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Swing Out Sister in Islington

Swing Out Sister 3

Since they made one of my favourite albums of the year so far, I was keen to see Swing Out Sister at Islington Assembly Hall last night. It turned out to be just what I needed: an hour combining the exhilarating grooves of soul music with the warmth of something home-spun and hand-finished, made by enthusiasts.

I’d expected to hear a higher proportion of songs from the new album, Almost Persuaded, but this was more of a greatest-hits night, which certainly suited the capacity crowd. It suited me, too, when they fired up their lovely version of Barbara Acklin’s “Am I the Same Girl”, which could have gone on all night. The arrangement of “Stoned Soul Picnic” was quite beautifully conceived and executed, Corinne Drewery sharing the lead vocals with Gina Michele in a rare example of a Laura Nyro cover not paling by comparison with the composer’s original.

There was a lot to enjoy, notably the guitarist Tim Cansfield’s discreet Philly-style octave riffs and fills, the presence of the wonderful Jody Linscott on congas, tambourine and other percussion (if I were ever putting together a soul band, Jody would be my first call), and the way Andy Connell integrates quotes from Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder into the backgrounds. When they finished off with “Breakout”, most of the audience — particularly the women – sang along with what had clearly been a personal dancefloor anthem.

The merchandise stall was selling an instrumental-only remix of Almost Persuaded, an album-length exclusive for the people who attended the gig. It’s a great companion piece to the original album. I don’t know how you’d get your hands on a copy, but it’s certainly worth a try.

Sinatra for sale

An American Classic (Frank Sinatra)

Norman Rockwell’s “An American Classic (Portrait of Frank Sinatra)” is among the headline items in a series of sales in New York next month, at which Sotheby’s will auction off the possessions of Sinatra and his fourth wife, Barbara Marx, who died last year. Commissioned by Frank in 1973, the painting hung on the wall of Barbara’s Los Angeles apartment after his death and has an estimate of $80-120,000. Rockwell, who created so many memorable magazine covers for the Saturday Evening Post, was in his 80th year when he painted a work that, for all its superficial suburban blandness, catches an interesting light in the eye and turn of the mouth.

Other objects for sale, besides a great quantity of the last Mrs Sinatra’s jewellery, include some of Frank’s own modernist abstract paintings; a leather-bound final script of From Here to Eternity, in which Sinatra used the part of Private Angelo Maggio to turn his career around; a pair of AKG microphones that he carried on the road; a monogrammed orange jacket that he wore on his private jet; a personalised yarmulke; and letters from every US president from Truman to Clinton.

There is also a poster from his two-week run at the London Palladium in July 1950, his first dates outside America, in which he shared the bill with Max Wall, the Skyrockets Orchestra, the Tiller Girls, Krista & Kristel, Pierre Bel (“continental juggler”), and Wilson, Keppel & Betty. The Daily Graphic talked to him in the aftermath of the opening night, from which he was lucky to escape with his clothes on. “Two tall redheaded girls nearly got my tie,” he told the paper. “One was actually pulling it off my neck. I pulled back.” Ava Gardner, with whom he was in the middle of a torrid affair, was in the audience as he opened with “Bewitched”, “Embraceable You” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily”, during which the pandemonium in the stalls began.

* You can find details of the auction here: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2018/lady-blue-eyes-property-barbara-frank-sinatra-n09963.html?locale=en

Entangled in Berlin

Irreversible Entanglements - Jazzfest Berlin 2018 - Haus der Berliner Festspiele (C) Camille Bl ake - Berliner Festspiele -8

Moor Mother with Irreversible Entanglements in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele (photo: Camille Blake)

I’ve spent the past few days thinking about the enormous wealth of music I heard last weekend during the first edition of Jazzfest Berlin curated by Nadin Deventer, who selected some very fine artists, devised interesting combinations and highlighted provocative themes while moving the festival’s furniture around sufficiently to make the event feel fresh and new.

Among the things I carried away with me included a surprise encore on the final night with Mary Halvorson joining Bill Frisell for a lovely guitar duet on “The Maid With the Flaxen Hair”, the title track of their highly recommended recent album on the Tzadik label; Kara-Lis Coverdale’s dramatic and absorbing pipe-organ solo recital in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church; Jaimie Branch’s electrifyingly bold trumpet solos with a quartet driven by the drummer Chad Taylor; the fantastically creative cello solos of Tomeka Reid with Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star International and a 12-piece Art Ensemble of Chicago; Kim Myhr’s mini-orchestra of strumming guitars; and Jason Moran’s centenary tribute to the soldier/bandleader James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters, which moved me more than I had expected.

