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Roll over, Anton Webern

John O'GallagherThe name of John O’Gallagher was not a familiar one to me when I took his new CD, The Anton Webern Project, out of the packet and slid it into the player. O’Gallagher is a 48-year-old alto saxophonist who was born in California and raised in Washington State; he has spent the last 20 years in New York scene, playing with the likes of Maria Schneider, Tony Malaby and Richie Beirach while pursuing a parallel career as an educator (he has conducted workshops at institutions including the New England Conservatory and the Royal Academy of Music). His speciality appears to be the integration of jazz and serial composition, something I wrote about on this blog back in March while recommending a new recording based on Stockhausen’s Tierkreis by the pianist Brun0 Heinen.

Earlier this year O’Gallagher’s book Twelve Tone Improvisation was published in Germany, and it seems that The Anton Webern Project , released on the Whirlwind label, is a practical demonstration of his theories concerning improvisation on tone rows. If that makes it sound forbidding, it isn’t. I can personally testify that you don’t need an intimate familiarity with the Webern compositions on which these eight pieces are based, or even with dodecaphony in general, in order to enjoy a very stimulating experience.

O’Gallagher’s band consists of himself plus Matt Moran (vibes), Pete McCann (guitar), Russ Lossing (keyboards), Johannes Weidenmuller (bass), Tyshawn Sorey (drums) and Margaret Grebowicz (voice). I’m not sure I’d be able to pick the leader’s playing out of a crowd of contemporary altoists — the closest I can get to a description of his tone is to say that he sounds something like a cross between Ornette Coleman and Phil Woods — but his solos are full of substance and his sidemen are excellent, with Lossing’s imaginative contributions on Hammond organ and Fender-Rhodes electric piano and Sorey’s finely textured work being outstanding. As you might expect, given the source of its inspiration, the music is intense and highly detailed, but it never sounds overwritten or corsetted. Quite often the chamber-jazz mood is completely dispelled: on something like “Five Pieces”, for instance, the players are free to produce something that might have come from Dark Magus-period Miles Davis or even Tony Williams’ Lifetime. On parts of “The Secret Code”, the longest piece of the set, there’s an enormous amount going on, without any sense of overcrowding. The essential spontaneity of jazz pervades this music — which, given the degree of preparation involved, is quite an achievement.

* The photograph of John O’Gallagher is taken from the sleeve of The Anton Webern Project, for which Don Mount and Ben Lieberman took the images. 

* On its first publication, thanks to a bit of authorial brain-fade, this piece said that Tierkreis was composed by Schoenberg rather than Stockhausen. I’ve corrected it.

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The art of the songwriter

Bacharach 1The biggest mistake Burt Bacharach ever made was to place an international call to Hal David one day in 1972 and tell him he wanted a bigger share of the five per cent royalty due to the pair from their songs for the film Lost Horizon, a misbegotten musical remake of Frank Capra’s pre-war classic. Until that point the composers of “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” and so many others had split the proceeds of their work straight down the middle. But suddenly it occurred to Bacharach that here he was, working himself to the bone in the studio on the arduous task of recording the songs and the background score, while David, having done his job by furnishing the lyrics, was down in Mexico, playing tennis. In Bacharach’s view, a 3:2 split would more accurately reflect the relative amounts of effort involved.

David’s answer, quite understandably, was a brusque negative. From the lyricist’s standpoint, it was the suavely handsome and charismatic Bacharach who had already been attracting the lion’s share of the personal publicity accruing from their success; he was the one who appeared in concerts and on television and made his own albums devoted to instrumental albums of their songs. By contrast, David was a charisma-free zone, but the words he provided were certainly as important as the music in what had become known, to his quiet chagrin, as “Bacharach songs”. And that dispute marked, to all intents and purposes, the end of one of the greatest songwriting partnerships in the history of 20th century popular music.

Bacharach tells the story in Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music, an autobiography ghosted by Robert Greenfield and just published by Atlantic Books. He’s a classic unreliable narrator, a fact tacitly acknowledged by the inclusion of sometimes corrective first-person testimony from ex-wives, lovers and former collaborators, but he leaves us in no doubt that he rues his hot-headed decision to reply to David’s refusal with these words: “Fuck you and fuck the picture.” In the short term, it led to Dionne Warwick suing both of them for their failure to come up with the songs promised for her next album, her first for Warner Brothers; there were countersuits, and the three of them didn’t speak to each other, let alone work together, for 10 years. “It was stupid, foolish behaviour on my part and I take all the blame for it,” Bacharach says now. Later in the book he ruminates on how many great songs might have been lost to that sudden rupture.

