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Pieces of Robert Wyatt

The Amazing BandWhen I read, in the new issue of Uncut magazine, that Robert Wyatt has decided to stop making music, I felt an immediate pang of dismay. So I rang him up to see if he really meant it. His reply was to tell me a little story about the novelist Jean Rhys, who, after a long period of inactivity, responded to her publisher’s gentle suggestion that she might like to write another book by asking him if he’d enjoyed her last one. “Yes, of course,” he answered. “Well, read it again,” Rhys said.

We could all do a lot worse than work our way through Robert’s albums, starting with 1970’s End of an Ear, which includes his fabulous deconstruction of Gil Evans’s “Las Vegas Tango”, and concluding with 2010’s magnificent ‘…for the ghosts within’, on which he shares the credit with the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and the violinist/arranger Ros Stephen. And we could cherish memories of live performances stretching, in my case, from the Soft Machine at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls in 1970 to Robert’s guest appearance — singing and whistling on “Rado de Nube” and playing cornet on “Song for Che” — with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra as part of Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown season at the Festival Hall in 2009.

We can also read Marcus O’Dair’s Different Every Time, an “authorised biography” of Robert, published today. Diligently researched and sympathetically told, it gives us the best all-round view we’re likely to get of the man who came to attention baring his torso behind a drum kit with Soft Machine everywhere from UFO to the Proms before the accident in 1973, at the age of 28, that cost him the use of his legs and propelled him into a different sort of existence, the one that produced Rock Bottom, “I’m a Believer”, Ruth is Stranger than Richard, “Shipbuilding”, “At Last I Am Free”, Old Rottenhat, Dondestan, Shleep and Comicopera, as well as collaborations with the likes of Carla Bley, Brian Eno, the Raincoats, Scritti Politti, Hot Chip and many others, most of them listed in O’Dair’s discography.

I say “most of them” because I’ve noticed an omission: a 1970 session with the Amazing Band, featuring the great cartoonist/illustrator Mal Dean on trumpet, Rab Spall on violin and accordion, Maia Spall on voice, Mick Brennan and Chris Francis on alto saxophones, Jim Mullen on bass and harmonica and Wyatt on drums and voice. Soon after they recorded it, Robert gave me an acetate of the proposed album, with a sleeve he’d made up himself, featuring the collage you see above. It wasn’t until 1997 that the music — just under 40 minutes of free improvisation — finally saw the light of day, released under the title Roar on the FMR label.

I listened to the acetate again last night and it remains a lovely example of the kind of open-minded, non-idiomatic, anti-materialistic music that was in the air back then. And still is, if you look hard enough. I’m sorry, of course, that seemingly there won’t be any more of it from Robert himself. But what he’s given us is quite enough to be going on with.

* Different Every Time is published by Serpent’s Tail (£20). Robert Wyatt will be talking to Marcus O’Dair at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on November 23, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Different Every Time arrived today. I’ve not had time to read it yet but I shivered when I saw your post. Is this book a musical epitaph? I loved Moon In June and Matching Mole and that performance with Charlie Haden was the highlight. But I’d be happy to hear more.

    October 30, 2014
  2. Reblogged this on Blabber 'n' Smoke and commented:
    Excellent piece on Robert Wyatt by Richard Williams

    October 31, 2014
  3. Hope you don’t mind, I reblogged this. Two reasons. It’s a great read and I’ve never seen the reblog button before.

    October 31, 2014
  4. Ian Cole #

    As you say, a great shame but Robert Wyatt has given us an awful lot to be very grateful for. In terms of live performance I saw him with Soft Machine and a remarkable gig with Kevin Ayers Whole World with Lol Coxhill and a young Mike Oldfield in 1970 and finally witnessed a great tribute to him in the unlikely environment of Newark Palace theatre in 2006. Robert did not play but was in the audience, grinning broadly. A great band, includingJulie Tippets, Harry Beckett, Phil Manzanera and George Khan, did his music full justice and for anyone interested I think that a cd of the event called Soupsongs is still available and worth seeking out.

    November 1, 2014
  5. Richard, perhaps I am delving into a mystery (sometimes unhelpful), or prying into matters to be kept private. But curiosity leads me to ask:

    Did Robert give any further clues, beyond the parallel/parable of Jean Rhys?

    Physical exhaustion, a contented feeling of completion, a disgruntlement with critical and/or popular reception, a wish to devote himself to other matters …?

    The Jean Rhys story might, I suppose, mean any of these, or something else.

    Does the Uncut article give any reasons?

    Briefly, I feel Robert has brought a great and unusually diverse original florilegium of music into the world. Has brought together and participated in encounters with a similarly vast spectrum of musicians (I think also of Annie Whitehead, Kevin Ayers (well, you certainly mentioned his first famous band!), Paul Weller, Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, David Gilmour, Philip Catherine, Carla Bley, Michael and also Karen Mantler, Orphy Robinson, Gary Windo, Fred Frith …. that’s only a large handful, but it’s Don Cherry proportions!). And given voice to all sorts of instruments, in those all sorts of contexts, lineups and outputs.

    And has also been responsible for some of the most outrageous and ingenious puns in the wide world of music.

    He has every right to rest from his herculean labours! And only hope his reasons are not – for him – “negative” ones.

    November 2, 2014
  6. John Evans #

    On the subject of outrageous puns in the world of music, here is one I heard earlier (last Friday at Kenny Wheeler’s memorial service, in John Taylor’s tribute to Kenny:

    A concert pianist, on tour in Italy, goes to the venue in the afternoon and watches the local piano tuner do a first-class job of preparing the instrument. He thanks him warmly and asks him what he is called. ‘My name is Oppurgnocchitti,’ comes the reply. In the evening the pianist returns to the venue and is horrified to find that the piano now sounds awful. He urges the manager to recall the tuner while there is still time to put things right before the concert. ‘That will not be possible, signore,’ comes the reply, ‘I am afraid that Oppurgnocchitti only tunes once.’

    November 3, 2014
  7. Chris Francis #

    Hi Richard, just came across your piece about Robert. He was a fine jazz drummer and I did a few gigs with him and bassist Georg Jensen in a church on the edge of Ealing Common. We were all into Ornette’s trio sound and the acoustics in the church were amazing. Roberts playing was fantastic and inspiring for Georg and me. I think this must have been around the time of the Amazing Band gigs that I did.

    Best regards,

    Chris Francis.

    March 19, 2015

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