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James Jamerson at 80

James Jamerson 2Had he lived, the most influential of all bass guitarists would have been 80 years old this week: on January 29, to be precise. Many of us will never stop marvelling at the creativity shown by the one and only James Jamerson during an era when session musicians who played his instrument were expected to do little more than mark the song’s chord changes and keep in step with the drummer.

Luckily, Jamerson (who died in 1983) played on so many records during his time as the No 1 bass player in Motown’s Detroit studio — roughly from 1960 to 1972 — that fans like me can spend a lifetime discovering half-buried examples of his artistry. A couple of years ago I wrote here about his contribution to Martha and the Vandellas’ “No More Tear Stained Make Up”. The latest one I can’t stop playing is a Mary Wells obscurity called “I’ve Got a Story”, recorded in 1962 and released a couple of years ago on a Hip-O Select from-the-vaults compilation called Something New: Original Recordings 1961-64.

An irresistibly catchy song by Marvin Gaye and two of Motown’s top backroom boys in the early years, Mickey Stevenson and Hank Cosby, its lyric has Mary telling us about a friend who’s made a disastrous decision to turn love aside before admitting that the fool is, in fact, her (“Now it was me… it was me who lost a real true lover”). It gets a fine Stevenson production featuring a chorus of grainy horns and an ace performance by the Funk Brothers, with a starring role for the bass.

A rattle of the snare and toms from Benny Benjamin’s mix ‘n’ match studio kit introduces a strutting medium-tempo rhythm entirely driven by Jamerson. He makes his Fender Precision sound almost as fruity as a tuba in a New Orleans marching band as he sits on top of the 4/4, adding his own distinctive hook to the track by inserting little descending 16th-note runs on the fourth beat of each bar, occasionally adding variation by switching the run to the second beat, and in the bridge — as the drummer adds a subtle Latin accent — sometimes extending the motif into a run across both the third and fourth beats.

The choice of notes in these beautifully articulated 16th-note flurries could only have come from someone with a jazz background, someone used to searching the chords for the most interesting variations. That’s what Jamerson had, and this is an example of how it could put it to creative use in the service of a pretty little pop song, probably something he’d already forgotten by the time he got into his car that evening and headed away from 2648 West Grand Blvd.

I’ve also been listening to his playing on the Four Tops’ hits, specifically “Bernadette”, on which he spins an amazing variety of figures around Richard “Pistol” Allen’s imperturbable four-to-the-bar snare drum beat with astonishing flexibility and imagination, and “Ask the Lonely”, where he does the opposite: by dropping anchor on the tonic while the chords shift, avoiding any hint of decoration, he underscores the song’s piercing melancholy.

But back to “I’ve Got a Story”. Recorded on June 28, 1962, it remained unheard for more than 30 years. Obviously it didn’t get past Berry Gordy Jr’s celebrated quality control committee. Could that be because, at 1:40 and 1:47, in the course of this virtuoso display, Jamerson hits two of the very few unconvincing notes of his career? Unlikely. They’re not wrong. They’re just not the perfect choices by a man to whom, in the dozen years that counted. perfection was an everyday matter of fact.

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Reconsidering the Paris Sisters

Paris Sisters 5So now we know that Veronica Bennett was not the first lead singer of a female vocal trio to whom Phil Spector proposed marriage. That would be Priscilla Paris, according to the testimony of her sister Sherrell in the sleeve notes to Always Heavenly, the first proper retrospective of the Paris Sisters’ intriguing career, put together by the Ace label from the group’s recordings for several labels between 1961 and 1968.

The youngest of the Filtzer sisters (as they were born) had a voice to which the adjectives “breathy” and “seductive” hardly did justice. If the lusty, gospel-trained Darlene Love existed at one end of the girl-group spectrum, Priscilla defined the other, establishing a template for Shelley Fabares (“Johnny Angel”), Louise Cordet (“I’m Just a Baby”), and many others. The sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me”, a high-school pop ballad in which Spector lightly updated the formula of the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, was one of the big hits of 1961, and it is remarkable that they never got close to matching its success.

Alec Palao, the erudite and assiduous compiler of this new anthology, demonstrates that the Paris Sisters’ career amounted to more than one hit and one approach. The 25 songs selected here include productions by Terry Melcher, Jack Nitzsche, Nik Venet and Mike Curb as well as Spector, with composer credits that include Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Doc Pomus, P.F. Sloan, David Gates and Jackie DeShannon.

