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Grant Green’s groove

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What I’d give to be able to walk into a small club somewhere and discover Grant Green playing with a little band – just his guitar plus a tenor saxophone, B3 organ, bass guitar, drums and congas. Green was a great jazz player, as we know from the great Blue Note recordings of the mid-’60s on which he kept pace with such advanced musicians as Bobby Hutcherson, Larry Young and Elvin Jones, but in less formal circumstances he could turn to a repertoire of funk and soul tunes on which to boil up an irresistible groove. Both sides of his character are to be found on two new multi-LP sets of previously unknown material unearthed, restored, remastered and released by the Resonance label on lavishly packaged 180-gram vinyl in time for this weekend’s Record Store Day.

The first album, titled Funk in France, consists of three vinyl LPs drawn from two sources. The first disc comes from a guitar festival held in 1969 at ORTF’s Maison de la Radio in Paris, where Green, a late replacement for the ailing Tal Farlow, played a set with the excellent bassist Larry Ridley and the veteran big-band drummer Don Lamond. Basically, it’s a jam – but a very good one, particularly on two Sonny Rollins tunes, “Oleo” and “Sonnymoon for Two”, which allow the guitarist to demonstrate his bebop chops. He’s also joined by another of the festival’s featured artists, Barney Kessel, for a delightful investigation of Charles Trenet’s “I Wish You Love”.

The other two discs come from two nights at the following summer’s Antibes Jazz Festival, where Green arrived with his own band: the tenorist Claude Bartee, the organist Clarence Palmer and the drummer Billy Wilson. This is an open-air version of his club music, featuring R&B hits like Little Anthony’s “Hurt So Bad” and Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers”, and two long versions of his own “Upshot”. It’s raw, driving, crowd-pleasing stuff, with bags of atmosphere.

On the whole, though, I prefer the second release, which is titled Slick! and was recorded on a single night in 1975 at a Vancouver club called Oil Can Harry’s, reminding us that Green was also recorded at places like Detroit’s Club Mozambique and the deliciously named Cliché Lounge in Newark, New Jersey. Here he’s accompanied by his frequent collaborator Emmanuel Riggins on electric piano, Ronnie Ware on bass guitar, Greg Williams on drums and Gerald Izzard on percussion.

It’s a double album, and although it opens with a sprightly version of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time”, the funk seeps in on the second track, a 26-minute version of Tom Jobim’s “How Insensitive”, which opens with a lovely passage of unaccompanied guitar before a groove is established and eventually assumes control. After that it’s funk all the way, through medleys featuring instrumental jams on the Ohio Players’ “Skin Tight”, Bobby Womack’s “Woman’s Gotta Have It”, Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on, Reggae Woman” and the O’Jays’ “For the Love Of Money”.

Like the material from the Antibes sets, this is not cerebral music. But it warms the heart and moves the feet, just as it did for a generation of regulars in clubs in the black districts of cities across North America. Green died in 1979, aged 43, suffering a heart attack during an engagement at his friend George Benson’s Breezin’ Lounge in Harlem, after a year of ill health. His playing is loved for its blues-driven clarity and directness, whatever the context. And, as usual, Resonance — a non-profit organisation — goes to the trouble of providing plenty of background material in the accompanying booklets, along with artwork that evokes the vibe of the period. These two albums are time capsules, offering something to be enjoyed as well as preserved.

Pohjola/Kallio: ‘Animal Image’

Verneri Pohjola and Mikka Kallio credit Maarit Kytoharju

Four years ago, the gifted Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola made his debut on the Edition label with Bullhorn, a small-group album of exquisite modern jazz in the line of descent from Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage and Manu Katché’s Neighbourhood, which is to say cool, clear, strongly lyrical but always alert post-bop music with attractive themes and thoughtful solos, handsomely veneered. Last year he followed it up with Pekka, a more rock-inflected but also beguiling set of interpretations of themes composed by his late father, Pekka Pohjola, who was the bassist with the excellent group Wigwam in the early ’70s and the leader of his own band until his death 10 years ago.

His new release, Animal Image, is a collaboration with the percussionist Mika Kallio, who also appeared on Pekka. It was recorded to accompany a film about the “infinite relationship” between man and animals, made in northern Finland by the visual artist Perttu Saksa, who approached the project from an unusual angle by showing Pohjola and Kallio his footage and then cutting the film to their improvisations — a reversal of the conventional method.

