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Three’s company

Schlippenbach trioThe Schlippenbach Trio ended their 18-date European tour at the Vortex on Friday night with two sets of free improvisation that drew some of the most enthusiastic and sustained applause I’ve heard this year. Three musicians of immense experience — the pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, the saxophonist Evan Parker and the drummer Paul Lovens — were operating, after more than 40 years of playing together, at a peak of inventiveness and maturity.

I was enjoying it too greatly to take much in the way even of mental notes, but the evening left a residue of powerful memories: Schlippenbach spending a great deal of time working in the octave below middle C, his playing austere but never forbidding; Parker producing wonderfully mellow improvisations, constantly searching for and finding the most perfect entry and exit points; Lovens leaning forward, staying close to the surfaces of his drums and cymbals, making time and no-time slip in and out of each other with a marvellous control of energy-flow.

2013: the best bits

haus der kunstI can’t remember a year in which I heard more wonderful music in person, a high proportion of it in Dalston — at Cafe Oto and the Vortex — or at this year’s excellent London Jazz Festival. Bob Dylan’s “Forgetful Heart” on the first night of his return to the Albert Hall, the Necks’ second set on the last of their three nights in London, the rediscovery of John Williams’s Stoner, the ambition and magnificence of The Great Beauty, and a last chance to see Picasso’s Child With a Dove: these are things for which I’ll remember the past 12 months. I’ll probably never get over missing Arve Henriksen perform Andrew Smith’s Norwegian Requiem at St Luke’s, but here are the highlights of the things I did manage to listen to, watch, read and see.

LIVE

1. Wadada Leo Smith at Cafe Oto (November)

2. Paolo Conte at the Royal Festival Hall (November)

3. The Necks at Cafe Oto (November)

4. Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall (November)

5. Alexander Hawkins Septet at Kings Place (March)

6. Amarcord Nino Rota at the Royal Festival Hall (November)

7. Keith Tippett + Elysian String Quartet at the Vortex (August)

8. Bruce Springsteen at Wembley Stadium (June)

9. Marc Ribot at Cafe Oto (October)

10. Burt Bacharach at the Royal Festival Hall (July)

11. Paula Morelenbaum at Snape Maltings (October)

12. Bryan Ferry Orchestra at the Royal Centre, Nottingham (October)

13. Booker T Jones at Ronnie Scott’s (August)

14. Television at the Roundhouse (November)

15. Compositions by Dobrinka Tabakova at the Warehouse Studio, London SE1 (April)

NEW RECORDINGS

1. The Necks: Open (RER)

2. Arve Henriksen: Places of Worship (Rune Grammofon)

3. Booker T Jones: Sound the Alarm (Stax)

4. Dave King Trio: I’ve Been Ringing You (Sunnyside)

5. Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow: Trios (ECM)

6. Boz Scaggs: Memphis (429 Records)

7. John O’Gallagher: The Anton Webern Project (Whirlwind)

8. Giovanni Guidi: City of Broken Dreams (ECM)

9. Willie Nelson: To All the Girls… (Legacy)

10. Mike Gibbs: Mike Gibbs + 12 Play Gil Evans (Whirlwind)

ARCHIVE RECORDINGS

1. John Coltrane: The Complete Sun Ship Sessions (Impulse)

2. Elvis Presley: Elvis at Stax (RCA Legacy)

3. Don Cherry: Live in Stockholm (Caprice)

4. Beach Boys: Made in California (Capitol)

5. Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1969 (Legacy)

6. Harry Miller: Different Times, Different Places (Ogun)

7. Dionne Warwick: We Need to Go Back: The Unissued Warner Bros Masters (Real Gone/Rhino)

8. The Band: Live at the Academy of Music 1971 (Capitol)

9. Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat (Verve)

10. Various: Beating the Petrillo Ban (Ace)

FILMS: NEW

1. The Great Beauty (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)

2. Much Ado About Nothing (dir. Joss Whedon)

3. Something in the Air (dir. Olivier Assayas)

4. A Late Quartet (dir. Yaron Zilberman)

5=. Bayou Maharajah (dir. Lily Keber) and Muscle Shoals (dir. Greg Camalier)

