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Greenwich Village, February 1963

Don HunsteinThe man who took the photograph that appeared on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan died on March 18, aged 88. Don Hunstein’s obituary in the New York Times tells us that he bought a Leica while serving with the US Air Force in England, and attended classes at the Central School of Art and Design. After returning home he eventually became a staff photographer at Columbia Records, at a time when that meant working with Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Glenn Gould, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein and many others.

He was in Columbia’s studios when Davis recorded Kind of Blue and Holiday recorded Lady in Satin. But no image of his turned out to have greater cultural resonance than the one he took in a Greenwich Village street on a cold February day in 1963. He had already taken the picture for the cover of Dylan’s debut album (which the art department had flipped, so that Dylan’s guitar looks to be strung for a left-handed player and his coat buttons are on the wrong side). For the second session, Hunstein turned up at the singer’s top-floor apartment at 161 West 4th Street in Greenwich Village.

Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s 19-year-old girlfriend, was present, and a few photographs were taken indoors before the three of them stepped out into the slush-lined streets. Dylan, thinking of his image, put on a thin suede jerkin over his denim shirt. Rotolo sensibly opted for a warm dark-green belted coat. On a nearby side street, Hunstein got them to walk towards him, arm in arm, and started snapping away.

When I interviewed Suze at the time of the publication of her excellent autobiography (A Freewheelin’ Time) in 2008, she told me of a recent conversation with the photographer in which they had disagreed about the precise location of the shot that ended up on the cover. Hunstein said it was on Cornelia Street. She insisted it was Jones Street, a bit further up West 4th. “So that’s going to have to remain a mystery for all those Dylanologists,” she chuckled.

I liked her enormously. When I asked her how it felt to listen now to all those songs written when she and Dylan were together (“Don’t Think Twice”, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and so on), she responded to the sort of crass journalistic question she’d been avoiding for four and a half decades with words that I found very moving. “I can recognise things,” she said. “It’s like looking at a diary. It brings it all back. And what’s hard is that you remember being unsure of how life was going to go — his, mine, anybody’s. So, from the perspective of an older person looking back, you enjoy them, but also think of them as the pain of youth, the loneliness and struggle that youth is, or can be.”

She died in 2011. She and Dylan had stayed in intermittent touch, she told me. A few years after their painful breakup he helped her out when her apartment was destroyed by fire. Among her lost possessions were the coat she had worn that day in 1963, and one of his Gibson guitars.

A night at Silent Green

CCH Silent Green 1Last summer I was blown away by the latest album from Catherine Christer Hennix, the 68-year-old Swedish-American composer, singer and keyboardist who studied with La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath before striking out on her own exploration of sound, light, drones, spirituality and just intonation. Last night I got the chance to see her perform during Berlin’s Maerzmusik festival, at a converted crematorium church in the Wedding district.

Now named Silent Green, it’s an octagonal space with two circular balconies. The floor was covered with oriental rugs, on which the majority of the audience reclined or assumed yoga-style positions. Hennix was positioned alongside one wall, seated at a two-manual electronic keyboard, flanked by the mixing equipment and other devices operated by Stefan Tiedje, her sound engineer and computer programmer. The rest of the audience had chairs on the first balcony. Above us in the upper balcony  were five brass players: Amir ElSaffar (trumpet), Paul Schwingenschlögl (trumpet and flügelhorn), Hillary Jeffery (trombone), Elena Kakaliagou (French horn), and Robin Hayward (microtonal tuba).

Together they performed a piece called “Raag Sura Shruti”, which began with quiet drones from Henna’s voice and keyboard, gradually increasing in intensity until the brass players joined in, coming and going as the music flowed and ebbed and flowed again. If you wanted a shorthand description, you could say that it was as though Terry Riley’s “Persian Surgery Dervishes” had been reorchestrated by Giovanni Gabrieli for the brass choir he had at his disposal in St Mark’s, Venice in the 16th century.

That part of the concert lasted three hours. Not every member of the audience stayed with it. I was fascinated by the slowly changing colours and the stately arc of the music’s evolving narrative. Sometimes it was very beautiful: lustrous, resonant, ambiguous in its tonal movement (thanks to the use of the non-tempered scale), at one point reaching the sort of lung-crushing decibel count normally encountered in another part of the city at Berghain, the techno club with the world-famous sound system. There were other times, understandably enough, when the underlying drones seemed to be hanging around, waiting for something to happen.

