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Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music

Eddie Gale

The thing I know best about the trumpeter Eddie Gale, who has died at the age of 78, is the first of two albums he made for Blue Note at the end of the 1960s: Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music, an uncompromising title for a piece of music designed to reflect the black experience. In mood and message, it aligns with Max Roach’s slightly earlier We Insist! and Archie Shepp’s slightly later Attica Blues.

Gale had already played with Sun Ra in the mid-’60s and appeared on Cecil Taylor’s first Blue Note album, Unit Structures, in 1966. As a child he’d listened to gospel music and hung around outside a Brooklyn club to listen to Lester Young. He’d taken lessons from Kenny Dorham and sat in with Coltrane at the Half Note: a life-changing experience. He would also be featured on Larry Young’s Of Love and Peace for the same label in 1969. Recording his Ghetto Music project was one of Blue Note’s more unexpected moves. The producer was not Alfred Lion, who took that role on just about every one of the label’s releases, but his partner in the business, Francis Wolff. (Lion had retired when Blue Note was sold to Liberty Records in 1967.)

The five compositions on this album use an instrumental sextet of trumpet (Gale), tenor (Russell Lyle), two basses (Judah Samuel and James “Tokio” Read) and two drummers (Richard Hackett and Thomas Holman), plus a choir of 11 voices, including two lead singers (Elaine Beener and Joann Gale). The leader apart, I’d never heard of any of these musicians before I got the album on its original release, and I’ve never heard of any of them outside of Gale’s orbit since. They seem to have been part of a collective based in Brooklyn.

Whoever they were, they made music with a raw edge and a powerful immediacy. You can hear that on A Walk With Thee, my favourite track from the album. The bass vamp, the martial/bolero drumming, the unison of the horns and voices: it’s a strong brew. Gale has a big sound with a wild edge. Lyle, the tenorist, solos with a kind of suppressed hysteria. It’s an offshoot of what Albert and Donald Ayler were doing a little earlier in the decade. It doesn’t need to be judged according to anyone else’s idea of finesse or sophistication.

A year later the singers and two of the players, Lyle and Judah, were on Gale’s second and last Blue Note album, Black Rhythm Happening, a year later, joined by Jimmy Lyons, the altoist, and Elvin Jones. Gale himself recorded with Sun Ra’s group in the ’70s (Lanquidity on Ra’s Saturn label) before moving to California, where he was an artist in residence at Stanford University, ran a workshop in Oakland and organised music-education programmes in San Jose, where he became the city’s official ambassador of jazz. In 2001 he received an award for his work from the California Arts Council.

Breaking the mode of graphic presentation Blue Note had established under the art director Reid Miles, Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music was released with a strikingly confrontational cover, at least by the standards of the time. A bunch of black men in hoods with women in white robes and mean-looking hounds? In 1969, that sent a message. And still it speaks.

* Originally issued on Blue Note in 1969, Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music was reissued on CD by Water Music in 2003. The photograph of the musicians is from the original sleeve and was taken by Richard Graf. Some of the details of Gale’s life are from this interview in Jazz Times by Andy Tennille: https://jazztimes.com/archives/eddie-gale/

Listening to Lucio Battisti

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For no particular reason that I can pin down, I’ve spent a lot of this lockdown listening to the Italian singer Lucio Battisti. Well, maybe I just wanted music to remind me of being on holiday in Italy. The taste of a decent espresso. Traffic chaos in Naples. Olive groves on a Sicilian hillside. All of the stuff that seems so unreachable at the moment. Anyway, he’s been providing good company, as he has since I stumbled across his music almost 45 years ago. By that time he was already established as one of Italy’s biggest stars, with many hit singles and albums behind him.

The thing that first caught my ear in 1976 was a song called “Ancora tu”, on which he veered away from the singer-songwriter mode into an engagement with disco music. It’s an infernally catchy piece of music, but what also struck me were the words. Even with my rudimentary Italian, it was obvious that he was using dance music as a setting for one side of a conversation between two former lovers who’ve just bumped into each other again: “You again! How are you? Pointless question. You’re like me.” “Have you eaten, or not? Yes, I’m hungry, too.” “You look lovely. Younger than ever. Or maybe just nicer.” He tells her he’s given up smoking. At some point in your life, you may have had that kind of conversation. I liked the way the singer’s tone, conveying a mixture of fondness and concealed wounds, worked beautifully over the lightly pumping rhythm.

I was doing A&R at Island back then, so I called up some of Battisti’s earlier work and lost myself for a while in albums like Il mio canto libero, Il nostro caro angelo and Anima latina, each of which showed a willingness to absorb and adapt a variety of approaches, from English progressive rock to Brazilian new samba. “Ancora tu” was the lead track of an album whose title — Lucio Battisti, la batteria, il contrabasso, eccetera — itself highlighted his new interest in disco. I also found out that while Battisti was responsible for the music, he hadn’t written those interesting words. The lyrics to all his songs were by a man named Giulio Rapetti, who called himself Mogol.

The more I listened, the more I liked the way Battisti made records that sounded thoroughly modern while retaining some quality of traditional Italian pop music. He’d got his start through things like the San Remo Song Festival, and just enough of that flavour survived in his music to set it apart from his Anglo-American influences.

What I didn’t know was his string of hit singles — like Mi ritorni in mente (1969) and I giardini di marzo (1972) — had persuaded a generation of Italian kids that, as well as worshipping the Beatles and the Stones, they could have a pop music of their very own, speaking in their voice. It secured him a special and enduring place in their hearts. “He has been a sort of musical background to our lives,” the writer Giorgio Terruzzi told me the other day, “when we were passing between childhood and adolescence.” But that wasn’t what I heard, because I was listening to it in a different place at a different time. And by then he was becoming something different, too.

