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Amy

Amy WinehouseIt took a while to get over the impact of Asif Kapadia’s Amy. I went to a lunchtime preview on a sunny day in Soho, and when I came out two hours later the place didn’t look quite the same. So affecting was the director’s portrait of a doomed life that it was a struggle to raise much of a smile for the rest of the day. Kapadia’s Senna had much the same effect on its audience, even on those who had no prior interest in the world it described. He and his co-workers — notably his editor, Chris King — have recalibrated our expectations of the biographical documentary.

In the end, though, what interests me about Amy — which opens in the UK this week — is not so much how it describes the life as what it tells us about the work. While it was always obvious, even to slightly detached listeners like me, that the songs on Back to Black were nakedly autobiographical, the film ties them into the reality of her short life in a way that makes them even more powerful.

The essentially asymmetrical nature of her relationship with her father makes the line “My daddy says I’m fine” bear an even more tragic resonance. Of course, no film-maker, even one as skilful and sensitive as Kapadia, can really get to the essence of something so intimate and complex and known to only two people, but Mitch Winehouse’s objections to the film have been less than entirely convincing.

A layer of understanding is added to other important songs by the clips of Amy together with her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil. Disastrous he may have been, but the film makes it clear how deeply she loved him for exactly that, and how perhaps the disaster was therefore unavoidable. Her reading of the affair, as conveyed by her lyrics, now seems even more extraordinarily vivid and poetic.

No British songwriter of her generation has matched her use of vernacular. Lines such as “When I catch myself I do a one-eighty”, “I’ll be some next man’s other woman soon”, “I should be my own best friend / Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men” and “I’m in the tub, you on the seat / Lick your lips as I soap my feet” are intensified by her habit of slurring and sliding the words, which makes them sound like half of a conversation between two people whose intimacy doesn’t require precise enunciation.

“Tears Dry on Their Own” was how I came to Amy Winehouse. I’d resisted her until then. When I heard it, the effect was like stepping into a different world, moving at a different speed, with different colours. That wonderful surge when the staccato stop-time verses, so beautifully channeling late-’60s Motown, give way to the backbeat-riding chorus (“He walks away, the sun goes down…”) is one of her triumphs. The song has that happy/sad thing going beyond words, even though the words of the song were so blazingly eloquent.

Maybe the best thing about Amy is that although it resolutely avoids hagiography or myth-making, the person who comes out of it best is the film’s subject. By using his feel-good, feel-bad movie to deepen our respect for her talent and achievements as a musician as well as our compassion for her destiny, Kapadia seems to have given us something as close to a balanced view as we’re ever likely to get.

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Terry Riley at 80

Terry RileyA couple of weeks ago I watched the 10 members of the Richard Alston Dance Company perform a piece called Overdrive, set to Terry Riley’s “Keyboard Studies No 1”. The inventiveness of the choreography and the supple energy of the dancers — notably the remarkable Liam Gillick — made Riley’s steadily shifting patterns, composed in 1964, sound as though they had been minted that morning.

Riley celebrates his 80th birthday today: June 24, 2015. He’s been one of my heroes since I heard the first recording of his composition In C at the end of the ’60s. It’s a pivotal piece in the evolution of modern music: a key element of the evolutionary burst that emanated from the apartment behind a Chinese laundry on West 55th Street in New York City where Gil Evans, George Russell, John Lewis and others gathered to discuss the direction of music in the late ’40s, coming up with new thoughts that were focused through the lens of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, whose radical approach to harmonic structure and temporal perception provided the inspiration for everything from James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” through the so-called minimalists — Young, Riley, Glass and Reich — to the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” and much more.

Anyway, that’s an old story now. Riley’s music, however, never gets old. I wouldn’t want to be without the music he created in Paris in 1963 for Ken Dewey’s play The Gift, manipulating a tape of Chet Baker’s quartet, or the sampling exercises “You’re No Good” and “Bird of Paradise”, using the eponymous disco hit by Harvey Averne and a fragment of Jr Walker’s “Shotgun” respectively. Or the endlessly influential A Rainbow in Curved Air, or his collaboration with John Cale on Church of Anthrax, or his lovely 2011 album of live performances with his son, the guitarist Gyan Riley. Or the many solo improvisations with titles like Shri Camel, Poppy Nogood and his Phantom Band, Descending Moonlight Dervishes and Persian Surgery Dervishes. Or every version of In C that I can find, including the one recorded by Africa Express in Mali last year. Or, by no means least, the vinyl bootleg of his wonderful duo performance with Don Cherry, recorded in Cologne in 1975.