FILMS: REVIVED

1. Nothing But a Man (dir. Michael Roemer)

2. Classe Tous Risques (dir. Claude Sautet)

3. Point Blank (dir. John Boorman)

BOOKS: FICTION

1. John Williams: Stoner (Vintage)

2. James Salter: All That Is (Picador)

3. Owen Martell: Intermission (William Heinemann)

BOOKS: MUSIC

1. The Jazz Standards by Ted Gioia (Oxford)

2. Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen (Jonathan Cape)

3. Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch (Harper)

EXHIBITIONS

1. Becoming Picasso: 1901 (Courtauld Gallery, London)

2. Sean Scully: Triptychs (Pallant House Gallery, Chichester)

3. ECM: A Cultural Archaeology (Haus der Kunst, Munich)

* These lists were inspired by those that Stewart and Barbara Tray produced over the last few years, for their own enjoyment and that of their friends. They are dedicated to the memory of Barbara, who died last year. Stewart’s 2013 list is head by Quercus, the collaboration between June Tabor, Iain Ballamy and Huw Warren (ECM). The photograph is one I took outside Munich’s Haus der Kunst during the exhibition ECM: A Cultural Archaeology last February, in the early weeks of this blog. It was great to see Don Cherry on the poster.

The groove abides

Tony O'MalleyOf all the British bands I went out to hear during my time as an A&R man in the mid-1970s, the one I really ached to sign was Kokomo, a 10-piece soul outfit who played the clubs at the time when pub rock was about to give way to punk rock. Unhappily for me, they had already fallen into the clutches of Steve O’Rourke, Pink Floyd’s manager, who secured them the sort of deal with CBS, a major label, that must have looked like a guarantee of fame and fortune. My souvenir of the nights I heard them play is a cassette tape that includes a live recording of their sublime version of Bobby Womack’s “I Can Understand It”, a great song to which they always did justice.

The tape captures them in their full glory: Tony O’Malley playing keyboards and singing lead, Dyan Birch, Frank Collins and Paddy McHugh singing back-up, Mel Collins on saxophones, Jim Mullen and Neil Hubbard on guitars, Alan Spenner on bass, Terry Stannard on drums and Jody Linscott on congas. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I went to see three of them — O’Malley, Collins and Hubbard — at the 606 Club in a Chelsea basement the other night. I don’t believe in making requests because I think that musicians should be allowed to play exactly what they most feel like playing, but I had my fingers crossed that, almost 40 years later, Womack’s song would still be in the repertoire.

The first reassurance was that, reunited on this occasion under O’Malley’s leadership, the three of them retain all the qualities that made them outstanding almost 40 years ago. The brilliant Collins does the Texas tenor thing, when the circumstances are appropriate, so convincingly that you wouldn’t be surprised if his passport gave his place of birth as Fort Worth rather than the Isle of Man. Hubbard brings the understated soulfulness of Cornell Dupree to any band he’s in. And O’Malley’s lovely warm-hearted Ray Charles growl makes him one of the great blue-eyed soul singers. With Jennifer Maidman on bass guitar and Brad Webb on drums, they blew up a storm.

And, to my joy, they did “I Can’t Understand It”, giving it full value. If you want a taste of it, here and here are clips of a Kokomo reunion at the Sheen Club in Barnes five years ago, Parts 1 & 2 of that very song. And here is a version with a slightly different band at the 606 a year later. You don’t quite get the impact of the way they sounded amid the steaming ambience of the Hope & Anchor on a hot night in 1974, but you get the idea. And, as I was shown on Friday night, the groove abides.

* The photograph of Tony O’Malley, Brad Webb, Jennifer Maidment and Neil Hubbard was taken by Graham Webb, to whom many thanks.

Christmas with Sgt Pepper, Lovely Rita etc

Sgt Pepper 1For some weeks now Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first part of his epic three-volume history of the Beatles, has been staring reproachfully at me from the top of the to-be-read pile. The time to absorb its 900-odd pages will come soon. Meanwhile on Saturday night I took the opportunity to listen to its author give an illustrated talk on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the Centenary Theatre in Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire, during an evening in aid of the Pepper Foundation, a locally based charity which provides specialised nursing care for children with life-limiting or terminal illnesses.

As it happens, Sgt Pepper is not in my top half-dozen Beatles albums, but the extent of Mark’s erudition and the depth of his engagement are such that I was fascinated by both the background detail and the close analysis he provided while showing related film clips and playing snatches of tapes from the sessions to show how the songs were built up.