At some point, somewhere or other, I met both him and Mogol. Then in London I took Battisti to lunch at the Trattoo, a very nice Italian restaurant just off Kensington High Street. I wanted to try and work out a way to get his records — none of which had been released in the UK or the US — to an Anglophone audience. I liked him: he was a reserved but thoughtful person, and he was very happy discuss the fortunes of his football team, Juventus. Sadly, the idea didn’t come to anything. (The following year, in Los Angeles, he did make an album for RCA called Io tu noi tutti, with Hollywood session men, which gave him a couple more hits at home, although an English-language version titled Images didn’t work at all.) So, as a fan, I just carried on buying his Italian albums.

By the end of the ’70s he’d acquired the habit  of recording in London, with English producers, arrangers and musicians. For a while the records got lusher and more dependent on electric keyboards and synths, as you can hear in “Donna selvaggia donna” from the album Una donna per amico (1978) and “Il monolocale” from Una giornata uggiosa (1980), both produced by Geoff Westley with musicians like the guitarists Pip Williams, Phil Palmer and Ray Russell, the bassists Paul Westwood and John Giblin and the drummers Gerry Conway and Stuart Elliott.

Then it all changed. After so many years of success, Battisti and Mogol parted company, for reasons that have never really been explained. On the singer’s next album, E già (1982), the lyrics were credited to his wife, Grazia Letizia Veronese, and the music was stripped right back to a sound bed of electronics, created in the studio by Battisti and his new producer, Greg Walsh. I found it very adventurous and striking, and a track called “Straniero” made a deep and lasting impression. Then, four years later, came an album called Don Giovanni: more conventional in its arrangements, richer in texture, with words by the poet Pasquale Panella, and featuring several classics, like the irresistible “Fatti un pianto”, with its beautiful tenor saxophone work by Phil Todd on the intro and coda.

By this time Battisti had removed himself from the public eye. He stopped giving interviews and simply released an album every couple of years, all on the Numero Uno label, which he and Mogol had founded in the early ’70s after Ricordi had been reluctant to release their extraordinary concept album, Amore non amore. Each of these new albums had a standard look — very minimal white covers featuring simple black line drawings and no photographs — and each, sadly, was increasingly unsuccessful with the public.

L’apparenza (1988), La sposa occidentale (1990), Cosa succederà alla ragazza (1992) and Hegel (1994) had different producers — Robyn Smith, Greg Walsh, and, for the last two, Andy Duncan — but I think of them as a continuous work: an extended suite of electro-dance music made by a singer-songwriter, the innate vulnerability of Battisti’s voice ensuring that it never lost its human warmth. Sometimes, at their most driving and joyous, as in “Cosa succederà alla ragazza” or “La voce del viso”, these late tracks make me think of the Pet Shop Boys holidaying on that stretch of the Tyrrhenian coast around Viareggio, warmed by the Tuscan sun. But it’s all pure Battisti, really.

Hegel turned out to be his last word. Four years after its release, in 1998, he died in a Milan hospital, apparently of cancer, aged 55. Although in recent years there has been some controversy over the ferocity with which his widow guards his legacy, his music is available to be discovered by anyone who, like me, came to it a little late and found a friend.

* Many of Lucio Battisti’s recordings, including the final quartet of “white albums”, were reissued two years ago by Sony Legacy / Numero Uno in limited editions of CDs replicating the original album artwork. They seem to be still available.

Uptown soul masters

Gene Burks

If you’ve been reading these pieces for a while, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for heavily orchestrated male soul balladeers from the first half of the 1960s. Much of this kind of music came out of the Brill Building in New York, but as Ady Croasdell points out in his notes to an excellent new compilation called Soul Voices: 60s Big Ballads, it was a style that migrated to Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Memphis and elsewhere.

Its great producers and songwriters included Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jerry Ragovoy, Bert Berns, Teddy Randazzo and Van McCoy. Among the most expressive voices were numbered Chuck Jackson, Garnet Mimms and Ben E. King, who were big names back then, and such cult favourites as Lou Johnson, Jimmy Radcliffe, Walter Jackson, Tommy Hunt and Tony Mason. All those luminaries are to be found among these tracks, together with such lesser known singers (to me, anyway) as Clarence Pinckney, Garrett Saunders, Gene Burks and Brooks O’Dell. Be assured of this: they all have something to say, and something worth listening to.

One way of looking at this album, admittedly in a slightly reductive way, is to see it as a 24-track publishers’ demo for the next Walker Brothers album in, say, 1966. It’s possible to imagine Scott Walker recording almost any of these songs with Ivor Raymonde arrangements in the old Philips studios on the Bayswater Road near Marble Arch, as he did with “Make It Easy on Yourself”, “My Ship Is Coming In”, “Stand By Me” and “Stay With Me Baby”.

But the results wouldn’t have been as good. Apart from the great songwriting, arrangements and production, what makes these sides so powerful is the quality shared by all the singers: a certain dignified ardour, usually resigned, occasionally optimistic, generally suave, always grown-up. A compilation that chooses to start with Walter Jackson’s sombre “Forget the Girl”, a wonderful Chicago record with marvellous Floyd Morris piano octaves tinkling through the Riley Hampton arrangement, is setting itself a challenge, but the standard never drops.

Sometimes it reaches the heights. Those moments certainly include Chuck Jackson’s “I Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, a Van McCoy masterpiece worth listening to all the way through again, once you’ve had your heart satisfactorily torn apart by Jackson’s lead vocal, just for the quality of Gary Chester’s drumming. Equally magnificent is Jimmy Radcliffe’s “Through a Long and Sleepless Night”, a classic Bert Berns production arranged for Spanish guitar, double bass and, I’d guess, the Greek chorus of Cissy Houston and Dee Dee Warwick.

