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The Clapton movie

Eric Clapton film

Quite the most striking thing about Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is its chronicling of the evolution of the guitarist’s hairstyle throughout his life, and the way its constant revision so accurately mirrors the changing modes of popular culture: a perfect early mod cut growing out into a bubble perm and then an early-70s stoner straggle and through countless other stages until reaching the present-day elderly rockandroller look, of which there were many versions in the audience at the Richmond Odeon last night.

Whatever you think of Clapton’s music (and I was never a fan of that style of blues-rock guitar playing), he always had great hair — and he knew it. It’s unsurprising that a strikingly emotional moment in Lili Fini Zanuck’s film occurs when, on a visit to his estranged mother and her husband on a Canadian army base in Germany in his mid-teens, he is forced to have it cut short. No man of roughly Clapton’s generation who lived through a similar ordeal in his own adolescence will fail to recognise that excruciating, almost life-threatening humiliation.

The walk to the cinema took me past the site of the old Railway Hotel opposite Richmond station, a key location in the history of the Thames Delta. It was in the back room of those premises that the Yardbirds made their first impression on the public, succeeding the Rolling Stones as the resident band at Giorgio Gomelsky’s Crawdaddy Club and allowing Clapton’s extraordinary magnetism to emerge.

The voice of the Yardbirds’ Chris Dreja is one of many heard in the documentary. Another from that period is the late sculptor Ben Palmer, the pianist in the Roosters, Clapton’s first band, and clearly a powerful influence on the sensibility of a young man who, during his year at Kingston Art College, was reading Baudelaire and Steinbeck while discovering the music of Blind Blake and Big Bill Broonzy. Clapton’s mother, his sister and his grandmother (who brought him up as her son) are also heard.

But it’s the years of superstardom and addiction that are the film’s real priority, and where it becomes repetitive to the point of tedium. We hear from some of the principal figures of Clapton’s life in the ’70s and ’80s — notably Bobby Whitlock, his keyboard player, and Pattie Boyd, his muse — at what seems like inordinate length, accompanied by endlessly repeated home-movie clips and stills. These are deployed with only the most cack-handed grasp of the lessons taught by the innovative documentarist Ken Burns to a generation of directors in the creative use of the combination of a rostrum camera and limited visual material. In terms of Clapton’s musical history and the influences that reshaped it, the complete absence of any mention of Music from Big Pink, J. J. Cale, the Delaney and Bonnie tour of 1969 or the Pete Townshend-directed Rainbow comeback concert of 1973 seems a bit strange.

Nevertheless there are many affecting sequences. They include a brief clip of Clapton crossing a London street and getting into his Mercedes 600 in the company of his then fiancée and fellow junkie, the ill-fated Alice Ormsby-Gore, vividly evoking the darker side of the lives of the jeunesse dorée of the late ’60s, and the reconstruction of the death of his four-year-old son in a fall from the 53rd-floor window of a New York hotel in 1991. His dreadful racist outburst on stage in Birmingham in 1976, after brandy and wine had taken over from heroin, is not glossed over; others may disagree, but to me it seems consistent with what we know about the radically distorting effect of an immense alcohol consumption on his personality at the time (Boyd is eloquent on that subject).

It’s good that Clapton is living through the golden sunset of a settled family life and the fine work done by his Crossroads charity to rescue others from addiction. As far as the film goes, however, I’d have been happier staying at home and listening to the only two records of his that I ever play: the sublimely sentimental “Wonderful Tonight”, a song that absolutely hits its chosen spot, and, more seriously, the Unplugged version of “Old Love”, where in both his voice and his playing you can hear echoes of the sensitive, troubled boy whose instinctive love of the blues earned him a ride on a roller-coaster that he was lucky to survive.

* Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is in cinemas from January 12. The Richmond Odeon screening was supposed to include the live transmission of a Q&A between Jools Holland and Clapton taking place on stage at the South Bank; some technical problem blacked it out, but neither explanation nor refund was offered.

Freedom now… and then

Trevor Watts 1

L to R: Veryan Weston, Alison Blunt, Hannah Marshall and Trevor Watts

No musicians get more of my admiration than those working in the field of jazz-derived free improvisation. An idiom under development for more than 50 years, it has never offered public acclaim or material reward to its practitioners, despite requiring levels of creative imagination and technical ability far beyond the norm in other genres. For the attentive and sympathetic listener, nothing offers quite the same degree of reward as the experience of hearing a group of musicians — or even a solo improviser — imagining the music from scratch, relying on their inner resources from start to finish and (in the case of ensembles) on an extreme sensitivity to the other individuals and to the group dynamic.

