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Memphis in the meantime

stax-records-10The purple melamine egg chair, suspended on a chain from the ceiling, swung slowly around above the white shag-pile carpet, disclosing a first sight of its occupant. This was the shaven-headed Isaac Hayes, the recipient that very day in February 1971 of an award for the sales of Hot Buttered Soul, an album released two years earlier and something of a game-changer. Its success had announced a new era, one that promised undiminished creativity and infinite success.

Outside the building on East McLemore Avenue in Memphis, the sign that said SOULSVILLE U.S.A. was still to be seen above the entrance to the old cinema. The special magic, however, had left by the back door. Stax-Volt Records still made hits, and would make many more in the next three or four years, but no longer in the organic, all-for-one-and-one-for-all manner that had characterised the label’s true golden era in the 1960s.

Otis Redding was dead, along with four of the Bar-Kays. Sam & Dave had gone, whisked back to Atlantic Records by Jerry Wexler along with the entire Stax back catalogue upon the expiry of a distribution deal that ended in severe acrimony and tore the heart out of the company started by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in 1959. Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper, no longer wanted on the payroll, had decamped, in Booker’s case to Los Angeles and in Cropper’s to his own Memphis studio. Hayes and his erstwhile partner David Porter had ceased writing together.

True, as I drove around Memphis that week on assignment for the Melody Maker I was listening to Johnnie Taylor’s “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” on WDIA, the great R&B station that had once numbered B.B.King and Rufus Thomas among its DJs. Here was a newly minted Stax classic in heavy rotation alongside Gladys Knight’s “If I Were Your Woman”, the Chairmen of the Board’s “Pay to the Piper”, Candi Staton’s “He Called Me Baby” and Diana Ross’s “Remember Me”. And back in the Stax offices all was brightness and optimism as I interviewed Hayes, Porter (then attempting to launch his own solo career) and others, watched the reconstituted Bar-Kays prepare a recording session in the studio, and met various members of the hierarchy, including Stewart, Al Bell and Deanie Parker.

But, as Robert Gordon describes in Respect Yourself, his new history of the label, just published in the US and the UK by Bloomsbury, bad things lay just around the corner. Bell, an energetic, charismatic, visionary wheeler-dealer brought in by Stewart to lengthen the company’s reach, had big plans for expansion, decentralisation and community involvement, which would eventually lead to the filming of the Wattstax movie in Los Angeles. But the Atlantic debacle — caused by Wexler’s lawyers inserting a clause that Stewart failed to read before signing — turned out to be the first of many reverses that led to the company’s closure in January 1976, under siege from a variety of creditors.

In the beginning Stax was a modest operation run by a core of perhaps a dozen enthusiastic and talented people to whom skin colour was never a consideration and who were surprised and delighted by their success. Then, having been screwed by the business, it decided it had to play by the business’s rules, which meant learning about payola and hiring men with guns. And there, with growth, was where it started to go wrong. “Employees wandered the halls not knowing each other’s names, even what their jobs were,” Gordon writes, and quotes Stewart: “I couldn’t go to the studio and solve people’s problems like had had before. Six people, eight people — you can do that.”

Gordon sets the story in the context of the civil rights struggle, including school busing, union activity, riots and the murder of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King in 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where Stax’s artists, writers and producers often hung out. It was at the Lorraine, two years earlier, that Hayes and Porter had got together with Mable John, who had just been signed to the label after an unsuccessful spell with Motown.

“Isaac and David said, ‘Did you bring anything with you to record?'” she told me a few years ago in an interview for the Guardian. “I said no. I didn’t take anything to Motown to record. Motown told you what they wanted you to do and how they wanted you to do it. That’s how Motown was created. So Isaac and David said, ‘We’ll get something together for you.’ Since I was only going to be there for four days, they would come over to the Lorraine Motel, where I was staying, and we would use it as a place to write.

