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Forever Van

Van's 70thVan Morrison is 70 today, and I’m listening to his birthday concert, live on the radio from Cyprus Avenue in Belfast. Yes, it’s that Cyprus Avenue, where he made us all, no matter how far away, imagine how it would feel to be caught one more time.

The last time I saw him was at the Albert Hall six years ago, when he performed Astral Weeks with a band including Jay Berliner, who played guitar on the original 1968 recording, and the cellist Terry Adams, a much-admired member of his Caledonia Soul Orchestra in 1973. It was an excellent concert (as it needed to be, given the price he was charging for tickets), and later it was possible to relive it with the album recorded live at the Hollywood Bowl, although nothing could replace the soul-baring tension of the original.

The first time I saw him was at Fillmore East, New York, in April 1970, a few weeks after the release of Moondance, with the tight little band that had recorded it, including John Platania on guitar and Jack Schroer on saxophones. He was utterly brilliant, and I seem to remember that he kept his eyes tightly closed throughout the set. Most of the songs were from the new album, but he also did a wonderful version of “Cyprus Avenue” which led Geoffrey Cannon to describe him (in the Guardian) as “bursting with his adolescent passions, now past, stuttering in his need to understand the urgency of sexual desire, and of visions of beauty.”

I was at Birmingham Town Hall in 1973 for his triumphant return to Britain after a seven-year absence. That was the Caledonia Soul Orchestra tour, which climaxed with an electrifying gig at the Rainbow in London (partly commemorated in the great live double album titled It’s Too Late to Stop Now). The gig I wish I’d been to was the ones at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco and the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, California, in 1994, captured as A Night in San Francisco, featuring John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, Jimmy Witherspoon, Candy Dulfer, and Georgie Fame on Hammond B3. In the medleys of “Moondance” / “My Funny Valentine” and “In the Garden” / “You Send Me” / “Allegheny”, Van is at his very best.

In Belfast this afternoon — via BBC Radio Ulster, upon whose producers and engineers may a thousand blessings fall — he’s just done “Moondance”, “Born to Sing” with Chris Farlowe, an utterly beautiful “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, and an ultra-cool medley of “Baby Please Don’t Go”, “Parchman Farm” and Slim Harpo’s “Don’t Start Cryin’ Now”, which was Them’s first single in 1964, when Van was 19. Maybe if I cross my fingers and hold my breath he’ll do “Vanlose Stairway”, about a girl in Copenhagen, with its great opening lines: “Send me your picture… send me your pillow….” But it’s his birthday. He can do what he wants.

* The photograph is from irishrocknrollmuseum.com

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In the Rothko Chapel

Rothko Chapel 1If I could be teleported anywhere in the world for just a couple of hours, I’d probably choose the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. It’s a little painful to think that I’ll probably never get to see the place that I wrote about here for the Guardian a few years ago, prompted by a performance in London of the piece Morton Feldman wrote in 1972, two years after his friend Mark Rothko’s death.

Feldman’s Rothko Chapel is fully reflective of its subject. You might even take it to be the last word. But then, five years ago, the improvising trio called Mural — Jim Denley (wind instruments), Kim Myhr (guitars, zithers, percussion) and Ingar Zach (percussion) — were given permission to record a performance inside the chapel, documenting a very different response to the space in a 50-minute piece called “Doom and Promise”.

They have returned a couple of times since then, and on April 27, 2013 they recorded an unbroken set of almost four hours, three quarters of which now appears on a three-CD set titled Tempo. Each disc is devoted to between 45 and 51 minutes of the set, omitting the first section of the performance.

Denley, who is from Australia, studied classical flute and began a long career in new music — playing many different wind instruments, with and without mouthpieces — after encountering the music of Evan Parker and Derek Bailey during a stay in London in 1975. Myhr is a Norwegian improvising guitarist who has written for the excellent Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. Zach, also Norwegian, is a member of Huntsville, one of my favourite bands.