It was an absorbing 45 minutes, and a perfect preparation to what happened after a short interval, when the charity’s founder, Robert Breakwell, took his place on a suddenly very crowded stage as the director of a troupe of dozens of musicians and singers, mostly amateurs, all primed to perform the album from beginning to end.

How bad an idea does that sound? How easy was it at that moment to exchange sardonic glances and make mental plans for an early exit and a quick drive back to London? All I can tell you is that the next hour passed in a whirl of surprise and enchantment as performers of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes tackled the challenge not just with enthusiasm and energy but with a wonderful degree of imagination.

For the opening “Sgt Pepper” song itself, two cheerleaders held up cue cards — “LAUGH”, “CHEER” etc — to enable us to replicate the sounds borrowed by the Beatles and George Martin from Abbey Road’s library of sound effects. As it turned out, however, this wasn’t going to be an attempt to imitate the original. Each song was interpreted in a way appropriate to the material, the talents of the performers and the resources available on stage, and often given a creative twist.

So we heard “Getting Better” done by five young women in a Spice Girls sort of way, “When I’m 64” sung by a group of children and “Good Morning, Good Morning” subjected to a delightfully scatty acappella arrangement. “Within You, Without You” featured not just the sound of a sitar but a haunting snatch of “Tomorrow Never Knows”.  “Fixing a Hole” was sung by Mike Burnett in folk-music style to the accompaniment of his own acoustic guitar, a double bass and two backing singers. Claire Boulter’s trained voice was applied with exquisitely transfixing effect to “She’s Leaving Home”, accompanied by a string quartet, a pianist and a choir including many of the night’s performers (a clearly overjoyed Lewisohn among them).

And then came the moment when one or two of us were thinking, “Are they really going to have a go at ‘A Day in the Life’?” How on earth would they cope with the ambition of the album’s concluding track, a towering moment in the Beatles’ musical history? Blow me down if they didn’t succeed quite brilliantly, finding ways to emulate the orchestral glissandi and the final piano chord that fades away into an echoing silence.

It was an amazing thing to hear and feel, and it was one of several moments at which Breakwell and his troupe were able to remind us of the Beatles’ special magic, the quality that will surely persuade history that the benign spell they cast over us was the result not just of some sort of passing pop phenomenon, writ extra-large.

A hipster’s life and times

Donald FagenOf the many, many entertaining passages sprinkled throughout Eminent Hipsters, Donald Fagen’s slender volume of memoir and musing, one in particular caught my attention. Looking back on his teenage years, the co-founder of Steely Dan recalls the experience of taking a girl to a jazz club in the mid-Sixties, hoping to share with her the experience of listening to some of the music to which he is in thrall. They’re on a date: the boy in a preppie blazer, the girl in a little black dress.

Imagine a split-screen, Fagen writes. On the left, the kid’s eyes are wide, his face is flushed; he’s transfixed. He can’t believe he’s finally in a real jazz club twelve feet away from the great John Coltrane, who’s blowing up a storm. His date, on the right side of the screen, is in hell. Although she’s heard her boyfriend talk about jazz, this is her first real exposure. She’s been in this tiny, smoky, smelly room for almost an hour now, nursing screwdrivers and being forced to listen to four Negroes creating a din that sounds like nothing imagined on God’s earth. She’s got her head in her hands down on the table because it hurts, a real pounder behind the eyes. Most humiliating is the fact that her boyfriend has forsaken her for a black man who seems to be using his silver horn as a satanic instrument of masturbation. The two sides of the screen merge when she finally pulls on her date’s arm and demands to be escorted out. In the clubs, this classic scene can still be glimpsed today, always interesting, always poignant.

Indeed it can. And how exquisitely Fagen recalls the tumult of emotions that many of us must have shared on such occasions, before we acquired sufficient pragmatic wisdom to know that this music and most (although not all) girlfriends were better kept apart.

Eminent Hipsters is a surprise and a joy. The first half consists of essays illuminating the various youthful enthusiasms and some of the people and events that would shape his life: the route into jazz provided by the music of Henry Mancini, the programmes of the jazz disc jockey Mort Fega (the model for the protagonist of The Nightfly, Fagen’s first solo album), his days at Bard College and the fateful meeting with Walter Becker, who would become his partner in Steely Dan.