In a festival-related event, there was also a chance to see the artist Arthur Jafa’s “A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions” at the gallery of the collector Julia Stoschek. Having missed it at the Serpentine Gallery last year, I was particularly struck by one of the video pieces, which cut together YouTube footage of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Bootsy Collins, and an electrifying 10-minute performance by the gospel singer Lateria Wooten, singing “Nothing But the Blood” with the late Thomas Whitfield’s choir (which you can watch here).

The solo of the festival was played by Ingrid Laubrock with Mary Halvorson’s wonderful octet. Her tenor saxophone emerged from the warm textures of a ballad called, apparently, “No. 60” (the composer numbers her tunes before assigning them names), like Ben Webster taking his turn in an Ellington small group 80 years ago. The tone, the trajectory, the internal balance of the improvisation were all simply perfect. It was a moment of absolute beauty and the effect was spine-tingling,

But most of all I came away with the memory of Moor Mother, otherwise known as Camae Ayewa, a spoken-word artist from Chicago who was heard in several contexts, most notably with her group, Irreversible Entanglements, featuring Aquiles Navarro on trumpet, Keir Neuringer on alto, Luke Stewart on bass and Tcheser Holmes on drums. Her fierce, declamatory recitations seemed like the logical evolution of the poetry-and-jazz explorations of Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez. Over a highly expressive and flexible band, she drove her words home with a caustic power intensified by a command of economy and repetition echoing that of old blues singers. And then, after a short interval, she appeared in a duo with the Art Ensemble’s Roscoe Mitchell, who played his sopranino saxophone as she riffed on phrases borrowed from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Here we had the old and the new, speaking directly to today’s world.

Ry Cooder at Cadogan Hall

Ry Cooder Cadogan Hall

It was quite enough of a thrill to hear Ry Cooder, having temporarily banished his excellent band, singing Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man”, long a staple of his repertoire, at Cadogan Hall last night. But a couple of minutes in, he took a left turn with some new words:

Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old when he took a little trip down to the grocery store / Well, he might have gone on to be President / But that’s something we’ll never know / Because he ran into a vigilante man…

In the handful of seconds that it took to sing those words, the temperature of the room changed. Channeling the menacing throb of one of John Lee Hooker’s talking blues, Cooder sang about the killing of Trayvon Martin and followed the thought into a rap about Brett Kavanaugh, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. And the audience went with him, all the way.

Once upon a time, Cooder could fill Hammersmith Odeon eight nights in a row. Enough of us are left to have filled Cadogan Hall at least as many times. This, however, was the only show, and I was lucky to get a ticket at the last moment. And how glad I was to be given the chance to hear him, in his 72nd year, singing and playing and organising musicians with as much zest and enthusiasm as you could wish for.

The band featured his son Joachim on drums, Mark Fain on bass guitar, Sam Gandell on alto and bass saxophones, and three singers known as the Hamiltones, from North Carolina: Toni Lelo, 2E and J. Vito. The material was a combination of old favourites — “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”, “Jesus on the Mainline”, “Go on Home, Girl”, “Down in the Boondocks”, “Little Sister” — and songs from his new gospel-based album, The Prodigal Son.

That emphasis thrust the singers into the spotlight, and they thrived in it. Their own featured spot included a song called “Highway 74” (with Lelo on Mayfield-style guitar)  that showed them to be in the tradition of groups like the Spinners and the Manhattans. The gospel power was turned to full beam for “99 and a Half” and a gorgeous treatment of Carter Stanley’s “Harbour of Love”, much richer and more resonant than the album version.

Cooder played some fine solos on a number of instruments, including an electric mandolin. He gave several spots to Gandell, who produced a house-wrecking bass sax solo on “The Very Thing That Made You Rich” as well as using a harmoniser and other effects on his alto — its bell muted with a cloth — to provide atmospheric backgrounds.

“See you next time or in heaven, whichever comes first,” Ry said at the end. For the final encore, concluding a two-hour show, he wisely shone the light back on to the singers, inviting them to deliver “I Can’t Win” with an intensity that left the hall drained. As long as there are still people who can sing like that, all is not lost.

