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The return of Little Steven

Little StevenNeed cheering up in these dark times? Look no further. Little Steven’s Soulfire — in which Steve Van Zandt returns to his true vocation after his adventures with The Sopranos and Lilyhammer — is a record that could start a party in an empty house.

This October it’ll be 35 years since Van Zandt brought his Disciples of Soul to London, promoting his first solo album, Men Without Women. Their appearance at the Marquee was not just one of the best gigs of a very good year but one of the most exhilarating nights I can remember in the old Wardour Street premises. A 10-piece band, with Dino Danelli, the former Young Rascal, on drums, they kicked through great songs like “Forever”, “Until the Good is Gone” and “Angel Eyes”, with an encore of “Can I Get a Witness”. Van Zandt’s singing reminded me then, as it does now, of Keith Richards and Pete Townshend: he might not possess the power or technique of a real lead singer, but there’s an honesty and a directness in his delivery that has its own special value.

Soulfire is the first album under his own name in 18 years, and mostly it sticks to the horns-and-Hammond template of the E Street Band. Some of the dozen songs are familiar: they include “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” from the repertoire of Southside Johnny, and “Standing in the Line of Fire”, written with Bruce Springsteen for Gary U. S. Bonds, now with a great spaghetti-western intro. Others are new, like “The City Weeps Tonight”, a meticulous evocation of East Coast doowop with the Persuasions providing support. “Down and Out in New York City” is a surprise cover of a song written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon in 1973 for James Brown’s Black Caesar soundtrack album, riding a laconic street-funk rhythm with wah-wah and chicken-scratch rhythm guitars, a Rhodes with its mirror shades on, and violins voiced in octaves: the full blaxploitation menu, in fact, and very well executed. Steve also gives us a howling Dylanesque version of “Saint Valentine’s Day”, first recorded by a Norwegian band called the Cocktail Slippers in 2009 and more recently heard in David Chase’s film Not Fade Away.

I started loving this album as soon as I put it on. It’s not bursting with originality, to say the least, but sometimes that’s not what you need. It’s good-time music with a heart and a human voice, made by a man with a profound love and understanding of rock and soul, and what could possibly be wrong with that?

In the Summer of Love

Counter culture 2I’m looking at some 50-year-old cuttings from a morning newspaper called the Nottingham Guardian Journal. The first of them is dated Saturday, May 13, 1967. It’s from a page called The Younger Set, containing pieces on fashion and music. The reviews include Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” (“magnificent… the most creative musician in Britain today”) and Percy Sledge’s “Out of Left Field” (“reaffirms my faith in soul music”). A week later we have the Doors’ debut album (“a very cool, tight sound”), Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” (“a very mind-blowing cut from from one of the leading new-wave groups”) and, er, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich (“completely moronic”).

The Guardian Journal died in 1973 and is remembered only for having been the place where Graham Greene learned the craft of sub-editing before leaving for London to join The Times. And in 1967 it carried these reviews, along with others of The Velvet Underground and Nico, Pet Sounds, Are You Experienced and Vanilla Fudge’s first album. The editor and his senior staff didn’t know much about pop music, and didn’t much like what little they knew, but they knew they had to have some of it and that there was someone in the office who was known to take an interest. That would be me, aged 20.

It was quite a year — although not, in my view, the equal of 1965 or even 1966 in terms of quality. But I wouldn’t argue with those making the case for its historic value, and now along come Harvey Kubernik and Jon Savage — two colleagues of mine from the Melody Maker in the ’70s, as it happens — to sum it up very nicely: the former in 1967 — A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love , a coffee-table book containing nice photographs and a quantity of first-hand testimony, and the latter in Jon Savage’s 1967: The Year Pop Divided, a two-CD compilation of some of the year’s more interesting tracks.

Summer of LoveHarvey’s book moves mostly between San Francisco and Los Angeles on its journey from January to December, with detours to Monterey and London. Some of the oral history — from backroom people like Andrew Loog Oldham, Shel Talmy and Bones Howe as well as stars such as Jerry Garcia, Al Kooper and Carlos Santana — is of rich in opinion and anecdote, despite being mostly divided into bite-sized chunks and arranged around the visual material. There are some real gems, as when the actress Peggy Lipton, one of the great beauties of the time, tells Kubernik about her Monterey Pop Festival experience: “There was a light drizzle and we went to hear Ravi Shankar. I remember I left my body.”

