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Before he was famous

Fifty years ago Keith Jarrett wandered into the Fleet Street office of the Melody Maker, unannounced. He’d stayed on in London after playing with Miles Davis at the Isle of Wight and now he was looking for someone to interview him. I’d seen that performance from close quarters, and I was familiar with his work as the pianist in the Charles Lloyd Quartet — a band famous for taking jazz to the hippie audience — between 1966-68. So I told him that although it was a Monday morning and we were all busy chasing up news stories, I was happy to talk. I sat him down and took out my notebook and pen.

That interview came to mind the other day while I was writing about the revelation that health problems may have ended his performing career. So I searched for the cutting and found that — although it wasn’t what you’d call an in-depth piece — his words captured the thoughts of a man who was clearly ambitious but at that stage had no idea of what would begin happening to him a couple of years later. And what he said about his attitude to live performance is interesting in the light of his subsequent reputation for demanding the highest standards of audience etiquette.

That morning in London, his immediate priority was to let it be known that he was looking for work. He had his own European trio, and so far they’d played in Scandinavia, Belgium and Ireland. In the UK, however, no luck so far. “I’ve always found it difficult to get work in this country,” he told me. “Ronnie Scott’s expressed some interest, but they told me they’re booked up until March and I’ll probably be going home to the States for the winter.”

His European trio, he said, featured the bassist Gus Nemeth, formerly with Bernard Peiffer, and the drummer Bob Ventrelo. In America his trio was completed by Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. “Charlie’s working with Ornette Coleman and Paul’s gone with Arlo Guthrie, so I couldn’t bring them over.”

The lukewarm response from Ronnie’s reflected the fact that none of Jarrett’s three albums for the Vortex label, an Atlantic subsidiary, had been released in Britain. “They tell me that my albums don’t sell,” he said, “but how do they expect them to sell if people can’t buy them?”

Life Between the Exit Signs and Somewhere Before were trio sessions with Haden and Motian, while Restoration Ruin struck out in a different direction, featuring him singing and playing a variety of instruments, including guitar, harmonica and tambourine, sometimes with a string quartet. He was also now playing soprano saxophone and flute with his groups.

“I don’t think I’m getting away from jazz,” he said, “but I’m not as narrow. I don’t think about it, but if I believed I was playing jazz all the time, half my repertoire wouldn’t exist. There are a lot of variables in the group. Sometimes we play free for a whole set, and then sometimes we’ll play nothing but tunes. When I sing, it’s not like ordinary singing. It’s more like chanting, I guess.

“I haven’t been successful in getting people to let me record on soprano or flute. They say the audience thinks of me as a pianist, and they don’t want to hear me playing a horn. In fact I feel more like a drummer, although I don’t play drums with the group. I can really lose myself on drums, and my playing on other instruments relates either to my singing or my drumming — for instance, I try to make the piano sing, although it’s really a percussion instrument. I get a great feeling when I use it as percussion, but it’s too easy.

“I’m trying to make the soprano sound like a voice. That’s a big challenge, to push yourself through that little reed. I have no formal training on soprano, and that’s why I enjoy it so much. I’m not glued to making voicings by putting notes together like I am on the piano.”

Returning to the theme of getting work, he observed that although Europe was better than the scene at home, he could see it deteriorating. “Most of the places, even the Golden Circle in Stockholm, are turning into discotheques. The people sit there, half-listening to you and waiting for the records to come on. People still come up to me and ask me to play ‘Sombrero Sam’ and some of the other things I did with Charles (Lloyd), but I tell them that’s part of another era. The music we play is much more elusive than Charles’s, but people come in expecting to hear me play the old things. Audiences haven’t heard me properly until now because I’ve always been trying to escape from the groups I’ve been in. That made me play well, just to escape, and it’s much harder now I’m on my own.

“Wherever we go, the audiences have a need. If they’re talking, they may have to be shocked out of it, or caressed out of it, if they’re listening and expecting to be given something else, That’s what I’m struggling with, and it should make the music good.

