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Dionne Warwick: the lost years…

Dionne WarwickThere are days, even now, when only the sound of Dionne Warwick will do. How strange, then, that between 1972 and 1978, when she was in her prime and had the strength of a major record company behind her for the first time, she couldn’t buy a hit.

Try to put yourself in her shoes on the day in 1977 when she sat in the control room of A&R Studios in New York City with her new producers, Steve Barri and Michael Omartian, listening to this final mix. There would have been just a single thought in your head: whatever it is that makes a hit, this one’s got it.

Dionne had already been with Warner Bros for five years, after leaving the independent Scepter Records, where she had spent a decade and enjoyed that astonishing string of hits with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, to sign a $3m contract with a major label in the clear and reasonable expectation of further and even greater success. But her move coincided with the acrimonious sundering of the Bacharach/David partnership, which gave her new label a very nasty shock. The trio made one more album together — Just By Myself, released in 1973 — before a row between the two songwriters resulted in a prolonged series of lawsuits all round.

The hasty search to find new collaborators saw her shuffled, over the next six years, between Holland-Dozier-Holland, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Jerry Ragovoy, Thom Bell, Randy Edelman and Joe Porter. Amazingly, none of them could come up with the hit for which she was so anxiously waiting in order to prove that her early success had not been completely dependent on her original Svengalis. The sessions with the Barri-Omartian team represented the last throw of the dice.

“Do You Believe in Love at First Sight” — which you’ll have heard if you clicked on the first link — is included in a compilation called The Complete Warner Bros Singles, which came out earlier this year on the Real Gone Music label, a Warner/Rhino offshoot. It astonishes me now, as it did then, that it failed to give her another  hit. Curiously, the song — written by Frank McDonald, Chris Rae, Ron Roker and Gerry Shury — had been Britain’s entry in the previous year’s Eurovision Song Contest, when Polly Brown, late of Pickettywitch, brought it home in 10th place.

Polly Brown was a pretty good pop singer, but she wasn’t Dionne Warwick. This version of “Do You Believe in Love at First Sight” is irresistible: three minutes of pop perfection. If it lacks the emotional depth and musical inventiveness of a great Bacharach/David song, it is nevertheless beautifully constructed and performed, full of good things like a great hook, a bubbling bass line, an exultant lead vocal.

The earlier sessions with Jerry Ragovoy produced a track that is among my all-time Dionne favourites: in my view, her exquisitely sultry version of “I Can’t Wait to See My Baby’s Face” shades earlier treatments of this fine song by Baby Washington, Pat Thomas, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and even Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister — all of them terrific in their own right, with Dee Dee’s being the closest contender.

Dionne’s album with Thom Bell, Track of the Cat, contained some piercingly lovely songs, such as “His House and Me”, “Ronnie Lee”, “Love Me One More Time” and “Once You Hit the Road”, exposing the incomparable Philadelphia producer/arranger/composer’s debt to Bacharach, in particular the use of syncopation to create hooks. But Bell couldn’t repeat the formula that delivered “Then Came You”, with which he had given Warwick a No 1 in collaboration with the Spinners.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the the story. After Dionne and Warner Bros parted company in 1978, a move to Arista and collaborations with Barry Manilow and Barry Gibb propelled her back into the charts. The preceding period was quietly forgotten as the Manilow-produced “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and the Gibb-composed “Heartbreaker” lengthened the list of her greatest hits.

Now, in addition to the complete Warners singles collection, Dionne’s unhappy time with the Burbank label is commemorated by We’ve Got to Go Back, a new Real Gone Music compilation containing 19 songs that never found their way on to the release schedule. It’s aimed at completists and obsessives like me, I suppose, but the Holland-Dozier tracks “Too Far Out of Reach” and “It Hurts Me So” are fine examples of early-70s soul, and “Am I Too Late” and “I’ll Never Make It Easy (To Say Goodbye)”, supervised by Joe Porter, are gorgeous grown-up ballads. I wouldn’t want to be without them.

It was sad to read about the financial problems that drove her to declare bankruptcy earlier this year. She deserves better than that.

* The photograph of Dionne Warwick is from the sleeve of We Need to Go Back: The Unissued Warner Bros Masters and is uncredited.

Bossa nova from a different beach

AldeburghNo, you’re right, that isn’t Ipanema or Copacabana. It’s the seafront at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, in a picture taken by me this afternoon, a couple of hours before the Flipside festival of Brazilian culture began just up the road at Snape Maltings, with a concert devoted to the origins and techniques of the bossa nova.

I made the 250-mile round trip from London in order to see Paula Morelenbaum, who is not only my favourite Brazilian singer but one of my favourite singers irrespective of nationality. I discovered her by accident in 2004, when I was loitering in the CD section of a Lisbon department store, browsing the content of their listening posts. I’d never heard of Morelenbaum, but her album Berimbaum caught my ear from the opening half-dozen bars, and it’s been probably my most played disc of the past 10 years.