It makes a nice companion to two other oral histories, Jonathon Green’s epic Days in the Life and Barry Miles’s In the Sixties, which tell the story of the era from the British perspective. (The Roy Lichtenstein pastiche at the top of this piece accompanied the publication of an extract from Days in the Life in The Times on the book’s original appearance as a hard-back in 1988; it was commissioned jointly by me and the paper’s then art director, David Driver.)

Among the 48 tracks on Jon Savage’s meticulously compiled and annotated CDs are some unexpected psychedelic gems and curios, such as the Marmalade’s “I See the Rain”, Tintern Abbey’s “Vacuum Cleaner” and the Third Bardo’s “I’m Five Years Ahead of My Time”. The more obvious choices include the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, Captain Beefheart’s “Yellow Brick Road”, Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” and the Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr Soul”. There are several fine examples of soul music fighting back with Joe Tex’s “Show Me”, James Brown’s “Cold Sweat Pt 1”, the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger”, the Four Tops’ “You Keep Running Away” and Aretha’s “Respect” and “Chain of Fools”.

So there was certainly plenty going on in 1967, and not just in the obvious places. A very minor example: in Nottingham, a friend of mine organised a Freak Out at the Co-operative Arts Centre, with the Social Deviants on stage, Scorpio Rising projected on the wall, and a bubble machine. The young Paul Smith accepted 25 shillings to make me a blue kaftan for the occasion, with floral trim and armholes so tight that I couldn’t move my upper limbs; not much good for letting it all hang out, never mind leaving your body.

In this morning’s Observer magazine, five participants in San Francisco’s Summer of Love were invited to reflect on its significance. Peter Coyote, a co-founder of the “anarchist gang” (his phrase) known as the Diggers, comes up with an interesting verdict: “The counter-culture may have lost every political battle — we didn’t end racism, we didn’t end war, we didn’t end capitalism, we didn’t end imperialism. But on a cultural level, we won every single battle. There’s no place today in the western world where there’s not an organic food movement, a women’s movement, and environmental movement.”

I’m pretty sure that I never left my body at all during 1967, but then I never got to listen to Ravi Shankar in a light drizzle with Peggy Lipton.

* Jon Savage’s 1967: The Year that Pop Divided is out now on Ace Records. Harvey Kubernik’s 1967: A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love is published by Sterling Books.

At last, Eurovision finds a song

Salvador Sobral 2A rather extraordinary thing happened at the Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv last night. Amid the overheated cavalcade of stadium-rock effects and terrible English lyrics, a young man in a shapeless black suit and a dark shirt, his long hair tied up in an untidy top-knot, stood along on an unadorned stage and just sang a song in Portuguese, accompanied by a piano and a small group of strings. A very lovely song, a graceful ballad with a shapely tune, delivered in a high and gentle voice that managed to convey the ardour of the lyric without pushing the buttons that tend to fall automatically under a singer’s fingers on such occasions. And the song won the contest, carrying the votes both of the juries around Europe and of the audience at home.

Salvador Sobral’s song was called “Amor Pelos Dois” (“Love for Both of Us”) and was written by his sister, Luísa. When invited up to receive the award, Salvador said this: “We live in a world of disposable music. Music is not fireworks. Music is feeling.” Quite brave, that, to deliver a rebuke to the contest you have just won. Then, when he performed the song again, he invited his sister to share the microphone, and they alternated lines.

This was the first time Portugal had won the contest in 53 years of trying. How marvellous that they should do it with a song and a performance true to the finest traditions of the country’s popular music. Next year, when Lisbon hosts the event, some of the contestants might find the time to visit not only the fado bars in the Bairro Alto but also the exceptionally fine Museo do Fado in Alfama, where they will learn a lot about the value of music that reaches the heart without the use of fireworks.

Blissful company

QuintessenceWhat’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? The fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love might be a good time to reconsider Nick Lowe’s rhetorical demand. In these harshly polarised times, we might look back with wonder on a brief era when a young generation commanded the world’s headlines with a philosophy that was essentially generous, outward-looking and benevolent.

Quintessence were purveyors of Indian sounds and philosophies to the heads of Ladbroke Grove between 1969 and 1971. A lot of their material, some of it previously unreleased, has been unearthed in recent years on several albums compiled for the Hux label by the author and researcher Colin Harper, including a terrific live recording of their memorable 1970 concert at St Pancras Town Hall, released in 2009 as Cosmic Energy. Now their first three studio albums, recorded for Island, are compiled on Move into the Light, a two-CD set on Cherry Red’s Esoteric imprint.