“If everything is perfect, if the piano is in tune, if everyone is sitting quiet and expectant and all the audience are Keith Jarrett fans, then I don’t feel the need to play. It’s the worst possible situation. If the audience know that they like the group, it doesn’t matter what you play. It’s like someone giving a lecture when the audience knows what he’s going to say. That’s why I don’t play piano when I’m by myself. I couldn’t tell myself anything I don’t already know. So when I’m alone I play soprano or guitar, and I can still surprise myself on those instruments.”

As I started to close my notebook, he said that if he’d followed everybody’s suggestions, he would probably have achieved commercial success already. “But I’d be in a situation that would be too perfect, and when you’ve got nothing to bother about, you don’t say anything.” And off he went into the London streets, 25 years old and looking for work, with million-selling albums and packed concert halls still the faintest of lights behind a far horizon.

Dyan Birch 1949-2020

Dyan Birch was something special. Her presence on a stage drew the eye and the ear. And now she’s gone, leaving the memory of a soulful essence that was hers alone, however big or small the stage.

She was a teenager working in Brian Epstein’s NEMS record shop in Liverpool when she met the people who shared her love of soul music and with whom she would form the group Arrival: her fellow singers Frank Collins, Paddie McHugh and Carroll Carter. In 1969 they went to London, where they were signed by the Gunnell agency, who put them together with a keyboard player and singer called Tony O’Malley. They were managed by the savvy hipster Tony Hall, and they had chart hits with “Friends”, a Terry Reid song, and “I Will Survive”, written by Collins and arranged by Paul Buckmaster.

I met them en route to the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, in a helicopter chartered by Hall. They played on the Friday bill, which also included Taste, Tony Joe White, Chicago, Family, Procol Harum and the Voices of East Harlem. Curiously, although the festival was being filmed, no footage of their set survives.

Five years later Arrival were no more. Dyan, Frank, Paddie and Tony had been joined by the guitarists Neil Hubbard and Jim Mullen, the saxophonist Mel Collins, the bassist Alan Spenner, the drummer Terry Stannard and the percussionist Jody Linscott. Now they were known as Kokomo, and they became fixtures in London pubs and clubs from the Hope & Anchor in Islington to the Half Moon in Putney and Dingwalls in Camden. Their management was in the hands of Steve O’Rourke, who signed them to CBS.

Sadly, the reaction to their records never lived up to the promise of their live appearances. Here’s a beauty from Rise and Shine, their second album: “Without Me”, written by Dyan, Tony and Frank and produced by Brad Shapiro. Many, including me, believed them to be the best of all the British club and pub bands of the 1970s.

They were much in demand by other artists; you could hear the whole band, half-submerged among a couple of dozen musicians on Bob Dylan’s “Romance in Durango”, from Desire, and on Bryan Ferry’s In Your Mind. Here they are, minus only Hubbard, backing the singer and guitarist Bryn Haworth in 1975, on a track from his second Island album, Sunny Side of the Street; it’s always been a favourite of mine for the way it highlights the special vocal blend that Dyan, Frank and Paddie conjured with so little apparent effort.

Dyan was never a diva, but always a member of the band. There were serious health problems later in her life, affecting her ability to take a full part in the very welcome Kokomo reunions; the last time I saw her, at Richmond Athletic Club four or five years ago, she couldn’t complete the set, greatly to her distress. She always seemed like a lovely person. “Spread your wings,” she and the others sang with Bryn Haworth, “and fly right out of here.” And now she has.

* The photograph of Dyan Birch on stage with Kokomo at the 100 Club in 2014 was taken by Neil Holmes and is used by his kind permission.

The news from Keith Jarrett

Many people around the world will be profoundly saddened by the announcement, made today in an interview with the New York Times, that a pair of strokes in the early months of 2018 are likely to have ended Keith Jarrett’s career as a public performer. The journalist Nate Chinen elicited the information that, after the second of those attacks, Jarrett spent the period from July 2018 to May this year in a nursing facility.

The pianist is back home now but the use of his left arm and hand have been lost, perhaps permanently. Just learning to pick up a cup again is a challenge. There have been memory issues, too: while trying to play long-familiar bebop tunes with his right hand, he finds he has forgotten them. It seems likely that his solo concert at Carnegie Hall in February 2017, during which he spoke out against a newly elected US president, will turn out to have been his last.

