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Old apple, new garden

The Serpent TailThe only time I visited Wilton’s Music Hall, in the old streets just north of Tower Bridge, was on New Year’s Eve in 1998, to hear the actress Fiona Shaw recite The Waste Land, an experience rendered all the more unforgettable by taking place close to several of the locations mentioned in Eliot’s poem (“The river sweats / Oil and tar / The barges drift / With the turning tide…”).  I wish I were able to return there tomorrow night, to see Kate and Mike Westbrook perform their new song cycle.

The Serpent Hit is its title, and also that of Kate Westbrook’s painting (above), the illustration on the cover of the CD, just released on the their own label. The piece deals with a big theme: mankind’s continuing fall from a state of grace, through the careless disregard of warning voices.

Five of the six individual pieces making up The Serpent Hit are written for Kate’s voice, a saxophone quartet (Andy Tweed, Chris Biscoe, Karen Street and Chris Caldwell) and a drummer (Simon Pearson); the sixth is an instrumental interlude. The music is Mike’s, and reminds us of his very personal gift for voicing: there are passages that echo his very earliest recordings, Celebration and Release, which were made with his big band in the late ’60s and still sound startlingly fresh. He writes beautifully for the saxophones, and in turn the soloists — notably Biscoe on alto and Caldwell on baritone — rise to the occasion, driven by the tireless Pearson. The effect of the ensemble is somewhere between the Ellington reed section and a Southern European marching band, but dominated by that pungent Westbrook flavour.

No less striking are Kate’s lyrics, spoken and sung in a theatrical style that has its roots in Lotte Lenya’s work with Brecht and Weill. It is an approach built for music of protest, and those three would have appreciated this harsh and bitter tirade against those who would rob the world of its innocence, its fruit and its future.

So, perhaps, would Eliot. And I can imagine Wilton’s — said to be the world’s oldest surviving music hall, with origins as an alehouse going back to the early 18th century — providing the perfect ambiance.

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Making the wiseguys dance

Peppermint TwistWas Ringo Starr genuinely lucky not to get whacked by a Mafia hitman named Romeo “Scarface” Martin when the Beatles visited the Miami branch of the Peppermint Lounge in 1964? That’s what John Johnson Jr and Joel Selvin, the authors of Peppermint Twist, would like you to believe.  Their new book, which tells the story behind the club where the Twist first became a sensation, comes complete with a colourful endorsement from Ronnie Spector, who danced there before she became a Ronette: “The Sopranos meets American Bandstand!”

That’s not an entirely misleading summary. In the end Romeo Martin, despite being infuriated by his girlfriend’s crush on Ringo, didn’t try to whack the mop-topped drummer. But plenty of others meet an unpleasant end in the course of the story, not least Johnny Biello, a caporegime with the Genovese crime family. Biello was the undeclared owner of the Peppermint Lounges in New York and Miami and the father-in-law of Dick Cami, who managed the two clubs during their heyday, before they were sold in the mid-60s. It is Cami (born Camillucci) whose testimony provides the authors with the bulk of their material. He, of course, never whacked anyone, although he considered it once or twice.

A couple of years ago I had some fun marking the 50th anniversary of the Twist’s rise to prominence by writing this feature for the Guardian‘s Weekend magazine. I can remember back in 1962 going to see the exploitation film Hey, Let’s Twist, which featured Joey Dee and the Starliters performing the hit that made the 45th Street club famous — or, rather, even more famous, since it had already acquired gossip-column notoriety for attracting an A-list clientele including Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Greta Garbo and Norman Mailer to a joint that could accommodate fewer than 200 people and had formerly doubled as a leather bar and Mob meeting place. The book’s authors add as much detail as they can unearth to a rather slender story, fleshing it out with a lot of true-crime material gleaned from Cami.