“They had a piano brought up to my room, but by the end of the second day they still didn’t have anything for me. So I said to them, ‘There’s a story that I need to tell. It’s about a bad marriage.’ Isaac began to play. David had a pad and pencil and he was standing beside me, with the pad on top of the piano. As I talked, he’s day, ‘You could sing that. If you take the last thing you just said and we put that at the beginning of the verse, we could do it just like that.’ And Isaac carried on playing. I had no idea how the music or the melody should go. I just knew it was a story that was inside of me. It was a pain and it need to get out. And when we got finished that night, we had it.”

The next day, over at the converted cinema on East McLemore, in company with the A-team, they recorded it. And of all the great records Stax made, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” remains my favourite.

I had a great time in Memphis that week in 1971. There was an evening at a club called TJs, a musicians’ hangout where the blind singer-pianist Ronnie Milsap, some years before his move to Nashville and swift transformation into a country superstar, played a couple of sets of dynamite blue-eyed soul, including a version of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” that I can still hear today. Another night some college kids who were working at a hamburger joint took me to an after-hours bar in West Memphis, on the other side of the Mississippi, where the four-piece house band was good enough to have been the understudies to the MGs or the Hi rhythm section.

But at Stax, for all the cheerful sales patter, there was a sense of unease. It all seemed a little too bright, a little too brittle. Were Margie Joseph and Billy Eckstine, their latest signings, really the heirs to Carla Thomas and William Bell? I went to interview Cropper, who was at his new studio, TMI (Trans Maximus Inc), cutting tracks with his old friend Eddie Floyd. They were good to talk to — Cropper later wrote me the only thank-you note I’ve ever received from an interviewee — and the music sounded great, but you could tell nothing was quite the same as it had been only four or five years earlier.

Some people were willing to admit, although not on the record, that things had never been the same between black and white after Dr King’s murder. In Gordon’s view, race was certainly a significant factor in the tragedy that overwhelmed Stax: once Al Bell took effective control, there were plenty of powerful people in Memphis and elsewhere who did not want to see a black man running an operation that was making it possible for black artists to get rich and ride around in limousines.

Gordon relates how in 1981, after lying derelict for several years, the Stax building was sold to a church for $10 (that’s right: ten dollars). They demolished it in 1989. A decade later, realising what had been done, the city rebuilt it to the original specification as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, under the guidance of Deanie Parker. Respect Yourself is a terrific book, and a reminder of some wonderful, timeless music, but it’s a sad, sad story.

Julian Arguelles

Julian ArguellesAmid the general euphoria and high-octane wackiness with which the performances of Loose Tubes lit up the London jazz scene in the second half of the 1980s, Julian Arguelles’s saxophone solos were always a highlight: calm, beautifully shaped, emotionally resonant. He was still in his teens, diminutive and boyish-looking, when he first appeared with that extraordinary collective, but his playing already possessed a maturity that suggested a long and rewarding career to come.

After Loose Tubes disbanded in 1990 (they’re reforming in May for dates at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Ronnie Scott’s) he formed an octet which made two albums that stand among the most stimulating documents of their time: Skull View (Babel, 1997) and Escapade (Provocateur, 1999) are full of memorable composing, resourceful arranging and fine improvising from the likes of Mike Walker (guitar), Mario Laginha (piano) and Django Bates (tenor horn). Arguelles managed to make the ensemble reflect his own qualities. This is music that manages to be supremely lyrical while staying cliche-free, and in which exquisite textures are coaxed from a seemingly limited palette. If you can find the discs, they’ll repay the investment.

Now he has a new album out: Circularity, on the Rome-based CamJazz label, in which he is joined by the pianist John Taylor, the bassist Dave Holland and the drummer Martin France. Back in 1990 Taylor and France featured on Arguelles’s recording debut as a leader, a quartet album on the Ah Um label called Phaedrus (on which Mick Hutton was the bassist), and the drummer was also present on the octet albums.

