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The last of AMM

It seemed fitting that the final performance of AMM, the pioneering London-based improvising ensemble, should have featured two of the musicians who started the group in 1965. Eddie Prévost, with a small array of gongs, cymbals and drums, and Keith Rowe, originally a guitarist but now manipulating small boxes to trigger and modify samples or electronic signals, appeared together at Café Oto in Dalston last night in the fourth and last event held in celebration of Prévost’s recent 80th birthday.

AMM, whose name remains defiantly undecoded, started out with the saxophonist Lou Gare alongside Rowe and Prévost in a trio that quickly began to unshackle itself from the musicians’ jazz roots. Soon additional members — the pianist/cellist Cornelius Cardew, the accordionist/cellist Lawrence Sheaff, the percussonist Christopher Hobbs, the pianist John Tilbury, the cellist Rohan de Saram — were coming and going. There were occasional guests, such as the saxophonist Evan Parker and the pianist Christian Wolff. Sometimes they were a quartet, sometimes a quintet, often a duo — Prévost and Gare, Prévost and Tilbury, Prévost and Rowe. Tilbury was to have made it a trio last night, but health considerations intervened.

Prévost began and ended the hour-long set with the sound of bowed cymbals, gongs and bowls, an art of which he is a master. Snare and bass drums were used as additional timbral devices, activated by beaters or an electric toothbrush. Rowe deployed his resources with great economy, dropping in samples of male, female and brass chorales, the absent Tilbury’s piano and fragments of speech alongside the radio-scanner cracklings and howls. A packed room listened intently and in complete stillness. At the end, the applause went on for several minutes. This was not just in recognition of the significance of the event, to which Prévost had alerted us beforehand, but in response to the degree and intensity of emotion evoked by the sounds — so seemingly austere, so demanding of listeners, so resistant to any form of literal interpretation — that the two men created together. As a farewell, it could not have been bettered.

* AMM’s first album, AMMusic, was recorded for the Elektra label in 1966 and subsequently reissued in both CD and vinyl formats. Other recordings have been released on the Matchless label (www.matchlessrecordings.com). Eddie Prévost’s books on AMM and related historical and dialectical issues include No Sound is Innocent (1995) The First Concert (2011), and his autobiography, An Uncommon Music for the Common Man (2020), all published by Copula.

Mingus at 50

Today — 22 April 2022 — is the centenary of Charles Mingus’s birth. He was 50 when I interviewed him in London in the summer of 1972. The great composer, bassist and bandleader had been a hero of mine since I bought Blues & Roots as a schoolboy, a dozen years earlier. Since then I’d seen gigs that represented his highs and lows. It was the sort of encounter you don’t forget.

Charles Mingus was late. The hotel switchboard, he said, had forgotten his wake-up call. It was getting on for two o’clock in the afternoon and he’d been playing until three the previous night with his band at Ronnie Scott’s Club and now he was hungry. Wearing a blue and white striped seersucker blazer, patterned black velvet trousers and a carefully knotted green cravat, he wandered out of the lobby of the Mayfair Hotel and into the old narrow streets of Shepherd Market, a figure of vast bulk carving a bow-wave through the eddying currents of lunchtime strollers.

He paused to buy four fresh peaches from a barrow boy, and appeared shocked by the virulent response when he told the trader that the fruit he had bought there the previous day had been rotten. Clutching the bag of peaches, he set off against the tide, looking for a shellfish restaurant. As he peered through the window of one establishment, he commented unfavourably on the size of the live lobsters in the tank before moving on and finally settling down, with some grumbling, at a pavement table outside a sandwich bar.

Then he started talking. And over the course of a largely one-way conversation occupying the next hour, he proved that, behind an increasingly Buddha-like façade, the fires of rebellion were still burning bright.

My first mistake was to ask him a rather vague question about the contract he had recently signed with a major label, Columbia Records, which had produced a terrific big-band record called Let My Children Hear Music, full of complex, fascinating pieces with typically vivid titles, such as “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid, Too” and “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers”.

“I don’t see the importance of that question,” he said.

Well, I said, already feeling somewhat uncomfortable, did his decision mean that it was no longer possible for a musician to run his own record label, as he had occasionally tried to do in the ’50s and ’60s?

“It’s impossible for me, because I’m not educated to do that. I used to have a woman with me who did that. I don’t have nobody like that now. I’d rather not have to think about it. It can be done, though. Oxtail soup, please. And leave the menu. I’ll just go through it one thing at a time.”

So what was it like, working with Columbia?

“It’s just like being with a record company. I don’t see them doing much promotion on me. They don’t push jazz like they should. They push everything else. Unknown groups get a publicity party for each record they make. But it’s not just so-called jazz. If they pushed symphony enough, more people would buy it. And if you push shit, they buy shit. I tell you what, last night McPherson” — Charles McPherson, his gifted and highly experienced alto saxophonist — “played the worst he can play, and he smiled, and people applauded. He was making noise. He played quarter-notes for two choruses. Can you imagine a saxophone playing a quarter-note solo? They applauded and yelled. Do you see where the people are at? They don’t know. So immediately what you do is get a bunch of guys to play the worst they can, put a lot of publicity on it, and sell it. Play out of tune, anything you want. In this country, in America, everywhere, put a pretty cover on it, say a lot of pretty words, and it sells.”

It was nothing new, he said. “It’s always been true. If you smile and dance along, and be a clown. You couldn’t fool serious people, though. You couldn’t fool a classical audience into thinking he was playing good, someone who’d had a prior musical education. But the way the kids have been brainwashed, you can fool them.”

He went back to an event held a decade earlier, during the time when the New Thing — the avant-garde jazz of people like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler — was drawing the attention of critics and the public away from his own generation. In retaliation, he had put a bunch of children behind a curtain at the Village Vanguard and got them to play out of sight, while his own musicians mimed.

“Those kids were just beginning to learn the instruments,” he said. “They took the solos, and man, they broke the house up. They thought we had found some new Ornette Colemans. These kids were eight or nine years old, and they didn’t even know the notes they were playing. Or they were just sliding notes. It didn’t matter. If you blow any horn, some note will come out.”

His words may have been confrontational but the tone of his voice was soft. Sometimes he would lower the volume to let the words slide out in a rapid slur, as though he were talking to himself. Even when he got angry, there was a gentleness about him. Nevertheless his presence was powerful enough to make passers-by stop to listen as the intensity of his harangue rose and fell.

Let’s take painting, he continued. “Some painters draw seriously. They draw precise lines and certain perspectives that correspond with something you’ve seen before. Then you get guys who throw paint at a canvas, throw some sand on top of it. and they say they paint. Some people let monkeys and little children use their fingers on it, and they call it a good painting.” He looked up from his oxtail soup and fixed me with a sort of amiable glare. “It’s time for guys like you to decide what you want: bullshit, or something real.”

So did he fell that the increasing popularity of intelligent rock music had diminished the audience for jazz?