Naturally, being an underground band, they were featured in IT and ZigZag, but they had their fans in the straight music press, too. I wrote favourably about them in the Melody Maker at the time, as did my friend Rob Partridge in Record Mirror. I remember their flautist and leader, Raja Ram (born Ron Rothfield in Australia), telling me that he’d studied in New York with the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano: “A dollar a minute, but believe me it was worth it.” Their singer, Shiva, another Australian, had been a star back home leading a blues-rock band under his birth name, Phil Jones. The excellent drummer, Jake Milton, was Canadian. Alan Mostert, the lead guitarist, was from Mauritius. The bass guitarist, Shambhu (Richard Vaughan), was American. Their rhythm guitarist, Maha Dev (Dave Codling), was British. The band’s manager, the somewhat intense Stanley Barr, was a poet.

They became regulars at places like the Roundhouse, Friars in Aylesbury, the Temple (formerly the Flamingo) in Soho and elsewhere before graduating to bigger venues around the country, including the Albert Hall, which they filled in December 1971. A disagreement over a deal to release their album in the United States provoked a rupture with Island, but they were already starting to disintegrate by the time they moved on to RCA, with whom they released their fourth and fifth albums in 1972.

The beatific preachiness of their lyrics would draw the odd chuckle today, and there’s a certain amount of 1970-style clumpiness in the rhythms, but much of the music on the three albums making up Move into the Light (In Blissful Company, Quintessence and Dive Deep, all produced by John Barham), still sounds pretty good. Taking their cue from the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, they mixed songs and extended jams as effectively as any band in Britain at the time, with confident flute and guitar solos.

But how things have changed in the part of London they once called home. “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We all sit around and meditate,” Shiva sings on a track from the first album. The hedge fund managers and investment bankers who nowadays populate the once shabby and affordable streets of London W11 might have their own variant on that refrain: “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We sit around and rig the LIBOR rate…”

Alice Coltrane

There’s more peace, love and understanding on The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane, the first volume in a series on the Luaka Bop label titled “World Spirituality Classics”. This is music made by John Coltrane’s widow for semi-private circulation after ending her recording career with commercial labels and taking herself off to become the spiritual director of an ashram in Malibu, California, where she was known as Turiyasangitananda.

Between 1982 and 1995 she made four cassettes available to initiates: Turiya Sings, Divine Songs, Infinite Chants and Glorious Chants. The Luaka Bop CD is a compilation drawn from those recordings (the vinyl edition, a double album, has two extra tracks), featuring individual and choral chants, based on drones created by various keyboards — harmonium, organ, synthesiser — and harp, strings, sitars and tamburas, sometimes accompanied by hand percussion. The result achieves a quietly glowing blend of South Indian timbres and tonalities and African American spirituals.

The opening track, “Om Rama”, gets straight under your skin, synths whooshing and skirling around an infectious group chant that changes gear and develops a gospel-music edge, featuring an impassioned male lead singer who reminds me a little of Philippé Wynne. There’s some poised solo singing — by Alice Coltrane herself, I’d guess — on “Rama Rama”, and “Er Ra” is a short piece for her solo harp, almost koto-like in its delicacy, and voice. A 10-minute version of “Journey in Satchidananda” (which had been the title track of one of her Impulse albums in 1970) is almost as stately and uplifting as one of her late husband’s musical prayers. She died in 2007, aged 69, having outlived John by 40 years. But when you listen to this music it’s easy to convince yourself that neither of them is really gone.

So many trios, so little time

Trio Elf 2A few years ago, in response to a realisation that a phenomenon was under way, I reorganised my jazz CDs to provide a special alphabeticised section for piano trios. There were a lot of them, going back to Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans and incorporating Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, René Urtreger, Mike Taylor, Martial Solal, Howard Riley, Bobo Stenson and many others, and the number grew fast as the influence of Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, the Necks, EST and the Bad Plus took hold on the younger musicians who formed trios such as Phronesis and GoGo Penguin. Like the string quartet in classical music and the two-guitars–bass-and-drums group in rock and roll, its components are held together in perfect structural tension and offer limitless flexibility.