Interesting musical figures flit in and out, including Hank Ballard, the first man to record “The Twist”; Chubby Checker, who had the hits; the great guitarist Lonnie Mack, who backed the singer Troy Seals at the Miami club; Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, unsuccessfully trying to replace the fading Twist with a Ska craze in 1964; and Nat King Cole — who, according to the authors, spent a week sitting in on keyboards with the Peppermint Lounge house band in Florida in order to learn how to play rock and roll.  But they are seriously outnumbered by the wiseguys.

* Peppermint Twist is published in the US by Thomas Dunne Books/St Martin’s Press. The title of this piece is adapted from Making the Wiseguys Weep, David Evanier’s excellent biography of the New Jersey-born singer Jimmy Roselli (1925-2011), a perennial favourite with mobsters. The copy of “Peppermint Twist Pts 1 and 2” is from the author’s collection.

In Flanders fields the jazzmen blow

Stan Tracey 2

In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row, / That mark our place; and in the sky / The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below…

Those lines, the opening of the much loved poem written in 1915 by John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and physician who had fought in the Second Battle of Ypres, came to mind while I was listening to The Flying Pig, Stan Tracey’s new album. Those who know about such things will recognise Tracey’s chosen title as an allusion to a particular type of gun used by British forces during the Great War. Indeed the titles of all the six original compositions on the CD, played by the pianist’s current quintet, make such references, either to wartime weapons or places or soldiers’ sayings. The inspiration is the experience of Stan’s father, who served in the East Kent Regiment and, still only 18, was wounded on a Flanders battlefield in the year McCrae wrote the poem (he survived capture and imprisonment by the enemy and died in 1957, aged 60).

For those uncertain about the most suitable way to acknowledge next year’s centenary of the start of the war to end all wars, and perhaps ambivalent about the British government’s apparent determination to turn the event into a great patriotic celebration, here’s a solution: buy a poppy, by all means, but also spend some time listening to The Flying Pig.

There is nothing programmatic, overtly descriptive or propagandist about the music. This is not a jazz version of Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War, but simply a very fine contemporary version of the sort of post-bop jazz associated with the Jazz Messengers and the Horace Silver Quintet in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There are no pretensions, no extraneous flourishes: just music of real substance, played by Tracey with his son Clark on drums, Andy Cleyndert on bass, Mark Armstrong on trumpet and flugelhorn and Simon Allen on saxophones.

Given that the two Traceys and Cleyndert have formed a regular trio for several years, it’s not unexpected to find that the rhythm section runs on well lubricated ball-bearings. The surprise for me is Armstrong, whose solos evoke the best work of the young Freddie Hubbard, characterised by a gloriously burnished tone and a relaxed intensity but without Hubbard’s occasional tendency to get hung up on repeated phrases. He and Allen (whose alto saxophone solos are particularly enjoyable) combine to create the kind of lean front-line blend that is ideal for this material.

One of the pieces is called “Ballad for Loos”: a reference to the particular battlefield in northern France where Stan’s father was wounded. That’s the location of the photograph above, which shows Stan (centre) and Clark (right) with Ben Tracey, Stan’s grandson. (A couple of years ago Ben contributed the narration to an album of Stan’s inspired by and titled after Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.)

In an interview with Alyn Shipton in the latest issue of Jazzwise, Stan says that nowadays he prefers working with the trio or his quartet; those line-ups, he says, offer him more space to play. But no sense of restraint or restriction afflicts The Flying Pig, which is released on the pianist’s own Resteamed label and surely deserves a place among the most satisfying products of a recording career that is now in its seventh decade. At 86, Stan is three years older than Ahmad Jamal, whose longevity is held to be a thing of wonder; just listen to the long piano solos on the title track or “Silent Percy”, as full of character, wisdom and sharply focused energy as ever.

Oh, what a sound (September 1963)

September 1963For me, music changed exactly 50 years ago this month. It was in September 1963 that, as a 16-year-old schooolboy, I first heard all the 45s you can see in the photograph above. They are, clockwise from top left: “You’re No Good” by Betty Everett,”The Monkey Time” by Major Lance, “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas, “Anyone Who Had a Heart” by Dionne Warwick, “Can I Get a Witness” by Marvin Gaye,”It’s All Right” by the Impressions, “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” by Mary Wells, and “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis.

