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Just like Elvin, Art, Max…

All the way through the ’60s, starting at the age of 13, I’d buy a copy of Down Beat every fortnight from a newsagent that stocked foreign publications. Thirty five cents in the US, it cost half a crown in the UK — a lot of money when I was still at school. Of course I wanted to read interviews with people like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and to absorb the wisdom of critics and columnists such as Pete Welding, Don DeMichael, John A. Tynan and LeRoi Jones. But I also wanted to gaze at the full-page ads for Gretsch drums.

Other manufacturers also used famous players as their pitchmen: Shelly Manne used Leedy drums, we were told, while Buddy Rich played Rogers, Rufus Jones played Slingerland, and Joe Morello had a Ludwig kit. But the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Co. of Brooklyn, NY… well, as you can see above, they had Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones and the teenaged prodigy Tony Williams, all of them drummers I worshipped, and most issues of Down Beat included an ad showing one of them with the kit he favoured. That was enough to give me a lifelong yearning to own a set of Gretsch drums: a jazz kit with an 18-inch bass drum and 12- and 14-inch toms, all in that nice black finish that Tony used with Miles, and a five-inch chrome-shelled snare drum. Since you’re asking.

I know it’s stupid to fetishise makers of percussion instruments; after all, one of the most effective drums kits in music history — the one in Motown’s main studio throughout the ’60s, played by Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen and Uriel Jones on countless classic hits — was a hotch-potch bearing the logos of Ludwig, Slingerland, Rogers and Gretsch. And how great did that sound?

Still, we can dream, and my particular yearning was partially satisfied a few years ago when I was asked what I wanted for Christmas and the only thing I could think of, within sensible limits, was a Gretsch snare drum. So now I have one, just to keep my wrists in shape, although a fear of annoying the neighbours leads me to muffle it with a thick duster, which removes a fair amount of the fun. (The kid across the street who started playing a full kit from scratch a year ago has no such compunction, but at least he’s got a future and I can hear him improving by the month.)

And the point of this, you’re asking? It’s that next month there’s an online auction of equipment from the Gretsch factory, with the proceeds apparently going to the company’s charitable foundation, whose activities include organising drum circles for child refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Here’s a link. You’ll see that among the offerings are not just drums and some of the guitars for which the company also became famous — including the Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy models — but an intriguing miscellany of items including “vintage guitar neck patterns, a rolling rack with ten drawers of saw blades, metal clamps with a large wooden hand drill, an antique cabinet, body forms, wrenches, a sanding table, vintage four-wheel open carts and more…”

I won’t be bidding. I’ve got my drum with a Gretsch badge on it. Just like Elvin, Art, Max, Philly Joe and Tony, right?

Cats, herded

Alexander Hawkins and Evan Parker (photo: Dawid Laskowski)

Organising free improvisers might seem like a fool’s task. Why would the special breed of players who spend their lives resolutely creating music from scratch suddenly want to submit to the will of a composer? Nevertheless, history proves that sometimes it works: notable successes were recorded by Michael Mantler with the original Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Alexander von Schlippenbach with his Globe Unity Orchestra and Barry Guy with the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra. Each project depended to some extent on the leader/composer’s familiarity with the techniques of contemporary European straight music, but the idea was given new impetus with the introduction of the looser and perhaps more organic-to-the-idiom technique of “conduction”, pioneered by the late Butch Morris and pursued by George Lewis and Tyshawn Sorey, among others. Slightly to one side were the adventures of the British duo Ashley Wales and John Coxon, known as Spring Heel Jack, who created stimulating modern environments for many individual improvisers, including Wadada Leo Smith and John Tchicai.

The first sound heard on Togetherness Music: For Sixteen Musicians, Alexander Hawkins’ new album, is that of Evan Parker’s soprano saxophone, unwinding its always surprising coils of sound, the seemingly unbroken skeins of notes punctuated by split-second darts and lurches into other registers. As usual, it’s exhilarating and mesmerising, particularly when the sound of the isolated soprano blooms with reverberation, which may or may not be the natural property of Challow Park Studios in Oxfordshire, where the set was recorded. But then Hawkins introduces his other resources: the five string players of the Riot Ensemble and nine other musicians, including the trumpeter Percy Pursglove, the saxophonist and flautist Rachel Musson, the cellist Hannah Marshall, the bassist Neil Charles, the drummer Mark Sanders, and Matthew Wright on electronics, all conducted by Aaron Hollway-Nahum. Gradually they add sombre pedal-points, heightening the atmosphere before Parker drops out and the strings begin to slip and slide until the piece ends, after almost 10 minutes, with several of them holding a tentative D natural.

Sanders and Pursglove are the next to get the concerto grosso for improvisers treatment, a layer of restless percussion under the silvery trumpet continuing into a dialogue with written lines for flute/bass clarinet and viola/cello. On the third piece Parker returns for a pointilliste conversation with Hawkins’ scrambling piano in which the Riot Ensemble make their full presence known, soaring and churning as the music holds itself together through some mysterious centripetal force.

