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Relighting the torch

Torch singing wore thin for me a long time ago, around the time when all young female singers suddenly wanted to sound like Julie London and look like Rita Hayworth. Charlie Haden briefly rekindled the flame when he embedded Jo Stafford’s 1944 recording of “Alone Together” in his Quartet West album Always Say Goodbye in the early ’90s, and then did the job more thoroughly in a 2010 album called Sophisticated Ladies, for which invited a group of well known female singers to perform standards with the quartet plus strings. In the meantime I’d also fallen for Shirley Horn’s version of Tom Jobim’s “Once I Loved, included by the film director Pedro Almodóvar on a compilation album called Viva La Tristeza.

Among Haden’s sophisticated ladies was Diana Krall, chosen by Haden to sing Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye”, one of my favourite ballads. I knew who she was, of course, but I always thought that if I needed what she did, I’d turn to Ms Horn. Now she’s proved me completely wrong with a new self-produced album called This Dream of You, consisting of 11 standards plus the title song, which is by Bob Dylan: pure torch singing in all its sloe-eyed sultriness, but controlled by an intelligence that knows how to turn its facets to catch the flickers of candlelight.

Krall has the regulation come-hitherness, but she also has the musicianship that inspired her to call on the services of several different musical units to join her own piano and voice: the guitarist Anthony Wilson, the bassist John Clayton Jr and the drummer Jeff Hamilton for lovely versions of “But Beautiful” and “Almost Like Being in Love”, Christian McBride’s bass and Russell Malone’s guitar for “Autumn in New York” and “There’s No You”, and the piano of Alan Broadbent (who arranged Sophisticated Ladies) to accompany her singing on “More Than You Know” and “Don’t Smoke in Bed”.

The most intriguing group, however, consists of Marc Ribot (guitar), Stuart Duncan (violin), Randall Krall (accordion), Tony Garnier (bass) and Karriem Riggins (drums). Together they’re heard on a light-fingered “Just You, Just Me”, the lovely Tex-Mex-tinged title track (plucked from Dylan’s Together Through Life), and “How Deep Is the Ocean”. The last of those, which you can click on above, is — as I’m sure you’ll agree — a complete stunner, Irving Berlin’s blithe love song transformed into a blues aria and perfect in every respect, particularly the short piano improvisation preceding the final chorus: 10 exquisitely funky bars of which Ray Charles or Bobby Timmons would be proud. Compliments to Ms Krall on that, and on everything else making up a quietly outstanding album.

Maria Schneider’s ‘Data Lords’

Amid the flood of music commenting on the various crises confronting our world in the twenty-first century, it’s interesting to see that some of those who work with conventionally structured big bands are finding new ways to make their voices heard. In 2016, Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies explored the paranoia of a society under surveillance while the Liberation Music Orchestra released Time/Life, in which Charlie Haden and Carla Bley did for environmental concerns what they had previously done for political protest movements. Now comes Maria Schneider’s Data Lords, a series of pieces in which the American composer expresses her disquiet over where the unscrupulous use of technology and our carelessness with the earth’s resources are leading us.

“I mourn the loss of our internal landscapes just as I mourn the loss of our external landscapes,” she writes in the notes. Data Lords not a sermon. It’s music, finely wrought: a suite of 11 movements, divided in two, on a pair of CDs. But it does have driving impulses. The first disc, The Digital World, reacts to the threat posed by mass data collection and artificial intelligence (in her notes, she quotes Stephen Hawking’s claim that beyond a certain point in the evolution of AI, it will turn on humanity and destroy it). The second, Our Natural World, reflects on what we stand to lose unless we find a way of turning back the tide of destruction.

Schneider was a pupil of Gil Evans, whose benign influence can be heard in the care with which she selects and combines her textures, with a special emphasis on rich and resonant writing for brass. Like him, she is brilliant at creating settings for the individual soloists among the 18-piece band on this recording. Those who distinguish themselves in their featured slots include the altoists Steve Wilson and Dave Pietro, the trombonist Ryan Keberle, the tenorists Rich Perry and Donny McCaslin, the baritonist Scott Robinson, the trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, the pianist Frank Kimbrough, the accordionist Gary Versace, the guitarist Ben Monder, the bassist Jay Anderson and the drummer Johnathan Blake.

The mood on the first disc is predominantly dark, ominous, fretful. Monder opens “A World Lost” with ruminative flights of sustain and light-touch distortion that show how profoundly Jimi Hendrix has influenced younger guitarists. McCaslin is eloquent on “CQ, CQ, Is Anybody There?” and Robinson is marvellously affecting on “Sputnik”, delivering pathos without sentimentality. The track “Data Lords” features Rodriguez making imaginative use of electronics over sombre writing that coils its tensions in a manner recalling some of Mingus’s late big-band pieces, with Anderson and Blake providing a free-flowing commentary.

The pieces on the second disc variously celebrate a temple in Kyoto, the work of the potter Jack Troy, the night sky, the words of the poet Ted Kooser, and birdlife. The mood is lighter, gentler, more optimistic, the tone set on the opening “Sanzenin” by Versace’s nimble, piping accordion: the sound of wind through reeds, the gentle swells of the brass and reeds echoing the surge of the instrument’s bellows. “Look Up” is a vehicle for Gilkes’s burnished tone and liquid articulation, over a gloriously mellow groove, while Pietro shines on the glowing “Braided Together”.

Concluding her notes, Schneider observes: “The internet doesn’t have to be all about secret surveillance, data exploitation, overreaching terms of use, and systems designed to make every human addicted to their services. It can be used to assist us all in making the world a better place.” She’s doing her bit, and Data Lords is highly recommended as a vigorous, vital, imaginative and lustrously beautiful part of the soundtrack to our times.

* The photograph of Maria Schneider is from the booklet accompanying Data Lords, and is by Briene Lermitte. The beautifully packaged album was made through and is available from ArtistShare, which facilitates fan-funded projects: http://www.artistshare.com

Those hard luck stories

Two sides to every story, right? In one of the essays accompanying the wonderful new eight-CD reissue of the collected works of Richard and Linda Thompson, Richard suggests that the indifferent commercial performance of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight — the first of their six studio albums — in 1974 could be ascribed to Island’s A&R department, which didn’t know how to categorise them. “They didn’t understand Sandy (Denny), and they didn’t understand Nick Drake,” he says. “I think we were slightly marginalised — what genre is this? Where does it go in the record shop?” Here’s my side of the story.

After I joined Island as head of A&R in the autumn of 1973, one of the first things I did was ask around to find out what Richard was doing. I knew that Henry the Human Fly, his solo album, had been poorly received and sold badly. I also knew that I loved his guitar playing. In reply to my inquiries, I was told that Richard had since made another album, this one with his wife, Linda. The finished tapes had been played to my predecessor, who hadn’t been impressed. That had been some months ago.