Maybe it was my interest in the arrangement of the moving parts that prevented me from achieving the sort of transcendence that this music is ostensibly about. Perhaps I should have been lying down, eyes closed, on one of the Persian rugs, giving myself up to the waves of sound in a non-analytical way. But that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the experience thoroughly and admiring the music greatly, even if it didn’t quite reach the peaks scaled during the New York concert preserved on last year’s album.

Just when the last drone had diminished to a whisper and almost faded away completely, and the musicians had got up from their balcony seats and left the arena, Hennix took over with a closing 15-minute solo improvisation on the keyboard. As she crunched her fingers and fists on the keys, setting up brief, spidery phrases and then splintering them, I thought of how a Chinese boogie-woogie pianist might sound if invited to play a Philip Glass piano étude on one of Sun Ra’s early electronic instruments — the Rocksichord, wasn’t it? — in the style of Cecil Taylor, with an intermittently malfunctioning power supply. An excellent evening all round.

The Judas thing

Bob Dylan 1966I suppose I’ve always thought of the man who shouted “Judas!” at Bob Dylan in Manchester in 1966 as a dull-witted denier of truth and progress. To my astonishment, however, after spending the last couple of months listening, on and off, to the 36-disc box of the surviving music from that tour, I’ve come to see things a little differently.

According to researches by Andy Kershaw and C. P. Lee, the Judas man was a Manchester law student named John Cordwell. His interjection was the most prominent and celebrated of the many voiced in disapproval of Dylan’s alliance with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Mickey Jones during the second half of each show, most of which featured a between-songs commentary of grumbles and shouts and whistles, occasionally luring the singer into responses that ranged from the wry to the exasperated.

Of course, the music they played after the interval was head-spinning, earth-shaking and world-changing, fuelled to a greater and greater extent as the tour went on by anger at the pincer attack from a combative Fleet Street on the one hand and outraged folk purists on the other. But after listening to many of these concerts, it’s hard to avoid the somewhat heretical conclusion that the finest and most enduring music came in the first half.

If he was feeling impatient to get to the second half and the revolutionary music he’d been concocting with his new friends, it never shows. The seven songs making up the basic acoustic set — “She Belongs to Me”, “Fourth Time Around”, “Visions of Johanna”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Desolation Row”, “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr Tambourine Man” — receive a high degree of care and attention. The approach each night depends on the condition in which Dylan takes the stage, but the performances are never less than nuanced and fascinatingly varied. I could listen to every one of these versions of “Visions of Johanna” end to end without wearying of the experience. And apart from the voice, there’s the harmonica: which, in 1965/66, he was playing with a much underrated inventiveness and a powerful interest in developing the architecture of a solo.

Some of these concerts — like those at the Sheffield Gaumont and Birmingham Odeon, or the first Albert Hall show — find him in pristine form, honouring these songs with great concentration and spellbinding delicacy. Elsewhere his altered consciousness, shall we say, makes itself evident in a looser approach to the songs’ contours and details, producing results sometimes even more compelling than the more faithful treatments. The Olympia music hall in Paris and the second Albert Hall concert are particularly striking examples.

By no coincidence at all, these are the shows on which he spends most time responding to the audience. When he’s whistled for taking forever to tune his guitar before “Desolation Row” in Paris, for instance: “I’m doing this (tuning up) for you. I don’t care. If you want to hear it that way, I’ll play it that way.” And, as the noises of restlessness continue: “You just can’t wait. You have to go to work at 10 o’clock? Oh, it’s a drag for me, too, y’know. But that’s folk music for you. Folk music, it does this all the time.” And then: “Oh, come on now, I wouldn’t behave like this if I came to see you…” (It’s his 25th birthday, and Françoise Hardy is in the audience.)

