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A voice to remember

Maybe you’ve heard the sad news that Linda Ronstadt will never sing again. She announced it a week or so ago, letting the world know that Parkinson’s disease has taken her voice. Today I read an interview with her, in the International Herald Tribune, in which she tells Sam Tanenhaus about her illness and the other problems that have dogged her life in recent years.

Things were pretty different when I interviewed her for the Melody Maker in January 1971. She’d had her first hit with the Stone Poneys’ great “Different Drum”, she was already making solo albums for Capitol Records (Hand Sown… Home Grown and Silk Purse), and she was starting to move in the right kind of circles. But she was still a few years away from the superstardom that arrived when Peter Asher took control for the run of hit albums that began with Heart Like a Wheel.

She was smart, funny, serious about serious things, and completely beguiling. She told me how she’d made the move from her home in Tucson, Arizona in 1965, when she was 18, after a friend called from Los Angeles, saying there was a band out there for her to sing with. “I jumped into a car with my boyfriend, who played steel guitar, and we drove straight there. I think the boy went straight back. I never saw him again.”

A free spirit, then and always, but she was fretful about one thing. “I’ve had trouble finding material,” she said. “I don’t write. I’ve never been able to write even a paragraph. And I can’t do songs that have been done well by the people who wrote them.”

That changed, with Asher’s help. She turned out to be a wonderful reinterpreter of the very finest material. I didn’t really follow her through the years in which she collaborated with Nelson Riddle on albums of standards and then delved back into her Mexican roots, but I loved the recordings she made with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. The YouTube clip above is of an exquisite song from their second album, Trio 2, called “High Sierra”. It features Linda. She composed it, too. So she could write a paragraph, after all.

Joe Locke’s respite music

Joe LockeJoe Locke says his new album, Lay Down My Heart, is intended “to provide respite for folks who work hard every day and need an opportunity to slow down and be reacquainted with that certain something which eludes most of us in the midst of the whirlwind which is modern life”. We can all do with some of that from time to time.

After Bobby Hutcherson, who performs less frequently nowadays, Locke has a plausible claim to being thought of as the leading contemporary exponent of the vibraphone. In a recent post I wrote of being impressed by his playing on Centennial, Ryan Truesdell’s album of rediscovered Gil Evans arrangements, and by his solo on “The Barbara Song” in particular, and I was sorry to miss him in London recently, when he performed with the orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music. This new recording provides a clear sight of the 54-year-old Californian’s maturity and inventiveness.

It’s a quartet album, and although you probably wouldn’t be able to pick the pianist Ryan Cohan, the bassist David Finch and the drummer Jaimeo Brown out in an identity parade, that doesn’t always matter: their playing here is perfectly attuned to the leader’s conception, and sometimes, even in jazz, you don’t need to be original to sound sparklingly fresh.

The programme starts with a measured version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” that sounds like the sort of intelligently soulful jazz that might result if you could get Milt Jackson guesting with the old Ramsey Lewis Trio. But it’s the ballads that are the core of the album, particularly a lovely treatment of “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, a definition of heartbreak from the repertoire of Bonnie Raitt; a reading of Bobby Troup’s “The Meaning of the Blues” that carries only the faintest echoes of the versions Gil Evans devised for Miles Davis’s trumpet (on Miles Ahead) and George Adams’s tenor saxophone (on There Comes a Time); and the slinkiest version of “Makin’ Whoopee” since Dr John and Rickie Lee Jones gave it a whirl a few years back.

I’m going to file this one next to Hutcherson’s Happenings, a 1967 album on Blue Note with a similar quartet format, featuring Herbie Hancock, Bob Cranshaw and Joe Chambers, ready for use on Sunday mornings and in times of stress. It’s not an album to challenge the listener (although a version of Frank Foster’s “Simone” has the darker, more convoluted intensity of some of Hutcherson’s other Blue Note quartet work — on Andrew Hill’s Judgment, say, or his own Oblique). On its own terms, however, it is perfectly satisfying. And, as promised, good for whatever ails you.

* The photograph of Joe Locke was taken by Joseph Boggess and comes from the sleeve of Lay Down My Heart, which is released on the Motema label. 