My response was to get in touch with John Wood, who had engineered and co-produced the album with Richard at his Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea. John brought in the tapes for me to hear. I was hooked from the first skirl of the Stratocaster on the intro to “When I Get to the Border” , the opening track. The whole album sounded like a coherent and finished statement in a way that Henry hadn’t been, and it seemed obvious that it should be released as soon as possible.

The next step was to play it to the company, meaning the managing director, marketing director, promotion manager, sales manager and press officer. Their enthusiasm was unanimous. Richard was one of the group of Witchseason artists bequeathed to Island when Joe Boyd, who had nurtured them, left London to make movies in Los Angeles just before I joined. They were assets who inspired warmth (in the case of Sandy Denny, for instance) and respect (in the case of Nick Drake, who had already more or less withdrawn from the music world).

Vinyl was in short supply that winter as a result of the oil crisis, but Richard and Linda’s album was scheduled for release in April 1974 and its appearance was accompanied by the best efforts of all the relevant departments. Some people felt that the title track stood a chance of making a hit single, so it was duly released as a 45 and got some play. No one was discouraged when neither the album nor the single went double-platinum. The foundations of something worthwhile seemed to have been laid.

Then Richard came in and told me that he’d asked Jo Lustig to manage them. I knew Jo, who’d begun his career as a press agent on Broadway for Nat King Cole, the Weavers and the Newport Jazz Festival in the ’50s; he was old-school, and most relationships with him featured a phone-melting harangue at some stage. I was a bit surprised that Richard had approached him, but I knew that he got things done and that he’d done a good job for other folk crossover artists, including Julie Felix and Steeleye Span.

The problems began when Richard and Linda became affiliated to a Sufi community based in a squat on a stucco terrace in Maida Vale. Nothing wrong with that, of course. They delivered a second album, Hokey Pokey, which I didn’t care for as much as Bright Lights, but the same effort went into its release, and they were given a support slot on a Traffic tour, which was not small potatoes at the time. The third album, Pour Down Like Silver, was and remains an austere masterpiece: how many albums contain songs as great as “Beat the Retreat”, “Dimming of the Day” and “Night Comes In”? But it didn’t connect with a wider audience, perhaps because to new listeners that austerity would seem like dourness.

They went on the road with a band completed by the accordionist John Kirkpatrick, the bass guitarist Dave Pegg and the drummer Dave Mattacks: an ace line-up, and a perfectly integrated unit with its own sound. John Wood went to Oxford to record them live, and I used the epic versions of “Calvary Cross” and “Night Comes In” from that concert on a double album I compiled with John’s help and advice, rather eccentrically titled (guitar, vocal) and intended to refocus the public’s attention on Richard’s talents. For me, its other highlight was Linda’s delivery of a much stronger version of Richard’s great song “A Heart Needs a Home” than the one that had appeared on Hokey Pokey.

I left Island at that point, sometime in 1976, and a year or so later, after some seemingly unsuccessful attempts to incorporate Sufism into their music, Island dropped them. I don’t know the details of that, but I do know that they were so deeply into their faith that they’d moved to a community in East Anglia and Richard had given up playing the electric guitar, which I have to say didn’t seem like a very good idea. When they re-emerged, a year or so later, Lustig signed them to Chrysalis, where he’d had success with Steeleye, and the search a broader audience began again. The two albums they made for the label, First Light and Sunnyvista, now sound in parts like an attempt to turn them into Fleetwood Mac, which they were never going to be. But there are some good songs there — and in “Lonely Hearts”, on Sunnyvista, one of their greatest ballads, exquisitely delivered . What you can hear from the tracks included from the 1980 sessions produced by their friend Gerry Rafferty is that soft-focus AOR-style production did them no favours at all. Finally they returned to Joe Boyd, for whose Hannibal label they recorded the much crisper Shoot Out the Lights, which became — unintentionally, according to Richard — the soundtrack to their disintegrating marriage.

Hard Luck Stories is the title of the box set, and I suppose it reflects the feeling that some mysterious twist of fate prevented Richard and Linda from finding the audience they deserved. The six albums are all there, with various outtakes and demos and live versions, nicely packed with extensive (albeit poorly copy-edited) background essays. Two discs are devoted entirely to other material: the first to pre-R&LT tracks, such as the rock and roll revivals of the Bunch (with Linda and Sandy singing “When Will I Be Loved”) and a collaboration with the poet Brian Patten, the second to live material from the mid-’70s. It’s on the second that I found the biggest surprise: five long tracks recorded live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for a Capital Radio broadcast in 1977, featuring Richard and Linda with a band of mostly Sufi friends: Abdul Latif (Ian) Whiteman and Haj Amin (Mike) Evans, both formerly of Mighty Baby, on electric piano and and bass guitar respectively, and Abdul-Jabbar (Paul) Pickstock on percussion, plus Preston Hayman, a useful drummer whom I remember joining the Brand X sessions alongside Phil Collins at Island at the start of his long career as a session musician.

What these tracks show is that Richard was on to something when he tried to blend folk-rock with Sufism, locating common ground between the two in the drones and modal structures that underpin the lengthy explorations of songs like “Layla” and “The Madness of Love”, and an excellent version of “Night Comes In” with Linda taking the lead vocal. “A Bird in God’s Garden” has a lyric adapted from the poet Rumi, delivered in beautifully layered three-part harmony by Linda, Richard and Whiteman, developing into a extended but never self-indulgent jam and coming back to the song before finding its resolution with a perfect sense of architecture. Richard later re-recorded it with Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser and John French, but the nine-minute version here is one of the loveliest things I’ve heard this year, almost worth the price of the box set by itself. It certainly makes you wonder what might have been, and in my case it makes me wonder what I might have done better.

* Richard and Linda Thompson’s Hard Luck Stories 1972-1982 was compiled by Andrew Batt and is released by Universal Music. The photograph is from an early Island Records publicity shoot.

** The original version of this post had Richard re-recording “A Bird in God’s Garden” with a group including Mayo Thompson. For some reason I’d included his name instead of that of John “Drumbo” French. Thanks to those who pointed out this episode of brain-fade.

A memory of Toots Hibbert

It was Chris Blackwell’s idea to get Toots Hibbert to record “Tumbling Dice”. He must have had in mind the way Otis Redding had made such a success of turning “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” into a soul stomper. And, as people always said, if Toots resembled anyone in the way he delivered a song, it was Otis.

This was September 1972, and Blackwell was in Jamaica to work on a few projects, including the sessions for the Wailers’ forthcoming album for his Island label. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston were at Harry J’s studio, on Roosevelt Avenue in Half Way Tree, recording a song called “Slave Driver”, which included the lines: “Slave driver, the tables have turned / Catch a fire, and you will get burned.” A couple of miles across Kingston, just off Spanish Town Road in a featureless area near the docks, lay Dynamic Sounds, where the studio had been booked for an afternoon session with the Maytals, whose Blackwell-produced album Funky Kingston, released in the UK six months earlier, had already stirred interest outside the established market for West Indian music.

