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Feat. Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell at home 2There was a time, seven or eight years ago, when I came to the conclusion that Bill Frisell was simply making too many records. I fell out of the habit of automatically buying his new releases because he seemed to be spreading himself too thin. Good Dog Happy Man (1999) and Blues Dream (2001) are still two of my all-time favourite albums, but I tend to prefer him nowadays as a contributor to other people’s records — something to which his particular expertise is well suited. Used sparingly, the characteristics of his playing add texture and flavour, just like King Curtis or Steve Cropper once did.

The job of being an accompanist is much underrated these days, so it’s good to welcome the arrival of two outstanding new albums on which Frisell fulfils that role: first with the saxophonist and flautist Charles Lloyd on I Long to See You and second with singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams on The Ghosts of Highway 20. They’re very different, of course, but they benefit equally from the guitarist’s modest, graceful touch.

When I interviewed him for the Guardian in 2002, Frisell explained a personal evolution that had begun with his first 45, the Beach Boys’s “Little Deuce Coupe”. Then came the Beatles and Manfred Mann — “that’s where I heard the blues for the first time” –followed by the Rolling Stones, John Mayall and the Paul Butterfield band. “I was coming to the blues backwards,” he said, “by figuring out where the English bands were getting a lot of their stuff from.” He may be in his sixties now, but he’s kept a sense of discovery in his music, whatever company he happens to be keeping.

I Long to See You finds Lloyd and Frisell tackling some familiar material, such as the saxophonist’s “Of Course Of Course” and “Sombrero Sam”, and a version of “Shenandoah” that doesn’t quite match the sublime reading Frisell and Ry Cooder contrived on Good Dog Happy Man. The biggest surprise is a resolute instrumental version of Dylan’s “Masters of War”, while the soulful Spanish traditional song “La Llorona”– previously recorded by Lloyd — invites Frisell to display his innate lyricism. Guest appearances by Willie Nelson on “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and Norah Jones on “You Are So Beautiful” are pleasant but not exactly essential.

The track that justifies the album’s existence, however, is its closer, the 16-minute “Barche Lamsel”. Named after a Buddhist prayer, it allows Lloyd (its composer), Frisell and their three bandmates — the steel guitarist Greg Leisz, the bass guitarist Reuben Rogers and the drummer Eric Harland — to improvise a dreamy five-minute intro on a single chord before drifting into a pulse defined by the drums  for a delicately funky jam that would once have been described as “spaced out”.

The concerns of The Ghosts of Highway 20 are more earthly in tone but no less spiritual in nature, if much less comforting. Lucinda Williams’ ravaged voice and bar-room country-blues songs do not trade in reassurance. Her America is a place of wayfaring strangers fleeing the past and seeking refuge from the future. As the poet of this world of lost highways and dangerous glances, Williams is rivalled only by James McMurtry.

Like its predecessor, 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (which also featured Leisz and Frisell), this one is a two-disc set. The extra length offered by the format would exhaust the capacity of most singer-songwriters, but it seems ideally suited Williams’ temperament. Although her songs are often skeletal, they need to stretch out and breathe inside arrangements that create their own sense of time. On “Louisiana Story” the two guitarists sit either side of the parched voice, carefully picking out a double commentary against a tempo that flows like a thin stream of black treacle.

* The photograph of Bill Frisell is by Monica Frisell.

Grooving at Falcon Lair

Falcon Lair

Few jazz musicians get to enjoy living quarters like Falcon Lair, a house in the Spanish colonial revival style built in 1924 by Rudolph Valentino high up in Benedict Canyon, in Beverly Hills. The architect was Wallace Neff, a favourite of the movie stars of silent era; four years earlier he had built Pickfair for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr, turning an old hunting lodge into Hollywood’s most celebrated mock-Tudor mansion.

Doris Duke, the 40-year-old heiress to a vast tobacco fortune, bought Falcon Lair in 1953 and moved in with her new boyfriend, the pianist Joe Castro. They had met a year earlier in Hawaii, where Castro was performing with a jazz-tinged cabaret group called 3 Bees and a Queen. Duke, who liked jazz, asked him to give her piano lessons, and the relationship began.

Having become, on the death of her father when she was 12 years old, “the richest girl in the world”, she was a generous woman. She had previously been married to the Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa; after their wedding in 1947 (her second, his third) she gave him a B-25 bomber to be refitted for his personal use, a string of polo ponies, and a Ferrari for him to drive at Le Mans; later, as part of their divorce settlement, he received a 200-year-old house in Paris. After she hooked up with Castro, they were soon making plans for a new home to share. Falcon Lair was their choice, and a studio was soon installed over the garage, with a Steinway D for Castro and recording equipment to enable him to tape the jam sessions that took place there over the next few years.