And then there are his string quartets, including no fewer than 27 works commissioned by the Kronos Quartet over the past 35 years. In 2002 I travelled to the University of Iowa to hear the world premiere of one of them, and to write a piece for the Guardian (here it is). The piece was called Sun Rings, and it was built around noises recorded by NASA’s Uranus probes as they travelled the galaxy. These sounds — a collection of random chirps and whistles — were controlled by the four members of the quartet, using touch devices. They were augmented by a 60-piece choir, using a key phrase from the writer Alice Walker: “One earth, one people, one love”, against back-projections devised — with the aid of NASA’s library — by the stage designer Willie Williams.

One Earth, One People, One Love is the title given to a celebratory five-CD box of Kronos/Riley collaborations released in the US this week and in the UK on July 10. Four of the discs contain the previously released versions of Salome Dances for Peace (1989), Requiem for Adam (2001) and The Cusp of Magic (2008), but the fifth — also available as a single CD — takes its title from a new recording of the first piece Riley wrote for the quartet, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector (1980), and also includes Cadenza on the Night Plain (1983), plus other bits and pieces.

Among those bits and pieces is the movement from Sun Rings called “One Earth, One People, One Love”, which, taken in isolation, presents itself as one of the most beautiful and moving pieces in Riley’s catalogue. Featuring a prominent cello melody against the whooshes of the electron particles captured by NASA’s sensors and the gentle tolling of what sounds like a prayer bell from a Shinto temple, with the voices of Walker and the astrophysicist Don Gurnett in the background, it’s a piece of extraordinary depth and poignancy. (Here’s a version recorded at a Kronos concert in Germany in 2010.)

It’s the kind of thing, in fact, that makes you think a little harder about the world around you. But even when the content of Riley’s music has been less explicit, it’s always had the knack of doing that. And sometimes, too, it inspires people to dance. So best wishes to him for a happy birthday, and for many more of them.

* The photograph of Terry Riley was taken by Fabio Falcioni and is the cover image of Fabrizio Ottaviucci’s album of his piano pieces, Keyboard Studies 1-2 / Tread on the Trail, released on the Stradivarius label in 2008.

Lisa says

Lisa RobinsonLisa Robinson’s There Goes Gravity — subtitled “A life in rock and roll” — contains photographs of the author with Mick Jagger and Keith Richard, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, John and Yoko, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Ahmet Ertegun, Iggy Pop, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Patti Smith, all of the Ramones, Johnny Rotten, David Johansen and Johnny Thunders, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, Bono, Eminem, Dr Dre, Jay Z, Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy Jr, Kanye West, and Lady Gaga. Oh, and John McEnroe. What it doesn’t have is a photograph of Lisa with me. So I thought I’d fix that.

Here we are, caught by the flashbulb of her friend Leee Black Childers, who became the Weegee of the Max’s Kansas City/CBGB set. This picture was taken on July 6, 1972, according to the caption on the back, written in Lisa’s sloping hand. Apparently we’re at a restaurant in New York City called Butler’s, attending — and I can hardly believe I’m writing these words — a press reception for Black Sabbath.

We were, of course, on our way to somewhere else. I was in New York for the relocated Newport Jazz Festival, so we might have been bound for a concert by Ornette Coleman at Lincoln Centre’s Philharmonic Hall (where I think I embarrassed her by leaning over to invite Jerry Wexler and the New York Post writer Al Aronowitz to shut up) or Cecil Taylor at Carnegie Hall. Or we could have been heading off-piste to the St Regis Hotel to hear Mabel Mercer.

When she came to Europe in those days she stayed the Ritz in London and L’Hotel in Paris, and always insisted on changing her allotted room shortly after arrival, as a matter of principle. But New York was the capital of the world, and she was an excellent companion and sometimes guide. Mabel Mercer would have been her idea. Thanks to her, I saw the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Centre, Television (with Richard Hell) and Blondie, Talking Heads (then still a three-piece) and the Ramones, all before they had their first recording contracts — and it was she who pointed out Seymour and Linda Stein of Sire Records at a front table at Max’s, moving their lips with word-perfect accuracy to the songs of Talking Heads, whom they were extremely keen to sign.

