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Remembering Barrett Strong

The news of Barrett Strong’s death this week at the age of 81 (here’s my Guardian obituary) naturally sent me back to 1959 and “Money (That’s What I Want)”, but also to the masterpieces of psychedelic soul that Strong and Norman Whitfield created for the Temptations between 1967 and 1972. While “Cloud Nine” was the most surprising, “Ball of Confusion” the most intense and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” the creative pinnacle of this response to the innovations of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, my own favourite has always been the full 12 and a half minute version of “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, to be found on the Tempts’ 1971 album, Sky’s the Limit.

David Van DePitte, who orchestrated the track, deserves equal credit. In the first half-minute alone we’re introduced to four independent lines, one after another: James Jamerson’s stately bass guitar, a gentle bassoon, a piercing high line for violins doubled by a piano an octave down, and a nasty fuzz-tone guitar. They drift in and out before locking together, at which point a woodwind choir and French horn whoops usher in Eddie Kendricks’s lead vocal, his high tenor stripped of its usual swooning romantic urges, here quietly conveying a mess of paranoia: “Smiling faces sometimes / Pretend to be your friend / Smiling faces show no traces / Of the evil that lurks within…”

By this time there are also two rhythm guitars, one strumming open chords and another, slightly further back in the mix, using a wah-wah pedal: the sound of Blaxploitation movies. Coming up to the three-minute mark there’s a rattle of fingertips on a conga drum before the player (probably Eddie “Bongo” Brown) drops into the medium-paced groove alongside Jamerson’s running bass line. At 3:45 a single punch on a bass drum (sorry, kids: kick drum to you) prefaces the gradual entry of the kit drummer, probably Uriel Jones: just an almost subliminal 4/4 on the snare alongside the conga slaps, then fading away before returning as syncopated bass-drum beats.

The bassoon line is taken up by violas, there are flute and piccolo punctuations, and the fuzz-toned guitarist returns at 7:50 for a searing solo as the rhythm section simmers quietly. The strings swoop and dive. Then Jamerson, having explored all kinds of ornamentations and passing notes, is left alone to support Echoplexed voices before conga and strings join him, and suddenly there are two fuzz guitars — probably Melvin Ragin and Dennis Coffey — and a drummer stealing in, emphasising the first beat of each bar with a cymbal whoosh, raising the intensity. Then just bass and congas again as the singer’s voices echo off each other as they head for the horizon, towards some place into which you don’t want to follow them, fading to silence.

And that’s it. A symphony in E flat minor — the black keys. A track in which space and time expand and contract, where themes and textures are picked up, tossed around, recombined, dropped and rediscovered, all against a background of unswerving but infinitely flexible momentum. Something I’ve listened to countless times since 1971, and of which I’ll never tire. Soul music’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, if you ask me. So thank you for your creativity, Mr Van DePitte. Thank you for your virtuosity, Mr Kendricks and Mr Jamerson. Thank you for your vision, Mr Whitfield and Mr Strong. None of you, now, still with us.

Words and music

From Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn to Josef Skvorecky’s The Bass Saxophone and beyond, many novelists have made use of jazz in their stories. Jazz musicians, in turn, sometimes take inspiration from novels and plays, as with Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder and John Dankworth’s What the Dickens. Here are two new examples, coming from different angles and at different trajectories.

Jonathan Coe hoped for a career in music before becoming a celebrated novelist, playing keyboards in various bands before What a Carve-Up! established his career as a writer in 1994. The Rotters’ Club, a winner of the Wodehouse Prize in 2001, got its name from the title of an album by Hatfield and the North, giving a clue to his interest in the progressive rock and jazz-rock fusion music of the 1970s. He has collaborated with the High Lamas, Theo Travis and Louis Philippe, and now with Italy’s brilliant Artchipel Orchestra, whose previous projects have involved tackling the music of Soft Machine and Phil Miller.

Artchipel’s members arranged and performed several of Coe’s compositions at a festival in Milan in 2021, with the writer as a guest musician. A recording of the concert appeared recently as a CD included with an issue of Italy’s Musica Jazz magazine, and it turns out to be very enjoyable. The five pieces engage the senses in a twisty-turny Canterbury Scene kind of way, full of neat bits of melodic and rhythmic invention, adroitly fleshed out by the arrangers (including Ferdinando Faraò, Artchipel’s founder and leader).

Once or twice a tricky time signature gets in the way, but the music relaxes over the course of almost an hour, giving plenty of room for fine improvisations from the tenor saxophonist Germano Zenga on “I Would If I Could (But I Can’t)”, the flautist Carlo Nicita and the trombonist Alberto Bolettieri on “Erbalunga”, and the pianist Luca Pedeferri on “Spring in My Step”. Coe’s own solos, on electric piano on “Suspended Moment” and organ on a groovy closing passage in “Looking for Cicely”, are more than creditable. Two female singers, Naima Faraò and Francesca Sabatino, add a welcome extra texture.