“Nobody’s going to make money in jazz, not even Louis Armstrong. Nobody expects to make any money. They’re playing it because they like to pay it. I don’t know anybody who expects to make a million dollars playing what you’d call jazz. But I do know some people who expect to make a good living once you drop the word jazz and integrate fair employment into music, so the white kids won’t copy the niggers. That’s all they’re doing. They’re minstrels, to me. I haven’t heard any white kids yet that could come up and play something from their own culture — although in a way the Beatles did, they used English music, and that’s why I respect them, and they’re just kids. Although I’m not sure they did it. I think they had some very clever people, learned people, not just one of them. Somebody said that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. I think it was a bunch of guys like Bacon that got together and said, ‘Let’s make one genius man.’ That’s what I think the Beatles were. They evolved from certain types of American music, and certain types of English music, but it was original. It was conceived mathematically. I can hear that. Like ‘Eleanor Rigby’. That wasn’t accidental. One thing that came out was a lot of good words. Bob Dylan, too. He said something, a little something, about his culture.

“But I haven’t heard any so-caed jazz guys from England that have any English culture in their playing. They’re still playing from Lennie Tristano, from Eric Dolphy and myself, the kind of things we did in that band we had, from Ornette Coleman, and based on Charlie Parker. Which is the most difficult of all to play. They haven’t played that yet. I don’t hear anything in their playing to say that they’ve found a culture in their own country to speak of. They’re still speaking of a music that came out of our culture, which is not theirs and they know nothing about it. They’ve only heard the surface and they don’t now what the guys have lived, the pains they’ve gone through to come up with this music.”

His principal argument with the younger players was against their lack of training and their ignorance of the roots. “These guys who want to pay ‘free music’ and can’t even play a melody or even play their solos exactly the same way twice… In the old days, Coleman Hawkins would play ‘Body and Soul’ and he’d play the solo that was on the record, and then he’d play a new one for you, or two or three new ones. Because he had this one solo that was considered like a Picasso, you know, a Picasso solo, and he was capable of doing it again. When I hear guys doing that, I respect them. But I haven’t seen any of them capable of doing the same thing twice, except the melody. I’m not saying that they’re not serious. They’re very serious. You can be crazy and be serious.

“But I think we’re trying to show that civilisation has given us an attunement of the self, a calmness, a peace of mind, and an inventiveness. You shouldn’t go on the bandstand, meditating and praying in front of the audience all the time. That’s what ‘free music’ is. Like a drone, an Indian religious meeting. Difference is, it’s probably a bunch of atheists playing. Meditating with the devil. And the main thing I’m trying to say is that they’re probably all in one key. I don’t hear them change key. I don’t hear no B natural, no E, no A, no F sharp. It’s mainly around C and D flat. Like Ornette Coleman, a pedal-point C. I was with Phineas Newborn when I first heard Ornette, and Phineas said, ‘What key’s that in?’ Sounded like C. He started playing with Ornette. He said, ‘That’s all it is, man. The key of C.’ I don’t know, man, but have you heard Ornette play any melodies? I know before he was successful he had a band with a piano-player, and he played some melodies. But he sounded like a beginner playing saxophone, trying to copy Charlie Parker. On the very next record he had a thing with no piano on it, and I could see where he became very happy. When there’s no chord structure, the guy can pay anything he wants to play.”

A dozen years earlier, Mingus had greeted Coleman’s arrival on the scene with scepticism, although they had played together at the famous Newport Rebels concert at Cliff Walk Manor on the shore of Rhode Island Sound, when a group of disaffected musicians got together and decided to make a protest against the programming of the official Newport Jazz Festival by staging their own alternative event.

“I don’t want to sound like I don’t like Ornette Coleman,” Mingus said now. “He’s one of the nicest people in the world. And I don’t want to say I don’t understand him. I’ve heard him discuss musical theory, and he has a different approach to that. He’s added a different feeling, a different embellishment, a different mood. I think that’s good. Some of the beboppers need to learn it. For instance, I don’t think they know that you can play sad on one note, or happy. You can play the same bridge happy, or sad, or angry, or frustrated. You should be able to play hate, love, anger, fear. Bird did it, but these kids never heard him in person, they only heard the notes off the records, and they don’t know that Bird played tearful some nights, for just one or two bars, he’d cry on one note.

“Guys today know how to play like a very hip old guy or a very hip young guy. They’re afraid to be unhip. To be a musician, you should be able to play hip, unhip, sad, happy, or like the devi, and with imagination a creative person should even be able to play like a saint. It’s too bad that this may be lost in this camouflage of so-called free music, where everything is distorted into sounding like chaos, or another way it sounds is like guys praying or being high or being some place doing something no one else has done, yet if you listen, it’s been done. I haven’t heard nothing yet that hasn’t been done in the so-called avant-garde except that they all do it together. I’m going to have to go back and repeat myself and do what these guys call avant-garde, because I’m sure I was one of the guys that started it, along with Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. I’m sorry I never had a group that believed in me enough to play my music properly, because that’s exactly what’s always missing in my music, except it did happen when Eric Dolphy was there, because he had so many moods in his playing. But most guys don’t.”

But didn’t jazz have to find a route away from the rigid chord structures of standard ballads and the blues?

“I didn’t say you have to use chord changes, man. It’s just so hip. There’s a thousand chords in one chord, anyway. So why call it a chord? That’s just for dumb piano players, block-chording. If you listen to Duke Ellington, you don’t hear chords all the time. He plays linear things, rhythm patterns, one note, bass note, pedal-point. Bud Powell did it, too. You weren’t conscious of the exact chord changes every time. Nor with Monk, either. I heard some things that Monk did in 1940 that sounded like Ornette, or let’s say the avant-garde. But he didn’t do it for the whole piece. You can do it on the introduction and the ending, and it sounds nice. But not the whole thing.

“I’ve worked in clubs with bands who’ve played that shit for a whole set, and it’s annoying. I’m not concerned about a guy’s sickness, because he’s meditating and praying to some kind of Allah or Buddha. He can go to church in his closet at home, like the Bible says. When you pray, pray in your closet. When you’re on the bandstand, play some music. And if you’ve got a bunch of guys all playing what they want, then everybody’s right, aren’t they? If you’ve got appendicitis, you don’t want no doctor that’s never studied. You want a doctor that can handle that knife and cut you open properly. You don’t want no ad lib free-form doctor to cut you open, no avant-garde jazz doctor improvising by ear. I want a guy who’s studied from the very beginning.”

He talked about his own youth, and how he had to prove his ability to play solos recorded by men like Jimmy Blanton and Slam Stewart before he was allowed to improvise.

“You had to study until you knew where to go on your own. They used to do that at Minton’s, too. Before you could get on the bandstand to play with Charlie Christian, you had to do through an audition. I liked Jimmy Blanton’s playing, so I tried to find out what he was doing. I discovered that he had studied legitimate bass to learn to play properly. So I followed that. One day I came to take a solo, and in those days when you were training it meant you had to play a solo that someone had already played. So I went out and tried something of my own. They told me to go back and study Blanton and Stewart.