It’s a music best heard live, when the listener is able to witness that dynamic at work and watch the musicians exploring the extended instrumental vocabularies developed during the music’s long period of evolution. Given the sounds and skills involved, too, visual evidence sometimes helps in sorting out who is playing what. And so, no less than a Bob Dylan studio album, a recording of free improvisation is a snapshot of a moment.

Sometimes, however, the snapshot can carry a lasting meaning that makes it more than just a souvenir. In the second section of this piece I’ll deal with an album that has carried such significance for half a century. But this part is about a new recording from a group of experienced improvisers who have been playing together for a while, and which seems to me to convey a value beyond the hour it took to play it.

The saxophonist Trevor Watts was one of the originators of British (and European) free music, as a founder member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1966 with his former RAF colleague John Stevens. Trevor’s passionate alto playing was heard on the SME’s first album, Challenge, recorded soon after their formation, and later in his own groups, including Amalgam and Moiré Music. Now approaching his 79th birthday, Trevor retains the combination of finely tuned energy and emotional generous energy that has always distinguished his work.

His latest venture is a co-operative quartet with the violinist Alison Blunt, the cellist Hannah Marshall and his long-time musical partner, the pianist Veryan Weston. Last year Watts and Weston released a fine duo album called Dialogues for Ornette (a reminder that 50 years earlier Challenge contained a track titled “2B Ornette”)The new quartet’s debut is titled Dialogues with Strings, but it would be a mistake to assume the existence of any kind of hierarchy, or even the feeling of a pair of duos.

This is densely woven music, sometimes hectic, sometimes legato, but motivated, whatever the velocity or trajectory, by a sense of urgency from four musicians playing together as unit for the first time. It isn’t the heavy-metal variety of free jazz; there are passages of wonderful delicacy, but the overall impression throughout the album’s three pieces, recorded last spring at Cafe Oto, is one of a powerful momentum that continues to surge even through the occasional silences. It’s full of the kind of magic that the best free improvisers can conjure when they work together in the right environment.

SME 1Free improvisation is a complex business. Is the idea to create something from nothing that nevertheless sounds as though it was pre-composed? Surely not, although that can be an occasional effect. The reissue of Karyōbin, the SME’s second album, taped in February 1968, shows the music in an embryonic state, when individuals were still mixing and matching their discoveries and feeling their way towards a true group music.

Recorded at the behest of Island Records’ Chris Blackwell for a short-lived label called Hexagram, produced by the engineer Eddie Kramer in a single evening using free after-hours time at Olympic Studios in Barnes, this Watts-less version of the band features — from left in the photo above — Dave Holland (bass), John Stevens (drums), Evan Parker (soprano saxophone), Kenny Wheeler (trumpet and flugelhorn), and Derek Bailey (guitar). The album captures the sound of the musicians as they were heard in many different combinations at the Little Theatre Club in Covent Garden, a crucible of the new jazz.

The individual musicians are at various angles in their relationship to this music, but their personal voices are unmistakeable: Wheeler’s liquid squiggles, Bailey’s surreptitious scrabbling, Parker’s terse flutter and stutter, Stevens (on his skeletal Launcher kit, adopted to bring his playing down to the prevailing volume level of this unamplified music) alternating dry tapping with the pings of cymbals and small gongs. Each of these adventurous approaches would eventually be widely imitated as other musicians joined the cause.

Remastered from the original master tapes, now in Parker’s possession, and cleaned up and rebalanced by Adam Skeaping, this new reissue of the only LP to appear on the Hexagram label is a vastly better proposition than earlier efforts (a Japanese reissue, for instance, was dubbed from a vinyl album), and is matched by packaging which retains the original artwork but adds new essays and a selection of previously unseen black and white photographs taken with Parker’s camera during the session.

It’s a cornerstone of this music and has repaid repeated listening throughout its long life. If you don’t know what happened after Karyōbin, and want to find out, get hold of the 2014 reissue of the SME’s third album, Oliv, recorded in 1969 for Giorgio Gomelsky’s Marmalade label, coupled with an unissued session from the previous year featuring an extended piece called Familie. Both feature Watts back in the fold alongside various other additions, including the bassists Johnny Dyani and Jeff Clyne and the singers Maggie Nichols, Pepi Lemer and Norma Winstone.

It’s all the stuff of history. And, thanks to Watts and others, history is still being made.