But I’ve just spent two and a half days at the Jazzahead festival in Bremen, a sort of trade fair for musicians, managers, agents, labels and promoters at which the public can buy tickets for a series of showcase gigs, with each band strictly limited to a set of 30 minutes. Of the 17 bands I caught during those two and a half days, no fewer than eight were piano trios. It’s a format I love, obviously, but during that time my enthusiasm for the genre began to undergo a degree of modification.

I wouldn’t say this was necessarily the result of bad programming on Jazzahead’s part. A plausible case could be made that it simply reflects the response of young musicians to the demands of the market. But such exaggerated exposure to a single format did provoke the thought that many of today’s trios feel not just inspired but obliged to offer a different slant on a familiar set of tools.

In Bremen, the extremes of this approach were probably represented by Britain’s Elliot Galvin Trio and Germany’s Trio Elf. The brilliant Galvin, with Tom McCredie on bass and Corrie Dick on drums, opened and closed one of his sparky tunes with a doctored recording of a Punch and Judy show (as featured on his recent album, Punch). Trio Elf  –pictured above, with drummer Gerwin Eisenhower, bassist Peter Cudek and pianist Walter Lang — closed a set displaying an interest in hip-hop beats by inviting the audience to choose between covers of songs by Blink-182 and Kraftwerk for their last number (unsurprisingly, given the location and the median age of the audience, Kraftwerk won — the song turned out to be “Showroom Dummies”).

In between, stylistically speaking, came Finland’s highly creative Aki Rissanen Trio (with Antti Lötjönen on bass and Teppo Mäkynen on drums), the comparatively gentle modalities of the trio led by the Swedish drummer Emil Brandqvist (with Tuomas Turunen on piano and Max Thornberg on bass), and a set from Germany’s Lorenz Kellhuber (with Arne Huber on bass and Gabriel Hahn on drums) that seemed uneventful and subdued on the surface but slowly blended its undertows into a compelling mood.

The best of those I heard, however, was the most familiar: the trio of the German pianist Julia Hülsmann, with Marc Muellbauer on bass and Heinrich Köbberling on drums. Together for almost two decades, they treated us to material from their new ECM album, Sooner and Later, written and run during a recent world tour that included a visit to Kyrgyzstan, where a traditional song sung by a 12-year-old girl provided the melody for one composition. The mature, thoughtful music of Hülsmann’s trio is about substance rather than effect — which is not necessarily intended as a criticism of those who, in the fight to establish themselves in a competitive world, look to distinguish themselves through gesture.

I was momentarily disappointed when Hülsmann announced that she and her colleagues were going to finish the set with a tune by Radiohead, who are to today’s jazz musicians (and piano trios in particular) what Lennon and McCartney were to an earlier generation — a sub-phenomenon that was probably kicked off by Mehldau’s trio version of “Exit Music (For a Film)” almost 20 years ago. The decision seemed a little predictable. But then they turned “All I Need” (from In Rainbows) into something of such quiet poise, purity and radiance that any uncharitable thoughts I was beginning to entertain about the entire genre were instantly vaporised.

Sun Ra touches down in NW8

Sun Ra Alex HEveryone has their own Sun Ra. Mine is the one who made the Heliocentric Worlds albums for the ESP label in the mid-’60s, and whom I saw a few times in the early ’70s — at the Berlin Philharmonie, the Festival Hall and the Village Gate. Jez Nelson, the host of the monthly Jazz in the Round series at the Cockpit Theatre, had barely heard of him before interviewing him for Jazz FM in 1990, but quickly embraced the whole Sun Ra trip and gave us some lovely stories at the tribute evening he organised on Monday, as did Gilles Peterson, who came along with a bag full of rare Ra vinyl to play in the bar during the interval.

The first of the evening’s two performances was by Alexander Hawkins, who has studied Ra’s piano work and gave us a solo sequence at an upright instrument stripped of its casing. He begins with gentle strums of the strings and proceeded through a many-hued tapestry of Ra forms and sounds, with Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” at its heart, occasionally cutting to brief snatches of boogie-woogie figuration with great dramatic and emotional impact, and finishing by quietly singing the refrain of “We Travel the Spaceways”. Hawkins is now among the front rank of today’s improvising pianists and this was a stirring demonstration of his sensitivity to the tradition and its exponents.

