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More music for a new society

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik - Jazzfest Berlin 2017 - 4 Nov -® Camille Blake - Berliner Festspiele-2

The first time I saw Christian Lillinger, with a trio called Hyperactive Kid at Berlin’s X Jazz festival a few years ago, I found it impossible to take him seriously. It was as if some New Romantic poseur had decided to become a free-jazz drummer for the night. The hair, the gestures: they got in the way of listening. Then I saw him a few more times, and it became impossible not to take him very seriously indeed. Not to think of him, in fact, as one of the most interesting musicians working in Europe today.

He has a septet called Grund: two saxophones (Toby Delius and Wanja Slavin or Pierre Borel), vibes (Christopher Dell), piano (Achim Kaufmann) and two basses (Jonas Westergaard and Robert Landfermann). If you don’t know the names of his sidemen, you should; they’re all exceptional improvisers. What makes the music so distinctive, however, is Lillinger’s composing. Imagine something Andrew Hill might be doing today and you might get an idea: knotty but satisfying themes, surprising structures, brilliant interplay.  When I saw them at the Jazz Kollektiv festival in Berlin a year after the Hyperactive Kid gig, it was one of those sets I never wanted to stop. (Another comparison might be with those intense but brilliantly organised quintet and septet sides Cecil Taylor recorded for Impulse in 1961: “Pots”, “Bulbs” and “Mixed”.)

Then, another year later, I saw Lillinger in two more groups: the quartet Amok Amor (with Slavin, the trumpeter Peter Evans and the bassist Petter Eldh) at the Vortex in London and a trio called Punkt.Vrt.Plastik, with Eldh and the pianist Kaja Draksler, at Jazzfest Berlin. In both cases the music was of phenomenally high quality and gave me the chance to appreciate the breathtaking detail of Lillinger’s playing. He is indeed hyperactive, flying around a kit that includes many auxiliary percussive devices with extraordinary deftness and precision, seldom settling on a pattern for more than a few seconds. But once your ears are attuned, they can discern the incredible responsiveness and egoless interaction he brings to the music.

His new album, Open Forms for Society, is something different: a series of 13 densely woven compositions and five improvisations for a group featuring Dell, Draksler, Landfermann and Eldh, plus Lucy Railton on cello, Antonis Anissegos on piano, Elias Stemeseder on piano and synthesiser, and Roland Neffe on tuned percussion. Again, these are all remarkable musicians, perfect for Lillinger’s seamless blend of composition and improvisation, so beautifully integrated — in a form of musical quilting — that you can’t tell where one bleeds into the other.

There are beautiful textures and unexpected juxtapositions of timbre, fragments of melody left hanging in space, sudden bursts of shuffling momentum, abrupt silences, a sense of alertness and inquiry in every ting, squiggle, sigh and shuffle. It’s not easy music, but neither it is at all forbidding: pieces like “Titan” and “Lakat” are disciplined essays in dramatic tension, creating grooves for a world that hasn’t yet quite come into existence.

* Grund’s albums are on the Pirouet, Clean Feed and Plaist labels. Albums by Amok Amor and Punkt.Vrt.Plastik are on the Intakt label. Open Form for Society is on Plaist. The photograph of Christian Lillinger was taken in Berlin in 2017 by Camille Blake; more of her work can be found at http://www.camille-blake.com.

California dreams

 

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There was no law preventing Bruce Springsteen from making a California-themed album, and Western Stars seems to have received a generally warm reception for its ballads of longing and regret, laden with strings, banjos and steel guitars. For myself, I find it a little bit soupy in texture, predictable in content and lacking in energy. I’ll probably be listening to “Moonlight Motel”, “There Goes My Miracle” and the title track occasionally in the future, but to these ears it’s his least distinguished work since the Human Touch / Lucky Town dual release in 1992, and far behind other non-E Street Band solo albums such as Nebraska, Tunnel of Love and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Its arrival did have one unexpected benefit. While pondering the list of artists and songwriters that he presented as having provided direct inspiration for the project, I pulled out a couple of albums recorded in Los Angeles half a century ago by the singer Johnny Rivers, mostly because the first of them — Rewind (1967) — includes several songs by Jimmy Webb, one of the names Springsteen mentioned. The second album — Realization (1968) — has no Webb songs, but it does have a feeling of continuity with its predecessor.