* Dialogues with Strings is on the FSR label. The photograph of the quartet is from the album’s jacket, and was taken by Mark French. The reissues of Karyōbin and Oliv & Familie are on Emanem. The photograph of the SME is from the sleeve of the former and was taken by Jak Kilby. Evan Parker and Dave Holland, the only survivors of the Karyōbin quintet, will be playing at the Vortex in Dalston on Friday March 2, in a benefit for the club (www.vortexjazz.co.uk).

Swing Out Sister’s ‘Almost Persuaded’

Swing Out SisterOne of the nicer things that happened to me in 2017 was an encounter with Corinne Drewery and Andy Connell, otherwise known as Swing Out Sister. The circumstances — the funeral in Grimsby of Corinne’s dad, the lead singer and bass guitarist with the R&B band in which I played during the mid-’60s — could have been happier. But it was fun to tell her about the band, about the nights we supported Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Tom Jones, and about how Rae, her dad, was always on at me — quite correctly — to stick to a simple backbeat rather than trying to lay Elvin Jones licks all over the 12-bar blues of Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf.

It was some time after Swing Out Sister registered their first big hit, “Breakout”, in 1986 that I realised I had a tenuous connection to the girl with the Louise Brooks bob and the great pop-soul voice, whom I had seen as a very small child more than 20 years earlier. It took another 30 years for us to meet again, and to have a conversation which revealed the depth of the love and knowledge of music that she and Andy share.

When I saw that their 10th studio album, Almost Persuaded, was being self-released via PledgeMusic before Christmas, I signed up. The product of three years of thought and work, the CD arrived a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been playing it almost non-stop ever since, enjoying the way the duo create and sustain an escape into a neo-Bacharachian world of romantic elegance. The settings for their poised melodies and lyrics feature cool grooves, beautiful keyboard textures, deft horn flourishes and the mentholated sounds of vibes and (synthetic) strings. The music makes you feel that you’re sitting in a penthouse lounge, looking down on the lights of the city, with the first drink of the evening in your hand.

There’s no irony in play here, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. It’s a kind of uptown pop music that flourished in the era of Dee Dee Warwick’s “When Love Slips Away”, Lou Johnson’s “The Last One to Be Loved” and the Forum’s “The River Is Wide”, but with updated components and a modern sheen. In other words it’s civilised escapism, pure and simple, designed to carry you into a different world.

The arrangements soar and swirl and sigh, restrained by fine judgement from excesses of lushness or sentimentality. There are hints — and they are only ever hints — of Francis Lai and Michel Legrand, of blaxploitation soundtracks and early Eurodisco. The best song, the gorgeous “All in a Heartbeat”, comes in two versions, and the second of them sounds like a classic to me, switching from restrained verse to ecstatic chorus with a heart-lifting rush that reminds me of Corinne’s deep affection for Northern Soul.

From start to finish, Almost Persuaded is beautifully conceived and artfully crafted, and is warmly recommended to anyone who fancies slipping into a seat in that penthouse bar, high above the city lights.

* The photograph of Corinne Drewery is from the cover of Almost Persuaded and was taken by Gersende Giorgio. The album is available now on CD and download via PledgeMusic: http://www.pledgemusic.com

2017: the best bits

SLIDESHOW 4 -® Camille Blake - Berliner Festspiele-41

L to R: Kendrick Scott, Gerald Clayton, Ambrose Akinmusire, Dean Bowman (pic: Camille Blake)

Ambrose Akinmusire’s MaeMae

About a year ago I invited the trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire to listen to the four short blues songs sung in 1939 by Mattie Mae Thomas, an inmate of the women’s wing of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm. She sang them into a recording device set up by Herbert Halpert, a musicologist from the Library of Congress, in the prison’s sewing room, where the female inmates made uniforms and bags for collecting cotton. Unheard by the outside world until 1987, when they were released on a LP by the Rosetta label, these unaccompanied songs are just about as deep and powerful as any blues singing I know. (Here’s one of them: “Workhouse Blues”.) And they are all we know of Mattie Mae Thomas. No details of her life have survived. We don’t know where she came from, how old she was, why she was in prison, or what became of her. All we know is that voice, with its astonishing strength, self-confidence, and nuanced phrasing.

After listening to her, Ambrose accepted a commission to create a piece for the 2017 Berlin jazz festival, my last as artistic director. He told me that Mattie Mae’s voice reminded him of his grandmother, who came from a small Mississippi town called Drew, not far from Parchman Farm, singing in the kitchen when she visited them in Oakland during his childhood. His mother’s middle name, he told me, was also Mae. She had picked cotton as a girl and left Drew to move to California as soon as she could. When he suggested that they make a visit to her old home, she declined. She never wanted to go back there.