It seems to me that the record company has made a mistake by issuing the first Albert Hall show as a stand-alone two-CD set. It’s beautiful, of course, and relatively unblemished by the sounds of a disputatious audience. But the second London concert was what the legend of this tour was all about: full-on music, full-on conflict, everything on the brink of falling apart, Dylan stoned to the gills and taking a last chance to harangue the dissenters during the final date of a psychologically gruelling tour, During a four-minute monologue between “Tell Me Momma” and “I Don’t Believe You”, he says this:

I love England, I like it a lot (sniggers), but we did all this in the States from September on, and we’ve all been playing this music since we were 10 years old, and folk music just happens to be a thing which interrupted … which was very useful, you know … but frankly the rock and roll thing in the United States was (sniggers) … forgive me … forgive me … Anything I sing now, don’t hold against me … I realise it’s loud music and all that kind of thing, but if you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you’ve got some improvements you could make on it, that’s great. But the thing is, it is not English music you’re listening to. It’s a shame that we’re here now and it might sound like English music to you, if you haven’t really heard American music before, but the music is-a, is-a, is-a … (laughter) … I would never venture to say what it is. 

Quite. But I find myself thinking about people listening to Bob Dylan in, say, 50 years’ time, and wondering what it is they’ll be listening to, which of the many Dylans will have survived the years. The one who sang “Like a Rolling Stone”, no doubt. But maybe the acoustic songs, where his wisdom and subtlety as a writer and performer are most in evidence, are the ones that will turn out to have the real staying power: “Johanna”, “Tambourine Man”, “Baby Blue”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Desolation Row”, “It’s Alright, Ma”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the rest (among which we’d have to include “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter From the Storm”).

The tumultuous music he made with the Hawks in 1966 enriched the culture and was perfect for its historical moment. But perhaps that shout of “Judas!” was not quite as wrong-headed as it seemed.

* Please don’t mistake this for a review of Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings. Somebody else can take that on. The photograph is a still from the unreleased film of the tour shot by D. A. Pennebaker.

‘A Porky Prime Cut’

a-porky-prime-cutThere’s an interesting new poem by Michael Hofmann in the latest issue of the New Yorker. It’s called “Lisburn Road” and it’s about surveying the scattered detritus of a life. In the final stanza there’s a reference that might be puzzling to some of the magazine’s readers: The ‘Porky Prime Cut’ greetings etched in the lead-off grooves…

The poem has begun with a mention of “A few yards of vinyl records, well thumbed.” The allusion to greetings etched in the run-out grooves (as I would call them) refers to the signature of the cutting engineer who mastered the albums in question. “Porky” was George Peckham, then the finest exponent of his craft in the UK music industry.

Liverpool-born, and a member of the Fourmost before becoming an engineer at the Apple studio in Savile Row, Peckham cut masters in the 1970s at studios on Riding House Street, around the corner from the BBC’s Broadcasting House, and then at IBC in Portland Place, also nearby. He built a reputation and soon, with the record business in full spate, he had more work than he could handle.

When did the habit of etching graffiti into the space around run-out groove begin? Maybe with Phil Spector, who scratched words recording his relationships with his first two wives, Annette Merar and Veronica Bennett, into his 45s. For a while, John Lennon emulated him with a “John and Yoko” message.

“A Porky Prime Cut” was not Peckham’s only signature: “Pecko” and “Pecko Duck” were others. The difference between his marks and those of others was that he was not one of the people who had actually made the music within the grooves, but a technician. For record buyers of a certain level of obsessive interest in the minutiae of the 1970s, they became part of a rich landscape of signs and meanings.

* Michael Hofmann’s “Lisburn Road” appears in the March 6 issue of the New Yorker.

Mind on the Run

hidden-orchestraIt was with regret that I had to leave Hull after only 24 hours of Mind on the Run, the weekend festival celebrating the life and work of Basil Kirchin, the visionary composer who spent three decades in the city, working in complete obscurity until his death in 2005, aged 77.

When the Guardian asked me to write a piece about the event, the first call I made was to Brian Eno. I had introduced the two men in 1973, while preparing the release of the second volume of Basil’s World Within Worlds on Island’s HELP label. Eno immediately recognised the value of his work with manipulated tapes of organic sounds, and more than 40 years later he was happy to talk about the impression it made.

The festival, held in the City Hall as part of Hull’s 2017 UK City of Culture programme, was quite brilliantly curated to include contributions from Matthew Herbert, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory (with a contingent of the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell), Wilco’s Jim O’Rourke, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of Saint Etienne, Evan Parker with Adam Linson and Matt Wright of his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, and a DJ set of Kirchin’s library music by Jerry Dammers.