Ten Freedom Summers / 1

Wadada Leo SmithFifty years ago, a wholehearted embrace of American culture made even those of us 3,000 miles away feel we had a stake in the country’s destiny. So although we may have been neither American, nor black, nor even socially or economically disadvantaged, the March on Washington — which took place on August 28, 1963 — in some way felt as though it involved us, too, even if all we could do was cheer from the sidelines.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington DC this weekend to mark the anniversary. What I’ve been doing is reading my sometime colleague Gary Younge’s fine new book The Speech, which describes the process by which the Rev Martin Luther King came to write his “I Have a Dream” address, and listening to Ten Freedom Summers, a suite by the trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith. If you don’t already know the latter, this is a set of four CDs containing four and a half hours of music divided into 19 individual movements based on themes from the civil rights struggle, performed by Smith’s quartet/quintet and a nine-piece chamber ensemble. Recorded over a three-day period in November 2011 and released last year on the Cuneiform label, it was one of three finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize.

The titles of the individual pieces are sometimes suggestive — “Black Church”, “Democracy” — but usually more explicit in their references. “Dred Scott: 1857” is the first movement, referring to the Missouri slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in that year. “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott: 381 Days” is another. There are references in other titles to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till, to JFK and LBJ, to the Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and to Malik Al Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X.

Unlike some of the music that accompanied the civil rights struggle, from John Coltrane’s miniature masterpiece titled “Alabama” (a threnody for the four black schoolgirls killed in the Birmingham church bombing in September 1963, barely a fortnight after the March on Washington) to Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, there is nothing in Smith’s work here that explicitly evokes his subject, no overt gestures that would indicate a relationship to his chosen titles. This does nothing to diminish its extraordinary power.

Smith, who was born 71 years ago in Leland, Mississippi, first came to notice at the end of the ’60s, as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, along with Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams and others. His bands included the Creative Construction Company, with Braxton and the violinist Leroy Jenkins, and New Dalta Ahkri, whose personnel included  Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake and Anthony Davis. Along with other members of the AACM, he spent time in Paris in 1969 and became acquainted with the new generation of European free jazz musicians. His many recordings have appeared on the Kabell, Nessa, ECM, Leo and Tzadzik labels, as well as Cuneiform.

As a trumpeter, he had his own character from the beginning. If you wanted a shorthand description, I suppose you could say that he occupies the space between Don Cherry and Lester Bowie. But the originality and substance of his playing are more than enough to command the attention all the way through this mammoth undertaking, in which his is necessarily the dominant voice. I’ve always liked his tone, open or muted, and the crisp assertiveness of his phrasing, and the sense of poise he conveys.

The long-standing nature of his partnership with the pianist Anthony Davis, who appears here, is evident in the closeness of their dialogues. Like Smith, Davis is a quietly original musician who, in his own compositions as well as his playing here, demonstrates complete comfort with the idea of bringing together elements from African American and European musical practices. The basic group is completed by John Lindberg, an exceptional bassist, and two drummers, Susie Ibarra and Pheeroan Ak Laff, who alternate on some pieces and play together on others.

Sometimes Smith employs gestures immediately identifiable as drawn from jazz: “Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs Board of Education” finds Lindberg anchoring the piece with a slow-grooving funky bass figure, while the interplay between Davis and Ibarra on “The Little Rock Nine” is outstanding. Elsewhere the climate resembles that of classical chamber music: passages for flute, harp and strings in “Medgar Evers: A Love Voice of a Thousand Years’ Journey for Liberty and Justice” have a watercolour delicacy that reminds me of Toru Takemitsu. But more often it seems, to employ Duke Ellington’s phrase, beyond category. The chamber group — basically a string quartet plus harp, clarinet, flute, percussion and an extra violin — appears both by itself and with the quartet/quintet. So organic and unselfconscious is Smith’s writing that the frontier between the two groups disappears, as does the line between composition and improvisation.

The prevailing mood, not surprisingly, is soberly reflective. Even so many years after the events Smith is commemorating, there is much to reflect on. This is not a bruising experience;  the writing and playing are characterised by a sustained lyricism. Nevertheless few  will want to absorb all four and a half hours in at one sitting, and it may a take listener years to become as familiar with these individual pieces as with the much shorter jazz classics of earlier eras. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Smith’s work exists on its own terms, a marvellous tribute to its immense subject.

* The photograph of Wadada Leo Smith was taken by Steve Gunther and is from the booklet accompanying Ten Freedom Summers. Gary Younge’s The Speech is published by Guardian Books.

A poem by Roy Kelly

Roy Kelly’s work appears from time to time in the kind of magazines that still print poetry (there’s one of his in this week’s Spectator). He was born in 1949, and Peterloo Poets published a collection of his work under the title Drugstore Fiction in 1987. Having read my piece on Chet Baker, he sent me this. I wanted to publish it before the summer ends, and he was kind enough to give me permission.