With Pohjola using electronics as well as trumpet and Kallio adding bells and gongs to his drums, the result is a restrained but ravishing set of sound pictures, a kind of Nordic response to Jon Hassell’s Fourth World recordings of the 1980s. This is the sound of snowfields and big skies, of glistening details and slow change, and of survival. Its sheer beauty (most immediately expressed in Pohjola’s glorious trumpet tone) and approachability makes Animal Image easy to recommend to people who wouldn’t normally go for something as apparently austere as a series of free improvisations for trumpet and percussion. And now I’d love to see the film.

* Animal Image is out now on the Edition label. The photograph of Verneri Pohjola and Mika Kallio is by Maarit Kytoharju.

A record shop life

 

Going for a Song

The history of the British music scene from the 1950s onwards can be told through the story of the nation’s record shops, which is exactly what Garth Cartwright does in Going for a Song, his newly published survey of the retail outlets that drew fans and musicians to their specialist stock and thereby shaped the evolution of the music in all its forms.

Whether it was John Mayall buying blues 78s at a shop in Manchester’s Marsden Square, David Bowie buying Bob Dylan’s first album in the folk department of Dobell’s on Charing Cross Road, Mick Taylor buying B. B. King’s Live at the Regal at Transat Imports in a basement on Lisle Street, or Joe Strummer hearing Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac” at Ted Carroll’s original Rock On stall in the Golborne Road market, these were the places where enthusiasms were incubated and encouraged.

For a few months in 1964-65 I had a Saturday job in the basement record department of a TV rental shop in central Nottingham, using the shop’s main deck to listen to imported Blue Note albums which I’d been allowed to order but no one wanted to buy (that Christmas, Jim Reeves was outselling Eric Dolphy by about 1,000 to one). But the places I haunted as a customer were a second-hand stall in the covered market, where I bought my first jazz LPs from a rather doleful man who travelled in each day from Grantham, and a West Indian record shop near the bus station, where the sleeve of Jimmy McGriff’s I Got a Woman hung in the window and they stocked Prince Buster 45s on the Blue Beat label.

Those are the things that stay with you. On trips to London I bought an imported Mar-Keys 45 on Stax at Transat, My Name Is Albert Ayler at Dobell’s and an album by Shinichi Yuize, the koto master, at the achingly cool One Stop on South Molton Street. After I’d moved to London I spent more hours at Collet’s on New Oxford Street (run by Ray Smith and Gill Cook) than anywhere else, with occasional trips to Golborne Road and to Peckings’ tiny Studio 1 ska shop in Askew Road, Shepherds Bush. Nowadays it’s mostly the excellent Ray’s Jazz Shop in Foyle’s, sometimes Sister Ray in Berwick Street and Sounds of the Universe on Broadwick Street, and occasionally — not often enough — Honest Jon’s on Portobello Road.

I miss the little independent soul and oldies shops clustered in Hanway Street, a doglegged alley off Oxford Street, and, at the other end of the scale, Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus, with its amazing stock: the primary haunt of what David Hepworth named “the 50 quid man”, the sort of consumer who — growing into middle age with a bit of disposable income — would drop in for a new CD and pick up a couple more that filled gaps in his collection. I miss Dobell’s and James Asman’s on New Row for their sometimes cranky character. In New York I miss Village Oldies, later Bleecker Bob’s; the fabulous Colony Records on the corner of Broadway and West 52nd Street, which closed in 2012 after 64 years; and a more recent casualty, the adventurous Other Music on East 4th Street.

A great record shop sometimes requires a form of negotiation that doesn’t apply widely in the world of retail: the need for customers to prove themselves worthy of making a purchase. The first time I encountered that phenomenon was in Dobell’s, when I bought the Ayler album and was brusquely informed by a tall man with a beard that “the guy can’t play”. That was 50-odd years ago. The most recent time was last year, in House of Oldies on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, where I kept my head down while the owner frightened off a customer who had bothered him with requests that revealed what he clearly saw as an unacceptable ignorance of doo-wop music.

One of the most memorable record-store visits, back in 1970, was to the great R&B producer Bobby Robinson’s shop at its original location on 125th Street and 8th Avenue in Harlem, opposite the Apollo Theatre. Charlie Gillett and I spotted the dust-covered boxes of 78s on high shelves, undisturbed for more than a decade. Another was to buy Northern Soul singles at Selectadisc on Arkwright Street in Nottingham — a street of vibrant working-class character since completed obliterated by urban development — and being transfixed by the beauty of the proprietor’s wife while handing over the cash for bootlegged copies of the Fuller Brothers’ “Time’s A Wasting” and Moses Smith’s “The Girl Across the Street” at the urging of my pal Dave Milton, who ran his own shop in Derby.