The two and a half hours of Tempo provide an object lesson in free improvisation by musicians sensitive to each other and to their environment. There are no imperatives beyond the unhurried collective ravelling of sound in reaction to the space. Words to describe parts of it might include tinkling, buzzing, fluttering, booming, whirring, scraping, tolling. The individual contributions are not what this music is about, although Denley begins the second disc with a very striking saxophone passage involving simultaneous key-tapping and a shakuhachi-like bending of notes before the others join in for a close examination of tones and textures that achieves moments of great beauty. Indeed, if the second disc were issued in isolation, it might be considered a masterpiece of its kind; it’s something you could use to persuade a sceptic of the value of free improvisation, if you could get them to sit still and pay proper attention.

As with Rothko’s canvases, the meaning of this music lies in a land of the emotions beyond adequate verbal description. But if you like what AMM do, or the meditative solo percussion music Frank Perry used to make with his collection of gongs and bowls, then this might well be your thing, too. And since I’m probably never going to make it to Houston, it will have to do for me.

* Tempo is released on the Sofa Music label on September 4. Its predecessor, Live at the Rothko Chapel, was released on the chapel’s own label. The photograph, by Hickey-Robertson, is from the chapel’s website: http://www.rothkochapel.org 

Tower of song

Sunset Tower 2While re-reading the first volume of James Kaplan’s Frank Sinatra biography in preparation for reviewing the second and final instalment, due later this year, I was reminded of Sunset Tower, the West Hollywood art deco apartment block whose penthouse Sinatra occupied for several years. It was from the balcony that he fatefully hollered down one evening in 1948 to Ava Gardner, his lover-to-be, who was living in a little house right across the street. (“A curtain was drawn, a window opened,” Kaplan writes. “Ava stuck her head out of the window and looked up: she knew exactly who it was. She grinned, and waved back.”)

This further reminded me of one of the first jazz 78s I ever owned: a Stan Kenton disc recorded 60 years ago this summer, coupling “Opus in Chartreuse”, a Gene Roland composition and arrangement, with a piece from Kenton’s own pen, titled “Sunset Tower”.

The two tracks were recorded at the same sessions as the celebrated Contemporary Concepts album, on July 20 and 22, 1955. When they were added as bonus inclusions on the CD reissue a few years ago, the annotator suggested that Kenton’s title alluded to the famous Capitol Records tower at Hollywood and Vine. I think not. Sunset Tower has been a famous landmark since its opening in 1931 — even during the years when it was turned into an hotel, known first as the St James’s Club and then as the Argyle, before having its original identity restored by new owners.

Designed by the architect Leland A. Bryant, it was home at one time or another to Marilyn Monroe, Howard Hughes, Errol Flynn, Bugsy Siegel and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Truman Capote, who also stayed there, wrote: “I am living in a very posh establishment, the Sunset Tower, which, or so the local gentry tell me, is where every scandal that ever happened happened.”

Kenton’s “Sunset Tower” is actually a revision of a piece he had written in 1950, originally called “Something New”. It’s pleasant enough, with a brassy opening and a smooth theme statement by the close-voiced saxophone section, and a trombone solo by Carl Fontana, all beautifully kicked along by Mel Lewis, a great big-band drummer. When I bought the second-hand 78 from a market stall in 1960 or thereabouts, I preferred the leaner swing of “Opus in Chartreuse” (one of Gene Roland’s series of “colour” compositions, which also included evocations of turquoise and beige), not least for the beautifully Lestorian tenor solo by the underrated Bill Perkins.

Neither is a masterpiece, but together they make a good case for the virtues of West Coast jazz in the 1950s, as well as adding a footnote to the architectural history of Los Angeles.

* The photograph of Sunset Tower was taken (from the north side of Sunset Boulevard) in 1955, the year the Kenton piece was recorded. James Kaplan’s Sinatra: The Chairman, the successor to Frank: The Voice, will be published by Doubleday in October.