Some of these have been published before, in Premiere, Slate, Harper’s Bazaar and Jazz Times; one that hasn’t is his reminiscence of the devotion of his mother, a night-club singer, to the Boswell Sisters. If, like me, you know them only by name, Fagen’s description of their recordings will sent you straight off in search of the moment, during their 1932 version of “We Just Couldn’t Say Good-bye”, when a sudden key-change from F major to F minor makes us feel, in Fagen’s description, as though “we’ve been instantly transported from the sleepy Delta to Times Square on a Saturday night.”

With page 86 (of 159), however, the book executes an abrupt key-change of its own. The essay format is abandoned and for the rest of the volume we’re into an intimate diary of the two-month tour undertaken in the summer of 2012 by Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, calling themselves the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue — a successor to the shows presented by the same singers almost 20 years earlier, when they called themselves the New York Rock and Soul Revue.

I don’t think I’ve read a more unvarnished and punishingly self-aware expression of the sensations experienced by a musician of Fagen’s age and standing while on the road and experiencing what he calls Acute Tour Disorder (ATD), a syndrome that tends to magnify every small irritation into a source of major annoyance. Hotels, venues, audiences and his own performances are mercilessly criticised. We hear how Scaggs and McDonald save money by passing up the various Grand Hyatts and Four Seasons, choosing instead to sleep on their upholstered, blacked-out and soundproofed tour bus in the venue car-parks. “I’ve tried that a few times,” Fagen remarks. “It felt more like the lifestyle of an insect than a human.”

Fagen frets about his health, in particular a spider bite that he fears will turn necrotic, swallows painkillers and sleeping pills, listens to Stravinsky in his room, and spills the beans on “privates”: those high-paying gigs undertaken by major recording artists for corporations celebrating success or individuals celebrating birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. Everybody of his generation seems to do them nowadays, as a result of the discovery that album royalties can no longer be guaranteed to maintain them in accustomed luxury, but a certain amount of consequent self-loathing is involved.

“The worst are corporate gigs where the band is hired to perform in front of several hundred or a hundred or even fifty suits at a convention or company party,” he writes. “They usually sit at tables, dinner-theatre style, maybe with their wives or, just as often, hired escorts, and consume a lot of hard liquor. If they’ve hired a top band, it means they’ve had a good year and the leadership has invested in a real blowout, a wang-dang-doodle, although they never look as though they’re having much fun. The hookers like to get up and dance.”

Occasionally real life makes a painful intrusion. He’s in Orange Beach, Florida when he learns of the death of the son of his wife, the singer Libby Titus, whom they have been unable to save from his addictions and suicidal impulses. Anyone who has spent a part of their life on the road, in whatever circumstances, will identify with that, and with the solution: deal with it, and carry on.

* The photograph of Donald Fagen, taken by Danny Clinch, is from the jacket of Eminent Hipsters, published in the US by Viking Penguin and in the UK by Jonathan Cape. 

Pauline Boty’s colouring book

Pauline Boty colouring bookIt’s been a long wait, but at last there is a good exhibition devoted to the work of Pauline Boty, the pioneering Pop Art painter who made a fleeting impression in company with her friends Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and others in the early Sixties but died of cancer in 1966, aged 28, before she had a chance to mature as an artist or to establish herself in the mind of the public.

Boty’s physical beauty (she was a perfect Sixties blonde in the genre of Julie Christie and the model Susan Murray) led her to part-time work as an actress and a model. It certainly distorted perceptions of her work and made it harder for her art to be accepted on its own terms, although those terms included a constant willingness to investigate the meaning of her own attractiveness — and that of other women, including Marilyn Monroe and Monica Vitti — in a world dominated by the male gaze.

Here, if you haven’t seen it before, is a short clip that features her from Ken Russell’s Pop Goes the Easel, a profile of the group of artists among whom she lived and worked, made in 1962 for Monitor, the BBC’s weekly arts programme. And here is Michael Bracewell (whose informative book about the art-school origins of Roxy Music, Re-make/Re-model, you might have read) talking about Boty’s painting “The Only Blonde in the World” in the Tate Shorts series. Sabine Durrant, writing for the Independent on Sunday‘s Review section 20 years ago, brought a lot of information to light, and her piece is still probably the best biographical overview.