I could go on. Couldn’t we all, when it comes to record shops? More to the point, Garth Cartwright’s book is a wonderful guide to many of the places I’ve mentioned, and to the the people who brought them to life, from such well known figures as Doug Dobell, Ted Carroll and Geoff Travis to the more obscure characters like the Levy family of Whitechapel, Lee Gopthal of Musicland, Rita and Benny Isen of R&B Records in Stamford Hill, Laurie Krieger of Harlequin, Barry Class of the Disci chain and the mysterious Brian Abrams, whom I first encountered at his original Record & Tape Exchange in the Goldhawk Road in 1970, when he was on his way to creating a little empire based on eccentric employment policies and journalists’ review copies.

Cartwright goes right back to 1894 and the opening in Cardiff of Spillers, which survives today as the world’s oldest record shop, and tells the stories of projects that had a significant lifespan, like HMV and Virgin, and those that didn’t, like the Vogue label’s record shop on Charing Cross Road and the Chelsea Drugstore on the King’s Road. He goes outside London to include much-loved places such as the Epstein family’s NEMS emporium in Liverpool, Birmingham’s Diskery, Pete Russell’s Hot Record Store in Plymouth, Barry’s Record Rendezvous in Manchester and Eric Rose’s Music Inn in Nottingham, which hopes to celebrate its centenary next year. He’s done his research and talked to lots of people, both surviving proprietors and their customers (which makes me wish the book had an index).

At the end of Cartwright’s engrossing and hugely valuable survey we arrive at the rather less optimistic era of the vinyl revival and the annual Record Store Day, which the author views with a degree of scepticism. As he points out, the number of independent record shops in Britain tumbled from 948 to 408 between 2003 and 2007, and the recovery is struggling to stabilise itself. But as long as recorded music is available in a physical form there will be successors to those who helped so many of us to follow our ears wherever they led. They deserve this fine book.

* Going for a Song is published by Flood Gallery (£12.99).

 

Lewis Wright’s ‘Duets’

Lewis Wright

If he were not already a word-class vibes player, Lewis Wright would make a great commercial songwriter. Unlike most people who write jazz compositions, Wright seems to think first of all in terms of pure melody, and then how that melody can be given the most emotionally satisfying harmonic support. He has the knack of writing tunes that sound both fresh and familiar at the same time. In a previous generation, Benny Golson had the same gift.

Wright is probably best known as a member of Empirical, whose last album, Connection, contained a Wright-penned ballad called “Lethe” which carried distant echoes of Duke Pearson’s “Cristo Redentor” (as recorded by Donald Byrd) and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”. Its lovely gentle swell was used to set up and counterpoint Nat Facey’s urgent alto saxophone solo. The tune sounded like a potential jazz classic, although I’m not sure such a thing still exists now that original material is practically compulsory. After two years of owning the album, and several live exposures to the piece, I still play it all the time and it never fails to improve the prevailing mood.

Now Wright, who is 29, makes his leadership debut on record with an album of his own compositions called Duets for Vibraphone and Piano, on which he is joined by Kit Downes. They launched it last night at the Pizza Express in Soho with a set which showed very clearly how much they enjoy playing together, as they’ve done since they were schoolboys living in adjacent villages in Norfolk (Downes is the elder by two years).

It also confirmed Wright’s compositional talent. The ballads “Sati” and “An Absence of Heart” are winning enough — romantic without being drippy — to remind me of Michel Legrand, a comparison which prompted the thought about commercial songwriting. “Sati”, indeed, sounds as if it’s just waiting for the right film to be made — and, like “Lethe”, it ends with a coda that shows he has imaginative ideas about structure. Up-tempo pieces such as “Tokyo ’81” and “Fortuna” are full of cunning surges and sideslips, rhythmically active enough to remind one that Wright has also made his living as a drummer with the likes of Melody Gardot and Joss Stone but still glinting with faceted melodies as they fly by.

His spectacular improvising is not exactly held in check or kept under wraps here (there’s a dazzling passage on the closing “Kintamani”, for instance), but the real point of the exercise is the integration of compositions, performers and instruments into a form of chamber jazz that is by turns serene, jaunty, athletic and pensive. I’d call it a complete success.

* Duets for Vibraphone and Piano is out now on the Signum Classics label.