Dynamic Sounds was also where, at the start of the year, Paul Simon had recorded “Mother and Child Reunion” with a local rhythm section including the lead guitarist Hux Brown, the bass guitarist Jackie Jackson and the drummer Winston Grennan, drawing the rock world’s attention to reggae. Those three musicians were reassembled for this Maytals session, augmented by Radcliffe Bryan on rhythm guitar, Winston Riley on organ and Gladstone “Gladdy” Anderson on piano. As they arrived, I noted Jackie Jackson’s choice of conveyance: a brand new Vauxhall Viva GT covered with tiger-skin vinyl.

Together they were variously known as Gladdy’s All Stars, the Harry J All Stars, Beverley’s All Stars, the Aggrovators and, eventually, the Upsetters. They were a crack band, and on a hot afternoon in Kingston, sitting in a circle, the drums separated only by low sound-baffles, they locked into a groove without a moment’s hesitation. The only problem was that no one — not Toots or his fellow Maytals, Jerry Mathias and Raleigh Gordon, not Blackwell, not even me — knew the words to “Tumbling Dice”, and in those days there was no Google where someone had deciphered Mick Jagger’s faux-southern drawl and decided that he was singing “Honey, got no money / I’m all at sixes and sevens and nines / Say now, baby, I’m the rank outsider / You can be my partner in crime.”

Toots’s solution was to ignore that little difficulty and simply steam ahead, making up words — mostly nonsense syllables — as he went along. If Otis could make sense of “fa-fa-fa-fa” and “got-ta-got-ta”, so could he. And that’s more or less what he’d done with Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie”, one of the singles taken from Funky Kingston. A few takes of “Tumbling Dice” were committed to tape, but as far as I can discover nothing ever saw the light of day.

For me, it was just a treat to see those musicians — the equivalent of the house bands at Stax in Memphis or Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans — in their own environment. Particularly Hux Brown, whose stuttering single-note commentary was such a distinctive feature of so many records, including “Mother and Child Reunion”, and Gladdy Anderson, a legend of Jamaican music.

And, of course, Toots, whose death at the age of 77 was announced last week. I’m sorry I didn’t get to hear him recording one of his great original compositions, like “Six and Seven Books of Moses” or “54-46 Was My Number”, but at least I got a chance to spend a few hours watching a force of nature at work.

* The photograph of Toots and his fellow Maytals is from one of the reissues of Funky Kingston. Maybe someone can tell me who took it.

A talk with Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield

Thirty years ago, on September 13, 1990, during an open-air concert at Wingate Field in Brooklyn, Curtis Mayfield suffered the accident that left him paralysed from the neck down. Just over three years later I went to his home in Atlanta, Georgia to conduct an interview that I’ll never forget. Here it is.

“There’s not really much to talk about,” Curtis Mayfield said. “It happened, and it happened fast. I never even saw it coming.” And then, gathering momentum, he started to describe the events of a late-summer day in 1990.

“It was the 13th of September,” he began. “I think it was a Monday. I flew into New York from Long Beach, California. I had my driver come and meet us at La Guardia. Everybody was in good shape. We went over to New Jersey. I had decided to stay in a hotel over there — it was a little cheaper. I got on the phone, called my promoter at about eleven o’clock to tell him we were here. He told me he’d call me back, which he did a little later, and he gave me directions to come out to Queens.

“We arrived there at about eight-thirty or nine. It was bigger than I thought — about 10,000 people right out in the park. We pulled up behind the stage. I met a few people, shook a few hands, got my money — my balance in advance. All the normal things. I’m in the safest place in my life, doing my work.

“I was to close the show, but it was running a little late, and I was asked to go on stage a little early so people who were there to see me wouldn’t be disappointed. No problem. I was happy to do that. I tuned my guitar and jumped into my stage clothes. The promoter’s son came out and said, ‘We’re ready for you.’ I sent my band out and they hit the opening number. It was ‘Superfly’.

“I had my guitar on and I’m walking up these sort of ladder steps, a little bit steep but not so steep you couldn’t walk up them. I get to the top of the back of the stage, I take two or three steps, and… I don’t remember anything. I don’t even remember falling.

“The next thing I know, I was lying on my back. So I must have went out for a moment. And then I discovered that neither my hands nor my arms were where I thought they were, and I couldn’t move. I looked about me lying there. I saw myself totally splattered all over the stage.

“Then it began to rain. Big drops. I could hear people screaming and hollering. From what I could observe, all of everything above us had come out of the sky. I chose not to shut my eyes, for fear of dying. The rain was falling. Some of the fellows found me and saw that I was paralysed, so they went and found a big piece of plastic sheeting to protect me in the rain until the paramedics arrived. Luckily, the hospital was right around the corner. Everything else is history.”

And then, lying in the large bed in the front room of his house, Curtis Mayfield fell silent. His brown eyes peered over the top of the white sheet. The tape recorder, propped on the pillow case close to his mouth, turned noiselessly. Nothing else moved. For Mayfield, nothing had moved since that humid night three and a half years earlier when he took the stage, just as he had done countless times throughout a thirty-year performing career, and a lighting rig toppled, paralysing him from the neck down and silencing one of the great poetic voices of post-war America.

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He was born in 1942 and grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects on Chicago’s Near North Side. His father left home when he was four years old and he was raised by his mother. But when he talked about where he had acquired his view of the world, and his means of expressing that view, he kept returning to memories of his grandmother.

“I used to be back and forth between my mother and my grandmother,” he said. “She was the Reverend Annie Bell Mayfield, and she had a little storefront church — the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church. We’d have Bible classes there early on Sunday mornings before my grandmother’s sermons, which would go on from nine o’clock in the morning until noon.” Annie Bell Mayfield died some years ago, leaving no evidence of her prowess as a preacher, but it’s easy to believe that, if we were somehow able to retrieve an replay her Sunday morning marathons, we would hear the distinctive patterns that distinguish not only her grandson’s lyrics but also, from time to time, his conversation, in which ghetto vernacular is articulated with a graceful formality that can only have come from early and prolonged exposure to the King James Bible.

He began to sing, too, in her church, where he also heard many styles of gospel music performed by visiting choirs, an experience that augmented a fondness for the recordings of the Sensational Nightingales and the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama — “on that black and white Specialty label, in the days when I had to stand on tiptoe to reach the Victrola.” At home, where his mother kept the family together through welfare payments, there was always a record on the Victrola or something playing on the radio, and he quickly learned to love the grown-up popular music of Billie Holiday as well as the teenage doo-wop of the Spaniels, the Cadillacs and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

At eight or nine he was singing alongside a young friend, Jerry Butler, in a gospel group called the Northern Jubilees. In his early teens, having picked up a rudimentary knowledge of the piano, he started fooling around a guitar that a friend had left at his grandmother’s house. Knowing nothing, he tuned it to the black keys of the piano. The result was an F-sharp open tuning which he discovered was incorrect, or at least unorthodox, when he and the Impressions made their first visit to the Apollo in Harlem and he tried playing along with the house orchestra. “No one else tunes that way,” he said with sadness, the arms that had cradled that guitar lying immobile under the bedsheet. “So it’s a lost art now, a lost tuning.” At eleven or twelve he was singing with schoolboy doo-wop quartets, using housing-project stairwells as echo chambers, and before long he was writing songs for them to sing. His guitar was the vehicle, and his imagination provided the material.