Hawkins, the 16th musician, is featured on the fourth piece, against a walking line played by two basses (Charles and Marianne Schofield) and possibly one of the two cellos, too. Showing the pianist at his most inventive and hyper-alert, it has the loping gait and harmonically ambiguous flavour of the music created by young Cecil Taylor and the bassist with his early groups, Buell Neidlinger, before Parker pipes up with a reminder of another early Taylor collaborator, Steve Lacy, in a passage of ensemble agitation that resolves into an elegant, ruminative diminuendo.

The strings dominate the fifth piece, a collective statement in which the individual instruments glide around each other as if in mismatched orbits, the fine details of tone and timbre revealed within an aural space that feels busy yet uncluttered. The sixth and final composition opens with a trio of Charles, Sanders and Wright, bass and drums working around light electronic taps, thuds and crackles. Pursglove and Hawkins emerge with staccato trumpet figures and a purposefully wandering single-note piano line, continuing as Sanders briefly dominates with thrashing brushwork before the other musicians reappear in a crescendo of exultant sound. A graceful withdrawal gives the last word to Parker and Hawkins, two improvisers who share a near-infallible instinct for an ending.

The six pieces are titled, in order, “Indistinguishable from Magic”, “Sea No Shore”, “Ensemble Equals Together”, “Leaving the Classroom of a Beloved Teacher”, “Ecstatic Baobabs” and “Optimism of the Will”. I’ve described them in such details because the more you listen, the more distinctive they become: each one a living organism with its own cellular structure, texture and micro-climate. I’ve said before that Hawkins has a rare understanding of how to combine composition and improvisation, and here, in this very special recording, we have a perfect example of his gift.

Perhaps I’ve found Togetherness Music particularly valuable because I’ve missed attending live performances of free improvisation very much over the past year. Recordings of small groups, however excellent, aren’t the same thing as hearing and seeing this music conjured in front of you. But by framing improvisation so creatively, Hawkins brings it to life in a different way.

* Alexander Hawkins’ Togetherness Music is out now on the Intakt label (www.intaktrec.ch)

Bob Dylan in Surbiton

Here’s a building that deserves one of English Heritage’s blue plaques — if, that is, the story about Bob Dylan putting in an appearance at Surbiton Assembly Rooms in the first week of January 1963 can ever be verified.

Mentioned 25 years ago in Clinton Heylin’s Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments (Day by Day 1941-1995), the alleged performance also gets a brief reference in a new book, Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales, by Jackie Lees and K. G. Miles, an account of the singer’s various engagements with the British capital, from that first visit in the winter of 1962-63, when he appeared in the long-lost BBC TV play Madhouse on Castle Street, learned songs from Martin Carthy, displeased the hard-line traditionalist folkies and fell out with Nigel Denver, through the Albert Hall concerts of 1965 and ’66 and the Earl’s Court comeback of 1978 to his most recent performance in Hyde Park, sharing the bill with Neil Young in 2019.

It’s a slender paperback — you can read it in a couple of hours — with some useful background information and enjoyable descriptions of events such as the filming of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” clip by D. A. Pennebaker in the snicket called Savoy Steps in 1965 and the session in a Camden Town café with the photographer Ana María Vélez-Wood that produced the cover shot for World Gone Wrong in 1993.

Much of it will be familiar even to amateur Dylanologists like me. But there’s the occasional nugget of wisdom, too. I particularly liked the observation that Dont Look Back, the Pennebaker documentary of the 1965 tour, was not an example of cinéma-vérité — as it is usually taken to be — but a performance.

As for Surbiton, the glancing mention made me curious, possibly because I live in that direction. A bit of research turned up the information that the Wednesday-night sessions of the Surbiton & Kingston Folk Club were started in 1962 by the singer Derek Sarjeant, who had just moved to the area to take a job with the South Eastern Electricity Board. The opening night was on January 14 that year; three weeks later the first guest night featured two visiting Americans, Carolyn Hester and Richard Fariña, who were married to each other at the time. Both had Dylan connections, having met him in Cambridge, Massachusetts the previous summer. Hester’s first album, produced by John Hammond for Columbia Records in the autumn of 1961, featured Dylan’s first recorded appearance, contributing his harmonica to three tracks.

Dylan’s visit to Surbiton seems to have taken place on either January 2 or the following Wednesday, the 9th. Sarjeant died in 2018, aged 87, and no written record of a Dylan performance at his club appears to exist. But we know that Fariña was in London at the same time; he, Dylan and their friend Eric von Schmidt (from whom Dylan had learned “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”) performed at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court on January 12; on January 14 and 15 they recorded tracks for a Fariña/von Schmidt album for Doug Dobell’s 77 Records in the basement of Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop on Charing Cross Road, with Dylan — contracted to Columbia — guesting under the alias Blind Boy Grunt. It seems highly likely that the three of them would have made it to the Assembly Rooms.