In the months between our meeting and his arrival at the festival in the first week of November, I didn’t ask Ambrose any questions about the nature of the piece. All I knew was that he would be bringing a specially assembled sextet including the guitarist Marvin Sewell, the pianist Gerald Clayton, the bassist Joe Sanders, the drummer Kendrick Scott, and the singer Dean Bowman. Once they were in Berlin, I didn’t even go to their rehearsal. I wanted to be surprised.

And I was. The 70-minute song cycle, called MaeMae, contained elements of all the rich sophistication that characterises Ambrose’s music, but dialled right down so that what emerged was a restrained, often sombre, blues-drenched meditation on the music and the culture of the Delta and its echoes in the present day. Samples from Mattie Mae Thomas’s recordings emerged like ghost fragments, lying against the music or integrated into it. Variations on her phrases were sung by Bowman, who sometimes shaped his tone to evoke the texture of voices heard on old shellac 78s and at others ululated to dramatic effect. In one section he explored other hallowed blues motifs (“Another man done gone…”).

The piece took a while to settle — this was a new band, and a new piece — but before long Kendrick Scott was exploring a deep rhythmic pocket, a master drummer of the 21st century channeling the Chicago blues backbeats of Sam Lay and Fred Below.  Marvin Sewell played a magnificently eerie unaccompanied bottleneck solo that paid homage to the masters of the Delta blues. Ambrose, the most eloquent of today’s trumpeters, announced the piece with an unaccompanied liquid fanfare but held back in his solos with a masterful sense of economy.

For me, MaeMae is a composition that involves itself in some of the deepest currents flowing through this period of history, a time in which old battles are suddenly needing to be refought. I hope its life is not confined to a single performance on November 3, 2017 in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, because it deserves a chance to evolve and deliver its message to the widest possible audience. And to make Mattie Mae Thomas live again.

Now here’s the rest of what I’ve particularly enjoyed this year.

Live performances

1. Vijay Iyer Sextet (Wigmore Hall, October)

2. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (Kings Place, November)

3. Paolo Conte (Royal Festival Hall, November)

4. Mary Halvorson Octet (New School, New York, January)

5. Caetano Veloso / Teresa Cristina (Barbican, April)

6. Art Ensemble of Chicago (Cafe Oto, October)

7. The Weather Station (Lexington, October)

8. Samora Pinderhughes’ The Transformation Suite (New School, New York, January)

9. Aarset / Bang / Henriksen: The Height of the Reeds (Humber Bridge, Hull, April)

10. Wanja Slavin’s Lotus Eaters (Tiyatrom, Berlin, January)

11. Catherine Christer Hennix (Silent Green, Berlin, March)

12. Steve Winwood (Hammersmith Apollo, July)

13. Giovanni Guidi Trio (Rosenfeld Porcini Gallery, May)

14. Han Bennink / John Coxon / Ashley Wales (Cafe Oto, August)

15. Vyamanikal + 2 (Kings Place, September)

New albums

1. Hedwig Mollestad, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, David Torn etc: Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal (Rune Grammofon)

2. Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black (Anti-)

3. Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (ECM)

4. Trio Da Kali / Kronos Quartet: Ladilikan (World Circuit)

5. The Weather Station: The Weather Station (Paradise of Bachelors)

6. Amir ElSaffar / Rivers of Sound: Not Two (New Amsterdam)

7. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (Top Dawg)

8. Tyshawn Sorey: Verisimilitude (Pi)

9. Little Steven: Soulfire (UMe)

10. Alexander Hawkins: Unit[e] (AH)

11. Bill Frisell / Thomas Morgan: Small Town (ECM)

12. Matt Wilson: Honey and Salt (Palmetto)

13. Binker and Golding: Journey to the Mountain of Forever (Gearbox)

14. Jaimie Branch: Fly or Die (IARC)

15. Ron Miles: I Am a Man (Yellowbird)

16. Yazz Ahmed: La Saboteuse (Nain)

17. Sharon Jones: Soul of a Woman (Dap-Tone)

18. Jimmy Scott: I Go Back Home (Eden River)

19. Gerald Clayton: Tributary Tales (Motéma)

20. Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway (Nonesuch)