“Everything was a song,” he said. “Every conversation, every personal hurt, every observance of people in stress, happiness and love. If you could feel it, I could feel it. And if I could feel it, I could write a song about it. If you have a good imagination, you can go quite far.”

His mother encouraged him to read widely, and introduced him to the work of the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. “My teacher told me I’d never amount to anything,” he said. “I left high school at fifteen, after just one year. But my real teachers were the people around me. And I was a good listener. I used to love to sit and listen to the old people talk about yesterday. There’s a lot of good information there.”

The sharp awareness of social problems came, he said, simply from looking at the world around him. “I was a young black kid. One of the first things I remember, in the early ’50s, was the boy from the north who went to Mississippi to visit and happened to say something or whistle to a white woman. They came and got him out of the night and destroyed him.” He was referring to fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 by white racists for his alleged effrontery. “All of these things come into your head. And of course the popularity of the Reverend Martin Luther King instilled in me the need to join in, to speak in terms of we as a minority finding ways to be a bit more equal in this country.”

The record industry wasn’t exactly thrilled by the notion of a black entertainer trying to say something serious in songs with the Impressions like “We’re a Winner”, “Choice of Colours” and “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)”. “No, no. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t help myself for it. And it was also my own teachings, me talking to myself about my own moral standards. As a kid, sometimes you have nobody to turn to. I could always go back to some of the sermons and talk to myself in a righteous manner and put that in a song.”

I asked him where “People Get Ready” had come from, because it seemed to be one of those songs that had sprung not from a writer’s pen but from the collective unconsciousness. “I don’t know. I just wrote it. Lyrically you could tell it’s from parts of the Bible. ‘There’s no room for the hopeless sinner who would hurt all mankind just to save his own / Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner, for there’s no hiding place against the Kingdom’s throne.’ It’s an ideal. There’s a message there.”

Mayfield had hardly begun writing songs before he realised the value of owning the title to his own work. “My family had been quite poor. We had nothing, really, although I didn’t realise it when I was small. But once I came of an age to understand how little we had, it made me want to own as much of myself as possible.” And at the age of seventeen this Chicago ghetto child wrote off to the Library of Congress in Washington DC, asking how he could protect the rights to his own songs. Form a publishing company, they told him, and this is how you do it. So he did.

“During that time,” he said, “record companies were used to taking people off the street and giving them twenty five bucks for a song. Many a hit came off the street like that. But I was too stubborn, too strong-willed, which they didn’t care for. However, I also understood early on that it’s better to have fifty per cent of something than a hundred per cent of nothing. And at least I had it to bargain with.”

The business side didn’t come naturally to him. “I’m a creative person. And I was just too young. I didn’t have the knowledge. I’m sure that for every dollar I’ve earned, I’ve probably earned someone else ten or twenty dollars.”

The Impressions recorded first for the local Vee Jay label and then for the giant ABC corporation, where their hits ran from “Gypsy Woman” and “It’s All Right” through “I’m So Proud”, “Amen, “Keep on Pushing”, “Meeting over Yonder”, “You’ve Been Cheating” and “I Need You”. But in the late ’60s, inspired by Berry Gordy’s Motown enterprise, he and a partner, Eddie Thomas, who had been Jerry Butler’s chauffeur, formed their own label. Like the Isley Brothers’ T-Neck or James Brown’s People label, Mayfield’s Curtom Records never quite managed to outgrow its primary function as a vehicle for the founder’s musical output.

“We were all trying to survive in a big world of business and loopholes and record companies that weren’t giving you all you felt you’d earned,” he said. “I just admired what Berry was doing at Motown. I always had that dream. But it just never happened for me in that manner.” Why not? “I wore too many hats, for one thing. And my face during those days would not allow doors to open for me. As a black man, you don’t get an invitation.”

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Mayfield was in his prime in 1972, aged thirty, when he used the soundtrack to Superfly — one of a series of “blaxpolitation” movies — to deliver a warning against the increasingly violent drug culture of the projects in which he had grown up. I wondered whether it saddened him that although the songs were big hits, the warnings of “Freddie’s Dead” and “Pusherman” — like those contained in James Brown’s “King Heroin” or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On — had been so totally ignored by the people at whom they were aimed, even though they were also often the people who bought and danced to them.

“In some ways. Not really, because although sometimes all the bad things seem to be in a majority, it’s still really a small minority. The majority still has high hopes and reasons, and wants to do the right things and be about success stories. The poverty may hold them back, but the dreams are still there. People have reasons to be pessimistic, but this world is still of value.”

But wasn’t he nevertheless glad that he had grown up in the Chicago of the ’40s and ’50s, where black people were still streaming in from the South, fleeing the plantations in the hope of a better life, rather than the crack-culture Chicago of the ’90s, where the only solution to the hopelessness of the Cabrini-Green projects was to raze them to the ground? Weren’t things just getting worse?

“It’s hard to say who lived the better life. However, those who live today would probably prefer today’s life, and tomorrow’s beginning. We laid the ground, our sacrifices were big. But prior to that it was even worse. And look at the people who laid a platform for us. I understand what you’re saying. It seems that it’s not respected or appreciated by many of the young. But I still say it’s a minority of a minority. It’s not the majority.”

Mayfield has eleven children. Six of them were living with him and his wife, Altheida, in the big house in the Atlanta suburbs that he bought in 1980. What did he think of the music that had soundtracked the growing years of his own kids — the brutal frankness of hip-hop and gangsta rap?

“I listen to it, and it hurts me. A lot of the stuff, as a grown adult and a father… well, you do have to lay down your own laws and not allow too much of it to infiltrate the home and family.” Is it really corrupting? “Oh yeah. Children are very impressionable. You do have to set standards and lay a foundation of rights and wrongs, and then live a certain way so that they can see that what you say is also what you do. And if your children have any strength and an admiration for their parents, and if you teach them to be strong-willed, then maybe — just maybe — you have a chance. That is still not to say that as they leave this home and go out into the world they may not be smothered with all the negatives — knowing that black boys especially have less than a fighting chance to learn the things they need to make a livelihood. All that’s out there for them is jail.”

Lying there in his enforced silence, would he like to be writing about those matters today?

“No. It’s all been said. And I don’t like to repeat myself.”

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He had surgery straight after the accident, and again once he was back home in Atlanta. But nothing had improved his condition, which appeared like to be unchanged for the rest of his life. He relied on his wife and children to feed him, to fetch for him, and for every movement of his limbs. All he had left were his eyes, his speech, his brain, and his enormous spiritual and philosophical resources.