Ah well, the years of full production were wonderful while they lasted. It would be impossible to  convey to a young person the shock and awe one felt on hearing Dionne’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” for the first time in 1963: it sounded like a completely new form of music, something that blended the grown-up sophistication of the great Broadway songwriters with the emotional directness and urgency of the combination of R&B and gospel that was at that moment giving birth to soul music. Bacharach recognises how fortunate he was to find Warwick, the perfect interpreter of their songs, but if there is one thing missing from the book, it is his considered analysis of why black voices were in general so much more effective that white ones on the songs he and David wrote. There were exceptions, of course (one thinks of Dusty Springfield’s versions of their early songs, particularly “The Look of Love”, Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love With You” or Gene Pitney’s “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart”), but Warwick, the Shirelles, Lou Johnson, Chuck Jackson and Jimmy Radcliffe added an uptown quality that gave the material a priceless extra dimension.

There’s interesting stuff in the book about Bacharach’s childhood and apprentice years, about his time spent as Marlene Dietrich’s musical director, and a great deal about his four wives — including the actress Angie Dickinson, the second, and the songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, the third — and his many lovers. It’s seldom less than interesting, and when it comes to the description of the life and tragic death of Nikki, his daughter with Dickinson, who was born and lived most of her 30 years with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, it is deeply upsetting.

The stuff about the music is less detailed. I’d have liked much more about the thinking behind, say, his preference for legit-toned rather than jazz-toned saxophones and his liking for twangy guitars, but there are still plenty of nuggets about such topics as his fondness for using a pair of flugelhorns (e.g. on Dionne’s “Walk On By”, which also has a pair of pianos, played by Paul Griffin and Artie Butler), a few enlightening bits and bobs about the sessions in New York and London, and some insights into the variety of approaches he and David employed in order to dovetail their contributions. There doesn’t seem to have been a strict music-first or words-first formula; the constant, we are led to believe, was Bacharach’s insistence on finding the right note and harmonic colouration for each word. It’s a shame they got sidetracked by the lure of Broadway musicals and the movies, a temptation which eventually did for them. The business of crafting their jewel-like individual songs should have been enough, as Bacharach now seems to recognise.

I’m pleased that he devotes a couple of pages to the album he made with Ronald Isley in 2003 for the DreamWorks label. Here I Am, which borrows its title and its lovely title song from my favourite Dionne Warwick LP, is a magnificent recital of mostly familiar material, with quite startlingly exquisite versions of “Alfie” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart” in particular, all recorded live in the studio — vocals and orchestra at the same time, with only the tiniest bits of vocal patching required. Listen to “Alfie”: you won’t hear better singing anywhere, and it was a first take. Unfortunately, as Bacharach relates, the album came out just as DreamWorks was being bought by Universal and got lost in the shuffle. It’s a half-buried classic.

Probably even fewer people heard Bacharach’s last solo album, At This Time, released in 2005. Most of the lyrics were written by Tonio K, and some by Bacharach himself. Interestingly, they express his anger at the crimes of George W. Bush’s neo-con gang. It’s a reminder that he and David also produced a couple of the Sixties’ gentlest protest songs: “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and “The Windows of the World”. What a pity circumstances conspired to silence their collaboration.

Just about to start a short tour of the UK, Bacharach is promoting the book and a new six-CD box called The Art of the Songwriter, whose compilers have made some pretty strange choices, such as the complete absence of anything by Lou Johnson, who came close to becoming the male equivalent of Dionne Warwick, and whose early work with Bacharach and David is compiled on a fine Ace disc titled Incomparable Soul Vocalist. Bacharach is appearing in concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Wednesday, Glasgow on Friday, Edinburgh on Saturday, Bournemouth on July 5 and the Festival Hall again on July 7, which is when I hope to hear him.

In the meantime, here’s my all-time Bacharach top 10: 1 Chuck Jackson: “Any Day Now” 2 Dionne Warwick: “(Here I Go Again) Looking With My Eyes (Seeing With My Heart)” 3 Ronald Isley: “Alfie” 4 Burt Bacharach Orchestra: “Wives and Lovers” 5 Fifth Dimension: “One Less Bell to Answer” 6 Dionne Warwick: “If I Ever Make You Cry” 7 Lou Johnson: “Kentucky Bluebird (Message to Martha)” 8 Herb Alpert: “This Guy’s in Love With You” 9 Dusty Springfield: “The Look of Love” 10 Jimmy Radcliffe: “Long After Tonight is All Over”.

Farewell to Psi

Gerd DudekThe guests of honour at Evan Parker’s gig at the Vortex in East London last night were Martin and Mandy Davidson, creators and custodians of the Emanem label, founded in 1974 as a vehicle for music by the free improvisers who could loosely be called the Little Theatre Club school: Derek Bailey, John Stevens, Paul Rutherford and so on, plus such non-British soulmates as Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton and Bobby Bradford. The Davidsons are shortly to leave London for Spain, and although the activities of Emanem will continue from their new headquarters, their departure marks the end of another valuable project: Psi Records, the label founded by Evan Parker in 2001, and run with Martin’s assistance.