Like most musicians, she never went to bed before the small hours and got up when civilians were having lunch. She was out every night. She spent hours on the phone and could be a kindred spirit. She loved to gossip but know how to keep a secret, or at least how to share one with care. She was an early adopter and a good interviewer, adept at establishing a lasting rapport, which means the book contains unusually valuable stuff from many of the people with whom she was photographed. And she had a sharp New York wit, often employed to deflate pomposity (her best friend, and the book’s dedicatee, is the social satirist Fran Lebowitz). When the Stones hired her to be their press adviser on their 1975 US tour, she had no scruples about spending a little time on the dark side because she knew that — like her closeness to Page or Reed — it would give her marvellous material.

We lost touch some time before she became a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, where she has written about stars and edited the music issues for the last 15 years. Her very entertaining book came out last year and has just been published in paperback (by Riverhead). It’s good value if you enjoy stories about hanging out with Rick Rubin or Walter Yetnikoff, or anecdotes like the one about lending Jagger a pair of her lace knickers to wear on stage when his own underwear went missing. It’s a form of higher gossip but the less frivolous stuff is always worthwhile, too, because she engages with her subjects and approaches them from shrewdly chosen angles. She doesn’t write much about the music itself: she was an early friend of most of the great American rock critics, but she never wanted to be one. Good for her.

Ornette Coleman 1930-2015

Ornette by Ian DuryIt was 1961 when I first heard the sound of Ornette Coleman. I was 14 years old and I’d somehow scraped together the money to buy This Is Our Music, his latest release. I’d been getting interested in jazz, devouring anything I could find. Every word I read about Ornette, even the scornfully dismissive stuff that was about at the time, made him sound interesting. And, of course, I loved the cover, with its Lee Friedlander photograph of four young men — Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Ornette, and Charlie Haden — looking impossibly cool.

So I took it home, put it on the Dansette, switched off the lights, and lay down on the floor. For the next 40 minutes I moved only to get up and turn it over. And then I listened to it again. The effect has never gone away.

To me, Ornette’s music sounded like the most natural thing in the world. Nothing about it — the raw timbre of the horns, the lack of conventional chord sequences — bothered me in the slightest. What it had, apart from undoubted modernity, was the “cry” that went back to the origins of the blues.

(That sound impressed me so much that three or four years later I bought a white plastic Grafton alto saxophone, just like Ornette’s, and invested in some lessons with the lead altoist in a local dance band, who also worked the music shop from which I bought it, and was more of a Paul Desmond man. I didn’t get far. Particularly after the night when, during a club gig with the R&B band in which I played, I got up from behind the drums and attempted to insert a bit of free-form improvising into the middle of a Bo Diddley medley. This was 1965: eat your hearts out, Magic Band, Contortions, Pop Group. And even Prime Time, come to that. But it didn’t go down well, and I couldn’t afford to keep the horn. I think I got £30 for it. They’re rare now, not least because they stopped making them in the ’60s, after which the tools and jigs were destroyed. If you dropped them, they cracked and couldn’t be repaired. The last one I saw for sale in a shop, a couple of years ago, had a price tag of £1,500.)

Later on I was fortunate enough to meet Ornette several times, and to discover his unusual mode of verbal expression. Like Captain Beefheart and Van Dyke Parks, he had a way of answering your questions by taking off in a wholly unexpected direction, making several detours, and finally ending up with a completely logical pay-off. That process could take several minutes, and you had to align yourself to the cadences of his thinking if you wanted to get the most from it.

The most striking encounter was at Abbey Road in 1972, when he was recording The Skies of America, his extended orchestral piece, with the LSO, conducted by David Measham. The work had been written to feature his quartet alongside the orchestra, but union rules made that an impossibility. So it was just Ornette and the straight players, some of whom displayed a ready disdain for his score. To be fair, it did make some unorthodox and occasionally severe demands — usually in terms of the upper range of the wind instruments — on a bunch of players including one or two who liked to fill the gaps between takes by propping a copy of the FT on their music stands and checking the progress of their shares. Some inaccurate copying of the parts didn’t help.

The trumpeters made an informal deal between themselves to alternate the highest notes in order to save their lips from damage. At one point, after the orchestra’s percussionist had observed, quite seriously, that it would help to have three conductors working simultaneously, Ornette took a pair of sticks and showed him exactly what he wanted.

So a degree of pain and struggle was certainly involved in the recording, but it sounded marvellous as the composer took out his alto to play along with them. He was wearing a charcoal mohair suit with a flared flap in the back, a silky cream shirt, and multicoloured patchwork leather boots. Ornette’s self-designed wardrobe was just another facet of his originality.