Arguelles is 48 now, no longer a precociously gifted youngster but a musician of poise and substance, equally eloquent on his soprano and tenor instruments, fully at home in this A-team company, capable of providing a set of compositions that play to his own strengths while providing a challenge for his companions, each of whom performs to the height of his known abilities. I don’t suppose Taylor has ever played an ungraceful note in his life, while Holland — a US resident since answering Miles Davis’s siren call in 1968 — gives every sign of enjoying the chance to play with compatriots. France keeps the whole thing cooking with a wonderfully light touch and an unflagging rhythmic imagination.

And if, like me, you have a weakness for jazz inflected by what Jelly Roll Morton famously called “the Spanish tinge”, meaning such things as John Coltrane’s “Ole”, Gil Evans’s “Las Vegas Tango”, Albert Mangelsdorff’s “Never Let It End” and Charlie Haden’s “Song for Che”, you’ll enjoy the Arguelles quartet’s “Unopened Letter”, which starts in the time-honoured manner with double-stopped bass strums and soprano trills and works its way through an exemplary seven minutes of intense but never forbidding collective invention.

* The photograph above is from the sleeve of Circularity, and was taken by the recording engineer, Curtis Schwartz. Left to right: John Taylor, Dave Holland, Julian Arguelles and Martin France. 

Hakon Stene

Hakon Stene 2Normally I wouldn’t be telling you now about an album that’s several weeks away from its release date, but in the case of Hakon Stene’s Lush Laments for Lazy Mammal I can’t wait that long. Since I first put an advance copy on the CD player, it’s been a struggle to listen to anything else. No space — workroom, car, outdoors — seems complete at the moment without its shimmering textures.

Stene is a Norwegian percussionist of considerable experience in all kinds of music.  He was a founder of a group called asimisimasa, performing the work of modern classical composers such as Brian Ferneyhough and Alvin Lucier, and he’s currently a research fellow at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, developing new repertoire for multi-percussion. I went to see him at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last week, performing the Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen’s Black Box Music with the London Sinfonietta, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. But the experience didn’t change my feelings about his album.

Lush Laments for Lazy Mammal — to be released next month on the Oslo-based Hubro label, also the home of Huntsville, one of my favourite bands, and the interesting experimental guitarist Stein Urheim — consists of six compositions by the British composer Laurence Crane and one apiece by Gavin Bryars, Christian Wallumrod and Stene himself. They’re played by Stene on regular and quarter-tone vibraphones, bowed marimba, electric guitar, acoustic guitar with e-bow, electric keyboards and piano, with appearances by Tanja Orning (cello), Hans Christian Kjos Sorensen (cembalom) and Heloisa Amaral and Wallumrod (pianos).

I suppose you’d call this minimalist music, in the sense that there isn’t much going on here in terms of incident and gesture. What the pieces have in common, apart from the overall texture imposed by the keyboards and tuned percussion instruments, is a desire to isolate and exalt the process of modulation. This is a strongly tonal music from which virtually everything has been removed except the simple and repetitive chord changes, which are allowed to occur regularly but free from an explicit pulse, exposing the harmonic shift as the principal trigger mechanism for the emotions, as it is in so many kinds of music.

Here is Stene talking about his decision to play instruments other than the percussion for which he is known: “I am definitely not to be regarded as a guitarist any more (and absolutely not as a pianist!), but all my experience as a contemporary percussionist, where one must constantly adjust oneself to new playing situations and instruments, somehow makes it feasible. I don’t approach these instruments, for example the piano, as an altar, but as a tool for playing these relatively simple pieces. This is the kind of attitude that percussionists often have: instruments are tools one uses in order to produce a particular sound.”