Spector had prefaced the come-hither formula of “I Love How You Love Me” with “Be My Boy” and tried to replicate it with “He Knows I Love Him Too Much”. The later producers — Melcher and Nitzsche in particular — moved the sisters towards the more assertive approach of the Crystals and the Ronettes, and several of these tracks belong among the many homages to Spector’s mature style. This Nitzsche-produced version of Mann and Weil’s epically atmospheric “See That Boy” allows Priscilla to open up and show genuine vocal power and flexibility, the result of a full Gold Star echo-chamber treatment rivalling the original by the Righteous Brothers (who did it as “See That Girl”). Venet’s baion-beat restyling of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” is another delightful example. Others, such as the lilting “When I’m Alone With You”, written by Sloan and Steve Barri, and Gates’s “Greener Days”, edge towards a poppish folk-rock.

Most intriguing of all are Priscilla’s own compositions: always accomplished, demonstrating a real sense of drama, and sometimes venturing beyond the merely idiomatic. While “My Good Friend” is done up by Nitzsche as a very successful Spector pastiche, “I Came a Long Way to Nowhere”, “Why Do I Take It From You” and “I’m Me” show a greater range and contain strong hints of authorial soul-searching. They give the composer a chance to show that she could move beyond the doe-eyed mode to show an impressive strength and an interesting vulnerability.

The strangest track is the Sisters’ last recording with Priscilla, “Stand Naked Clown”, composed by Hal Blair (who wrote songs for Elvis’s movies) and Dean Kay (who co-wrote the Sinatra favourite “That’s Life”). Recorded in 1968, produced by Clancy Grass, the group’s manager (later married to Albeth) and the Wrecking Crew guitarist Don Peake (Priscilla’s boyfriend after the break-up of her marriage), it resembles something that Jacques Brel might have written for the Shangri-Las, with a semi-recitative intro against a bowed bass, abrupt switches between bolero rhythms and rubato passages, sudden crescendos, and a wonderfully melodramatic vocal.

There seems to have been a lot more to Priscilla than most of us could ever have suspected from that first and only hit, recorded when she was 16. She left the group in 1968 to pursue a solo career, first in Los Angeles, then in London, and finally in Paris, where she died after a fall in 2004, aged 59. Ace have a compilation of her solo work that I must now investigate. Albeth, the eldest of the sisters, retired to raise a family and died in 2014; she and Sherrell helped Palao in the assembly of this absorbing, hugely enjoyable and often surprising collection.

* The photograph of (left to right) Priscilla, Sherrell and Albeth Paris was taken at Sunset Sound studio in 1966. It appears in the booklet accompanying Always Heavenly.

Matana Roberts in Alphabet City

The StoneMatana Roberts was reminiscing about the first time she played with the great bassist Henry Grimes. It was during the New York blackout of 2004, when she was scheduled to appear at the Jazz Gallery with a group including Grimes and the pianist Vijay Iyer. She had been travelling on the L train from her home in Queens, and it had  just emerged from the tunnel under the East River when all power vanished across the length and breadth of the city.

The passengers were allowed to get out and clamber up to the surface, and she set off to cross Manhattan to the club, which in those days had its home on the west side. She got there to discover that she and Grimes were the only members of the band who had made it to Hudson Street. In response to the situation, they played duets for stranded workers. Afterwards she walked all the way back to Queens. “I would never wear heels again,” she said. “You never know when you might have to walk home.”

She told the story on Sunday, the last night of the season she was curating at the Stone, John Zorn’s bare-bones performance space in Alphabet City, on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street (seen in the photograph above). Twice nightly for six days, with a different line-up for each show, she invited groups varying in size from three to six members to improvise together for an hour or so. I made it to four of the shows, and some of the musicians I missed included the pianists Myra Melford and Jason Moran, the flautist Nicole Mitchell, the cellist Tomeka Reid, the trumpeter Peter Evans and the guitarist Liberty Ellman.

The first show I caught featured Roberts with Iyer and the koto player Miya Masaoka, creating three-part inventions of great delicacy and intricacy, the set culminating in a short piece in which they discovered a swelling, hymn-like lyricism. The following night I was impressed by the contributions of the trumpeters Nate Wooley, in the first set, and Forbes Graham, in the second.

Roberts was at pains to explain how important this season, first proposed two years ago, was to her. I suspect that the penultimate set, the one that featured a quartet including Grimes, the guitarist Kyp Malone and the drummer Mike Pride, offered particular satisfaction. Malone, she said, was one of the first people she played with after she arrived in New York. Pride had pointed her towards the paid work that kept her going. “And Mr Grimes,” she added, “has been an inspiration for ever.”

