In a pair of parallel alleyways under the railway line that runs through Lambeth from Waterloo station, parallel with the river, you will find two dozen panels like the one above, created by Southbank Mosaics, a non-profit community enterprise, to commemorate the work of the great English visionary William Blake. A few yards away is the housing estate that occupies the site on which stood the house where Blake and his wife lived between 1790 and 1800, and in which he composed and printed his Songs of Experience. One of those poems is called “London”, and this is how begins: “I wander thro’ each charter’d street / Near where the charter’d Thames does flow / And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe…” In the late 18th century, it needs to be said, the term “charter’d” could be taken to mean “in private ownership”. It’s a shattering poem, born of the conditions to which Blake bore witness every day of his life amid the teeming riverine streets, and it doesn’t seem to have lost any of its force or relevance.
Hercules Road, on which Blake’s house stood until it was demolished in 1912, is not a place to attract tourists in search of his traces. The anonymous postwar council estate — which bears the poet’s name and an appropriate plaque — occupies one side; the railway arches line the other. It takes some imagination to link it to the music composed by John Zorn for In Lambeth, an album inspired by the time Blake spent there.
This is Zorn’s second attempt to capture the poet’s spirit. The first, released in 2012 (also on the composer’s Tzadik label), was called Vision in Blakelight and was written for a sextet of keyboards, harp, vibes, bass, drums and percussion; its 10 sprightly, occasionally almost ecstatic pieces featured particularly fine playing by John Medeski on organ and Trevor Dunn on double bass.
In Lambeth, subtitled “Visions from the Walled Garden of William Blake”, filters that mood through a finer mesh. The group here is Zorn’s Gnostic Trio, in which two members of the Blakelight group, the harpist Carol Emanuel and Kenny Wolleson on vibes and bells, are joined by the guitar of Bill Frisell. The music is no less lively and active, often based on arpeggiated figurations reminiscent of the ostinatos of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, but its glistening instrumental timbres and the intimacy of the interplay between these brilliant musicians give it a character of its own. Here’s a track called “The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy”, referring to a female figure used by Blake to signify beauty and poetry (and possibly inspired by his wife, Catherine).
It’s as distinctive, in its own way, as the Jimmy Giuffre Trio of “The Train and the River”, as close as that to jazz — in fact impossible without it — yet breathing quite different air. Beyond category, and highly seductive.
In related Blake-and-jazz news: on Saturday, February 8, at the church of St Giles-in-the-Fields at the end of Denmark Street (once London’s Tin Pan Alley), Mike Westbrook and his musicians, including the Queldryk Choral Ensemble, will perform Glad Day, his celebrated settings of Blake’s poems, to promote the release of the music on a CD recorded live at the Toynbee Hall in London five years ago. This latest concert is dedicated to the memory of the poet Adrian Mitchell, with whom Westbrook worked on Tyger, the Blake-inspired musical performed at the National Theatre in 1971. Not to be missed, I’d say.