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Blake’s London

Blake 1In 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.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Blake and Peckham? The connection, of course, his ‘vision of angels’ celebrated by mural behind the Goose Green swings that has a history of its own:

    January 24, 2014
  2. james joughin #

    Nothing too profound to say, Richard. I’ve enjoyed your writing over the years, from Dylan to Sandy Lyle. Your blog is a little treasure and this piece on John Zorn and Blake is a cracker.

    January 24, 2014
  3. #

    Beautiful track you’ve included, Richard… William Blake aficionados who don’t know Jim Jarmusch’s DEAD MAN should acquaint themselves. The spirit of the poet pervades the film whose central character, an accountant played by Johnny Depp, happens to be called William Blake. The Depp character only realises that he has the same name as the poet when the Native American Chief Nobody tells him about being taken to London to meet him! Amongst other things the film is a great western-cum-road movie, and Neil Young provides the sparse tense score (solo guitar with, I think, barrel organ). Rudy Wurlitzer, writer of PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, worked with Jarmusch on the ideas for the film but receives no credit. He later did a ‘novelistation’, THE DROP EDGE OF YONDER. And, yes, Wurlitzer is a scion of the jukebox family.

    January 24, 2014
    • Thanks for that, Paul. Wurlitzer also wrote the screenplay for Monte Hellman’s great Two-Lane Blacktop.

      January 24, 2014
  4. #

    Yes, it’s one of the essential road movies; and Wurlitzer wrote another one, the much neglected CANDY MOUNTAIN for Robert Frank. As I remember, the musician protagonist is also on something of a grail/guitar quest. Wurlitzer distilled his experience of working for the movies into the novel SLOW FADE. it’s reads at times like the novelist was also around the set of Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE! One of the main characters in the book is a road manager so there is some very interesting music business stuff at the beginning.

    January 26, 2014

    Many thanks for highlighting Mike Westbrook’s forthcoming performance of ‘Glad Day’ at St Giles-in-the-Fields; it’s one of my favourite Westbrook pieces – a great recorded version was issued a few years ago – and the chance to hear it live is, as you say, not to be missed. Lovely building to hear it in, too; the Globe Theatre holds its Christmas concerts for friends and members there and on the occasions I have attended the choir has always sounded wonderful – should be a great acoustic space for the Queldryk Choral Ensemble. It’s probably also worth mentioning that buying a ticket for this performance is doubly worthwhile in that it allows us to make a financial contribution to London’s homeless.

    John Zorn – I’ve always found the sheer volume of his recordings somewhat intimidating; just too much to keep up with. As a result, I’ve limited myself to buying recordings by him that feature musicians I’m familiar with – ‘Big Gundown’, ‘Spillane’, ‘News for Lulu’ and some of the recordings by his Masada group (with Dave Douglas). But are there any other recordings by Zorn that you would particularly recommend? I saw some of his 60th birthday performances at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam last year (Marc Ribot – fantastic!) and was blown away by the quality and range of Zorn’s work. I would really like to have a few more of his recordings – but where to start?

    January 27, 2014
    • Graham: I have exactly the same problem with Zorn, and in the past I’ve solved it with exactly the same records. It was the Blake connection that persuaded me to re-engage and invest in some of his newer things. So I can’t help you at the moment. But I’ll be doing some more investigation.

      January 27, 2014
    • Mick Steels #

      Zorn is intimidatingly prolific, but check out any of the stuff he did with the amazing Derek Bailey. Everything the late guitarist recorded is worthy of investigation.

      January 27, 2014

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