Sometimes the individual components of the style make themselves obvious, like the gospel influence on Garnet Mimms’ “Anytime You Want Me”, produced by Jerry Ragovoy, or the Latin tinge of James Carr’s “Lover’s Competition”, or the southern soul of Gene Burks’s “Can’t Stand Your Fooling Around” or the Spectorish sweep of Jimmy Beaumont’s “You Got Too Much Going For You”. Elsewhere there’s the mellifluous strength of Roy Hamilton on “Heartache (Hurry on By)”, the striking tuba intro to Kenny Carter’s “Like a Big Bad Rain”, Al Hibbler’s gentle crooning on Randazzo’s “Good For a Lifetime”, the ice-rink Wurlitzer intro to Junior Lewis’s unreleased “I Love You So Much”, and a lot more besides, including two slices of prime Bacharach: Lou Johnson’s original version of “Reach Out For Me” and Tommy Hunt’s unreleased remake of “Don’t Make Me Over”, which uses the Dionne Warwick backing track.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to slip a gaberdine raincoat over a navy mohair suit and go out and walk the tear-stained streets. This isn’t the weather for it, but the soundtrack never gets old.

* The photograph above is of Gene Burks. Soul Voices: 60s Big Ballads is on Ace Records.

‘Echo in the Canyon’

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There’s a lot to like about Echo in the Canyon, a new 90-minute documentary about the Laurel Canyon music scene in the mid- to late-’60s, directed by Andrew Slater. One asset is the constant presence of Jakob Dylan, who has been silent as a recording artist for several years but here proves to be a sensitive interviewer and performer. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who’s grown up as the son of Bob Dylan isn’t sycophantic towards his celebrated interviewees, but his thoughtful silences are often expressive — they give us, too, the chance to think.

It’s an unusual film in that its framing device is the assembling of a group of musicians, led by Dylan, to perform in concert the songs of the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, and Buffalo Springfield. Dylan’s on-stage guests include Regina Spektor, Beck and Fiona Apple — and, I guess, the members of his band, the Wallflowers. Those he interviews include Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, Michelle Phillips, Lou Adler, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, John Sebastian, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. There are lots of archive clips, many of them cherishable.

The real focus is very specific. It’s the moment folk music and rock music merged in the Byrds’ version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”. Specifically, it’s the moment Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn got hold of a 12-string Rickenbacker — the second to be produced, we learn — and constructed that famous introduction, which echoed the “jingle-jangle” of the lyric and became a genre in itself, working its way through Tom Petty and ending up as power-pop.

A lot is made of the influence of the Beatles on this movement, quite correctly, and also of the way the Byrds’ early records influenced George Harrison to write “If I Needed Someone”. Personally I think they should have given considerable credit to the Searchers’ versions of Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono’s “Needles and Pins” and Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room”, which came out in 1964 and predicted the jingle-jangle sound with great precision. Also, given Nash’s presence, some mention should have been made of the Hollies’ influence.

But then David Crosby doesn’t think much of the pop music that came before… well, before David Crosby. It was, he says, all “moon-and-june and baby-I-love-you”. Oh, right. “I close my eyes for a second and pretend it’s me you want / Meanwhile I try to act so nonchalant.” That’s not poetry, huh? Sure, “To dance beneath the diamond sky / With one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea” is poetry, too. Ah well. Tutto fa brodo, as they say.

Having read two biographies of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young for a Guardian review last year, my appetite for stories of internecine warfare in the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield is pretty well sated, and nothing uttered here adds interesting detail or insight. It’s nice to see Brian Wilson and to hear Michelle Phillips, and Petty’s conversation with Dylan in a guitar shop is apparently the last interview he gave before his death in 2017. But anyone expecting this to be the story of the Laurel Canyon of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor will be disappointed, which makes the presence of Jackson Browne puzzling: he talks well, of course, but really had nothing to do with what the film is talking about.

Apparently Slater was inspired to make the documentary by seeing Jacques Demy’s 1968 film Model Shop, set in Hollywood and starring Anouk Aimée and Gary Lockwood, with a soundtrack by Spirit (who, like Love and the Doors, are never mentioned). I’ve never seen it, but the clips we’re shown certainly make me want to rectify that omission. The director tries to recreate that lost vibe as Dylan cruises the boulevards and wanders from one legendary studio to another: United and Western (now merged), Capitol… not Gold Star, of course, demolished many years ago. The use of Laurel Canyon itself is disappointing: I wanted get more of a sense of the topography and to see the houses where these people lived and (in every sense) played.

Some of the newly performed music is enjoyable, although the chopped-up editing can be frustrating, and having Stills and Clapton perform a guitar duel in studios on different continents wasn’t really a very good idea at all. The best comes at the end: a sensitive version of “Expecting to Fly” is the finale, preceded by Dylan and Beck duetting quite beautifully in front of their band on the Byrds’ arrangement of Goffin and King’s “Goin’ Back”. “A little bit of courage is all we lack / So catch me if you can / …” It made me stand up, grab the nearest air guitar, and find a harmony to sing. And that doesn’t happen every day, I can tell you.

* Echo in the Canyon is on Amazon Prime. The photograph is taken from the Laurel Canyon Radio website: http://www.laurelcanyonradio.com/view-from-laurel-canyon/

Measuring the heart

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The great figures of jazz are the people who, as the decades pass, you can set your compass by. For me, in my generation, that meant Miles, Coltrane, Ornette. It’s always tempting to think that they don’t make people like that any more, but it’s not true. And I’m thinking that the trumpeter, composer and bandleader Ambrose Akinmusire might be one of them.

Akinmusire’s music has a moral heft that makes it a good place to turn to in times like these. Not many artists can so successfully maintain a commitment to beauty while bringing  intellect and rigour to bear on the issues of the day, never letting us forget what got him (and us) here: the history of African Americans.

In 2014, on The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, the second of his five Blue Note albums, Akinmusire included a piece called “Rollcall for Those Absent”, in which a small child recites the names of black victims of police homicide, including Amadou Diallo and Trayvon Martin. It still rings in my head every time a new atrocity occurs. Throughout that and his other albums, even when there is no explicit text, a sense of mourning is mixed with the celebration.