Castro, born in Arizona in 1927, was an accomplished bebop pianist who had a good feeling for the blues and a powerful sense of swing, and liked to mix chordal work with conventional single-note right-hand lines. And he soon showed himself to be at ease in fast company, with the great tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards among his most regular musical companions. When Edwards recorded a pair of quartet albums, Sunset Eyes and Teddy’s Ready!, for the Pacific Jazz and Contemporary labels in 1959 and 1960, Castro was his preferred pianist in a line-up completed by the bassist Leroy Vinnegar and the drummer Billy Higgins. At around the same time, the group recorded an album called (rather misleadingly) Groove Funk Soul for Atlantic under Castro’s name.

Joe Castro 2.jpg

The relationship between Duke and Castro lasted, with the occasional hiatus, until early 1966. During that time they hosted innumerable jam sessions, not just at Falcon Lair but at at her New Jersey estate, Duke Farms, and her Honolulu property. They also booked sessions at various Hollywood studios for groups including Castro’s big band and Edwards’ 10-piece group, and in 1964 they set up a label, Clover Records, to issue the material. Only one album, a Castro quartet session, appears to have seen the light of day before the break-up put an end to the project.

Now comes an extremely handsome six-CD box titled Lush Life: A Musical Journey, devoted to all that lost work. There’s a whole disc devoted to Castro’s very respectable Basie-style big band, which includes such first-call LA session men as the trumpeters Al Porcino, Stu Williamson and Conte Candoli, the trombonist Frank Rosolino, the saxophonists Tony Ortega and Bob Cooper, the guitarist Howard Roberts and the drummer Larry Bunker. Another disc rounds up the work of Edwards’s tentet, with Freddie Hill on trumpet and Lou Blackburn on trombone. A third features an hour of the Castro-Edwards-Vinnegar-Higgins quartet at its best. The other three contain extracts from the informal jam sessions, and include the tenor saxophonists Lucky Thompson, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims (also featured — on alto, strangely — with Castro on a quartet album called Live at Falcon Lair, released by Pablo in 2o04). Among others present are the drummers Chico Hamilton and Ron Jefferson, the bassist Oscar Pettiford and the pianist Teddy Wilson, who takes Castro’s place to join Sims and Getz on tracks recorded at Duke Farms.

The box is released on the Sunnyside label and the compilation, annotation and packaging of the set — in which Castro’s son James played a leading role — are first-class. If none of the musical content is exactly revelatory, it’s all good stuff and highly representative of its period, and the jam session material benefits from the combination of an informal atmosphere and (except for the earliest disc) much better sound quality than was usually the case when such occasions were committed to tape in the post-war years.

Those who don’t know Castro’s work but have a strong feeling for mid-’50s jazz will enjoy making the acquaintance of a really engaging player who went on to work with the singers Anita O’Day and June Christy. He married another singer, Loretta Haddad, in October 1966, before they settled a few years later in Las Vegas, where they brought up their two sons and he became music director at the Tropicana Hotel. His jazz years seem to have ended when he moved his belongings out of the house at 1436 Bella Drive.

Duke died at Falcon Lair in 1993, aged 80. Platoons of lawyers took many years to settle the arguments between those who believed they had a claim to her very substantial remaining fortune, much of which she bequeathed to her charitable foundations. Her estate sold the property in 1998. A restoration project having failed, the house was demolished in 2006.

Her ex-boyfriend died in Las Vegas in 2009. Castro’s entire and rather fascinating story is well told in great depth here. And here, from the 1959 Atlantic album, with Edwards, Vinnegar and Higgins, is a good way to remember him, with a fine example of his ballad and mid-tempo playing, on a lovely version of “Yesterdays”.

Down Applewood Road

Applewood Road 2Applewood Road, a trio of female singer-songwriters, recorded their first album around a single microphone. Last night they went one better, clustering around an upright piano at the side of the stage in the Exmouth Market Centre to perform their encore with no amplification whatever.

Recorded direct to two-track quarter-inch tape, with no edits or overdubs, Applewood Road has the kind of intimacy you might expect. Released by Gearbox Records, specialists in vinyl, it’s a record of great warmth and charm.

Those qualities were certainly on view at the launch gig, part of a short UK tour. Emily Barker, Amber Rubarth and Amy Speace met in a Nashville coffee shop in late 2014, with the intention of seeing if they could write songs together. “Applewood Road”, written the next day, was their first effort; the album otherwise consists of songs they wrote separately, or with other partners.