Ten of the 11 pieces on Two Moons, a new album by the German pianist Sebastian Gahler, are inspired by the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami, whose work often alludes to jazz, as well as pop and classical music. The eleventh piece is “Norwegian Wood”, the song which gave its title to Murakami’s breakthrough novel in 1987 and turned the author into something of a pop star himself.

I share Gahler’s interest in Murakami (I interviewed him for the Guardian here in 2003) and I like very much what he’s done with the idea, which is to make an album that might have come out on Blue Note in the early 1960s, alongside the contemporaneous work of people like Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard. This is a timeless form of music, so even though no boundaries are being stretched, equally nothing sounds tired or dated.

Fans of the books will recognise titles like “Girl with Magical Ears”, “Aomame” and “Crow”, but there’s nothing explicit in the music itself to indicate the presence of Murakami in the minds of the composer and his fellow musicians: Denis Gäbel on tenor and soprano saxophones, Matthias Akeo Nowak on double bass, Ralf Gessler on drums and, on two tracks, the trumpeter Ryan Carniaux. Here’s the trailer: nice to see that two-inch tape rolling on a Studer machine.

* To get hold of the Artchipel/Coe CD, you’ll probably have to buy a copy of the November 2022 issue of Musica Jazz (musicajazz.it). But YouTube has extracts from the Milan concert here and here and from a subsequent concert in Turin last summer here. Sebastian Gahler’s Two Moons is on the JazzSick label.

Songs for his father

The drummer Sebastian Rochford is one of the ten children of the poet Gerard Rochford, who died in 2019, aged 87. In memory of his father, Seb sat down at his grandfather’s piano in his childhood home in Aberdeen and composed seven short piano pieces, adding an eighth written by his father, and then recorded them with his friend Kit Downes playing the piano and Seb himself occasionally adding a discreet commentary from the drum kit. The resulting album, titled A Short Diary, is the son’s remembrance of his father, a gathering of thoughts and feelings.

Unsurprisingly, the result can feel like a distillation of songs and perhaps hymns heard in childhood, filtered through retrospection and lamentation while quietly radiating a sense of joy and gratitude. The music is spare but not austere, simple yet profound, elegiac but never passive, drifting but not diffuse, melodic but not banal. Sometimes the sounds seem muffled, like the drums in a funeral parade, while clear in tone and articulation; at other times the overtones hang in the air, curling like smoke. ECM’s Manfred Eicher mixed the results, bringing the music — as Seb puts it — into focus, using his studio tools to make the piano sound like itself, allowing its natural resonance to sing out.

The eighth piece, “Even Now I Think of Her”, was initially recorded by Gerard Rochford on his phone and sent to his son, who gave it to Downes. It’s a thing of exquisite beauty, the lovely melody and its gentle harmonic underpinning held aloft by a gentle rustling of brushes and cymbals.

Seb is best known for his work with Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland, Sons of Kemet, Adele, Leafcutter John, Brian Eno, Ingrid Laubrock, Damon Albarn and many others. He is a virtuoso. The virtuosity on show here, however, is not of technique but of something deeper and more valuable: the ability to take the deepest, most personal feelings and turn them into wordless music in which everyone can share. This is music without rhetoric or ostentation, in which delicacy and strength find an ideal balance. A quiet masterpiece, I think.

* The photograph of Sebastian Rochford is by Rosie Reed Gold. A Short Diary is released on ECM on January 20.

2022: the best bits

This was a year in which an overriding professional commitment prevented me from getting to many gigs before the autumn or seeing more than a handful of movies and exhibitions. I attended no theatre or dance performances and read no new poetry or contemporary fiction, although I did listen to a lot of CDs. But one thing I won’t forget. In the summer there were those three unreal days when the temperature in London hovered just shy of 40 degrees. A week or so later I ventured into the park a few minutes from where I live. It looked like a savannah, but a first sprinkling of rain had brought birds of many kinds to peck beneath the straw-coloured grass for emerging invertebrates. As I walked through the flocks, I picked up a feather. It may have belonged to a gull. I thought then, and I think now, that in addition to being as beautiful as anything imaginable, it’s a reminder to maintain some perspective on the state of this man-made world.