The book’s subtitle is a reference to the venerable Troubadour club, where Dylan played on several occasions during that first British visit and where the authors now co-curate a permanent Dylan Room, opened in 2013.

* Bob Dylan in London by Jackie Lees and K. G. Miles is published by McNidder & Grace (£12).

Live at the Village Vanguard

Something Sonny Rollins said in an excellent interview in the March issue of Uncut magazine reminded me of how much I miss being in clubs. The thing with live music, Rollins told John Lewis, is that “everybody has a role — even the audience. The guy nodding his head, the girl who’s smiling, the sceptic who’s not impressed — they all make you play better.” He was answering a question about his youthful experiences in clubs on 52nd Street, but the thought is eternal.

The Village Vanguard, the legendary club on Seventh Avenue South where John Coltrane, Bill Evans and many others made historic recordings, is currently programming a series of livestreamed gigs. You pay $10 and you can either watch the performance live or at any time in the following 24 hours. It’s a way of staying close to the practitioners of an idiom that places such a premium on communication, as well as supporting an institution.

I caught the second of the weekend’s two gigs by the drummer Tyshawn Sorey, the saxophonist Joe Lovano and the guitarist Bill Frisell. Sorey was billed as the leader, and I guess the tunes must have been his, but this was a meeting of three creative minds in a relaxed chamber-jazz environment. I particularly enjoyed seeing Tyshawn — who can do anything — at work on a small jazz kit, swinging with a loose, easy but totally alert feeling that makes me think of Billy Higgins and Tony Williams at the same time.

Lovano and Frisell played together for many years in a trio with the late drummer Paul Motian. There’s no replacing the kind of rapport those three developed over time, but it was fascinating to hear the music the two of them made with Sorey deepen and intensify over the course of an hour. One day maybe we’ll be in the same room as these musicians again, playing our little parts in the ceremony.

* The Vanguard’s coming attractions include the trio of the great pianist Kris Davis and solo performances by the guitarist Ben Monder and the drummer Bill Stewart. Go to http://www.villagevanguard.com and hit the livestream button. You’ll need to register.

The Band at the Albert Hall

The story of the Band is one of the most beautiful and tragic in the history of popular music. But at the Albert Hall on June 2, 1971, we only knew the half of it: the beautiful half. Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson gave us one of the finest concerts imaginable, something that would stay in the memory of everyone lucky enough to have been there.

It was one of those nights when you felt you knew every single person in the audience: a kind of clan gathering, drawn together by a tremendous sense of anticipation. It’s hard to imagine that there was a single person among the 5,000 who didn’t have every note of Music from Big Pink and The Band engraved on their hearts. Even so, we got more than we expected.

On a Monday afternoon two weeks earlier the five members of the Band could be found in the Hamilton Suite on the second floor of the Inn on the Park, close to Hyde Park Corner. After assembling on the balcony for group photographs, they gave interviews. I talked to Robertson and Danko, my Melody Maker colleague Chris Welch spoke to Helm, Hudson and Manuel, while Barrie Wentzell took photographs for the spread we produced. The NME‘s Nick Logan discussed the history of jazz piano with Garth (I’m still jealous), and Caroline Boucher was there to introduce these mysterious musicians to the readers of Disc. It was a pleasant and polite affair, with drinks and canapés, arranged by their record company. They left us all looking forward to the gig, which would come towards the end of their European tour.

The Albert Hall concerts — there were two, on June 2 and 3 — had several salient features. The first was the layout of the instruments, arranged as if in a studio or a front room rather than on a proscenium stage, making it easy and natural for the musicians to swap instruments — Helm picking up a mandolin or a second Telecaster while Manuel took over at the drums, Danko setting aside the bass guitar for a fiddle, Hudson getting up from the organ to play tenor saxophone or accordion.

The second was the quality of the sound. The Albert Hall had been notoriously unfriendly to rock bands, whose amplified instruments floundered in a haze of unwanted natural echo created by the high ceiling. But, as Danko told me, the British audio engineer and PA builder Charlie Watkins had visited the Band in the US and noted the specifications of their regular equipment before creating something similar for their European concerts. Just as important, they played at a volume level which allowed them to hear and respond to each other while permitting the audience to appreciate the nuances of their music.

They played with an astonishing blend of finesse and emotion, of musicianship and modesty. There were four songs from Big Pink, eight from The Band, five from Stage Fright — released the previous summer — and two Motown covers, the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter than Ever” and Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t Do It”, plus Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin'” as a final encore. They made even the most familiar of the songs sound new — and what a thrill it was to hear, in person, the voices of Danko, Manuel and Helm alternating leads and creating those overlapping coarse-grained harmonies.