What on earth, you might ask, does this have to do with music? Well, the painting in the photograph above, currently hanging as part of the exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, is called “My Colouring Book”, and when Boty painted it in 1963 she was inspired by the hit song of that name, a lovelorn pop ballad which became a hit in 1962 in three different versions, by Barbra Streisand, Sandy Stewart and Kitty Kallen. (Nine years ago Agnetha Faltskog made it the title track of a solo album about which I wrote in enthusiastic terms here last May.)

Boty takes the song’s lyric and adapts a format popular among the girls’ pop comics of the era (Romeo, etc), creating a series of cartoon frames illustrating a selection of its lines. She doesn’t do what Roy Lichtenstein did, copying the comic-book approach by making the illustration a straightforward visual rendering of the text: she does something less literal, more allusive. The denouement comes with the painting of the male figure in the frame at the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, illustrating the song’s concluding lines: “This is the man whose love I depended upon / Colour him gone” in the official version, but she changes it to “This is the boy, the one I depended upon / Colour him gone.” I like her version better.

In one of the captions accompanying the exhibition, the curator remarks: “She did not adopt the cool detachment expected of Pop artists and, speaking of a ‘nostalgia for now’, gave form to the emotional experience of the female fan.” An important job, I’d say, and this fine painting is a good example of her success. I hadn’t seen it before, probably because it comes from the collection of contemporary art at the Museum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland. Like all her work, it has an open-hearted quality undamaged by the years.

* The exhibition Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman, curated by Sue Tate and first seen at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery earlier this year, is at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex (www.pallant.org.uk) until February 9. There’s a good catalogue.

Playing it straight

Under the CoversOK, I’ll admit it. I’ve got a soft spot for Susanna Hoffs. It might be traceable to the Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants”, a great Jules Shear song and one of the best pop singles of the 1980s. And perhaps also to the fact that she’s always reminded me of the sort of dark-eyed girl you might meet at a party when you’re 17 or 18, the one who steals your heart and eventually hands it back with a crack that can never quite be repaired. And I’ll stop that line of inquiry right there.

What Hoffs is up to now is a series of albums with Matthew Sweet, titled Under the Covers and released on the Shout! Factory label.  Vol 1, which came out in 2006, contains cover versions of songs from the ’60s, Vol 2 appeared in 2009 and deals with the ’70s, and Vol 3, just out, takes us into the ’80s. The basic parameters are defined by the sort of music that provided the inspiration for power pop: jingle-jangle folk-rock with gentle excursions into psychedelia, country-rock, sunshine pop and, on the most recent disc, the dreaded prog.

Don’t expect anything radical. On the face of it, these are not much more than superior versions of those cut-price cover 45s that Woolworth’s used to sell on their Embassy label. They aren’t re-interpretations. All they do is play the songs, very much as they were originally recorded, just as a bar band would. Hoffs and Sweet alternate the lead vocals, and it’s their own voices that make the difference, along with the fuller sound allowed by modern technology. Anyway, there’s something in these records that makes me play them a lot, and it’s probably a quality deriving from the sound of enthusiasm at work.

I loved Vol 1 most of all for their version of the Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum”, a song that Hoffs was born to sing (without in any way invalidating the job Linda Ronstadt did on the original). Other highlights were “Alone Again Or”, “Sunday Morning” and “Care of Cell 44”. I wasn’t quite as fond of Vol 2, probably because I could quite happily go through the rest of my life without hearing “All the Young Dudes” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” again, although Sweet’s version of Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl” is a beauty, and Hoffs’ treatment of “Everything I Own” makes me look on Bread with a kinder eye.

Vol 3 is better, starting beautifully with Sweet singing REM’s “Sitting Still” before handing over to Hoffs for a driving gender-bent version of Elvis Costello’s “Girls Talk”. She also does a good job with Chrissie Hynde’s “Kid”, on which Sweet pays note-perfect homage to Jimmy Honeyman-Scott’s classic guitar solo. His version of the Bongos’ “The Bulrushes” is exquisite, and the two voices blend well on another favourite Petty song, “Free Fallin'”.

Not every record that works its way into my affections has to be a masterpiece. These are great records to play in the car, and that’s enough. As far as I’m concerned, Sid ‘n’ Susie — as they like to call themselves in this context — can carry on turning them out for as long as they like.

* The photograph of Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet is from the cover of Under the Covers Vol 1 and was taken by Henry Diltz.