“Applewood Road” is a harmony song, and when I first heard them sing it together, at Gearbox’s offices a few months ago, the sound gave me chills. Barker (who I’ve written about before, here) is from Australia, Rubarth grew up in California and Speace is from Baltimore, but at times they can sound as if they spent their childhoods singing together around a family hearth in the Appalachians. The best work they do together — like their spellbinding cover of “Losing My Religion”, or “To the Stars”, which Rubarth wrote with Adam Levy, or “I’m Not Afraid Any More”, by Barker with Robby Hecht — mostly involves the three of them as equal contributors to the vocal blend.

There are other musicians on the album, just a handful, but last night the singers provided their own accompaniment, switching between banjos, an acoustic resonator bass guitar, harmonica, and Emily’s vintage Gibson acoustic guitar. Each of them also performed a song at the stageside piano during the three short solo sets that made up the first half of the evening.

Speace, who has made six solo albums since 2002 and had a song, “Way of the World” recorded by Judy Collins in 2010, exudes a calm authority that the other two have yet to attain. She was once an actress, describes herself as a folk singer, and has a voice somewhere between Joan Baez and Mary Chapin Carpenter, with the poise of the former, the emotional richness of the latter, and a soul of her own. Her individual set started with a fine song called “The Sea and the Shore”. As a member of the trio, there’s a presence about her that gives depth and focus to the whole group.

* The photograph (from left: Speace, Rubarth, Barker) was taken at Exmouth Market Centre by Andy Barnes.

Mike Westbrook’s Bigger Show

The Uncommon Orchestra image 1The great English jazz composer and bandleader Mike Westbrook turns 80 next month — on March 21, to be exact. His long career is studded with extended works of great ambition and achievement: Marching Song, Metropolis, Citadel/Room 315, The Westbrook BlakeThe Cortège (his masterpiece, for my money), On Duke’s Birthday, London Bridge Is Broken Down, Mama Chicago, and others. What began in the late 1960s as a distinctively Westbrookian conception of jazz — with undertones of the approach Ellington and Mingus took to blending composition and improvisation — was broadened by an engagement with street theatre and brass bands, and by a collaboration with his wife, the singer and librettist Kate Westbrook, on pieces that reflected the influence of Berlin theatre song and British music hall.

And now there’s another magnum opus to celebrate. A Bigger Show is a piece in eight sections, lasting almost two hours, performed by Westbrook’s latest large ensemble, the Uncommon Orchestra, a 21-piece unit based around his home in Devon. Due to its size, it doesn’t often show its face. But last summer a recording of the piece was made at Exeter’s Barnfield Theatre, and the results — produced by Jon Hiseman — are out now on a 2CD set.

The suite was inspired by the old St Bartholomew’s Day fair, which took place in Smithfield, in the City of London, continuously between the 12th and 19th centuries until it was closed down in 1855 on the grounds of excessive rowdiness and debauchery. Back in 1975 Westbrook’s Brass Band took part in a production of Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair, and the idea grew into its present incarnation.

Once again the Westbrooks’ vision of modern life finds powerful expression in a work featuring rousing and often turbulent ensemble work with instrumental solos of real substance from such familiar figures as Alan Wakeman on soprano and tenor saxophones and Dave Holdsworth on pocket trumpet and Sousaphone, and newer names like the altoist Roz Harding, the trumpeter Sam Massey and the tenorist Gary Bayley. As has been the case with Mike Westbrook since the beginning of his career, the improvisations emerge from the arrangements in an organic and dramatically satisfying way — the work of composer who has paid close (but never imitative) attention to the lessons handed out by Ellington, Mingus and Gil Evans.

The tone is variously raucous and tender, celebratory and scathing. Kate Westbrook’s lyrics, sung by herself, Martine Waltier and Billy Bottle, are etched in acid (particularly in a song satirising the social media). Human nature and human behaviour, they suggest, are little altered since the days of Blake and Hogarth: in an era when the gap between affluence and poverty is widening rapidly, only the superficial symptoms of excess and deprivation differ.

All this is achieved with a courage, a vigour and a generosity of spirit always characteristic of Mike Westbrook’s work. A Bigger Show is ambitious, thought-provoking, and exhilarating; when it ends, you feel as though you’ve been on a journey. Perhaps one day his extended pieces will be acclaimed as belonging among the most acutely relevant cultural artefacts of our time. Until then, here’s a new one to treasure.

* A Bigger Show is released on ASC Records. Westbrook and the Uncommon Orchestra will perform the piece at the Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton on April 1, Kings Place in London on May 20, and the Plough Arts Centre in Torrington on June 10.