“I think the kids today don’t really love the music they copy. They choose them because they’re popular. It’s the latest thing, and it’s going to make them a dollar. When I was young, nobody told me that Duke Ellington made any money. I turned on the radio and heard something that I loved and I followed it until I found out what it was. Ask me and Duke to make an avant-garde record, and we’d cut everybody. Me and Duke, Clark Terry, Jerome Richardson, Buddy Collette, Cat Anderson — don’t ask nobody to be weird, man. We’ll make you sick. Make ’em all put their horns away.”

At several points in the conversation, during the oxtail soup and the plain salad — lettuce, tomato, cucumber — that followed it, I tried to get Mingus to talk about the music he’d been playing recently. This was not well received.

“Why do you always have to ask a guy about his music? You should talk to Mal Waldron, and you can talk to me about his music. He’s made some good comments about my music, about what I’ve contributed. Duke even said it one time. I went up to him and said how much I loved his music, and he said, ‘Well, you did this, and you did that.’ He mentioned two or three things that I did. He called me the Two-Beat Waltz King. He knew how I loved and respected his music.’ And the memory of that caused Mingus to smile, for the first time in almost an hour of virtually unbroken monologue.

But he would talk a bit about the future. “Complication is progress,” he said. “That’s one way of getting rid of the amateurs. For instance, on the trumpet it’s a little difficult to make very wide intervals. Now if you start working those intervals into jazz, the public would realise that this is a technician who has control of his instrument and can make melodic sense on it. I’m working on it now, music with a wider range. Pretty soon it’s going to cancel out all the guys who say, ‘I play trumpet,’ and have a trumpet and a case but don’t master their instrument.

“Same thing goes for saxophone players. They got harmonics on it, they can play chords on it, also wider intervals. It’s the way for good musicians to show that they’re superior to the guys who call themselves avant-garde. It’ll also help the guys who’re avant-garde to make more precise leaps and be more in tune with what they’re doing. Advance the thing technically and people will appreciate it more. It may not be as soulful at first, because it’ll be a hell of a mechanical chase to see who can do this kind of playing. Even piano players, you have to be as good as the guys who play classical. When you get to that point, then you’re really something.”

He had just written a string quartet, he said. “The guys played it at sight. And I rehearsed my music for months with the big band, but that music hasn’t been played yet. But the string quartet was nine thousand times more difficult. If that’s the kind of musicianship they have, where string quartets get played in one day, then I’m going to quit right now and write string quartets. And we call ourselves virtuosos. Think about that. I’m even going to have to do a little woodshedding myself, because I’m writing music I can’t play. I’ve got to do it because all these little kids, they’re all great bass players now. I’ve got to find something they can’t do. I’ve got one thing they can’t do, but if I do it, they’ll be doing it on a record before I get to do it myself. That’s why I don’t play solos on jobs, not until I come to Europe. If I do that in New York, I go to a record date and hear what I played already.

“It’s not funny. Oscar Pettiford told me the same thing. I didn’t believe it. Lester Young told me the same thing. He had a record the next day, and he was in a hotel with Stan Getz, and he heard Stan playing this solo that he’d played the night before, and he wanted to record it. So he had to go and work a new one out. What a nice world it would be if Jewish guys played music from their heredity, from their environment, from what their families had given them. Or if the Scottish guys would do it, or ex-slaves, black men, if the Africans would do it, improvise, but play music from their own culture. The Spanish people do it, with flamenco — see how great that is? Because it’s pure. Flamenco is about their people, Spanish gypsies, and their suffering. The Indians are doing it, too, Americans and them other Indians. But all the so-called civilised countries are copying what came from the past of jazz. It’s not real, man. can’t make it.”

And with that he got up and lurched away, seeming to block out the daylight as he headed up an alley towards Curzon Street, people coming in the opposite direction having to squeeze past on either side of him. I stayed at the table, ordered a cup of coffee and thought about the anger, the sweetness, the love of music and musicians (even, deep down, those of whom he seemed to disapprove), the frustration and the joy that flowed out of his character, and how it had all been poured into his astonishing music.

* The photograph of Charles Mingus was taken in 1959 by Lee Friedlander, and is from the cover of Blues & Roots. A new three-CD set from Resonance Records, The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s, documents Mingus’s season at the Frith Street club in August 1972.

Ornette and the skies of London

Fifty years ago today, at 10 o’clock on the morning of Monday 17 April 1972, the photographer Val Wilmer and I arrived at Abbey Road Studios to hear Ornette Coleman recording The Skies of America with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was the first of four three-hour sessions, held on consecutive days, during which the entire work was committed to tape. Here’s one of Val’s pictures, reproduced by her kind permission, and my report, published in the Melody Maker later that week.

“This is The Skies of America, take one.” The smoothly modulated voice of Paul Myers, the head of CBS Records’ classical department, halts a conversation among the second violins.

David Measham, the conductor, counts off a bar, and the orchestra launches itself into a jagged ensemble in which it’s hard to perceive a lead voice. But Measham hears a goof, and drags it to a halt.

“We’ll do it without the trumpets and trombones,” he says. “Are the horns comfortable with this?”

“No more uncomfortable than anywhere else,” mutters a youngish, bespectacled musician, one hand wedged firmly up the bell of his French horn.

He seems to be expressing the consensual view of the London Symphony Orchestra. Mild bewilderment and a certain amount of genteel exasperation are mingled with rather smaller amounts of genuine interest and curiosity about the nature of the work that confronts them this morning in the famous Studio No 2.

This is quite an unusual day in the life of the LSO. The Skies of America is a new work, and they are recording it in the presence of the composer, Ornette Coleman. It’s his first symphonic piece. And it seems to be quite unlike anything the musicians have had to face before.

Some of the problems have been caused by the composer. Certain passages of the work, which consists of 21 short sections and will last about 40 minutes, are almost impossible to play. The strain on the trumpeters, for instance, is such that they’ve made an agreement between themselves to alternate the high-note passages, in order to save their lips from damage.

This is the first day of recording. Last week there were three days of rehearsal, but the parts are still causing trouble. Poor copying, for example, has led the tuba-player to confuse his sharps and flats. “You just have to approximate it,” he sighs. Is it hard? “Bloody impossible.”

The work was to have been recorded with the LSO and Coleman’s quartet, but Musicians’ Union restrictions prevented the use of the American players. “So then we wanted to take the tapes back to New York and overdub the quartet,” Coleman explains, “but they wouldn’t let us even do that. And I always thought electronics were supposed to make things quicker and easier, didn’t you?”

During the takes, Ornette sits on his upturned saxophone case, next to the conductor’s rostrum. He’s wearing a charcoal mohair suit with a flared flap in the back, and a silky cream shirt. His boots are made of multicoloured patchwork leather. As has been his habit for many years, he designed them himself. Beside him, there’s a table. On it lie his packet of Gauloises, his cup of coffee, a red telephone which connects him with the producer in the control room, and his alto saxophone.