THE COOL SCHOOL

The folded parasols stand guard and stand by,

sentinels of the pool and sunbeds, swathes

of white material fluttering, gathered, ready to spring

up and out, defending this tender skin which bathes

in water, and also in damaging rays that fly

through millions of miles to inflame and sting.

And in the pool a figure is moving through

the ruffled, bubbled surface, the illusory

blue depths, trying to improve a swimming action

while remembering a Chet Baker solo,

the shapely lovely logic of all he blew,

placed note by note, as if physical effort had no

part in his disciplined, pretty perfection,

and the needle life some other loser’s story.

Puffing and chugging the salty outdoor pool

the swimmer tries at least to get the breathing right,

economical, smooth, under the watchful white

umbrellas, and Mr Chet, lyrical, pure and cool.

Where the Stones were fourth on the bill

Odeon, NottinghamIf you look carefully at the top of the building in the photograph, you’ll see the faintest shadow of the long-gone neon sign that read ODEON. I took the picture on a raindy day a couple of winters ago, while passing through Nottingham, my old home town. How many of the hundreds of people walking along this pavement every day know that it was here, in this cinema on Angel Row, a hundred yards or so up from the Old Market Square, that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones played, in 1963 and ’64? And now it’s finally vanished. The demolition crew have done their job and the construction workers are in, filling the space with a building apparently intended to provide housing for students.

Buddy Holly played the Odeon in 1958: three shows on the night of March 8, during his only UK tour. I missed that one, being only 10 at the time (although I’d already saved up to buy the Crickets’ “That’ll Be the Day” on 78), but three years later I saw Cliff Richard and the Shadows, just after Brian Bennett took over from Tony Meehan on drums — a source of some regret, since Meehan was my first drumming hero. The screaming meant that not much could be heard. But at least Hank Marvin gave me my first sight of a Fender Stratocaster in action, and they were still doing the famous Shadows walk, much copied by we schoolboys in front of bedroom mirrors.

OK, I’ll own up: I missed the Beatles there — three times, on the first occasion with Roy Orbison — and the Stones. Absence of cash, I expect. I wouldn’t have been able to hear them above the hysteria anyway, although I’ve always kicked myself for not making it to the Stones’ show in October 1963, since it also featured the Everly Brothers, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, all of them above the Stones on the bill when the tour started. My friend Phil Long remembers Little Richard’s set: “One of the best I’ve ever seen. He jumped off the stage, ran all the way round the theatre, then got back on the stage and started taking his clothes off and throwing them to the audience… there was a riot.”

The most memorable concert I did manage to attend at the Odeon was on May 12, 1964, the fourth date of a 22-night package tour headlined by Chuck Berry, with support from Carl Perkins, the Animals, the Nashville Teens and King Size Taylor and the Dominos. It was great merely to see Chuck, who provided so many of us with the inspiration for our own bands, but he gave a pretty uninterested performance — as indeed he would do on every subsequent occasion I saw him. He was accompanied by King Size Taylor’s excellent band, and I seem to remember that about half the set consisted of throwaway instrumentals; has any great songwriter ever taken a less obvious pride in his achievements? But it was enough to hear those guitar intros ringing out, and to witness his perfunctory demonstration of the duck walk.

Carl Perkins was not exactly spectacular, either, in his very short set. And so, curiously, the musical highlights were provided by two English bands. The Animals, of course, were excellent. “Baby Let Me Take You Home”, copied from “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” on Bob Dylan’s first album, was nudging the Top 20, and their act still had the R&B edge honed in Newcastle’s Club A Go-Go. But they also played their epic four and a half minute version of another song from Dylan’s debut: “House of the Rising Sun”. It hadn’t yet been released, or heard on the radio, and its arrangement — featuring Hilton Valentine’s arpeggiated guitar, Alan Price’s wailing Vox Continental organ and Eric Burdon’s baleful vocal — was nothing short of stunning. Five weeks later it would enter the charts, on its way to No 1.

It was the same with the Nashville Teens, whose set included John D Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road”: another dramatic song, its structure and mood inspired by the compositions Willie Dixon provided for Muddy Waters and other blues stars. The group, from the Surrey stockbroker belt, did an enthusiastic job of impersonating the sound of the Chicago stockyards, and by July they were on their way to the UK Top 10. By August “The House of the Rising Sun” was on its way to No 1 in Billboard‘s Hot 100, while “Tobacco Road” topped out at No 14 in the US a month later. Heard for the first time in live performance, both made an immediate impression.

And now the Odeon has disappeared. I suppose it’s not exactly like losing the Cavern or the Marquee. But it would be nice, when they finished its replacement, if someone thought it worth putting up a plaque to remind passers-by of former glories. Buddy Holly, The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Everly Brothers. Little Richard. Bo Diddley. Chuck Berry. Not bad, eh?

