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Between the world and the Black Panthers

Out to LunchOthers will be better qualified to talk about the substance of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Stanley Nelson’s documentary, which is currently showing in London. I found it extremely moving. There’s an initial sense of exhilaration at the spectacle of the human spirit responding to adversity with pride, resilience and creativity, only for that spirit to be crushed by the relentless efficiency of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI.

Nelson modulates the tone of the film to match its narrative arc with great sensitivity, and that is where the soundtrack plays its part. At the start of the story we see the Chi-Lites singing “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” in ruffled costumes on Soul Train and hear Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough For You”, Philadelphia International’s most confrontational moment. These are reminders of how the ideas represented by the Panthers were able to gatecrash mainstream culture. Later the musical backdrop is supplied by the stripped-down street-funk of the early ’70s (“Express Yourself” by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band being a good example). At the close, with the Panthers’ unity and sense of purpose destroyed by police bullets (notably in the assassination of Fred Hampton, the eloquent, charismatic 21-year-old who Hoover feared would become the movement’s “messiah”) and internal rivalries (the post-prison Huey P. Newton versus the exiled Eldridge Cleaver), the profound darkening of the mood is expressed through the voice of Gil Scott-Heron, singing “Winter in America”.

I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a recent best-seller which takes the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, relating Coates’s own experiences as a black boy growing up in America. His grandfather was a research librarian at Howard University in Washington DC, with a profound love of books: “…all over the house, books about black people, by black people, for black people spilling off shelves and out of the living room…” His parents were radicals: “We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God.” His father had been a captain in the Black Panther Party.

The book is a brilliant analysis of the journey taken by several generations of African Americans, always facing the same enemy. Coates was born in 1975: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth,” he writes, “was to be naked before all the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” He was 11 years old when another boy pulled a gun on him. His son’s reality is the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nelson’s film contains another music-related moment that made me catch my breath. We see photographs of the room in a Panther house on Chicago’s West Side where Fred Hampton was gunned down by police in December 1969, its layout revealed to them by an FBI informant. Amid the blood-spattered debris lying on the bedroom floor, it’s possible to glimpse the sleeve of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. On its appearance in 1964, Dolphy’s album represented a high point in the African American research project that jazz had become. It’s still being analysed and copied today. And to me it’s an affirmation of some sort that Out to Lunch was part of the soundtrack of that Panther household, and — or so we may infer — of Fred Hampton’s short life.

Dick Twardzik 30/4/31–21/10/55

Dick_TwardzikTomorrow evening it will be exactly 60 years since the pianist and composer Dick Twardzik was found dead in his room at the Hôtel de la Madeleine on the Rue de Surène, in Paris’s 8th arrondissement. He was on tour in Europe with the Chet Baker Quartet, and the previous night they had played at the Club Tabu, where they were joined by the great Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin. After returning to the hotel in the early hours, they were due to reconvene at 4pm for a recording session at the Pathé-Magellan studio. When, after an hour, he hadn’t showed up, a search party went back to the hotel and his body was discovered. A heroin overdose had killed him. He was 24 years old.

Twardzik was a prodigy. Born in Boston, the son of two artists, he had studied with Madame Margaret Chaloff of the New England Conservatory of Music, a renowned teacher who is better known to jazz fans as the mother of Serge Chaloff, one of the great post-war baritone saxophonists. Serge and Dick would play and record together. And share a heroin habit that eventually killed the other man, too.

By the time Twardzik was 21, he was good enough to play with Charlie Parker. You can hear the results on Boston 1952, a Parker album compiled from radio broadcasts recorded at the Hi-Hat Club and released on the Uptown label a few years ago. Symphony Sid Torin, the radio show’s announcer, can’t get the young man’s name right, but listen to the wonderful inventiveness of the piano solo on a relaxed “Don’t Blame Me”, to the way he spins out his double-time lines, shaping them so beautifully, allowing them to float and curl and wind before moving into a passage of contrapuntal and parallel lines, followed by the lightest of block chords. By that time, he had already been using heroin for three years.

After Bud Powell, he might have become Parker’s most stimulating keyboard partner, if they’d both lived and been given time to develop their partnership. Twardzik’s ear and imagination, and his knowledge of modern classical music, would surely have appealed to Bird, and might have inspired an escape from the bebop cul-de-sac into which Parker was heading by the time of his own death in 1955.