Archive / reissue albums

1. Tony Williams Lifetime: Live in New York 1969 (HiHat)

2. The Transcendental Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (Luaka Bop)

3. Isaac Hayes: The Spirit of Memphis 1962-1976 (Stax)

4. Chris Wood: Evening Blue (Hidden Masters)

5. Bob Marley & the Wailers: Lively Up Yourself (Wewantsounds)

6. Bobby Hutcherson & Harold Land: UCLA 27 September 1981 (Timeless)

7. Jon Hassell: Dream Theory in Malaya (Tak:til)

8. Mike Westbrook Concert Band: Marching Song (Turtle)

9. Gillian Hills: Zou Bisou Bisou (Ace)

10. Harry South: The Songbook (Rhythm and Blues)

Feature films

1. A Quiet Passion (dir. Terence Davies)

2. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

3. Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

4. Land of Mine (dir. Martin Pieter Zandvliet)

5. Personal Shopper (dir. Olivier Assayas)

Documentary films

1. I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck)

2. Chasing Trane (dir. John Scheinfeld)

Books

1. Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin Classics)

2. Sam Shepard: The One Inside (Knopf)

3. Thomas Dilworth: David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (Jonathan Cape)

4. Timothy Snyder: On Tyranny (Bodley Head)

5. Jeremy Whittle: Ventoux (Simon & Schuster)

Music books

1. Peggy Seeger: First Time Ever (Faber & Faber)

2. Todd Mayfield w/ Travis Atria: Travelling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield (Chicago Review Press)

3. Bob Dylan: The Nobel Lecture (Simon & Schuster)

4. David Hepworth: Uncommon People (Bantam)

5. Trevor Barre: Convergences, Divergences & Affinities (Compass)

Exhibitions

1. Cy Twombly (Centre Pompidou, Paris)

2. Soul of the Nation (Tate Modern)

3. States of America (Nottingham Contemporary)

4. Cézanne portraits (National Portrait Gallery)

5. John Singer Sargent watercolours (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Mavis Staples goes high

030913_mavisstaples_2685As soon as she made her first record with her family’s gospel-singing group in the early 1950s, Mavis Staples made it clear that she occupied a vocal and emotional register of her very own. At the age of 14, already she could invest the lines “Won’t be the water / But the fire next time” with an almighty dread. Today, at 78, she may have lost some of the range and raw power of her youth but she retains every ounce of the visceral impact. And in terms of its relevance to the state of the world, her new album, If All I Was Was Black, takes its place among the year’s most essential recordings.

It’s her third album with Jeff Tweedy, the leader of Wilco. Tweedy wrote all 10 songs, three of them in collaboration with Mavis, and plays in the small band assembled for the project. The songwriting is superbly sensitive and appropriate, using various forms of primal guitar-led R&B as settings for lyrics dealing with the racism that has refused to go away in the 50 years since the Staple Singers recorded “Freedom Highway” and played their part in the civil rights struggle.

“Little Bit”, structured on a wiry riff reminiscent of the early Magic Band, deals with the deaths of boys and young men at the hands of the police. “Who Told You That” is similarly stripped-back, putting Mavis and her backing singers firmly in the spotlight as they reject advice not to “rock the boat” and to “stop acting up”. Mavis is at her most urgent on “No Time For Crying”, which hits a relentless groove like a cross between Tinariwen’s desert blues and Otis Taylor’s one-chord chants. “We Go High” marries a famous phrase from Michelle Obama’s speech in support of Hillary Clinton — “When they go low, we go high” — to a gentle, soulful tune that could have come from Curtis Mayfield. “Try Harder” is another exhortation; fuelled by a couple of fuzz guitars and a crunching riff, it could have come from the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” era. The album closes with the meditative “All Over Again”, in which the duet between Mavis and Tweedy’s finger-picked acoustic guitar reminds us that her dad, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, grew up on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta, listening to Charley Patton and Son House.

That’s one of the things I love about this deceptively simple-sounding album: in its search for a language with which to express its very immediate concerns, it makes connections with important traditions. Nourished by the deepest roots, it makes a direct and poignant address our own perplexing, disturbing time.

* The photograph of Mavis Staples is by Chris Strong.

Otis Blue

Otis Blue 1Otis Redding died 50 years ago today, on December 10, 1967, when his light plane crashed into a lake near Madison, Wisconsin. Six others — the pilot, Otis’s valet, and four members of his band, the Bar-Kays — also lost their lives. A fifth musician, the trumpeter Ben Cauley, was the only survivor.

Two years earlier, one Saturday in the late autumn of 1965, I’d bought his album Otis Blue. It’s the same copy that you see in the picture above, and it came from Rediffusion Records in Nottingham, where I’d had a Saturday job the previous year. What I remember about that day is taking it out of its bag, throwing the bag away, and walking around town with the record under my arm, so that people could see what I’d bought. I was 18, and that sort of thing mattered. (Distressingly, perhaps it still does.)

