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Her royal majesty

In case you’re among the very few people who haven’t already seen it, here is Aretha Franklin serenading the annual Kennedy Centre Honors ceremony in Washington DC earlier this month. She’s there to sing “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” to Carole King, who wrote the song with her then-husband, the lyricist Gerry Goffin, in 1967.

King was one of five honorees (the others were George Lucas, Rita Moreno, Cicely Tyson and Seiji Ozawa). She was also serenaded by James Taylor  with “Up on the Roof” and Janelle Monae with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day”. But, as you can see, Aretha blew the roof off the place with a performance that works on more levels than I can count.

To see her once again accompanying herself at the piano is simply wonderful. I think it was the late Jerry Wexler, the producer of her Atlantic sessions, who observed that the relationship between Aretha’s voice and her piano-playing was the foundation of her great recordings (it was also Wexler who offered Goffin and King the phrase “natural woman” as an idea for a song). Just listen to the way she delays and phrases the second half of the line “When my soul was in the lost-and-found…” And when she stands up, drops her coat and lets rip, for a few seconds this 73-year-old woman is once again that prodigy, barely into her teens, who regularly brought the congregation at her father’s Baptist church in Detroit a little closer to heaven.

Try keeping a dry eye. Barack Obama couldn’t. He may have his faults, but he’ll be missed when he’s gone. This is one of the moments for which his presidency — and the reign of the Queen of Soul — will be remembered.

Mette Henriette

Mette Henriette 5The fact that Mette Henriette, a young Norwegian saxophonist and composer, has made her recording debut with a double CD might seem to align her with the current phenomenon of “muchness” recently identified by the New York Times‘s Ben Ratliff in his review of 2015, in reference to the popular appetite for such recent large-scale works as the saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s self-explanatory The Epic and the novelist Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy (I’d add the 12-hour reading of Robert Fagles’ Iliad at the Almeida Theatre and the British Museum in August). But the hour and a half of music on Mette Henriette’s two discs consists mostly of a sequence of miniatures, some lasting less than a minute.

The scale of the music isn’t really important. What matters is that it makes an immediate impact, albeit a subtle and sometimes oblique one. Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg — to use her full name — manipulates space and texture like a watercolourist, allowing tones to blend and separate with a sure touch, hinting at melody, harmony and rhythm without getting too explicit about anything.

The first disc is performed by a trio in which she is joined by the pianist Johan Lindvall and the cellist Katrine Schiott. Limpid, restrained and conversational, this is a kind of jazz-inflected chamber music that has distant and almost certainly unconscious roots in the music of the Chico Hamilton Quintet in the 1950s and the Jimmy Giuffre Trio of the early ’60s (the one with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow), although it doesn’t sound remotely like either of them.

So far, so good. But the impact is greatly intensified on the second disc, where Mette Henriette assembles a 13-piece ensemble in which the members of the trio are augmented by trumpet, trombone, three violins, viola, a second cellist, bandoneon and drums (the only names familiar to me being those of the trumpeter Eivind Løning, the drummer Per Oddvar Johansen and the members of the Cikada Quartet). The music they make is quietly ravishing, again often devoid of familiar components but finding a compelling beauty in the juxtaposition of abraded or squeezed sounds. Occasionally space opens for the leader’s saxophone solos, bred amid the culture of free improvisation encouraged by the open-minded conservatory at which she studied in Trondheim. On the eight-minute “I”, the longest track, she demonstrates a wonderful poise as her improvisation unfurls, changing trajectory with a sense of contained drama.

In terms of her arrangements, you never find yourself thinking, “Oh, there’s a string quartet” or “There’s a piece of writing for the horns.” What you’re hearing is an answer to the question she asked herself during her days as a student: “How could I sculpt something that would move the free improvisation in a different direction?” The result is a music that sometimes glows, sometimes rustles, sometimes shimmers, sometimes looms, sometimes evaporates.

“I” and the other long track, the six-minute tone poem “Wind on Rocks”, show that not everything has to be miniaturised and that she can handle a sonnet as well as a haiku. Throughout the album, however, concision and compression are brilliantly exploited. There’s as much music in the one minute and 53 seconds of the track called “Off the Beat” as in some people’s entire albums.