Everything sounded even better than the records: more present, of course, but also more pristine, which was a surprise given the number of times they must have played these songs. The subtle complexity of “King Harvest” was laid out in all its rustic splendour. Hearts were broken as Danko sang “The Unfaithful Servant” with such tender ardour and mended by the centuries-old ache in Manuel’s voice on “I Shall Be Released”. Danko’s fretless bass imitated the weight of a tuba on “Time to Kill”. Robertson didn’t need to show off — the intro to “The Weight” was enough to tell us that the house’s electricity supply was running through the strings of his Tele — but the eight-bar solo bridging into Hudson’s tenor coda on “Unfaithful Servant” was worth the entire careers of some of the more famous guitarists in the audience.

Levon sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with fervour and drew both resonance and whipcrack from a lovely old kit — placed stage left, side on — that looked as though it might have been around since Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Garth gave us a hint of the pitch-warping capabilities of his keyboards on the opening “The Shape I’m In” and then, deep into the second half, let it all out on the unaccompanied four-minute introduction to “Chest Fever”, given its own title — “The Genetic Method” — and sounding as though the pipes of the mighty Albert Hall organ had been attached to his Lowrey console in order to facilitate some magical union of J. S. Bach and Sun Ra.

But it really wasn’t about the individuals. As Bruce Springsteen observes in the 2019 documentary Once Were Brothers, when those five musicians got together, “something miraculous occurred.” You could hear it when they kicked into “Baby Don’t Do It”, overlaying a Second Line accent on Holland-Dozier-Holland’s version of the Bo Diddley rhythm, generating a steady collective surge that had nothing to do with volume.

Most of that has been stored in my head for half a century, always ready to be unpacked in any discussion of the greatest gigs of all time. It was a thrill when three tracks — “Strawberry Wine”, “Rockin’ Chair” and “Look Out Cleveland” — turned up in 2005 on The Band: A Musical History, a six-CD box supervised by Robertson. Here was proof that the concert had been recorded — by EMI on a humble four-track machine, as it turns out. And now the whole thing, less only “Slippin’ and Slidin'”, is available as the second disc on a 50th anniversary edition of Stage Fright, with sound every bit as good as it was on the night.

In Testimony, his autobiography (which provided the basis of Once Were Brothers), Robertson describes the Albert Hall audience as “rippling with enthusiasm.” In the notes for the Stage Fright reissue, he calls it “one of the greatest live concerts the Band ever played.” What is clear now is that shadows were already looming. Newly acquired wealth and the ability to indulge in damaging habits had begun to warp the relationships between the musicians, eroding the work ethic and the sense of purpose that had driven them through the first two albums. In particular, a rift between Helm and Robertson would be opened and never closed. With The Last Waltz, in 1978, the story of the five-man band was over. Although Robertson’s take on the background events often invites a charge of self-justification, it seems understandable that his patience was eventually exhausted.

Now Richard, Rick and Levon are dead. But at the Albert Hall in June 1971, a last-minute decision ensured that the sound of the Band at their zenith would be preserved. You had to be there, and now you are. In a dark time, it’s a shaft of light.

* The new edition of Stage Fright is released on February 12 by Capitol Records in CD and vinyl formats. The original studio album is rearranged into the running order originally intended, and the set includes alternate mixes and an informal hotel-room session. The DVD of Once Were Brothers is on Dazzler Media. Robbie Robertson’s Testimony was published by William Heinemann in 2016. A revised edition of This Wheel’s on Fire, by Levon Helm with Stephen Davis, was published by Chicago Review Press in 2000. Barney Hoskyns’ Across the Great Divide: The Band and America (Viking, 1993) is highly recommended. The photographs of the Band at the Albert Hall on June 2, 1971 are by Barrie Wentzell (barriewentzell.com), and are used by kind permission.

‘One Night in Miami’

Sam Cooke would have turned 90 today, had he not been shot to death by Bertha Franklin, a motel manageress, during a dispute in South Central Los Angeles on December 11, 1964, when the singer seemed on the brink of the kind of transition from popular hitmaker to cultural spokesman that the equally ill-fated Marvin Gaye would make with What’s Going On seven years later.

According to Franklin, his last words were: “Lady, you shot me.” She is one of the witnesses summoned to speak in The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, a documentary available on Netflix. Its director, Kelly Duane de la Vega, does an excellent job of piecing together Cooke’s story, although perhaps too much emphasis is placed on the conspiracy theories that accumulated after his murder.

His real last words, however, were the lyrics to “A Change Is Gonna Come”, the song that he was inspired to write by hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and which duly became an anthem for the civil rights movement when released as an A-side a fortnight after his death. A probably romanticised version of how he came to compose it is contained in One Night in Miami, a new filmed version of a stage play by Kemp Powers in which Cooke, the NFL star Jim Brown and Malcolm X join Cassius Clay in a motel room on the hours after Clay’s first defeat of Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964.

