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Farewell to Tin Pan Alley

Denmark StreetTo live in London at the start of the 21st century is to enjoy a double-edged privilege. On the one hand there is access to a quite fantastic variety of creative activities and the energy that sustains them. On the other there is the widening gap between extreme affluence and the lives of ordinary people. The imminent fate of Denmark Street — London’s Tin Pan Alley — is where those two phenomena collide, with unhappy results.

For me, much of London’s remaining attraction lies in those places — a stretch of Berwick Street in Soho, the top end of Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, the northern extremity of Portobello Road in Notting Hill — where independent and often eccentric enterprises still create a village atmosphere consonant with local history. Sooner or later they’ll all be destroyed by creeping affluence. Denmark Street is the latest to go, about to be suffocated by the gentrificational impact of the new Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road, a few yards away.

The north side of the street — the side you can see in my photography, taken before Christmas — is to be remodelled by the landowner/developer, who intends to erect luxury apartments in its place. Among the casualties will be several excellent musical instrument shops and the celebrated 12 Bar Club, which is due to close in mid-January.

Separated by Charing Cross Road from the eastern fringe of Soho, Denmark Street was laid out in the 16th century and named after Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Princess Anne, who would reign as Queen of England from 1702-1707. Of the original 20 houses, completed by 1691, eight remain, apparently making it the only street in London to retain 17th century facades on both sides.

Just over 350ft long, in the 18th and 19th centuries its location placed it in close proximity to the “rookery” of St Giles, a warren of tenements notorious for wretched poverty and every kind of vice, commemorated in William Hogarth’s series of coruscating engravings, Beer Street and Gin Lane.

A young composer and song publisher named Lawrence Wright set up his office at No 19 in 1911, and founded the Melody Maker there in January 1926. The launch edition included pieces on “Gramophone Record Making”, “The Banjo in the Modern Dance Orchestra”, and “America’s Idea of English Jazz”. In his front-page mission statement, the new publication’s editor, Edgar Jackson, made a point of  thanking the composer Horatio Nicholls — described as “one of the finest and most popular composers of lighter music, not only in England, but throughout the world” — for “allowing us the privilege of publishing his photograph”. Horatio Nicholls was, in fact, the nom de plume of Lawrence Wright.

Soon Wright’s neighbours included Rose Morris, Campbell Connelly and a small host of other publishers, including the London office of Irving Mills, publisher of Hoagy Carmichael and Duke Ellington. In 1952 the promoter Maurice Kinn founded the New Musical Express at No 5, and two years later the NME began compiling the UK’s first singles chart, a sign of the shift away from the sheet music sales that had hitherto provided the favoured measurement of popularity. Southern Music, Essex Music and Dick James Music were other publishers with addresses in a street that became known as Tin Pan Alley (a name first applied half a century earlier, for similar reasons, to a stretch of West 28th Street in Manhattan).

By the 1960s a number of rehearsal rooms and recording studios had been opened. Regent Sound, at No 4, was where the Rolling Stones recorded “Not Fade Away”, their first big hit, and the whole of their first album. The Gioconda coffee bar at No 9 was a favourite meeting place for scuffling young musicians.

My own memories of Denmark Street towards the end of its heyday include a cup of coffee at the Gioconda with Elton John, who was contracted to Dick James Music and had just recorded what would be his breakthrough album, and a visit one afternoon in August 1970 to a cramped rehearsal room to hear a band called Osibisa. A collection of musicians from Ghana, Nigeria, Trinidad, Grenada and Antigua led by the saxophonist Teddy Osei, they were about to do for African music what Santana had done for Latin music, fusing it with rock in a way that made it highly palatable to young white audiences. Their potential was unmistakeable, and I wrote something about them in the MM. By the time I paid them another visit, six months later, they had released a highly successful debut album and played a gig at Eton College.

In the 1990s there was another reason to visit Denmark Street when my late friend Sean Body turned the ground floor of No 4 into Helter Skelter, a wonderful shop devoted to books about music, new and second-hand. Like Sportspages, an equally unique establishment 100 yards down Charing Cross Road, it would not survive the impact of online retailing.

The 12-Bar opened in 1994 in premises built in 1635 for use as a stables; its audiences have witnessed performances by Bert Jansch, Joanna Newsom, Jeff Buckley, Robyn Hitchcock, K.T. Tunstall, Seasick Steve and many others. Among its last gigs, on January 7, will be the “minimum R&B” of the Falling Leaves.