NEW ALBUMS

1 Steve Lehman and Sélébéyone: Xaybu — The Unseen (Pi)

2 Samora Pinderhughes: Grief (Stretch Music)

3 Gabriels: Angels & Queens (Parlophone)

4 Tom Skinner: Voices of Bishara (Brownswood)

5 Son Little: Like Neptune (Anti-)

6 Liun + The Science Fiction Orchestra: Lily of the Nile (Heartcore)

7 Mavis Staples/Levon Helm: Carry Me Home (Anti-)

8 Immanuel Wilkins: The 7th Hand (Blue Note)

9. Weyes Blood: And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow (Sub Pop)

10 The Smile: A Light for Attracting Attention (XL)

11 Wolfert Brederode: Ruins and Remains (ECM)

12 Mary Halvorson: Amaryllis/Belladonna (Nonesuch)

13 Cécile McLorin Salvant: Ghost Song (nonesuch)

14 Geir Sundstøl: The Studio Intim Sessions Vol 1 (Hubro)

15 The Weather Station: How Is It That I Should Look at the Stars (Fat Possum)

16 Charles Lloyd: Chapel (Blue Note)

17 Olie Brice Trio/Octet: Fire Hills (West Hill)

18 Dai Fujikura/Jan Bang: The Bow Maker (Punkt Editions)

19 Binker Golding: Dream Like a Dogwood Wild Boy (Gearbox)

20 Moor Mother: Jazz Codes (Anti-)

21 Jasper Høiby’s Planet B: What It Means To Be Human (Edition)

22 Bonnie Raitt: Just Like That (Redwing)

23 Barre Phillips/György Kurtág Jr: Face à face (ECM)

24 Miguel Zenón: Música de las Américas (Miel Music)

25 The Henrys: Shrug (bandcamp)

26 Lisbeth Quartet: Release (Intakt)

27 Jon Balke: Hafla (ECM)

28 Sebastian Gahler: Two Moons (JazzSick)

29 Yasuhiro Kohno Trio +1: Song of Island (BBE)

30 Ingrid Laubrock/Andy Milne: Fragile (Intakt)

ARCHIVE / REISSUE

1 Cecil Taylor: Return Concert (Oblivion)

2 Dusty Springfield: Dusty Sings Soul (Ace)

3 Elton Dean Quartet: On Italian Roads (British Progressive Jazz)

4 Charles Mingus: The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s (Resonance)

5 Astor Piazzolla: The American Clavé Recordings (Nonesuch)

6 Mike Westbrook: London Bridge/Live in Zurich 1990 (Westbrook Jazz)

7 Lou Reed: Words & Music/May 1965 (Light in the Attic)

8 Centipede: Septober Energy (Esoteric)

9 Blue Notes for Mongezi (Ogun)

10 Clowns Exit Laughing: The Jimmy Webb Songbook (Ace)

LIVE PERFORMANCE

1 Bob Dylan (Motorpoint Arena, Nottingham, October)

2 Tom Skinner (Church of Sound, September)

3 Binker Golding (Purcell Room, November)

4 Roxy Music (O2, October)

5 AMM (Café Oto, July)

6 Van Der Graaf Generator (Palladium, February)

7 Westbrook Blake (St James’s Church, Piccadilly, November)

8 Mike Gibbs (Vortex, November)

9 Olie Brice (Café Oto, September)

10 John Cumming Memorial (Barbican, July)

FILMS

1 Both Sides of the Blade (Avec amour et acharnement) (dir. Claire Denis)

2 Living (dir. Oliver Hermanus)

3 In the Court of the Crimson King (dir. Toby Amies)

BOOKS

1 Philip Watson: Beautiful Dreamer: Bill Frisell, the Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music (Faber & Faber)

2 Richard Koloda: Holy Ghost: The Life and Death of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler (Jawbone)

3 Margaret Kennedy: Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry (Handheld Classics)

4 Jeremy Wilson: Beryl: In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete (Profile)

5 Robert Sellers: Marquee: The Story of the World’s Greatest Music Venue (Paradise Road)

6 Felix Hartlaub: Clouds over Paris (Pushkin Press)

7 Paul Hayward: England: The Biography 1872-2022 (Simon & Schuster)

8 David Belbin: Don’t Mention the Night (Five Leaves)

9 Patti Smith: A Book of Days (Bloomsbury)

10 Paul Gorman: Totally Wired: The Highs and Lows of the Music Press (Thames & Hudson)

In the court of Robert Fripp

The basement of the Palace Café in the Fulham Palace Road was where the first version of King Crimson got it together, as we used to say, and where Robert Fripp auditioned and rehearsed the subsequent editions of the band. One Sunday in late August 1970 Fripp invited me to meet him there. He knew that I’d been a drummer, but also that I hadn’t held a pair of sticks for several years. “Come and have a play,” he said. There was a kit set up in the basement, along with an array of amps and keyboards. And so for an hour or so we just played, improvising freely, Fripp on electric piano as well as guitar. We’d had a number of interesting conversations about music during the preceding months but I don’t remember any advance discussion about what we were going to do that day. We just played. At the end he took a reel of tape off the Revox, put it in a carton and handed it to me. I’ve still got it, although I’ve never listened to it. I really don’t want to know whether I’d get a pleasant surprise or, more probably, a dose of humiliating reality. We never spoke about it, and I never got behind a kit again. But Fripp is not a man who often does things without forethought, and all I can imagine is that he wanted to see how it felt to play freely without having to measure himself against someone who really knew what they were doing.