Born John Ramistella in the Bronx in 1942, Rivers might easily have become one of those Italian American pop singers who found fame in the early ’60s: a rival to Dion DiMucci, John Mastrangelo (Johnny Maestro), and Francesco Castelluccio (Frankie Valli). Instead he moved with his parents to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as a child, absorbing the local R&B and rock and roll sounds as he grew up and became a guitarist. Having changed his name at the behest of Alan Freed, he moved to Los Angeles at the end of the ’50s, working as a songwriter before Lou Adler had the brainwave of recording his nightclub act at the Whisky à Go Go, where his repertoire — with a stripped-down trio completed by Joe Osborn’s bass and Eddie Rubin’s drums — included songs like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son”, both of which became hit singles for him.

Rivers was a good songwriter (“Poor Side of Town”, his self-penned 1966 hit, is a beauty) but a better interpreter; whatever the material, he retained a kind of plaintive honesty. Rebirth and Realization show him grappling with a broader range of material, from Motown songs (“Baby I Need Your Lovin'”, “The Tracks of My Tears”) to Paul Simon’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and Oscar Brown Jr’s “Brother, Where Are You”, as well as demanding Webb songs such as “Rosecrans Blvd” and “Sidewalk Song (27th Street)”. With arrangements by Webb and Marty Paich and great playing from the Wrecking Crew, the two albums form a fine snapshot of an artist getting to grips with material from songwriters exploring the new ways of living, thinking and behaving.

Out of the two albums, I selected four tracks to create what I think of as a perfect summer EP. The first is Webb’s “Do What You Gotta Do”; there will be those who prefer the later readings of this sublime song by the Four Tops, Nina Simone or even Roberta Flack, but I like this one for its conversational understatement. The second is “Positively 4th Street”, which Dylan names in Chronicles Vol 1 as his favourite cover of one of his songs, perhaps because Rivers took a gentler approach to the song’s bitter invective than the man who wrote it. The third is “Summer Rain”, a great piece of orchestral folk-rock written by James Hendricks, a former Mugwump (with Mama Cass, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky) and a regular collaborator with Rivers. The fourth is Rivers’ own “The Way We Live”, in which he takes the sound and cadences of “Positively 4th Street” — particularly Larry Knechtel’s Al Kooperish B3 — and applies it to his own thoughtful meditation on life in America as the decade turns sour.

I suppose I can see what Springsteen was getting at when he namechecked Webb, particularly if he was thinking of the hits the songwriter provided for Glen Campbell: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”, with their powerful sense of geographical and emotional distance. (It was Rivers, as it happens, who took “Phoenix” to Campbell, having recorded the first version of it on an album already overloaded with hit singles.) More so, anyway, that Burt Bacharach, also on Springsteen’s list, whose chromatic melodies, sophisticated harmonies and games with metre are about as far from Bruce’s basic bluecollar style as you could get within the same general idiom.

I’m going to give Western Stars a few more spins in the coming days, but at the moment those four Rivers tracks are the ones I can’t get out of my head. And I’ll be thinking of the night in London in the spring of 1973 when he turned up at the Valbonne, a Mayfair discothèque, to promote his latest album by playing an early-evening showcase set with an A Team line-up consisting of Chuck Findley on trumpet, Jim Horn on saxophones, Dean Parks and Herb Pedersen on guitars, Mike Melvoin on keyboards, Jack Conrad on bass and Jim Gordon on drums. Few of us who were there will forget a storming show that, of its kind, rivalled Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra at the Rainbow the following month and wouldn’t be bettered until Springsteen turned up at Hammersmith Odeon with the E Street Band two years later — which is saying something, for all concerned.

Laura Jurd and friends

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Laura Jurd is a prolific musician, so it was an unselfish gesture on her part to invite friends and collaborators to provide compositions to go alongside her own pieces on Stepping Back, Jumping In, her new release on the Edition label. Taking advantage of the palette offered by an unusual combination of instruments, the composers offer a variety of approaches that makes for a kaleidoscopic and satisfying experience.

The 14-piece line-up consists of a brass trio (Jurd’s trumpet, the trombones of Raphael Clarkson or Alex Paxton and the euphonium of Martin Lee Thompson), the Ligeti Quartet (Mandhira de Saram and Patrick Dawkins on violins, Richard Jones on viola and Cecilia Bignall on cello), Soosan Lolavar on santoor and Rob Luft on banjo and guitar, and a rhythm section containing the other members of Dinosaur, Jurd’s regular quartet: Elliot Galvin on piano, Conor Chaplin on bass and Corrie Dick on drums, plus Anja Laudval on synthesiser and electronics and Liz Exell on a second drum kit.