This is not the first time Jarrett’s career has been interrupted by a serious health problem: a long bout of chronic fatigue syndrome put him out of action for much of the second half of the 1990s. Its effects were apparent in The Melody at Night, with You, a home-recorded solo recital of restrained and quietly luminous versions of familiar tunes that constitutes one of the most cherished items in his extensive discography. He told me about the illness and his return to activity in a Guardian interview preceding a London concert 20 years ago. From what he says now, his recent problems are unlikely to reach such a welcome resolution.

The famous Köln Concert of 1975 doesn’t have the place in my heart that it occupies in those of many others, and I’ve sometimes grown exasperated with his solo recordings (two listens to the 10 LPs of the Sun Bear Concerts, recorded in Tokyo in 1976 and released a couple of years later, felt like more than enough). His self-belief has sometimes felt overpowering. But I loved Facing You, the first of his solo albums, on its appearance in 1972, and the Standards Trio (as the group with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette became known) could perform miracles.

Coinciding with this week’s announcement is the release of a recording of the first date from his last European tour in the summer of 2016. The two-CD Budapest Concert presents 90 minutes of free improvisation (divided into 12 units) ranging from high-tension explorations of contemporary-classical techniques, pounding grooves, elegant extemporised balladry, refined but exuberant gospel-inflected outbursts, an astonishing two-part invention (Part VI) and, in the form of encores, romantic variations on two standards, “It’s A Lonesome Old Town” and “Answer Me, My Love”.

The repertoire strongly resembles that of Munich 2016, the set released last year, taken from the tour’s last concert. His devotees will want to explore the contrasts between the two, recorded a fortnight apart; for me, it’s a wholly satisfying summary of all the finest aspects of his playing.

Once can only wish Jarrett, who is now 75, the best of luck with his health, in the hope that his powers return — for his own sake, rather than for the benefit of an audience to whom he has already given the fruit of a lifetime’s work, and then some.

* Keith Jarrett’s Budapest Concert is released on the ECM label. The photograph, from the sleeve, is by Daniela Yohannes.

The First Daughter

Even after she stopped singing duets with her dad and began sharing a studio microphone instead with a man of her own age, Carla Thomas somehow remained the First Daughter of Soul. Maybe it was something to do with the lingering echoes of her first big hit, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)”, in which she was cast as the sort of perky ingenue to be found in the pop charts in 1961 rather than the mature soul singer she would eventually become.

As the offspring of Rufus Thomas, whose roles as club MC and radio DJ and recording artist made him an important figure on the Memphis music scene in the post-war decades, Carla was born to the calling. Perhaps that, too, was why she was always a little bit taken for granted, even when she and Otis Redding had a hit with Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin’s “Tramp” in 1967, a few months after her second big solo success with Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “B-A-B-Y”.

She had written “Gee Whiz” when she was 15 and recorded it, under her father’s supervision, two years later. Released on the Satellite label, the precursor of Stax, it was noticed by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, who picked it up for national distribution and saw it become a top 10 pop hit. Not even “B-A-B-Y” or “Tramp” could quite match that success.

She made many good records in Memphis during her brief heyday, however, and her story is well told in Let Me Be Good to You, a four-CD box subtitled “The Atlantic & Stax Recordings 1960-68”. Apart from anything else, it functions as a chronicle of a record company’s attempt to find a niche for a talent artist, their solutions ranging from slightly disengaged treatments of country songs like “I Fall to Pieces” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to solid blues performances of “Red Rooster” and “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and covers of current pop-soul hits like “Yes I’m Ready” and “Any Day Now”, girl-group tunes such as “A Lover’s Concerto” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and standards like “The Masquerade Is Over”. The set also features five tracks from the 1967 Stax/Volt European tour, three from the Olympia in Paris, including a driving “Got My Mojo Workin'”, and two from the Astoria in London, including a version of “Yesterday” which, with the aid of Booker T Jones’s Hammond organ, takes Paul McCartney to church.

