rieley on which the latter actually sang the lead in an artless, heartfelt tone which proved perfectly appropriate to the material. Brian’s “‘Til I Die” was the album’s second masterpiece, a meditation on mortality of a sort that might not have thrilled fans looking for a new “Fun Fun Fun”.

Although most of these thoughts were in the heads of the Beach Boys themselves, there’s no doubt that Rieley nerved them up to accept the risk of abandoning the established following that would have been happy to see them turn into an oldies act. Released in August 1971, the album Surf’s Up brought them a different kind of attention, for which he had paved the way four months earlier when they successfully appeared as guests on a bill with the Grateful Dead at Fillmore East in front of an audience that had probably bracketed them with Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Rieley’s next trick was to release the follow-up album, titled Carl and the Passions: So Tough, in a double-album set with Pet Sounds. This invited the world to listen to their new music — including two intense Dennis Wilson ballads, “Cuddle Up” and “Make It Good”, and a couple of songs (“You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone” and “Marcella”) to which Rieley again contributed lyrics — while appreciating anew the richness of their history. They also added two new members, bassist-singer Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar, from the Flame, a South African band who had been taken under Carl Wilson’s wing.

Although neither of these albums succeeded in giving the Beach Boys a new hit single, their credibility had been largely restored. They were no longer the group in matching shirts and smiles. And, best of all, Brian seemed to be functioning again.

Their manager’s next gambit was his most audacious, and the one that would contribute to his downfall. Wanting to take them out of their comfort zone and put them in an unfamiliar environment where they could make music without distractions, he conceived a plan to move the whole band and their families to Holland, along with state of the art recording equipment — a complete quadraphonic studio, in effect — and a crew to assemble and operate it. In a village called Baambrugge, on the Angstel river between Amsterdam and Utrecht, they made the album titled Holland, full of superb music: Brian’s “Sail on, Sailor”, Dennis’s “Steamboat” and Carl’s “The Trader”, all with Rieley’s contributions to the lyrics, Dennis’s classic “Only with You”, beautifully sung by Carl, and Jardine’s “California Saga”, which contained verses from the Robinson Jeffers poem “The Beaks of Eagles”.

It also came with a bonus EP containing a “fairy tale” by Brian called “Mount Vernon and Fairway”, a piece for children which contains a few moments of Wilson magic and passages of Rieley’s narration. Before its release Jack got Brian to call me up at home and play it to me over the phone, which was a fairly surreal experience.

But for all its quality, Holland also failed to provide the group with hits, and the project had been so expensive that the man responsible was relieved of his duties. Eventually he was exposed as a bit of a charlatan — he was not, for example, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, as he had apparently claimed — and some members of the group had always been suspicious of his methods and motives.

I found him to be pleasant, highly intelligent and quite intense, with an interest in the world beyond rock music. He stayed on in Holland, and in 1975 he gave me an album called Western Justice, a song cycle that he’d just written and recorded in Amsterdam in partnership with a Dutch singer-writer named Machiel Botman. It was an elaborate production, with many Beach Boyish touches, musically not outstanding but interesting for its subject matter: the consequences for humanity of the First World’s heedless appetite for its natural resources, framed in a story set at some undetermined date in the future. An accompanying text, in the form of the fictional diary of an unnamed narrator, contained these introductory words:

Hundreds gathered in the park this morning, and the atmosphere was sort of carnival. Fiddle players serenaded, people danced, craftsmen displayed their work and others just sat on the scorched dry remains of the grass, talking and singing and playing chess and doing nothing. The crowds grow daily as more factories and offices are forced to close. The afternoon’s Emergency Line was long and tiresome. Three hours of waiting yielded a box of dried milk, a large sack full of cereal and dozen transistor radio batteries (marked ‘Gift of the People of Surinam’). The last newspaper has stopped publishing, leaving radio as the sole remaining source of official information. Today’s reports were that new ‘Citizens’ Courts’ were springing up from Geneva to Chicago, putting businessmen and government functionaries on trial for hoarding and black market activities. The Emergency Pact foreign ministers met again in Brussels, but representatives of Canada, the Soviet Union and Spain didn’t even bother to turn up. I adjusted easily when the electricity was turned off, but the current lack of safe drinking water is beginning to annoy me…

And so the narrative continues, depicting the West in a state of chaos and panic, culminating in a conference of the African, Latin American and Asian nations at which the United States begs for help. This was written in 1975, remember.