It’s hard to find a language in which to write about this music. In its meditative tone and the beauty of his textures, it reminds me strongly of my favourite pieces by Morton Feldman, “Rothko Chapel” and “For Samuel Beckett”. It’s also reminiscent of some of the Necks’ work. And some of it (like Crane’s “Blue Blue Blue” — here’s a snatch of it) reminds me of what happens when the Beach Boys’ more experimental records are stripped right down to the basic rhythm track. So it might be best just to leave you with a couple more examples. Here’s Crane’s “Prelude for HS”, the first track from the album, with Stene on vibraphone, Orning on cello and Wallumrod on piano. And here’s Stene’s gorgeously ecstatic version of Crane’s “Riis”, on which he plays everything. You’ll get the idea pretty quickly. To me, this is a wonderfully pure distillation of what music can do.

* The photograph of Stene is from his website: http://www.hakonstene.net.

(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet

I remember John Lennon remarking on his affection for songs with brackets in the title. It’s a pure-pop thing, and it was a regular feature of the charts from the late ’50s to the mid-’60s. I like them, too: “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, “Nothin’ Shakin’ (But the Leaves on the Trees)”, “(‘Til) I Kissed You”, “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”, “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)”, “Kentucky Bluebird (Message to Martha)”, “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave”, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)”, “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” and so on.

My favourite brackets belong to a song released 50 years ago this month: “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” by the Reflections, which reached No 6 in the Billboard Hot 100 and, amazingly, No 3 in the Cashbox R&B chart. Amazing, that is, because the Reflections were a white vocal quintet — Tony Micale (lead), Phil Castrodale (first tenor), Dan Bennie (second tenor), Ray Steinberg (baritone) and John Dean (bass) — whose doowop-based style was closely modelled on that of the Four Seasons.

It’s a fabulous record, quite the equal of any of the Seasons’ hits. Written by Bob Hamilton and Freddie Gorman and produced by Rob Reeco for the Detroit-based Golden World label, it has a lyric as great as its title (“I’m gonna buy her pretty presents / Just like the ones in the catalogue” — but only, he reveals in the last verse, if he can find a job), a strong pop melody, great lead and backing vocals, and a driving rhythm track: just listen to the way the handclaps carry the beat while the drummer provides a brilliantly syncopated running commentary on his snare. Here’s a sound-only link of much better quality, recorded from an original Golden World 45 (and sounding a little sharper than my UK copy, released on the Stateside label), in which all the elements are clearly audible.

The baritone sax solo gives a clue to where and when it was made. It’s surely the work of Mike Terry, moonlighting from the Motown studios, where he had already provided a similar service on Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” and Mary Wells’ “You Lost the Sweetest Boy”. Which means that the bassist and drummer are very probably James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, also on surreptitious leave from Berry Gordy’s empire. That would explain a great deal about the quality of the track.

Golden World, founded in 1963 by Ed Wingate and Joanne Bratton, failed to match the achievements of its local rival, although some great records were made in its studio. Gordy bought up the company, including the sister label, Ric Tic Records (J.J.Barnes, Edwin Starr etc), in 1966. By that time the Reflections had failed to find a successful follow-up to their great hit, despite trying to recreate the musical formula with “Like Columbus Did” and “Comin’ At You”. But 50 years later they’re still performing, with Micale and Dean now joined by three singers formerly with other Detroit groups, and “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet” still lives up to its title.

And it you want to know how to dance to it (and how to dress for the occasion), watch this delightful clip from Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, dated May 30, 1964, when the Reflections were high in the charts:

The N.E.W. thing

N.E.W. liveI could only stay for a single set of the trio called N.E.W. — Steve Noble (drums), John Edwards (double bass) and Alex Ward (guitar) — at Cafe Oto tonight, but it was enough to get excited about. This is an improvising group of ferocious intensity: for my taste, maybe the most effective high-volume band I’ve heard since Tony Williams’s Lifetime set the standard for such adventures more than 40 years ago.