When you’re 16, everything seems important. But these records really were. All of them were brand new; together they rearranged the possibilities inherent in a fusion of R&B, gospel and pop. Beamed in from Detroit, Chicago and New York, they announced the birth of soul music.

“Heat Wave” was the first, and it remains the closest to my heart. I can remember the feeling of being transfixed as those guitar and piano chords and that driving snare-drum came out of the radio. But each of them was a lesson of its own.

As you can see, I preserved the original copies, each in its proper seven-inch bag. They’re the ones I bought back then — with a single exception. One summer night in 1967, during a party at my parents’ house on the day my sister got married, someone stole my complete run of Martha and the Vandellas’ Stateside 45s, half a dozen of them, from “Heat Wave” to “Wild One”. Nothing else; just those. A thief with impeccable taste, obviously.

Jackie Lomax: more than a footnote

Jackie LomaxJackie Lomax died on Monday, while visiting England from Southern California for the wedding of one of his daughters. He was 69, and my obituary for the Guardian is here. I suppose he’ll go down as a footnote in Beatle history, having made a handful of singles and an album for Apple; it’s a pity none of the solo records he made during a long career ever captured the public’s imagination.

I met him a few times at the end of the ’60s and the start of the ’70s, when the Apple relationship had just finished and he was involved with a band called Heavy Jelly, who had their origin in a hippie hoax.

It was in the autumn of 1968 that John Leaver, one of Tony Elliott’s early colleagues on the fledgling Time Out, published a favourable review of a wholly fictitious group, with the notion of seeing whether the freaks among the readership could be induced to flock to the record shops just on the basis of a magazine piece. He called the group Heavy Jelly — “originally an eight-piece soul band, now operating as an acid-rock quartet” — and accompanied his words with a specially taken Keith Morris photograph of the guitarist John Morsehead, formerly of the Pirates and Shotgun Express and then of Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation, accompanied by three anonymous long-haired mates (“a dope dealer, an antique dealer and a colour attacher,” according to Morris).

The spoof worked, to the extent that a buzz started and a group was hastily formed around Moreshead. They recorded a single, amusingly called “Time Out” and released in the spring of 1969 on Head Records, run by the promoter John Curd. Just to confuse matters, the Island label simultaneously took their group Skip Bifferty, rechristened them Heavy Jelly, and recorded a track that was promptly featured on one of their famous cheapo sampler albums. By this time, however, Curd owned the rights to the name and persuaded Island to desist. Meanwhile a couple of Island artists, Traffic’s Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi, briefly joined Moreshead in the “real” Heavy Jelly, only to make a swift withdrawal in favour of an offer to rejoin Steve Winwood. Next came Lomax, freed from his commitment to Apple, who joined the line-up and brought with him a bunch of new songs, eight of which were recorded for what was intended to be their debut album.

In the fashion of the day, various luminaries were called upon to assist in the studio, not least because Heavy Jelly had already begun to be afflicted by the personnel changes that would eventually kill them off. Mike Kellie of Spooky Tooth played drums on a couple of tracks, joined on one of them by Ric Grech on bass and Peter Bardens on keyboards; Jim Price and Bobby Keys added trumpet and tenor saxophone to one song; and harmonies were added to the final track by Pete Ham and Tommy Evans of Badfinger, Lomax’s erstwhile Apple labelmates.

It was while they were in the process of making the album that they played the Country Club in Belsize Park, and a couple of days later I interviewed Jackie for the Melody Maker. The gig had been good but he was a little downbeat, just as I had found him to be on our previous encounters; the consequent piece, published under the headline “Born Under a Bad Sign?”, pondered his seeming attraction to projects dogged by bad luck.