Betty Lavette, protest singer

Betty Lavette

Which activist was it who remarked, sometime in the early ’70s, that he’d forgive Bob Dylan everything if he’d just write one more good song against the Vietnam war? I forget, and it doesn’t really matter. Dylan, of course, never responded to the plea. That phase of his life was done. And I guess that when Patti Smith sings “Hard Rain” at the Nobel ceremony in the time of Trump and Putin, a 50-year-old song is as good as new.

So if we can’t have new songs that rail against injustice with the kind of resonance that Dylan’s early efforts achieved, then maybe revisiting the old ones is the best we can hope for. The fine soul singer Betty LaVette does that to an extent on her new album, Things Have Changed, where she and her producer, Steve Jordan, reinterpret a dozen Dylan songs of varying vintages.

Most of them are non-political, either early (“It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Mama You Been on My Mind”), mid-period (“Going Going Gone”) or more recent (“Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, “Emotionally Yours”, “Seeing the Real You at Last”). But the saw-toothed, low-slung version of the title track which opens the album sounds like an elliptical state-of-the-nation address delivered from the back table of some anonymous small-town bar, and it sets the tone and trajectory for what follows.

Much credit for the album’s considerable success must go to the guitar of Larry Campbell (one of Dylan’s most faithful sidemen), the keyboards of Leon Pendarvis, the bass guitar of Pino Palladino and Jordan’s drums, whose collective nailing of a kind of grunge-funk mode is discreetly compelling throughout. It took skill, imagination and guts to devise a new groove for “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, in which LaVette pays as little attention to the sheet music as Dylan himself would, cutting herself loose from the melody to locate what she needs within such a well-worn song. “Political World” rides on a lean displaced-backbeat riff that nods to War’s “Slippin’ into Darkness”, which suits me fine, and the exquisitely restrained treatment of “Going, Going, Gone” lifts it straight into the upper reaches of my list of favourite Dylan covers.

Now I come to think about it, there’s isn’t actually much explicit protest in this album — certainly not as much as in Mavis Staples’ recent If All I Was Was Black. But somehow the mood still feels insurrectionary. As Bob wrote and Betty sings, “This is a political world, where peace ain’t welcome at all / It’s turned away from the door to wander some more / Or put up against the wall…”

* Things Have Changed is out now on the Impulse label. The photograph of Betty LaVette is by Mark Seliger.

 

Cecil Taylor, himself

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(Photograph: Francis Wolff)

Today’s news of the death of the great musical revolutionary Cecil Taylor at the age of 89 brought back the impact of his early recordings and the experience of hearing him live on several occasions across the decades. It also reminded me of the night I gave him a lift back to his hotel after his London debut in November 1969. My car at the time was a much-loved old Fiat 500, so small that you could have fitted it into the trunk of a New York taxi cab. Hardly a limo. Barely even a car at all, by American standards. Luckily, Cecil fitted quite neatly into its confined passenger seat and talked cheerfully on the drive from Hammersmith Odeon into the West End.

His set during that night’s concert — part of Jazz Expo 69, on a bill shared with Cleo Laine and the most desultory quartet Thelonious Monk ever led — had been nothing less than staggering. With Jimmy Lyons on alto, Sam Rivers on tenor and Andrew Cyrille on drums, he reshaped my understanding of focused intensity. The two saxophonists worked their way through Cecil’s intricate unison lines against the jabbing commentary of the leader’s piano and the shifting thunder and lightning provided by Cyrille. Occasionally the skies would clear for a brief passage of shining lyricism before the storm returned, seemingly redoubled in force.

I remember two things from later in the evening. The first followed my remark that such performances must be physically draining. No, Cecil said. “You don’t notice it. Let’s go and find a discothèque — it’s good for the feet.” The second, not unrelated, came when I accompanied him to his room at the Strand Palace Hotel for a short interview. On a table was a small record player, with a Stevie Wonder album on the deck. I was surprised — maybe I’d been expecting Bartók. “Stevie Wonder is tremendous — he reminds me of a preacher,” he said. “The arrangements have the excitement of Dizzy’s old band.” He meant Dizzy Gillespie’s incendiary big band of 1947; it was a strikingly unexpected comparison.

A few years later I heard a phenomenal solo set at Carnegie Hall and then, just after the turn of the millennium, a poetry recital, shared with Amiri Baraka, at St Mark’s-in-the-Bowery in the East Village. Baraka read “A Modest Proposal for Giuliani’s Disposal (41 verses which are also curses)”, a lacerating tirade inspired by the killing of Amadou Diallo. Cecil read skeins of words that came from some private place. The last time I heard him, in a duo with Tony Oxley at the Village Vanguard maybe five years ago, he read and played, and on that particular night the music seemed to have taken up residency in that same private place.

