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The Weather Station

The Weather StationIt was the liquid sound of a song called “Way It Is, Way It Could Be” that snagged my attention. The track was featured on one of those monthly-magazine sampler CDs (Uncut, in this case) that force you to take great care not to rip the cover as you remove it, and then leave you with a blob of sticky stuff to dispose of.

This time the stuff that really stuck was the track in question, by something calling itself the Weather Station. This turned out to be a 30-year-old Canadian woman called Tamara Lindeman, a singer and songwriter (and actress) based in Toronto: a new name to me. It seems that the Weather Station was a band once but is now just her, helped by friends such as Afie Jurvanen and Robbie Lackritz, who joined her to co-produce the new album, Loyalty, from which “Way It Is…” is taken.

The sound is nothing unusual, in a sense: light, folk-based, with fluid finger-picked guitars, gently supportive bass and pattering drum. It would be hard to carbon-date with any accuracy. As would Lindeman’s grave, thoughtful voice, which comes from the school of somewhere between Judy Collins and Sandy Denny.

But it had some strange quality about it that didn’t evaporate when the music stopped. I played it again a few more times, and then bought the album. I’m very glad I did. There’s more of the same, but from different trajectories, almost every song exuding a strong and individual musical personality, each one wrapped in a carefully shaped arrangement. A couple of tracks use small groups of woodwind and strings, very discreetly: just a wash of colour.

Those groups are actually just one player each (Jeremy Strachan and Anthony Wallace respectively), overdubbed. Lindeman plays guitars, keyboards, banjo and — for the final note of the album, in a lovely touch — vibraphone. Jurvanen adds drums, bass and more keyboards. And that’s all. The music never sounds cluttered, or even full. Economy of means is a significant factor here.

Then I started catching some of the words and decided that I wanted to know what she was singing about. Her voice, although pure and uninflected, sometimes obscures the lyrics. That may be intentional: like someone who talks softly to get you to lean in. What I could hear sounded interesting. When I started reading the words, my interest in the album redoubled — just like that.

She prints them on the sleeve as if they were prose, and they read like short stories. “You looked small in your coat, one hand up on the window, so long now you’d been lost in thought. No snow on the road — we’d been lucky and it looked like we would be well past Orleans”: that’s how “Way It is…” starts out. Here’s the opening of “Floodplain”: “All spring I was driving. Every river was flooded with rain, every stream a torrent. Over the highway bridges that run high across the plains, flooded. ‘Half the Maritimes,’ they say, ‘is running this way.'”

A little bit of Cormac McCarthy scene-setting, and then you come across something reminiscent of the plain-spoken intimacy of Raymond Carver’s poetry. From “I Mined”: “It started small — a simple thought. That there was something wrong. And if it’s caught I could set it right, or at least I could try.” From “At Full Height”, the song that ends with the single vibraphone chime: “If he don’t mean it, he won’t say it, and I can tell. If I don’t mean it, I can’t say it, and his face fell. But it’s so seldom I believe it — it takes a clear kind of day. Like air so cold it hurts to breathe it. (And the colour comes to my face.)”

That’s how she punctuates them. Punctuation in a song! Doesn’t happen often, even implicitly (I think of the first verses of “Thunder Road” and “The Boys of Summer”). And it works perfectly. These turn out to be short stories in prose-poem form, arranged with great scrupulousness and performed with imaginative sensitivity. At the moment I’m finding it hard to listen to anything else.

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Marcus Belgrave 1936-2015

Marcus BelgraveIt would be hard to exaggerate the influence, or indeed the excellence, of the small bands Ray Charles led in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One by one, their members have disappeared. (Rather movingly, three of Charles’s great saxophone players, Hank Crawford, David “Fathead” Newman and Leroy “Hog” Cooper, died within days of each other in January 2009.) Now another one has gone: the trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who joined Charles in 1958 and stayed five years, playing on the sessions that produced “What’d I Say” and the immortal Genius Sings the Blues album.

I particularly love Belgrave’s playing on Fathead, Newman’s first solo album and the initial release in Atlantic’s “Ray Charles Presents…” series, produced in 1959 by Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, with Charles on piano and Crawford, playing baritone, rounding out the three-man front line. It’s a typical and wonderful fusion of R&B feeling with mainstream jazz and bebop structures: completely natural and unaffected music, totally satisfying on every level. The warm-toned trumpet solos are deftly formed and joyously lyrical: it’s no accident that Clifford Brown was one of Belgrave’s early idols.

An excellent obituary by Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press (read it here) tells us that Belgrave was born in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1936. His cousin Cecil Payne, one of the handful of the outstanding baritone saxophonists of the bop era, taught him how to play the new music, and he played with Brownie — who was six years older — in a student band in Delaware. It was with Ray Charles that he learned to play fewer notes.