Rose Morris, amazingly, is still at No 10 and, being on the south side, might even be around to celebrate the centenary of its arrival in the street in 2019. I don’t suppose it matters much that the current proprietors of the restaurant next door, now called La Giaconda, can’t spell their own history.

In this very interesting piece on his blog, The Great Wen, Peter Watts spoke in August to the developer, Lawrence Kirschel of Consolidated Development, who made nice noises about respecting the street’s traditions but whose plans for a performance space and for erecting statues of famous Tin Pan Alley names do not encourage optimism. I think I’d rather Denmark Street disappeared altogether — following another of Kirschel’s properties, the Marquee Club on Wardour Street, into oblivion — than be transformed into a miniature theme park.

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2014: the best bits

Lisa Dwan The mouth belongs to the actress Lisa Dwan, the only thing visible in an otherwise completely blacked-out Duchess Theatre during her performance of Samuel Beckett’s Not I, staged in London at the beginning of the year (and later in New York). It was part of an evening of three short Beckett monologues, all delivered by Dwan. Footfall and Rockabye were marvellous but Not I was as close to music as speech can get: a rapid-fire 10 minutes carrying a phenomenal emotional charge. There were lots of good things this year, but nothing better than that.

LIVE MUSIC

1. Louis Moholo-Moholo Quartet (Cafe Oto, May)

2. Charles Lloyd’s Wild Man Suite (Barbican, November)

3. Caetano Veloso (Barbican, May)

4. Evan Parker + AMM (Cafe Oto, October)

5. City of Poets (Pizza Express, September)

6. Dylan Howe’s Subterranean (Warwick Arts Centre, October)

7. Daniel Humair Quartet (Berlin Jazz Festival, November)

8. Rowland Sutherland’s Enlightenment (Union Cafe, December)

9. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames (Ronnie Scott’s, April)

10. The Necks (Cafe Oto, October)

11. Whahay (Vortex, November)

12. Plaistow (Pizza Express, November)

13. Kokomo (Half Moon, Putney, August)

14. René Urtreger Trio (Timothy Taylor Gallery, June)

15. Mike & Kate Westbrook: Glad Day (St Giles in the Fields, February)

16. Allen Toussaint (Ronnie Scott’s, April)

17. Christian Wallumrød Ensemble (Vortex, February)

18. Aki Takase & Alexander von Schlippenbach: Celebrating Eric Dolphy (Berlin Jazz Festival, November)

19. Jan Garbarek + Hilliard Singers (Temple Church, November)

20. Keith Tippett Octet (Cafe Oto, February)

21. Gilad Atzmon Quartet + Sigamos Quartet (Ronnie Scott’s, August)

22. The Pop Group (Islington Assembly Hall, October)

23. Jason Moran/Robert Glasper piano duo (Festival Hall, November)

24. Nick Malcolm Quartet (Vortex, June)

25. Bill Frisell’s Guitar in the Space Age (Barbican, November)

NEW RECORDINGS

1. Ambrose Akinmusire: the imagined savior is far easier to paint (Blue Note)

2. Steve Lehman Octet: Mise en Abîme (Pi)

3. Hakon Stene: Lush Laments for Lazy Mammal (Huber)

4. Peter Hammill: …all that might have been… (Fie)

5.  Mark Turner Quartet: Lathe of Heaven (ECM)

6. FKA twigs: LP1 (Young Turks)

7. Cécile McLorin Salvant: WomanChild (Mack Avenue)

8. Billy Childs: Map to the Treasure (Masterworks)

9. Alexander Hawkins: Song Singular (Babel)

10. Rosanne Cash: The River & the Thread (Columbia)

11. Paul Bley: Play Blue (ECM)

12. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Give the People What They Want (Dap-Tone)

13. Bobby Hutcherson: Enjoy the View (Blue Note)

14. Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)

15. Einstürzende Neubauten: Lament (Mute)

16. Bobby Wellins/Scottish NJO: Culloden Moor Suite (Spartacus)

17. Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden: Last Dance (ECM)

18. Raymond McDonald & Marilyn Crispell: Parallel Moments (Babel)

19. Lee Konitz/Dan Tepfer/Michael Janisch/Jeff Williams: First Meeting (Whirlwind)

20. Peirani & Parisien Duo Art: Belle Époque (ACT)

21. Ruben Blades: Tangos (Sunnyside)

22. Marc Ribot Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard (Pi)

23: John Zorn: Transmigration of the Magus (Tzadik)