There’s a lot of scope, and Jurd is the first to take advantage with a bracing piece called “Jumping In”, its crisp syncopations occasionally disrupted by a sudden rallentando, her bright-toned trumpet to the fore. Galvin’s “Ishtar” locates a darker mood, with ululating violin and eerie glissandi over an intermittent slow groove carried by minimalist drums. Soosan Lolavar’s “I Am the Spring, You Are the Earth” begins serenely, the sound of her santoor (an Indian version of the hammered dulcimer) percolating gently through the drifting veils of strings, guitar and electronics. “Jump Cut Blues” is an interestingly deceptive title for a string quartet in which Jurd explores skittering pizzicato lines and unorthodox bowing techniques before plunging into a fast ostinato passage reminscent of Terry Riley’s work in the same field, and thence to a pensive conclusion. The austere opening textures of “Companion Species”, by Anja Laudval and Heida K. Johannesdottir, seem to grow out of the preceding piece, but soon mutate into something very like the surging, growling free-jazz shout-ups associated with the Jazz Composers Orchestra under Michael Mantler or Alex von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra; when the sky clears, it’s to reveal a brisk, purposeful 4/4 groove over which Jurd solos — with a lucid lyricism reminiscent of Henry Lowther — against the low brass. Jurd’s closing “Stepping Back” begins like a brass band gatecrashing one of Terry Riley’s solo organ concerts before some lovely writing for the string players and a calliope effect add extra dimensions.

That’s a rapid tour through an album which shows what can be done with open minds, fresh ideas, an appropriate degree of ambition and a willingness to transcend idioms. Everyone involved deserves enormous credit — most of all Jurd, a musician who knows exactly what she is doing, and for whom Stepping Back, Jumping In represents something of a triumph.

* The photograph of Laura Jurd is by Monika S. Jakubowska.

Mac Rebennack: Roots and herbs

When Dr John came into the Old Grey Whistle Test studio at the BBC Television Centre one night in 1972, he was in his Mac Rebennack mode. That was his birth name, the one he used as a young man on the New Orleans music scene until he moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and eventually devised the hoodoo-voodoo identity that brought him fame.

There was an upright piano in the studio. The programme was going out live. Mac came in and sat down, and after I’d given him a brief introduction, he started to play. For the next few minutes — maybe 10, but I wasn’t counting — he worked his way through the history of post-war New Orleans piano styles. He went from Professor Longhair through Fats Domino and James Booker to Huey Smith and Allen Toussaint, stirring a filé powder of his own into the gumbo of their artfully syncopated, wonderfully blues-drenched phrases.

Mac — who died yesterday at his home in Louisiana, aged 77 — was an authority on the subject, a repository of the lore and legend of New Orleans music, and it permeated his own playing. Sadly that Whistle Test performance seems not to have been recorded; unlike many less worthy items, it has never resurfaced, although I continue to live in hope because I’d give a lot to see it again.

It wasn’t until many years later, while reading the notes to a reissue of the magnificent solo-piano set he recorded for the Clean Cuts label in 1981, that I discovered why he had an aversion to performing alone. In his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, he said it aroused the memory of the fear “that I’d end up alone as a solo-piano lounge act starring at Holiday Inns or bowling alleys for the rest of my natural life.”

It was during the same visit in 1972 that I interviewed him at some length for the Melody Maker. Again he talked about his hometown piano heroes, starting with Longhair — “Fess” — whom he’d heard in clubs when his father, the owner of an appliance store, was fixing broken lighting and sound systems. Later, as a young guitarist (the instrument he played before someone shot off the finger he used to bend notes), Mac was called on to play a gig in Longhair’s band.

“Fess remembered me from the way I used to pester him to death when I was a kid. He played these real complex rhythm things — even today I can’t do some of them fantastic things I’ve seen him do over the years. He was such a strong focal point, an inspiration, for everything I was involved in.” There was a mystery, he said, to Longhair’s music, particularly in his introduction of a rhumba feeling into the rhythms. “There’s a missing link there somewhere, because none of the piano players I knew from before Fess’s time were in the direction he was on — the Rhumbalero groove. At some point he was a real innovator. He made up his own music terms. He called his music ‘overboogie’, and when he did this thing by crossing his hands he called it a ‘double-note crossover’. He had something called a ‘left-hand overdrive’, and when the horns made a punch, he’d call that a ‘spew’: his terms were very descriptive.”