A weekend with Booker T

Booker TIt was a warm evening, and the air conditioning had packed up. An hour before midnight last Friday, Ronnie Scott’s Club was like a sauna. “That’s when it started to feel authentic,” Booker T Jones would say later. “Just like the places I used to play.” But the air-con failure wasn’t the only good omen.

When there’s a Hammond organ in the house, the best place to be is as close as possible to one of its Leslie speakers — those pieces of wooden furniture, the size and shape of a small refrigerator, containing rotating horns which, at the flick of a switch, provide the instrument with its distinctive and heart-stirring whirr and churn.

It’s a lesson I learnt during my teenage years, when the clubs were small and the stages were low and you could get up close to the likes of Georgie Fame, Graham Bond and Zoot Money. So I was extremely pleased when the maitre d’ at Ronnie’s led me to a seat at the side of the stage, a few feet away from one of the two Leslies hooked up to Booker T’s B3. What would normally have been a rather indifferent vantage point suddenly seemed like the best spot in the house.

Booker T Jones is one of my all-time heroes. Like many, I remember the thrill of hearing “Green Onions” for the first time; its special magic has never faded. And its B-side, a sinuous slow blues titled “Behave Yourself” (originally intended as the A-side), hinted at other dimensions of musicianship. As the years passed I discovered that every note he recorded was worth hearing. All the original MGs’ Stax albums, from Green Onions in 1962 to Melting Pot in 1971, contained something wonderful — and I’m very fond of the two reunions that followed Al Jackson Jr’s tragic death, Universal Language (Asylum, 1977) and That’s the Way It Should Be (Columbia, 1994), with Willie Hall, Steve Jordan and James Gadson replacing the peerless Jackson at the drums. Booker went on to prove, with Bill Withers’ Just As I Am in 1971, Willie Nelson’s Stardust in 1978 and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s Deep River in 1992, that he is a producer of marvellous sensitivity. He remained a wonderfully sympathetic sideman, too: for the proof of that, just listen to “Sierra”, a gorgeous song from Boz Scaggs’s 1994 album, Some Change.

So he’s someone I always look forward to seeing, and on Friday — at the second of four nights (and eight shows) on Frith Street — he delivered a 75-minute set that ranged through his entire history, from that imperishable first hit (recorded when he was a 17-year-old high school student) and the MGs’ great “Hip Hug Her” through Stax/Volt favourites like “I’ve Been Lovin’ You Too Long”, “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Hold On, I’m Comin'” to pieces from his recent albums: “Hey Ya” from Potato Hole, “Walking Papers” and “Everything is Everything” from The Road From Memphis, and “Fun”, “Feel Good ” and “66 Impala” from the new one, Sound the Alarm. His three-piece band, recruited from the Bay Area, supplied plenty of energy and all the right licks. He sang a bit, in a range-limited voice, and played guitar on a few of the tunes. But when he let the Hammond and the Leslies rip on an encore of “Time is Tight”, the speaker horns spinning faster inside those plywood cabinets, I was somewhere close to heaven.

On Saturday afternoon he returned to the club for a question-and-answer session in front of an audience, showing himself to be a thoughtful and genial man. Sitting at the Hammond, he played snatches of “Green Onions” and “Ain’t No Sunshine”, and just a handful of bars from each was enough to send a thrill through his listeners. Among the things we were told was that Ray Charles’s “One Mint Julep” was the record which led him to conclude that the electric organ would shape his destiny. And there was an interesting answer to a question from my friend Martin Colyer (check his blog: http://www.fivethingsseenandheard.com), who wanted to know how he had come to play bass guitar on Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in 1973. As part of his explanation, Booker told us that he had first been recognised in the Memphis music community through playing bass in the house band at the Flamingo Room on Beale Street, and at that stage — despite his proficiency on keyboards, oboe, clarinet, baritone saxophone and trombone — it was as a bass player that he originally expected to make his career.

Four years ago, when the magnificent Potato Hole came out, I interviewed Booker for the Guardian (it’s here, accompanied by Eamonn McCabe’s fine photograph, taken the same day). Meeting your heroes for the first time is always a perilous business, but I came away from the encounter feeling I now admired the man as much as the musician.

Some bits of the interview didn’t make it into the paper, for reasons of space, so here, for the first time, are his remarks on a couple of topics. First, I asked him whether, as a teenage musician with an inquiring mind in the clubs of Memphis, he’d been familiar with the generation of gifted local modern jazz players that had included the saxophonists Frank Strozier and George Coleman, the trumpeter Booker Little and the pianist Harold Mabern. His answer was unexpectedly illuminating.