The first piece lasted half an hour, in which everybody played without a break. They work with patterns rather than tempos, usually set by Noble’s relentlessly attacking sticks, mallets or brushes (he also has a way with cymbals that makes me think he’s the post-industrial Billy Higgins). Edwards, surely the most remarkable bassist ever produced by Britain, works off and around the drums, tugging and hammering the strings to produce huge surges of sound and in one passage bowing them above his left hand on the fingerboard while the drummer momentarily toyed  with a light Latin vamp. As for Ward, he is a constant astonishment: Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner”, Sonny Sharrock’s work with Herbie Mann and Last Exit, Robert Fripp’s solo on King Crimson’s “A Sailor’s Tale” and Derek Bailey’s amplified solo pieces — he doesn’t sound like any of them, but they might be some of the sources of inspiration behind the barrage of howling, squealing, chattering and whining but always coherent and compelling noise that he sets up.

They’ve been playing together in this configuration for half a dozen years, and the degree of empathy is phenomenal. You can hear it on their new album, Motion, a vinyl-only release on the Dancing Wayang label, limited to 300 copies (www.dancingwayang.com). The product of a studio session, it can’t possibly convey the impact of hearing them playing to an audience in a small room, but it has other, equally worthwhile qualities.

Try to imagine how a combination of Hendrix, Charles Mingus and Keith Moon might sound, stripped of ego, transported to Dalston in 2014, with modern amplification turned all the way up. If that might be your idea of a good time, don’t miss ’em.

Down from the Canyon

Judith OwenThere was a lot of history ranged alongside Judith Owen on the small stage in the basement room of the St James Theatre in London last night. The collective recording credits of the bass guitarist Leland Sklar, the guitarist Waddy Wachtel and the drummer Russ Kunkel include Tapestry, Sweet Baby James, Blue and Ladies of the Canyon, For Everyman and The PretenderHeart Like a Wheel and Hasten Down the Wind and other cornerstone works of the 1970s Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter movement. Not the kind of rhythm section you might expect to find on an average March night a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.

The gig was a showcase for Owen’s new album, Ebb & Flow. Her eighth, it is released next month and was recorded with these same musicians in Hollywood last year: a bit of a dream come true for the Welsh singer-songwriter, who will be known to some as a participating singer in some of Richard Thompson’s projects, including the 1,000 Years of Popular Music show. She’s a gifted writer, an extremely fine singer and an excellent pianist, her playing meshing perfectly with the de luxe work of her accompanists: Sklar’s purring bass lines, Wachtel’s deft melodic fills and turnarounds, Kunkel’s majestic underplaying and sense of texture. Visually, too, they were a treat: Sklar with an elegant white beard almost long enough to get tangled in his strings, Wachtel with mad grey curls and granny glasses, and Kunkel, shaven-headed and neatly suited and wearing shades, looking rather alarmingly as though he had just finished a stint guarding the door of an Essex nightclub.

Some of her new songs, such as “Train Out of Hollywood” and “Some Arrows Go in Deep”, are good enough to keep company with the work of her 1970s inspirations: Joni, the young Elton John and so on. I was sorry she didn’t do “About Love”, a featherweight jazz waltz darkened by the undertow of an irresistible descending chord sequence. When she announced that she was going to do James Taylor’s “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox” with the bass player and the drummer from the original record, Sklar cracked: “We finally get to do it right.”

Owen is married to Harry Shearer, the American actor and comedian who played Derek Smalls in This Spinal Tap and is the voice of Mr Burns (and many other characters) in The Simpsons. She is the daughter of an opera singer and has an ageless and unusually flexible sort of voice — listening to her blind, it’s impossible to guess her age, which is, shall we say, somewhere between Laura Marling and Carole King — and she’s not short of a sense of humour herself. Her “subversive” covers included a sultry, slowed-down version of Mungo Jerry’s laddishly lecherous “In  the Summertime” (reminding me that I was in Pye’s old Marble Arch studios — now demolished — when Ray Dorset and his colleagues were putting the finishing touches to that song in the spring of 1970). Approaching it, she said, she thought to herself: “What would Joni do? She’d do it about an older woman checking out the boys of summer.” So she did.