After that I lost touch with Rieley. I know he stayed in Europe, working in music for a while, then starting some kind of telecommunications business, before dying in Berlin in 2015, aged 72. The ending of his three years with the Beach Boys had pretty well trashed his reputation. But he left his mark on some important recordings, some of which can be heard again on a set titled Feel Flows, a reissue of Sunflower and Surf’s Up, plus associated outtakes, different mixes, vocal-only tracks and so on, released earlier this year.

Whatever his ambitions cost the group in financial terms, by bringing them into the modern world he significantly improved their standing during his time as their manager. Maybe he did make stuff up, but if what he told me in 1971 was accurate, you could also say that we have him to thank for inspiring the reconstruction and release of “Surf’s Up” — still, in my view, as elevated as just about any piece of popular music made in my lifetime.

* Feel Flows is available in various formats, from a 2-CD set to a multi-album vinyl box. The photograph of Jack Rieley was taken in Holland in 1974 by Harm Botman.

London Jazz Festival 5: Yazz Ahmed

Given the times we’re in, it was pretty wonderful to witness the scale of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, which shows no sign of losing its ambition under its new artistic director, Pelin Opcin. Typical of its scope was last night’s meeting of the trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, under the title Fusing Forces.

In recent years Ahmed has been pursuing a strand of thought which blends her jazz training at the Guildhall with an exploration of the music of Bahrain, where she lived until she was nine. Two striking albums, La Saboteuse and Polyhymnia, gave evidence of her success, and last night’s project took the process a stage further. With the help of arrangers including Noel Langley and Tim Garland, her compositions were enhanced by the use of the orchestra’s resources, under the empathetic baton of Bramwell Tovey.

Ahmed’s exceptionally gifted quintet — completed by Ralph Wyld on vibes, Dave Manington on bass guitar, Martin France on drums and the percussionist Corrina Silvester — was positioned across the front of the stage, separated from the orchestra by a perspex barrier, presumably for reasons of acoustic separation (the concert was being recorded for radio). But, thanks to Tovey and the sound engineers, there was no separation of thought or action. The calibre of the writing ensured that both elements were often perfectly integrated into a single organism, with no sense of excess baggage or impediment on the occasions when the orchestra simply added its weight to the smaller group.

The most striking of the compositions were those that brought Middle Eastern patterns and modes into the music, such as “A Paradise in the Hold” (inspired by the songs of Bahraini pearl divers) and “Al Emadi”, with their distant echoes of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration on “Solea” from Sketches of Spain. The blend sounded completely organic, the rhythmic drive providing a fine setting for inventive solos by Wyld, who was heavily featured, and Ahmed herself, who made use of reverb and other electronic effects to emphasise the legato quality of her playing but sounded even more impressive when she allowed the natural qualities of the flugelhorn to be the vehicle for her tone and ideas.

Other interesting Ahmed compositions included “A Shoal of Souls”, dedicated to refugees who lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean in small craft, in which Garland’s chart made dramatic use of tubular bells and timpani against the strings, and “2857”, inspired by Rosa Parks, its title using the number of the bus on which she refused to give up her seat to a white customer in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, the two-part piece moving from sombre reflection to urgent hustle.

The programme also included short pieces by Jessie Montgomery (a fantasy on “The Star-Spangled Banner”) and Judith Weir (gentle nightmusic). At Ahmed’s behest, the orchestra’s strings played Arvo Pärt’s “Silouans Song”, a compositions of great loveliness that might have resulted from Vaughan Williams visiting a Baltic monastery in winter. All in all, an absorbing evening which fully justified the audience’s prolonged ovation.