You could argue, and I might agree, that his peak came the following year with the studio version of “Try a Little Tenderness”, an epic beyond compare, and that “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, completed only three days before his death and released posthumously, is a wholly original piece suggesting fresh directions his music might have followed had he not been taken at the age of 26.

But Otis Blue is the goods, the work that defines him at his most immaculate. Naturally its 11 tracks contain examples of the transcendental fervour that inspired a thousand imitators, the songs that soaked his sharkskin suits with sweat on stage in clubs and concert halls. That’s what you get in “Respect”, “Shake” and his famously frantic cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.

But an unusual tone has already been set by the first track, a self-penned blues-ballad called “Ole Man Trouble”. It’s a strange way to start a soul album, although it fools you for a moment when it opens with two hits from Steve Cropper’s Fender Esquire and Al Jackson Jr’s snare drum that sound like the fanfare for a fast song. Instead there’s a half-beat pause before the guitar, Jackson’s bass drum and Duck Dunn’s bass guitar release the tension with the start of the backing to a slow song in which Redding mourns his problems and pleads for a change of luck. The arrival of the B3 organ (Isaac Hayes, I think) and the four-piece horn section emphasise the lifts built into the song as it works to its climax, but they do nothing to get in the way of a mood that is almost austere.

This carefully judged economy of means and approach is maintained in the album’s other outstanding slow songs: a version of “My Girl” that rivals the Temptations’ original; a deep-soul treatment of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”; the classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”; a conversation with Cropper on B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” that shows what a bluesman he would have been, had soul music never been invented; and, maybe best of all, a reading of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” that gives us a second great version of one of the key songs of the civil rights era.

All the way through, he delivers his lines with a fine control of tone and phrasing as well as the expected commitment. There is no hint here of the stereotyped soul man — a caricature from which “The Dock of the Bay” promised, in vain, to deliver him. He is simply magnificent. And if you had to choose half a dozen great albums from the 1960s, Otis Blue would be one of them.

Bye bye, Johnny

Johnny Hallyday RIPOn this side of the English Channel, we spent decades laughing at Johnny Hallyday. He was the eternal proof that the French couldn’t do rock ‘n’ roll. At all. But if there was one quality that defined Johnny, apart from his obsession with American popular culture, it was persistence. And eventually I saw past the dreadful cover versions of US hits (“Viens danser le Twist”) and found myself starting to enjoy and even admire what he did.

The turning point was a composition by Michel Berger called “Quelque chose de Tennessee”, featured in Johnny’s 1985 album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Attitudes. It’s a beautiful song with really wonderful words, and it enabled Hallyday to find the perfect balance between his oft-thwarted desire to sing with the emotional abandon of an American rocker and his heritage in the more dignified cadences of French chanson. The ambiguity of the title — Berger was writing about Tennessee Williams, but since this is Johnny we’re listening to, there’s also an implicit hint of Memphis — helps to set up a genuinely great performance.

Five years ago, that song gave me an unforgettable moment. It was October 2012, and Johnny was playing the first proper UK concert of his entire career. The Royal Albert Hall was packed to the rafters, and I seemed to be one of only a very small number of English people present (remember that London — for the moment, at least — has a French population of somewhere around 300,000). It was a gig I really didn’t want to miss, for cultural as much as musical reasons.

Johnny did his thing in front of an excellent band, singing with a power and an energy astonishing in a man of his age and with his medical history. And when he delivered “Quelque chose de Tennessee”, the audience rose to join him, singing Berger’s tune and lyric with great feeling. So did I, and if I tell you it was like joining in with Springsteen when he does “Hungry Heart”, you’ll probably know what I mean. Both songs address a yearning for something beyond our ordinary little lives, and Johnny evoked that feeling as effectively as Bruce.

His death was announced today, at the age of 74. His country will be in mourning for a man who had his first hit in the month that Elvis was demobbed and half a year before John, Paul, George and Pete made their first trip to Hamburg. No more Paris-Match cover stories. No more buying the paper on holiday in France to check out the itinerary of his latest annual summer tour, with its sports stadiums and Roman amphitheatres. Adieu, Jean-Philippe Smet. Bye bye, Johnny.

A little afternoon music

Necks matinee 1This is the line of ticket-holders waiting to enter Cafe Oto for the Necks’ sold-out lunchtime concert today. It might have seemed an unusual time of day to experience the intensity of free collective improvisation, but the Australian trio’s music tends to work its unique magic at any time of day or night, in any location.

In between a festival in Madeira and a concert in Helsinki, they were stopping in Dalston for this single show. As usual, they played two sets of approximately 45 minutes each, separated by a short break. And, again as usual, the two sets were contrasting in nature and effect. I wasn’t at all surprised when one confirmed admirer went into raptures about the first set, while another said the second set was the best he’d ever seen them play.