Every so often he makes quiet suggestions to Measham or goes over to the drum booth to discuss some point or other with Mike Frye, the LSO’s young percussionist, who is playing a part intended for Ed Blackwell. Frye has never heard of Blackwell, the brilliant drummer from New Orleans who played in the quartet with which Coleman set the jazz scene on its ear a dozen years ago. But he’s doing fine, particularly in view of the fact that what he’s being called upon to play bears only the most tenuous of explicit relationships to the patterns written for the rest of the orchestra.

“We need three conductors, really,” he remarks gravely to Ornette, who nods.

At one point, Ornette takes up the sticks to give Frye a practical demonstration of what he wants. He plays a couple of brief phrases on the snare and top tom-tom, and the immediate resemblance to Blackwell’s unique top-of-the-beat style is startling.

Seated around Coleman, Measham and Frye are 26 violins, 10 violas, eight cellos, six double basses, four flutes, four oboes, four bassoons, four clarinets, four trumpets, four trombones, four French horns, a tuba, a harp and a tympanist. It is, of course, the biggest ensemble Coleman has ever been involved with. This is a man who played on the chitlin’ circuit in his youth, honking out the simple phrases of rabble-rousing rhythm and blues, and who then became the most compelling figure to emerge from the avant-garde of the late ’50s, when his quartet made a series of recordings that seemed to embody both extreme complexity and a love of unfettered melody and irresistible rhythm, implying that perhaps sophistication and naturalness were not polar opposites but could co-exist within music. In the ’60s he also took his first steps into music written for chamber groups — which, on the rare occasions it was recorded or performed in concert, was generally received with a mixture of bafflement and disapproval.

As the orchestra struggles through another section, it’s hard to describe how the music sounds. There are broad melodies which seem never to repeat themselves, and fast staccato phrases which give the trumpets no end of trouble. But in the control booth, even in this rough state, the impression is hugely striking.

“It’s not meant to be a symphony orchestra playing,” Ornette explains, in his characteristically elliptical way, during a break. “Not that particular sound. It’s just supposed to be the way these instruments sound when they play together. In fact it’s not supposed to sound like particular instruments at all. It’s written so that you can’t tell who’s playing what. Listen to that high note. You can’t tell whether it’s the strings or the brass.”

In the booth, he talks about his attitude to melody. He prefers to work with instrumental melody because it allows a more open interpretation. Listeners have to put something of themselves into it in order to get something out. “It’s like this part, here. If you and I were singing it, we’d probably sing different notes, because it sounds different to each of us. You can’t do that with song form. I think that’s one reason why classical music is so unpopular. Working people don’t have the time to put themselves into this music.”

The orchestra returns. While some of the musicians tune up, others read books and magazines propped on their music stands. A few of them return to their reading matter even during eight-bar rests.

Next they’re going to tackle a section that begins with a small section of the strings and the woodwind, playing a long seamless line that wanders without retracing its steps. The spare voicing and muted timbre make it sound like something by Charles Ives — Central Park in the Dark, maybe. Gradually the rest of the orchestra joins in, building on the slow line in a lengthy and deliberate crescendo which has an air of wonderment and discovery. “Like a flower opening,” Ornette remarks.

They get a good take, and Ornette rushes up to the booth. “That part after the melody — where it’s reversed — does it sound too dark? It’s supposed to be like night, with the stars shining through.”

No, he’s told, it’s fine. Even Measham agrees, although he’s been constantly troubled by a conductor’s score that doesn’t tally with some of the individual parts. “It’s such a waste of time when that happens,” he says. “It costs a of money on a session this size. But Ornette is amazing. He knows every note of music on this score by memory. And there’s a lot of music in it.”

The digital clock flicks over to 13:00 and the session is at an end. The musicians pack up and head for the door. Ornette hooks his alto to his sling and walks around the emptying floor, playing a handful of lyrical phrases in that tone which prompted a participant in one of his early recording sessions, the drummer Shelly Manne, to say that “he sounds like a person laughing, and a person crying.”

He pauses and takes the horn from his mouth. “Hey,” he says. “We’re getting there, aren’t we? And we’ll do better tomorrow.”

* The following evening, at the BBC TV Centre, I interviewed Ornette live on an edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test that also featured music by the Stooges, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and Linda Lewis. Two months later I heard him play The Skies of America with his quartet and the American Symphony Orchestra at Philharmonic Hall in New York, a world premiere coinciding with the album release. In 1988, before a London performance of a revised version with Prime Time and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Ornette told me about how the idea for the piece had come to him on a visit to a Native American reservation in Montana in the 1960s: “I participated in their sacred rites, and it made me think about the many different elements existing in America, in relation to its causes, purpose and destiny. For some reason, I got that feeling from the sky. I feel that everything that has ever happened in America, from way before the Europeans arrived, is still intact as far as the sky is concerned.”

A period of silence (2)

To my amazement, this blog is now 730 posts old. I’m grateful for the interest of those who’ve been reading it since the start in January 2013, or who’ve come in along the way. It’s nice to know that the pleasure I get from it is shared.

Four years ago I put it on hold for a few months in order to give myself the time I needed to finish a book. Now I’m doing it again, and once more the writing that’ll keep me occupied until mid-summer has nothing to do with music. It’s going to be hard to deny myself the opportunity to listen to as many albums and (circumstances permitting) go to as many gigs, but that’s how it has to be.

Meanwhile, a happy new year to one and all, and see you down the road apiece.

— Richard Williams

Doo-wop in the SoCal sun

What skiffle was to British kids in the 1950s, doo-wop music was to their US equivalents, from New York to Los Angeles: the entry point to a new world, for teenagers only. Unlike skiffle, however, to these ears doo-wop still sounds fabulous more than 60 years later, its vibrant innocence undimmed. And there are unheard gems to be discovered by the idiom’s devoted archaeologists, as we find in This Love Was Real, a new collection of two dozen tracks by LA vocal groups from 1959 to 1964.

Unlike their counterparts in Brooklyn and the Bronx, the kids of Watts, South Central and El Monte didn’t have subway tunnels in which to practise their harmonies. But they had long warm evenings and street corners and sock hops in school gyms, and budding music-business operatives like Dootsie Williams, Johnny Otis, John Dolphin, Gary Paxton and George Motola to herd them into a studio and capture their naive hopes and dreams on tape. Among the greatest hits of Southern California doo-wop were the Penguins’ genre-defining “Earth Angel”, Marvin and Johnny’s “Cherry Pie”, the Cuff Links’ “Guided Missiles” and the Paradons’ “Diamonds and Pearls”, but you won’t find any of those here. This Love Was Real is devoted to the ones who didn’t make it, often for no good reason.