The return of Burnin Red Ivanhoe

Burnin Red IvanhoeWhen I saw them playing with their Danish compatriot John Tchicai at the Berlin Jazz Festival in November 1969, Burnin Red Ivanhoe impressed me as the first significant contribution made to rock by a band from continental Europe. This was before Focus, Shocking Blue and Golden Earring from Holland, before the flood of German bands that included Amon Düül II, Can, Kraftwerk, Neu! and Tangerine Dream, before Wigwam from Finland, before PFM from Italy.

Basically, Burnin Red Ivanhoe had a rock rhythm section (guitarist Ole Fick, bassist Jess Stæhr and drummer Bo Thrige Andersen) and jazz horns: Kim Menzer on trombone, flute and harmonica and Karsten Vogel on alto and soprano saxophones. There was a bit of Uncle Meat-era Zappa in there, a bit of Soft Machine, maybe a bit of Who and Floyd. I was particularly taken by the eloquent, heartfelt playing of Vogel, who had also been a member of Tchicai’s Cadentia Nova Danica. Rather fashionably, they had just released a double album, titled M 144, which showcased their various dimensions: riffy rock, free blowing, the occasional burst of Scandi-whimsy.

I wrote about them a couple of times in the Melody Maker (in the days when the sub-editors were not above inventing headlines that made play with phrases such as Great Danes and Viking Invasion). John Peel played them on his programme and gave them a deal for a new album on his Dandelion label, which he co-produced (under his favourite pseudonym, Eddie Lee Beppeaux) with Tony Reeves, Colosseum’s bass guitarist, at CBS Studios in London. They toured a few times, and recorded another album in Copenhagen, called W.W.W., but eventually they disappeared from general sight.

Over the years I kept in occasional touch with Karsten. He’d give me recordings that showed his remarkable range: with his own fusion band, Secret Oyster (Straight to the Krankenhaus, CBS, 1976); on a nice solo album called Birds of Beauty (CBS, 1976), in a duo with the great Carnatic violinist Dr L Subramaniam (Meetings, Calibrated Records, 2007); playing tunes associated with Charlie Parker on a lovely quartet album called My Old Flame (Calibrated, 2010). There’s also an extraordinary album recorded with two singers, Hanne Siboni and Skye Løfvander, in Copenhagen’s vast disused underground water cisterns: Stained Glass Music (Oyster Songs, 2004) is a fascinating study in the sensitive exploration of a cathedral-like natural echo.

But the point of this post is the arrival of a new Burnin Red Ivanhoe album. Released by Sony in Denmark in artwork echoing the cover of M 144, with stencilled lettering on a plain background, the new one is called BRI and features two original members, Vogel and Menzer, with the latter’s son, Klaus, on drums, Assi Roar on bass, Aske Jacoby on guitar and Lone Selmer on voice and keyboards.

Quite often these late-life revivals don’t work. But this band — and Vogel, the chief composer, in particular — seems to have as much to say as it did 45 years ago, perhaps more. And the musicians certainly have better resources with which to say it. The mix of idioms sounds richer and much more assured as they switch from the whispered recitative and soprano/harmonica conversation over the irresistible descending sequence of “Natlig Rejse” to the folkish bluegrass strum of “Det Er Det”, the brittle power chords of “Tiden Om Tiden”, the gorgeous jangly pop of “Alting Var Bedre”, the gliding, glistening beauty of “Cafe Blåhat”, and the insistent “Mind the Gap”, whose lyric juxtaposes lines from Baudelaire and Poe with an announcement familiar to users of the London Underground (“Stand clear of the closing doors…”).

For old times’ sake, there’s also an absolute killer remake of “M 144”, with great alto from Vogel over a driving groove. But this album isn’t about the recreation of past glories. It’s about creation in real time, by real musicians who’ve made excellent use of the intervening years. What a shame Peel isn’t around to hear how good they’ve become.

* Photograph of Lone Selmer and Karsten Vogel by Mette Kramer Kristensen.