“I did,” he said. “They were two or three years ahead of me. Same town, same neighbourhood. I knew who they were. We went through the same doors. But I reached a day, one day, I don’t remember exactly when it was, that I had to ask myself, ‘Can I do this? Will I, in my lifetime, be able not only to play the music but live the lifestyle? Is that who I am?’ I realised, no, it’s not who I am. That’s who Jimmy Smith is, or John Coltrane. I don’t have the resolve, I don’t have the discipline. But even if I did, is that me? No, because I also like to play piano and guitar and trombone and I like to arrange and I also like country music and classical music — so I’m somebody else. I’m not that. And I stopped the pursuit at an early age.

“It broke up some friendships that I had, but I knew it was the right thing for me to do. A very close friend said to me, ‘What are you doing, man? How can you go over to Stax and play that stuff? Is it the money?’ If I’d been hanging out with a Sonny Stitt, that’s what he would have said to me. It was like a club, almost. I talked to Herbie Hancock about it, and to the bass player Stanley Clarke, and I know I couldn’t have done it. I’d have been able to get the technical chops, with practice, but I couldn’t have lived the lifestyle.”

So instead of another Memphis bebopper, we got a man capable of creating something like the arrangement of Willie Nelson’s “Georgia On My Mind”, its wonderful simplicity capped by a coda in which the rhythm and strings are joined by a horn section, vamping gently through the fade-out. He was delighted when I mentioned it as a special favourite.

“I’m so glad you said that,” he responded, “because it took so much time and money to put that on, but I could not get away from the inclination to do that. We went through the whole song with just the band and some strings, but at the very end I just needed to do that. It was expensive — a full complement of horns, and I don’t think we did any other songs at the session. It was an indulgence. At the time it wasn’t a big-selling record. It was a little bit of a struggle and I really appreciate that you like it.”

Even when he adds a horn section to the budget, however, the idea of excess is completely alien to Booker T’s temperament. He is a musician whose presence guarantees a measure of restraint and economy, the hallmarks of all those wonderful MGs records. “I don’t think it could have been any four guys,” he said of the band with whose name his own will be forever linked. “The one thing we had in common was a commitment to making the music simple and funky. It never got so complicated that it was inaccessible to most people. Not to say that complex music isn’t accessible or beautiful, but one way to access beauty is through simplicity.”

On the way out of Ronnie Scott’s on Friday night I bumped into Bryan Ferry, who was with three of his four sons and their girlfriends. He had taken them to listen to a musician he himself had first seen on the legendary Stax/Volt tour in 1967. Now that’s my idea of good parenting.

Keith Tippett with poetry and strings

Keith TippettLike many British improvisers of his generation, the pianist and composer Keith Tippett could be forgiven for adopting a mildly jaundiced view of the acceptance he is accorded in his own country, at least as measured in the frequency with which he is invited to play before an audience. But last night, as he opened a three-night residency at the Vortex in East London, there was no mistaking the warmth of the response for a well attended concert that satisfyingly expanded an appreciation of the artistic compass of a man whose past exploits have ranged from compelling solo recitals to those celebrated concerts back in 1971 with the mind-bogglingly variegated 50-piece band he called Centipede.

Last night’s gig began with Tippett accompanying his wife, Julie Tippetts, as she recited five of her poems — although “recited” is not quite the appropriate term, since Julie (nee Driscoll) frequently slipped from speech into improvised song. The bringing together of jazz and poetry is a notion with a history of few successes and many honourable failures; this attempt proved very effective, thanks to the engaging and unpretentious quality of Julie’s writing, the sheer musicality of her voice and the beautifully spare commentary from Keith’s piano. “We’ve never tried that before,” Keith said afterwards, “not even at home.”

The remainder of the evening featured the Elysian Quartet — Emma Smith and Jennymay Logan (violins), Vincent Sipprel (viola) and Laura Moody (cello) — by themselves in Tippett’s first string quartet, written for the group in 2008, and then with the composer in his piano quintet, commissioned by the Kreuzer Quartet almost 20 years ago. Astringent writing in the first and third movements of the quartet made room for thoughtful improvisation — imagine trying to get a string quartet to improvise when Tippett was starting out on his career, 40-odd years ago — counterbalanced by a brief second movement based on a lilting country-dance melody. The quintet was full of the dramatic contrasts that have always characterised his music, ranging from the pastoral through the romantic to the motorik, with a couple of floor-shaking passages in which the strings fought against the roiling bottom octave of the club’s Steinway.