On his new one, called On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment, that underlying emotion is redoubled. Even when this music is at its most complex, rippling and sparkling with detail, it moves on an undertow of the blues. The album begins with Akinmusire’s beautifully pure natural trumpet sound, all alone, introducing a track called “Tide of Hyacinth” which moves through dazzling interplay with the members of his regular quartet — Sam Harris (piano), Harish Raghavan (bass) and Justin Brown (drums) — and incorporates a recitation in Yoruba by the Cuban-born singer and percussionist Jesús Díaz. That’s a taste of the various approaches explored here, which range from a lovely little song pairing the voice of Genevieve Artadi (the singer with the LA electro-funk duo Knower) with Akinmusire’s Fender Rhodes piano, through the Monkish angularity of “Mr Roscoe” and the tender balladry of “Reset (Quiet Victories & Celebrated Defeats)” to a sombre, hymn-like dedication to the late Roy Hargrove, whose work with D’Angelo and others paved the way for Akinmusire’s appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

One track, only half a minute long, is for unaccompanied trumpet, the squeezed half-valve sounds reminiscent of Rex Stewart. Akinmusire goes that far back, and all the way forward. I don’t know of a trumpeter from the generations after Don Cherry who uses vocalised effects so brilliantly. He does it again on the penultimate track, “Blues (We Measure the Heart With a Fist)”, where the notes are compressed so tightly that they can barely escape over Harris’s damped notes before the mood switches into a passage of fantastic trumpet/bass/drums improvisation that seems to explore a new way of swinging.

The album ends with the ringing, carefully-spaced chords of the Fender Rhodes, bringing the album to a close with a short piece titled “Hooded Procession (Read the Names Aloud)”, the latest in Akinmusire’s series of threnodies for the victims of police violence. The timeliness of this does not require emphasis. Once again, he has created a soundtrack for our time that will live long beyond its moment.

* On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment is released on the Blue Note label.

Misha Mullov-Abbado’s ‘Dream Circus’

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In normal times, I’d be keenly anticipating a live launch of Misha Mullov-Abbado’s Dream Circus, the third album by the London-based composer and bassist who won the Kenny Wheeler Prize in 2014, his final year as a student at the Royal Academy of Music. Instead I’ll have to stay at home and enjoy the music on record, which is no hardship at all.

His first album, New Ansonia (2015), was by a quintet. His second, Cross-Platform Interchange (2017), was by a septet. Dream Circus is by a sextet: James Davison (trumpet and flugelhorn), Matthew Herd (alto), Sam Rapley (tenor), Liam Dunachie (piano), and Scott Chapman (drums). It gives evidence of an increasing maturity: the writing, the playing and the recording are of such high quality that once you’ve put the record on, you need a very good reason to take it off.

This is modern jazz with a powerful imagination and a sense of variety that never compromises its integrity. It’s a music with roots in hard bop but a strong commitment to melody. If I had to identify Mullov-Abbado’s spiritual predecessor as a composer, it would probably be Benny Golson. Some of the things I was reminded of while listening to it were Oliver Nelson’s original “Stolen Moments”, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, and Manu Katché’s ECM albums. It stands quite distinct from the new London jazz movement associated with Trinity Laban and Tomorrow’s Warriors. There are no attempts to incorporate influences from outside the mainstream jazz tradition, but it still sounds contemporary. It’s not particularly on-trend, but it really doesn’t need to be.

Individually, the musicians are remarkable. The leader’s introduction to the opening track, “Some Things Are Just So Simple”, establishes the presence and flexibility of his playing. Davison is one of the finest young trumpeters around, with the bright, broad sound and confident projection of Freddie Hubbard, and Herd and Rapley are ideal foils, each with a tone full of human warmth. The passages in which they work together, either as separate contrapuntal voices in the poised “Equinox” or in the full-on free blowing of the exhilarating “The Infamous Grouse”, are outstanding. The subtle dovetailing of the three horns on the opening of “Stillness”, a luminous ballad, is very beautiful, opening out into a tenor solo of which Wayne Shorter would be proud.

The album’s moment of humour is the playful Fats Wallerish theme of “Little Astronaut”, which precedes the absolute highlight: a composition called “The Bear” in which, over a loose but sombre ostinato, the written horn lines are allowed to braid and fray and change weight, giving the feeling of improvisation. It’s interesting to think of these strategies as techniques absorbed (via Mingus and the Blue Notes) from black church music and metabolised into something quite different. The closing “Blue Deer” opens with a lovely pastoral theme that emphasises the gorgeous blend of the three horns before intensifying through an out-of-tempo passage in which the alto rises sweetly to become the lead voice in a moment of absolute radiance. Here is where the importance of Dunachie and Chapman is most evident as the rhythm section switches from time to no-time to complex written passages with a grace that makes everything sound completely natural.

It seems likely that the contribution of the producer, Jasper Høiby, best known as the bassist with Phronesis, has much to do with the project’s success. Captured over a week in Copenhagen’s Village studios last September, the musicians sound relaxed but completely alert, and the tone and balance of the recording are perfect for this music. You can’t play like this unless you’re at ease. And that quality communicates itself to the grateful listener.

* Dream Circus is released by Edition Records on June 12 and is available via Bandcamp: https://mishamullov-abbado.bandcamp.com/. The photograph of the sextet is by Aga Tomaszek.

The fast life of Buddy Featherstonhaugh

Buddy Featherstonhaugh

Buddy Featherstonhaugh’s New Quintet at Butlin’s, Clacton in 1957. From left: Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), BF (baritone), Les Watterson (bass), Bobby Wellins (tenor) and Jeff Todd (drums).

When Buddy Featherstonhaugh died in 1976, aged 66, the tuppence in his pocket was just about all he owned. Five divorces had seen to that. But what a time he had, from touring the world with his own jazz group to becoming the first British racing driver in 10 years to win a continental grand prix. And a slow reverse of fortune couldn’t change him. In the words of one of his daughters, “He always wore a cravat and spoke like a lord.” Right to the end his suits were beautiful, his shoes polished, his nails immaculately trimmed; his habit of smoking Golden Virginia roll-ups, made with a pocket machine, offered one of the few signs that his was a different kind of life, one with several dimensions.