Back in the early Seventies it was Parker who, with Bailey and Tony Oxley, formed Incus Records, one of the first musician-owned labels in the free jazz field. Incus released some historic albums before internal disagreements put an end to its story, and Psi was Evan’s next step. Over the past dozen years the label has produced about 80 CDs, many of them featuring Parker but others under the leadership of the likes of Kenny Wheeler, Han Bennink, Alex von Schlippenbach, Ray Warleigh, Agusti Fernandez, Aki Takase and so on. Now Psi’s founder has decided that it’s time to pause and think again.

Like many of the best jazz labels, from Blue Note and Riverside to ECM and Rune Grammofon, Psi developed its own identity, visual and tactile as well as musical. Parker’s concern for the visual side has been apparent in the unified (rather than uniform) design, in which clean typography is married to the fine photographs of Caroline Forbes and, on several recent releases, the very beautiful abstract paintings of Rina Donnersmarck. One such painting can be found on the cover of what turns out to be the very last Psi release, Day and Night by the German tenor saxophonist Gerd Dudek.

I mentioned Dudek in my last post, apropos of the Gordon Jenkins song “Good-Bye”, and it’s good to have another excuse to talk about a veteran who has never received the proper degree of recognition. He graduated from the Kurt Edelhagen band in the mid-Sixties, joining Manfred Schoof’s quintet and then becoming a member of Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra, in whose ranks he encountered Parker. Although Dudek never took his playing as far “out” as some of his tenor-playing contemporaries in Europe, such as Peter Brotzmann, Willem Breuker or indeed Parker, he remained a wonderfully creative improviser in the post-Coltrane idiom.

He was 73 when Day and Night was recorded in January last year, in the company of Hans Koller (piano), Oli Hayhurst (bass) and Gene Calderazzo (drums), but his playing has the vigour — physical and intellectual — that you might associate with a musician half his age, although I think his exceptionally handsome tone has softened slightly over the years. It’s never a bad sign when an album starts with one of Herbie Nichols’s deliciously idiosyncratic tunes, in this case “Step Tempest”, and the repertoire is indeed well chosen: Ornette Coleman’s “Congeniality”, Wayne Shorter’s “Blues a la Carte”, Mingus’s “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”, Coltrane’s “Blues to You”, two tunes by Kenny Wheeler, and Koller’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s chorale “Der Tag mit seinem Lichte” (on which Dudek switches to soprano). The quartet had played at the Vortex the night before going into the studio, and the session has a lovely combination of freshness, relaxation, and intense concentration.

Psi is/was a label largely devoted to genres in whose titles the word “free” appears, and by its normal standards this is a relatively conservative album. No instrumental vocabularies are extended here. But when you listen to Hayhurst and Calderazzo playing with the time behind Dudek on “Congeniality”, you know that this is as “free” as music gets.

* The photograph above was taken by Caroline Forbes and appears on the inner jacket of Day and Night. Left to right: Gene Calderazzo, Oli Hayhurst, Gerd Dudek, Hans Koller.

The long “Good-Bye”

Good-ByeAccording to Martha Tilton, a featured singer with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the late 1930s, Gordon Jenkins wrote “Good-Bye” — which became Goodman’s sign-off theme — after the death of his first wife in childbirth. No wonder Alec Wilder, in his magisterial survey American Popular Song, called it “as sad a song as I know”. It is also, Wilder noted, a thing of remarkable beauty. So beautiful, in fact, that I’ve taken to collecting versions of it, and there are many, since it is a song that appeals strongly to jazz musicians of a certain sensibility, not least for providing the illusion of being through-composed, rather than repeating its individual sections in the AABA manner of conventional standards.

Goodman recorded it for the Victor label in 1935; the label describes it as a Fox Trot, in this case a distinctly gentle and smoochy one (and here it is). Since there is no vocal refrain, nothing except its minor key alerts the listener to the heartbreak inherent in Jenkins’ composition. It’s just the thing for a nice slowish dance to finish a romantic evening at the Glen Island Casino or the Balboa Ballroom, the sort of places that incubated the Swing Era.

But I first heard it, as with many other great American popular songs, in a version recorded by Frank Sinatra, in this case on an LP called Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, recorded in Hollywood in 1958. Arranged by Nelson Riddle, the album is the singer’s torch-song masterpiece, and “Good-Bye” is its most exalted moment. Riddle slows the song down almost to a standstill, applying his most sensitive orchestral touch, employing juxtapositions and combinations of cor anglais, cello, bassoon, various kinds of clarinet, tightly muted trumpets, French horns and muted strings as well as great sweeping ensemble flourishes to inspire his singer. Sinatra responds with a performance of concentrated sobriety that puts to perfect use the lessons in bel canto phrasing that he learnt from listening to the trombone playing of Tommy Dorsey and the violin of Jascha Heifetz. All those underwater lengths he swam in order to master his breath-control find their reward here. And, of course, we get the lyric, an essay in elegant despair, fully comprehended by the arranger: as Sinatra sings “So you take the high road, and I’ll take the low / It’s time that we parted, it’s much better so” for the second time, Riddle’s bassoons parp out a jaunty little even eighth-note pattern that underlines the sense of physical parting, the tone of the chosen instrument somehow leaving us in no doubt that the jauntiness is assumed and false. The melody carrying those particular lines, by the way, is as  finely shaped as any I can think of, especially in terms of the relationship of each individual note to its chord — the sort of thing that seldom bothers the little heads of today’s songwriters.