I suppose the records I love best are the earlier ones: the free-swinging “Charge ‘Em Blues” from Jazz Advance, the whole of Looking Ahead, “Pots” and “Bulbs” from Into the Hot, the epic “D Trad, That’s What” from the Café Montmartre album, all of Conquistador. Also Dark to Themselves from the ’70s and It Is In the Brewing Luminous from the ’80s. Above all, though, the monumental “This Nearly Was Mine”, a radical meditation on Richard Rodgers’ South Pacific ballad, from The World of Cecil Taylor, now almost 60 years old. I once asked the record producer Alan Douglas (who supervised Money Jungle and the Last Poets’ debut) which album he would most like to make. “Cecil Taylor playing standards,” he said, and I knew what he meant.

Here’s a clip of a performance at the memorial service for Ornette Coleman two years ago (I was led to it by a fine piece on Ethan Iverson’s blog, Do the Math). It’s a good way to remember Cecil as well: the piano playing slowed down to mortal pace for the occasion but every note tipped with obsidian, coming at you from angles that belonged only to to this most fearless and uncompromisingly original member of the avant-garde.

Terry Evans 1938-2018

The Mississippi-born soul singer Terry Evans, who died earlier this year at the age of 80, was responsible for one of the greatest vocal moments I ever heard in my life. As one of the singers who travelled with Ry Cooder and his band in the 1970s, he was given the second verse of “(At the) Dark End of the Street”, the great deep-soul ballad written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman and made famous by James Carr. What he made of the second line of that verse was what did it for me. I witnessed it live at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1977, and luckily the moment was recaptured in the studio of BBC2’s Old Grey Whistle Test. Each of the singers — the other two are Bobby King and Eldridge King — gets a verse, but Terry Evans’s moment (1:28-1:35 in the clip) is beyond sublime. He made some nice records under his own name — notably the Cooder-produced Blues for Thought (1994), containing a lovely version of another Carr-related song, “That’s the Way Love Turned Out For Me” — but these few seconds are his testament. Rest in peace, Mr Evans.

Nérija at the Albert Hall

Nérija 1

So maybe this London jazz boom is for real, after all. There was another piece about it in the New York Times last week, in which Giovanni Russonello extolled the Sons of Kemet’s new album while correctly praising the vibrancy of the scene that incubated Shabaka Hutchings and his colleagues. Last night I heard a bit more evidence in the intimate surroundings of the Albert Hall’s Elgar Room, where the septet called Nérija pulled a big and enthusiastic crowd.

Nérija are Sheila Maurice-Grey (trumpet), Rosie Turton (trombone), Cassie Kinoshi (alto saxophone), Nubya Garcia (tenor saxophone), Shirley Tetteh (guitar), Rio Kai (double bass) and Lizy Exell (drums). Several of them are graduates of the invaluable Tomorrow’s Warriors programme run for young musicians by Gary Crosby and Janine Irons. Last year they released an EP — you can listen to and download it here — which showed off qualities that were illustrated in greater depth during two half-hour sets packed with substantial original compositions, some of them written collectively and each showing a different facet of their character.

Their grooves are made for dancing, their tunes and solos for listening. The four-horn front line makes a pleasingly warm, fat sound, but is used with flexibility, sometimes dividing up within the written sections: trumpet and trombone together, or alto and tenor, or other combinations, thus keeping the textures fresh and the densities surprising. The solos are strategically placed within each composition so that the listener never gets the feeling of hearing a routine in progress. Often a piece has an unexpected ending: an epigrammatic tag, a rhythm section coda, a sudden diminuendo.

As soloists, the horn players are still developing but already show self-confidence and imagination. The formidable Garcia is currently the best known of them, but Maurice-Grey and Turton played several solos that would be outstanding in any context, while Kinoshi — whose playing has a bit of the Blue Notes’ Dudu Pukwana and the Skatalites’ Lester Sterling in it — preached with particular fervour on a composition of her own.

I love how they mix West and South African and Jamaican influences with hard bop and modal jazz, hip-hop, and no doubt other ingredients. The place where they all meet — the prism through which everything passes — seems to be the guitar of Tetteh, who powers the grooves with a fast, staccato chordal approach closer to funk than jazz, as well driving Kai and Exell to spirited climaxes behind the soloists. Her own improvisations are episodic but often contain startling juxtapositions of chordal passages with rippling single-note figures. I hear echoes of all sorts of things metabolised in her playing: Ernest Ranglin, Gabor Szabo, Michael Hampton, Grant Green, and the guys who played guitar with King Sunny Adé. I think she’s finding her way towards something special.