Sun Ra PathwaysAfter Peterson’s DJ set came Where Pathways Meet, a nine-piece band comprising Axel Kaner-Lidstrom (trumpet), Joe Elliot (alto), James Mollison (tenor), Amané Suganami (keyboards and electronics), Maria Osuchowska (electric harp), Mark Mollison (guitar), Mutale Shashi (bass guitar), Jake Long (drums) and Kianja Harvey Elliot (voice). Named after a Sun Ra tune, and dedicated to making music animated by a reverence for his spirit, they went about their work with energy and enthusiasm. Any rawness in the execution seemed unimportant by comparison with the good feeling they imparted.

This was a perfect example of what Jazz in the Round, which takes place on the last Monday of each month, has to offer: a selection of interesting musicians at different stages of their careers performing in close proximity to a respectful audience consisting of old listeners and new listeners and some in between, all sharing a 360-degree experience. The next one, on May 29, features the harpist Alina Bzhezhinska playing the music of Alice Coltrane, a new band called Project M led by the bassist Dan Casimir, and a solo set from Cath Roberts on baritone saxophone. Presented in a small, unpretentious setting by a warm and knowledgable host, it’s my favourite gig these days, by a long way.

* Gearbox Records, the vinyl-only label based in King’s Cross, celebrated last weekend’s Record Store Day by releasing an EP with Sun Ra playing solo piano in the Jazz FM studio in 1990 on one side, plus Jez Nelson’s interview on the other. It’s a limited edition, but you might still find one if you hurry.

Caetano Veloso and friends

Caetano plus 2For two hours on Friday night, Caetano Veloso invited us into his living room. Well, the Barbican Hall, actually, but that’s how he made it seem. His guests were the singer Teresa Cristina and the guitarist Carlinhos Sete Cordas, who began the evening by performing songs from their recent album, a collection of duets on pieces by the late samba composer Angenor de Oliveira, better known as Cartola (the album is titled Canta Cartola).

Cristina sang with grace, controlled strength and great expressive power. Carlinhos (“Sete Cordas” refers, I imagine, to the seven strings on his guitar) was a revelation, embedding the vocal line in a fluid matrix of finger-picked detail featuring liquid runs, caressed chords and subtle bass figurations exploiting that extra string below the regular bottom E. I can’t remember hearing an acoustic guitar played with a lovelier and more natural tone — or with a more engaging smile.

When Caetano applauded them from the stage and took over, without a break, it was to present songs chosen, he said, so as not to repeat his regular repertoire. He had selected more obscure material, some of it from his earliest albums, recorded before his arrest by Brazil’s military government in 1968 and his subsequent period of exile in London. The exceptions were “Cucurrucucu Paloma”, familiar from its appearance in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, and “London, London”, the charming song written during his enforced relocation.

Since my Portuguese extends no further than bom dia, muito obrigado, boa sorte and dois capirinhas, por favor, I can’t help but feel a sense of regret when I listen to Caetano, an understanding of his lyrics requiring the subsequent effort of seeking out translations. That small disappointment, however, is easily displaced by enjoyment of the elegant lines and structures of his melodies, and the marvellous qualities of his voice, its conversational tone covering great technique. And one of the sweetest sounds to be heard in any concert hall is that of a largely Brazilian audience gently singing his phrases back to him.

For the finale, he invited his friends to return for a set of encores in which he effortlessly meshed his voice with Cristina’s and his guitar with that of Carlinhos. Nobody wanted them to leave.

Smokin’ in Seattle

Smokin' in SeattleRecord Store Day seems to have made a natural partnership with the vinyl revival, and one excellent way of marking tomorrow’s 10th anniversary of a very worthwhile institution would be to invest in the specially timed 12-inch 33 1/3rd rpm release of Smokin’ in Seattle, 50-odd minutes of newly discovered 1966 club recordings by the trio of the pianist Wynton Kelly, with Ron McClure on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, plus their special guest, the nonpareil guitarist Wes Montgomery.

This line-up, with Paul Chambers on bass instead of McClure, was responsible for the classic Smokin’ at the Half Note, recorded in New York the previous year. The excerpts from two nights of music at the Penthouse in Seattle which make up the new release were broadcast live by a local radio station, limited by a dictate of the musicians’ union to the first 30 minutes per night. This means that each of the two sides begins with two tracks by the trio before the guitarist makes his appearance, and that the final track on each side is faded out, as it had to be on the original transmission.