For example, I can’t tell you how happy I am to make the acquaintance of the Cezannes, who — “featuring Cerressa” — recorded “Pardon Me” at Motola’s studio in 1963. Composed by Kent Harris, who wrote the original “Shoppin’ for Clothes” (later adapted for the Coasters by Jerry Leiber) and released on the obscure Markay label, the record has the perfect proportions: a gentle 12/8 rhythm, a four-bar chord sequence that falls perfectly into place every time, a high lead vocal cruising above rudimentary harmonies, and even a goofy spoken section.

Nobody remembers much about the Cezannes, beyond the fact that they were a sister (Cerressa) and her brother and cousin, all students at Jefferson High School in South Central LA. The record wasn’t a hit, and as far as anyone knows they went back to resuming normal lives. But thanks to Ady Croasdell, the compiler of this collection, and the set’s expert annotators, Steve Propes and Alec Palao, they live again.

As do all the other tracks, some of which are seeing the light of day for the first time — such as “The Letter”, apparently a product of a session recorded in Philadelphia in 1959 by Adolph Jacobs, the 20-year-old guitarist with LA-based Coasters, with whom he was on tour at the time, having left another popular local group, the Medallions, to join them. Like the previously unreleased “This Wilted Rosebud” by Bobby Sheen (soon to become Phil Spector’s Bob B. Soxx) and the Pharoahs’ “Here Comes the Rain”, it’s a beauty.

Among complete unknowns like the Valaquans, the Cordials, the Precisions and the Five Superiors, we find a sprinkling of familiar figures: the 18-year-old Danny (Sly) Stewart, for example, later known as Sly Stone, then a member of the Viscaynes, singing his heart out on “A Long Time Alone”, released in 1961 on the Luke label after being recorded during what the singer apparently believed was nothing more than a demo session. And Dorothy Berry, wife of Richard Berry, the composer of “Louie Louie”, who leads the Swans through “Hold Me” and would later become one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes.

And then there’s Arthur Lee Maye, a star baseball player at Jefferson High when he recorded for a couple of labels. He hung out with the likes of Jesse Belvin and Richard Berry, and is said to have sung the bass part on Berry’s original version of “Louie Louie” in 1957. Cutting his name down to Lee Maye, he went on to spend 13 years with major-league clubs, six of them with the Milwaukee Braves and the rest with the Houston Astros, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators and the Chicago White Sox. Baseball, he felt, got in the way of his singing career, which he resumed briefly in the 1980s before dying of cancer in Riverside, California in 2002, aged 67.

Maye and his group, the Crowns, are represented on this anthology by “Last Night”, a cheerful, up-beat song of unknown original recorded for John Dolphin’s Cash label in 1959. Arranged by the guitarist Arthur Wright to a busy Latin beat, it was left unreleased and unheard until an acetate in Wright’s possession came to light. “I am the best singing athlete that ever lived,” Arthur Lee Maye once said, and I’m still trying to think of an example with which to contradict him.

* This Love Was Real: L.A. Vocal Groups 1959-1964 is on the Ace label. For those wanting a helping of what happened next in the street music of Los Angeles, I can recommend another new 24-track compilation, Lowrider Soul Vol 2, just out on Ace’s Kent subsidiary, featuring the Larks, the Hesitations, the Manhattans, Darrow Fletcher, Barbara Mason and others.

Where Jimi led

If you’re interested in guitar-playing, you probably need to know about Ava Mendoza. I first heard her at Subterranea in New York in 2016, during the Winter Jazzfest, when she played with a band led by the trombonist Jacob Garchik and including two other guitarists, Mary Halvorson and Jonathan Goldberger, and a drummer, Vinnie Sperrazza. You can see them in the photograph; she’s on the extreme left, with the Fender Jaguar.

Even in the company of the great Halvorson, Mendoza caught my ear. Born in Miami, Florida in 1983, she studied with Fred Frith at Mills College in Oakland, California before moving to New York in 2013. She seemed to have found a way of feeding the sound of early rock and roll guitar — think Dick Dale, Watkins Copicat echo units, and a time before tremolo arms became known as whammy bars — into the kind of thinking shared by the several generations of guitarists freed from the orthodoxies of jazz guitar by Jimi Hendrix, a list going from Sonny Sharrock, John McLaughlin, Ray Russell, Vernon Reid and David Torn to Bill Frisell, Elliott Sharp, Marc Ribot and Kim Myhr. She showed strength, inventiveness and confidence.

That first impression is confirmed on a new album which features her in a trio under the leadership of the veteran bassist William Parker, completed by the drummer Gerald Cleaver. It’s called Mayan Space Station, and it’s the sort of music you can easily imagine Hendrix making if he were still around today: loose, improvisatory, inspired, collective, which are all the words that come to mind when you think of his playing from more than 50 years ago on tracks like “Manic Depression”, “Love or Confusion” and “Third Stone from the Sun”, carried into the 21st century.

I was thinking about Hendrix anyway, since I’ve been enjoying a newly published book called Voodoo Child, in which two Los Angeles-based writers, my old Melody Maker colleague Harvey Kubernik and his brother Kenneth, compile an oral history of the guitarist’s life and work. It’s not a biography in the usual sense but a sort of 360-degree journey around the short but extraordinary life of the man who arguably had more influence on contemporary music than any individual instrumentalist since Charlie Parker.

The vast majority of the interview material is new, culled from dozens of conversations with those who knew, observed or were affected by Hendrix. They range from Brian Auger, John Mayall and Andrew Loog Oldham through John Echols of Love, Robby Krieger of the Doors, Ed Cassidy of Spirit, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane and James Williamson of the Stooges to Michelle Phillips, Ernie Isley, Michael Des Barres, Kim Fowley, Jerry Wexler, Billy Cox, Jim Keltner, Nils Lofgren, Patti Smith, Nels Cline and many others. Of course there’s lots of stuff about Monterey, Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, as you’d expect. But the authors aren’t afraid to dive into less obvious areas. In one of the later sections several witnesses, including Hugh Banton, the Van der Graaf Generator organist, and John Etheridge, the Soft Machine’s guitarist for the past few decades, have interesting things to say about the specifics of the equipment Hendrix used.

If I have a criticism, it’s that — like most Hendrix books — it doesn’t follow the money or go deeply into the late period when he became involved with black artists and activists such as the singer Emmaretta Marks and the percussionist Juma Sultan, getting closer to the world where free jazz intersected with political action. But as a kaleidoscopic assembly of impressions from an orbit around Planet Jimi, it has a value of its own.

The eminent composer and flautist James Newton, a professor of jazz studies who has taught a Hendrix course at UCLA, talks about Hendrix’s relationship to jazz: “Check out the floating quality in ‘(Have You Ever Been to) Electric Ladyland’. When Hendrix hits the guitar three times to establish the tempo, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, it’s in 3 but not really — most people hear it in 4/4… a polyrhythm is established, which is not something you hear in pop music, then or now. It’s Mitch (Mitchell) channelling Elvin (Jones).”