I thought about that day for the first time in years when the percussionist Jamie Muir turned up as one of the interviewees in Toby Amies’s In the Court of the Crimson King, a film portrait of the band, seen through its present incarnation and the views of some of its former members. Muir joined King Crimson a couple of years after my little session with Fripp, becoming the fifth member of the line-up that included David Cross on violin and keyboards, John Wetton on bass guitar and vocals, and Bill Bruford on drums. Muir was added as a kind of wild card. I’d seen him and interviewed him when he was in a band called Boris, in which he played a strange variety of percussion devices and did things like burst blood capsules in his mouth. Later he was with Derek Bailey and Evan Parker in the Music Improvisation Company. Highly skilled, and capable of playing perfectly conventionally, at this time he was a kind of performance artist whose presence in King Crimson was intended to shake his colleagues out of their strait-laced musicianly habits. He and Bruford got on surprisingly well; according to Muir, it was Fripp who, having invited him into the band, eventually tired of an approach that clearly failed to match his (Fripp’s) own love of order and preparation. He was invited him to leave after less than a year, having played on Lark’s Tongues in Aspic. He went off to a Buddhist monastery and is now a painter.

Originally intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the band in 1969, Amies’s film — first screened in cinemas and now available as a DVD — is on the one hand a kind of real-life Spinal Tap and on the other an acute portrayal of Fripp’s effect on the musicians with whom he has worked. Quite early on, Fripp tells Amies that he was “heartbroken” when the drummer Mike Giles and the saxophonist Ian McDonald became the first musicians to defect from the band, only months after their appearance on the bill of the Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park, the release of their debut album and a US tour had made them the sensation of the year.

“He’s always been good at recruiting people — he knows he can’t do it on his own,” Giles says, the implicit suggestion being that doing it on his own would be the preferred option, were it possible. But here’s what Fripp now recalls of the rupture in December 1969: “I offered to leave King Crimson if Ian and Mike would continue. It was more important to me that the band continued than that I continued with the band.”

Of the original gang, we also hear from McDonald, interviewed before his death earlier this year, and Pete Sinfield, their lyricist. Adrian Belew, a vital foil for Fripp in the various editions of the band between 1981 and 2013, is clearly puzzled over why they’re not still working together, and says of their partnership: “I don’t know where you’d ever get this again. Robert has a way of creating a situation in which music is going to occur that you couldn’t otherwise do.” Others are more ambivalent. Trey Gunn, a guitarist with King Crimson from 1994 to 2003, describes being in the band as “a little bit like having a low-grade infection — you’re not really sick, but you don’t feel well, either.” Jakko Jakszyk, the guitarist and singer who came into the line-up in 2010 after several years in a tribute band which featured almost all of the original line-up, sums up what many members must have felt: “You’re irreplaceable. Just like the next bloke.”

All this sounds very unsympathetic. But Bruford, with the perspective of a man who retired from playing in 2009 to study for a PhD, has a perceptive take: “Change is part of what the whole band is about. Change is essential. Otherwise you turn into the Moody Blues, for heaven’s sake.”

Fripp is given his say (and endorsed the final edit of the film), and the impression he leaves is of a complex, thoughtful and unyielding man who has found his own way through life, music, and the music business. Not mentioned here is his long struggle to obtain justice from those who formerly held the rights to the fruits of his labour, resulting in his freedom on recent years to release fastidiously compiled and remastered box sets of the band’s early output (a 26-disc summary of their complete recordings from 1969, for instance). But he does talk briefly about his discovery in the 1970s of the teachings of J. G. Bennett, a follower of Sufism and G. I. Gurdjieff, and his involvement in the Society for Continuous Education, which further Bennett’s work. The gleanings can be found in a hefty new book, The Guitar Circle, a 560-page hardback full of aphorisms and Zen riddles in which Fripp draws from almost four decades of work with his own League of Crafty Guitarists to produce a kind of operating manual for art and life, a typical aspect of which is perhaps best summed up in something he says during the film: “If you have an unpleasant nature and dislike people, that is no barrier to work.” His sense of humour — to which the term wry does not do justice — can be glimpsed here.

Throughout the film, the present band — three drummers, two guitarists, keyboards, returnee Mel Collins on saxophones and flute and long-standing bassist Tony Levin — is heard in concert and rehearsal often enough to give a clear idea of what they do nowadays with the familiar Crimson repertoire, revelling in negotiating its knotty contours and in their own exploitation of the available hardware and technology, to the delight of their legion of loyal fans. The extras in the box set of the film include footage of a rehearsal take of “Sailor’s Tale”, a song from the 1971 album Islands, containing a particularly brilliant version of the guitar solo in which Fripp breaks free of his familiar approach and produces a piece of music of staggering audacity and eternal value, a visionary moment and a justification in itself for King Crimson’s long and often tortuous existence.

* The film In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50 is available as a two-disc Blu-Ray/DVD set or as an eight-disc box set including six audio CDs: http://www.dgmlive.com. Robert Fripp’s The Guitar Circle is published by Panegyric/DGM: http://www.guitarcraft.com

For Jason Yarde

Xhosa Cole and Caroline Kraabel arrive at Café Oto

In the middle of the afternoon, an outsized multicoloured scarf walked through the door into the Vortex, playing an alto saxophone. It turned out, after he had unwrapped himself, to be Xhosa Cole, who carried on playing as he made his way to the stage. There he fitted seamlessly into a free improvisation being devised by the trumpeter Chris Batchelor, the tenorist Julian Siegel, the cellist Shirley Smart and the pianist Liam Noble as part of a three-venue benefit for the saxophonist Jason Yarde.