* Fusing Forces is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 tomorrow night (Tuesday 23 November) from 7.30-10pm.

London Jazz Festival 4: What’s Going On

When the photograph of Marvin Gaye appeared on a large screen above the stage late in the evening, just as the rhythm section of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra was cranking up one of the familiar vamps from What’s Going On, the eyes started to prickle and a round of applause arose from the audience in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Fifty years after his masterpiece entered our lives, what would Gaye have made of this occasion, had he lived to see it?

He would certainly have noticed that the concerns he voiced throughout the cycle of nine songs are even more relevant today. The point was driven home when that same screen carried the words of Rosa Parks, Margaret Mead, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass and others over contemporary images of protest.

Fifty years ago! Gaye was 32. I was 24. So young! It’s sad for someone of my age to see today’s 24-year-olds still having to confront worldwide poverty, systemic racism, pointless war and the threat posed by climate change, which were the themes of What’s Going On. Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter are responses to some of those concerns, and more effective ones that we managed in our younger days, but the issues remain unresolved.

Maybe some of them will be sorted out by the generation represented on stage last night: a 27-piece orchestra of strings, brass, woodwind and rhythm under the baton of Peter Edwards, drawn from the ranks of the invaluable Tomorrow’s Warriors project run for the past three decades by Janine Irons and Gary Crosby. None of the young musicians was born when Gaye recorded the pieces they were playing last night in Edwards’ rearrangements, but all of them clearly understood and were committed to its meaning and significance.

The 28th member of the ensemble, the South London-born soul singer Noel McKoy, brought a depth of experience as well as great vocal expertise to the role of Gaye. Without attempting an imitation, he inhabited the songs and negotiated their contours beautifully. But he was one among equals with the other musicians. A special commendation must go to the tenor saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael, who added immense presence and character to the solo parts originally played by Wild Bill Moore. The funk was brought by the unflagging team of Sarah Tandy (keyboards), Sonia Konate (guitar), Jihad Darwish (bass guitar). Romarna Campbell (drums) and Noda Oreste (congas), who hit a quietly simmering groove on one transitional passage which — with Tandy on electric piano — reminded me that Bitches Brew was released just a couple of months before Gaye embarked on the first sessions for what would become What’s Going On.

Edwards shuffled the running order of the individual songs, starting out with “What’s Happening, Brother” and “Right On”, leaving the title song until the middle of the set, and ending with the spiritual lift of “Save the Children” and “God Is Love”. There were photographs of modern urban wastelands to accompany “Inner City Blues” and wildfires and melting ice sheets for “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”. The actor Colin Salmon, the 29th member, delivered a poem/rap that summarised the album’s themes with emotional precison and dignity.

That was the second half of the evening. The hors d’oeuvres, before the interval, had been a selection of pieces from Trouble Man, the soundtrack to a blaxploitation movie, released in 1972 as the successor to What’s Going On. The hipsters’ favourite Gaye album, Trouble Man is an instrumental suite with vocal interludes, cutting and pasting the work of LA session men — Earl Palmer, Victor Feldman and so on — with Gaye’s own multi-instrumental rhythm tracks. Brass and string arrangements commissioned from a variety of seasoned pros — Dale Oehler, Jerry Long, Bob Ragland, J. J. Johnson, Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken — created and sustained a powerful mood of noir soul. Once more Edwards shook the pieces up, using Salmon as a narrator/commentator and again featuring Carmichael in the role, this time, of Trevor Lawrence, Gaye’s preferred saxophone soloist of the time.

A rearrangement of one of the original work’s gentler passages for the string section (led by Olivia Moore), with improvised solos passed in a round-robin between individual violin and viola players, was for me the musical highlight of the entire triumphant evening. In the way it developed and transformed an idea from the original recording, it reminded me of something Gaye said in 1976 while discussing Trouble Man in a radio interview with Paul Gambaccini: “If somebody took that album and did a symphony on it, I think it would be quite interesting.” I’d say Edwards and the Nu Civilisation Orchestra have done the groundwork on that project. They’re halfway there, and should be encouraged to see it through.