So much, as far as I’m concerned, for vocal versions of “Good-Bye” (I use the hyphen and the second capital letter because that’s how it appeared on the label of Goodman’s original recording, although it’s mostly now rendered as “Goodbye”). After Sinatra, whose version is a certainty for my desert-island selection, I have no interest in listening to those by Ella Fitzergerald or Diane Krall, the latter recorded a couple of years ago with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. What Sinatra and Riddle did was definitive. Which nevertheless leaves the way open for instrumental treatments.

It’s a song whose modulations clearly appeal to pianists. Among the most interesting versions known to me are those by McCoy Tyner (on Reaching Fourth, his 1962 trio album with Henry Grimes and Roy Haynes), Paul Bley (with Jay Anderson and Adam Nussbaum on If We May, 1994), Keith Jarrett (on his duo album with Haden, Jasmine, recorded in 2007), Bobo Stenson (from the 2005 album Goodbye, with Anders Jormin and Paul Motian), and Bill Carrothers (on the Dave King Trio’s I’ll Be Ringing You, recorded last year, which I wrote about on this blog a couple of months ago). Tyner’s is in some ways the most unusual — he brings to his reading what the English pianist Alex Hawkins, in an email to me the other day, described as “beautifully luminous post-Tatum harmony”. Bley starts off at an even slower pace than Riddle and Sinatra, then takes the risk of doubling the tempo and introducing familiar blues phrases into his variations, and brings it off. Jarrett is Jarrett, in an intimate conversation with an old friend. Stenson is the pick of the bunch, for my money: wonderfully eloquent, lucid and absolutely cliche-free, highly attentive to the song’s ambiance as well as its structure. Carrothers and his partners come up with the most intriguing group-improvisation approach.

The brilliant French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen loved the song so much that he recorded it at almost every opportunity. I have three of his versions: with a quintet on La Note Bleue (1987), in a duo with the pianist Alain Jean-Marie on Dream Time (1991) and on Double Action in another quintet with the guitarist Jimmy Gourlay (1999). They’re all good but the first has a special luminosity.

Another saxophonist who got something out of Jenkins’ tune was Cannonball Adderley, who recorded it in 1961 on an album called Know What I Mean? with Bill Evans, two years after they had been members of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue sextet. Not the most obvious of partners, they manage to find the common ground between the altoist’s ebullience and the pianist’s cerebrality. Actually, Evans is the more ebullient of the two here, laying strings of single-note lines at double and triple tempo over the imperturbable MJQ rhythm team of Percy Heath and Connie Kay. The closing chorus is especially lovely.

The interpretations that would have shocked Jenkins most profoundly are probably the two recorded by Jimmy Giuffre’s trio in 1961, the first on the LP Thesis and the second at a concert in Bremen, at a time when the clarinettist was making his own highly original investigation of free and free-ish improvisation in close partnership with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow. The application of their evolving principles to a standard ballad makes for a stimulating experience on both occasions, with Swallow on particularly fine form on the double bass, making one regret for the umpteenth time his decision to abandon the acoustic instrument. Quite probably Giuffre, being a clarinet-player, had first heard the tune in Goodman’s version. He and Bley returned to it in 1975, on an album called Quiet Song, this time with the guitarist Bill Connors rounding out the trio and Bley making slightly strange noises on an electronic keyboard.

Following more directly in Goodman’s footsteps, there have also been further versions by larger ensembles. Chet Baker recorded it successfully in 1953 as part of a septet session arranged by Jack Montrose: the alto, tenor and baritone saxes of Herb Geller, Montrose himself and Bob Gordon provide an attractive chorale behind Baker, who enunciates the melody with evident respect before producing a pleasant and completely appropriate solo (the track is currently to be found on the CD titled Grey December). Maynard Ferguson, a trumpeter at the other end of the scale in terms of technique and taste, recorded Don Sebesky’s arrangement on his album Maynard ’61, at which time the Canadian-born bandleader was approaching the height of his fame. If it’s not particularly subtle, then it’s by no means grotesque, thanks not least to a gorgeous tenor solo from the always underrated Joe Farrell. Much better is the version recorded on an album called Live in Japan ’96 by Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, arranged by Willem Breuker and with a stirring solo by another often overlooked tenorist, Gerd Dudek.