All in all, it’s one of the best things I’ve heard this year — and, as you might have surmised, it’s difficult to describe. So let’s simplify the task with a clumsy but not inaccurate analogy. If Wayne Shorter had been born a woman in Norway around 25 years ago, this is the music he (or rather she) might be making today.

* Mette Henriette: Trio/Ensemble is out now on ECM. The photograph is by Anton Corbijn.

2015: The best bits

Bitter Lake 1

Bitter Lake, a documentary directed by Adam Curtis and available all year on BBC iPlayer, spends two and a half hours examining the half-hidden history of the last 70 years and offers a profoundly troubling catalogue of epic miscalculations, very few of them committed in innocence. Assembling a mosaic of footage from many sources, and using music — from Messaien to This Mortal Coil — quite brilliantly to counterpoint his chosen images, Curtis examines the deep causes of recent events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. The film’s existence, and its availability, makes a conclusive argument on behalf of independent public service broadcasting. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:


1. Steve Lehman Octet (Bimhuis, Amsterdam, February)

2. Matana Roberts (OSLO, Hackney, October)

3. The Necks (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin, November)

4. Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet (Pizza Express, July)

5. Giovanni Guidi Trio (Rosenfeld Porcini Gallery, April)

6. Bob Dylan (Royal Albert Hall, October)

7. Discreet + Oblique: The Music of Brian Eno (Barbican, September)

8. Sophie Agnel/John Edwards/Steve Noble (Vortex, March)

9. Jason Pierce/Wm Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton (Barbican, July)

10. Julia Holter (Islington Assembly Hall, November)

11. Annette Peacock (Cafe Oto, November)

12. Nik Bärtsch’s Rhythm Clan (Kings Place, November).

13. Alexander Hawkins Trio (Cafe Oto, April)

14. Yazz Ahmed (Canary Wharf Jazz Festival, August)

15. Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit (Cafe Oto, May)

16. Selvhenter (A l’Arme Festival, Berlin, August)

17. Binker & Moses (Foyle’s, September)

18. Amok Amor (Vortex, November)

19. Cécile McLorin Salvant (Ronnie Scott’s, June)

20. Björn Lücker’s Aquarian Jazz Ensemble (Jazzahead, Bremen, April)


1. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (Aftermath/Interscope)

2. Charles Lloyd: Wild Man Dance (Blue Note)

3. The Weather Station: Loyalty (Paradise of Bachelors/Outside Music)

4. Matana Roberts: Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee (Constellation)

5. Mette Henriette: Trio/Ensemble (ECM)

6. Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night (Columbia)

7. Kronos Quartet: Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector: Music of Terry Riley (Nonesuch)

8. Eddie Prevost etc: 3 Nights at Cafe Oto (Matchless)

9. Myra Melford: Snowy Egret (ENJA/Yellow Bird)

10. Julia Holter: Have You in My Wilderness (Domino)

11. Georgie Fame: Swan Songs (Three Line Whip)

12. Don Henley: Cass County (Virgin)

13. Tyshawn Sorey: Alloy (Pi)

14. Mural: Tempo (Sofa Music)

15. The Henrys: Quiet Industry (own label)

16. Ryan Truesdell/Gil Evans Project: Lines of Color/Live at Jazz Standard (ArtistShare)

17. The Pop Group: Citizen Zombie (Freaks R Us)

18. Tore Brunborg: Slow Snow (ACT)

19. Drifter: Flow (Edition)

20. Eyebrow: Garden City (Ninety&Nine)


1. The Staple Singers: Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976 (Stax)

2. Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series Vol 12 / The Cutting Edge (Sony Legacy)

3. Georgie Fame: The Whole World’s Shaking 1963-66 (Polydor)

4. Miles Davis: Miles at Newport 1955-1975 (Columbia Legacy)

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

6. Various: Rastafari: The Dreads Enter Babylon 1955-83 (Soul Jazz)

7. Various: Jon Savage’s 1966 (Ace)

8. Graham Bond: Live at the BBC and Other Stories (BBC)

9. John Coltrane: So Many Things (Acrobat)

10. The Velvet Underground: Loaded (Atlantic)


1. Marshlands (dir. Alberto Rodríguez)

2. Timbuktu (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)

3. Eden (dir. Mia Hansson-Love)

4. Straight Outta Compton (dir. F. Gary Gray)

5. Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad)