That was something you couldn’t miss when you heard Are You Experienced or saw Hendrix live in 1967, at least if you were conversant with the work of the John Coltrane Quartet in the first half of the decade. Mitch had clearly paid attention to Elvin’s sense of time — the 3-against-2 which is at the heart of the rhythms that came from Africa and became what we call swing. And Hendrix, who hadn’t (as far as I know) played jazz during his early career on the R&B circuit, responded to what he was doing. In that sense, Mitch was a liberating influence on Jimi.

It’s interesting to speculate on what would have happened had Chas Chandler recruited a more four-square British rock drummer of the time — say, Aynsley Dunbar (who was under consideration), Keef Hartley or John Steel, his former colleague in the Animals — to the Experience, as might easily have happened. John Mayall points out that “Jimi came to England and a blues world… going back to Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner, who started the blues boom. This attracted a lot of musicians who now had something new to inspire them.” But it was not just a purist’s blues world. Korner’s absolutely seminal Blues Incorporated was packed with jazz musicians, from Ginger Baker and Danny Thompson to Dick Heckstall-Smith and Art Themen, as were Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames and the Graham Bond Organisation. Even had Hendrix never listened to Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman before leaving the US in 1966, he would have absorbed something of their spirit from the musicians he heard and worked with in London.

James Newton connects Hendrix to the huge change taking place in jazz two decades after the heyday of bebop. John McLaughlin (in a quote attributed to Colin Harper’s biography, Bathed in Lightning) remembers taking Miles Davis to the Monterey Pop film just to see Jimi, and the effect it had on the trumpeter. The effect on guitarists — including McLaughlin — was even greater, in terms of encouraging a more adventurous approach to tone, texture and effects, and more enduring. As we can hear in the work of Ava Mendoza and others of her generation, it shows no sign of abating.

* Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik’s Voodoo Child is published by Sterling. William Parker’s Mayan Space Station is on the AUM Fidelity label: https://williamparker.bandcamp.com/album/mayan-space-station

2021: The best bits

“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.” The older I get, the more profoundly those words resonate. They begin “Burnt Norton”, the opening poem of T. S Eliot’s Four Quartets sequence, first published together in 1943. When the initial lockdown began last year, the actor Ralph Fiennes had the idea of committing the poems to memory. Then he decided to present them on stage in a production that he would direct. A risky proposition, staging poetry. But the miraculous property of Fiennes’s monologue, which I saw at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London at the end of November, was that by acting the lines, and by using his body as well as his voice, he brought out meanings that might have escaped even the most assiduous silent reader. Hildegard Bechtler’s set, Christopher Shutt’s sound design and Tim Lutkin’s lighting helped Fiennes to guide us, over the course of 75 unforgettable minutes, through a great work in all its dimensions.

NEW ALBUMS

1 The Weather Station: Ignorance (Fat Possum)

2 Masabumi Kikuchi: Hanamichi (Red Hook)

3 Vijay Iyer / Linda May Han Oh / Tyshawn Sorey: Uneasy (ECM)

4 Anthony Joseph: The Rich Are Defeated Only When Running for Their Lives (Heavenly Sweetness)

5 Amir El Saffar / Rivers of Sound: The Other Shore (Out Note)

6 Peter Hammill: In Translation (Fie!)

7 Alexander Hawkins: Togetherness Music (Intakt)

8 James McMurtry: The Horses and the Hounds (New West)

9 Jason Moran: The Sound Will Tell You (Bandcamp)

10 Miguel Zenón & Luis Perdomo: El Arte del Bolero (Miel Music)

11 Sault: Nine (Forever Living Originals)

12 William Parker: Mayan Space Station (AUM Fidelity)

13 Johnathan Blake: Homeward Bound (Blue Note)

14 Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue: Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses (Pi)

15 Xhosa Cole: K(n)ow Them, K(n)ow Us (Stoney Lane)

16 Tom Rainey Obbligato: Untucked in Hannover (Intakt)

17 John Zorn: Parables (Tzadik)

18 Tomos Williams: Cwmwl Tystion (Ty Cerdd)

19 Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders: Promises (Luaka Bop)

20 Tom Challenger: Imasche (Bandcamp)

21 Hiss Golden Messenger: Quietly Blowing It (Merge)

22 Julian Siegel Jazz Orchestra: Tales from the Jacquard (Whirlwind)

23 Tyshawn Sorey / Alarm Will Sound: For George Lewis / Autoschediasms (Cantaloupe)

24 Lana Del Rey: Chemtrails Over the Country Club (Universal)

25 The Memory Band: Colours (Hungry Hill)

ARCHIVE / REISSUE

1 Julius Hemphill: The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony (New World)

2 John Coltrane: A Love Supreme Live in Seattle (Impulse)

3 The Band: Stage Fright / Live at the Albert Hall (Capitol)

4 Various: This Love Was Real: L. A. Vocal Groups 1959-1964 (Ace)

5 Splinters: Inclusivity (Jazz in Britain)

6 Alice Coltrane: Kirtan: Turiya Sings (Impulse)

7 Group Sounds Four & Five: Black and White Raga (Jazz in Britain)

8 Mose Allison: The Complete Atlantic & Elektra Albums 1962-1983 (Strawberry)

9 Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series Vol 16: Springtime in New York (Columbia)

10 Barney Wilen: La Note Bleue (Elemental)

11 Van Der Graaf Generator: The Charisma Years Box (Virgin)

12 Mike Taylor: Trio, Quartet & Composer Revisited (ezz-thetics)

13 Various: Separate Paths Together: An Anthology of British Male Singer-Songwriters 1965-75 (Grapefruit)

14 Hasaan Ibn Ali: Metaphysics (Omnivore)

15 Various: People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Songbook (Kent)

16 Elton Dean Quartet: They All Be on This Old Road (Ogun)

17 Third Ear Band: Alchemy: The Albums 1969-72 (Esoteric)

18 Various: Lowrider Soul Vol 2 (Kent)

19 Graham Collier: British Connection (My Only Desire)

20 Stan Getz Quartet / Astrud Gilberto: Live at the Berlin Jazz Festival 1966 (The Lost Recordings)

LIVE

1 Patti Smith Group (Royal Albert Hall, October)

2 Vijay Iyer / Linda May Han Oh / Tyshawn Sorey (Queen Elizabeth Hall, November)

3 Nu Civilisation Orchestra’s What’s Going On (Queen Elizabeth Hall, November)

4 Xhosa Cole Trio (Cockpit Theatre, October)

5 Cécile McLorin Salvant (Cadogan Hall, November)

STREAM

Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom (Veeps.com)

FILMS

1 The Summer of Soul (dir. Ahmir Thompson)

2 David Byrne’s American Utopia (dir. Spike Lee)

3 The Velvet Underground (dir. Todd Haynes)

BOOKS

1 Patrick Modiano: Invisible Ink (Yale University Press)

2 Rickie Lee Jones: Last Chance Texaco (Grove Press)

3 Lenny Kaye: Lightning Striking (White Rabbit)

4 Horst Krüger: The Broken House (Bodley Head)

5 Richard Thompson: Beeswing (Faber & Faber)

6 Michael Holding: Why We Kneel, How We Rise (Simon & Schuster)

7 Andrew Humphreys: Raving upon Thames (Paradise Road)

8 Harvey & Kenneth Kubernik: Voodoo Child (Sterling)

9 Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger (Pushkin Press)

10 Lili Anolik: Hollywood’s Eve (Scribner)

Lenny the K strikes again

The last time Lenny Kaye put together a compilation album, it changed the world. Well, a significant part of it, anyway. The meticulously assembled double album released in 1972 under the title Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-68 became a touchstone for the generation that created the punk movement, first in the US and then in the UK. Listening to the Standells, the Seeds, Count Five and the 13th Floor Elevators, kids who’d been drowning in Tales from Topographic Oceans discovered that pop songs worked best when they were two minutes long and built on a minimum of chords, with lyrics that stuck to the teenage basics.