24. Dom Coyote, Emily Barker & Ruben Engzell: Vena Portae (Humble Soul)

25. Louis Moholo-Moholo Unit: For the Blue Notes (Ogun)

ARCHIVE RECORDINGS

1. Bob Dylan: The Complete Basement Tapes (Columbia)

2. John Coltrane: Offering: The Complete Temple University Concert (Impulse)

3. Jon Hassell/Brian Eno: Fourth World Vol 1: Possible Musics (Glitterbeat)

4. Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4: New York Concerts (Elemental)

5. Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Oliv + Familie (Emanem)

6. Krzysztof Komeda / Andrzej Trzaskowski: Jazz in Polish Cinema (Jazz on Film)

7. Various: The Bert Berns Story Vol 3: Hang on Sloopy (Ace)

8. Mose Allison: Complete Prestige Recordings 1957-59 (Fresh Sound)

9. Duke Ellington: Contrapuntal Riposte (Squatty Roo)

10. Roy Orbison: Mystery Girl Deluxe Edition (Sony Legacy)

11. Don Cherry: Modern Art / Stockholm 1977 (Mellotronen)

12. Miles Davis: At the Fillmore (Columbia)

13. Various: Vamps et Vampire: The Songs of Serge Gainsbourg (Ace)

14. Schlippenbach Trio: First Recordings (Trost)

15. Charles Lloyd: Manhattan Stories (Resonance)

16. Joe Harriott: Southern Horizons / Free Form / Abstract (Fresh Sound)

17. Evelyn “Champagne” King: Action (BBR)

18. Joe Harriott/Amancio D’Silva: Hum Dono (Vocalion)

19. Various: Cracking the Cosimo Code (Ace)

20. Abelardo Barroso & Orquesta Sensacion: Cha Cha Cha (World Circuit)

FILMS: NEW

1. Winter Sleep (Kış Uykusu) (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

2. The Past (Le Passé) (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

3. Camille Claudel 1915 (dir. Bruno Dumont)

4. Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlowski)

5. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)

6. The Grandmaster (一代宗師) (dir. Wong Kar-Wai)

7. Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage) (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

8. Leviathan ( Левиафан) (dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev)

9. American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell)

10. Get On Up (dir. Tate Taylor)

FILMS: DOCUMENTARY

Night Will Fall (dir. Andre Singer)

Finding Vivian Maier (dir. John Maloof & Charlie Siskel)

Bayou Maharajah (dir. Lily Keber)

FILMS: REVIVED

Far from Vietnam (Loin du Vietnam) (dir. Chris Marker with Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens, Alain Resnais, 1967)

Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1968)

BOOKS: MUSIC

1. Marcus O’Dair: Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt (Serpent’s Tail)

2. Mark Ellen: Rock Stars Stole My Life (Hodder & Stoughton)

3. Colin Harper: Bathed in Lightning: John McLaughlin, the ’60s and the Emerald Beyond (Jawbone)

4. Rick Bragg: Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story (Canongate)

5. Harvey Kubernik: Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop & Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972 (Santa Monica Press)

6. Richard Havers: Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression (Thames & Hudson)

7. Victor Maymudes & Jacob Maymudes: Another Side of Bob Dylan (St Martin’s Press)

8. David Stubbs: Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany (Faber & Faber)

9. Joel Selvin: Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues (Counterpoint)

10. Steve Lowenthal: Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist (Chicago Review Press)

BOOKS: FICTION

Patrick Modiano: The Search Warrant (Collins Harvill)

BOOKS: POETRY

David Harsent: Fire Songs (Faber)

EXHIBITIONS

Late Turner: Painting Set Free (Tate Britain, London, September)

Anselm Kiefer (Royal Academy, London, October)

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs (Tate Modern, April)

AND FINALLY…

One afternoon in October a bespectacled young man sat down at an upright piano on the concourse of St Pancras International station and played “The Girl From Ipanema” very slowly, as though he were just inventing it, very gently testing the harmonic structure, finding new angles from which to approach the melody. He followed it with a couple of choruses of gospel-blues, investigated with a similar sense of understatement and absolute freshness. Then he got up and walked away.