You could throw a New Orleans name at Mac — Mel Lastie, John Boudreaux, Harold Battiste, Ed Blackwell, Walter “Papoose” Nelson, Red Tyler, Earl Palmer, Cosimo Matassa, Snooks Eaglin — and he’d have a story about them. When I asked him about being a white man in a black man’s world, at a time when the American Federation of Musicians still had segregated branches, he told me about a tour he made with Toussaint, Eaglin and Phil “Sea of Love” Phillips in the early ’60s: “It was one of the first integrated tours of the South, pre-integration. It was very treacherous. Some of those towns, like Polarville, Mississippi, they’d have had lynchings there — and I was the guy who had to collect the money after the gig.”

The interview was memorable in another way: Mac was on the methadone programme, and he kept nodding out. He’d be in the middle of an answer, shut his eyes and stop talking. If I kept silent too, a minute or so later he’d open his eyes and resume the answer exactly where he’d left off. It was a little unnerving, but it was a sign of recovery from his addiction.

A year earlier I’d seen him in much worse shape. I spent a night at Trident Studios in Soho, where he was recording tracks for what turned out to be The Sun, Moon and Herbs — his fourth album as Dr John — with a motley gang including Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Graham Bond and a few jazz musicians, including the tuba player Ray Draper, once a member of Max Roach’s quintet, and the Jamaican saxophonist and flautist Ken Terroade. The vibe was pretty down and depressing as the assembled company went through endless stoned jams. It was hard to believe they’d get anything out of it.

It was great, then, to see what became of him not just a year later but through the rest of his career, as he became an emblem of the city that had given the music its backbone. You can say that his half-dozen Grammy awards and his membership of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were the least cool thing about him, but when you’d come through what he came through, I’ll bet they meant a lot.

If you haven’t done so already, click on the YouTube link above. This live version of his irresistible “Such a Night” from the Mountain Stage radio show on NPR in 1989 tells you how special he was — how much sheer warmth his music generated, whatever the circumstances — and how greatly he’ll be missed.

Bluegrass Odyssey

Emma John

On a warm late-May night in North London, it was one of the more unusual book-launch parties I can remember. After responding to the customary speech from her publisher, the author picked up a fiddle and joined a guitarist, a double bassist and a banjo-player to play a short set of thoroughly invigorating bluegrass, transforming the upstairs room of an Islington pub into a bar in some deep hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Kentucky.

Emma John, the author of Wayfaring Stranger: A Musical Journey in the American South, earned her authenticity with a stay of several months in the bluegrass heartlands, seeking to turn the long-neglected classical violin technique acquired during her schooldays into a mastery of the music of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. The book is account of the trials she endured, of the friends she made, and of a dramatic outcome which I have no intention of spoiling.

A former colleague of mine at the Guardian and the Observer, John writes beautifully. There are interesting sketches of rural American attitudes in the time of Trump, a fascinating chapter on encounters with southern religion — which is, of course, a crucial part of the music’s genetic make-up — and passages in which she describes the Appalachians with a lyricism that reminded me of William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. More important, she is a wry and candid observer of her own anxieties and insecurities, the very qualities that might have disqualified her from participating in a music as dependent on self-confidence as bluegrass. She also has interesting things to say about the challenge of learning to improvise within this highly formalised idiom.

She made me laugh quite a lot, as when she notices at a bluegrass festival that “when the bands weren’t singing old songs, or new songs crafted to sound like old songs, they were singing songs about how no one sang the old songs any more.” And there’s a lovely insight in her discovery that bluegrass “wasn’t the sound of home at all, but the sound of longing-for-home.”

All I can add is that I started the book at half past eight on the night of the launch party and finished it at seven o’clock the next evening, having been impelled to neglect several ostensibly more important tasks in the meantime. It might well do that to you, too.

* Wayfaring Stranger is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The musicians with Emma John in the photograph, taken at the launch party, are Joe Auckland (banjo), Si Cliff (guitar) and Ben Somers (bass).