Yarde, who is one of Britain’s very greatest jazz musicians, collapsed on stage in south-west France in mid-October after suffering a massive stroke. The presence of a couple of medics in the audience may have saved his life, and the process of treatment for a bleed on his brain continued at a hospital in Toulouse. He is recovering at home now, but an appeal for funds to meet his costs has met a predictably warm response, leading to the three jazz clubs in Dalston — the Vortex, Café Oto and Servant Jazz Quarters — getting together to organise a highly unusual benefit.

Starting at two o’clock in the afternoon, several dozen musicians of diverse age, gender and ethnicity spent two and a half hours migrating between the three adjacent venues, joining up for collective improvisation in spontaneously self-selected ensembles. I began my listening at the Vortex, where a group featuring the altoist Caroline Kraabel, the tenorists Dave Bitelli and Harrison Smith, the guitarist Dave Okumu, the bassist Dominic Lash and the drummer Sebastian Rochford surged through free passages into a charging section of unruly swing that reminded me of Charles Mingus’s “Hog Callin’ Blues”. Later Cole joined a group with Loz Speyer (trumpet), Neil Charles (bass) and Rochford again on drums, whose interplay was agile and intuitive.

Arriving at Café Oto, I discovered I’d just missed a line-up featuring Evan Parker and Eddie Prévost. Instead I heard a set by a group including the singer Cleveland Watkiss, the baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts, the trumpeter Charlotte Keeffe and the violinist Benedict Taylor, in which the pianist Veryan Weston played a duet with the improvising tapdancer Petra Hasler. As I was leaving, a re-scarfwound Cole was marching towards the Oto’s entrance, accompanied by Kraabel, together creating al fresco counterpoint for two altos.

Next, over in the basement at Servant Jazz Quarters, I had said hello to the pianist Steve Beresford and heard a couple of minutes of a set featuring the tabla player Ansuman Biswas and several string players. But then, with a loud BANG, the lights went out and the music stopped dead. A water leak from adjacent building works had found its way into the club’s electrics. No injuries but plenty of confusion. End of music.

Back at the Vortex, the altoist Dee Byrne, the pianist Laura Cole, the guitarist Daniel Thompson and the drummer Mark Sanders, with Taylor on violin and Lash on bass, had just got started when Charlotte Keeffe and Cath Roberts arrived to join them, already playing as they made their way up the stairs. Soon they were joined by another violinist, Sylvia Hallett, and together they conjured something that soared at first noisily and then gently before floating to earth in the sort of inspired ending that is one of the joys of free improvisation.

It was the kind of a day when the music really does turn itself into a common property, its barriers dismantled and prejudices abandoned, available to all. A day that fully reflected the qualities of the inspired and inspiring musician to whose recovery it was dedicated.

* For those who didn’t know about Jason Yarde’s stroke, or who couldn’t make it to the benefit, and would like to make a donation, here’s the crowdfunding link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/jason-yardes-stroke-rehabilitation-journey?utm_campaign

What a little bookshop can do

There was an event called Quiet Revolutions at the Barbican Library last week, celebrating radical bookshops old and new, from Housmans of King’s Cross, Newham Books in East London, New Beacon Books of Finsbury Park and Gay’s the Word of Marchmont Street to Five Leaves of Nottingham. I wasn’t there, but it reminded me of the importance of such places, and in particular the pivotal role played in my own life by two such places, the ancestors of Five Leaves.

The Trent Book Shop was opened in 1964 by Stuart Mills and Martin Parnell, two young men who’d abandoned careers as schoolteachers. It was on Pavilion Road, a little street leading down from Trent Bridge to the main entrance to the Nottingham Forest football ground (which may have been how I first found it). From the beginning it was a local equivalent to Indica and Better Books in London: a place to buy alternative literature, particularly the products of small poetry presses. After a couple of years Mills and Parnell found new and larger premises in Drury Hill, a narrow street running down from the Lace Market near the city centre, which they opened under the name Bux. It was there that I spent many hours until moving to London in 1969, buying the early editions of International Times and the publications they’d imported from the US, including the Village Voice and its rival, the East Village Other. I still have some of the books and pamphlets I bought there, including LeRoi Jones’s Blues People, The Dead Lecturer, The System of Dante’s Hell, Home and Preface to a 20-Volume Suicide Note, Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries and Guerrilla Warfare, the screenplays of Godard’s Alphaville and Made in USA, and the English-language edition of Cahiers du Cinéma.