* If anyone knows who took the very nice photograph above, which comes from the promotional material, I’ll add a credit.

A Mingus discovery

Mingus poster

While listening to Louis Moholo, Jason Yarde, John Edwards and Alex Hawkins come very close to taking the roof off Cafe Oto the other night, I started thinking about Charles Mingus. The ingredients of the music were so similar: the warmth, the drive, the spontaneity, the shouted cues, the sudden turns from brusque lyricism to maximum intensity, an extreme sophistication drenched in the blues at its most elemental, the way the past was metabolised into the present, the feeling that this summed up why jazz really is different from everything else.

Then, the next morning, an unexpected package dropped on to the mat: a five-CD box called Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden, a recording of a club gig by one of Mingus’s later quintets in February 1973, previously unheard and released with the approval of Sue Mingus, the great bassist’s widow and guardian of his legacy.

The recording was made by Roy Brooks, the fine drummer who was a member of the Mingus band during this period, while Dannie Richmond was off exploring the world of rock. A Detroit native who had replaced Louis Hayes in Horace Silver’s quintet in 1959, Brooks died in 2005; it is to his widow, Hermine, that we owe the discovery of the tapes.

Mingus went through something of a personal and artistic trough at the end of the ’60s. I saw him at the Village Gate one night in, I think, 1971, playing with a complete absence of fire and commitment — a devastatingly desolate experience for one who had grown up on the volcanic excitements of Blues and Roots and Oh Yeah. By 1973, however, he had recovered his appetite for battle and regained all his old characteristics, as we can hear in his Philharmonic Hall and Let My Children Hear Music recordings from the previous year.

Just about everything that was great about Mingus was on display at the Strata Concert Gallery at 46 Selden Street in Detroit’s Midtown. The band is superb: Joe Gardner on trumpet, big-toned and confident; John Stubblefield on tenor, bringing to mind the fluent bluesiness of Hank Mobley; the mercurial Don Pullen on piano, brilliantly spanning the eras as many of Mingus’s pianists (Jaki Byard, Roland Hanna) were expected to do; and Brooks himself, providing an unflagging, explosive drive.

The repertoire includes Mingus favourites such as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress (Then Blue Silk)”, and a handful of those compositions that demonstrate how beautifully he could structure and pace a fine melodic line: “Celia”. “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”, “Dizzy Profile” and “The Man Who Never Sleeps”. In that respect he was the peer of Benny Golson. And anyone who wants to hear a medium-up 4/4 walking bass that hustles without hurrying should listen to “Peggy’s”, where he gives a masterclass in that difficult art. And the slow blues called “Noddin’ Ya Head” is an after-hours symphony (complete with Brooks’s musical saw).

This was a club gig, so the atmosphere is relaxed and the customers’ voices are sometimes heard. But it was recorded for broadcast on a local radio station, WDET-FM, so the balance of informal atmosphere and undistorted instrumental sound is just about perfect. There’s also an interview with Brooks, and a soliloquy by the station’s jazz DJ, Bud Spangler.

As a representation of how Mingus sounded in a club, it would be hard to beat. One of the finds of the year, without a doubt.

* The box set is released in November on the Barely Breaking Even label. Mingus fans might like to note that the programme of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival includes an event called “Jazz Experiments: Exploring Jazz through the Music of Charles Mingus”, in which the excellent band Blues & Roots will encourage members of the audience to play with them before performing their own set. It’s in the South Bank’s Clore Ballroom on the afternoon of Sunday, November 18, and it’s free. If you want to play, apply via the website: efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk

Marc Ribot’s ‘Songs of Resistance’

My grandparents lost brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles in the Holocaust, and I’ve toured and have friends in Russia and Turkey; we recognise Trump, and it’s no mystery where we will wind up if we don’t push back.

Those are the words used by the guitarist Marc Ribot to introduce his new album, which seems to me to be one of the year’s most important releases. A series of protest songs aimed at our current discontents, Songs of Resistance is in the spirit of Charlie Haden’s first Liberation Music Orchestra album, back in 1968, in that it fuses music of the past with that of the present, adding historical perspective to the various struggles it depicts.