The three musicians themselves don’t talk about individual performances in terms of differing type or quality levels. Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck were there, doing what they do, exposing the process of creating music from scratch on the basis of three decades of shared experience. To them, in a sense, the existence of the Necks is one unbroken performance, divided for convenience into chunks that happen to be the length of an old-fashioned LP.

Necks matinee 3Abrahams began the first set with tentative piano figures, joined by Buck’s bass drum and, eventually, Swanton’s arco bass. The pianist tended to hold the initiative throughout, creating arpeggiated variations that slowly surged and receded, gradually building, with the aid of Buck’s thump and rattle and the keening of Swanton’s bow, to a roaring climax — including, from unspecified source among the three, a set of overtones that gave the illusion of the presence of a fourth musician — before tapering down to a perfectly poised landing.

After the interval it was Swanton’s turn to open up, his plucked octave leaps offered as an invitation to the others. This time Buck began with a stick on his open hi-hat and a mallet on his floor tom-tom, while Abrahams seemed to devote more time than usual to open single-note lines. At one point, about 10 minutes in, the pianist spent a few seconds picking out what sounded like a Moorish melody, but he declined to pursue its possibilities and after a brief pause moved on to something more like his familiar strumming and roiling techniques. About 20 minutes later, however, he returned to that melody, or something very like it, using it as the material from which to fashion his contribution to another supremely graceful conclusion.

What began in 1987 as a private experiment between three young Sydney-based musicians has evolved into an institution with a large and devoted worldwide audience. Somehow they manage to make it new every night, even when that night happens to be a Sunday lunchtime. They’ll be back at Cafe Oto next March.

Isaac Hayes in full

Isaac HayesI wish I’d had longer to talk to Isaac Hayes back in January 1971, and that I’d been able to get him to talk in more detail about his childhood and his family background, which involved picking cotton and extreme poverty. That day in Memphis, in his extraordinary office in the Stax corporate HQ, white-hot from the success of Hot Buttered Soul and To Be Continued, sitting in a white egg-shaped chair suspended by a chain from the ceiling, he talked about his plans for the imminent recording of what would become Black Moses, the double album released at the end of that year, with its extraordinary cruciform fold-out cover art.

He talked about making it a big production, mentioning George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass as an inspiration and giving me the impression that it would be based on gospel music and spirituals. “But I’m going do it in a commercial fashion,” he explained. “I hope I haven’t waited too long to do it, because sometimes the trend changes so fast and I feel I can really get right to the roots of it. I know I can from recollecting my own experiences, from being in those small country churches that are no larger than this office, where people didn’t have no piano or anything, just feet on the floor. It’s so beautiful, man, and things like that are what I’m going to try and capture.”

I asked him if he’d heard work songs during his upbringing in Covington, a rural town outside Memphis. “Yeah, I can vaguely remember… I’m sure my grandmother would know them, because her mother was a slave. She tells me about those experiences. I used to sing spirituals in the rural areas of Mississippi and Tennessee and Arkansas. Also I started out playing blues. I used to play with a little blues band — I think it was Valentino and the Swing Cats, or something… I played a little tenor sax, and we’d play on a store porch sometimes. On Friday evenings, man, everybody’s coming in from the fields, they fry the fish here and they’re gambling there and selling corn liquor there and drinking wine right across the tracks. You know, one side of the tracks is white and the other is black. We’d play right out in the porches of the stores, those country blues. I’m going back to those places… I’ve been away from it so long. All this will help in putting this album together, because I’m not only going to include spirituals, I’m going to go the whole bit. It’ll be a picture.”

Well, Black Moses didn’t quite turn out like that. In some ways the strangest thing about Hayes’s career is that, having made his name as one of the great soul-music songwriting partnerships of the 1960s (with David Porter), once he became successful as an artist it was via other people’s songs: his protracted boudoir-friendly versions of pieces from the pens of superior pop song writers, in particular Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love” and “Walk On By”. Such things, not gospel songs or spirituals, would be the basis of the double album he recorded between that March and October.

Hayes was a fascinating musician, and all his facets are displayed in The Spirit of Memphis 1962-76, a thoughtfully compiled and beautifully presented four-CD anthology of his material for the Stax family of labels. There’s a first CD containing 26 examples of his early work as a writer, producer and keyboard player for Stax, including tracks by Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, Johnnie Taylor and William Bell, the highlights for me being Mable John’s “Your Real Good Thing”, the Soul Children’s “The Sweeter He Is” and, perhaps most of all, Judy Clay’s glorious “You Can’t Run Away From Your Heart”. The second disc has his own hit singles for Volt and Enterprise, including “Phoenix” and the theme from Shaft.