1. Hou Hsiao Hsien season (BFI)

2. L’Eclisse (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni)


1. Amy (dir. Asif Kapadia)

2. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution (dir. Stanley Nelson)

3. Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (dir. Alex Gibney)

4. The Wrecking Crew (dir. Danny Tedesco)

5. Atomic (dir. Mark Cousins)


1. Oresteia (Almeida, July)

2. Robert Wilson in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (Barbican, June)

3. Richard Alston Dance Company: Overdrive (The Place, June)


1. Agnes Martin (Tate Modern)

2. William Kentridge: More Sweetly Play the Dance (Marian Goodman)

3. David Jones: Vision and Memory (Pallant House Gallery, Chichester)

4. Richard Diebenkorn (Royal Academy)

4. Robert Gumpert: The Bridge (Menier Gallery)

5. Peter Lanyon: Gliding Paintings (Courtauld Institute)


1. Everything by Patrick Modiano, including The Search Warrant, Honeymoon, Out of the Dark and Suspended Sentences


1. Barbara Frenz (tr. J. Bradford Robinson): Music to Silence to Music: A Biography of Henry Grimes (Northway)

2. Richard Goldstein: Another Little Piece of My Heart (Bloomsbury)

3. Jon Savage: 1966 (Faber & Faber)

4. Simon Spillett: The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes (Equinox)

5. Tom Jones (w/Giles Smith): Over the Top and Back (Michael Joseph)

Georgie Fame’s Swan Songs

Georgie Fame Swan SongCan it really be true that, as Georgie Fame intimates, we should take the title of his new album seriously? Swan Songs is credited to “Georgie Fame and the Last Blue Flames”. It is, he says, his final recording. “In the twilight of a long career / When dementia’s all I have to fear / If I ever get to lose these blues / I’ve learned to put my life to better use,” he sings, and the compositions with which he fills the album seem designed to provide both a summary and a valediction.

He sounds like he’s saying goodbye, at the age of 72, with a reasonably light heart. “I did my time with Van the Man / ‘Cos that’s the kind of fool I am,” he tells us in the same song, “The Diary Blues”. The album opens with a fragment of brass band music, which is how he started in his Lancashire youth, and a Caribbean-styled song reminds us of the days of “Humpty Dumpty” and “Dr Kitch”. He pays tribute to the late arranger and composer Steve Gray, a friend with whom he wrote a musical called Singer, in a song called “Gray’s March”, and to his mentor, Mose Allison, in the witty “Mose Knows”.

There’s a lesson in hip phrasing in the way Fame delivers these lines at a rapid tempo, every stressed, stretched and syncopated syllable adding to or adjusting the momentum on the fly: “He’s a country boy / Made his home in the city / At once bold and coy / Sometimes sombre, always witty / And his canny observations put to melody / Were meant to be heard by folks like you and me / A man so wise, indeed a sage / Who never fails to surprise when he walks on stage / You can raise the roof, you can tear it down / Don’t be square, just be there when Mose Allison’s in town…”

The 12 tracks — 10 of them written by Fame — canter through most of the familiar modes, from shuffle to swing, with space for a lovely ballad called “Lost in a Lover’s Dream”. The “Last Blue Flames” — Guy Barker (trumpet), Alan Skidmore (tenor), Anthony Kerr (vibes), Tristan Powell (guitar), Alec Dankworth (bass), James Powell (drums and Ralph Salmins (percussion) — acquit themselves with the customary excellence, particularly on a finger-snapping instrumental piece called “Spin Recovery” which sounds like something Lee Morgan and Lonnie Smith might have cooked up circa 1967.