A Thousand Ancestors

A Thousand AncestorsThe picture of the oarsman was taken by the Costa Rican photographer Michelle Arcila, and is part of project called A Thousand Ancestors, conceived with her husband, the Norwegian bassist Eivind Opsvik, at their base in Brooklyn. The results are out now in a 12×12 box containing 10 of Arcila’s prints and a matching number of Opsvik’s short solo pieces for bass, organ and other instruments, included in both vinyl album and CD forms.

According to a piece on Opsvik’s excellent website (which also includes links to the music he makes in a group called Overseas with the saxophonist Tony Malaby, in a duo with the singer/songwriter Aaron Jennings, and with others), the individual pieces of music correspond to specific images. The artists describe it as “an exploration of family history and the continuing influence of ancestral narratives on the present generation.”

The aim, they say, is to “slow time for the observer, and allow him/her to perhaps uncover distant buried memories of their own during the encounter.” Here’s an example: an image and a piece titled “A Strange Gratitude”.

The images and the music are as easy and rewarding to appreciate separately as together. Arcila’s photographs — whether portraits, landscapes, interiors, or close-ups of flowers and graves — display a cool, poised vision that certainly encourages you to spend time examining them (here’s her Flickr gallery). Opsvik’s miniatures incorporate a certain amount of relatively gentle noisemaking while also featuring solo and overdubbed arco strings in passages of powerful lyricism, sometimes using systems-like structures, occasionally floating free. Like his partners’ photographs, they’re austere but approachable.

Both elements are strong on atmosphere. I’d sign Opsvik up for a film soundtrack tomorrow. And I might very well ask Arcila to shoot it, too.

* A Thousand Ancestors is released on Opsvik’s Loyal label. The details are on his website: eivindopsik.com.

Visions of A Love Supreme

A Love Supreme 1“Welcome to the London branch of the Church of St John Coltrane,” the writer, editor and concert promoter Paul Bradshaw said, introducing last night’s event at the Union Chapel, the loveliest of the city’s performance spaces, featuring Rowland Sutherland’s Enlightenment, a large-scale “re-envisioning” of A Love Supreme.

It was 50 years to the day since Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones settled into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, to record their masterpiece in a single session. Sutherland’s 90-minute version involved himself and 14 other musicians working their way through an unbroken sequence of episodes that sometimes took direct inspiration from the work in question and at others explored underlying or suggested tendencies, taking in and finding ways to use the implications of Coltrane’s music both before December 9, 1965 and in the further year and a half preceding his death.

To give an idea of the richness of the resources at band, here’s the personnel: Sutherland (flute, alto flute), Cleveland Watkiss and Juwon Ogungbe (voices), Steve Williamson (tenor saxophone), Shabaka Hutchings (bass clarinet), Kadialy Kouyate (kora), Ansuman Biswas (tamboura, santoor, conch, tablas, miscellaneous small percussion), Orphy Robinson (xylosynth), Pat Thomas (keyboard, electronics), Nikki Yeoh (piano), Yaron Stavi (double bass), Mark Mondesir (drums), Crispin Ade Egun Robinson, Dave Pattman, and Ronald Thomas (bata drums, voices).

The piece began quietly with the strings of the tamboura and the kora, evoking the cultural wellsprings — India, West Africa — from Coltrane drew as he drove his music forward through the ferment of the early 1960s. Ogunbe and Watkiss recited devotional verses, starting with words from the Hindu mystic Swami Satchidananda and later using lines adapted from the 69-line poem that Coltrane included on the sleeve of the original album (“I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord…”). Watkiss scatted inventively and Ogunbe, alongside him in the chapel’s high pulpit, sang powerfully in Yoruba. Occasionally they were joined by the chants of the three bata drummers, lined up on the extreme right of the stage.

Even those who don’t get on with late Coltrane would have conceded that this ensemble brought not just passion but clarity to the methods the saxophonist used in the last months of his life, when he invited additional musicians to join the basic group (something he had been doing, in fact, since the celebrated 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard) in order to explore the possibilities of the musical equivalent of “speaking in tongues”. This was the development of a new (to the western world) language of ecstasy and catharsis, and it continues to divide opinion.

There were strikingly effective solos last night from a poised Yeoh, a ferocious Williamson, a wild Hutchings, a volcanic Mondesir, an entrancing Robinson and a cunning Thomas (who, as my friend Jody Gillett pointed out, “likes to keep the rest of them on their toes”), from Biswas on santoor (a small Indian cimbalom), and from Stavi, who produced an improvisation that fused Garrison’s suppleness with Charlie Haden’s spiritual power, provoking an ovation from the large and attentive audience.