On the first evening I heard a spirited set by a local five-piece band led by DJ Revenu (Liam van Rijn), heavy on imaginative electronics. That was followed by the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan with a piece inspired by several of Basil’s themes and performed by an nonet — including the outstanding harpist Serafina Steer — in a style that made me think of what might happen were Steve Reich to get it into his head to reinterpret those miniature tone poems that Brian Wilson used to drop into mid-period Beach Boys albums: things like “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” from Smiley Smile and the title track of Pet Sounds. O’Hagan’s music was minimalist, lyrical, unhurried and unrhetorical, with a fragile charm. (Just after it had finished I told a friend that I was particularly attracted to the way the music felt, even now and then, as though it might be about to fall apart; during a conversation an hour or so later O’Hagan mentioned, unprompted, that this was precisely the effect he’d been after.)

I enjoyed taking part in one of the panel discussions, alongside Bob Stanley and  Jonny Trunk, and listening to another that featured Matt Stephenson, co-director (with Alan Jones and Harriet Jones) of a 45-minute documentary film which did an excellent job of summarising Basil’s extraordinary life through interviews with those who had known him at various stages of his career. It also featured a wonderful film clip of the Ivor Kirchin Band in the early ’50s, with the leader’s young son as the featured drummer, from a time when dance band musicians wore cardigans and sensible slacks. (When someone in the audience likened Basil’s skin-pounding, cymbal-flaying antics to those of Animal from the Muppet Show, Matt was able to regale us with the priceless information that the real drummer of the Muppets had been the great session man Ronnie Verrell — who, in an earlier incarnation, had replaced the man who replaced Basil on the drum stool in Ivor’s band…)

Trunk, who has done so much over the past decade to create interest in Basil’s work, also mentioned that the handful of CDs released on his label represent no more than a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come from the archive of Kirchin soundtracks and library music.

Among Basil’s credits was the score to The Abominable Dr Phibes, the truly bizarre 1971 British horror film in which Vincent Price played the eponymous villain, who celebrated his dreadful deeds by letting loose on a pipe organ. The film was screened on Friday night, with the figure of a caped Alexander Hawkins emerging through a gauze screen from time to time, playing the music live on the City Hall’s mighty organ: the third largest in England, it is said, and the possessor of a massive 64ft pipe which, if unleashed at full volume, would probably turn the Victorian building’s foundations to dust.

Before leaving Hull I also managed to creep into the soundcheck of Joe Acheson’s Hidden Orchestra (pictured above), and was beguiled by the grooves and textures of a band featuring two drummers, violin, cello, harp, trumpet and keyboards. If you want to know more about that performance, and others, read Tony Dudley-Evans’s report for the London Jazz News website.

It was interesting to discover how Hull, a victim first of the Luftwaffe and then of the Cod Wars, is making use of the opportunity to present a new face to those lured by the year of cultural events. There are five excellent Francis Bacons on temporary loan at the refurbished Ferens Gallery in the main square, which is dramatically spanned until March 18 by a 75-metre aluminium wind-turbine blade created by Nayan Kulkarni. An exhibition devoted to the story of COUM Transmissions, the renegade art collective founded in Hull in the early ’70s by Genesis P. Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti and others, is at the Humber Art Gallery in the streets of the former Fruit Market, where all sorts of hipster enterprises are springing up.

It’s not all great, of course. Take a bow, “Sir” Philip Green, for the vacant hulk of the striking early-’60s building until recently occupied by British Home Stores. But if you can imagine a cross between Copenhagen and Hoxton, that seems to be how Hull is attempting to reshape itself, and the audiences who flocked to Mind on the Run demonstrated the potential of this culture-led Humberside renaissance. I hadn’t been to the city since a single visit in 1965. Now I can’t wait to go back and do some more exploring.

A soundtrack of the ’60s, Italian-style

la-notte-poster

The Jazz on Film series of compilations, curated with excellent taste and scrupulous attention to detail by Selwyn Harris, might be the best reissue programme since Hip-O Select’s Complete Motown Singles treasury. My favourites so far have been the French New Wave and Jazz in Polish Cinema boxes, but I’m very pleased to have the new vinyl single-album release titled Jazz in Italian Cinema, which collects soundtracks from 1958 to 1962 by such composers as Piero Piccioni, Piero Umiliani, Armando Trovajoli and Giorgio Gaslini.