These are no drawbacks. As the years go by more and more people are drawn to the special quality of Kelly’s playing, something that to me has always been summed up by one word. In one of several interesting interviews and essays contained in the large-format insert, the pianist Kenny Barron uses it over and over again: “The joy. Joy. That’s the word. He had such joy when he played. His playing was so joyful and infectious.”

It’s something that first impressed me when I heard Miles Davis in Person: Friday Night at the Blackhawk, recorded in San Francisco in 1961, when Kelly was still a member of Miles’s quintet. The joy in full bloom in these recordings, particularly on the sparkling trio versions of the standard “There Is No Greater Love” and a funky blues by Blue Mitchell, “Sir John”. Kelly’s gloriously romantic ballad playing is perfectly displayed in a reading of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now”.

The pianist — who died of an epileptic seizure in 1971, aged 39 — is assisted by some beautiful (and beautifully recorded) playing from his bassist and drummer. McClure talks in the notes about how, aged 23 when he was first called to deputise for Chambers in the trio, this was a career-defining gig for him, and also typical of a period in jazz that has now almost passed: “In those days I played with all sorts of groups where there was no music, no conversation, you just started to play.”

Partly that’s because there was a core repertoire. When Montgomery makes his appearance, he storms through several familiar items, including the originals “Jingles” and “West Coast Blues” and the standard “What’s New”. On an untitled blues in F he gets as soulful as Grant Green, and his rapid chordal playing on “O Morro Não Tem Vez” is the sort of thing that set new standards for jazz guitarists in the ’60s.

Pat Metheny remains one of his most ardent admirers. “I always feel like I am enriched in ways that transcend music when I hear Wes,” Metheny says in the notes. “There was something special about who he was as a person contained in each note he played.” The same was true of Kelly, and the benign spirits of both men are very evident throughout this marvellously vivid document.

* Smokin’ in Seattle is released by Resonance Records. The vinyl edition is out on April 22, the CD version on May 19.

Intakt in London

Intakt monoA packed house celebrating the 70th birthday of the bassist and composer Barry Guy provided the best possible start to the Swiss record label Intakt’s 11-day festival at the Vortex on Sunday night. The opening evening showcased Guy in dialogues with three of his closest collaborators across a 50-year career: the violinist Maya Homburger, the saxophonist Evan Parker and the pianist Howard Riley.

He and Homburger began their set as they did the 2011 concert which formed the lovely album Tales of Enchantment, with the plain-spoken elegance of the ninth-century hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus”. Sunday’s performance also included their interpretation of H. I. F. Biber’s intensely beautiful Mystery Sonata No 9: “The Agony in the Garden”, two of its sections linked by Guy’s improvised conversation with the percussionist Lucas Niggli. Original compositions were carefully elided into the externally sourced material, and the overall impression was one of a confident unity of purpose and conception.

I haven’t always found Guy’s music the easiest to warm to, but here was irrefutable evidence of a genuinely original method of blending written composition with the free-improvisation techniques of which the bassist, during his time on the London scene in the late 1960s and early ’70s, was a noted pioneer and master. In Homburger, who shares his sensibility and matches his virtuosity, he clearly found a soul-mate.

Later in the evening Guy and Parker, who first met in 1966 during a Spontaneous Music Ensemble gig at the legendary Little Theatre Club, evoked memories of various stages of their long collaboration with an improvisation which proceeded conventionally enough for much of its duration of 20 minutes or so before coming to the sort of conclusion — unexpected, unpredictable, seemingly plucked out of the air but emphatically and satisfyingly logical — that is the special property of free improvisers of such quality and experience.

Guy and Howard Riley have played together in the pianist’s trio for five decades: first with Jon Hiseman on drums, then Alan Jackson, then Tony Oxley, in a series of albums that placed Riley’s group firmly among the most creative piano trios of their era. At the Vortex it was Niggli’s turn to complete the group. I hadn’t seen Howard perform for many years. His health has not been good, and on Sunday he looked frail. His playing, however, was nothing short of miraculous: its content pared right down, every note essential, still with hints of austerity in its outlines and astringency in its emotions but with the spirit of Ellington, Monk and Taylor warming its bones. All the technique he needs for this is happily still available, and the spontaneous reactions of Guy and Niggli could not have been more perfect. The audience held its breath — at first through concern, then swiftly enthralled by the distilled brilliance and profundity of what they were privileged to hear.