Three of my favourites can be found in the anthology. One is “Something Good (Is Going to Happen to You”, a Hayes/Porter stomper from 1967 with a Motown-influenced 12-bar bridge. Another, from the same year, is the medium-tempo “When Tomorrow Comes”, which evokes her enduring ability to conjure a special pop-soul charm. Third, and best of all, is “I’m For You”, a 1965 Hayes/Porter ballad of spellbinding poise and quiet intensity. More than half a century later, it may be hard to defend a lyric that begins “My job is to please my man / To make him happy, any way I can.” Despite that, it’s a glorious record, summoning the ambiance of old Stax studio down to the vibrato from Steve Cropper’s Fender Esquire/Vibralux combo, the always-slightly-out-of-tune piano and the beautifully economical horn arrangement.

Throughout her career, Carla Thomas succeeded in projecting an engaging vocal personality that perhaps lacked only the tragic dimension lurking just below the surface in such contemporaries as Candi Staton, Dee Dee Warwick and Irma Thomas. Possibly, too, she lacked the hard edge of real ambition: once Stax had gone down the tubes in the mid-’70s, she did not do what others might have done and seek a home elsewhere. Now aged 77, she lives in retirement. Let Me Be Good to You, compiled by David Nathan and scrupulously annotated by Charles Waring, is a fine and warmly recommended tribute to a singer who was always true to herself.

* Let Me Be Good to You is released on October 23 on the SoulMusic label, via Cherry Red.

Music for absent dancers

In normal times, the vibraphonist, drummer and percussionist Martin Pyne is involved in collaborations with dancers. When the Covid-19 lockdown began, he compensated for the enforced halt in that activity by spending part of May and June in his home studio, recording music for imaginary choreography. The result is Spirit of Absent Dancers, an album of 19 short solo pieces ranging from Tibetan prayer bowls to a standard drum kit.

In terms of percussion improvisation, try to imagine something that runs from the Zen sound-painting of Frank Perry to the light swing of Billy Higgins. There’s nothing loud, nothing showy, nothing esoteric. Just a delight in the deft touch of a stick, a mallet, a finger or a wire brush on metal, skin or wood, and in the process of transforming sound into a sense of movement.

When he’d finished recording, he sent the results to Yorke Dance Project, a contemporary dance company based in south-west London. Here’s a clip of what the dancer and choreographer Laurel Dalley Smith did with a solo vibraphone piece called “Enchantment”. And here’s a piece for drum kit called “Eidolon”, interpreted by Abigail Attard Montalto. And another, titled “Banshee”, danced by Jordan Ajadi.

We’ve needed a lot of protest music this year, for obvious reasons. But during a period of general anxiety, there has also been a place for music offering a diversion into reflective tranquillity. Spirits of Absent Dancers takes its place among a group of recent albums — others include Pete Judge’s Piano 2, Mino Cinelu and Nils Petter Molvaer’s SullaMadiana, and Stillefelt, by Percy Pursglove, Thomas Seminar Ford and Chris Mapp — that I’ve found particularly valuable in that respect.

* Martin Pyne’s album is on the Discus label. He took the photograph while on tour with Images Ballet Company in 2019. His recordings with his various jazz groups can be found at martinpyne.bandcamp.com

John Lennon, b. 9 Oct 1940

John Lennon was born 80 years ago today. I interviewed him a few times for the Melody Maker at the Apple HQ in Savile Row, on the first occasion in the autumn of 1969. As many others did, I found him a thoroughly engaged and engaging interviewee — and, by the standards of the time, remarkably open.

One afternoon, when we’d been talking for a couple of hours, he took me with him in his car to the Thames TV studios on Euston Road, where he was being interviewed for the early-evening news show, so that we could carry on our conversation. These were the days when the names of John and Yoko regularly featured on evening-paper billboards. You knew they were around. At Thames that day he was due to talk about his decision to return his MBE in protest — as he had announced in a press release — “against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”

During that journey to the studios, I remember him expressing his enthusiasm for a recent Lee Dorsey 45, “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)” — he liked songs with brackets in the titles — and telling me a story about the early days.