Heavy JellyA few months later Heavy Jelly completed their album. Curd pressed up some promotional copies with white labels and sent them to people in the media. I got one, played it, wasn’t greatly impressed, and filed it away. Such were the internal upheavals — musicians coming and going, including the Grease Band’s drummer Bruce Rowland and John Mayall’s bassist Steve Thompson — that the band simply fell apart, and the album never got beyond that white-label stage.

After that rather dispiriting experience Lomax spent a couple of weeks with Denny Laine, Trevor Burton and Alan White in a band called Balls before answering a call from John Simon, the Band’s producer, to make an album for Warner Brothers in the US.

It occurs to me now that the pattern of his career resembles that of Van Morrison: early days with a British-based R&B band before a solo career in America, first in Woodstock and then in California. Jackie made some pleasant records, and it will be interesting to see how the album he completed just before his death — his first in a dozen years — turned out, but he never had a “Brown Eyed Girl”, a “Madame George”, a “Moondance” or a “Domino”. In the end, that’s usually what makes the difference.

* The photograph of Jackie Lomax is from the insert to the 2010 reissue of his Apple album, Is This What You Want? It is uncredited.

Mulatu Astatke’s Sketches of Ethiopia

Mulatu AstatkeThere’s a party scene in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty — a film I like a great deal, although if Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, its spiritual and stylistic ancestor, is universally known by its Italian name, then so should be La Grande Bellezza — in which an elegant woman of a certain age says something like: “Everybody knows that Ethiopian jazz is the only kind worth listening to these days.”

She’s trying to be superior, but there’s something to what she says. Lots of kinds of contemporary jazz are worth listening to, of course. But when I first encountered the saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya on one of the volumes of Francis Falceto’s Ethiopiques series, it was like walking into a parallel universe, one in which Albert Ayler had been born and spent his entire life in the Horn of Africa. Like discovering jazz all over again, in a way.

Falceto’s series began its schedule of releases in 1998, became a favourite of hipsters and is now up to Vol 28. The extraordinary Mekurya — The Negus of Ethiopian Sax, to quote the title of Vol 14, which is devoted to his work — was the one who caught my ear, while others were knocked out by Mulatu Astatke, the vibraphone player and bandleader. Now Astatke has a brand-new album on the Jazz Village label, titled Sketches of Ethiopia, mostly recorded in London and featuring a basic band including names that will be familiar to followers of the contemporary British jazz scene — the trumpeter Byron Wallen, the pianist Alexander Hawkins, the bassist John Edwards and the drummer Tom Skinner — alongside others from Africa, France and elsewhere, such as the singers Tesfaye and Fatoumata Diawara, plus a chorus.

The album is very far from being a showcase for Astatke’s vibes-playing: it’s all about interlocking rhythms (he also plays congas) and shifting instrumental combinations. His best moment on his main instrument comes during a piece based on a traditional tune called “Hager Fiker” in which the vibraphone rides a sinuous conga-driven rhythm quite beautifully before giving way to two traditional instruments: first Messale Asmamow’s krarr, a five-string instrument, then Yohanes Afwork’s washint, an end-blown flute. His mallets also provide a sound-bed for  a glorious out-of-tempo introduction to an original titled “Gambella”, the metre gradually seeping in before the piece evolves into one of the irresistible funk grooves in which the album abounds. But the highlight is “Motherland Abay”, written by Astatke: eight and a half minutes of constantly changing textures, in which Wallen’s fine muted solo is shadowed by a wonderfully subtle horn arrangement.

At such a moment, as Kevin Le Gendre notes in his review of the album in the new issue of Jazzwise, what we’re hearing is music that seems to exist “right on the cusp of African and Arab culture” — but, I’d add, with a seemingly limitless horizon. It’s the music, in some respects, that I was always disappointed Weather Report didn’t quite get around to making. A terrific album.

* The photograph of Mulatu Astatke is by Alexis Maryon and is taken from the insert to Sketches of Ethiopia.