He was one of a group of mid-twentieth century men – among them the trumpeters Johnny Claes and Billy Cotton, the trombonist Chris Barber and the saxophonist and club-owner Ronnie Scott — in whose lives a love of racing cars shared space with a devotion to jazz. As a saxophonist, Featherstonhaugh had toured Britain in 1932 with the band of Louis Armstrong, the biggest name in jazz. Two years later, when he drove a Maserati to victory in the GP d’Albi in 1934, it represented a feat none of his fellow jazzmen could match behind the wheel.

Rupert Edward Lee Featherstonhaugh – which he pronounced the way it looks, not as “Fanshawe” — was born in Paris on October 4, 1909, the son of an English marine architect and his Scottish wife. His grandfather, George William Featherstonhaugh, a geologist and geographer, had emigrated to America, married an heiress, and was instrumental in creating the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, the first in New York State, before being appointed the first US government geologist. Later he recrossed the Atlantic and became the British consul in Le Havre.

Buddy, as his grandson would become known, was the last of the line, standing to receive an inheritance of around £200,000. He grew up at the Old Mill House in Clewer, outside Windsor, and was educated at Eastbourne College, where he had his own boat, learnt the clarinet and wore monogrammed shirts. (Later owners of the house in Clewer included the actor Michael Caine and the guitarist Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin, whose drummer, John Bonham, died there in an upstairs bedroom in 1980.) He attended his first race meeting at Brooklands at the age of 10 and in due course learnt to drive in father’s 1924 Red Label Bentley, which at some point he raced at Brooklands. At 18 he had the first car of his own, a boat-tailed one-litre Fiat, followed in quick succession by a four-cylinder Bugatti, a three-litre Sunbeam, an eight-cylinder Bugatti Type 35, a Eustace Watkins Hornet Special and a 1.5 litre Alfa Romeo, which he raced at Brooklands, winning two races in a single afternoon in 1932. There was, quite clearly, money to spare in the family, and Buddy knew how to use it to have fun.

His skills as a saxophonist were even more precocious. At 18 he had his first professional engagement, with the singer Pat O’Malley at the Brent Bridge Hotel in Hendon. In 1928 he joined the band of the violinist Jean Pougnet before passing through the ranks of many of the great dance outfits of the day, including those led by Bert Ambrose, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson and Spike Hughes (who wrote a tune, “Buddy’s Wednesday Outing”, to feature him). He visited France with Hughes’s Cambridge Nightwatchmen, played a season in Monte Carlo with Bert Firman’s band, and joined Billy Mason’s orchestra, broadcasting three 90-minute sets per week from the Café de Paris.

It was with Mason’s band that he toured in 1932 with Armstrong, who was welcomed by British audiences despite being received by the Daily Herald’s Hannen Swaffer, one of the most celebrated journalists of his day, with a review that takes the breath away today: “Armstrong is the ugliest man I have ever seen on the music hall stage. He looks, and behaves, like an untrained gorilla. He might have come straight from some African jungle. His singing is dreadful, babyish, uncouth… he makes animal noises into the microphone.”

During that historic tour Armstrong stayed at the Old Mill House, and later Featherstonhaugh wrote in an article for the Melody Maker: “The biggest thrill I got from Louis Armstrong was not from his singing nor from his wonderful solos, not his magnificent tone on dizzy top notes, but just from the one occasion on which we played over some of the splendid arrangements which he brought with him. It was his ‘swinging’ of the trumpet lead that stirred me profoundly. He was my ideal of the perfect first trumpet, and my enthusiasm made me play better, I am sure, that I have ever done before or since.”

Not even the scourging pen of Hannen Swaffer could hold back the tide of the jazz age, and in 1933 Buddy Featherstonhaugh and his Cosmopolitans made their first recordings, “The Sheik of Araby” and “Royal Garden Blues”, for the Decca label. While appearing with Bert Firman’s orchestra at the Monte Carlo Sport Club that year, Buddy managed to combine his two enthusiasms by competing at the wheel of an Alfa in the kilometre sprint along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and the hillclimb at La Turbie – although, as he recalled, someone spiked his efforts in the latter by putting sugar in his fuel tank. The spring and summer of 1935 he recorded as a member of Mason’s band backing the trumpeter Valaida Snow, led his own band for several weeks at the new Coconut Grove nightclub on Regent Street, and took time off in July to marry his first wife, Jeanette Paddison, punting along the river to St Peter’s Church, Staines and earning a picture in the Daily Mirror with the headline “BRIDEGROOM GONDOLIER”.

The following year he was among the cream of British musicians recruited by Benny Carter, the great American saxophonist, trumpeter, arranger and bandleader, to form a new London-based band, which recorded for the Vocalion label. Featherstonhaugh was among the featured soloists, who also included the trumpeter Tommy McQuater, the trombonist Ted Heath and the altoist Freddy Gardner.

Meanwhile his parallel career on the race track was earning him renown. In 1934 the wealthy young Whitney Straight gave him a trial in a four-year-old 2.5 litre Maserati and signed him up to his new team. After coming second in a five-lap Brooklands handicap, Buddy set off for Albi, where he faced a field depleted by the holding of two other big races on the same day, at Livorno and Dieppe, but including several of the latest three-litre Maseratis. Averaging 89.04mph in his obsolete car over 30 laps of the triangular 9km circuit of Les Planques, he beat his team mate Hugh Hamilton in Straight’s new Maserati, which had lost the lead after going on to seven cylinders, and the Bugatti of Pierre Veyron. Featherstonhaugh thus became the first British driver to win a pukka continental grand prix since Henry Segrave’s victory in a Sunbeam at Tours in 1923. Through this feat, the journalist Dennis May wrote in The Motor, he had “imperilled our national let’s-be-good losers tradition.”

To celebrate his victory, his mother commissioned the watercolour you see below. The artist she chose was H. J. Moser, whose illustrations were regularly featured in Speed, the magazine of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, and other motoring publications of the 1930s. It’s currently in the hands of the Pullman Gallery in London (details below).