To finish with, a recording suffused with as much sadness as Martha Tilton’s account of the song’s origin: the one made by the great Chicago tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, the son of the celebrated boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons, in March 1974. This was the final tune recorded on the last day of sessions held over three consecutive days for Prestige Records in New York, meaning it was the last piece of music the big-toned tenorist ever recorded (shortly afterwards his cancer was diagnosed and he died four months later, aged 49). Although he had no way of knowing it, this really was his goodbye, and he fills the track’s four and a half minutes with a brusque tenderness that brings another shade of emotion to a song which tends to draw the best out of those who approach it in the proper spirit.

Darkness on the edge of London

BruceBruce Springsteen took everyone by surprise with the announcement, about an hour into last night’s Wembley concert, that he and the E Street Band were going to stop answering requests and instead play Darkness on the Edge of Town, his great LP from 1978, in its entirety, from start to finish. This, after all, was a stop on the Wrecking Ball tour, promoting his latest album; it’s two and a half years since the documentary recounting the making of Darkness was released, with a great deal of attendant publicity. But what a fabulous decision it turned out to be.

The group of musicians on stage,  nowadays numbering about 17, was stripped back to something closer to the original E Street line-up as they set off into “Badlands”, hardly drawing a breath until the last chord of the title song died away three-quarters of an hour later. They gave the 10 songs a performance of unbroken seriousness and intensity, with several emotional peaks. For me, those came with a brutal “Adam Raised a Cain”, the shiver-inducing slalom through “Candy’s Room”, the finest reading of “Racing in the Streets” I’ve ever heard him give, and a majestic conclusion with “Darkness” itself.

For most artists, those 45 minutes would be enough to justify taking the audience’s money. Springsteen, however, gave us another two and a half hours of fun, games, and tears. I wished Curtis Mayfield had been alive to hear “People Get Ready” appended to the set-opening “Land of Hope and Dreams” as a coda and benediction; he would have been proud and delighted to hear his great anthem put to such fine use. The communal singing of the first verse of “Hungry Heart” and various bits of “Dancing in the Dark” reminded me for the umpteenth time that Springsteen is happy to give everyone in the audience a chance to share the experience of being the lead singer with the E Street Band. “Twist and Shout” came in a cowbell-paced version that would have pleased Bert Berns, the song’s co-writer and the master of bringing Latin accents to uptown pop-R&B, and might have come off a 1966 Bang Records 45. And to finish off, after the band had left the stage for the last time, their leader returned, alone with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica harness, to do that other trick of his: bestowing upon you the illusion that he’s chosen one of the night’s song just for you, personally. On this occasion it was a lovely unadorned version of “Thunder Road”, the first song he played on his London debut — his first concert outside the United States, in fact — back in 1975.

I have couple of criticisms. While the idea of replacing the sadly departed Clarence Clemons with a five-piece horn section is a good one (and Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, does a lively job of filling the hole left by his uncle’s sound and personality), there are now too many musicians on stage: the sound is often too full, too massive, with Max Weinberg’s technically flawless big-band drumming filling too many holes, and the ensemble loses the precious sense of mobility and flexibility that was its hallmark (and which was immaculately reconstituted on the Darkness songs). On this night, too, from my pretty good seat, the sound was affected by a strong echo reflecting back from the stadium’s upper tiers, by a frequent indefinable booming sound in the lower frequencies, and by an occasional lack of muscle in the midriff.

That’s small stuff, however, when compared with the pleasures of an evening spent in the company of a man whose humanity and generosity of spirit continue to make his every concert a unique experience.

Notes on Modernism

Ben Sherman 2The archetypal Mod was male, sixteen years old, rode a scooter, swallowed pep pills by the hundred, was obsessed by cool and dug it. He was also one hundred per cent hung up on himself, on his clothes, hair and image; he thought of women as a completely inferior race. In every way, he was a miserable narcissistic little runt.

Richard Weight uses those words by Nik Cohn, from a 1989 essay, as an epigraph to the final chapter of his book Mod: A Very British Style, just published by Bodley Head. There could hardly be a more authoritative source: Cohn was in London when it all happened, he became a close friend of Pete Townshend, and his books Awopbopaloobam Alopbamboom and I Am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo were arguably the first really credible works of literature to come from the pen of an author whose background was in writing about post-war pop music, long before Nick Tosches, Peter Guralnick, Stanley Booth or Greil Marcus could be found between hard covers. I’ve always loved his stuff. But in this case I disagree with almost every word.

Mod has passed into socio-cultural history as a set of codes, mostly to do with appearance and attitude: the scooters, the purple hearts, the mohair suits, the parkas, the roundel T-shirt, the blocked stare, the fights with rockers in Margate and Brighton. That was one dimension of the Mod world, for sure, and you’ll find it immortalised and exploited in any of the thirty-odd Ben Sherman stores currently doing business around the world, not to mention in the persons of such celebrated revivalists as Paul Weller and Brad Wiggins. But in reality that wasn’t more than a part of the story; it just happened to be the part that appealed to the media and won space for itself in the magazines, the tabloid newspapers and the TV news.