When the album appeared, it was with a sleeve note in which Ornette wrote: “The skies of America have had more changes to occur under them this century than any other country: assassinations, political wars, gangster wars, racial wars, space races, women’s rights, sex, drugs and the death of god, all for the betterment of the American people.” And somehow he managed to get a sense of all that into his 41 minutes of pure American music.

I heard it performed live a couple of times in New York and London, featuring the quartet with the larger ensemble, as originally intended. As time went by it was gussied up a little to smooth away some of the rough edges and make the orchestra players’ lives a little easier, but I don’t think it ever sounded nearly as good. It needed those tensions to bring out the ideas behind its conception. To me, it still sounds like a masterpiece, the product of a mind in which simplicity and complexity achieved a perfect coexistence.

* The image of Ornette Coleman is from Ian Dury’s design for the first UK edition of Four Lives in the Bebop Business, A.B. Spellman’s classic portrait of Ornette, Herbie Nichols, Jackie McLean and Cecil Taylor, published by MacGibbon and Kee in 1967. You can find a short piece I wrote about Ornette’s significance for the Guardian’s music blog here: http://bit.ly/1FbgxSA

The Henrys at 21

the_henrys_2015For some years now the Henrys have been one of my stock answers to the question, “What’s your favourite band?” Since they’re celebrating their 21st anniversary with this week’s release of their first album since 2009, it’s probably time I wrote something about them.

I say “them”, but the Henrys are really Don Rooke, a resourceful guitarist and songwriter, with a floating group of like-minded musicians gathered at his base in Toronto. Rooke will be known to some people for his contributions to the regrettably slender discography of the elusive singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara, an authentic genius whose sole full-length album, Miss America, and two London concerts around 25 years ago are still vivid in the memory.

MMO’H appears as a guest on earlier Henrys records — Puerto Angel (1994), Chasing Grace (1996), Desert Cure (1997), Joyous Porous (2002), and Is This Tomorrow (2009) — and if you click on http://www.thehenrys.ca/listen.html and scroll down down to “God Moves on the Water”, you’ll hear one of their finest moments together. But she’s not on the new one. The lead singing on Quiet Industry is done by Gregory Hoskins, with John Sheard on pump and electric organ, Hugh Marsh on violin, Jonathan Goldsmith on “muted piano”, Andrew Downing on bass, Davide DiRenzo on drums, and Tara Dunphy on backing vocals.

The music of the Henrys has what always seems to me to be a typically Canadian quality: like that of the Band and the Cowboy Junkies, or the musicians who used to travel with the McGarrigle sisters, it sounds as though it’s being played in your front room by musicians who wouldn’t be put out if you asked them to swap instruments. I don’t know a better way of describing the sense of ease that lubricates their creativity.

The tone may be set by the timbres of a slide guitar, a pump organ and drums that sound like they were made from a set of well-travelled cardboard suitcases from the 1930s, but the music isn’t revivalist or retrospective in any way. It’s devised and directed by a person who seems to have spent a lifetime cultivating good listening habits and distilling them into a personal vision of the way things might sound.

So while the noise the Henrys make is full of creaks and sighs, these are an indication of carefully chosen textures rather than of an attempt to counterfeit the patina of age. Rooke himself, an unassuming virtuoso on various kinds of guitars, including a Weissenborn koa-wood model, has a better command of acoustic sonorities than just about any guitarist I can think of, along with an absolute disinclination to show off. About a dozen years ago he made an album of instrumental pieces under his own name called Atlas Travel, also highly recommended.

Rooke has excellent taste in singers (Becca Stevens was also featured on Is This Tomorrow), and Hoskins, a veteran of the Canadian folk-rock scene, has a sidelong, semi-private delivery that suits the songs almost as well as O’Hara’s more gestural approach once did. And these are really beautiful songs. Once you get past the exquisitely detailed settings, like the dancing organ on “Was Is” and the shadowy doubled vocal on “Burn the Boat”, there are many things to admire in the finely turned melodies and the thoughtful lyrics, such as this payoff verse from “Dangers of Travel”, a great edge-of-breakup song: “The light is pretty now / But soon it will fade / So put the bags down / Please put the bags down / Your dinner’s been made.”

Here’s a film they made to go with the album’s opening track, “The Weaker One”. Here’s a clip of “When That Far Shore Disappears”, a song that illustrates some of their subtler virtues. And as a bonus, here they are in an earlier incarnation, playing a piece called “VF61” from Joyous Porous on an Ontario TV station in 2002, with David Pilch on bass and Michael White on trumpet.