“We’re taught to keep high hopes,” he said when I asked him about a prognosis. “Which I have. But I must deal with the realities of today, and let tomorrow take care of itself. I’m lucky to still have my mind. Many things are possible. But if I have a thought, I can’t write it down. I even have a computer over there. But I can’t get up to use it. So there are those frustrations.”

Could he still sing? “Not in the manner as you once knew me. I’m strongest lying down like this. I don’t have a diaphragm any more. So when I sit up, I lose my voice. I have no strength, no volume, no falsetto voice, and I tire very fast.”

But did he still sing inside his own head? “Yes, I do. I still come up with ideas and melodies. But they’re like dreams. If you can’t jot them down immediately, they vanish.”

His medical bills had been horrendous. To help defray them, a tribute album featured performances of his songs by singers from Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen and Gladys Knight to Elton John, Rod Stewart, B. B. King and the Isley Brothers. He expressed gratitude to BMI, one of the two big US royalty-collection agencies, which helped out by paying him an advance against each year’s earnings. Surely, I suggested, they must have done pretty well out of him over the years? “I hope so. But, you know, people don’t have to. In my case lots of people have in their own ways been ready to come to my aid. I try not to ask. I don’t wish for charity. But I must still realise that I’m in need of everybody.”

A young man came into the room: Todd Mayfield, aged twenty seven, his second son, wanting to see if his father needed anything.

“My family has been fantastic,” said the quiet voice from the bed. “My son here is my legs and my arms and part of my mind as well.” A pause. “So… so far, so good.”

* Curtis Mayfield died on December 29, 1999, aged fifty seven. Three years earlier, helped by various musicians and producers, he had made one last album, the superb New World Order, released by Warner Brothers, from which the portrait photograph by Dana Lixenburg is borrowed. Traveling Soul, Todd Mayfield’s excellent biography of his father, was published in 2017 by the Chicago Review Press. My piece originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday and is slightly abridged from the version included in Long Distance Call, a collection of my music pieces, published in 2000 by Aurum Press.

Gary Peacock 1935-2020

Where did they come from, those jazz bassists who appeared in the 1960s, transforming not only the way the instrument was played but also its role in the music? They were the children of Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers, and they were legion: Reggie Workman, Richard Davis, Jimmy Garrison, Scott LaFaro, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Henry Grimes, Chuck Israels, Steve Swallow… and Gary Peacock, whose death at the age of 85 was announced today.

I suppose the first time I heard his playing was on Don Ellis’s Essence and Prince Lasha’s The Cry, both recorded in Los Angeles in 1962, then Tony Williams’s Life Time in 1964 and Albert Ayler’s epochal Spiritual Unity in 1965, followed by a host of albums — not least with the pianists Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Marilyn Crispell and Marc Copeland, and in Keith Jarrett’s long-lived Standards Trio — that secured his place in the music.

To a superlatively agile technique, an almost voice-like tone, a gift for phrases that sang in the ear and an adventurous spirit he added a subtly poetic sensibility intensified by a spell in Japan that began in the late ’60s and lasted two and a half years. During that time he became a student of Zen Buddhism and a sense of meditative calm began to suffuse his playing, even when it was at its most active.

He made a few albums while he was in Japan, and one of them has long been my favourite of all his recordings. Titled Silver World, it was made in 1970 under the leadership of Hōzan Yamamoto, the great shakuhachi player and teacher, with Masabumi Kikuchi on piano and Hiroshi Murakami on drums. Somehow a copy found its way to me soon after its release, and it was one of those recordings that made me aware how jazz could be open to collaborations with all kinds of music from all over the world.

As far as I know, it has never been released outside Japan. But here it is. If you have the time, listen to the 12-minute title track, and marvel at the delicacy with which intense emotions are conveyed — and, of course, at Gary Peacock’s genius for finding the right notes, the right weight, the right attack all the time. And for understanding the value of silence.

Another of his Japanese albums, the almost equally wonderful Eastward, with Kikuchi and Murakami, included a sleeve note in which he wrote:

“No art form can be unaffected by the environment it lives in. The spiritual, social, political, scientific, technological Renaissance of today, exrpessing itself on all levels and in all societies, has been and continues to be the dominant theme in much of today’s music. The increasing use of electronic devices, accentuation of loud raucous sounds, lyrics suggesting a spiritual Utopia in one case, or denouncing war, government, tradition, show this influence. It is at the same time a testimony of the inseparabilities of music and environment. They are dependent one upon the other. They are expressing one another. They are one.

The music on this album does not claim immunity to such environmental influences. It does however lack a certain degree of aggression, violence, or a special message. It was not conceived with the purpose of making a strong spiritual, social, scientific or musical statement. It was, on the contrary, conceived with no specific purpose in mind. Therefore it may lack some ‘excitement’ for the listener, but perhaps they can sense a certain spirit of joy and humour which we had in producing it.”

I think I understand what he meant: in a sense, in this instance, “purposelessness” is the highest state the creative mind can achieve. Not at all times and on all occasions, of course. A sense of purpose can be the driving force of the greatest art. But the Zen mind lets go and allows it to happen. And when the mind was that of Gary Peacock, what happened needed no other justification.

* Hōzan Yamamoto’s Silver World was released on the Philips label in Japan in 1971. Eastward was released on Japanese CBS in 1970. The photograph of Gary Peacock was taken by Bob Gwynne and is from the cover of Peacock’s December Poems album (ECM, 1977).

The wisdom of Solomon

Solomon Burke

“I’m so happy to be here tonight, so glad to be in your wonderful city, and I have a little message for you. I want to tell every woman and every man here tonight that’s ever needed someone to love, that’s ever had somebody to love them, that’s ever had somebody to understand them, that’s ever had someone to need their love all the time — someone that’s with them when they’re up, somebody that’s with them when they’re down. If you had yourself somebody like this, you’d better hold on to them. Let me tell you something: sometimes you get what you want, and you lose what you had. There’s a song I sing, and I believe if everybody could sing this song, we could save the whole world. Listen to me…”

Solomon Burke, of course, not on stage or in church but in a New York studio in 1964, urged on by the exhortations of his backing singers — probably including Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston — as he recreated the vibe of a live performance, expertly mixing the sacred and the secular. I loved that record so much that when I was in a band, in 1964-65, I used to carry a copy of the 45 to gigs, persuading the DJ to play it immediately before we went on.

“Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” comes in the middle of the 79 tracks making up a new 3-CD compilation called The King of Rock ‘n’ Soul: The Atlantic Recordings (1962-1968) and feels very much like its centrepiece. Around it are arrayed the many recordings in which, assisted by the producers Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler and the arrangers Garry Sherman, Phil Medley, Gene Page and Bert Keyes, Burke achieved a sublime combination of gospel, R&B, Latin and country music.