The meaning of the Strypes

The StrypesMy friend Mats Olsson, a columnist with the Swedish daily paper Expressen, asked me an interesting question the other day, knowing that I was listening to Snapshot, the debut album from the Strypes: “Any theories why a young, British, Dr Feelgood-ish band comes along every 20 years or so?”

I gave him a slightly facetious answer: “To remind Americans of their heritage, probably.” But even if Mats’s chronology was a big askew, along with his geography (Cavan, the Strypes’ home town, is in the Republic of Ireland), it’s certainly worth thinking about why this quartet of teenagers has come along to evoke so precisely the spirit of the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things, the Downliners Sect and the Eel Pie Island scene back in 1963 and the Canvey Island sound of the Feelgoods and Eddie and the Hot Rods in the mid-Seventies.

It’s a matter in which I have a personal interest, since — like hundreds of others — back in the early Sixties I was a member of one of those first-generation English R&B bands, with a repertoire largely borrowed from Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. And a decade later, working as an A&R man for Island Records, I made the decision not to pursue an interest in Dr Feelgood — something that’s caused me the occasional sleepless night over the past 30-odd years, and certainly every time that excellent Julien Temple documentary Oil City Confidential gets shown on TV.

There were three reasons why I didn’t try to sign the Feelgoods. First, they were virtually promised to United Artists’s Andrew Lauder, who had been courting them with some ardour. Second, I wasn’t convinced by their original material. Third, I couldn’t really see a proper long-term future for something that, in essence, I felt we’d all lived through a decade earlier.

I was wrong on the last count in particular. I was certainly waiting for something new to happen, a sense of frustration mounting by the month as I waded through unsolicited prog-rock and singer-songwriter demo tapes, but I failed to recognise that the Feelgoods represented an important first stage on the route to whatever that new something was going to be. They didn’t need to be the last word in original thought.

Something similar could turn out to be true of the Strypes, whose music is based firmly on those earlier templates. The first thing to be said is that Ross Farrelly, Josh McClorey, Pete O’Hanlon and Evan Walsh may be aged 16 and 17, but so were we, back in 1964, and it didn’t stop us from having a decent stab at this kind of R&B. And the quartet from Cavan are very good at it, indeed better than we were in their versions of both sides of a great Diddley 45, “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” and “I Can Tell” (in which they replace the great original guitar riff with their own, equally good).

Farrelly clearly has what it takes to be a convincing front man, and the playing is sharp and smart, suggesting in the extended version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” that they may have the musical imagination to create something worthwhile when they venture beyond the basic forms into new territory — as the Stones, the Yardbirds, the Who and the Kinks once did. Even at this extremely early stage, their original songs sound fine — and will sound even better to young audiences inevitably unfamiliar with the roots of this music.

So they’ve got the sound, the energy and the look (hair long, shirts polka-dot or striped, trousers and ties narrow). It’s a living heritage, and they’re making the most of it.

* The photograph of the Strypes, taken by Jill Furmanovsky, is from the cover of Snapshot (Virgin EMI Records).

The day the music stopped

Gene Phillips 2It was, without doubt, one of the strangest episodes in the history of the record business. Twice in the 1940s — from August 1942 to November 1944 and from January 1948 to early 1949 — the American Federation of Musicians banned its members from entering the recording studios. On the first occasion James C Petrillo, the union’s president, took action because believed that musicians were losing jobs as places of public entertainment closed and radio became a dominant medium; in compensation, he called for royalty payments by the record companies to the AF of M.

It took a while to get them to the negotiating table. Before the first ban ended, following piecemeal agreements with individual companies for royalties of between 0.25 and 0.5 cents per disc, a great deal of interesting music had gone undocumented. In particular, I think of the young Charlie Parker’s stints with the Earl Hines Orchestra between December 1942 and May 1943 and with the Billy Eckstine Band between April and August of 1944, neither of which were recorded; his fellow members of these fascinating aggregations included Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Harris, Fats Navarro, Wardell Gray, Oscar Pettiford, Shadow Wilson and Art Blakey, while the Eckstine Band’s book included arrangements by Gillespie and Tadd Dameron. An important period in Bird’s career was lost.