There’s a special strength, intimacy and sense of proportion to this music, along with great inventiveness. Quiet Industry may be the product of the Henrys’ 21st year, but it’s a great place to start. And they’re still one of the answers to that question.

* Pictured above, the Henrys as heard on their new album: (left to right) John Sheard, Don Rooke, Gregory Hoskins and Andrew Downing.

On the tracks of Tina Brooks

Tina BrooksTina is certainly an unusual name for a man. But 50 years ago, in a world including an Ornette and a Thelonious, it didn’t seem all that strange. What mattered was the way Tina Brooks — born Harold, but rechristened with a corruption of Teenie, a childhood nickname — played the tenor saxophone.

Born in North Carolina in 1932, at the age of 12 he moved with his family to New York, where he studied music and took his first gigs with R&B bands in the early 1950s. Subsequently he became one of the many gifted jazz musicians whose lives were blighted, either through early death or prolonged inactivity, by the heroin plague of the post-war years. He died in obscurity in 1974, after more than a decade of silence.

The years of notable activity were brief. The trumpeter Little Benny Harris recommended him to Alfred Lion, Blue Note’s co-founder, and in 1958 he took part in his first session for the label, Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon. Sessions as a sideman with Kenny Burrell, Jackie McLean and Freddie Hubbard would follow. Of his own four Blue Note albums, only one — True Blue — was issued during his lifetime. The others — Minor Move, Back to the Tracks and The Waiting Game — were put on the shelf, for reasons about which we can only speculate. They appeared long after his death, when it had become apparent that a coterie of fans cherished his special qualities.

All those albums are now available together on a two-CD package called Tina Brooks Quintet: The Complete Recordings (Master Takes), released on the Phono label, one of those companies shrewdly taking advantage of music falling out of copyright. To say it represents a bargain is an understatement, and since none of the musicians involved is still alive, I don’t suppose anyone is going to suffer financial duress as a result.

Brooks was a middleweight tenorist, like Hank Mobley or Oliver Nelson, with the fluid inventiveness of the former and the graceful balance of the latter. In terms of substance, his improvising was exceptionally creative. Every solo contained something worth hearing. And, within the hard bop idiom, he was a composer of the highest quality: listen to “Street Singer”, which has the graceful melodic shapes associated with Benny Golson (and is an interloper, being borrowed from the McLean session, in which the quintet became a sextet).

The sidemen chosen for these albums form a roll-call of Blue Note favourites. The trumpeters: Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Blue Mitchell and Johnny Coles. The pianists: Sonny Clark, Duke Jordan and Kenny Drew. The bassists: Doug Watkins, Sam Jones, Paul Chambers and Wilbur Ware. The drummers: Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Art Taylor, who never sounded better in his life, as you can hear on “Street Singer”.

I know of only one piece of film featuring Brooks: a DVD of Ray Charles in São Paulo in 1963 titled O Gênio: Live in Brazil. issued by Warner Music Vision in 2004. He’s in the reed section alongside the altoists Danny Turner and Geezil Minerve, his fellow tenorist Fathead Newman and the baritone-player Hog Cooper. Newman, the band’s music director, gets most of the solo space, but on Quincy Jones’s “Birth of a Band” he’s joined by Brooks, with whom he trades choruses and fours. Clearly new to the band, Brooks appears unsure of the routine, and his more oblique style is somewhat overshadowed by Newman’s robust bluesiness, but you could just about close your eyes and know it’s him. See it here.

I’ve always thought that if I could put together a dream quintet of musicians who fell victim to the infernal plague, he’d be there alongside Dupree Bolton, Dick Twardzik, Albert Stinson and Frank Butler. What a band that would have been. But his own four albums form an imperishable legacy, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

* One of Tina Brooks’s few pieces of certified good luck was to have found himself in front of the lens of the great Roy DeCarava at the Blue Morocco club in the Bronx one night in 1956, when he shared the stage with Benny Harris. I’ve used one of DeCarava’s shots from that evening at the top of this piece; it’s taken from the Mosaic vinyl box set of complete quintet recordings, compiled by Michael Cuscuna and released 30 years ago this month. If you don’t know DeCarava’s work, look for The Sound I Saw, his classic essay on the jazz life. He put it together in 1962, but had to wait until 2001 — eight years before his death at the age of 89 — to see it published, thanks to the good offices of the Phaidon Press. Here, if you’re interested, is the obituary I wrote for the Guardian.