Buddy Featherstonhaugh painting

H. J Moser (1904-1951): “R. E. L. Featherstonhaugh, Maserati 8C – 2500, 1934”

The victory in the Grand Prix d’Albigeois, however, did not turn him into a superstar of the racetracks.  For 1935 he bought the winning Maserati from Straight but apparently could not afford to keep it properly fettled. He entered the Dieppe Grand Prix in a later Maserati belonging to the Swiss driver Hans Ruesch (later to become renowned as the author of The Racer, the best of all motor racing novels), and qualified seventh in a high-class field, between the Bugattis of Robert Benoist and Earl Howe. But he could end the race only 10th out of 11 classified finishers, nine laps behind the Scuderia Ferrari-entered Alfa Tipo Bs of René Dreyfus and Louis Chiron, who finished first and second. In a 500-mile race at Brooklands he shared a big red Duesenberg with the future superstar Dick Seaman, but they were forced to retire after 72 laps when the fuel-tank retaining strap broke. Partnering Jock Manby-Colegrave in an MG Magnette in the International Trophy, he took fifth place; a year later he repeated the achievement in the ERA that had once belonged to Seaman. The highlight of 1936 came in another fifth place in the RAC International Light Car Race at Douglas, Isle of Man, won by Seaman in his famous black Delage.

There was practically no racing for Featherstonhaugh in 1937. Dennis May’s report on the Albi victory three years earlier had noted that “outside these pages he is better known as the head man of the Buddy Featherstonhaugh Sextet than as a racing driver,” but now there was very little musical activity, either, although there were occasional appearances with the bands of Hugo Rignold and Gerry Moore. Instead — telling Pat Brand 30 years later that he was frustrated by “not being able to play the music he wanted to” — he concentrated on establishing himself in the motor trade, setting up an Alfa Romeo dealership in Mayfair under the name Monza Motor Service. Nevertheless he accepted an invitation to drive Ruesch’s fast Alfa 8C-35, a proper grand prix car, at Crystal Palace, where a binding brake sent him off the road, and at Donington, where the Alfa left the track during a practice session, somersaulted twice and was wrecked.

War called him away from the Alfa dealership and into the RAF, where he took the rank of sergeant. He had wanted to become a pilot, but although the wearing of spectacles did not stop him racing a car, his defective vision barred him from flying. Instead he entertained the troops at the head of a series of ensembles, including the Bomber Command Dance Band and the RAF Rhythm Club Band. The trumpeter Kenny Baker and the drummer Jack Parnell were among his colleagues as they broadcast on the BBC’s Home Service from venues including the Criterion Theatre at Piccadilly Circus. Here he is leading the Radio Rhythm Club Sextet in 1944, playing Benny Goodman’s “Soft Winds”. And here’s Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp”.

When peace came, he celebrated by touring the UK with his seven-piece band and made a fleeting appearance playing the clarinet with his Sextette in the opening minutes of Appointment With Crime, a British thriller made at Elstree Studios, directed by John Harlow and starring William Hartnell, Joyce Howard and Herbert Lom. A six-day tour of Iceland and a long residency with a quintet at the Gargoyle Club in Dean Street, with Tommy Pollard on piano and John Hawksworth on bass, prefaced a retirement from the scene. During “five almost musicless years”, as he put it, he concentrated on the motor trade — in Warren Street, Mayfair, Chalk Farm and Earl’s Court — and a sporadic and low-key return to competition, including an appearance at the Brighton Speed Trials. One interviewer described him as “tall, loose-limbed… distinguished by a rather drawly habit of speech, punctuated by zestful bursts of laughter freshening sometimes to gale force. Has no gift for the cogwheels and doesn’t personally molest the insides of motorcars.”

He recruited another band in 1951, playing in London’s western suburbs before moving to Manchester, where he worked in a musical instrument shop and appeared with such bandeaders as Ray Allen, Sonny Swann and Harry Pook in local ballrooms, including the Ritz and the Broadway Baths. A return to London saw him providing arrangements for the Johnny Dankworth Seven and joining the drummer Basil Kirchin’s band, now — at Dankworth’s suggestion — playing baritone saxophone. In 1954 another move, this time to Edinburgh, saw him playing with Vic Abbott at the Fountainbridge Palace and Johnny Black at the Locarno, and with his own octet. Back in London at the end of 1955 he did stints with the bands of Tommy Whittle, Malcolm Mitchell and Carl Barriteau, but also formed a new quintet with which to explore his interest in the latest forms of jazz, taking him away from the task of providing music for dancers into more cerebral areas.

By the autumn of 1956 the quintet had a settled personnel and included two young stars of the British modern jazz scene, the Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and the Scottish tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins. The group recorded two EPs, “Buddy Featherstonhaugh New Quintet Vols 1 and 2”, for Pye’s Nixa label, produced by Denis Preston. They toured the Middle East (with Duncan Lamont depping for Wellins), and spent the summer of 1957 at Butlin’s holiday camp in Clacton on Sea, resolutely declining to satisfy the demands of their younger listeners for something resembling the new sounds of rock and roll. Instead they attempted to convert the audience to the sounds of Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. The second disc featured an early Wheeler composition, the perky “Goldfish Blues”. “Buddy Featherstonhaugh has slipped into the modern idiom as easily as a duck takes to water,” one critic wrote, but jazz in its more progressive form was rapidly losing its commercial appeal.

“The moment I heard bebop,” he remembered, “I realised that jazz was very far from dead. I saw it as a logical and enjoyable development of what had gone before — although it was apparently incomprehensible to many musicians who should have known better. We’d developed a nice line in modern three-part collective improvisation, and we came confidently back to town expecting the clubs to fling wide their doors. They didn’t.”

The quintet toured British Army bases in Germany and appeared in a jazz gala at the Royal Festival Hall, but Featherstonhaugh explored the jazzman’s plight in another Melody Maker article. He listed the problems behind the music’s diminishing appeal: “1. Same old faces. 2. Same old cliches. 3. Obvious and well nigh insulting indifference on the part of too many of the musicians – e.g. lack of punctuality, lack of any effort to entertain and look happy, general lack of appreciation that they are being paid to do something which they profess is their greatest desire: to play jazz with no restrictions.”