Tonight’s instalment finds him leading a new trio (with the drummer Peter Fairclough and the bassist Tom McCredie) and giving the first performance of a suite for octet, The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon. On Saturday he and the Elysian Quartet will reconvene for an evening of spontaneous composition. If it continues the way it began last night, this short residency will be go down as a triumph for one of the great figures of contemporary British jazz.

Lee Konitz: the improviser at 85

Lee Konitz 1No musician interrogates a song more thoroughly than the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz: separating its components, wiping off the accumulated dirt and scraping away the rust, holding the bits up to the light, examining them from all angles, and then reassembling them in a more interesting form. He was doing it in 1947, when he made his first recordings with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, aged 20. He is still doing today, halfway through his ninth decade.

He’s featured on a new CD, Costumes Are Mandatory, released on the HighNote label and recorded in August 2012 with a quartet under the leadership of the pianist Ethan Iverson, noted for his work with the trio The Bad Plus. The bassist Larry Grenadier and the drummer Jorge Rossy complete the group. Together with two other albums released in the past couple of years, Live at Birdland (ECM), recorded in December 2009 with Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and Enfants Terribles (Half Note), made in June 2011 with Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock and Joey Baron, it provides a view of a great artist in his final years, his work subject to the changes imposed by time and the ageing process.

The late work of a long-lived great artist is always interesting and can provide a fascinating distillation of his or her career-long preoccupations. Sometimes the reduced powers are physical, sometimes they are mental. The painter Willem De Kooning was suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s disease when, in his eighties, he produced a series of strange, pale, almost luminous canvases that seemed like the ghosts of his former work. Fortunately, any reduction in Konitz’s powers is purely physical; the articulation might not be as swift, but the intellect is as sharp as ever.

No longer the fleet-footed musical athlete of his youth, when he and his fellow saxophonist Warne Marsh leapt with such alacrity over the high hurdles set for them by their mentor, the pianist Lennie Tristano, now Konitz deploys his reduced powers to different ends. The last of his strength is being spent on searching his material — almost always drawn from the standard American songbook — for new connections, new angles, new avenues of approach.

My best memory of Konitz is also one of my best memories of music, full stop. It comes from about 30 years ago, and a night at a short-lived jazz club called the Canteen on Great Queen Street in Covent Garden, occupying premises that had formerly been Blitz, the headquarters of the New Romantic movement, would later become a discotheque and now house a lap-dancing club. The Canteen, although ultimately unsuccessful in its attempt to rival Ronnie Scott’s, was for a while a very good place to hear such people as Esther Phillips, Chet Baker and Lee Konitz.

On the night in question Konitz was accompanied by an excellent British rhythm section: the pianist (and composer) Bob Cornford, the young bassist Paul Morgan and the experienced drummer Trevor Tompkins. What I remember most vividly is that one complete set was taken up by a treatment of “On Green Dolphin Street”, the Hollywood film theme composed by Bronislau Kaper in 1947 and rescued just under a decade later by Ahmad Jamal, who was responsible for its subsequent popularity among jazz musicians. Konitz started out by improvising unfamiliar and seemingly arbitrary phrases, inviting the other three musicians to go along with him as he gradually allowed these shreds of melody to take new forms, uncovered the connective tissue between them. This mesmerising process reached its apogee when, after much feinting and seeming disgression, Kaper’s theme gradually began to emerge and was stated for the first time as the piece ended. It was like watching a film of an explosion being run backwards in super slow motion.

Lee Konitz 3He does something similar, at a more compressed and less exalted level, on the version of “What’s New” included in Costumes Are Mandatory, allowing Iverson to lead the way, before entering with a phrase from the theme which is quickly deformed into a series of glancing allusions to the original tune, inventing their own sense as they go along. This is something that used to be called “thematic improvisation”, and it is almost a lost art. His distinctive tone — which once proposed an alternative to the all-pervasive influence of Charlie Parker — may be more fibrous and less robust than in his youth or his prime, and the comparison with Live at Birdland and Enfants Terribles indicates that time is having an inevitable effect, but it remains the perfect vehicle for his thoughts.

Konitz, of course, was a member of Miles Davis’s famous 1948 nonet, the Birth of the Cool band, and another personal memory of his playing comes from 1991, when he appeared at London’s South Bank with a band billed as Re-Birth of the Cool, an attempt by another original member, Gerry Mulligan, to recreate those celebrated sessions. Lew Soloff played Davis’s parts, and the other original present was Bill Barber, the tuba-player. For me, the outstanding impression was left by the way Konitz approached the project: he was the only one not interested in honouring the past by recreating it note-for-note but was intent on playing as though more than 40 years had passed and the world had moved on.