Has any soul singer ever covered a country song more exquisitely than Solomon’s take on Jim Reeves’s “He’ll Have to Go”? Has anyone ever made a more powerful use of gospel cadences in pop music than “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)”? Has anybody made a funnier and more irresistible sub-two-minute teenage dance-craze record than “Stupidity”? Didn’t Burke, with the spoken intros to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “The Price”, pave the way for Isaac Hayes’s monologues and the arrival of rap?

Apart from his wonderfully warm, rich and flexible voice, the records are distinguished by arrangements that feature Berns’s signature use of Spanish guitars and Latin rhythms and the playing of great session men: guitarists including Al Shackman and Eric Gale are given room to interpolate little blues fills, the baritone saxophone of Heywood Henry anchors the reeds, the drummers include Panama Francis, Gary Chester, Bobby Donaldson and Herbie Lovelle, there is the piano of the great Paul Griffin, the stand-up bassists include Joe Benjamin and Leonard Gaskin. Jazz musicians earning the rent, most of them, but contributing to something that today sounds like a wonderfully natural way to make music.

The set opens with three pre-Atlantic sides and concludes with an album session produced by Tom Dowd at Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis in 1968, including the classic version of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)”, one of the anthems of the civil rights era. The last of those tracks, a lovely treatment of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby”, also appears on The Soul of the Memphis Boys, a compilation of recordings made at American in the late ’60s by singers including James Carr, Ben E. King, Oscar Toney Jr, James & Bobby Purify and Arthur Alexander.

My favourites are Joe Tex’s glorious version of “Funny (How Time Slips Away)”, Ella Washington’s “He Called Me Baby” (nearly the equal of Candi Staton’s later version), Lattimore Brown’s “Every Day I Have to Cry Some”, Bobby Marchan’s wonderfully smug “Someone to Take Your Place” and Roy Hamilton’s dramatic “100 Years”. There are also the hits: the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” (with the great Reggie Young playing Danelectro electric sitar), Elvis’s “Kentucky Rain” and Dusty’s “So Much Love”, actually a B-side, taken from the Dusty in Memphis sessions. The collection provides a great soundtrack to Roben Jones’s Memphis Boys, a thorough history of Moman’s studio, the musicians who plied their trade there — Young, the pianists Bobby Emmons and Bobby Wood, the bassist Tommy Cogbill and the drummer Gene Chrisman — and the many memorable sessions that took place in the former North Memphis grocery store.

Unlike the rhythm sections on Solomon Burke’s New York sessions, these were not jazz musicians. They were country boys, and it’s interesting to compare the results. Approaching similar material, both groups found their own pocket. The Memphis musicians are so comfortable with what they’re doing that you hardly notice them. The New York players use their chops in a slightly more assertive way that gives the music an extra edge. Those Burke sessions were something special at the time, and sound even better today.

Solomon went on to make more great records before his death in 2010. Soul Alive!, two hours of music recorded at a Washington DC club in 1981 with a band including the guitarist Marc Ribot, is one of the great live albums. Don’t Give Up on Me, a studio album produced in 2002 by Joe Henry, with the ace team of David Piltch on bass and Jay Bellerose on drums, has an elegiac beauty.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, Solomon Burke never updated his approach. He stayed with what he did, and he did it perhaps better than anyone.

* Solomon Burke’s The King of Rock ‘n’ Soul is on SoulMusic Records. The Soul of the Memphis Boys is on the Ace label. Soul Alive! is on Rouder Records. Don’t Give Up on Me is on Fat Possum.  Roben Jones’s Memphis Boys was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2010.

Bird at 100

Bird WD 1

Charlie Parker was born on August 29, 1920. A lot has been written in acknowledgment of his centenary**, about how he changed the way players of all instruments approached the business of playing jazz and about how his improvisations still sound newly minted. I’ve been thinking about those things, too, but also about what he might have left undone.

His final session in a recording studio, on December 10, 1954, three months before his death, saw him record two standards, “Love for Sale” and “I Love Paris”, at Fine Sounds in New York City for Norman Granz’s Verve label. Five takes of one, two takes of the other. Something caused the three-hour session, which would normally have produced five or six masters, to be truncated. Later the best takes of the two tunes formed part of an album called Charlie Parker Plays Cole Porter, the fifth volume of a posthumous series titled The Genius of Charlie Parker. His solos were adequate, but the deployment of the quintet format — alto, piano, guitar, bass and drums — offered him nothing new, no fresh stimulus. The Latin vamp behind the theme statement of “I Love Paris” is tired and lugubrious.

And that, mostly, was the story of his last few years. The increasingly tragic chaos of his personal life and the imperatives that came with it militated not just against artistic rigour and discipline but against any sustained attempt at further artistic development.

In musical terms, what had Bird needed for two or three years before his death was some kind of new challenge. Instead he was corralled by his own supreme mastery of the idiom he had helped invent. The rare attempts to venture beyond the head-solos-head format of small-group bebop, in the dates with strings or the sessions with Gil Evans and the Dave Lambert Singers, saw the compass set for the land of easy listening. Although on the recordings with strings and woodwind — arranged by Jimmy Carroll and Joe Lipman, a pair of journeymen — Parker occasionally produced some celestial playing (and, as it happens, I’m very fond of them), the context was not inherently stimulating.

Yet we know that in the late 1940s Parker had spent time at 14 West 55th Street, Gil Evans’s basement apartment, where George Russell, John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan were among those who met to discuss the future of music and how they might shape it. We know he listened to Bartók and Stravinsky, and that Edgard Varèse had offered to give him lessons in composition. We know he was interested in what Lennie Tristano was up to. He had an omnivorous intellect and was not hidebound by his own genre.

In February 1954 there was a hint, in a very unlikely setting, of how things might have been different. According to Ross Russell in Bird Lives!, it was when Stan Getz went missing after the first date of a 10-city national tour titled the Festival of Modern American Jazz that the Billy Shaw Agency paid Parker a good fee to fly out to San Francisco and take the place of the absent star. Ken Vail’s Bird’s Diary tells a different story, which has Parker playing on every concert from the start of the tour.

The line-up featured Kenton’s 18-piece orchestra — with Stu Williamson among the trumpets, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Charlie Mariano and Bill Perkins in the reed section, Don Bagley on bass and Stan Levey on drums — and a selection of star guests: Erroll Garner (with his trio), Dizzy Gillespie, June Christy, Lee Konitz and Candido Camero. The tour started in Wichita Falls, Texas, and made its way in an anti-clockwise direction around America, its stops including the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the Brooklyn Paramount and Toronto’s Massey Hall before ending up at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

On February 25 the 18th concert of the tour took place at the Civic Auditorium in Portland, Oregon. Someone made a recording of Bird with the Kenton band, playing “Night and Day”, “My Funny Valentine” and “Cherokee”, all subsequently available on a variety of bootleg LPs and CDs (e.g. The Jazz Factory’s Charlie Parker: Live with the Big Bands, which has better sound than these YouTube clips). These days I find I play them as much as any of Bird’s better known recordings.