But that’s speculation. What we know is that Twardzik made a brilliant set of trio recordings for the Pacific Jazz in October 1954, half a dozen tracks first issued as one side of an LP called Trio which he shared with the group of Russ Freeman, his predecessor as Baker’s pianist, who had brought him to the attention of the label’s boss, Dick Bock. The tracks, with one addition, were later released by themselves as The Last Set. There are three standards — “Round Midnight”, “I’ll Remember April” and “Bess You is My Woman” — along with three of his own compositions, all of them immediately striking, and not just for their titles: “Albuquerque Social Swim”, “Yellow Tango”, “A Crutch for the Crab”. They’re as full of playful character and unexpected twists as those of Herbie Nichols — a comparison that also strikes Alexander Hawkins, the English pianist, who is a student of such matters and a confirmed Twardzik fan. Thinking you might like a break from my views, I asked Alex for a few words. Here’s some of what he sent me:

For me, he fits squarely within that magical clutch of pianists from mid-century who are just so wonderfully sui generis (Monk, Powell, Hope, Nichols, and a few years later, the likes of Hasaan etc). I think it naturally comes out most clearly in his compositions; and to me it’s extraordinary to reflect that we can get such a strong sense of a radical original from so few works. However, it’s also fascinating to listen to him play standards: his arranger’s touch was such that he could make such a ‘standard’ standard as “I’ll Remember April” all his own – in the way he mysteriously stalks the notes of the first eight bars of this over the swinging drums, I hear a weird pre-echo of Misha (Mengelberg) and Han (Bennink).

I love the headlong intensity and clarity of purpose, despite such knotty compositions: in this I hear a real kinship with Bud Powell (“Glass Enclosure”, etc). There’s also clearly an affinity with Bartok, Hindemith, and so on; and I hear elements of Bernstein and Sondheim, too. I can also hear a possible line through to early Cecil Taylor. In the way both composers graft together different melodic/rhythmic strands, I hear some deep similarity with (especially pre-Unit Structures) Cecil: in particular, I’m thinking of the session which produced ‘Pots’, ‘Bulbs’, and ‘Mixed’, and also tunes like ‘Excursion on a Wobbly Rail’. I also hear a kinship with Cecil in the love of contrary motion figures.

The historical context also fascinates me too: just like with Bird, Hasaan, Nichols – where on earth could this music have gone had he lived? It’s so much at the vanguard of what seemed possible at the time that trying to put oneself in contemporary shoes as far as possible and hearing the future directions is completely baffling, and as such, deeply inspiring as a player and composer.

After Twardzik arrived in Le Havre on the liner Île-de-France on September 13 with the rest of Baker’s rhythm section — the bassist Jimmy Bond and the drummer Peter Littman — and met up with the trumpeter, the band began their tour at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (supported by the Tony Crombie All Stars!) and continued through Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and France. There were 10 concerts in all, several of which were recorded and are available on various bootlegs. In Paris on October 11 and 14 they also recorded the nine tracks — eight compositions by Bob Zieff, a friend of Twardzik’s from Boston, and one by the pianist himself — that would make up one of the most remarkable small-group records of the 1950s.

Zieff’s cool little pieces have wonderful beatnik titles: “Rondette”, “Mid-Forte”, “Sad Walk”, “Pomp”, “Brash”. Perfectly balanced and slightly formal modernist mechanisms, they’re clean-lined but unpredictable, absolutely devoid of any hint of cliché (jazz or otherwise), stretching the musicians — particularly the trumpeter and pianist — in interesting ways without inducing contortions. It’s no surprise to discover that Gil Evans later became a fan of the composer, and a terrible shame that he was destined to remain in obscurity. And Twardzik’s tune, “The Girl from Greenland”, is typically intriguing and memorable.

Issued on the Barclay label in France soon afterwards, this set is still available and is, I’d say, essential — not just for itself, but also because it represents the last view we would ever get of a great talent taken away, like so many others, by a plague that is still with us, and still taking lives.

* If you want to know more, I warmly recommend Jack Chambers’ excellent biography, Bouncin’ with Bartok: The Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik, published in Canada by the Mercury Press in 2008, from which the photograph is taken. There’s also an interesting CD of Twardzik’s home rehearsal recordings called 1954 Improvisations, all variations on standards, released by the New Artists label in 1990. Recordings of the Baker Quartet’s concerts in Cologne, Amsterdam and elsewhere are available on various bootlegs.