The things I’m happiest to have preserved are copies of the only two editions of a jazz magazine called Change, published in Detroit in 1965 and ’66 and founded and edited by the poet and activist John Sinclair and the trumpeter Charles Moore under the aegis of the Artists Workshop Press, a co-operative organisation. Change was printed on cheap paper in A4 format, $1 a copy. Archie Shepp was on the cover of the first issue, photographed by Leni Sinclair, John’s wife, and Andrew Hill on the second. There were letters from correspondents in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris and London. Tam Fiofori and Jim Burns sent pieces from the UK.

There were reviews of concerts (Shepp, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor at the Down Beat festival in Chicago, Mingus at UCLA, Ornette Coleman in Paris and San Francisco) and albums (Hill’s Point of Departure, the New York Art Quartet’s ESP LP, Albert Ayler’s Bells, Shepp’s Fire Music, Coltrane’s Ascension). Sometimes the writers abandoned conventional prose and turned their reviews into poetry, e.g. Clark Coolidge’s abstract impressions, five pages long, of Giuseppi Logan’s ESP debut. That’s also how Sinclair wrote his introduction to the second issue: “We are the products / of our emotions, of our / uncovered lives. Changes/2 / is reflection. Dig your selves / & let them out / into the light. The sun / will never set.” The dateline on the piece was the Detroit House of Corrections, following Sinclair’s arrest for marijuana possession. (In 1969, having played a part in the emergence of the White Panther Party — formed to support the Black Panthers — and the MC5, he would be sentenced to a 10-year term for trying to sell joints to two people who turned out to be undercover cops, thus attracting the support of Abbie Hoffmann and John Lennon, which led to his early release.)

Now, so many years later, these magazines have their own soundtrack, in the shape of an album titled John Sinclair Presents: Detroit Artists Workshop: Community, Jazz and Art in the Motor City 1965-81, containing music recorded at concerts during and in the years after the short life of Change. There’s a spoken introduction by Sinclair from a radio show, followed by two pieces from Donald Byrd in concert with the Paradise Theatre Orchestra in 1978: “Blackjack”, the title track of one of his Blue Note albums, and a lovely version of the immortal “Cristo Redentor”. Three tracks from the Coltrane-influenced Detroit Contemporary 4 in 1965-66 feature Moore’s trumpet and the piano of the young Stanley Cowell. The tenorist Bennie Maupin leads his quartet. Other tracks feature outstanding work from the guitarist Ron English and an uncredited altoist who may be Marion Brown. A 1979 benefit for the altoist “Sonny Red” Kyner yields an invigorating composition for a big band and choir led by Teddy Harris, a pianist who had played on Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite” in 1957 and served as the Supremes’s musical director from 1970-86. Lyman Woodard’s Hammond B3 solo with his own band on the funky Latin rhythm of “Déjà Vu” is all too short (Woodard was also Martha and the Vandellas’ MD).

Good luck with trying to find copies of Change/1 and /2. But the album is easy to acquire and well worth it, not just for the music but for the documentation included in the accompanying booklet, particularly the manifesto of the Artists Workshop, written in November 1964 and fully illustrative of the sense of struggle and optimism in the air. Explaining the need to charge members an initial $5 a month in subscription for upkeep of the premises, the principles are outlined:

(1) Each member of the Workshop is to assume an equal responsibility in the project’s success. (2) Members have to go into their already near-empty pockets, thus the project cannot be treated lightly. (3) We feel that any commercial means of support, at least (& especially) in the beginning, would tend to create an artificial community hung together on money. Rather than a genuine community built on mutual need and mutual interest. (4) No ‘outside’ pressures, hang-ups, interferences. (5) The Workship ideal can be maintained, i.e. there will be no pressure on artists to produce work that would result in commercial success, rather than integrity and aesthetic honesty, as its ultimate purpose. We do believe, however, that commercial ventures will come into being as logical and desirable outgrowths of the Workshop as it has been conceived and is now operating. For example, we can see in the future a coffeeshop where musicians would present their work; a gallery for painters and other graphic artists to exhibit their work; a small printing and/or publishing concern through which poets & writers could introduce their work; an operating film society that would enable local film-makers to produce and possibly market cinematic ideas.

Dreams, dreams. And in Detroit, at least, such a dream came true, for a while.

* The CD of John Sinclair Presents: Detroit Artists Workshop is on the Strut label.

William Blake in Piccadilly

Although any performance of the Westbrook Blake — as Mike Westbrook’s settings of William Blake’s words have been known for more than 40 years — is a powerful event, the emotional impact of last night’s concert by Mike and Kate Westbrook and their musicians at St James’s Church, Piccadilly was intensified by the knowledge that this Christopher Wren church, consecrated in 1684, was the place where the English poet, painter and visionary was baptised in 1757, soon after his birth in Soho.