From the photograph of him in front of the band, he looks to be in good physical shape. His tone is firm but warm and pliable, his phrasing unquenchably inventive as he sails over the contours of the standards, lifted by the excellent rhythm section. The arrangements are standard big-band stuff, which makes you wonder how Bird would have handled some of the more adventurous material in the Kenton repertoire, by composer/arrangers such as Bill Russo or Bob Graettinger.

It seems to me that if Parker lacked anything in musical terms, it was someone to play Gil Evans to his Miles Davis: someone to envision the kind of setting that would have spurred him on towards new dimensions. Maybe that man could even have been Gil Evans himself, doing for Bird what he did for Miles with the arrangements for Birth of the Cool and Miles Ahead. Their one session together, in 1953, turned out to be the most curious item in his entire discography: mushy choir-and-woodwind arrangements of “In the Still of the Night”, “Old Folks” and “If I Love Again” written to order in a misconceived stab at broadening Bird’s audience (although, once again, they spark some defiantly brilliant alto work, like Basquiat graffiti on a suburban white picket fence).

Imagine if Parker and Evans had been able to work together towards the end of the ’50s, with a good budget and plenty of time to plan and prepare a serious project. Imagine if a healthy Parker, in his mid-forties, had engaged with a coming generation. Imagine a Blue Note date in 1964 under Andrew Hill’s leadership, with Lee Morgan, Richard Davis, Bobby Hutcherson, Grachan Moncur III, Sam Rivers, Tony Williams and Bird tackling Hill’s tunes. Imagine him actually taking a course of study with Varèse, and finding his own compositional voice for a large ensemble, synthesising everything he knew. Imagine Eric Dolphy arranging Bird’s tunes — for Bird.

These are idle thoughts, obviously. He did more than enough. But still… Happy 100th birthday, anyway, Mr Parker.

Bird as a baby

* The stone bust of Charlie Parker was made by the sculptor Julie Macdonald, a friend with whom Bird stayed in Los Angeles at the end of the Festival of Modern American Jazz tour. The photograph was taken by its present owner, William Dickson, and is used by his permission. I told the story of the sculpture here in the Guardian a few years ago. The photo of Parker as an infant is from To Bird with Love by Francis Paudras and Chan Parker, published by Editions Wislov in 1981.

** More stuff on Bird’s centenary: Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math, a New York Times special, and the start of a multi-part series on Ted Gioia’s Jazz Wax blog.

On August 29, 1970

IoW Miles 2

Saturday at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival started at lunchtime with a two-hour solo set by John Sebastian during which, after delivering “Daydream”, “Nashville Cats”, “You’re a Big Boy Now” and others, he was unexpectedly joined by his former Lovin’ Spoonful colleague Zal Yanovsky, who had sent a note up to the stage asking to be invited to join in. Together they ran through some more of the Spoonful’s hits, including “Do You Believe in Magic” and the gorgeous “Darling Be Home Soon”. Sebastian finished off with “Younger Girl” and “Red-Eye Express”, leaving the crowd feeling beatific at the start of a day of unbroken sunshine.

An hour and half later came a different kind of singer-songwriter: Joni Mitchell, three albums into her career, already known for “Chelsea Morning”, “Both Sides, Now”, “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi”, wearing a long dress the colour of goldenrod, a few shades darker than her hair, and a discreet assortment of silver and turquoise jewellery. And she was about to face an ordeal that no one present would forget.

She came on with her guitar and began with “That Song About the Midway”. “Chelsea Morning” was next, but as she started the third verse she appeared to lose her way. After strumming on for a few more bars, she announced: “I don’t feel like singing that song so much.” She gave a little laugh and got a round of sympathetic applause, but already the strain of being alone on the stage in front of more than half a million people, delivering such intimate music, was beginning to tell, and her unease seemed to communicate itself to the crowd.

It’s hard to get that many people to be completely silent on a sunny afternoon. Her next little speech expressed annoyance. “When I hear someone saying, ‘Joni, smile for Amsterdam!’ it really puts me off and I get uptight and I forget the words and I get really nervous and it’s a drag. Just give me a little help, will you?” And then just as announced that she was going to play “Woodstock”, a disturbance in front of the stage led her to stand up and move away as a stoned boy was removed from the crowd.

She sat back down and started again. As she finished the song, a bearded man in a dark T-shirt who had been crouching behind the piano rose to his feet and asked if he could use her microphone. He wanted to make an announcement to the people in the encampment on the hill beyond the perimeter fence. Elliot Roberts, Mitchell’s manager, led a group of half a dozen people who quickly surrounded him and moved him away from the singer.

All the tensions of the weekend were coming to the surface. Some of the people in the crowd had chanted “Let him speak!” Was a rock festival a commercial enterprise or a free-for-all? Were the anarchists and situationists and freaks right to try and tear down the fences? Rikki Farr, the organisers’ spokesman, sensibly ordered the uniformed security guards to leave the stage. But how, in 1970, were you supposed to deal with a moment like that? For a minute, even in that brilliant Saturday sunshine, the atmosphere was closer to Altamont than Woodstock.

Shaken but determined to continue, Mitchell tried to resume her performance. Behind her back, the bearded man was finally being dragged away, and the crowd didn’t like the way it was done. So she stopped and made another speech, an angry and distressed plea for the chance to do her work: “Last Sunday I went to a Hopi ceremonial dance in the desert and there were a lot of people there and there were tourists who were getting into it like Indians and Indians who were getting into it like tourists, and I think that you’re acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect!”

It was brave, and it worked. She was able to complete her performance in relative peace, the crowd now more attentive and the atmosphere lightened appreciably by “Big Yellow Taxi”. Having been led away by Roberts at the end of the set, the sound of cheering brought her back for encores that washed away the memory of the earlier interruptions.

And that was just the start of an extraordinary sequence. Here’s what I wrote in the Melody Maker about the next performer: “Mr Herbert Khaury, alias Tiny Tim, alias Larry Love the Singing Canary, bounded on stage to sing ‘a few tunes from the early part of the century.’ Blowing kisses to the audience and strumming his ukelele, he seemed unlikely to retain the audience’s interest for long. But his rock and roll medley, with some of the most untogether playing ever heard (‘This is my wonderful English band… my wonderful English band’) was very amusing. The master stroke was his final medley of ‘There’ll Always Be an England’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, which somehow got the audience on its feet to sing these ridiculously patriotic songs.”

Tiny Tim’s bizarre bonhomie had removed the last trace of bad vibes. While the road crew rearranged the stage, Jeff Dexter, the festival’s DJ, made two crowd-pleasing choices: Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Free’s “All Right Now”, during which a multicoloured hot-air balloon floated above the crowd, its two occupants exchanging peace signs with the mass of humanity below.