It’s funny to think that although it made its appearance only four years after the release of its most recent track, Nuggets was — intentionally or otherwise — a historical document. But it has never sounded dated, then or now.

Lightning Striking is something different. A two-CD set, it’s the support act to Lenny’s new book of the same name, subtitled Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll, in which he reminds us of the talent that was lost to music writing when he swapped his Remington for a Stratocaster and threw in his lot with a young poet named Patti Smith in 1971.

I met him the year before that, when he was working at Village Oldies on Bleecker Street — “ten dollars a shift and all the records I could filch,” he writes in the book — and contributing to publications including Rolling Stone and Cavalier, a Playboy rival. His album reviews for Jann Wenner’s rock-culture magazine were outstanding, written with an evident love for the music. We bonded over doo-wop and the Velvet Underground, and In New York in 1971 he showed me where the individual Velvets had taken their places on stage during their nine-week season the previous summer upstairs at Max’s Kansas City, where he’d been to see them many times.

Back in 2004 Lenny wrote a fine book titled You Call It Madness, on an unexpected subject: a study of the crooners of the 1930s, including Rudy Vallee, Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby. Now, a few weeks after his unforgettable appearance with Patti at the Albert Hall, comes his history of rock and roll in a series of very enjoyable vignettes, from Memphis in 1954 to Seattle in 1991 via New Orleans, Philadelphia, Liverpool, San Francisco, Detroit, New York City, London, and Los Angeles and Norway, who share the penultimate chapter (on Metal, of course).

It occurs to me that Lenny and I — born three months apart — belong to the last generation with first-hand engagement in the whole story, from hearing Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Frankie Lymon before we were into double figures and the Beatles, the Stones and Motown when we were in our early teens. I’m not sure of the deeper significance of this, but in Lenny’s case it certainly informs his writing with a precious first-hand enthusiasm. And I’m glad he’s chosen to frame the story of the music through that lens.

In the chapter called “Liverpool 1962”, for instance, he illustrates the effect the Beatles had on him when the British Invasion was in full spate: “It made me want to find out, or at least feel what it felt like. In the summer of 1964, after patiently absorbing barre chords from a friend who could play some of the diminished progessions that Paul brought to ‘Till There Was You’, I bought a cherry red Gibson Les Paul Special and a Magnatone 280 amp (true vibrato, the same kind Buddy Holly played) from a kid down the street who had given up the calling. On November 7 the Vandals (Bringing Down the House With Your Kind of Music!) debuted at the Chi Psi fraternity on the Rutgers University campus.”

I love how he freewheels through the early history. “How to sing like a girl. In the voice of a girl. That is Philadelphia’s tradition.” That’s true from Frankie Avalon to the Stylistics. By 1966 he’s getting closer to the music. A lyricist uncle bankrolls and co-writes Lenny’s first recording, a 45 called “Crazy Like a Fox”, a folk-rock-protest disc released under the name Link Cromwell. A year later he’s speeding across America with his friend Larry in a ’56 Ford, heading for San Francisco and the Summer of Love, seeing Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Avalon and Quicksilver Messenger Service at the Fillmore. In a chapter called “Detroit 1969” he’s great on the story of the MC5, who foreshadowed so much, and the Stooges, with roles for the likes of John Sinclair, Danny Fields, Jac Holzman and Jon Landau.

Back in New York in 1971, he’s invited to accompany the unknown Patti Smith at St Mark’s Church on 10th Street. It was Sam Shepard’s idea. One rehearsal, in her apartment: “She chanted poems and I followed along, watching how she breathed. Simple chords, all I knew.” The story of how the Patti Smith Group emerged from the scuzzy Downtown scene of the early ’70s, intertwined with those of the New York Dolls, CBGBs, Television and the Ramones, is the centrepiece of the book and worth the price of admission alone. And it was Lenny who, before a show in Detroit in 1976, introduced Patti to the MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith, her forever soulmate.

Later on he takes us through Grunge and Death Metal, although the tracks representing those chapters on the album will probably be the least played in my house. But there are some gems: I didn’t know the hair-raisingly direct “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” by the ’50s Chicago blues guitarist Pat Hare or “Marcella” by the Castelles, a gorgeous slice of Philly doo-wop. And there’s the trick that compilations sometimes pull off, of making you listen to something extremely familiar with fresh ears. In this case, for me, it’s Elvis’s “That’s All Right” and Cliff’s “Move It”, both of which suddenly sounded once again like messages from another planet.

If the album is fun, the book that inspired it is a wonderful extended blast of insider knowledge with outsider perspective, expressed in the language of rock and roll. Lenny’s mission with Nuggets almost 50 years ago was, he says, “to make sure my favourite records kept on living.” Apart from anything else, Lightning Striking shows how well he did his job.

* Lenny Kaye’s Lightning Striking is published in the US by Ecco and in the UK by White Rabbit. The album, compiled by Lenny Kaye and Alec Palao, is on Ace Records.

Old and new gospel

Among the many projects initiated by the inspirational drummer and educator John Stevens between the creation of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1966 and his early death in 1994, the most unexpected was a septet called Splinters, convened in 1972 to bring together musicians spanning the bebop and avant-garde sectors. From the older generation came the tenorist Tubby Hayes, the drummer Phil Seaman and the pianist Stan Tracey. Representing the newer thing were Stevens himself and the altoist Trevor Watts, his SME co-founder. Straddling the eras were the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and the bassist Jeff Clyne, both of whom had played with the SME but were equally comfortable with the music of Hayes, Seaman and Tracey.

I remember the excitement of their debut at the 100 Club in May that year, and the realisation that it was working much better than might have been imagined, thanks to the commitment of all the musicians involved. About 80 minutes of music from that night was released a dozen years ago by Reel Records on a CD titled Split the Difference, long unavailable. Now the whole 100 minutes is to be found on a handsome three-CD package issued by the Jazz in Britain label, along with just over an hour from a gig by the same line-up at the Grass Roots club in Stockwell, South London four months later, both performances taped by Watts on a cassette machine with a couple of decent microphones.