With Pride using bells and gongs as well as his regular kit and Malone flicking out fast-moving note clusters while Roberts deployed her throaty tone in a series of powerful incantations, the blend of textures and the rapt mood of the opening passages reminded me that Grimes had been a participant on Pharaoh Sanders’ Tauhid, a favourite (and nowadays somewhat under appreciated) album from 1966. But then the players stepped up their intensity, Roberts responding with passionate cries recalling Albert Ayler. It was a wonderful performance, full of wisdom and empathy, with Grimes — who turned 80 in November — a marvel throughout.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I think very highly of Matana Roberts (I wrote about her last year here and here). At the Stone she led off every performance that I saw with great energy, and listened to her colleagues with the same intensity with which she played. She could be proud of the whole mini-season, but of that hour on Sunday in particular.

★★★★★

David Bowie blackstarFor many years I dismissed David Bowie as a shallow opportunist. What was he doing that Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, conceptually and musically, hadn’t done with more wit and originality? I saw him at the Greyhound in Croydon in the summer of 1972, supported by Roxy Music in a pub room that can’t have held more than 200 people. He did the Ziggy Stardust thing, he and the band in full costume, and I didn’t care for it much.

Those particular songs still don’t do anything for me, but time sometimes dissolves prejudices and now I can see that what I took to be shallowness and opportunism were aspects of what we call the pop process: the way things evolve through mimesis and metamorphosis, adapting to their time. And the response to the sudden news of his death leaves no doubt of the profound impact he had on people whose lives were then in the process of being formed.

It wasn’t until the time of the Berlin trilogy that I started to take him seriously, but then he lost me again. I went to see him again at Wembley Arena in the early ’80s, and he looked to me like a man who’d run dry. But I liked the records he made with Nile Rodgers — if you’ve seen Frances Ha, you’ll know the wonderful sequence in which Greta Gerwig’s character skips through the streets of New York to the sound of “Modern Love” and the whole cinema seems to lift about a foot off the ground.

This morning I found myself going into Soho to buy his new album, queuing behind a bunch of people doing exactly the same thing. I could tell you that I was going to buy it today in any case, and it would be true: the idea of Bowie working with jazz musicians sounded intriguing, if not necessarily guaranteed to work.

I’m listening to blackstar now, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that Bowie knew exactly what he was doing when he scheduled its release. It sounds like the supremely elegant farewell of an artist standing squarely on the platform of his past achievements in order to reach still further, one last time. It’s worthy of the famous line from Macbeth: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.”

It isn’t jazz, of course, or anything like it. The skills of the musicians are put to a different purpose. In the mesh of textures created from the available palette, in the brilliant settings of his allusive lyrics, in the masterful sense of pacing (listen to the closing of “Lazarus”), in the aching poignancy of “Dollar Days” (“If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me/It’s nothing to see”), in the purposeful channeling of energy and the constant sense of newness from start to finish, this sounds like Bowie music at its most fully realised and powerfully affecting. What a way to say goodbye.

Natalie Cole 1950-2015

Natalie Cole’s death last week, at the age of 65, reminded me of her part in one of the most surreal and exhilarating evenings of my life, when she joined a company of distinguished American gospel singers and musicians for a performance in a 17th century church in the English Midlands.

The date was November 27, 1980, and the place was All Saints’ Church in Northampton, rebuilt with 1,000 tons of timber donated by King Charles II after a fire had laid waste to the town centre in 1675. It made an interesting environment not just for the performers but the congregation, consisting of personnel from the various US Air Force bases dotted around that part of England in the Cold War era.

Invited by the producers of a TV programme called In the Spirit, these men and women played an important role in an event that also featured the Reverend James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir and the soloists Dorothy Norwood and Marion Williams, plus a first-class rhythm section: organ, piano, guitar, bass and drums. I took my father — a Church of England parson, and a music lover, who I correctly thought would be intrigued by the experience — and my friend and colleague Simon Frith. Apart from the TV crew, we were probably the only white faces in the place.

As you can hear from the nine-minute clip, Cole’s rendering of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” was well received. She was, after all, still basking in the glow of her 1975 dancefloor hit, “This Will Be”. On the night, however, I remember thinking that she didn’t seem entirely natural in this context: by comparison with the great female gospel singers, she sounded a little shrill and insubstantial. But she certainly gave it what she had, and you can watch the beautiful sway of the robed choir to the band’s 12/8 rhythm.

To see and hear James Cleveland — one of the founding fathers of modern gospel music — was to witness a masterclass in the manipulation of a willing congregation. When he delivered his purring rewrite of Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs”, featured three years earlier on his Grammy-winning Live at Carnegie Hall album, he wrecked the house almost as comprehensively as the Great Fire of Northampton 305 years earlier.