* The Nu Civilisation Orchestra perform What’s Going On at Birmingham Town Hall tonight (Friday 19 November), at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on Wednesday 24, and at Canterbury’s Gulbenkian Theatre on Friday 26. Donations to the Tomorrow’s Warriors project can be made here: https://tomorrowswarriors.org/support/jointhemovement/

London Jazz Festival 3: SooJin Suh

K-Music is an annual festival of contemporary South Korean music which ended last night with an event at the Purcell Room on the South Bank, held in conjunction with the EFG London Jazz Festival. The closing concert featured the drummer SooJin Suh and her Seoul-based Coloris Trio, completed by the pianist Jaehun Kang and the bassist Hoo Kim.

It would be easy to place the group somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of 21st century piano trios that has the Bad Plus and EST at one end and GoGo Penguin at the other. But it soon became apparent that they have something of their own to offer: a thoughtful, spacious music based on compositions, mostly by Suh, that include dedications to Andrew Hill and Herbie Nichols, which gives some idea of what they’re about.

Piano ostinatos and ground bass figures triggered many of the pieces, often providing a platform for Suh to show her command of flow and texture. She began with a solo cymbal passage whose grace reminded me of Billy Higgins, and seldom failed to be doing something interesting, whether with sticks, mallets or brushes. Much of the music was rubato, with time fluid and implied rather than explicit, which suits her perfectly, although long passage of 4/4 swing on Hoo Kim’s “Rain Drops” had an impressively lithe propulsiveness. Her companions played their part in a three-way conversation, loosening up as the long set went on.

They were joined for a handful of pieces by the British alto saxophonist Camilla George, who had earlier played an enjoyable short opening set in a duo with the brilliant guitarist Artie Zaitz. Adjusting to a more straightforward hard-bop groove, the quartet produced a particularly buoyant reading of Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream”. After George had left the stage, they finished with a tender version of Suh’s “Tear Down a Wall”, a ballad with the simplicity of a child’s song that ends their excellent recent album and gave the evening a perfect closure.

* Colorist by SooJin Suh’s Coloris Trio is on the Mirrorball Music label. The photograph of Suh at Purcell Room was taken by Ikin Yum.

London Jazz Festival 2: Cécile McLorin Salvant

With Grammy awards on her mantelpiece for each of her last three albums, Cécile McLorin Salvant could be cruising. Instead she’s challenging herself and her audience. Listening to her at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday, I was reminded of Rhiannon Giddens: these are women with powerful voices, vast musicality, great curiosity, and a disinclination to opt for the comfortable life that could be the reward for the acclaim both have received in recent years.

For the tour preceding the arrival of her next album, Ghost Song, early next year, McLorin Salvant has jettisoned the familiar support of a jazz piano trio in favour of a kind of chamber quintet featuring flute (Alexa Tarantino), guitar (Marvin Sewell), piano (Glenn Zaleski), bass (Yasushi Nakamura) and percussion (Keito Ogawa). Carefully deployed, the ensemble is flexible enough to cover all the territory she now explores as she expands her range from the basic repertoire of ballads and blues.

Her own songs at this concert included “Fog”, from the 2015 album For One to Love, the new “Thunderclouds”, inspired by Les Enfants du Paradis and finished with a couple of lines from Colette, “Obsession”, from 2018’s The Window, and the haunting “Ghost Song” itself, her voice on its final chorus plaintively joined by that of Tarantino. In these compositions, Broadway theatre music meets art song and the virtuosic inventiveness of Betty Carter meets the emotional focus of Nina Simone.

Her choice of cover versions was intriguing. “I Want to Know” was an ’50s-style R&B song, a 12-bar blues with a bridge, showcasing Sewell’s fine bottleneck playing. Brecht and Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” came from Simone’s repertoire, sung with a teasing lightness. Sting’s “Until…”, from the soundtrack to the 2001 film Kate & Leopold, was interestingly rearranged to culminate in a Latin section featuring fine flute and piano solos. But the biggest surprise came with “Wuthering Heights”, a song I cordially detest in its original version, here slowed and spun into something mesmerisingly beautiful, its gimmicks completely removed in order to facilitate this remarkable transfiguration.