As work became scarcer, he drifted back into the motor trade. He loved to visit the Steering Wheel Club in Shepherd Market, where he encountered friends such as Stirling Moss and Graham Hill, and he was devastated by the death of Mike Hawthorn, who had become Britain’s first world champion only a few weeks earlier. There were occasional jazz-club appearances as a soloist with local rhythm sections, and in the early 1960s he led a band on the Orient Steam Navigation Company’s liner SS Orsova as it sailed to Australia.

In 1966 he was interviewed by Pat Brand of Crescendo, the British jazz and big-band magazine. “It is difficult to get at Buddy Featherstonhaugh,” he wrote. “One has to be something of a contortionist to avoid scratching the gleaming Volvos, Vauxhalls, Volkswagens and Vanden Plas which tend to obscure him in the Earls Court motor showrooms he runs today.”

The marriages were coming and going – except for the final one, to Vera, which lasted. There would be three sons and four daughters; he was a loving father, if a trifle unpredictable. Michele, one of the daughters, was presented with an Alfa Giulietta on her 17th birthday: “A lovely little car, but it was gone the next day. He’d sold it for a profit.” (She recalls going out for Sunday afternoon drives: “He drove like a racing driver. But he also had the chauffeur’s skill of making any car feel like a Rolls-Royce.”) Ian, one of the sons, now lives in Canada, where he restores art deco furniture using the technique of French polishing taught him by his father, who had learnt it as a hobby from his own father.

Living in Essex in his final decades, he loved to drink whisky and make model aeroplanes and talk about his favourite musicians, from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. According to Sara, the youngest daughter, “He always lived in the past. He talked about the good life and the things that had happened to him. He wasn’t really a good dad. We were brought up in a very Victorian way: he didn’t get to know us and he didn’t really want to. We hardly saw our half-siblings, except maybe once or twice. But outside that he was the funniest man you could ever meet, always with a story to tell you.”

His last job seems to have been with a Honda dealer in East Grinstead. “It probably ended in a tiff,” Michele said. “It often did. He couldn’t take orders.” He had many acquaintances but few real friends in his later life, she remembered. “He was hard up: his careers hadn’t earned him any money. I don’t think he really knew how to provide for his family. If he was hard up, which was the case most of the time, he’d just go off and come back some time later with lobster and champagne for mum. Not for us…”

When Linzie, another of the daughters, died in a car crash in Jersey in 1976, aged 25, a depression settled on him. Soon afterwards prostate cancer moved to his brain. He died in St Peter’s Hospital, Covent Garden on July 12, 1976. The funeral was held at Holy Trinity church in Abridge, a small Essex village.

The inheritance had vanished decades earlier. The divorce settlements had accounted for various houses. The recordings remain, some of them sounding surprisingly fresh, alongside a few photographs and a handful of faded cuttings from newspapers and magazines. Sara was 12 years old when he died; there must, she says, have been a side of him she’d love to have known.

* This is an expanded version of a piece I wrote in 2018 for The Classic Motoring Review and is republished by permission of the editor.

** Some of the recordings with Benny Carter can be found on Benny Carter: The Music Master (Proper Records). The two Pye Nixa EPs are contained in a Vocalion CD titled Jazz Today, featuring tracks by Featherstonhaugh, Harry Klein and Vic Ash, released in 2010. The interview with Pat Brand is in the July 1966 issue of Crescendo. The photograph of the quintet was provided by my friend Matthew Wright, who wrote about it in the February 2018 issue of Jazz Journal.

** The painting of Buddy and the Maserati at Albi by H. J. Moser is for sale at the Pullman Gallery, 14 King Street, St James’s, London SW1 (www.pullmangallery.com). The quoted price is £14,500.

Jimmy Cobb 1929-2020

Jimmy Cobb

Jimmy Cobb swung. That’s what he did, with a poise and a grace inherited from Kenny Clarke. He died from lung cancer in New York City on Sunday, aged 91, the last survivor of the seven musicians who played on Kind of Blue. The cymbal splash — however inadvertently and uncharacteristically heavy — that launched Miles Davis into his solo on “So What” seemed to open not only the album but a whole new world of feeling.

Drummers are praised for having “good time”, meaning they keep the beat steady. Of course Cobb had good time. Like his unshowy finesse, it was a quality that served him well throughout a long career. Great singers (including Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan) and soloists loved him for it. But Cobb was also a drummer who knew that time wasn’t a static thing, tied to a metronome.

I first noticed that when listening to the old bootlegs of the Davis quintet’s tour of Europe in the spring of 1960, and particularly on various renderings of “So What”, which habitually stretched from the 9min 25sec of the previous year’s studio version to around a quarter of an hour. You couldn’t miss how the tune had been speeded up. In the studio, on March 2, 1959, it had been taken at a relaxed 35 bars per minute. By the time they played it for a TV show that April, with Wynton Kelly at the piano in place of Bill Evans, it had accelerated slightly to 38.

A year later, on concert stages across Europe, they were kicking off the tune around 20 bars per minute faster than the original. More important than that, however, it was ending up even faster. At the first show in Paris on March 21, over the course of 13 minutes, it went from a brisk 56 to 65 bars per minute. At both concerts in Stockholm the following night it went from 60 to 68.

Does this mean that Cobb wasn’t doing his job? Of course it doesn’t. He and the other four — Davis, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers — were doing what they needed to do. Doing what the music required. Doing what it took, in that moment, to swing. RIP, Mr Cobb.

* The photograph of Jimmy Cobb was taken by Ted Williams, whose work was collected in Jazz: The Iconic Images of Ted Williams, published by ACC Editions in 2016. The European concerts are on Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Final Tour, released in 2018.  Kind of Blue is in your collection.

In Underground London

Underground London 2

I’ve taken a lot of pleasure in recent days from listening to Underground London, a three-CD set that attempts to recreate, through a mosaic of recordings, the feeling of being a certain kind of person in London in the first half of the 1960s, someone either growing out of, or who had been a little too young for, the full beatnik experience in the 1950s, but looking for similar sensations in a changing time: free speech, free jazz, free verse, free love.