If I tried to tell you that from my perspective, living through it and feeling strongly as though I were a part of it, Mod had nothing to do with scooters or misogyny, and not much to do with pills, you probably wouldn’t want to believe me. You might be like the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, who tells his companion: “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And I might respond by telling you about a conversation I had a few years ago with a man who figured in a book I’d written. Rather foolishly, I asked him if he’d read it. “No, Richard,” he said. “I haven’t. I don’t need to. I was there.”

Mod was certainly Sabre knitwear, boots from Raoul, hard-edged graphic design, trying to imitate Alain Delon’s haircut and perfecting the right kind of nonchalant dance, based on little more than the almost imperceptible oscillation of the right knee. But it was also L’Etranger and Kind of Blue. There was more to Mod than a class-based movement: it was much subtler and more various. And it was not, from where I was standing, remotely misogynistic; quite the opposite, since girls shared the obsessions on an equal footing.

Richard Weight’s book examines the era in question but also goes much further. It is an investigation into the various movements that dominated British youth style over the last 60 years, taking in glam, punk, new romanticism and Britpop as well as the Mod revival. To Weight, the attitudes that gave rise to Mod provide the connective tissue, and this is a work of social anthropology as much as a history of style. It may be merely a reflection of my limited outlook that I’d have preferred an authorial focus more clearly based on the promise of the book’s title, in other words concentrating on a period that began for me in 1962 — the first Chelsea boots — and ended in 1967, when the ominous tinkle of Tibetan prayer bells was heard in the land.

Since this blog is supposed to be about music, and since music was the most potent of all the factors that united the people who thought of themselves as Mods, here’s a list of 20 club records that, while not necessarily being my absolute favourites, summon the mood and the spirit of the era as I remember it. They are in no order.

1 Bobby Parker: “Watch Your Step” 2 John Lee Hooker: “Boom Boom” 3 Earl Van Dyke: “All For You” 4 Rex Garvin and the Mighty Cravers: “Sock It to ‘Em, J.B.” 5 Billy Preston: “Billy’s Bag” 6 The Drifters: “At the Club” 7 The Hit Pack: “Never Say No to Your Baby” 8 Solomon Burke: “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” 9 Jimmy Hughes: “Goodbye My Love” 10 Jr Walker and the All Stars: “Road Runner” 11 The Astors: “Candy” 12 Jackie Ross: “Selfish One” 13 Marvin Gaye: “Take This Heart of Mine” 14 Jimmy McGriff: “The Last Minute” 15 James Brown: “Night Train” 16 Martha & the Vandellas: “In My Lonely Room” 17 Roy Head: “Treat Her Right” 18 Soul Sisters: “I Can’t Stand It” 19 Stevie Wonder: “Love A Go-Go” 20 Doris Troy: “Whatcha Gonna Do About It”.

* The Ben Sherman shirt pictured above, vintage 1966, belongs to the author.

Reading music: jazz + prose

IMG_0922doneI’ve always had a soft spot for jazz and poetry: Jack Kerouac with Zoot Sims, Kenneth Patchen with the Chamber Jazz Sextet, Langston Hughes with Charles Mingus, Christopher Logue with Tony Kinsey, LeRoi Jones with the New York Art Quartet. It must be the beatnik in me, or the hopeless optimist, because not much of it has outlived its time. But here’s something new: jazz and prose. Or, to be more precise, jazz both with and without prose, at the same time. The Moss Project’s What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?, just released on the Babel label, consists of five pieces of music written by the London-based guitarist Moss Freed and a sixth by his colleague Ruth Goller, recorded by his group, and then given to half a dozen writers to produce short stories or poems inspired by what they’ve heard. A handsome hardback book contains the CD and the printed words (which can also be heard, read by the authors, on a download from the artist’s website).

The writers who responded to Freed’s invitation are Naomi Alderman, Colum McCann, James Miller, Lawrence Norfolk,  Joe Dunthorne and Hanan al-Shaykh. The musicians, apart from Freed, are the members of his quartet (pictured above) — Ruth Goller on bass guitar and double bass, the drummer Marek Dorcik and the singer and violinist Alice Zawadzki — plus a guest, the near-ubiquitous Shabaka Hutchings, on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. The six pieces are bookended by an brief instrumental prelude and a song for voices and instruments with words and music by Freed.