Don Henley’s Cass County

Don Henley - Publicity Shot #2 (Credit Danny Clinch)During one of the interviews given to promote his new solo album, Don Henley mentioned that he writes poetry. When his voice gives out, he said, that’s probably what he’ll turn to. This would have been no surprise to admirers of “The Boys of Summer”, his solo hit from 1984, which has an opening verse whose perfect cadences seem to come complete with punctuation: “Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach. I feel it in the air: the summer’s out of reach. Empty lake, empty streets; the sun goes down alone. I’m driving by your house though I know you’re not home.”

It’s a great pop song, of course, with a dark undertow — just like many of the best Eagles songs, from “Hotel California” to “King of Hollywood”. In the Eagles’ world, no pleasure was ever unmixed. The same trait also marked out the best products of Henley’s solo career, including the four great songs from The End of the Innocence, his third solo album: “The Last Worthless Evening”, “New York Minute”, “The Heart of the Matter” and the title track. These were songs that had something to say about the human experience back in 1989 and have lost none of their truth and resonance.

His new album, Cass County, contains many outstanding moments, beginning with the opening track, Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose”, a gorgeous slow waltz with a killer chord change, in which Henley takes the first verse, Miranda Lambert the second, and Mick Jagger — in his “Wild Horses” mode — the third. It’s one you can play over and over again, just waiting for that change, which Henley brings out more effectively than Merritt did on her excellent original version in 2002 (clue: listen for the words “a bramble rose”).

The album arrived on a Saturday morning. I put it on while I was having breakfast and ended up playing it all the way through three times, non-stop. Among the other notable tracks are Jesse Lee Kincaid’s “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune”, a favourite from the Dillards’ Wheatstraw Suite album back in 1968; the rocking “That Old Flame”, with a great lyric on which he’s joined by the wonderful Martina McBride; and Jesse Winchester’s ever-lovely “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz”. Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton are among the album’s other participants.

On these songs, the poetry isn’t in the words. It’s in Henley’s voice. That sound of bruised longing is one we know so well,  immediately evoking good and bad times and the complex feelings that went with them. Whatever he had back then, he’s hung on to it.

* Cass County is out now on Capitol Records. The photograph of Don Henley was taken by Danny Clinch.

Matana Roberts in Hackney

Matana Roberts Oslo 2Matana Roberts asked for “comments, questions and critiques” at the end of her remarkable performance at Oslo in Hackney last night (“Well, maybe not the critiques,” she added). That doesn’t happen at every gig. There were many questions from an enthusiastic audience, and she answered them all — whether on David Cameron’s attitude to reparations for slavery or the influence of early ’60s free jazz on her music — with conviction, insight and wit.

A genuinely extraordinary artist of our time, she pursues a vision that places her beyond category. Last night she gave us a version of her latest record, the third chapter of the Coin Coin series, in which she is exploring various aspects of American history. On Oslo’s low stage she sat in front of a screen showing a loop of film she created with the use of family ephemera and other images, and divided her time between cueing and modifying the sound bed created from all sorts of audio sources (the “panoramic sound quilting” of which she speaks) and playing brief alto saxophone passages with her fibrous tone and hymn-like delivery, singing snatches of seemingly half-remembered songs, and reading from an old, scuffed, pocket-sized Bible into which she had pasted the various texts used in Chapter Three: River Run Thee.

She is a natural actor, with a powerful presence even in repose. She can draw us in with the warmest of smiles but suddenly switch and flash her eyes with a Simone-like disdain. Her powerful voice sometimes dissolves into strange mumblings and twitterings.

Some thematic fragments recurred. “Come away with me,” she crooned. “Black lives matter / All lives matter.” “I pledge allegiance to… I pledge allegiance to… I pledge allegiance… to a flag with liberty and justice for some.” And, frequently repeated, “I like to tell stories…” That, most of all, was how it felt. In her voluminous skirt, grey shawl, face paint and wild locks, patiently thumbing through her defaced Bible, fiddling with her laptop and electronics, taking her time as the story unwound, she had brought the meaning and textures of the lives of her ancestors into her own existence — and, quite unforgettably, into ours.