Many of us will be hoping that this isn’t the end. But if it is, there’s further consolation to be found in the release of The Whole World’s Shaking, a five-CD box containing all Fame’s recordings for the Columbia label between 1963 and 1966, including the albums Rhythm and Blues at the Flamingo, Fame at Last, Sound Venture and Sweet Things, plus many singles, EPs, out-takes and BBC broadcasts — 106 tracks in all, very nicely packaged, including a handsome book with an extensive sleeve essay from Chris Welch. I’ve always thought of Fame at Last, with its exquisite version of “Moody’s Mood for Love”, as a perfect album, so it’s good to have it available in this form, with so much else besides, like the moment Colin Green cuts into “Last Night” with the guitar riff from “Nowhere to Run”, or Bill Eyden’s triplet figures on “Green Onions”, or Jimmy Deuchar’s muted trumpet obligato on the gorgeous “Lil’ Darlin'”. Oh, I could go on. I just hope he does.

* Swan Songs is released on Fame’s own Three Line Whip label. The Whole World’s Shaking is on Universal/Polydor. The photograph is taken from the sleeve of the new album.

The Bridge

Sonny Rollins 1I heard Sonny Rollins play his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge once and only once live one afternoon so many years ago I can’t recall the walkway’s colour back then. Definitely not the pale red of my tongue when I wag it at myself each morning in the mirror, the walkway’s colour today at the intersection of Delancey and Clinton Streets where I enter it by passing through monumental stone portals, then under a framework of steel girders that span the 118-foot width of the bridge and display steel letters announcing its name. Iron fences painted cotton-candy pink guard the walkway’s flanks, and just beyond their shoulder-high rails much taller barriers of heavier-gauge steel chicken wire bolted to sturdy steel posts guard the fences. Steel crossbeams, spaced four yards or so apart, form a kind of serial roof over the walkway, too high by about a foot for me to jump up and touch, even on my best days playing hoop…

That’s an early passage from one of the best things I’ve read in a magazine this year, a short story called “Williamsburg Bridge” by John Edgar Wideman. I don’t always buy Harper’s magazine, but I seldom regret it when I do and the November issue was worth all of the €12.50 it cost at an airport news stand last week just for that piece alone, an extended monologue delivered by a man perched high on the bridge, with his back to the water, having removed all his clothes except his undershorts, preparing to jump off while allowing his mind to run through the thoughts that prefaced that decision.

Wideman, aged 74, is a novelist whose past honours include the PEN/Faulkner award and a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called “genius grant”. The several mentions of Sonny Rollins by the protagonist of “Williamsburg Bridge” take me back to the time I first got interested in jazz, around 1960, when Rollins was on his self-imposed sabbatical, reassessing his own work in the light of innovations of John Coltrane and working it all out en plein air on the iron structure over New York’s East River, where he could sometimes be glimpsed (and heard). It was part of an attempt to change his life, a regime that included giving up smoking, practising yoga and studying Eastern religions.

He re-emerged in 1961. The New Yorker‘s Whitney Balliett went to hear him and famously proclaimed: “Sonny Rollins isn’t merely back; he’s looming.” The following year Rollins marked his comeback with a very fine album called The Bridge, which — despite the obvious reference to his unconventional sabbatical — surprised critics by its conservative approach. He was accompanied by the guitarist Jim Hall, the bassist Bob Cranshaw and the drummer Ben Riley on a programme of standards and originals. At a time when Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman had thrown jazz into a ferment, there was no sign here that Rollins had returned to action with a plan to play them at their own game. (That would come a few months later, when he recruited Don Cherry and Billy Higgins into a quartet that adopted some of Coleman’s freedoms.)

The point of this, however, is to recommend Wideman’s story. The reader is never quite sure whether the protagonist — a writer, we learn — is really up there on the bridge, preparing to jump, or perhaps lying safely in his bed visualising the possibility, or even just writing a story about someone readying himself for the act. But, like one of those stream-of-consciousness improvisations in which Rollins used to specialise, scrolling through his thoughts with absolute confidence and unshakeable internal logic, it takes a grip and doesn’t let go.

* You can read the story here:  The photograph of Sonny Rollins is adapted from the cover image of The Bridge, taken by Chuck Stewart.