The meeting did take place, and the invented conversations between the four men are intense and compelling. Malcolm is on the brink of completing Clay’s conversion, but has yet to reveal that he himself is about to break with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. In individual confrontations, the men challenge each other about how to proceed in their dealings with the white world. Brown wants to give up the NFL — in which he represents a role model for black kids — to become a Hollywood star. Cooke is told that it’s time to stop pandering to white audiences. Clay is hours away from becoming Muhammad Ali. But Malcolm, too, is confronted with his own issues.

I lost a bit of faith in the film when Malcolm pulls out a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and plays “Blowing in the Wind” on a handy record player, telling Cooke he should be ashamed that it takes a white boy to write a song addressing their concerns. As far as I can see “A Change Is Gonna Come” was recorded on January 30, 1964, a month before the first Clay-Liston fight. Here the dramatist’s imperative seems to have taken precedence over the actual truth, whatever that may have been.

Otherwise the film — available on Amazon Prime — is beautifully fashioned by its director, Regina King, deeply atmospheric in its mood and its detail, although traces of its stage origins remain. There are excellent performances from the four leads: Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm, Eli Goree as Clay, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr as Cooke. Michael Imperioli — The Sopranos‘ Christopher Moltisanti — turns up as Angelo Dundee, Clay’s trainer.

I recommend it highly, to be followed immediately by The Two Killings, in which — among other things — we see Cooke’s attempts to retain ownership of his work. Dr Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African studies at Duke University, says of him: “What we know is that we never got to see him as a fully mature artist, thinker and activist who, had he lived, would have had a dramatic impact on the next generation of artists, thinkers and activists.” That seems plausible.

Another of the documentary’s talking heads, Renée Graham of the Boston Globe, considers “A Change Is Gonna Come” and remarks: “It’s the shame of this nation that this song should still be so relevant.” But you have the feeling that another generation, perhaps more than one, will come and go before the change of which Cooke sang becomes definitive.

* Some of Cooke’s recordings — including Sam Cooke at the Copa and Ain’t That Good News — are newly available on vinyl, released on the ABKCO label. His finest albums, Night Beat and One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club, were reissued on CD by RCA Legacy in 2005.

Behind the Curtain of Sound

“Too much reporting on the Wall of Sound this morning — #RememberTheVictim,” a Radio 4 listener tweeted today while Emma Barnett, the presenter of Woman’s Hour, was interviewing Mick Brown, one of Phil Spector’s biographers. The interview was, in any case, mostly about Lana Clarkson, the victim of the fatal shooting in the Pyrenees Castle in Los Angeles on February 3, 2003, and the darker sides of Spector’s character.

Fair enough. In the end, Clarkson’s death was why Spector made headlines throughout the last 18 years of his life. Whatever actually occurred in his mansion that night, the gun was his and if he had not persuaded her to go home with him then she would have woken up the next morning as usual. Probably she would still be alive today, approaching her 60th birthday.

There’s no shortage of figures in every branch of the arts whose private lives would be considered deplorable by a majority of people. Their admirers are left with the problem of how to deal with it. I can understand why some now find it impossible to listen to Spector’s records, although I don’t feel that way myself.

I met him four or five times in the early ’70s, mostly for interviews and once in New York for the three days in late 1971 during which he, John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” at the Record Plant. The most curious of those occasions was an evening in London at the Inn on the Park, a hotel at the bottom of Park Lane, where my friend Penny Valentine, then of Disc & Music Echo, and I were scheduled to share an hour of interview time with him. Two days earlier I’d interviewed his wife, Ronnie, at the same location; she was promoting the release of a single, “Try Some, Buy Some”, on the Apple label, written by George Harrison and produced by her husband.

The interview with Phil began in the late afternoon of an April day, at about five o’clock. We were met in the lobby and shown up to his suite by his long-serving bodyguard, George Brand, a large, dark-suited, near-silent former cop. If the curtains in the suite weren’t already closed, that’s certainly how it felt. Penny and I sat down and Phil began to talk: an almost unbroken monologue in which he told stories and boasted about the number of hits in which he’d played a vital but unacknowledged role. They included Richie Valens’s “Donna” and practically everything Elvis recorded after leaving the army. These claims were clearly baseless, although he did have a tenuous connection with both, just enough to make you wonder. “Donna” was recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, where Spector refined his signature sound and recorded most of his hits. Elvis’s post-army recordings often involved input from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, to whom Spector was apprenticed when he moved to New York in 1960.

So…? But no. He had to have been fibbing, even though he had an acoustic guitar in his lap and every now and then played a snatch of a song he said he’d written. Why on earth would you need to do that, if you’d been responsible for “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Be My Baby”, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'” and “River Deep — Mountain High”? Every now and then Penny and I glanced at each other in the near-darkness, silently registering a mutual astonishment.