Although Nérija’s approach has been carefully planned, the music never feels tricksy. There are music stands on stage, but they don’t get in the way of spontaneity and a compelling immediacy. There are rough edges, but in a Mingus-y sort of way, which can only be good. You feel that if they were ever completely smoothed away, the fun would stop. Which hardly seems imminent.

Lio sings Caymmi

Lio

Every now and then an album wanders in and becomes part of the furniture, always there in times of need. Lio Canta Caymmi, an album of songs by the Brazilian composer Dorival Caymmi interpreted by the Portuguese singer Lio, seems likely to become one of those.

Curiously, its predecessors for me include two albums of Brazilian music by female singers: The Astrud Gilberto Album from 1965 and Paula Morelenbaum’s Berimbaum from 2004. It’ll take a couple of years before I can be sure that Lio Canta Caymmi shares their status, but on the basis of a few weeks’ listening to an advance copy, I’ve got a feeling that it will.

The album was the idea of Jacques Duvall, a French lyricist who has worked with Lio and many other artists. Caymmi, who died in 2008 at the age of 94, was a key figure in the establishment of Brazilian popular music in the twentieth century. Although not as well known outside Brazil as Tom Jobim, his songs — many of them written in his twenties — helped lay the foundations for the arrival of bossa nova in the 1960s. Duvall enlisted the aid of his compatriot Christophe Vandeputte to create new settings that employ modest means — guitar, accordion, bass, drums, percussion, the occasional wash of synthesised strings  — with great sensitivity.

Lio — born Vanda Maria Ribeiro Furtado Tavares de Vasconcelos in Lisbon — was a pop star in France and Belgium in the 1980s before becoming a film actress. Her earlier musical collaborators included Telex, Sparks and John Cale, but the extroversion apparent on YouTube clips from those days is held in check here. Her delivery of lovely songs such as “Tão Só” and “É Doce Morrer No Mar” (also a favourite of the late, great Cesária Évora) is restrained and unaffected, allowing the gentle, beautifully shaped melodies to shine through, along with the extra verse in French tacked on to each of the original Portuguese lyrics by Duvall. The arrangements include the occasional surprise: the beach sounds and laughter prefacing “Sábado em Copacabana”, a dab of organ making a late entry to underpin the delicate funky groove of “Nunca Mais”, hand-drums animating the humming bossa of “Samba da Minha Terra”.

Nothing here is going to rearrange your life, but it forms a graceful, imaginatively conceived and beautifully executed tribute to a great figure in Brazilian culture. And when you want to let a little sunlight into the room, it might be just the thing.

* Lio Canta Caymmi is released on March 30 by Crammed Discs. The photograph of Lio is by Jane Who.

The story of Al Duncan

Al Duncan

Long before I knew his name, I was hooked on Al Duncan’s playing. In the autumn of 1963 the Impressions’ “It’s All Right” came on the radio, with its beautiful drum fills. Over the next couple of years there followed a procession of Curtis Mayfield-written songs by the Impressions and Major Lance, driven — like “Delilah” and “I Need You” — by that very distinctive drumming, so clean and relaxed.

Along with Motown’s Benny Benjamin in Detroit and Stax’s Al Jackson Jr in Memphis, Duncan propelled the cream of mid-’60s soul. Eventually I discovered his name, along with the information that he played a lot of blues, R&B and soul sessions in Chicago for Vee-Jay, Chess and other labels before being supplanted by a younger man, Maurice White (later, of course, the co-founder of Earth Wind & Fire). But I didn’t know anything else until this week, when I bought the new issue of Blues & Rhythm, the fine British monthly magazine, and there he was on the cover.

The story is an interview taped in 1975 in Santa Monica by the writer Bill Greensmith, and never previously published. Duncan talks at length about his entire career, from his early days as an aspirant jazz drummer in Texas and Kansas City, playing with the bandleaders Ernie Fields and Jay McShann, to his collaborations with Mayfield, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Phil Upchurch and many others, and his move in the 1970s to Los Angeles, where he played with people like Red Holloway but seemingly failed to break into the session scene.

He died on January 3, 1995, aged 68. For me, this interview is priceless testimony from a man whose playing has been part of my life for more than half a century. So thanks, Bill Greensmith, for disinterring it, and to the editors of Blues & Rhythm for not only publishing it but making Al Duncan their cover star.