As you would expect, the 11 tracks are full of atmosphere, mostly that of a smoky bar in Trastevere during the period when Italy was emerging the from the wartime ruins and making its own adaptation of the American culture disseminated by the occupying US forces. It begins with a track from Umiliani’s score for Marco Monicelli’s I Soliti Ignoti (released in the English-speaking world as Big Deal on Madonna Street), setting the tone for most of the set with an approach based on Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool band and Shorty Rogers’ medium-sized units.

Chet Baker, staying in Italy during one of his periods of personal turmoil, is featured on two tracks written by Trovajoli for Dino Risi’s Il Vedovo; sounding forlorn on “Oscar Is the Back” and sprightly on the film’s theme tune, he plays with poise, concentration and inventiveness. He’s even better on “Tensione”, the first of two tracks from Umiliani’s score for Nanni Loy’s Audace Colpo dei Soliti Ignoti (Fiasco in Milan), displaying the kind of up-tempo chops that suggest why Charlie Parker was so impressed when they played together in Los Angeles in 1952. “Relaxing’ with Chet”, the second of the tracks, is a lovely West Coast-style medium swinger.

Piccioni’s theme for Elio Petri’s L’Assassino (which starred Marcello Mastroianni) sounds charmingly like the sort of stealthy thing Henry Mancini, in a jazz mood, might have written for a detective movie. Gino Marinacci on baritone saxophone, the composer on piano an unidentified vibraphonist are the excellent soloists. No musicians are identified on Piccioni’s “Finale”, from Antonio Pierangeli’s Adua e le Compagne (Adua and Her Friends), which is a shame since it features some exceptional alto saxophone work from a player whose fluency and bitter-sweet tone are somewhere between Hal McCusick and John Handy. “Blues all’Alba” from Giorgio Gaslini’s quartet music for Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte is probably the best known piece here, a cigarettes-and-coffee nocturne featuring Eraldo Volonté’s eloquently world-weary tenor saxophone.

Next comes the only letdown: John Lewis’s “In a Crowd”, from Eriprando Visconti’s Una Storia Milanese (A Milanese Story), which teams good jazz players — guitarist René Thomas, flautist Bobby Jaspar and Lewis himself — with a string quartet but never emerges from behind a veil of effeteness. But Harris has saved the biggest surprise for last: two delightful tracks by by altoist Sandro Brugnoli and his Modern Jazz Gang from the soundtrack to Enzo Battaglia’s Gli Arcangeli (The Archangels), good examples of robustly swinging, bluesy post-bop jazz with modal inclinations neatly arranged for octet, in which Cicci Santucci’s bright-toned trumpet and Pucci Sboto’s vibes heard to good advantage.

All that, then, and a beautiful black and white shot of Jeanne Moreau on the front cover. A very entertaining and enlightening set, then — and, as the sleeve notes suggest, there’s potentially much more where this came from.

‘Alone with Chrissie Hynde’

chrissie-in-car-in-akron-1There’s an hour-long Arena documentary about Chrissie Hynde on BBC4 this week. During a preview of a longer 90-minute version the other day, I remembered that what I always liked about her was the subtlety underlying the ferocious four-piece rock and roll attack of the Pretenders’ music. It was present in February 1979, when — at the urging of my friend and Melody Maker colleague Mark Williams — I went to see them at the Railway Arms in West Hampstead, a room once known as Klooks Kleek but then renamed the Moonlight Club.

Mark had seen them a week before and had already written a rave review in the paper. I followed up with another one a week later — somewhat unusual, certainly for an unknown band, but they were so extraordinary that it seemed worthwhile. Before the end of the month Mark had written a terrific feature, outlining their background: how Chrissie had left Akron, Ohio for London, hooked up with the NME crowd and the punks congregating at the McLaren/Westwood Sex shop in the King’s Road, formed a band with three guys from Hereford, and copped a deal with Real Records, which had the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic promotional muscle behind it. Mark’s piece went on the cover, giving them greater prominence than the news of Dylan’s forthcoming UK tour, a piece on Siouxsie Sioux in Berlin, an interview with Dennis Bovell, and an examination of the future of disco by Davitt Sigerson.

It’s always nice to be knocked out by something new. The set I heard in West Hampstead featured the razor-sharp rock and roll of “The Wait” and “Tattooed Love Boys”, but the song that really grabbed my attention, and suggested that there might be a real originality at work, was “Private Life”. A hypnotic song set against a slow, spare reggae rhythm, it had a brusquely dismissive lyric that demonstrated Hynde’s gift for skewering complex, uncomfortable and sometimes unreliable or contradictory emotions: “Attachment to obligation through guilt and regret / Shit, that’s so wet…” Grace Jones did a good version a couple of years later, with Sly and Robbie, but the original was the one that cut deepest.