But that wasn’t the strangest aspect of the encounter. The scheduled hour of our time together bled into a second hour, and then a third, entirely at Spector’s behest. He needed company, or so it seemed. At one stage he broke off to take a transatlantic call from Bundini Brown, Muhammad Ali’s cornerman. Then he went back to telling his tales.

I’ve no idea of exactly what time we managed to get away, but it was certainly late. Nothing remotely untoward happened — he was courteous and amusing and in most discernible respects it was a very civilised evening — but I got the impression that although Penny was as mesmerised as I was by his performance, she was grateful that we could leave together.

In later years I heard several such stories from people who had visited his LA mansion: descriptions of the darkness, of the obsessive need for company, of the increasing presence of bodyguards and the sense of paranoia it all conveyed. Some people thought he was an arrogant jerk. But I also spoke to people in the music business who’d known him for many years and liked him enormously despite all that. They were people like the veteran music publisher Paul Case, who befriended him on his arrival in New York and later told me the important story of how, when the teenaged Spector was doing a show with the Teddy Bears right at the beginning of his career, he was cornered in a restroom by four young toughs who urinated on him. Lou Adler met him in those days and thought him “obnoxious”; later they established a good rapport. He could be enormously sentimental, which is not always a good sign. And of course we eventually learnt from Ronnie’s autobiography what was going on behind the façade of his marriage, and what it was like being married to him.

Anyway, Gold Star may have been razed many years ago — the site on Santa Monica Blvd is now a parking lot for a mini-mall — but the Wall of Sound still stands, and despite it all I found myself listening to my favourite Spector productions after hearing of his death today. Here are five of them:

1 The Righteous Brothers: “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'” (1964) Unmatchable, of course. Gene Page’s arrangement, Earl Palmer’s drums, the basses of Ray Pohlman (acoustic) and Carole Kaye (electric), the guitars of Barney Kessel and Tommy Tedesco, probably Julius Wechter on vibes, the Blossoms and Cher on backing vocals, and Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield tearing the heart out of the song Spector wrote with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and holding it up for our inspection. (It’s worth pointing out that Spector never just added his name to the songwriting credits to grab some extra cash; among his contributions to this one was the addition of the section based on the I-IV-V “La Bamba” chords.)

2 The Ronettes: “Born to Be Together” (1965) Maybe the most perfect representation of the Spector sound, its expression of romantic ecstasy enhanced by his favourite trick of recording the echo of the strings on a separate track and then using that instead of the primary signal, providing an ethereal effect above the boiling, pounding rhythm section and the chanting voices. This arrangement on this Spector-Mann-Weil song is by Jack “Specs” Nitzsche. The drums are by Hal Blaine.

3 The Crystals: “Oh Yeah Maybe Baby” (1961) The B-side of the first Crystals single, Philles 100, the glorious almost pure gospel “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)”. Recorded at Mirasound in New York, “Oh Yeah Maybe Baby” is a lovely slice of Brill Building teenage pop, set to the baion rhythm — bom bom-bom — loved by Mike Stoller, Bert Berns and others: “Got the heebie jeebies, got the shakes / And I’ve got a funny feeling that you’ve got just what it takes…” Co-written by Hank Hunter, with whom Phil also composed “Second Hand Love” for Connie Francis. Laura Nyro loved this one enough to include it in her solo shows.

4 Ike & Tina Turner: “I’ll Never Need More Than This” (1967) The last but one Philles single, co-written with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, given only a limited US release after the failure of “River Deep”. Arranged by Jack Nitzsche and perhaps the most tumultuous of all Spector’s recordings: the sound of thunderbolts, crashing ocean waves, cliffs crumbling into valleys, with Tina as the lone figure in this Caspar David Friedrich landscape.

5 Darlene Love: “Lord, If You’re a Woman” (1977) A short-lived comeback with his new label — Warner-Spector in the US, Phil Spector International in the UK — and two classic 45s, both calling on the Almighty for assistance: Dion’s “Make the Woman Love Me” and this astonishing thing, an extraordinary concatention of noise arranged by Nino Tempo. A song that could almost be mistaken for a feminist anthem is credited on the UK 45 to “Spector”. The US version credits it to “Mann-Weil”. The riff on the bridge, from “Then He Kissed Me”, has only one author. And Love, who had provided the uncredited lead vocal on the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” in 1963, returned as a star in her own right. (In 1993 she sued Spector for unpaid royalties and was awarded a quarter of a million dollars; did she think fondly of him every time she was invited to perform “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” for David Letterman on TV, or revived it at her own annual holiday-time show? Mixed feelings, I expect, like most of us.)

* My biography of Phil Spector, titled Out of His Head and first published in 1972, was revised, updated and republished in paperback in 2003 by Omnibus Press.