Hayes, the giant of British modern jazz, stood at the pinnacle of a virtuosic tradition, and had only recently recovered from serious illness, but he was able to throw himself into the collaboration with great generosity, finding a place for himself in a music that operated according to very different parameters. For Tracey, who came from the language of Monk rather than that of Bud Powell, assimilation was also possible. And Stevens’ boundless admiration for the greatness of Seaman helped to ensure that the two of them found a common vernacular founded in a kind of swing falling somewhere between Max Roach and Ed Blackwell.

For Watts and Wheeler, this kind of time-based free improvisation, rooted in the discoveries of Ornette Coleman, was home territory, and both play with great distinction, but the success of the project was really ensured by the presence of Clyne, a bassist with all the necessary instincts and virtues honed to the highest degree. He had made his reputation alongside Hayes and Ronnie Scott in the Jazz Couriers, but listening to him with this band, you can easily believe that he could have depped for Charlie Haden with Coleman at the Five Spot in 1959 or for Reggie Workman or Jimmy Garrison with John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard a couple of years later without any appreciable loss of quality. He was a remarkable musician and his death in 2009, aged 72, left a big hole.

Although full of vigour and substance, the music Splinters played at the 100 Club gig sounds almost tentative by comparison with the Grass Roots set. By the time of the later gig they seem to have relaxed into the format, producing the kind of uninhibited, exuberant shout-up which characterised that era, and which had its roots in the influence of Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes as well as of Coleman’s Free Jazz and Coltrane’s Ascension. Hayes plays a superlative solo, Clyne is phenomenal, and the wildly exciting stuff Seaman and Stevens get up to towards the end could give drum battles a good name.

Historically speaking, this is an important release. Seaman died four weeks after the Grass Roots gig, aged 46. Hayes died the following June, aged 38. It’s interesting that these two should have chosen to plunge into an environment offering such a different sort of test. In a lengthy essay contained within the beautifully produced 12″x12″ hardbacked sleeve, Simon Spillett describes the background to the project, sketching in the histories of the Jazz Centre Society, which organised the Monday-night series at the 100 Club, and the Musicians’ Action Group, which ran Grass Roots, and the crosscurrents of the London jazz scene at the time, using material from archive interviews and fresh testimony from Watts, now the only survivor of a fascinating experiment.

* Splinters’ Inclusivity is on the Jazz in Britain label, available as a digital download as well as the three-CD set (www.jazzinbritain.co.uk). The photographs are from the album’s cover, and were taken by Jak Kilby. Clockwise from top left: Phil Seaman, Jeff Clyne, John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Kenny Wheeler and Tubby Hayes. Centre: Stan Tracey.

Loud and quiet moments

The car, I find, is a good place to listen to music. Mine is old enough to have a CD player, and I hear lots of new stuff in what is a very satisfactory sound box. But a funny thing happened when I put on the new King Crimson album, a two-CD “official bootleg” of their return to touring in the US between July and September this year. As I drove along, listening to the music, there were noises that made me think something had happened to the car: maybe a piston had blown, or the rear suspension had collapsed.

Wrong. It was the clattering set up by the three drummers who currently make up almost half of the current King Crimson, and whose synchronous but sometimes fairly abstruse playing occasionally gives the impression of a complex machine making its own decisions.

Robert Fripp has form with this sort of thing. Mike Giles, his band’s original drummer, could make 4/4 sound like a study of the calculus of infinitesimals. Later on, the short-lived combination of Jamie Muir and Bill Bruford created a provocative blend of the obsessively precise and the utterly random. Nowadays, when King Crimson take the stage, it is with the three drummers — Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison — arrayed in front of the other four musicians.

The saxophonist/flautist Mel Collins, the guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, the bassist Tony Levin, and Fripp himself (seated, as always) take up their positions behind the battery of batterie. I don’t know why Fripp chose this configuration, but the music — recorded at two venues, the Anthem in Washington, DC and the Egg in Albany, NY — begins, after a short spoken introduction by the leader, with a thunderous percussion-only barrage that made me think of a 21st century Sandy Nelson, rendered in Warhol-style triplicate.

The rest of the two hours is devoted to King Crimson old and new, from “21st Century Schizoid Man”, “Epitaph” and “Islands” through “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”, “Starless” “Red” and “Discipline” to a few examples of their more recent work, with which I am considerably less familiar. The respect shown to the greatest hits is absolute; the material is performed with technical excellence and fidelity to the originals but also a spirit that makes the clambering, juddering lines of something like “Level Five” — from 2003’s The Power to Believe — into more than mere exercises, while the rendering of “Starless” has a beguilingly eccentric grandeur that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. Jakszyk’s vocals recall those of Greg Lake and John Wetton, the washes of mellotron strings and flutes add an authentic period flavour, and Collins pops up occasionally to remind us what an exceptional and unjustly underappreciated player he has always been.

Arriving in the same package was something very different: a box of eight CDs called Music for Quiet Moments, a compilation of the solo pieces Fripp recorded between 2004 and 2009 in many different venues around Europe and America and released individually as downloads between May 2020 and April 2021. This music proceeds from the experiments that began in the autumn on 1972, when Brian Eno invited me to his flat in Maida Vale to hear something he’d been up to, using two Revox tape machines to record and loop Fripp’s guitar, creating a slow-moving, unusually textured, quietly mesmerising sound that could function as foreground or background. Released the following year under the title (No Pussyfooting) on Island’s low-price HELP label, it was the beginning not just of Frippertronics and Fripp’s more recent Soundscapes but of Eno’s work with ambient and generative music.

These new Soundscapes range in length from a handful of minutes to three-quarters of an hour. Some of the pieces share titles that include “Elegy”, “Pastorale”, “Seascape” and “Evensong”, indicating the moods Fripp is painting with his guitar and its associated effects, often producing sounds resembling slow-moving clusters of violas and cellos. Miraculously, at least to my ears, the risk of passivity is avoided. Some tracks, like “Strong Quiet I and II” from Brussels in 2009, feature an improvised solo guitar line over the drifting clouds of sound: recognisably Fripp, completely lacking in ego-play, always worth following where they lead.

Is this background and/or foreground and/or something in between? Music for listening, or to accompany other activities, or to create a sense of nothingness? From Atlanta in 2006 come pieces titled “Affirmation” and “Aspiration”, a reminder of the names John Coltrane gave to the individual movements of A Love Supreme. And in interviews (such as the one in the December issue of Uncut magazine) Fripp is unafraid to use terms such as “devotional”, “sacred” and “meditative” to describe what’s going on. He isn’t more specific. But the music there to be used, in whatever way you feel appropriate.

* King Crimson’s Music Is Our Friend / Live in Washington and Albany 2021 and Robert Fripp’s Music for Quiet Moments are released on the Panegyric label (www.dgmlive.com). The photograph of Fripp was taken by Tony Levin in Chicago this year.