Intakt, based in Zurich, may not have the public profile of one or two of the other European independent labels specialising in contemporary jazz and related forms of improvised music, but the quality and consistency of its output is as high as any. Between now and April 27 the festival’s programme includes the percussionists Pierre Favre, Louis Moholo Moholo and Julian Sartorius, the violinist Mark Feldman, the saxophonists Rudi Mahall, Florian Egli, Ingrid Laubrock, Omri Ziegele and Christoph Irniger, and the pianists Sylvie Courvoisier, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Stefan Aeby, Aki Takase and Irène Schweizer (whose album Live at Taktlos was Intakt’s first release back in 1986). All 11 nights at the Vortex are being recorded by the label’s founder, Patrik Landolt. If there was enough of Riley’s unforgettable set to make a CD, I’ll be the first in line.

Sgt Pepper at 50

Sgt Pepper at Abbey RoadThey’ve kept Studio 2 at Abbey Road looking much the way it did in 1967. The walls and movable screens are still covered with the sort of perforated acoustic pasteboard once found in record-shop listening booths. If you look up, you’ll see the window high in the wall through which George Martin looked down from the control room on “the boys”, as he always called them. Behind the cupboard doors you might even find random things to scrape or shake, as the need arises. There are scuffs and stains; like the interior of a vintage car, it has a patina.

It’s a tourist attraction now, of course; apparently you can have your wedding there, which is useful for EMI since the demand for big recording studios is no longer what it was. But there can’t be a better place in the world to listen to the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was almost entirely recorded there before being sent out into the world on June 1, 1967.

Last Monday, half a century later, about 100 people gathered in Studio 2 to listen to Giles Martin, son of George and inheritor of the mantle of sonic curator of the Beatles’ legacy, as he talked about remixing Sgt Pepper and then played the 96kHz/24bit result over a rather lavish sound system.

Some of those to whom the record always sounded pretty decent in any circumstances will inevitably harbour reservations about such a project. On the other hand, it sounded fantastic — as it was almost bound to do, given the emotional resonance of the setting. But there’s no doubt that the ministrations of Martin fils have exposed elements of the music inevitably obscured in the original mixdown from the four-track tape, and by the perfunctory way the original stereo mix was achieved at a time when only the mono version really mattered.

As often happens when you listen really closely to the Beatles, the most striking thing is what a great band they were, irrespective of all the trappings. “They really dug in,” Martin observed. “They didn’t play quietly ever.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the vicious guitars on the introduction, the wonderful swing-time bass on “With a Little Help From My Friends”, the fabulous tangle of sitars, tamburas and dilrubas on “Within You, Without You”, and the great drumming on “Lovely Rita” and the Lennon sections of “A Day in the Life” are all brought to the fore or otherwise enhanced by the subtle rebalancing of individual levels. An album so rich in incidental detail — to a degree arguably beyond the capacity of the technology then available — can certainly benefit from such restoration, if handled with care and sensitivity.

I remember being in a record shop on the morning that Sgt Pepper arrived. I’d once had a Saturday job there, so I was allowed to take the first copy out of EMI’s brown cardboard box, put it on the shop turntable, and listen while examining the lavish packaging. I found it impressive, of course, but nowhere near as engaging as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Help! or With the Beatles. I still feel that way. Giles Martin calls these sessions “the pinnacle of their collaboration — the happiest time they ever had in the studio”, and presumably he had his father’s word for that. The songs and the approach to presenting them were certainly a product of what he calls “the accelerative universe” in which they were living at the time. But, while admiring the artistry and the breadth of imagination that went into “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” or “When I’m Sixty-four”, I wouldn’t care if I never heard half Sgt Pepper‘s songs again.

“A Day in the Life” and “She’s Leaving Home” are masterpieces, of course (and it took Monday’s playback to make me realise what a great line “Leaving the note that she hoped would say more” is). As, it goes without saying, are “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, recorded at the start of the album sessions in November 1966 and included in the various formats in which the 50th anniversary edition will appear in the last week of May (full details here) — although Martin dismissed the notion that those two tracks should now be inserted into some kind of revisionist running order. That was just one of the “spiritual and technical challenges” he talked about having faced, and on this one he made the right call.

What can safely be said is that Giles Martin has done Sgt Pepper no harm. He hasn’t sprinkled some kind of artificial digital fairydust on the masters, and he hasn’t distorted the internal workings of the music. And anyone who would rather listen to a mono vinyl copy on a Dansette is still quite at liberty to do so.