RIP Genevieve Waite

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When it appeared in 1974, Genevieve Waite’s Romance is on the Rise was part of a reaction to the hippie hegemony, taking its place in a movement that included Roxy Music’s first album and Bette Midler, Studio 54 and Big Biba, Andy Warhol’s Interview and its UK counterpart, Ritz. Out went denim and bucksin fringes, in came satin and tat. The irony was that Romance is on the Rise, with its nostalgic evocations of a gilded age, was produced and mostly written by John Phillips, the composer of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” and “California Dreamin'”.

This antidote to the prevailing counter-culture was bracing and fun, even though nobody bought it. “They say that love is coming back / They say romance is on the rise,” Waite announced in the album’s opening lines, before offering advice on how to cope with a volte-face in sexual manners: “Open that door, light her cigarette / Say she looks nice and see what you get.” In “White Cadillac” she deployed her little-girl voice to serenade a wealthy admirer with an amusing cynicism: “You were born rich but not so smart / I was born poor but with a great big wonderful heart…” In “Girls”, a song that might have become a standard, she crooned: “Girls’ll run around in your head / Till you wish you liked boys instead / Girls’ll make you feel so bad / That you’ll wish you’d never been had.” It was not a record you’d want to listen to every day, but the strength of Phillips’s songwriting and the very sparing use of period pastiche in the arrangements add durability to its air of throwaway sophistication.

Two years later Waite and Phillips were living in London, where Phillips was working on the soundtrack for Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. They came to see me at Island Records, looking for a contract. Genevieve had recorded the title song, but her version wasn’t included in the film, although John’s demo turned up a few years ago in an expanded reissue of the soundtrack. (There’s an excellent piece on the background to the story by Chris Campion, Phillips’ authorised biographer, here.)

They were married, not uneventfully, from 1972 to 1988. John died in 2001, aged 65, of a heart attack. Genevieve died this week, aged 71, of undisclosed causes; here’s an LA Times obituary, describing her life in the celebrity zoo. Apart from a couple of film appearances (Joanna in 1968 and Move in 1970), Romance is on the Rise is what she leaves behind.

* Originally released on the Paramour label, Romance is on the Rise was reissued on CD in an expanded version by Chrome Records in 2004. The cover of Interview featuring Phillips and Waite is from the issue of September 1974.

The Necks at EartH

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At Cafe Oto, the Necks’ usual London home, we listeners are close enough to see the details: exactly which rattling device Tony Buck is wielding his right hand, or what use Chris Abrahams is making of the piano’s sustain pedal. The Oto programmers’ decision to invite them to play instead last night at EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney), the converted Savoy cinema barely a quarter of a mile up the road in Dalston, gave a different perspective on the Australian trio’s collective improvisations.

In front of an audience several times larger than Cafe Oto admits, they stuck to the familiar format of two sets of about 45 minutes each, with nothing premeditated. The first was opened with fluid rippling figures from Abrahams, soon joined by Buck’s percussion and Lloyd Swanton’s bass, gradually building a layered intensity, the surface textures and internal dynamics changing like the sky on a day of changeable weather as they worked their way towards a graceful conclusion, the fruit of 32 years of working together.

The second set, opened by Buck, was different in two significant respects. First, their lighting operator took a more prominent role, switching constantly between a limited array of floodlights. I found it distracting — the musicians weren’t playing to the lights — and spent much of the set with my eyes closed. And the music had also moments of much greater violence, clearly exerting a cathartic effect on the audience, who greeted its more abrupt conclusion with a sustained collective shout.

If the acoustics of EartH meant that the sounds of the individual instruments weren’t as clearly defined as they are in a more intimate setting, the size of the place nevertheless added its own dimension to the overall effect. The piano, bass and percussion often blended into each other, sometimes creating a thrilling roar of overtones. The amphitheatre layout and the semi-refurbished interior  — original ceiling mouldings, a tiered wooden floor to sit on — made for a sympathetic environment, although you feel that even were the Necks to play Wembley Stadium, they’d manage to transform its ambiance into that of a small club while finding ways to exploit the possibilities of the new environment. But, on balance, that might be a step you’d rather they didn’t take.

Greetings from Asbury Park

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There are many heroes in Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock & Roll, a documentary film in which the writer/director Tom Jones explores the musical history of the New Jersey beach resort. Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt and Southside Johnny Lyon top the bill, but the list also includes David Sancious and Ernest “Boom” Carter, respectively the organist and drummer with early editions of the E Street Band, who provide eloquent accounts of the music to be heard in the clubs and bars of the town’s West Side, where the black population lived.