It’s a recital of a dozen songs written by the great Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes, either by himself or in collaboration with others, including Tom Jobim, Baden Powell and Carlos Lyra. What’s different about the project — apart from the obvious matter of Morelenbaum’s voice, which has all the coolness of better known Brazilian female singers, but with just a little more expression and a whole lot more musicality — is the way her producers and musicians, including Antonio Pinto (who wrote the soundtrack for Senna), Leo Gandelman, Celso Fonseca and her husband, the cellist and arranger Jacques Morelenbaum, apply modern techniques, particularly those of trip-hop, to these well known songs. It infuses them with new vibrancy, as you’ll hear if you spend just seven minutes listening to these extracts from four of the tracks.

Tonight’s concert was something different: an intimate masterclass in the work of Jobim and de Moraes, 20 compositions performed either in part or in full by Morelenbaum with the pianist-singer Jose Miguel Wisniak and the guitarist Arthur Nestrovski, who analysed them for they could tell us about why bossa nova was so different, so refreshing, when it appeared half a century ago. So “Desafinado” was deconstructed for its artful dissonances, “Garota de Ipanema” for the meaning of the contrast between its crisp main melody and its legato bridge, “Gabriela” for the way Jobim manufactured an entire melody out of a simple C-major scale, “Samba de Uma Nota So” for its minimalistic brilliance, and the ever-astonishing “Aguas de Marco” for the meaningful tension between Jobim’s almost absurdly simple diatonic melody and the undercurrent of emotion implied by a descending chromatic bass line.

Wisnik, a professor of Brazilian literature at the University of Sao Paulo, gave his explanations in Portuguese, translated by Nestrovski, who has degrees in music from York University and literature from Iowa State, is now the artistic director of the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. Sitting between them, the black-gowned Morelenbaum simply sang.

Just when it seemed that the evening might be getting a little too didactic, Wisnik played a Chopin prelude that mutated seamlessly into a full performance of “Insensatez”, revealing not just the source of Jobim’s inspiration but the power behind the perfect restraint of Morelenbaum’s delivery. “Amor em Paz”, better known to most of us as “Once I Loved”, needed no explanation and was the evening’s highlight. Or maybe that was the quick-witted medley of “Consolacao” and “Berimbau”. Anyway, it was all good, and greatly enjoyed by an audience including the guitarist Phil Manzanera, the poet Blake Morrison and the novelist Ian McEwan.

“That was the best lecture I’ve ever been to,” the photographer Eamonn McCabe said, which just about summed it up.

The Road to Jajouka

Scan 132760001The Master Musicians of Jajouka came to London’s Commonwealth Institute in September 1980 and, over the course of five nights, practically blew the place apart through the force of their sound. That was the initial shock: the sheer volume and energy produced by eight men playing rhaitas — a double-reed instrument — and five others playing side drums. It was the first chance most of us had been given to see and hear these Sufi musicians from a village in the Rif mountains, and they more than lived up to their legend. The use of circular breathing and layered rhythms was a revelation, as was their casual mode of presentation. “The musicians did not treat their work with undue reverence,” I wrote in The Times. “They shared jokes and exchanged winks with members of the audience, who were encouraged to participate in displays of come-as-you-are dancing.”

The short season was part of a tour arranged to raise funds to ensure the preservation of their ancient culture and way of life. Three decades later the struggle seems to be continuing, to judge by the appearance of a new CD, The Road to Jajouka, in which recordings of their music are blended — by way of sampling, remixing and juxtaposition — with that of various western musicians. “One hundred per cent of the net profits will go to the Jajouka Foundation,” the sleeve informs us.

The album is produced by Billy Martin, the drummer with Martin, Medeski and Wood, whose entire membership appears on the opening track, together with the guitarist Marc Ribot. Others who turn up on subsequent pieces include the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, drummer Mickey Hart, the bass guitarists Bill Laswell and Flea, the guitarist Lee Ranaldo, the Sirius Quartet and  the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Howard Shore, the Canadian composer who is credited as an executive producer of the album. Shore’s interest in this music probably has its origin in his collaboration with Coleman on the score for David Cronenberg’s 1991 film of William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, in which the Jajouka musicians were featured.

This is not the album to buy if you’re after a full-strength blast of the Boujeloud rite of the Jajouka musicians. In general, however, the mash-ups work well. I love the sound of Ribot’s squibbling guitar and the string quartet against the massed rhaitas on “Into the Rif”. Coleman’s alto improvisation against the layered rhaitas of Bachir Attar on “Jnuin” recalls the visit to Morocco that produced the track “Midnight Sunrise”, included on the album Dancing in Your Head, released in 1977, with a fragment repeated on the Naked Lunch soundtrack (if there ever was a western musician attuned to the vision of these Sufis, it’s surely Ornette).

Many of us know a great deal more about the sounds of the world than we did in 1968, when Brion Gysin took Brian Jones to Jajouka, or in 1980, when Jajouka came to London. Or, indeed, when Burroughs called them “the 4,000-year-old blues band” (we now know their music dates back a mere 1,300 years). The new CD is a reminder that increased familiarity hasn’t robbed this particular music of its power to astonish and mesmerise.

* The photograph of the Master Musicians of Jajouka is from the CD insert and was taken by Cherie Nutting. is the relevant website for information and donations. There’s a fine chapter on Jajouka in Blues & Chaos, a collection of pieces by the late Robert Palmer, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and published by Scribner in 2009.