Tired of life on the road, he turned down offers from Duke Ellington, Horace Silver and Charles Mingus and settled in Detroit in 1963. It is said that he played on a few Motown hits of the period, including “Dancing in the Street”, and he certainly became an important figure on the local jazz scene, both as a player and as a teacher. Those he mentored included the pianist Geri Allen (with whom he appeared on several albums) and the saxophonist Kenny Garrett. He was also a guest soloist with Was (Not Was), the great boho-disco band led by Don and David Was in Detroit in the 1980s (that’s him on their classic dancefloor 12-inch “Wheel Me Out”).

Marcus Belgrave was one of those figures who ensured the continuity of the jazz tradition, taking what he had learnt from his elders and passing it on to later generations. He was, by all accounts, much loved in his community: when a thief took his custom-made copper-belled horn from his car earlier this year, the pawn shop in which it was spotted waived the $350 that it would normally have cost him to reclaim it, given that they had not been aware they were acquiring stolen property.

One way to remember him would be to enjoy his contributions to the solo sequences on “Hard Times” and “Weird Beard”, a couple of tracks from Fathead. Just beautiful, I hope you’ll agree.

Lambert & Stamp

Lambert & StampIt amazes me that so many documentary makers fail to heed the principal lesson of Asif Kapadia’s Senna, which is that any relevant archive footage, however scrappy, is more interesting than a talking head. It’s a pity that James D. Cooper didn’t learn it before he started putting together Lambert & Stamp, his film about the two men who managed the Who from their first success in 1964 until the relationship broke down in acrimony 10 years later.

A compelling subject is enough to carry the first half of the film. After that the viewer tires of extended close-ups of Pete Townshend, Chris Stamp and Roger Daltrey sitting in hotel rooms or studios, even when they’re saying interesting things. The archive clips are chopped up and edited fast on the eye, to borrow Bob Dylan’s phrase. Too fast, in fact. The eye wants to rest on them, to be given time to absorb the details. A technique wholly suited to the titles of Ready Steady Go! is not appropriate to this very different project. The exception is a wonderful piece of footage of Stamp and Kit Lambert encountering Jimi Hendrix and Chas Chandler in a London club, possibly the Ad Lib or the Bag O’Nails; we do get to look at that properly, thank goodness.

It’s a story that certainly deserved to be told. Stamp — born in London’s docklands, the son of a tugboat captain — brother of Terence, the male face of ’60s London — almost as good looking but sharp and tough, with more front than Harrods. Lambert — Lancing, Oxford, the Army — the gay son of a celebrated English composer — explaining mod culture to foreign TV interviewers in fluent French and German — empathising immediately with Townshend’s latent talent and Keith Moon’s very unlatent lunacy.

A pretty bruiser and a bruised prettiness: it was a potent combination. “I fell in love with both of them immediately,” Townshend recalls. It’s easy to see how he and, to varying degrees, the other members of the Who were jolted into self-actualisation by the vision and audacity of a pair of energetic wide boys whose real ambition was to get into the film business and who initially saw the music as a vehicle for their ambition.

The viewer does not come away with the impression that the whole truth about the break-up in 1974 has been told, and a few other salient features of the story have gone missing. One is any acknowledgment of Peter Meaden, their first manager when they were still the High Numbers: an authentic mod who helped establish their direction. Another is Shel Talmy, the producer of their first three (and greatest) singles, given only a passing and mildly derogatory mention, without being named.

Lambert died in 1981, aged 45, worn out by his destructive appetites, although the immediate cause of death was a cerebral haemorrhage following a domestic fall. Stamp had conquered his own addictions long before his death in 2012 at the age of 70, having spent many years as a therapist and counsellor. His interviews with the director are used extensively but, lacking the matching testimony of his former partner, his wry eloquence inevitably seems to unbalance the narrative.

At 120 minutes, the film eventually feels bloated. If the first hour passes like a series of three-minute singles, the second is a bit of a rock opera, the occasional interesting fragment separated by long stretches of filler. But, of course, anybody interested in the era should see it.

Taking on the British Invasion

Bobby ComstockFifty years ago this month, Bobby Comstock’s version of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” was trying and failing to make it into the US and UK charts. It’s interesting to me not just as a favourite record from an almost freakishly fruitful year but as an example of one response to the British Invasion: an American artist copying a British approach to an American idiom.

Born in 1941 in Ithaca, New York, Bobby Comstock is a singer and guitarist who nibbled at the fringe of the Top 50 in 1958 with a lightly rocked-up treatment of “Tennessee Waltz”. It was released on the Triumph label, started by Herb Abramson after his departure from Atlantic Records, and since the 17-year-old Comstock’s early patrons also included Alan Freed and Dick Clark, it’s a little surprising that he didn’t do better. Five years later, having fallen in with the successful publisher Wes Farrell and the songwriting/production team of Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richie Gottehrer, he released “Let’s Stomp” on the Lawn label. Despite climbing no higher than No 57, it became a party favourite and was widely covered over the years. Thanks to his association with Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer, he also played guitar on the Angels’ wonderful “My Boyfriend’s Back”, a girl-group classic.