(Singers, curiously, were exempted from the ban, which is why Frank Sinatra’s first solo recordings for the Columbia label, made in 1943, featured strictly acapella treatments of such songs as “People Will Say We’re in Love” and “Oh! What a Beautiful Morning”, suavely arranged for the singer and the Bobby Tucker Singers by Alec Wilder.)

By the time the second ban loomed, imposed by Petrillo as a protest against the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947 to restrict the power of labour unions, the labels had their pre-emptive plans in place. The appetite for recorded music was huge, and to stockpile the material that would enable them to meet it they scheduled round-the-clock sessions — with the willing collaboration, it seems, of the musicians whose services were about to be withdrawn. Most of the companies tried to stash away enough material to keep them supplied with new releases for what turned out to be a rather shorter recording hiatus.

Among those getting busy were the Bihari brothers of Los Angeles, who had started their Modern Records label three years earlier, concentrating on making records for the black audience, which Jules Bihari had encountered while servicing juke boxes in Watts. Their first hit, in their initial year, had come with “Swingin’ the Boogie” by Hadda Brooks, an accomplished pianist and a sultry singer, and their roster had expanded to include the Ebonaires, a vocal quartet, the gospel singer Madam Ira Mae Littlejohn and bandleaders such as the guitarist Gene Phillips, the drummer Al “Cake” Wichard, the saxophonist Little Willie Jackson and the trumpeter-singer Butch Stone.

All these were pressed into service to build up a stock of material for however long the ban lasted, but since it ended after barely a year, most of the sides went unreleased. Now Tony Rounce of Ace Records, which has licensed the catalogue of Modern and its associated labels for the past 30 years, has delved into the vault to assemble 49 of the 80-odd tracks recorded during that burst of activity, all but 10 of which are seeing the light of day for the first time, on a two-CD set titled Beating the Petrillo Ban: The Late December 1947 Modern Sessions.

Apart of from its curiosity value, the compilation provides a marvellous snapshot of black popular music at a time of change, when mainstream jazz styles were starting to mutate into early rhythm and blues. So most of the music is an invigorating combination of big, burly blues shouters — half a dozen tracks under Wichard’s leadership feature the young Jimmy Witherspoon — and excellent jazz soloists, all of whom, sadly, go uncredited, since no personnel information has survived the intervening 66 years.

The leaders’ names will be unfamiliar to many people, but the quality of the material and the musicianship is invariably high. So is the recording quality: most of the tracks could have been recorded this week. The offer of a dozen new tracks by the gifted Ms Brooks (born Hattie Hapgood) and her excellent accompanists is too good to refuse, and the four sides by Gene Phillips and his Rhythm Aces (pictured above, in a photograph taken from the well annotated and illustrated CD insert) are notable for the leader’s eloquent guitar playing, particularly on “Gene’s Guitar Blues”, where he plays in a Hawaiian style that Chuck Berry later utilised on his instrumental “Surfin’ Steel”.

But the real find, for me, is Madam Ira Mae Littlejohn, whose six tracks expose us to a gospel singer of quite staggering power. “The technology has only just arrived to allow us to copy what was once an extremely bent and unplayable acetate,” Rounce says, further informing us that these may have been her only recordings. Thank goodness for digital technology, then, allowing us to discover Madam Littlejohn’s raw, throat-tearing delivery, accompanied by rudimentary piano and acoustic guitar and occasionally by a handful of supporting voices. The rest of the set would make a fine addition to the collection of anyone interested in the music of the period, but this is real treasure.