Waves of energy surged back and forth across the stage, separated by passages of luminous serenity. A judicious pruning of 10 minutes or so might have done no harm, but even the most hardened atheist (that’s me) would have found it difficult to remain unmoved by the depth and intensity of these musicians’ creative response to one of jazz’s great cornerstones, sharing with us its undiminished power to inspire and uplift.

Summer of ’89

Donna Summer 1I always felt Donna Summer belonged in the second tier of female soul singers, below Aretha, Gladys and Dionne and alongside Irma Thomas, Candi Staton and Dee Dee Warwick, which isn’t bad company. What she had going for her, the thing that marked her out, was a hint of sadness in her tone. Even when she was at her most exultant and ecstatic (the obvious examples being “Could It Be Magic” and “I Feel Love”), there was a darker emotional undertow. I imagine it was that sense of ambiguity which caught Giorgio Moroder’s attention back in the mid-’70s. And somehow it was rendered even more potent by the contrast with the Munich producer’s machine-tooled beats.

Long after she and Moroder had parted company, she put her name and voice to a pop-disco masterpiece that illustrates better than anything what I’m trying to describe. And it came, much to my astonishment, from the team of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, with whom Summer decided to work after hearing the hits they’d made with Rick Astley. That was in 1987, and things weren’t going well in her relationship with David Geffen’s label. Her last hit, “She Works Hard for the Money”, had been four years earlier. Looking for a new angle, she made an album with Stock, Aitken and Waterman. But when Geffen heard it, he didn’t like it. As Waterman relates in the notes to the newly remastered and expanded reissue of Another Place and Time, the record company president asked for more guitars. Waterman, quite properly, told him where to get off and a stalemate ensued.

To break it, Rob Dickens, the head of WEA, Geffen’s European distributors, played the unreleased album to Ahmet Ertegun, who loved it. Which is how it came to be released, on the Atlantic label in the US and WEA in Europe, two years after being made. And how Donna Summer came to make her way back into the top 10 in the US and the UK with a perfectly standard, upbeat and affectless SA&W song called “This Time I Know It’s For Real”.

But the track Ertegun heard first, and the one that sold him on the project, was the one I’ve always been crazy about. Another SA&W composition, it’s called “Love’s About to Change My Heart”, a slice of pure pop-soul-disco that plays to every one of the singer’s strengths. From an out-of-tempo intro to a Moroder-ish four-on-the-floor that qualified, in 1989, as a retro gesture, aided by the producers’ meticulous attention to building and releasing tension constantly throughout the track, Summer takes a good tune and a lyric worthy of Hal David — “I’m waiting for the doorbell to chime / I always lived one day at a time / I thought that I was getting on fine / Never felt that I was alone until you changed my mind” — and soars. Give her a song like this, and she could make it sound like she’d lived it.

The three-CD reissue of the album contains many remixes and offers no fewer than nine versions of “Love’s About to Change My Heart”, which shows what a dancefloor favourite it was, even if it failed to make much noise on the charts. But the version I love is the first one I heard, the producers’ own mix for the original issue on a 45rpm single. Everything about its beautifully detailed three minutes and 43 seconds is perfect, including two moments of absolute pop transcendence created by the producers. The first comes at 2:24, when Summer is reflecting on her changed emotional state. “What did I know?” she asks, and her own voice suddenly appears from another direction, overlapping and repeating the final syllable with a gospel howl, like her subconscious mind bursting out from beneath the narrative. If you were dancing you’d throw up your arms and howl along. And then, at 3:02, the pounding 128bpm rhythm is cut for a full 10 seconds, leaving Donna and the backing choir hanging in the air, a cappella, until the beat comes crashing back in, with the choir commenting — encouraging or warning? — like a Greek chorus: “Changin’… changin’… changin’…” until Donna joins in — “Change me… change me…” and the piece starts to fade. Weirdly, that touch of genius isn’t on the album version.

Luckily, the single version is the last of the nine extra mixes on the third disc of the reissue. It’s a record I’ve loved for 25 years. In fact I’m going to play it again now, over and over again, as loud as I can get away with.

The photograph above appears on the reissue of Another Place and Time, on the Driven by the Music label, credited to the Donna Summer Archive.