She’s on a journey, just as Cassandra Wilson, a member of a previous generation, was when she moved from the supper-club safety of Blue Skies in 1988 to the uncharted waters of Blue Light ‘Til Dawn five years later, using different instrumentations to tackle Robert Johnson, Joni Mitchell and the Monkees. Even McLorin Salvant herself may not know where her well-stocked mind and innately inquisitive spirit will take her in the coming years, but from the sound of Tuesday’s ovation she will not be alone on the trip.

London Jazz Festival 1: The peak of their art

After an hour of Mike Westbrook’s autumnal musings at the Pizza Express’s piano on Sunday afternoon, in which the great composer, arranger and bandleader stitched together the memories of a life in music into a seamless reverie with a quiet intensity that held the room in thrall, the scene at the 2021 London Jazz Festival moved to the South Bank, where Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey stormed the Queen Elizabeth Hall with something belonging entirely to the here and now.

Sometimes you get lucky and witness something that makes you realise how high the standards can be. Doesn’t matter what it is. Tennis, poetry, carpentry. On Sunday night it was jazz. A pianist, a bassist and a drummer dropped in to examine the art of the possible, demonstrating over the course of two hours of high-density interplay what can happen when three like-minded virtuosi get it into their heads to create something in which 1+1+1 = infinity.

Basically, they played their way through their recent album, Uneasy. It’s one of the year’s finest releases, but here they stretched it, expanded it, tossed its elements around, and gave it a completely new existence. So many bases were covered — 21st century takes on bebop, Latino patterns, reggae, the circular rhythms of Tyner-Garrison-Jones — that the time passed very quickly.

Linda Oh is the least known of the three, but her bass playing was the heart of the group: slight build, total physical commitment, wonderful tone, great agility, an endless flow of ideas. Vijay Iyer is a cerebral pianist who nevertheless relishes any involvement with rhythm (one night at the Lido in Berlin a few years ago, he and his regular acoustic trio — completed by the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Marcus Gilmore — locked into an endless groove that any funk band would have envied). Tyshawn Sorey operates with complete comfort at the absolute extremities of the dynamic range, from whisper-quiet to shatteringly loud, plus every setting in between. On this occasion he made you wonder why anyone would ever need more than a small bass drum, a medium-sized snare, a single cymbal and a hi-hat, from each of which he drew an astonishing variety of tones and timbres.

Their music rattled, jolted, cruised, purred, broke apart, blended back, cantered, swung, faked a stumble, slowed to a sigh. The audacity made you gasp. Solos were taken, but were always part of the whole. Oh’s leaping grooves made you want to dance. Iyer’s upper-register filigree made your mind soar. Sorey’s sudden whipcracks straightened your back.

Another side of the multi-dimensional Sorey is on view in For George Lewis / Autoschediasms, a two-CD set in which his compositions are performed by Alarm Will Sound, a New York-based 16-piece chamber orchestra here made up of brass, woodwind, strings and percussion, tuned and untuned. “For George Lewis”, a 50-minute piece dedication to his mentor and fellow composer, conducted by Alan Pierson, bears the imprint of Sorey’s interest in the music of Morton Feldman: fully composed, based on a process of accretion and subtraction of single held notes, it moves with mesmerising deliberation through austere and refined layers of sound, creating the musical equivalent of colour-field painting.

“Autoschediasms” is Sorey’s name for his version of the approach to creating real-time music with large ensembles pioneered by Butch Morris (who called it “conduction”) and Anthony Braxton. In these two performances, recorded in St Louis in May 2019 and in various US cities via internet video chat in October 2020, Sorey takes the rostrum, giving the musicians prompts via gestures and prepared cue-cards. “The method can involve the use of up to four batons simultaneously by the conductor,” he writes in his informative notes, and anyone who has seen him at a drum kit will know that this is a challenge well within his scope. The result is a much more obviously active ensemble music, its details and densities sometimes clashing or overlapping, but with an emerging coherence and, like a master of action painting, an excellent sense of drama.