The difference is that Ribot varies the musical approach from track to track, using guest singers and different instrumental groupings. So Tom Waits — with whom he has collaborated more more than 30 years — delivers a ballad called “Bella Ciao”, sung by the Italian partisans of the Second World War. Fay Victor fronts a irresistible funked-up “John Brown”, one of several tracks alluding to the civil rights movement. Steve Earle takes his turn on a Ribot tune about a Sikh immigrant murdered in Texas by a racist who mistook him for a Muslim (“A madman pulled the trigger / Donald Trump loaded the gun”), containing fragments of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” and “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”. Meshell Ndegeocello sings Ribot’s elegant “The Militant Ecologist”, based on another Italian song. The homespun “Knock That Statue Down”, attacking the resistance to the removal of memorials to the Confederacy, is delivered by Ribot himself. The last of the 11 tracks features Justin Vivian Bond singing “We’re Never Turning Back”, Ribot’s comment on gender politics.

Throughout his long career, the guitarist has been noted for the inclusiveness of his approach. Although the settings here reflect his diversity of musical interests, veering from folk songs and country music through go-go to free jazz, he succeeds in tying the whole sequence together through a unity of emotion, showing us how many shades of “stirring” there can be.

It’s a record that, in Ribot’s own phrase, chooses to fight the good fight. As such, it’s in a great and honourable tradition. And at this moment in history, it feels more necessary than ever.

* Songs of Resistance is out now on the Anti- label.

Forever Aretha

Aretha Lee F

Most of what I feel about the Queen of Soul went into the obituary I wrote for the Guardian. Here’s a little extra thing about the record of hers that I’d choose if I could only keep one.

Aretha Franklin made three passes at Van McCoy’s “Sweet Bitter Love”. It’s my guess that this means it was a song with a special significance for her, one she sang not just to her audience but to herself.

The first version came in 1965, during her unhappy time with Columbia Records. The producer was Clyde Otis, the song was given an off-the-peg string arrangement, and the outcome was mundane, even though her singing is lovely. The third was made in 1985, during her time with the Arista label. She produced that one herself, directing an ace band including Nat Adderley Jnr on keys, Steve Khan on guitar, Louis Johnson on bass and Yogi Horton on drums, adding Paul Riser’s arrangement for strings, brass and woodwind. Beneath the sumptuous surface, it dug a lot deeper. It would even serve as her definitive version of a fine song, but for . . .

. . . her second go, which stands for me as the most mesmerising and revelatory recording of her entire career. She taped it at the end of 1966, as part of a demo session immediately after signing with Atlantic Records, which explains the rough sound quality. Among other songs recorded that day, with Aretha at the piano supported by an anonymous double bassist and drummer, were try-outs of “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)” and “Dr Feelgood”, which became two of her classics. For me, however, “Sweet Bitter Love” is the one that seems to have cut deepest into her soul.

Sweet bitter love / The taste still lingers / Though through my helpless fingers / You slipped away / Sweet bitter love / What joy you taught me / What pain you brought me . . . 

Listen to it and then try telling me she isn’t singing to and about herself, drawing on everything she had already lived in her 25 years.

Oh my sweet bitter love / Why have you awakened /And then forsaken / A trusting heart like mine . . .

It’s also the perfect example of how her best work always came when she was sitting at the piano, providing her own accompaniment, establishing the groove and the flow. With that security she could explore her full range of phrasing and intonation: some of the single words here are enunciated and flighted with astonishing creativity, every scrap of decoration seeming absolutely essential. Over the whole piece, voice and keyboard ebb and flow together in great deep, dark surges of powerful emotion which she brings to an ending that is both elegant and brusque, as if everything has been said.

I love so many of her records. But if I had to keep just one, I’d tell myself that none of the others encapsulates the intimacy, the intensity, the superlative control, the sheer shattering open-hearted and heart-breaking Aretha-ness of her quite as rivetingly as this, which was never intended for public consumption but brings us as close to her as we could ever want to get.

* The photographs of Aretha were taken by the great Lee Friedlander, during the time he was working on album covers for Atlantic Records in the 1960s. They’re in his book American Musicians, published in 1998 by D.A.P. / Distributed Art Publishers, Inc. You’ll find links to the other two versions of the song on YouTube. I didn’t include them because I wanted to make sure that you listen to this one.

A period of silence . . .

 

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To all those who’ve read The Blue Moment over the past five and a half years, I’d like to say thank you for your interest and your comments. I started the blog out of a desire to recreate the pleasure I had in the days when I was fortunate enough to be able to choose the music I wrote about and the manner in which I did it. This time around I wasn’t really expecting much of an audience, so it’s been a pleasant surprise to discover how many people seem to enjoy these pieces.