Hynde could be brutal, but the subsequent hit singles “Brass in Pocket” and “Kid” quickly showed us the unusual variety of emotional shadings — including tenderness — at her command. She was already a great singer, her strong, deep voice given its impact by a distinctive quaver and an ability to make a note that you didn’t think she was going to reach. And she looked the part, of course: a monochrome dream of black fringe, waistcoat and jeans against a ruffled white shirt.

When she was approached to make the documentary, Hynde said she wouldn’t talk about personal topics since she had covered all that ground in her recent autobiography (Reckless, Ebury Press, 2015). But she agreed to spend time with the director, Nicola Roberts, and the cameraman/editor, Alex Jones, last summer, inviting them not just to her home in London but on trips to Paris, New York and Nashville, and back to Akron, where she could hardly help but talk about her early years, although she is at her most interesting when reflecting on her life today.

Throughout the film she’s as sharp as you’d expect, occasionally self-mocking and, in an appearance on the comedian Sandra Bernhard’s radio show, endearingly silly. There’s a lot of music, with a bias towards the songs from the Pretenders’ latest album, some of them played with the current line-up, but also rewarding stuff from the archive, like a storming version of “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” with the original quartet augmented by Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.

It’s more than a little sad to watch the footage in which James Honeyman-Scott, one of the most creative lead guitarists of his generation, and Pete Farndon, the bass guitarist, are visibly diminished by the addictions that would end their lives, Honeyman-Scott at 25 in 1982 and Farndon — who brought the musicians into Hynde’s orbit — at 30 the following year. That first band was a wonderful outfit, full of the spirit and inventiveness so apparent in their recordings together.

There’s another noise you hear in this film: the subdued growl emanating from the V8 engine of the metallic green 1970s Pontiac in which Hynde tours Akron, revisiting the topography of her adolescence. It’s the almost-vanished soundtrack of the American highway.

* An hour-long cut of Alone with Chrissie Hynde is on BBC4 this Friday, February 10, at 9pm. The full 90-minute version will be transmitted later in the year.

Juliette Gréco paints her nails

juliette-grecoJuliette Gréco is 90 today. When ill-health forced her to cancel last summer’s concert at the Barbican, I consoled myself with the memory of having seen her at the Royal Festival Hall in the early ’70s, when she was still in her compelling prime. I listened again to some of her countless recordings — the album (above) I bought when I was a teenager and  the early classics such as “Déshabillez-moi”, “Je hais les dimanches” and “Les Feuilles mortes”, from the era when she sang for Jean Cocteau and Albert Camus at the Tabou and her friends and admirers included Jean-Paul Sartre and Boris Vian, Jacques Prévert and Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens and Miles Davis.

And I listened to my all-time favourite, a wonderful song called “Mickey travaille”, which appeared on a 1993 album called just Juliette Gréco, written and produced for her by the great Étienne Roda-Gil, whom she had encountered in Paris at a meeting at the Ministry of Culture, where artists had been invited to discuss the imminent threat to the historic Olympia music hall (where she had sung for the first time in 1954). In her memoir, Je suis fait comme ça, published in 2012, she described the impression he made: “An outpouring of generosity and affection, a man of refinement and culture, attentive to others. But also fragile.” When she visited his apartment on the rue Cassini, he showed her the studio of his late wife, an artist. He had left it untouched since her death: “Even the roses, wilted, remained in their vases.”

She called him “a painter with words”, and for “Mickey travaille” he gave her an unforgettable entrance. Accompanied by the acoustic guitar of Caetano Veloso, strumming a light samba rhythm, she whispers: “Je peins mes lèvres et mes ongles en noir…” If the thought of Juliette Gréco painting her lips and nails black while awaiting her lover’s return doesn’t stir you, well…

Earth Air Water… and Fire

michael-andrews-arthur-brownIt came as a bit of a surprise to walk into a high-end London art gallery this week and discover a small portrait of Arthur Brown, the madcap rocker of the late ’60s, taking its place in an extensive exhibition of the work of the late English painter Michael Andrews.