Titled Visions and Voices: Echoes of William Blake, the evening began with Kate Westbrook delivering “London”, one of the most harrowing poems in the English language, before Phil Minton took over for “Let the Slave”, the next in the sequence of poems linked and illuminated by instrumental solos. Billy Thompson’s fiddle summoned angels and demons, Chris Biscoe’s alto saxophone spoke to the human capacity for joy, Mike Westbrook and a guest, Matthew Bourne, delivered absorbing piano solos, Steve Berry’s bass was lifted out of a solemn reverie by artful background figures, and most of all the accordion of the remarkable Karen Street transfixed the audience with a long unaccompanied improvisation that soared and dived and spun as if a flock of birds of many shapes and sizes but linked by an avian telepathy had found their way into the church. It was, I think, the most astonishing single piece of playing I’ve heard this year.

You might have seen the Westbrook Blake a few times over the years, and be familiar with the recordings, but its grip never slackens. In fact as the country collapses, hollowed out by a greed that Blake identified two centuries ago, it grows more strikingly relevant. As usual, Mike Westbrook recited passages as urgent and resonant in today’s seemingly very different circumstances as they were when first written:

Compel the poor to live upon a crust of bread, by soft mild arts.
Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
With labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough
Born, even too many, and our earth will be overrun
Without these arts.
..

A few years years after creating his Blake settings, Mike Westbrook composed an extended work for band and orchestra titled London Bridge Is Broken Down, commissioned by and first performed at a festival in Amiens in 1987. Inspired by travels around Europe and meditations on its history at a time when an old order was falling apart, it is divided into sections titled London Bridge, Wenceslas Square, Berlin Wall, Vienna and Picardie. A much admired studio version came out on Virgin the following year. Now there’s the release of the recording of a performance in Zürich in 1990, with Westbrook’s 11-piece unit and the 35-piece Docklands Sinfonietta. Even if you already have the original release, I recommend hearing this one, too, for the exceptional spirit with which the work is played and sung (by Kate Westbrook, using texts from Goethe, Siegfried Sassoon and others).

All Westbrook’s virtues and trademarks are allowed to flower in this 80-minute performance, which stands tall among his catalogue of extended works. The 23-minute sub-section of Vienna titled “Für Sie”, with solos by Alan Wakeman on soprano saxophone, Paul Nieman on trombone, Chris Biscoe on baritone and Pete Whyman on alto, is a slowly unfolding kaleidoscope of exquisite shapes, sounds, trajectories and textures.

* Mike Westbrook’s London Bridge: Live in Zürich 1990 is released on Westbrook Records (www.westbrookjazz.com)

‘The Philosophy of Modern Song’

The second photograph you see when you open Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song is one of the reasons I don’t entirely resent having paid the £35 the book costs. It shows a group of customers in a record shop, surrounded by boxes and displays of 78rpm discs. There’s no caption, but there’s a clue in a poster on the wall saying “Dolphin’s Hit Parade”, followed by a list of songs. So this is Dolphin’s of Hollywood, the record shop opened by the black entrepreneur John Dolphin in South Central Los Angeles in 1948. Its frontage was on Vernon Avenue, near the corner with Central Avenue – the main stem of black LA in that era, thanks to nearby night spots like the Club Alabam, the Turban Room, the Downbeat, Elks Hall and Jack’s Basket Room. Dolphin’s opening hours — 24 hours a day, including Sundays — were pioneering, as was a buy-one-get-one-free deal. The titles on the poster — deciphered with the aid of a magnifying glass — tell you that this is the spring of 1952, which is when “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” by the Lloyd Price Orchestra was released on the Specialty label, along with “One Mint Julep” by the Clovers (Atlantic), “Night Train” by the saxophonist Jimmy Forrest (United) and “My Heart’s Desire” by the vocal duo Jimmie Lee and Artis with Jay Franks and his Rockets of Rhythm (Modern)*.

John Dolphin had originally tried to open a business in Hollywood, but was denied the opportunity on the grounds of his colour. So, locating instead in the heart of the black community, he gave the shop a semi-ironic title, soon adding a record label of his own, called Recorded in Hollywood, whose output included early recordings by the Hollywood Flames and Jesse Belvin. His business, and others in the neighborhood, were so successful that they began to attract white customers, which in turn brought threats from white competitors to such a degree that in 1954 he organised a protest against their campaign of intimidation. In 1958 he was shot dead in his office by a disappointed singer named Percy Ivy, in the presence of two soon-to-be-famous white teenagers, Sandy Nelson and Bruce Johnston, who had been trying to get him interested in their music. In the photograph, John Dolphin is the man in the dark suit under the picture of Billy Eckstine.

None of this information is to be found in the book, in which Dylan discusses 66 other songs. You’ve probably already read about it (I recommend Dwight Garner in the New York Times or Craig Brown in Private Eye), so I’m not going to try and review it properly. It’s easy to describe. Most of his choices get two chunks of prose: first, an outpouring of feelings and images provoked by the recording in question, followed by a historical note, all illustrated by a selection of images that range from the relevant to the tangential or allusive. Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”, for instance, gets a description of the boss class (“You’re the famous Chieftain, the enormous tight fisted penny pincher who treats all the workers like errand boys”) followed by a short description of Reed’s music (“You put him with Jimmie Rodgers and Thelonious Monk, two other musicians whose work never sounds crowded no matter how many players are there” and “He plays the harmonica through a neck rack. And you can’t do much with a harmonica in a neck rack” — really? Bob should go back and listen to his own live recordings from 1965 and ’66. Or maybe he’s putting us on). There are pictures of Reed, of Brando in The Godfather, and Elvis Presley — unmentioned in the text — with Colonel Tom Parker, who is pretending to play an acoustic 12-string guitar and is presumably there to represent boss men in general.