James Caesar Petrillo, by the way, died in 1984, aged 92. He had started life as a trumpeter before devoting himself to union affairs, ran the Chicago branch for 40 years, and once wrote to Benito Mussolini to complain that the city’s Italian consul had hired a non-union band. He took control of the national body in 1940 and the recording bans quickly made him a national figure, but in the mid-Fifties there were attempts to dislodge him, led by Local 47 in Los Angeles and Local 802 in New York — two branches in which jazz musicians were prominent. He resigned from the presidency in 1958 and was ousted from the leadership of Chicago’s Local 10 four years later. The bandshell in the city’s Grant Park bandshell was named after him.

Some thoughts on Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan faces21.
There are 12 works in Face Value, the new Bob Dylan exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, on until January 5 and free to enter. One room, three walls, four paintings on each wall, identical proportions, symmetrically hung. A dozen faces, any or all of whom could have stepped out of his recent songs. He’s given them names, but we don’t know whether “Ivan Steinbeck”, “Ursula Belle”, “Red Flanagan”, “Sylvia Renard” and the rest are real people, or whether they’re products of the imagination that created Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. “These are conventional people,” the artist says during a Q&A contained in the slender but handsome £25 catalogue. “One of the men is actually a member of the Sydney Yacht Club. One’s a limo driver.” Well, maybe. It doesn’t matter.

This is not my area of expertise, but Dylan seems to me to have mastered the use of pastels — the chosen medium here — quite well enough to bring his subjects to life. The eyes are the key to a portrait, and every one of these characters has a certain regard of his or her own: they’re looking at you, or past you, or through you, or inside themselves. Each has a subtitle, which might or might not be significant: “Slap in the Face” is the line accompanying “Ken Garland”, who has a broken nose and looks like a prizefighter. They could be the 12 Most Wanted, or they could be a jury. They could be devils or they could be angels. Or a bit of both, like most people.

2.

When you add the illustration on the front of Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol 10 to the dozen pictures in Face Value, with which it shares its format, it starts to make more sense. Dylan’s image of himself — if that is what it is — floats between reality and fiction, neither one nor the other.

I bought the four-CD box, mostly because I wanted the disc containing the complete concert at the Isle of Wight in 1969, but I’m glad to have many of the items among the 35 tracks collected on the first two CDs (the fourth disc is yet another remastering of the original Self Portrait, which I didn’t need). As many people have already said, “Tattle O’Day” is a major discovery, a mysterious traditional song beautifully delivered by Dylan with David Bromberg’s guitar and Al Kooper’s piano: the sort of thing that very probably formed the inspiration for the material recorded on the Basement Tapes. There are excellent alternative versions of “Went to See the Gypsy” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, and another lovely voice-and-piano treatment of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue”, a song I’d be happy to hear him sing every day for the rest of my life.

But this version of “House Carpenter”, also with Kooper on piano and Bromberg on guitar, isn’t a patch on the electrifying one he recorded by himself during the sessions for his first album in 1962, with which he began his long tradition of omitting some of his finest work (an omission corrected in 1991 with its inclusion in Vols 1-3 of the Bootleg Series). I don’t like “All the Tired Horses” without its string arrangement, or “New Morning” with banal horns and without Ron Cornelius’s magical guitar solo, or “Time Passes Slowly” done as a homage to Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”. And so on.

A mixed bag, in other words, just like Self Portrait itself back in 1970, from which the two tracks I play most today, as I did then, are Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain” and Gilbert Becaud and Manny Curtis’s “Let It Be Me”, both completely enchanting.

3.

As I said, I bought the deluxe edition in order to get the full set from the Isle of Wight in 1969, and therein lies the real revelation. Here’s where the remastering has really helped, dispelling the sonic fog that shrouded over the three tracks that were released in a jumble on Self Portrait and, of course, improving even more on the terrible sound of the audience-recorded bootleg LP version I bought a few weeks after the event itself.

Thanks to the impression created by those recordings, and to the general lack of enthusiasm of the contemporary reviews and word of mouth reports, I’d never regretted not making it to that particular IoW festival, even for Bob. Now I do. It becomes clear that Dylan and the Band were in top form, hitting their marks on every song they play together, finding an excellent balance between the driving electrified Hawks of 1966 and the rustic Big Pink sessions of two years later. And when you hear everything laid out in its proper context, Dylan’s four-song acoustic set is wonderful, with “Wild Mountain Thyme” among his very best recordings of traditional material (or any material, come to that).