Now it was late afternoon, and into the last rays of the sun slid Miles Davis, a 44-year-old jazz trumpeter who had served his apprenticeship almost a quarter of a century earlier with Charlie Parker and now faced the challenge of captivating 600,000 hippies. He took the stage in a thin red leather jacket over an orange knitted top, with studded blue jeans and silver boots. His sidemen — the saxophonist Gary Bartz, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on electric keyboards, Dave Holland on bass guitar, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Airto Moreira on percussion — had come as they were.

In August 1970 Miles was moving from a freer version of the complex music his quintet played in the second half of the ’60s to a direct engagement with funk. He’d already played to young audiences at the Fillmores in San Francisco and New York, on bills with the Grateful Dead and the Steve Miller Band. But the ties to the earlier music were not yet cut. The rhythm section he brought to the Isle of Wight ensured that however groove-centred the music became, it retained its freedom and complexity.

An unbroken set alluded to five compositions from the previous couple of years — “Directions”, “Bitches Brew”, “It’s About that Time”, “Sanctuary” and “Spanish Key” — before finishing with a fragment of his usual fanfare. Shrewdly, he played for barely 35 minutes: enough to intrigue and even beguile the hippies who didn’t know his music, not enough to try their patience.

The opening salvo took no prisoners. Miles wanted the music to burn, and he was concentrating hard as he led the way with fierce stabs and insolent runs on his lacquered instrument. The stage was bracketed by Jarrett, on an RMI keyboard that gave him the sounds of an electric piano and an organ, and Corea, who had what looks like a ring modulator on the top of his Hohner instrument and used it to make bleeps and squiggles of sound. Holland brought a jazz musician’s inventiveness to the funk bass lines, which was not what Miles would ultimately want, but there was a passage when he and DeJohnette meshed into a kind of broken second-line rhythm that lifted the music right up. Bartz flighted his brief soprano and alto solos with a keening sound and a striking trajectory, while Airto added the exotic noises of the shaker, the pandeira, the agôgo, and the cuica, a Brazilian friction drum with a distinctive whooping sound.

Miles prowled the stage, never far from the action. A quarter of an hour in, midway through “It’s About that Time”, virtually unrecognisable from its treatment on In a Silent Way a year earlier, the music took off. As it seethed and roiled, Miles returned to centre-stage and played two short, quiet phrases that redirected everything. Then he sketched the exposed theme of “Sanctuary” before cueing up the riff of “Spanish Key”.

He let the band get on with it for five minutes before raising his horn and lowering it back to the microphone, the signal for the funk to back off and textures to be laid over the simmering pulse behind his exquisite open-horn phrases, some of the them hinting at old Moorish influence. As he returned to the staccato jabs, the rhythm section, which had been simmering quietly, rose up again in response, coming back to the boil.

And suddenly the time was up. The music shuddered towards a halt. While the rhythm section wound down, Miles bent down to pick up his silver mute, waved his trumpet once to the crowd, grabbed his shoulder bag and his jacket, and was gone, into the dusk, leaving us to talk about the extraordinary nature of what we’d heard, and what it meant to hear it in the context of a giant rock festival. When they asked him the names of the pieces he’d played, he said, “Call it anything.”

IoW tickets

* The full sets by Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis are on YouTube, filmed by Murray Lerner for his documentary on the festival. Miles’s set can also be found on the album Bitches Brew Live, released in 2011 by Columbia Legacy, and on Electric Miles: A Different Kind of Blue, an Eagle Rock DVD from 2004.

Stepping out with Bobby Parker

Bobby Parker

The blues singer and guitarist Bobby Parker’s fame rests on a single record: the 1961 classic “Watch Your Step”, whose driving riff inspired the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and Bob Dylan’s “Tell Me, Momma”. I wrote about it here when he died seven years ago. Now there’s a 2-CD anthology of his recordings from 1954 to 1995, called Soul of the Blues and reflecting not only his own career but changes in black music styles during those decades.

It begins with both sides of a 78rpm single by the Emeralds, recorded in Los Angeles in 1954 and released on the Kicks label. Parker’s family had moved to California from Louisiana when he was a small boy; he picked up the guitar in his early teens, formed the Emeralds with friends, and played school dances. In hallowed doo-wop fashion, the A-side is an up-tempo dance tune with a Latin beat, written by the 16-year-old Parker, while the flip is a wonderfully gloopy ballad. It’s a fine start to a lovingly compiled set.

A year later Parker was playing guitar with Bo Diddley: there are three studio tracks here and a version of “Bo Diddley” itself from the Ed Sullivan Show. He moved on to be a featured singer and guitarist with the band of the saxophonist Paul Williams, famous for “The Hucklebuck”: studio recordings from New York in 1956, including “Blues Get Off My Shoulder”, show his proficiency in a variety of styles. Four instrumental tracks, two under Williams’s name and two under that of the tenorist Noble “Thin Man” Watts (including “South Shore Drive”), are perfect examples of the idiom.

“Watch Your Step” is there, of course, is all its incendiary glory, along with an alternate take, and the discography included in the booklet gives me some information I’ve always wanted: it was recorded at the Edgewood Recording Studio in Washington DC in 1961, and the drummer holding down that fantastic Latin rhythm for a very good studio band was one “TNT” Tribble Jr. I’m afraid I’d never heard of him, but I’m glad to know his name now.

Within these 52 tracks you’ll find jump blues, novelty blues, rock ‘n’ roll blues, Chicago-style blues, gospel blues and funky blues. There are some wonderful obscurities, including the philosophical “Talkin’ About Love”, recorded in Columbus, South Carolina for the True Spot label in 1966 or ’67. In 1968 he was in England, recording for Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label: two tracks, “It’s Hard But Fair” and “I Couldn’t Quit My Baby”, were cut with a British band including the saxophonists Steve Gregory, Johnny Almond and Bud Beadle, but the mix is messy and the playing lacks the punch of the best of the American recordings. There are also six tracks recorded in front of a New York audience in 1995 for the House of Blues radio show with a very good five-piece horns-and-rhythm band, in which Parker gets all the space he needs to show that he was a guitarist in the class of Albert and Freddie King and Albert Collins.

The CD case also reproduces the poster for an all-day dance in June 1957 at the Bluefield Auditorium in Bluefield, West Virginia, a coal town in the Appalachians. The bill included the Coasters, Ruth Brown, Bo Diddley, the Drifters, the 5 Satins, Smiley Lewis, the Schoolboys, Paul Williams & the Hucklebuck Orchestra, and “Mr Bobby Parker — Blues Guitar”. The compere was the singer Johnny Hartman. Admission $2.50. “Entire balcony reserved for white spectators,” it says.

* Bobby Parker’s Soul of the Blues is released on the Rhythm and Blues label. The photograph is from the booklet, which states that 50 per cent of the profits from the set will go to the Bobby Parker Foundation.

** In the first version of this piece, I got “TNT” Tribble Jr mixed up with his father, Thomas “TNT” Tribble Sr, also a drummer. Now corrected.