Andrews was born in Norwich in 1928 and died in London in 1995. A friend and contemporary of Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon, in 1962 he painted a famous group portrait of the denizens of Muriel Belcher’s Colony Room in Soho, for which he also provided a large Tuscan landscape of irregular shape, to be hung on a wall. He was particularly good at social groups and party scenes (as in The Deer Park, All Night Long, and the triptych Good and Bad at Games, none of them, unlike the two Colony Room pieces, included this exhibition).

In later years, however, he concentrated on landscapes and paintings of the natural world, which is why the exhibition of 61 of his works at the Gagosian gallery is titled Earth Air Water. There are several large paintings of Ayers Rock (nowadays also known by its Aboriginal name, Uluru), the River Thames and the Scottish moorlands, where he painted men in tweeds stalking and shooting deer. The intention of the show must be raise his status closer to that of his more celebrated fellow regulars at the Colony Room, something probably denied him by his own modest nature.

He was a perceptive portraitist, and one of the most striking works in the show is a self-portrait from 1988, that of a man with pleasant but unremarkable looks wearing an expression of restrained anxiety. The painting of Brown was made in 1967, when the extrovert singer was still an underground hero and a few months away from an appearance on Top of the Pops, promoting his latest release with flames apparently emerging from his head. Given the theme of that record, Brown’s one big hit, the exhibition’s curator might have added a fourth element to the title of his show: Fire.

I recognised Brown’s distinctive features straight away, of course, but an adjacent portrait — of similar size and vintage — puzzled me.

michael-andrews-dave-brubeck

Then I looked at the catalogue: it was Dave Brubeck, painted from a photograph. Both portraits are listed as “studies” for works on a larger scale. They play very minor roles in the show, but it was certainly nice to bump into them on a rainy morning in Mayfair.

* Michael Andrews: Earth Air Water is at the Gagosian gallery, 20 Grosvenor Hill, London W1, until March 25. The painting of Arthur Brown is from a private collection; that of Dave Brubeck is owned by the Arts Council Collection.

In the groove with Dennis Coffey

denniscoffey1_courtesy-of-clarence-avant---interior-music-corpDennis Coffey is still playing Tuesday nights at a Detroit club called the Northern Lights Lounge. It’s what he and his 1963 Gibson Birdland have been doing for the best part of 50 years. He started making a local reputation as a session man in the mid-’60s when he played on Darrell Banks’s “Open the Door to Your Heart” and the classic sides on the Golden World label by J. J. Barnes and others. Later in the decade he was absorbed into the Motown studio band, adding the rock-influenced sounds of a wah-wah pedal and a fuzz box to the more classic approaches of the established Hitsville USA guitarists: Robert White, Eddie Willis and Joe Messina.

It was Coffey who played on Norman Whitfield’s psych-soul productions, like the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion” and Edwin Starr’s “War”, as the Motown Sound updated itself to suit a new era. He had his own hit, the funky instrumental “Scorpio”, which highlighted his interest in effects. But he was still playing in the clubs, as we can hear from the rather wonderful product of the latest piece of successful treasure-hunting among previously unknown tapes by the Resonance label: an album titled Hot Coffee in the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, recorded in 1968 with a trio completed by the Hammond organist Lyman Woodard and the drummer Melvin Davis.

Woodard and Davis were musicians with local reputations. The organist went on the road with Martha and the the Vandellas as their musical director. The drummer also toured with Vandellas, and with the Temptations. Like many of the members of the Funk Brothers, they could also be found in the night spots, entertaining their predominantly black listeners with a style of jazz that was heavy on the groove and on the feeling of the blues.

So what we have here is just under an hour of what you’d have heard if you’d wandered into this particular club in 1968: a brand of social music mixing jazz, funk and R&B, completely devoid of pretension, being delivered by highly sophisticated players with a wonderful directness and without any hint of strain. This recording features a handful of lively originals, ultra-cool instrumental versions of Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” and Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, and a nice reading of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”. The rhythms are deep in the pocket and the solos aren’t about showing off.

Whenever you’re lucky enough to find yourself in such an environment, you  know that no boundaries are being stretched and no rules are being rewritten. But it doesn’t matter. There are truths in this kind of music that are no less valuable for being relatively simple. And while it’s happening you want it to go on for ever.

* The photograph of Dennis Coffey is from the booklet accompanying Hot Coffey in the D, which includes valuable interviews and background material.