The art of the bolero

When someone mentions the bolero, most of us probably think of the hypnotic Ravel piece in slow three-quarter time used in the 1979 Hollywood comedy 10 as a signifier for sex and at the 1984 Winter Olympics by the ice-dancing champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. That kind of bolero was hybridised from Spanish dances and turned into art music. The other type of bolero was the sort that turned up in Cuba in the late 19th century, in the form of romantic ballads whose popularity spread throughout Latin America.

As a boy growing up in a housing project in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón heard boleros sung by the likes of Arsenio Rodriguez, La Lupe, Benny Moré and Sylvia Rexach: like French chanson, it was a music that transcended generations. His latest album, titled El Arte del Bolero, is a series of duets with the pianist Luis Perdomo — a member of his regular quartet — on the songs he heard back then, delivered with respect, understanding and affection.

Zenón, who was born in 1976, learnt the saxophone from the age of 10 and eventually won a place at a local music school. At 20 he left home with a scholarship to study at Berklee College in Boston, where he fell in with some interesting contemporaries from around the world. Since then he has become widely renowned not just as a wonderful improviser but as a composer, a bandleader, and a distinguished educator. For almost 10 years he has run a project called Caravana Cultural, taking free jazz concerts to young audiences and musicians in Puerto Rico’s rural areas. Grammy nominations and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations have come his way.

I was first made aware of his playing on Not in Our Name by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and several albums by the SFJAZZ Collective, an all-star band whose shifting personnel has featured the likes of Joshua Redman, Bobby Hutcherson, Mark Turner and Nicholas Payton. He is also a member of Guillermo Klein’s Los Guachos. In 2015 I invited him to play at Jazzfest Berlin with his quartet, a long-established line-up completed by Perdomo, the Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig and the drummer Henry Cole, sharing the bill with Keith Tippett’s Octet. Their repertoire included some of the pieces from a recent album, Identities Are Changeable, in which the four-piece was augmented to become a big band and blended with the voices of immigrants; the music retained its potency in the reduced format.

Zenón is a wonderful jazz improviser, clearly influenced by Charlie Parker but with a voice of his own — a warm, fibrous tone throughout the registers with phrasing as elegant at fast tempos as on ballads. El Arte del Bolero is the latest of several albums in which he examines the music of his heritage, but it isn’t a Latin album as such: it’s a record of thoughtful, beautifully balanced explorations with the occasional fleeting venture into ‘outside’ flurries (on Rexach’s “Alma Adentro”, which he first recorded several years ago with an ensemble arranged by Klein) and bebop (Bobby Capó’s “Juguete”, from the repertoire of Cheo Feliciano).

Recorded (without an audience) at the Jazz Gallery in New York last September, this is music of great intimacy, the saxophone so close-miked that you can sometimes hear the soft slap of the pads, the two musicians working as one to create music that combines passion and sophistication in perfect proportions. I can imagine it becoming one of those albums that you keep close at hand, ready for those times when all you want is to hear something beautiful.

* Released via the Miel Music label, Miguel Zenón’s El Arte del Bolero is available on Bandcamp: https://miguelzenon.bandcamp.com/album/el-arte-del-bolero. The photograph of Zenón was taken by Camille Blake on stage at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele in 2015.

Group Sounds Four & Five

From left: Jack Bruce, Lyn Dobson, Henry Lowther, Tom McGuinness, Mike Hugg and Manfred Mann

Tom McGuinness remembers a Sunday night in 1965 when he, Manfred Mann and Mike Hugg visited the Green Man pub on Blackheath Hill to see a modern jazz outfit called Group Sounds Five. He thinks they must have had a motive, because the band’s two horn players — the trumpeter Henry Lowther and the saxophonist Lyn Dobson — soon became members of Manfred Mann, staying until the summer of 1966. After the departure of Mike Vickers, and Tom’s switch from bass back to guitar, they were also joined by Jack Bruce. Tom recalls that Manfred lured Bruce away from John Mayall, who was miffed enough to write a song about the defection: “Double Crossing Time” appeared on the Blues Breakers album.

Group Sounds Five had acquired the habit of rehearsing three times a week, even though they landed on average no more than one gig a month, according to their drummer, Jon Hiseman, and Lowther and Dobson continued with them even after joining the Manfreds. The departure of their pianist, Ken McCarthy, turned them into Group Sounds Four, with Bruce taking over from Ron Rubin on double bass. Both incarnations appear for the first time on record in a new release called Black and White Raga, documenting recordings made by for the BBC Light Programme’s Jazz Club in November 1965 and April 1966, preserved in the extensive personal tape collection of Hiseman, who died in 2018.