Working as a soloist for hire suits him because it presents him with a constant variety of challenges. That is how he has operated throughout his career, which has never been short of recorded documentation, from those early sides with Thornhill, Davis, Tristano and Stan Kenton through his own albums on Atlantic and Verve, his fascinating and fearless encounters with Martial Solal, Elvin Jones, Albert Mangelsdorff, Kenny Wheeler and countless others, to this most recent crop of albums. As a body of work, it offers not just a vast quantity of great music but a salutary lesson in the value of living in the present.

* The photograph of Konitz at the top is a detail from the cover of the 1955 Atlantic album Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh, taken by William Claxton. The lower photograph is a detail from the cover of Costumes Are Mandatory, taken by John Rogers. For those who want to know more, I thoroughly recommend Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art by Andy Hamilton, published by the University of Michigan Press in 2007.

“Thanks for the song, Mr Knight…”

Frederick KnightThose are the words spoken by Leonard Cohen over the final notes of one of the tracks on his 1992 album, The Future, and they came to mind when I read something Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s songwriting and singing partner for the past three and a half decades, said during the course of an interview in last Saturday’s FT magazine.

The interviewer, Philippe Sands, reminded Robinson that she had joined Cohen’s band in 1979 “as a classically trained pianist (having studied at the California Institute of the Arts) with a serious interest in R&B and soul, the likes of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding”.

Her response was interesting. “He likes to bring that flavour into some of his music,” she said.

It reminded me of a track from The Future, one that has always been among my  favourite Cohen recordings: a cover version of Frederick Knight’s “Be For Real”, a glorious, gospel-drenched deep soul ballad delivered with a very proper sense of how to treat such material: i.e. with the utmost respect.

Cohen doesn’t do many cover versions, and he knew that you don’t mess with a song like “Be For Real”. He used a great Los Angeles rhythm section — Greg Phillinganes on keys, Paul Jackson Jr on guitar, Freddie Washington on bass guitar, James Gadson on drums and Lennie Castro on percussion — and a warm but never overbearing arrangement for backing voices and strings by David Campbell. Everything about it, including the dead-slow tempo, serves the quality of the song.

It had been recorded once before, by Marlena Shaw in 1976 on a Blue Note album called Just a Matter of Time. Produced by Bert DeCoteaux and Tony Silvester, Shaw’s version is pretty good, although she twists the melody more than necessary in her efforts to be expressive. In 1996, unaccountably, it was absolutely murdered by the Afghan Whigs as part of the soundtrack to Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls, otherwise one of my favourite films. (It’s here, but I wouldn’t listen to it if I were you.) This is a song that is best left to sing itself, as I discovered when I heard Knight’s original demo a few years ago.

The composer’s version is hidden away on a four-CD compilation, not for sale to the general public, called East Memphis Music: The Hits, compiled and circulated inside the business in 1988 by the Stax publishing company’s then licensees, Irving Music and Rondor Music. Almost all of the 80 tracks are the well known versions of the songs from which the publishers were trying to extract additional life: Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y”, Otis’s “Dock of the Day”, Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming”, the Staple Singers “Respect Yourself”, and so on.  Frederick Knight’s “Be For Real” is the exception that, from my point of view, makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

You might remember Knight from his days as a Stax artist, a period which yielded his big hit with “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long” in 1972 and the not quite as successful “I Betcha Didn’t Know That” three years later. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944, and after Stax fell apart his only real claim to fame came when he wrote “Ring My Bell” for Anita Ward in 1979, at the height of the disco boom.

His version of “Be For Real” is clearly a demo, and that’s part of its charm. A piano that hasn’t been tuned lately, a Hammond B3 dialled into a deep church setting, a bass guitar, a drummer who seems to have left everything except his basic snare and kick drum combo at home, and falsetto backing vocals that could well be Knight himself overdubbed a handful of times, every voice and instrument performing — and recorded — with the maximum of restraint and no tricks: that’s all it takes to render the classic version of this glorious, timeless song.

I’m sorry I can’t give a link to it. As far as I know (and I hope someone will pop up to prove me wrong), it has never been commercially available. It’s not on either of the two Knight albums that go for exotic prices on Amazon. But there’s a copy of East Memphis Music: The Hits for sale here at http://www.discogs.com at what seems to me to be a reasonable price; if I were you, I wouldn’t hesitate, even if the package as a whole contains dozens of tracks you already possess. And if anyone reading this is in a position to put forward material for Aretha Franklin’s next album, then her version, appropriately produced, is the only one I can think of that might live on equal terms with the original.