The first disc starts with Ornette Coleman’s “W.R.U.”, ends with Jimmy Smith’s “Autumn Leaves”, and includes Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading “Dog”, Allen Ginsberg reading “America”, a track from Red Bird, the jazz-and-poetry EP Christopher Logue made with Tony Kinsey, and György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères”. The second opens with Jimmy Giuffre’s “Jesus Maria”, ends with Albert Ayler’s “Moanin'”, and includes Ravi Shankar’s “Raga Jog”, Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody, and the Dudley Moore Trio playing the theme from Beyond the Fringe. The third opens with Cecil Taylor’s “Love for Sale”, ends with Thelonious Monk’s “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie” and includes Davy Graham and Alexis Korner playing “3/4 AD”, Aldous Huxley reading from The Visionary Experience, the MJQ playing “Lonely Woman”, Luciano Berio manipulating Cathy Berberian’s voice in “Visage”, and “A Rose for Booker” by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with Charles Lloyd.

Add in Stockhausen, Don Cherry and John Coltrane, Annie Ross, John Cage and David Tudor, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy and Joe Harriott, and you get the idea. And to set up the mood for the sort of extended listening session the set deserves, I’d suggest candles in Chianti bottles, something vaguely cubist on the wall, the Tibetan Book of the Dead on the coffee table, and a black polo-neck sweater, or perhaps a chocolate-brown corduroy jacket. And if the party is going well, maybe a Beatle or two, in an adventurous mood, will drop by on the way home from Abbey Road.

But it’s not really a joke, or a caricature. There’s a lot of completely wonderful stuff here, some of it revealing new qualities when isolated from the context of its original full-album setting (an underrated virtue of anthologies or compilations). And practically everything is on the edge of something, some new discovery, some unexplored territory worth taking a risk to reach. How exciting was that?

* The photograph of Allen Ginsberg outside the Royal Albert Hall was taken in 1965 by John Hopkins and was used in the poster for the International Poetry Incarnation held on June 11 that year. It’s included in the booklet accompanying Underground London: Art Music and Free Jazz in the Swinging Sixties, which is on él records, via Cherry Red. 

Happy birthday, Mr Isley

Isley Bacharach 1

Ronald Isley is 79 today. Not a round number, but never mind. A happy birthday to him anyway. Perhaps it’s because he’s been a member of a group for his entire career that he isn’t generally mentioned in lists of the greatest male soul singers. For he certainly is one, up there with Sam, Smokey, Marvin, Otis, Levi, Al, Bobby, Philippé, Teddy, Luther and whoever else you want to include. Listen to the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Hello, It’s Me”, or “Harvest for the World”: no much doubt, is there? And if 3 + 3 isn’t in your collection, I beg you to do something about it.

My subject here, however, is an album I’ve been playing a lot in recent weeks: Ron Isley’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which dates from 2003 and is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The circumstances of the recording were, by modern standards, exceptional. At the behest of DreamWorks Records’ John McClain, the two men prepared for sessions which took place over a handful of days in Capitol Records’ Hollywood studios: an orchestra of more than 40 pieces with Bacharach at the conductor’s podium and Isley at the microphone. Thirteen songs: 11 Bacharach and David classics plus two new Bacharach songs with lyrics by Tonio K.

And everything done live. On the spot. Rhythm section, string section, horns, and lead and backing singers. Together. Breathing the same air, feeling the same vibrations, responding to the same cues in real time. The way it used to be done. (I’d be surprised if there weren’t some touch-ups, but the principle is the thing.)

From the moment strings and harp usher in the first words of “Alfie”, the opening track, you realise that something special is happening. The exquisite delicacy of the singer’s delivery at the dead-slow tempo and the exacting control of his emotions bring something new to what might very well be the greatest of all the Bacharach/David songs. It’s hard to spoil lines like “If only fools are kind, Alfie / Then I guess it is wise to be cruel,” but Isley brings them a new poignancy. Bacharach’s arrangement manages to be both majestic and somehow weightless.

And the set goes on from there, Bacharach constantly inventing new way of reinvigorating familiar songs — the flugelhorn figures introducing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “The Look of Love”, for example. (Flugel and trumpet, a Bacharach trademark in his heyday, are used throughout as a counterpoint to the lead voice.) And the latter track has a light bossa/funk groove that you might feel you’d like to have running through the rest of your life. A solo alto flute introduces “Anyone Who Had a Heart”. Alone at the piano, Bacharach sings the opening lines of “The Windows of the World” in his husky tones before giving way to Isley’s polished virtuosity, like a weathered hand sliding into a fine kid glove.

The inclusion of the new songs might have been a quid pro quo for Bacharach’s agreement to participate in the project, but they pull their weight. “Count on Me” benefits from a lovely melody and “Love’s (Still) the Answer” has the qualities of a very good Sondheim song.

Most of all, though, there’s “In Between the Heartaches”, a great song hidden away on Dionne Warwick’s Here I Am album in 1965. Isley, who once dated Warwick, requested its inclusion; its composer had forgotten all about it. Neil Stubenhaus’s softly purring bass-guitar reminds me of Marcus Miller’s contribution to Vandross’s “Second Time Around”: there’s no higher praise. And when, on “Here I Am” itself, Ronald Isley adds flourishes of melisma, it’s never gratuitous: this is how it should be done.

Of course you’re not going to experience again the shock and the thrill of hearing Bacharach’s melodies and arrangements for the first time in the ’60s: a twangy guitar in the middle of silken strings, a fusillade of boo-bams, a sudden chromatic twist, a song whose first 11 words are all on the same note. But all I can say is that they’ve never sounded more gorgeous than this.

* The photograph is by the late, great William Claxton. Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach is on the DreamWorks label. Several songs from a PBS Soundstage concert in July 2004 are up on YouTube, including “Close to You” and “Here I Am”. There’s also a promo — with slightly compromised sound quality — for “The Look of Love”