Loud, louder, loudest…

BerghainThis building, for those who don’t already know it, is Berghain, probably the world’s most famous techno club. It opened in 2004 in a building formerly used by East Berlin’s electricity company, now surrounded by waste ground near the Ostbahnhof station. Its sound system is said to be the best of its kind in the world, and it was put to good use this week at the opening night of a four-day festival called A l’Arme!, which is billed by its curator, Louis Rastig, as an “international jazz and sound-art meeting”.

The first highlight was the opening DJ set by Mieko Suzuki, who spent an hour making a simple drone evolve into something rich and strange, with mesmerising subtlety. Then came a duo performance by the saxophonist Colin Stetson and the bass guitarist Bill Laswell, who exploited that legendary sound system to the full.

In my time I’ve stood next to a nitro-burning Top Fuel dragster as it warmed up for a four-second, 300mph quarter-mile run, underneath a Vulcan bomber as a combined 80,000lb of thrust propelled it in a steep climb from low level, and within spitting distance of the Who’s PA. All of those would be in the range of 120-150 decibels. Stetson and Laswell were louder than any of them.

For the best part of an hour they made great waves of noise in which pulse and pitch were subordinate to the overall intention of filling every cranny of the concrete and steel space. The muscular, athletic Stetson made his bass saxophone howl and groan, using effects to produce many simultaneous sound-layers. The expressionless Laswell prodded at his pedal-board and picked at his strings with a deceptively delicate touch while filling the room with stomach-loosening lines. If you were standing a few feet from one of the speaker stacks, the volume generated a breeze that ruffled your hair and made the fabric of your clothes ripple. Ear plugs were available.

It was brutally exhausting, but somehow magnificent. Goodness knows what Adolphe Sax and Leo Fender, creators of the instruments that Stetson and Laswell were taking to the limits and beyond, would have made of it.

Funeral songs for a low-strung guitar

Billy JenkinsThe first time I saw Billy Jenkins, he was in a pop-art band called Burlesque, in the mid-’70s. They were managed by a friend of mine who worked at Ronnie Scott’s and wanted me to sign them to Island Records. I thought they were clever but lacked a big idea. However they did have a very interesting guitarist, who looked like an urchin from a post-war movie set in the bomb-wrecked wastelands of the East End, and played with a kind of furious inventiveness.

After that I kept an eye on Jenkins. But I went off him in quite a big way some time in the ’80s, when he made a big-band album called Scratches of Spain, which spoofed or satirised or somehow otherwise sent up Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, to the extent of presenting itself in a sleeve that defaced the original. For me, despite the presence on the record of most of the members of the admirable Loose Tubes, this was a post-modernist step too far. I loved Miles’s album too much. What was the point of Jenkins’s exercise, beyond drawing attention to himself? (I felt the same, with greater intensity, about the precise facsimile of Kind of Blue recorded last year by Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Sometimes I can’t help taking these things too personally.)

But I never lost the belief that Jenkins was anything other than a very imaginative and quite original guitarist, even though I didn’t keep pace with everything he did. And now he’s made a record that I really like: a download-only release on his own Voice of the People label called Death, Ritual & Resonation. It’s a series of eight solo pieces for low-strung guitar based, unusually enough, on his experiences of seven years conducting humanist funerals — 368 of them, apparently, following training with the British Humanist Association.

I’ve been to a couple of humanist funerals. They can work quite well, although in my experience they tend not to have much of a sense of the numinous. But if his humanist studies and duties were what it took to get this album out of Billy Jenkins, then I’m all for them. The track titles include “Thoughts on Life and Loss”, “Rejoice That They Lived”, and “Walk on in Gratitude”, and the prevailing mood is one of reflection. There are no displays of virtuosity: just a quiet exploration of figures and motifs, with powerful overtones of the country blues and occasional piquant undertones of the English hymnal.

The playing is beautiful throughout, in both the tone Jenkins draws from his instrument and the balance and development of his phrases. Anyone still in mourning for the late John Fahey’s solo guitar meditations should find it particularly rewarding.

* Photograph of Billy Jenkins: Beowulf Mayfield (http://www.flickr.com/photos/wulfus). Album download: http://www.billyjenkins.com.