On a purely musical level, the CD gets better as it goes along: after a somewhat self-conscious beginning with “The Bubble”, the first full-length piece, and the gentle pastorale of “Anniversary”, to which Goller’s double bass makes an outstanding contribution, the blood starts flowing and the playing seems to loosen up. (This may have nothing to do with reality, in the sense of bearing a relationship to the order in which the pieces were recorded, but it happens to be this listener’s experience.) The fourth and sixth pieces, the intricate title track and an adventurous slow invention called “The Angel”, on which Freed explores various instrumental effects, are the picks for me. These are carefully constructed compositions that sound entirely contemporary while generally avoiding the tricksiness — usually expressed as a perversely wilful angularity — that can afflict the current generation of young, conservatory-trained jazz musicians (Freed studied at Edinburgh and Berklee). The blend of the leader’s guitar and Zawadzki’s violin is an extremely happy one, subtly enhanced by the addition of bass clarinet on “Caravans”, while Goller and Dorcik keep the music’s sinews taut (their handling of irregular metres on “What Do You See…” is as calm and frictionless as their switching between time to no-time in “Postscript: Lose Ourselves”).

And the written words? Freed suggests they can be read at the same time as the music is playing, or before, or after, or just listened to in the writers’ recitations (find them at http://www.mossfreed.com). I can’t honestly say that reading them greatly affected my response to the music, but I enjoyed McCann’s meditation on a woman’s visit to an old church (“Anniversary”), which really does fit with its music, and Norfolk’s miniature account of two characters on a slightly tense road trip (“Caravans”). A worthwhile experiment, attractively presented.

* The photograph above is by Barbara Bartz. Left to right: Ruth Goller, Marek Dorcik, Moss Freed and Alice Zawadzki.

Down the Manne-Hole

Shelly ManneWhat I carried away in my head from the only time I saw Shelly Manne in person, at Ronnie Scott’s in the summer of 1970, was the sound of his ride cymbal. It was as close to perfection as you could get, the ideal balance of the dry ping produced by the stick’s tip and a discreet spread of sound that carried the momentum from one stroke to the next. It’s hard to find a cymbal like that, and I remember it as the best of its kind I’ve ever heard.

Very likely it was the same cymbal that he had been playing just under 10 years earlier on an album called Shelly Manne and His Men Play ‘Checkmate’, which I picked up second-hand the other day. I’d never heard it before, although the quintet with which he recorded it has gradually become one of my favourite small modern jazz groups of the era, quite the equal of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers or the Horace Silver Quintet, who set the standard for post-bop combos.

In 1959, when the group included the trumpeter Joe Gordon, the tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca, the pianist Victor Feldman and the bassist Monty Budwig, they were recorded over three nights at the Blackhawk club in San Francisco, leading to a series of five albums on the Contemporary label, Manne’s home for 20 years. Now out of copyright in Europe, they’re all available on a four-CD box released by the American Jazz Classics label, and they stand up very well to a direct comparison with the two LPs recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet at the same venue a year and a half later.

Manne’s group visited Europe in 1960, with Russ Freeman replacing Feldman (there’s a recording of their concert at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, called West Coast Jazz In England, on the Solar label), and by the time they made another live recording at a West Coast venue, this time at Shelly’s own Los Angeles club, the Manne-Hole, in March 1961, the line-up had undergone further changes. Gordon and Budwig were replaced by Conte Candoli and Chuck Berghofer, with absolutely no diminution of quality. In October of that year the reshaped group went into Contemporary’s little studio on Melrose Place in West Hollywood to record several themes written for a TV detective series by Johnny Williams, a pianist and composer who later became famous (and, presumably, very rich) from his soundtracks to Jaws, Star Wars and Harry Potter.

I have no idea whether or not the series was any good. Set in a San Francisco private detective agency, it ran for two years and 70 episodes, and its guest stars included Charles Laughton, Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin, Cyd Charisse and the torch singer Julie London. As far as I know, it was never shown in the UK. But Williams composed a series of carefully shaped pieces that provided Manne’s Men with the perfect material on which to exercise their brand of thoughtful, swinging, beautifully turned post-bop.

For me, the star — apart from Manne’s ride cymbal, of course — is Kamuca, who rose to a mild form of prominence in the 1950s as one of a large group of white tenorists heavily under the spell of Lester Young (others included Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Warne Marsh). He began his career with the big bands of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, and if you listen to the quartet and octet sides he recorded for the Mode and Hi-Fi Jazz labels in 1956 and ’57 (available on a Fresh Sounds CD called Tenor Ahead), pretty much all you hear is a diligent but unexceptional Young disciple. During his time with Manne’s group, however, he showed himself to have matured into an improviser of exceptional character and poise.

Every note he plays on the Checkmate set is worth hearing. The obvious comparison is with Hank Mobley, a sideman in the Davis group at the Blackhawk, once described as “the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone”. Showing a similar tone and fluency, but with fewer bluesy inflections in his playing than Mobley, Kamuca reveals himself to be a credible contender for the title. But the tenor-player he makes me think of, more surprisingly, is Wayne Shorter: his approach is more conventional, but there’s something similar about his gorgeous, lightly grained tone and the way he flights his unpredictably shaped but invariably graceful phrases with an airy quality perfectly suited to the sumptuous, clean-lined drive provided by Manne and Berghofer. To compound the pleasure, the quality of the recording made by Howard Holzer, one of Contemporary’s house engineers, has a warmth and a transparency to beat even the great Rudy Van Gelder at his own game, even though the studio also doubled as the label’s packing and mailing room.