The criteria by which Dylan chose the songs are never made clear. Many are from his childhood in the pre-rock era. Others seem to have been plucked at random. As many have already pointed out, in some bafflement, only a tiny handful are by women. But the specifics don’t seem to be important: they are there to give Dylan the chance to vent. Where people with synaesthesia experience music as colour, Dylan seems to experience a song as a set of feelings that may or may not be triggered by anything explicit in the song itself, arising instead from his own imagination, his memories, fears, fantasies. Or perhaps that’s quite wrong. Perhaps he’s just making it up, and why not? At any rate, while working your way through one laboured exegesis after another, you may find yourself thinking that he’d be better employed fashioning them into songs of his own.

Soon after I started reading The Philosophy of Modern Song, I found I wasn’t enjoying it very much. It isn’t anywhere near the standard of his brilliant sleeve note for World Gone Wrong in 1993 or the considered thoughts on music expressed in several interviews in recent years. It didn’t seem to be telling me anything original or important. As for a “philosophy of modern song”, the closest he gets to that is his claim that a song’s true value resides in the listener’s response to it, which I guess is the book’s raison d’être, or at least its excuse. So I thought I’d try it from another angle. On the basis of having loved his Theme Time Radio Hour programmes largely because of the sound of his voice, I spent another few quid on the audiobook, only to discover that most of the reading is done by famous actors, from Jeff Bridges to Sissy Spacek. Why would I want to hear that? When Dylan does appear, his voice sounds weirdly remote, losing all the warmth and intimacy of the radio series. And there are times, to be blunt, when he sounds like he’s reading someone else’s research. So I’ve given up on that, too, at least for now.

Whatever the contentious origins of its component parts, Chronicles Vol 1 was a proper book, the product of craft and concentration. Which The Philosophy of Modern Song definitely isn’t. It’s inessential, a coffee-table book to be given as a Christmas present. Clearly he didn’t fancy writing Chronicles Vol 2 — perhaps, who can tell, because he knows that’s what we want.

* Correction: In the original post, “My Heart’s Desire” was credited to the Wheels, whose recording was not released until 1956. The recording by Jimmie Lee and Artis was released on the LA-based Modern label in early 1952.

* Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song is published by Simon & Schuster. The audio version is available from audible.co.uk. The copyright in the photograph above is owned by the Michael Ochs Archive via Getty Images.

Michael Gibbs / Vortex

Tom Challenger soloing with the Trinity Laban Jazz Orchestra at the Vortex

Small space, big band. Can’t beat it. Five trumpets, four trombones, four reeds, five rhythm, making the air move within the confines of a proper jazz club. Even the smallest concert hall wouldn’t be the same. And sitting just behind me at the Vortex last night was Mike Gibbs, smiling and cheering as the Trinity Laban Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Josephine Davies, performed a selection of his compositions and arrangements in one of four sets arranged over two nights as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, in celebration of his recent 85th birthday.

The finest tribute to the great man was the spirit shown by the young musicians of the orchestra, buttressed by a few distinguished elders, including Julian Siegel and Tom Challenger on saxophones, Lewis Wright on vibes, Hans Koller on piano and Gene Calderazzo on drums. Challenger’s alto soared unstoppably on a heart-lifting “Almost Ev’ry Day”, Wright proved yet again on “Ramblin'” that he doesn’t know how to play an uninteresting phrase, Siegel took firm control of “Round Midnight”, and Calderazzo kept the music on its toes. But the newer faces also had points to make: Kobe Heath Ngugi’s bass matched the drummer’s power and agility, Talfan Jenkins delivered a poised alto solo on Gibbs’ fascinating arrangement of Eberhard Weber’s “Mauritius”, Alex Polack’s trumpet cut through on the closing sequence of “Round Midnight”, and the guitar comping of Joseph Leighton behind Koller and Wright on “Ramblin'” was stimulating enough to remind me of Ray Crawford’s contribution to Gil Evans’s “La Nevada”, than which there can be no higher praise. These are all student at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, and all names to watch.

Gibbs has worked with many musicians and orchestras in his long career — Kenny Wheeler, Gary Burton, Joni Mitchell, John McLaughlin, John Scofield and so on — but not much can have been more fun than this. At the end of the set, he was presented with a birthday cake while the band stood to play “Happy Birthday”. The fizzing candle was only one of the night’s fireworks.

* If you hurry, there are two more sets tonight: https://www.vortexjazz.co.uk/events/?s=Mike+Gibbs