* Uneasy by Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey is on ECM. For George Lewis / Autoschediasms by Tyshawn Sorey and Alarm Will Sound is on Cantaloupe Music (www.cantaloupemusic.com).

Forever Curtis

No word of a lie, I was listening to a new compilation called People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Songbook when I came across this photograph of me interviewing Curtis in January 1972, during the edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test in which he and his band so memorably performed “We Got to Have Peace” and “Keep On Keeping On”. It was the first time I’d interviewed him (last year I wrote about the second occasion, which took place in very different circumstances, here) and he was as wise and courteous as I’d been led to expect from all of the songs of his that I’d listened to over the years. You’ll have to forgive me putting the photo up here; it’s a precious memory.

The 24-track album, compliled by Tony Rounce, kicks off with the Impressions’ version of “Gypsy Woman” and includes Mayfield’s “Keep On Keeping On”, but otherwise it consists of versions of Curtis’s songs by third parties. A few of them he also produced, such as Jan Bradley’s charming “Behind the Curtains”, Barbara Mason’s “Give Me Your Love”, Gladys Knight’s “The Makings of You”, the Staple Singers’ uncharacteristically lubricious “Let’s Do It Again”, Aretha’s “Look Into Your Heart”, Patti Jo’s irresistible “Make Me Believe in You” and Walter Jackson’s majestic “It’s All Over”. But some of the finest moments come when outsiders are looking in on the material.

Rounce suggests that Dionne Warwick’s version of the much loved “People Get Ready”, recorded in Memphis in 1969, is the closest to Curtis’s original with the Impressions, and he’s right, but it’s different enough to make it a marvellous complement. The Techniques’ “Queen Majesty” and the Gaylads’ “That’s What Love Will Do” are chosen to illustrate the huge impact the Impressions had on Jamaican vocal groups (I think I’d have added the Uniques’ “Gypsy Woman”, with its gorgeous Slim Smith lead vocal).

My only other suggestions would have been to find a place for the Opals’ “You Can’t Hurt Me No More” and to omit Major Lance’s over-familiar “Um Um Um Um Um Um” in favour of the lesser-known “Delilah”, his first single for OKeh in 1963, with its great piano from Floyd Morris, Al Duncan’s kicking drums and little touches of Curtis’s guitar. Lance’s first hit, “The Monkey Time”, appears in a version from the Miracles’ Mickey’s Monkey album, allowing us to contrast the significant difference in feels between Duncan’s drumming on the original and Benny Benjamin on the Motown version.

I was pleased to be introduced to the Jackson 5’s intense and long-buried 1970 version of “Man’s Temptation”, produced by Bobby “Does Your Mama Know About Me” Taylor, its lead switched between various brothers, and to Keni Burke’s “Never Stop Loving Me”, which is early-’80s Quiet Storm music at its suavest. The version of “I’ve Been Trying” by Jerry Butler, an ex-Impression, may not be quite as sublime as the group’s original — the B-side of “I’m So Proud” — but what could be? It was their finest hour.

It’s always good to be reminded of the mark Curtis left, not just as a singer and composer but as a man who believed in taking control of his own destiny when so many in his position were being robbed of it.

* The photo was sent to me by Tim Dickinson, to whom many thanks. People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Songbook is on the Kent label.

Dylan 1980-85

While reading an interview with the filmmaker Jesse Dylan in the (London) Times last week, one quote caught my eye. The interviewer asked him about the continued productivity of his father, who is now in his ninth decade. Jesse replied that his dad wasn’t trying to outdo himself. “He’s just thinking, ‘Should I paint a picture today? Should I write a song?'”