It’s time, however, to take a break. A book project, not music-related, will be occupying me for the next few months. It’s something I’ve been carrying in my head for a long time, and I’m lucky enough to have a publisher who shares my enthusiasm. I want to give it priority, so I’m pressing “pause” on The Blue Moment until the book has been researched and written. And when normal service is resumed in this space, I’d be very pleased to find you still with me.

— Richard Williams

Blue shadows, etc

Chuck-Jackson-LP

Sometimes I think Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now” must be the greatest pop record ever made. What could better the elegant turns of Burt Bacharach’s melody, the striking imagery of Bob Hilliard’s lyric (those “blue shadows” falling all over town), the piping organ, muffled tympani and grieving femme chorale of Bert Keyes’ imaginative arrangement, and the deep emotion of Jackson’s restrained baritone, the instrument that made him the epitome of the male mid-’60s uptown soul singer?

The excuse for mentioning it, if one were needed, is the vinyl release of Chuck Jackson: The Best of the Wand Years, an Ady Croasdell compilation for Ace Records, in which “Any Day Now” is just one of 14 treats. “I Keep Forgetting”, with Teacho Wiltshire arranging the staccato boo-bams and tuba on behalf of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, leads the way, and other well known tracks include the beautifully poised “Since I Don’t Have You”, the operatic “Tell Him I’m Not Home” (with Doris Troy singing the title line), and “I Don’t Want to Cry”, Jackson’s first Wand single from 1961, with its sprightly Carole King string arrangement.

My other favourites are a magnificent King/Gerry Goffin song, “I Need You”, which I wrote about here, Van McCoy’s stately “I Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, and the unutterably groovy “Two Stupid Feet”, a song whose writers, Cara Browne and Luther Dixon, manage to feed Jackson the phrase “comfy and cozy” without disturbing his credibility. But really there isn’t a track here that isn’t outstanding, nothing that doesn’t make the world a better place.

Anthony Braxton at Cafe Oto

Anthony Braxton

By Anthony Braxton’s standards, his ZIM Music septet is a relatively modest affair. But the hour and a quarter of unbroken music they produced during the second of their three nights at Cafe Oto this week proved to be astonishingly rich and complex in its range of gesture and effect.

The musicians — Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn and trombone), Jacqueline Kerrod and Miriam Overlach (concert harps), Jean Cook (violin), Adam Matlock (accordion, recorders and voice) and Dan Peck (tuba) — responded with great enthusiasm and devotion to Braxton’s scores and to his methods of internal organisation. He supplied most of the visual cues — holding up fingers, making a diamond shape with both hands, giving nods — but sometimes letting others take over, notably Barnum but also Matlock, who seemed at one stage to be supplying pre-arranged prompts to one of the harpists.

This was a music of nudge and feint, of swells and silences, of stutter and blurt. Bynum alternated passages of a glowing beauty (his flugel reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler) with the expressive use of mutes, notably on cornet in a Bubber Miley-style wa-wa outburst which was immediately answered by the leader’s cackling alto saxophone. Matlock’s accordion was sometimes the glue that held the music together, but he also provided vocal embellishments and added the winsome sound of two recorders blown simultaneously. Kerrod and Overlach employed unorthodox as well as traditional techniques, sometimes sliding small steel rods between the strings or tapping the frames of their instruments, the combined effect not unlike that of Derek Bailey in full flow. Peck twice launched into a kind of walking-bass pattern before disrupting the tempo, like a man alternately strolling, sprinting and jogging in order to throw off a pursuer. Cook played one compelling solo that seemed to consist almost entirely of harmonics and yet somehow simultaneously employed a scraping of double and triple stops.

Braxton, who alternated between sopranino, soprano and alto saxophones, made his strongest individual contribution right at the start, with a tumbling, paper-toned alto improvisation that seemed to be powered by a perpetual-motion engine as it wove in and out of the ensemble. But the point of the evening was the way his success in blending premeditation with spontaneity gave rise to a constantly shifting set of textures and a dynamic flow that kept the audience, as well as the musicians, on their toes.

* The ZIM Septet’s final performance in London tonight is sold out, but on Thursday at 3pm Anthony Braxton returns to Cafe Oto for a conversation with Alexander Hawkins.