“I’m a Man” is something very different and vastly superior: a raw blue-eyed R&B record with a crunching guitar/bass/drum riff, sinister organ, and lashings of echo on Comstock’s very impressive vocal. I don’t know who plays the eight bars of jagged guitar solo — probably Bobby himself — but it’s as impressive as anything Jimmy Page produced in his days as a teenaged session man over on the other side of the Atlantic.

Comstock grew up in the middle of the doo-wop era, and his earliest heroes included Chuck Berry, but I’d guess that “I’m a Man” sounds the way it does because in the summer of 1964 he and his band, the Counts, had supported the Rolling Stones on a handful of East Coast dates, finishing at Carnegie Hall. As he watched the chart-storming English longhairs delivering their interpretations of hard-core R&B songs to audiences in Pittsburgh, Pennsylania and Harrisburg, West Virginia as well as on Seventh Avenue in New York City, he must have felt he’d been given a licence to try it himself.

The single came out on Ascot Records in the US and United Artists in the UK; the copy I bought back then is pictured above. I had a Saturday job in a record shop at the time, and I guess that’s how I first heard it, while checking out the new releases. It certainly didn’t get much, if any, radio play.

Comstock had no more hits but made a good living for the rest of his career as a performer and backing musician — to artists including Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley — on the rock and roll revival shows promoted by Dick Clark and Richard Nader. He’s now living in retirement in Southern California, leaving the rest of us to carry on listening to “I’m a Man”, a highlight of his 24th year.

Gary Peacock: The place of the bass

Gary PeacockRight from the earliest days of jazz, its musicians have humanised the instruments on which they play, particularly those instruments whose identities were formed in the European classical tradition. If the phenomenon is most obvious with members of the brass and reed families, it is no less true of instruments that do not depend on breath to generate their sound. And next to Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden, the musician who most clearly imbues the double bass with the inflections of the human voice is Gary Peacock, who celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow.

What is impossible to miss in Peacock’s playing is a profound emotional weight, expressed with a lightness of touch, a lithe, sinewy phrasing and a lyricism reaching far beyond that term’s usual connotations. He has always seemed to be as comfortable playing free jazz with Albert Ayler and Sunny Murray (on the world-changing Spiritual Unity in 1964) as finding new angles on the show tunes and jazz classics he plays with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, his fellow members of the long-lived Standards Trio.

He was born in Burley, Idaho on May 12, 1935, and came late to the bass, after studying piano and percussion at music college in Los Angeles. It was with a US Army band in Germany that he first picked it up, aged 21, and — according to a recent interview — “just sort of figured it out” for himself, a remark that gives no hint of the great sophistication of his playing but might explain its prevailing air of naturalness.

In 1962, while still based in Los Angeles, he made his recording debut with the quartet of the trumpeter Don Ellis and the trio of the pianist Clare Fischer. The first time I heard his work was on Tony Williams’s great Life Time album in 1964, where he, Richard Davis and Ron Carter were the three bassists, and he suffered not at all from the comparison. He was on Williams’s equally brilliant follow-up, Spring, alongside Wayne Shorter and Sam Rivers. Then came Spiritual Unity and the quartet Ayler co-led with Don Cherry. With Bill Evans on Trio 64, Peacock confirmed his standing as the natural heir to the late Scott LaFaro, whose dexterity and imagination he shared, and worked for the first time with Paul Motian.

The piano trio has always been the context in which he is most likely to be found, whether with Paul Bley, Masabumi Kikuchi or Marilyn Crispell, the line-up most often completed by Motian until the drummer’s death in 2011. Now This, the new album released to coincide with Peacock’s birthday, is also by a trio, featuring the pianist Marc Copland, a long-time associate, and the drummer Joey Baron.

Recorded in Oslo in the summer of 2014, it includes seven of Peacock’s compositions, some of them familiar from earlier versions. The striking “Moor”, for example, was first recorded with Bley and Motian in 1968, followed two years later by a reading with Kikuchi and the drummer Hiroshi Murakami on an album called Eastward, recorded for CBS/Sony in Tokyo. The restless “Requiem” made its debut in 1971 at a further session in Tokyo with Kikuchi and Murakami, released on an album titled Voices; later it was featured on other albums, including Crispell’s Amaryllis, and with other instrumentations.

I mention those two Japanese albums because they are relatively obscure but outstanding, particularly Eastward. So is a third album recorded during the several years that Peacock spent in Japan: Silver World, in which the trio were joined by the shakuhachi virtuoso Hozan Yamamoto; here’s part of the lovely title track, and here’s a piece called “Stone Garden of Ryoan Temple”.

Perhaps it’s too obvious to suggest that Peacock’s study of Zen philosophy exerted a significant influence on his music, which exudes a wonderful sense of calmness and balance even at its most complex and impassioned. Going back and listening to his pre-Japan records, however, you’d have to say that it was there from the beginning: a defining characteristic of a remarkable musician who still, on the evidence of Now This, has much to say.

* The photograph of Gary Peacock’s hands is from the sleeve of Eastward, recorded and and first released in 1970. Now This is released tomorrow by ECM Records.