It reminded me of of my own reaction to visiting the Musée Picasso in Paris a few years ago and realising how wonderful it must have been to be him, to get up in the morning and think, “Shall I paint a picture today? Shall I paint a few plates? Shall I make a bull’s head out of a pair of bicycle handlebars or a guitar out of a matchbox and some rubber bands?”

That’s not the only point of comparison between the two, for sure. But Dylan transforms farm implements into sculpture and photographs into paintings with the same unstoppable desire to make stuff. He’s not expecting everything he creates to be the equal of “Desolation Row”, just as Picasso didn’t think a painted soup dish needed to be a rival to the Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Jesse Dylan’s remark might have helped me to make a different kind of sense of the latest volume of the Bootleg Series, titled Springtime in New York and assembled from recordings made in the first half of the 1980s. This was a period that included Shot of Love, Infidels and Empire Burlesque, and most of the tracks on the deluxe five-CD version of the new release are outtakes from those sessions, in Los Angeles as well as New York, plus material from various tour rehearsals and a couple of live tracks (“Enough Is Enough” from Slane Castle in 1984 and “License to Kill” from the same year’s David Letterman show).

There are works of genius here, the two takes of “Too Late” and its eventual metamorphosis into “Foot of Pride” being the prime exhibit, showing Dylan functioning in 1983 at the peak of his powers, creating something that only his imagination could have produced, working away at its shape and structure and detail and angle of attack (and then still not being satisfied enough to put it on the relevant album). “New Danville Girl” has long been loved by bootleggers as a prototype of what would become, 18 months later, the epic “Brownsville Girl”, featuring a friendlier arrangement and more modest production but lacking some of the final version’s finer points. “Let’s Keep It Between Us” is a Dylan song recorded by Bonnie Raitt in 1982 and here performed two years earlier as a confiding southern soul ballad, with wonderful B3 interjections from Willie Smith.

By and large, however, this is an assembly of lesser material. Unlike The Cutting Edge or More Blood, More Tracks, it’s not the sort of compilation that enables the dedicated student to make a close scrutiny of Dylan’s working method over a tightly defined period of time. It’s a whole lot looser than that, and variable in quality. You don’t necessarily need Dylan’s versions of “Fever”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Green, Green Grass of Home”, “Abraham, Martin and John” or “Sweet Caroline” — or Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do”, which isn’t noticeably better than those performed by a hundred young British R&B bands in the mid-’60s (including my own). You might, of course, need his gorgeous version of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”. But what all of them do is remind us of what Dylan’s backing musicians often say, that he knows a very large number of songs — and if you’re in his band, you have to be ready to play them, at least in rehearsals.

Taken together with the outtakes of songs like “Blind Willie McTell”, “Jokerman”, “I and I”, “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, “Sweetheart Like You”, “Tight Connection to My Heart”, “Seeing the Real You at Last” and “Dark Eyes”, some of them pleasingly devoid of the production touches added to the versions released on the original albums, they made me think of what it might be like if Bob Dylan turned up in your village with his band, rented the parish hall and spent an evening entertaining the locals. It wouldn’t be a show. It wouldn’t be for posterity. Nobody would be taking notes or keeping score. There might be false starts and missteps and re-runs. There would certainly be some things that didn’t work quite as well as others. Playing these five discs end to end, flattening out the artistic highs and lows, allowing the kaleidoscope of Dylan’s approach to American music to form and disperse and reform, you get a sense of how much fun that would be.

* Bob Dylan’s Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series 1980-85 is out now in various formats and configurations on the Columbia Legacy label. The photograph of Dylan in New York is from one of the booklets that come with the deluxe version and was taken by Lynn Goldsmith.

Xhosa Cole in the round

Xhosa Cole at the Cockpit Theatre (photo: Steven Cropper)

In heaven, if there is one and we get to go there, all gigs will be like Jazz in the Round, the monthly series now in its tenth year at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone. It was good to be back in that intimate space for the first time since the start of the pandemic, among an audience encircling the young Birmingham-based saxophonist Xhosa Cole, whose debut album, K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us, is one of the year’s highlights.