A staircase on 86th St

CorsoRay Barretto’s “El Watusi” was one of my favourite 45s of 1963, a sudden blast of exoticism amid the green shoots of Mersey Beat and New Wave R&B (as the emergent soul music was briefly known). Hispanic voices harangued each other over a basic Latin piano vamp and strategic handclaps. Eventually the rest of the band joined in: riffing violins, jaunty flute, the scrape of a guiro, a rattle of timbales and, of course, Barretto’s congas. There was no song, no lead vocal. The record faded out with the music stripped back again to piano and handclaps and the verbal exchanges still in full spate. I hadn’t a clue what the voices were saying, but it didn’t matter. To a 16-year-old in England it represented a slice of Spanish Harlem street life, two and a half minutes of riveting authenticity.

It was released in the UK on the Columbia label, EMI having picked up the rights via a deal with Roulette, on whose Tico imprint it was issued in the US, and it became an enduring Mod favourite. Roulette was Morris Levy’s company, and Tico was run by George Goldner. Both men were notorious for their connections, but between them they were responsible for a fair proportion of the great pop music that came out of New York in the pre-Beatles era. Teddy Reig, who had produced Charlie Parker’s Savoy sessions for the equally notorious Herman Lubinsky and Count Basie for Roulette, got the producer’s credit for “El Watusi”, which was recorded in October 1962 in the ballroom of New York’s Riverside Plaza Hotel, a very ornate bulding on West 73rd Street which had originally been a Masonic club. Now the record has been very nicely reissued by the Malanga label on a CD coupling two LPs by Ray Barretto y su Orquesta: Charanga Moderna and La Moderna de Siempre, both recorded in the same year and at the same venue.

This gives me an excuse to write about the first time I saw Barretto in person, at a club called the Corso at 205 East 86th Street, off the corner of 3rd Avenue, half a dozen blocks below East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio. From 1970 to 1985, a period encompassing the start and the flowering of the salsa era, the Corso was perhaps New York’s principal rendezvous for lovers of Latin music, as the Palladium had been in the 1960s. Its owner, a restaurateur and club owner named Tony Raimone, had bought it in 1968 and was soon persuaded by Pete Bonet, one of Barretto’s singers (and one of the voices on “El Watusi”), to institute a musical policy appealing to the city’s Cuban and Puerto Rican expatriates.

It was a great success. By the time I got there in 1974 the club — up a steep flight of steps, above a restaurant — was featuring three bands nightly, five nights a week, and was packed with dancers from the Latin community, the sort of people who hadn’t needed to take lessons in order to dance to a clave rhythm.

I was in New York on assignment from Island Records’  Chris Blackwell, who had made a deal with Jerry Masucci of Fania Records, the hot new salsa label. Blackwell wanted me to scope out the possibilities for UK releases and tours. I was there for a week, and just about every night I ended up at the Corso, leaning against the long bar at the back of the dance floor and absorbing some wonderful music while marvelling at the fluency and inventiveness of the dancers, young and old. Among the bands I saw there were that of the young pianist Larry Harlow and two excellent charanga outfits, Tipica ’73 and Tipica Ideal. Among the clearest memories is that of one of the speciality acts who performed between the sets: a tall, lithe woman wearing a top-to-toe catsuit in black lace who performed sinuous dance routines in partnership with what I think was a  boa constrictor, at least 10ft long. I’m not sure you’d be able to find that sort of entertainment very easily now.

Good times at the Corso came to an end in the spring of 1985, the night the NYPD completed a sting and nabbed Tony Raimone, along with his son and his nephew. Over the preceding months an undercover agent had been buying heroin from them — about $5m of the stuff at street prices — in transactions made at another of Raimone’s establishments, further along 86th St. The final deal took place in the restaurant downstairs from the Corso.  The cops pounced, and that was that. The dancers had to find another home.

I kept the handbill above as a souvenir of a wonderful experience, one we came close to replicating in West London the following year when Hector Lavoe and his brilliant orchestra played a one-off gig at the old Nashville Rooms on North End Road, with the marvellous Professor Jose Torres on piano. It was a sensational night, and a few months later Ray Barretto himself arrived with Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco and the rest of the Fania All Stars to play at the Lyceum, a much bigger gig, with Steve Winwood as a special guest.

It would be another 10 years before salsa found its place in UK dance culture. But if you’re browsing a second-hand vinyl store and you see a copy of one of the compilations I put together for Island’s budget-price HELP label at that time, Salsa! and Salsa Live!, don’t hesitate: just snap it up.