This was a remarkably creative time in the London scene, with musicians like Dick Heckstall-Smith, Ginger Baker, Harry Beckett, Danny Thompson, Brian Auger and John McLaughlin switching back and forth between the modern jazz and R&B scenes. Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, George Fame’s Blue Flames, Herbie Goins’s Nightimers and the Graham Bond Organisation welcomed players comfortable with both idioms. Lowther, Dobson and Bruce were able to make a living with Manfred Mann — whose repertoire included tunes like Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack o’ Woe” and Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” alongside “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and “Oh No, Not My Baby” — while continuing to pursue their commitment to the sort of avant-garde jazz exemplified by John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

The four pieces on the album by Group Sounds Five, with McCarthy on piano and Rubin on bass, most strongly reflect the Coltrane influence. An emphasis on modal structures is evident through “Red Planet” (a Coltrane original also known as “Miles’ Mode”), a hard-bop recasting of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, McCarthy’s driving “Celebrity Stomp” and an extended treatment of Mike Taylor’s complex “Black and White Raga”, based on shifting between the black and white keys of the piano. The brilliant but ill-fated Taylor was an admirer of the group (Hiseman, Rubin and Bruce recorded with him), and gave them this piece, which he never recorded himself; he would have been pleased with this intense and compelling treatment, which maintains its tension and narrative thread through 11 absorbing minutes.

Seven months later, now down to a quartet, the band recorded three tracks: Sigmund Romberg’s “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”, Bruce’s “Snow” and Dobson’s “Straight Away”. These are even more impressive: the confidence has grown, individually and collectively, and there is the feeling that something genuinely original is beginning to emerge. It’s most fully evident in “Snow”, a five-minute tone poem in which the composer’s bowed bass converses with the two horns, eventually joined by Hiseman’s mallets. There’s a distinctly Northern European cast to this piece, reminiscent of the writing of Krzysztof Komeda and Palle Mikkelborg.

It would be hard to overpraise the quality of improvising, particularly on the later tracks. Lowther’s endless flow of ideas and Dobson’s rhythmical fluency and tempered aggression are matched by the response of the bass and drums, Hiseman making a particularly powerful impression with a solo on “Straight Away” as architecturally coherent as it is technically advanced. Had this band been given the chance to make an album, the product would no doubt have stood alongside Joe Harriott’s “Abstract” and Mike Taylor’s “Trio” as an fine example of the forward-looking music being made in London at the time. Thanks to Hiseman’s archival instinct, this rediscovery fills an important gap.

Between these two sessions, on March 18, 1966, the Manfreds found themselves at Abbey Road recording a song called “Pretty Flamingo”. Jack Bruce sang the high harmony and Lyn Dobson played the distinctive flute part on what became the band’s second UK No 1 hit. Those were different times.

* Black and White Raga is out now on the Jazz in Britain label (jazzinbritain.org). The photograph is taken from the cover of Manfred Mann’s 1966 EP Instrumental Asylum, and is the only one I can find featuring all three of Jack Bruce, Lyn Dobson and Henry Lowther.

Collarless Beatles

Pierre Cardin was “perhaps best known for giving four mop-topped Liverpudlians their collarless matching suits,” according to the obituary of the French clothes designer in The Times this morning. Wanting something closer to the truth, I asked the peerless Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn how it really happened.

Inevitably it was their friend Astrid Kirchherr, a photographer with an instinct for the avant-garde, who started it off. Astrid put her boyfriend, Stuart Sutcliffe, into a round-collared jacket in Hamburg in March 1961, shortly before he left the Beatles to study painting at art college while the others went back to England.

That October, on a trip to Paris, Paul McCartney and John Lennon saw Cardin’s collarless suits and liked them. But it was not until March 1963 — between “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You”, their second and third singles — that they approached the tailor Dougie Millings to ask him to make matching suits for them to a similar design in a silk and mohair blend. Millings was based in a first-floor cutting room at 63 Old Compton Street in Soho, a couple of doors away from the 2 is coffee bar, where other clients, including Cliff Richard, had made early appearances.

The Beatles’ radical new suits were worn that year, in either pale grey or dark fabrics, for stage shows, TV appearances and photo shoots, teamed with white shirts and black ties. Many of us started saving money for cheap copies of those jackets.

It would be tempting to imagine that their habitually well dressed manager played a part here. Not so. “Brian Epstein had no part in any of this,” Mark told me, “but criticism that he made the Beatles wear such stage suits was levelled against him ever after.” By 1965, when they made their famous appearance at Shea Stadium, they were still wearing matching uniforms, but now the ties had gone, the pale beige lapel-less Millings jackets had stand-up Nehru collars and military epaulettes, and the trousers were a contrasting black.

In 2004 one of McCartney’s original by-Millings-after-Cardin pale grey suits was put up for auction at Christie’s in New York. With no reserve, and an estimate of $8-10,000, it was knocked down for $53,775.

* The first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s three-part history of the Beatles, Tune In, was published in 2013 by Little, Brown.