You could see why a singer of Owen’s type might love playing with these musicians, whose principal devotion is to the song they happen to be playing at the time. Musically, their discretion is absolute: when she gave them each an eight-bar solo on the final number, none of them did much more than they’d been doing in accompaniment, and it was perfect. To see them play live was to get an idea of how, like all the finest session musicians, they can create arrangements as they go along, out of experience and imagination. It was lovely to watch. And if you’re the kind of person who’s worn out numerous copies of Tapestry and Sweet Baby James, Ebb & Flow is a grown-up record that won’t disappoint.

Songs of the South

Rosanne CashYou have to wait until the 11th and final track of Rosanne Cash’s new album, The River and the Thread, for the latest evidence in  support of my theory that there has never been a bad record featuring the electric sitar, that curious hybrid invented in the late ’60s by the Danelectro company of New Jersey.

Among my own favourite examples would be not just obvious things like the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” (1968), Joe South’s “Games People Play” (1969), the Stylistics’ “You Are Everything” (1971), and Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” (1972), but the Hollies’ “The Baby” (also made in 1972, after Mikael Rickfors had replaced Allan Clarke, and the group’s greatest single, in my view), Paul Young’s stormingly soulful and brilliantly arranged “Tomb of Memories” (1983), and Pat Metheny’s piercingly beautiful “Last Train Home”, a track from the 1987 album Still Life (Talking) and a treat even for those who might not otherwise have much interest in Metheny’s work.

Anyway, back to Rosanne Cash. I bought The River and the Thread — released on the Blue Note label, an example of the broadminded approach of the company’s current president, Don Was — after reading an eloquent 10/10 review by Luke Torn in the January issue of Uncut. I don’t often find reviews to be very reliable guides these days, but this one was pretty close to the money. In more senses than one, actually, since I’m now going to have to embark on an expensive trawl back through the Rosanne Cash albums I’ve missed in recent years.

I found it to be an album that creeps up on you. The first time I played it, I got through half a dozen tracks thinking, “Well, this is pretty nice, but I don’t know about 10/10…” Then the songs started to grip, and by the last couple I was thinking it was excellent. The electric sitar topped it off, like a seal of approval. So I went straight back to the top, listened through again, and it turned out to be that good from start to finish.

Yes, it’s Americana, a somewhat over-familiar genre (particularly if you think that a genre that doesn’t include, say, bebop, doo-wop or hip-hop has no right to that name). But in Cash’s hands, and in those of her producer, guitarist and husband (and electric sitarist) John Leventhal, this voyage into the South — a set of songs, her first new material in seven years, inspired by Memphis, her birthplace, and Arkansas, where she grew up, and recent trips to the Delta, where she visited Dockery’s plantation, Faulkner’s house and Tallahatchie Bridge — largely sidesteps the cliched responses.

Lazy shuffles, slinky swamp-rock boogies, a great Derek Trucks slide guitar solo on “World of Strange Design” and a couple of lovely Leventhal arrangements — strings on “Night School”, trombones on “When the Master Calls the Roll” — typify the immaculate musicianship on show. The lyric make extensive use of geographical and cultural references — “combining the personal with the mythic,” as she puts it — with a constant presence of rivers. “A feather’s not a bird / The rain is not the sea / A stone is not a mountain / But a river runs through me” is how it starts, and “I was dreaming about the deepest blue / But what you seek is seeking you / You can cross the bridge and carve your name / But the river stays the same” is how it finishes.

Here’s the official eight-minute trailer for the album. It’s airbrushed, as these things usually are, but not indecently so. If The River and the Thread isn’t 10/10 for me, it’s certainly a solid eight, maybe eight and a half. I’m looking forward to seeing her London concert on April 30, at the Barbican. And if you happen to know of any bad records featuring an electric sitar, I’d be glad if you kept the information to yourself. This isn’t one of them.

* The photograph of Rosanne Cash is from the cover of The River and the Thread and was taken by Clay Patrick McBride.