“In the beginning,” he said, “it was a constant fight between Brian (Epstein) and Paul on one side, and me and George on the other. Brian put us in neat suits and shirts, and Paul was right behind him. I used to try and get George to rebel with me. I’d say to him: ‘Look, we don’t need these suits. Let’s chuck them out of the window.’ My little rebellion was to have my tie loose, with the top button of my shirt undone, but Paul’d always come up to me and put it straight.

“I saw a film the other night, the first television film we ever did. The Granada people came down to film us, and there we were in suits and everything – it just wasn’t us, and watching that film I knew that that was where we started to sell out. We had to do a lot of selling out then. Taking the MBE was a sell-out for me.

“You know, before you get an MBE the Palace writes to you to ask if you’re going to accept it, because you’re not supposed to reject it publicly and they sound you out first. I chucked the letter in with all the fan-mail, until Brian asked me if I had it. He and a few other people persuaded me that it was in our interests to take it, and it was hypocritical of me to accept it. But I’m glad, really, that I did accept it – because it meant that four years later I could use it to make a gesture.”

When he moved to New York in 1971, he liked to keep in touch with the UK, often through the music papers. The postcard above is typical of those he’d send from time to time. In October of that year, when I sent him a note to ask for an interview for a book I was writing a book about Phil Spector, he replied immediately. He could do better than that, he said. He was about to go into the studio with Spector. Within a day or two he’d arranged a return air ticket and a room at the St Regis Hotel, where he and Yoko were living. So I spent three days with them, watching John sort through Elvis 45s for his jukebox, attending the sessions for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” — those brackets — at the Record Plant, and going with them to look at a town house on Bank Street in the West Village, which they ended up renting from Joe Butler, the drummer with the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Lennon had a way of including people in whatever was going on, which is how come Spector’s chauffeur and I ended up in the group photo on the picture bag of “Happy Xmas”. When I read a piece in The Times this week blaming him — and particularly the song “Imagine” — for all the ills of the 21st century, I thought back to the man I knew briefly, to his warmth and enthusiasm and courageous refusal to be confined by the entertainer’s role. We know now, of course, that he was complicated and difficult and sometimes cruel, and there are aspects of his life that will always be difficult to explain and excuse. That’s true of most of us. In his case, I can only speak as I found — while wishing, of course, that he could have been here to celebrate his 80th, and to give us his thoughts on the state of things.

Living for the weekend

To understand the full impact of Ready Steady Go!, you really had to live through the succession of British TV pop shows that preceded it: 6.5 Special (BBC, Jan 57-Dec 58, 96 episodes), Oh Boy (ITV, Sept 58-May 59, 38 episodes), Drumbeat (BBC, April-Aug 59, 22 episodes), Boy Meets Girls (ITV, Sept 59-Feb 60, 26 episodes), and Thank Your Lucky Stars (ITV, April 1961-June 1966, 250 episodes). Each of those series had something to offer the pop-starved teenager, but all of them — even the ones created by the great Jack Good — felt essentially as though they were made by grown-ups. That’s where Ready Steady Go! was different.

From its debut on the ITV network on 9 August 1963, it made a direct connection with its audience. Its creator, Elkan Allan, was smart enough to trust the creative instincts of the people around him — particularly those of the young Vicki Wickham, who started as Allan’s secretary but whose instinctive love of black music, absorbed from friends such as Dusty Springfield and Madeline Bell, became the show’s guiding spirit. Without Wickham’s enthusiasm and energy there would have been no Motown special, no James Brown special, no Otis Redding special to go alongside the regular appearances by the Who, the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. In essence, you knew that the people who made this programme believed, as you did, that Cilla Black’s cover version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was not a patch on Dionne Warwick’s original.

If you lived the the provinces, as I did, RSG! was an essential guide to what was happening in inaccessible London clubs like the Scene, the Ad Lib and the Scotch of St James. The show’s directors, from Bill Turner through Daphne Shadwell, Robert Fleming and Rollo Gamble to the brilliantly innovative Michael Lindsay-Hogg, allowed the members of the audience to crowd around the stage as if they were in a club and took the radical step of treating the cameras as part of the set. Graphics by Clive Arrowsmith and Arnold Schwartzman set the tone in the title sequences, which made use of fast-cutting images from popular culture. Responsible for shaping the whole package was the programme’s editor, Francis Hitching.