Half of the third disc (which opens with some of his cover versions) is devoted to a mostly unreleased set from an Operation PUSH concert in Chicago in 1972. He exposes his blues, R&B and gospel roots to tremendous effect in a great big-band version of “Stormy Monday”, an epic “If Loving You Is Wrong”, and a heartfelt voice and piano treatment of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, the gospel classic which Hayes says he heard his grandfather sing, his spoken introduction reprising some of the things he had said to me almost two years earlier.

The fourth disc throws together several fine and again mostly unreleased funk jams featuring his excellent band, the Movement, with Willie Hall on drums, James Alexander on bass, Sidney Kirk and Lester Snell on keys, and Michael Toles, Harold Beane and Skip Pitts on guitars. The 19-minute “Groove-a-thon” and the 33-minute version of “Do Your Thing”, expanded from the one heard on the Shaft soundtrack, remind us of the place Hayes’s music occupied alongside Norman Whitfield’s psych-soul and Miles Davis’s psych-jazz in an era when stretching out seemed to be the natural mode of musical life.

‘Goal by Garrincha’

Club Inégales

It’s hardly surprising, I suppose, that music in praise of football and footballers tends to concentrate on South Americans — I’m thinking of Jorge Ben’s “Filho Maravilha” and “Ponte de Lança Africano” and Manu Chao’s great song in celebration of Diego Maradona, “La Vida Tombola”. Alexander Hawkins’s “Unequal Baobabs (Goal by Garrincha)” is something different on the same subject.

The piece was given its debut in London last night as part of Expect the Unexpected, a two-night affair in which 25 composers were each invited to submit a one-page score to be performed, without rehearsal,  by the band of Club Inégales, led by Peter Wiegold. Part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, the second night in this basement bar off Euston Road featured pieces by Alice Zawadzki, Orphy Robinson, Mark Sanders, Matthew Bourne, Pat Thomas and others, interpreted by a 13-piece ensemble of improvising musicians — an expanded version of Wiegold’s regular band, Notes Inégales.

I had a particular interest in Hawkins’s piece since its existence is the indirect result of a conversation we had a couple of years ago, on the subject of football, during which I recommended a book by the Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano called Football in Sun and Shadow, published in an English translation 20 years ago. Galeano’s brief chapters include one called “Goal by Garrincha”, in which he described the effect of a particularly dramatic strike by the great Brazilian winger during a World Cup warm-up match against Fiorentina in 1958.

Hawkins’s score consists of eight “cells” of note sequences, with written instructions such as “Proceed at own rate; no need to synchronise” and “Any cell may be transposed into any octave”. Galeano’s words were read by Zawadzki, who was also playing violin and singing in the group, and by Notes Inégales’ regular percussionist, Simon Limbrick. The piece began with a drone on G and ended after about 20 minutes with all the instruments sustaining their highest possible pitch, at minimal volume. “Hold this final drone for as long as we dare,” Hawkins instructed, “and even then a little longer.”

I meant to ask the composer if he’d also read Ruy Castro’s classic biography of Garrincha, where the author describes the other Brazilian players’ reaction to the goal — in which the player dribbled past the entire Fiorentina side before making a fool of the goalkeeper as he scored. Garrincha’s team mates refused to celebrate with him and were bitterly critical afterwards, complaining that any attempt to repeat such an individualistic feat during the World Cup itself would risk damaging their chances of winning the trophy (which they did, of course).

Football and jazz: both are completely dependent on improvisation, individual and collective, on players with a sense of adventure and possibility but also with a sensitivity to the potential of their colleagues. The two hours of music I was able to hear last night, featuring pieces by Robinson, Sanders, Zawadzki and Helen Pappaioannou as well as Hawkins’s contribution, was full of those qualities. I particularly enjoyed the playing of Hyelim Kim on the taegum (a Korean bamboo flute), Jackie Shave on violin, Ben Markland on bass guitar, Torbjörn Hultmark on trumpet and Chris Starkey, whose interventions on an orange plastic-bodied Airline electric guitar were often startling and always stimulating.

The moods ranged from the refined beauty of Zawadzki’s “In an Old Theatre” through a strange almost-irony in Sanders’ variations on “What a Wonderful World” to the broad humour of Robinson’s piece, whose changes of direction were indicated by the composer via commands displayed on his iPad, the last of which instructed the musicians to blame each other. For once, post-match recriminations were not confined to the dressing room.