I can’t help thinking that three factors militated against a proper appreciation of the set by many of those who were there. First, the audience was exhausted, coming to the end of the weekend and having endured a three-hour wait before the Band’s nine-song set and then a further 40-minute hiatus before Dylan made his appearance. Second, after a weeks-long build-up that took hype to new heights, there was an expectation that the main attraction would be joined on stage by, at the very least, all four Beatles and Eric Clapton; it didn’t happen, of course. Third, the musicians’ self-presentation might not have helped: although John Wesley Harding and Music from Big Pink had made it clear that things were changing, I can’t help feeling that if Dylan had come on in a leather jacket, jeans and Wayfarers instead of that white suit, and performed exactly the same songs in exactly the same way, he might have been given a different hearing.

The girl who cried champagne

Carla BleyThe photograph above, taken by Caterina di Perri, comes from the insert to Carla Bley’s new album, Trios, the latest instalment of her collaboration with the bass guitarist Steve Swallow and the saxophonist Andy Sheppard. It’s the pianist/composer’s first album for ECM — and, she says, the first in which she has submitted herself to the demands of a producer (Manfred Eicher, the label’s founder) other than herself.

I’d started listening to the album when, while doing a bit of research into another subject entirely, I found an early mention of her in an issue of Down Beat dated September 5, 1965, from a review of a concert in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art by the Jazz Composers Orchestra and the New York Art Quartet. The magazine’s reviewer was evidently having trouble with what was then known as “the new thing”, with only Ms Bley’s appearance to give him relief from what he clearly found to be an ordeal. Here’s what he wrote:

The evening did have three points of interest, all visual. The first was scored before a note was blown, when (John) Tchicai appeared, conventionally garbed, but with his face decorated with warpaint and what looked like chickenbones stuck into his cheeks. The second was (Milford) Graves, continually assaulting his drums and kicking at his cymbals in a manner that had, so far as I could tell, nothing to do with anything else that was going on. The third, and greatest, was Mrs Bley at the piano in the second half, one of the most authentically ravishing women you ever clapped eyes on, with nothing lacking of slim grace and brooding intensity to complete the picture of musical genius as only a Hollywood director would have the nerve to present it — a vision that, while it lasted, almost compensated for the regrettable noises that went with it.

I’m not going to name the critic in question. History has a way of making fools of all of us from time to time.

Anyway, Trios is an exceptional recording, in which she and her collaborators revisit some familiar themes — including the ever-entrancing “Vashkar”, first recorded in a standard piano trio format by her then-husband, Paul Bley, for the Savoy label 50 years ago this month. “Les Trois Lagons (d’apres Henri Matisse)”, “Wildlife” and “The Girl Who Cried Champagne” will all be familiar to her fans in various other versions; the opener, “Utviklingssang”, has previously been recorded by a nonet, a duo (Ms Bley and Swallow) and an octet, but I’d be surprised if this is not the definitive treatment of a gorgeous hymn-like tune.

For me, the surprise of the album was the way it converted my hitherto rather guarded admiration for Sheppard’s playing to a much warmer response, and made me drop my normal resistance to Swallow’s work on bass guitar. I’m afraid I could never understand why the man who was so articulate on the double bass on those classic George Russell Sextet albums from the early ’60s (and on the Paul Bley session that produced the original “Vashkar”) would want to devote himself full-time to an instrument far less appropriate to jazz. In this exposed setting, however, he plays with a guitar-like fluency and lyricism, the lack of the acoustic instrument’s tonal flexibility never hampering his contribution in the way it has — possibly to my ears alone — in the past.

And “The Girl Who Cried Champagne”? That’s a private joke between Bley and Swallow, who are long-time partners. It’s her.