Last night Cole brought a new band, a trio completed by the double bassist Josh Vadiveloo and the drummer Jim Bashford, and a repertoire which he announced would be devoted to the compositions of Thelonious Monk. Then he fooled many of us by starting with a Monkish tune of his own devising before moving on to a highly wrought version of “Played Twice”. Already the trio was revealing itself to be a finely balanced mechanism in which even drum solos become conversations.

The obvious comparison would be with Sonny Rollins’s classic 1957 Village Vanguard recording for Blue Note with Wilbur Ware and Pete LaRoca. Tenor, bass and drums can form an austere, unforgiving format, but Cole, Vadiveloo and Bashford made it seem welcoming, not least thanks to the care put into the arrangements. “Evidence”, already the most staccato of jazz tunes, was made even more so, but without forfeiting a powerful sense of flow. “Pannonica” added the tiniest hint of vaudeville to spice up a tune whose strolling A section is as close as Monk ever came to writing a pop tune (before he added a defiantly chromatic middle eight).

It’s no disrespect to the bassist and drummer, marvellously agile and responsive throughout, to say that the dominant memory of the evening was provided by Cole’s lengthy unaccompanied reading of “Round Midnight”, which grew directly out of “Played Twice” and began with the sound of clicking pads. Supple and full of life, unhurried but rich in variations and allusions, employing subtle hints of multiphonics in a wholly relevant way, Cole’s solo sometimes evoked Monk’s own habit of adding arpeggiated flourishes to his solo piano improvisations, relishing the sense of decoration without losing the thread of continuity.

Unexpectedly, it reminded me of the first version of “Round Midnight” that I remember hearing, a feature for Johnny Griffin on Lookin’ at Monk, a 1961 recording by the two-tenor group Griffin co-led with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. I think Griffin, one of the great post-bop tenorists, would have admired not just Cole’s impressive technical command but the poise, maturity and warmth with which the 25-year-old found new life in a very familiar tune.

* Xhosa Cole’s K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us is on the Stoney Lane label.

Todd Haynes’ ‘The Velvet Underground’

Probably the best compliment I can pay to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary is to say that it’s made in the spirit of the music. His switchblade editing, abundant use of split-screen and fantastic material from all sorts of archives creates a tone parallel to the sounds we’re hearing and to the lives we’re watching.

An important decision was not to include testimony from anyone who wasn’t actually a witness to the events the film records. Every voice you hear bears the glory and the wounds of what happened in that short time when Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Nico rewrote the rulebook. Cale is wonderfully engaged with a story that, for him, ended badly. Tucker still sounds like the real glue of the band. The voices of the departed members are heard in archive interviews. Among others who shed light are the veteran avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, the actress Mary Woronov, the superfan Jonathan Richman, the composer La Monte Young, the scenemaker Danny Fields, Merrill Reed Weiner, Lou’s sister, and Martha Morrison, Sterling’s wife. (No Gerard Malanga and only the briefest glimpses of Edie Sedgwick, which is a bit of a surprise.)

It’s quite a demure film, given the milieu; the sexual merryground is glimpsed but not explored. Neither is Haynes interested in deep musicology. He wants impressions rather than details, which keeps the film moving. He doesn’t try to analyse the divide in Reed’s personality between the brutal and the tender. But we do get a feeling for the characters, as when Cale sums up Nico quite beautifully: “She was a wanderer. She wandered in and she quietly wandered out again.” And we certainly get an idea of how the chemistry between Long Island doo-wop fan Reed and Welsh avant-gardist Cale turned 56 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side into such a potent musical laboratory. Haynes leaves us with a lovely colour clip of Reed and Cale performing “I’m Waiting for My Man” during their reunion at the Bataclan in Paris in 1972, with Nico waiting in the wings.

Throughout the film, the great songs — “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Sister Ray”, “White Light/White Heat”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Rock and Roll”, “Sweet Jane” — are allowed to emerge in the perfect setting. And as they issue from big cinema speakers, you may yourself experiencing once again the seismic effect they had when you first heard them, brand-new. There were times when I wanted to cheer.