Springwood Avenue was the West Side’s main stem, and the Orchid Lounge was where great music was heard (Carter mentions Grant Green, Jimmy McGriff, and many others). The cross-community synergy between West and East was important in the development of the music for which, in the wake of Springsteen’s success, Asbury Park eventually became internationally famous, but it had come to an end in 1970, when a riot over the Fourth of July weekend saw 75 per cent of the businesses on Springwood Avenue burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt.

The riot — eventually suppressed by the arrival of state troopers — expressed the desperation of people who felt they had nothing. Tragically, and as is so often the way, the principal victim of their demonstration was their own community. The film ends on an upbeat note, looking at the current activities of the Lakehouse music academy and studio, where very young musicians are given a chance to learn, to play and to perform, but it cannot pretend that the grievances which erupted almost 50 years ago have been properly addressed.

Springsteen, Van Zandt and Lyon speak with great fondness about what the place gave them, by enabling them to immerse themselves in the world of music. Unlike Dylan and the Beatles, Springsteen says, those who learnt their trade in the Asbury Park bar bands were not musical revolutionaries: they were alchemists, he says, taking bits from all over the place — soul, R&B, Elvis and Little Richard, the British Invasion — and turning it into something of their own. He and his old friends speak with a warmth that is as powerful a defining characteristic of their music as any stylistic element.

The film shows us important venues including the Convention Hall (where the Who shared a bill with Herman’s Hermits and the Blues Magoos), the Upstage Club (where, because it lacked a liquor licence, teenagers could congregate to play and listen) and the Stone Pony (made famous by Southside Johnny and Miami Steve). At the screening I went to, it finished with 20 minutes of a recent fund-raising concert at which practically everybody who ever played in an Asbury Park bar band gathered on stage to run through cheerfully chaotic versions of “Johnny B. Goode”, “Bye Bye Johnny”, and — at Springsteen’s behest — “Lucille”, in the great Everly Brothers arrangement.

The director both excavates the Asbury Park legend and polishes it up a bit. And why not? As Springsteen remarks: “Everything’s broken. We are the fixers of broken dreams.”

* The film was shown on Wednesday of this week at various cinemas in London. There seems to be a screening on May 25 in Liverpool, and there may be others.

Aretha in church

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What I can tell you about going to see Amazing Grace is that from start to finish I couldn’t keep a dry eye. Getting old and sentimental, maybe. But that’s the power of African American gospel music, supercharged in this case by the presence of Aretha Franklin, whose career reached its apogee on the two specially arranged evenings — January 13 and 14, 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts — that the film documents.

The story behind its release is a long and tangled one, starting with the disastrous failure of the originally designated director, Sydney Pollack (who was in between They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and The Way We Were), to ensure that sound and visuals were properly synched. But it’s here now, finally pieced together, not too late to thrill us to our bones for 87 minutes while casting light on the artistry of one of the great musicians of the 20th century.

After decades of familiarity with the album containing the music from these evenings, for me the film’s biggest revelation was the unstructured nature of the event. Aretha wears a gown each night and the Southern California Community Choir are in their glittering silver and black uniforms, but there’s no serious attempt to dress up the setting or the presentation. The Reverend James Cleveland acts as MC, also playing piano and duetting with the star, but the ambiance is less like a formal service than I had anticipated, although of course the active relationship between singer and congregation is entirely that of a black Baptist church.

A few things crossed my mind while immersed in this remarkable film. The first was the impression made by Aretha’s absolute absorption in her music: to watch her sing with eyes closed in concentration, to see how the sound comes out of her mouth, adds a whole dimension to the experience of simply listening to her records. She was a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday, and we know that she had already lived a complicated life, but at times as she sings her face is movingly irradiated with a kind of innocence.

The second thing was the looming presence of two men, one of them her father and the other her mentor. The Rev C. L. Franklin is in attendance on the second night, sitting in the front row, next to his long-time lover, the regal Clara Ward, who was one of Aretha’s idols. He walks to the lectern to give a little speech, and later takes out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his daughter’s face as she begins “Never Grow Old”. It’s a tender gesture, but also a rather ostentatious one. James Cleveland’s quasi-proprietorial moment comes when there’s a kerfuffle in the audience — a woman, perhaps possessed by an excess of the divine spirit, is hustled away — and he moves to sit close by Aretha, above and behind her, positioning himself to protect her against the possibility of further disturbance.