The story of RSG! has been told many times before, most recently in a fine documentary shown on BBC4 earlier thus year, but never so thoroughly, informatively and entertainingly as in Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here, a large-format (12″x12″) history by Andy Neill, who has been everywhere one could possibly go to unearth every scrap of information on the show’s birth, life and death.

You want a list of the precise contents of every episode? It’s here. You want a fantastic assembly of ephemera, such as tickets for the recordings at the original Associated Rediffusion studios in Kingsway and the later venue in Wembley, and hundreds of newspaper clippings? Also here. You want the memories of dozens of participants, from Mick Jagger to the dancers Patrick Kerr and Sandy Serjeant to Barbara Hulanicki, the founder of Biba and a regular at Kingsway? You want to know more about the presenters Cathy McGowan and Michael Aldred and the members of the production staff? You want the stories behind Ready Steady Goes Live, Ready Steady Win (the talent competition won by the Bo Street Runners), the Mod Ball and Ready Steady Allez!, the show broadcast live from the Locomotive in Paris in March 1966, with the Yardbirds, the Who, Hugues Aufray, Mireille Mathieu and Eddy Mitchell? You want an informed history of British TV’s treatment of pop music, along with Dennis Potter’s Daily Herald review of an early Beatles appearance on RSG!? You want a detailed history of its ratings, as well as the stories about Françoise Hardy’s refusal to sit down while wearing her new trouser suit and the letters from viewers disgusted by James Brown’s show? All here, in a volume with a great anecdote on practically every page, along with a fantastic selection of photographs.

Jagger talks about how he used to go along even when the Stones weren’t on, just to be there. “RSG! wasn’t safe, it took risks,” he tells Neill. “It waded right into the wonderful chaos of the times. You always thought you were slightly on the edge there.” Pete Townshend agrees: “It reflected the colour and vivacity of the times better than almost any other medium.” He remembers how, for the first of the Who’s 16 appearances, performing “I Can’t Explain” in 1965, they were allowed to bring along their own fans from the Goldhawk Club in Shepherds Bush. Wickham and Lindsay-Hogg, he says, “conveyed the sense that we were, all of us, breaking every rule of television. I felt they were breaking societal rules as well.”

My old friend Keith Altham, then a journalist on Fabulous magazine, remembers it as a meeting place for young people starting out in the music business. “It was like a glorified youth club where your mates played guitars or drums or were in the business of reporting on the beat phenomenon. The writers and musicians were all contemporaries.” And afterwards there would be parties for the in-crowd, maybe at Tony Hall’s flat in Mayfair, with a Beatle and a Ronette and a Stone in attendance.

The programme was killed in December 1966 after 173 episodes. Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan were featured in the penultimate show and Chris Farlowe duetted with Jagger on “Out of Time” and “Satisfaction” in the final episode, two days before Christmas. Times and tastes were changing, and the sense of novelty and excitement had dulled. The mainstream audience was getting its fix of chart music from Top of the Pops (BBC, January 1964-July 2006, 2,267 episodes) while the mods were turning into hippies and no longer looked for guidance from television programmes. But it would be a long time before anything came along to replace it.

I can’t think of anything I’d want this book to have that it doesn’t include. As a thoroughly comprehensive and endlessly entertaining time-capsule, put together in exactly the spirit that the show was made, it’s something to cherish. The story of what Elkan Allan, Vicki Wickham and their friends and colleagues created will never be better told.

* Andy Neill’s Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here is published by BMG (£39.99). Recommended listening: The ‘Sound’ of the R&B Hits, the first anthology of Motown tracks released in Britain back in 1964, now expanded from 14 to 28 tracks and released by Ace Records. For more about pop and rock on the small and large screen, there’s Docs That Rock, Music That Matters by Harvey Kubernik, published in the US by Otherworld Cottage (about £35), including chapters on American Bandstand, D. A. Pennebaker, Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling, Concert for Bangladesh and many other subjects. The sequence of images at the top of this piece was created by Clive Arrowsmith for RSG!‘s title sequence in December 1964.

Relighting the torch

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

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

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

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

Maria Schneider’s ‘Data Lords’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those hard luck stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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