Having made his name in California, Kamuca moved to New York for a while in the 1960s and then returned to Los Angeles, where he worked in the studios. He made a handful of albums for the Concord label but his star never burnt as brightly as it had done with Manne, and he died of cancer in 1977, aged 46. The beauty of jazz is that it allows a player of quiet originality to make a lasting mark, and Kamuca, once he had found his own voice, became just such a figure. If you like this kind of modern jazz, then these records by Shelly Manne’s Men, and Checkmate in particular, are as good as it gets.

* The painting of Shelly Manne is from the cover of Checkmate, signed illegibly and uncredited on the CD version reissued in 2002 as part of Fantasy’s Original Jazz Classics series. According to Geoff Winston (see Comments), the credits on the original Contemporary LP jacket reveal the artist to have been one George Deel.

Disco: the weight of the groove

So disco’s back, apparently by courtesy of Daft Punk, although that may have been last week and it could be all over by now. But I have to say I’ve never felt I needed the permission of the fashion police to listen to the extended mix of Evelyn “Champagne” King’s “Shame” any time I wanted over the past 30-odd years. (You don’t know it? Go there now! And join me in a prayer to be reincarnated as one of those guitarists!)

While looking for something or other to do with disco on the internet yesterday I came across an old thread containing contributions from Bobby Eli, the great session guitarist who was a member of MFSB — the Philadelphia International house band — and played on records by the O’Jays, Billy Paul, the Spinners, the Stylistics and countless others.

Here’s what Eli (posting as phillysoulman) had to say a couple of years ago in defence of disco: “People had some understandable issues with disco. But it wasn’t all the same. A lot of it was R&B with a four-on-the-floor. Songs like that put a LOT of musicians to work, and also paid for a LOT of studio time.”

Someone else on the thread chose to inform him that the soul and disco records coming out of Philly at the time tended to be characterised, in harmonic terms, by the use of the “phrygian dominant scale”. Eli’s response deserves to be preserved for posterity (and this is how he laid it out, like blank verse):

We never discussed scales.

We just played what we felt.

It’s all about the groove.

We were not technical cats.

We just vibed together and instinctively knew each other’s next move.

Scales are for weighing shit, but our grooves had their own weight.

Something in the Air

Apres MaiIt wasn’t really a surprise that so many British film critics greeted Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air with such a grudging response on its release last month (among the honourable exceptions, inevitably, was the Observer‘s Philip French). The film’s French title, Apres mai, is a reference to the disturbances of May 1968, and on this side of the Channel there is always a tendency to sneer at the youthful idealism that lay behind les evenements. Some form of cultural and/or generational jealousy at work there, I imagine.

Please take it from me that this is no two-star film, as some seemed to think. It may not be a five-star classic, either, but the director succeeds completely in achieving his aim of portraying the uncertainties of a group of young French people who were leaving school and starting a college education two or three years after the historic events in question, hoping to emulate their predecessors but discovering that the world had changed — and not in the way that such soixante-huitards as Daniel Cohn-Bendit or Jean-Jacques Lebel might have hoped.

As far as this blog is concerned, however, the point is that Assayas makes the soundtrack an integral part of his film, and he gets that right, too. For his party and bedsitter scenes (see the still above) he uses the kind of music that would have been heard at UFO or the Round House in that era: the early Soft Machine, Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, Dr Strangely Strange, Amazing Blondel, Captain Beefheart (“Abba Zabba” from Safe as Milk) and Tangerine Dream. There is a very amusing scene in which the young protagonist flicks through his album collection: Blind Faith, Electric Ladyland etc. The Soft Machine’s “Why Are We Sleeping” makes a particularly powerful contribution to the evolving drama, and Kevin Ayers’ “Decadence” forms a resonant coda. (The song from which the film’s English title is borrowed, Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”, doesn’t feature.)

I’m afraid, however, that in terms of sheer enduring quality one piece of music blows the rest of the soundtrack into the weeds, and it comes from almost a decade earlier: the freshness, clarity and authority of Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions” make this simple riff-based 12-bar-blues sound as though it was recorded last week rather than in 1962. If you were being cynical, or perhaps a British movie critic, you might argue that the post-psychedelic “progressive” music of the late Sixties and early Seventies mirrored the fumbling evanescence of the political ideas and movements to which it supplied the accompaniment. But I’m not the one to trample on all that idealism, social or musical. See the film, anyway; thanks to those discouraging reviews, it probably won’t be around much longer.