The third was the importance of her piano-playing. She accompanies herself on only two of the pieces, “Never Too Old” and Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy”, but the difference between her playing and that of Cleveland — who knows all the required licks, of course — is marked. Jerry Wexler always said that it was essential to have her playing on her records, and he was right. (Think how her piano reshaped “I Say a Little Prayer” or “You Send Me”, for example.) She first recorded “Never Too Old” at the age of 15; this version, stretched over a quarter of an hour without ever going into tempo, is one of the finest, purest, deepest things she ever did.

The fourth thing was how little we see of the band on screen. The contribution of Ken Lupper on Hammond organ, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on bass guitar, Pretty Purdie on drums and Pancho Morales on congas is vital to things like the slow 12/8 rock of the epic “Mary, Don’t You Weep”, but the musicians don’t seem to have been of much interest to Pollack. (The sound mix, too, is not as pristine as it was in the Complete Recordings edition released in 1999, where we hear them hitting a perfect groove on the instrumental riff from “My Sweet Lord” at the end of each performance.) Lupper, a local church organist, uses his B3 to support the piano with an exquisite touch and is one of the unsung stars of the night; the other is Alexander Hamilton, the choirmaster, whose lithe conducting encourages the massed voices to answer Aretha with such electrifying passion and precision.

The fifth and last thought concerned the air of semi-chaos caught by the cameras, and how important its effect seems now. Imagine what would happen if a 21st-century soul diva of comparable eminence — Beyoncé, say — were to undertake a similar project today. There would be no mildly dishevelled camera operators in shot, no moments of on-screen uncertainty over the running order, no empty chairs, no grain in the image — yet those are among the factors that, like the slightly rough sound, make Amazing Grace feel so real.

Joe Boyd, who worked for several years with Alan Elliott on getting the film into shape for general release, calls it “the final bow of a way of making music perfected by an extraordinary generation of music-makers with the skills and influences that bounced back and forth between African American secular and religious music.” No one, he says, makes music like this any more. It’s tempting to endorse that judgment, although I can’t go along with the way it seems to disparage the creativity and spontaneity of more recent generations. Times change, and ways of making music change with them. But I will say that, without question, Amazing Grace is one of the greatest expositions of African American music ever committed to film. Those who laboured to bring it out of the darkness of the vaults, turning cinemas around the world into sanctified churches in the process, deserve our profound gratitude.

* The film is in British cinemas now. The Complete Recordings 2-CD set is still available on Rhino/Atlantic. Aaron Cohen’s book Amazing Grace, in the 33 1/3 series, contains a great deal of valuable background and testimony, as does Respect, David Ritz’s biography of Aretha, published by Little, Brown.

Doris Day 1922-2019

Doris Day died today, aged 97, leaving behind her the guiltiest of pleasures. I imagine that back in 1963 I was not the only teenaged boy to be stirred by “Move Over Darling”, a “girl group” record sung by a 41-year-old woman, co-written and produced by her 21-year-old son. Did Terry Melcher feel weird as he sat in the control booth of a Hollywood studio in 1963, listening to his mother wrap up the song he had written with one of the sexier fades ever delivered by a middle-aged woman famous for starring in frothy comedies: “You’ve captured my heart and now that I’m no longer free, make love to me…”?

Commissioned as the theme tune for a movie in which Day starred with James Garner and Polly Bergen, the song was co-written by Melcher with Hal Kanter, a showbiz veteran who had worked on Blue Hawaii, and London-born Joe Lubin, who had written for Danny Kaye and cleaned up the lyric of “Tutti Frutti” for Pat Boone. The arranger was Jack Nitzsche, then spending most of his time writing charts for Phil Spector. Nitzsche did a typically great job, particularly in the way the backing vocals overlap the lead at the start of the middle eight, intensifying the song’s graceful flow. And that has to be Hal Blaine knocking out the Spector-lite version of the baion beat — bom / bom-bom — that underpinned so many hits. The strings and voices give the whole thing a lovely texture.

I suppose it’s one of those records, like Louise Cordet’s “I’m Just a Baby” and Connie Stevens’ “The Greenwood Tree”, that lurk in the collection and aren’t brought into polite conversation. But what the hell. Once a welcome aid to growing up, now it’s nothing more or less than two and a half minutes of prelapsarian California pop perfection. RIP, Miss Day.