Maurice White 1941-2016

Maurice WhiteWhen Maurice White told me that he’d deputised for the absent Elvin Jones with the John Coltrane Quartet at a Chicago jazz club called McKie’s in the early 1960s, I was as impressed as I’d been by anything Earth, Wind & Fire had played at the OMNI arena in Atlanta the previous night.

It had been quite a gig, however, full of smoke and mirrors — the musicians materialising in transparent perspex tubes which had descended from above, and dematerialising as they made their departure, and the bass-guitarist (Verdine White, Maurice’s brother) levitating during his solo spot — with costumes from ancient Egypt, as well as red-hot playing. This was February 1978, and EW&F were the happening thing, to the extent that a bunch of journalists had been flown from Europe to witness their show.

Maurice hadn’t touched a drum throughout the set, but during the interview at their hotel the next morning that’s what I got him talking about. I knew that he’d succeeded Al Duncan, who kept the backbeat snapping on Jimmy Reed’s “Shame Shame Shame” and devised those lovely fills on the Impressions’ “It’s All Right”, as the leading studio drummer for R&B and soul sessions by Chicago labels such as Chess and Vee-Jay.

“When I came out of school, he was THE drummer locally,” Maurice said of Duncan. “But he had a drinking problem, so I started getting dates. And I was ‘young blood’. Of course, I learnt a lot from being around him.”

Having taken Duncan’s place, he played on Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me”, Ramsey Lewis’s “Wade in the Water”, Billy Stewart’s wild recasting of “Summertime”, and almost certainly the Dells’ widescreen classics of 1968-69, the remakes of “Oh What a Night” and “Stay in My Corner” and the fabulous “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)”, co-written by Terry Callier.

He had grown up in the 1950s, he said, in the Chicago jazz scene with a generation of musicians who would turn out to be significant, including the pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, the saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and the drummer Steve McCall, who was a particularly close friend. “At the time I simply wanted to be the world’s greatest drummer,” Maurice said.

It was meeting Charles Stepney that broadened his horizons. A pianist and arranger who began by idolising Bud Powell (“I think Eddie Harris turned him on to that”) and Burt Bacharach, Stepney worked as a staff arranger and producer at Chess, on the Dells’ records and those of his own creation, the Rotary Connection. Their bond lasted until Stepney’s death in 1976. White admired Stepney’s musical ambition: “He also listened to classical composers, and he evolved through jazz.”

White joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio in 1966, but left in 1970 to move to LA, where he formed the first version of EW&F. It was with the second incarnation of the band, signed by Clive Davis to Columbia Records in 1975, that the hits started coming.

In Atlanta, even in the midst of all the space-age vaudeville presentation, which drove an  almost entirely African American audience of 15,000 crazy with delight, I was impressed by the precision and inventiveness of the band, particularly the Phenix Horns, among whom the saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk stood out. The music may have been glittered up for the disco generation, but the role of the musicians was no different from that of their predecessors in Percy Mayfield’s, Ray Charles’s or James Brown’s bands: they were jazz musicians adapting their skills to the popular blues-based dance music of the day.

When I asked Maurice afterwards about the lavish presentation, with its Nubian gong-bashers and its Tutankhamun masks, he told me he’d been studying Egyptology for three or four years. But I was suddenly struck by a thought. Who had done this sort of thing before — and not only that, but in the Chicago jazz scene in the 1950s, when the young drummer was coming up? So I asked him about it.

“Sun Ra?” Maurice replied. “Yes, I saw him in Chicago. He had a light on top of his head. I thought he was crazy.”

* Maurice White died this week, aged 74. Here is the New York Times obituary.

John Cale in the round

John Cale RoundhouseThrough his contribution to the first two Velvet Underground albums, John Cale was one of the people who shifted the tectonic plates of popular music in the 20th century. Maybe it was unreasonable to expect more. But I always believed, based on his work with La Monte Young’s Dream Syndicate, the three albums of archive material from 1965-69 released by Table of the Elements a few years ago, his arrangements on Nico’s The Marble Index, his collaboration with Terry Riley on The Church of Anthrax, his instrumental music for the Warhol films Eat and Kiss, and various other pieces of evidence, that he had the potential to go a long way beyond the rock and roll template into which he settled with Vintage ViolenceParis 1919 and their various successors, whatever his occasional flirtations with punkish sedition (such as the line “We could all feel safe/Like Sharon Tate” which so upset the Island Records hierarchy in 1976).

The weird thing about Cale was that so much of his post-Velvets music sounded like the Velvets had never existed, which was why it was so pleasing to hear the way he treated “(I Keep a) Close Watch” at the Roundhouse last night, during his spot in a week-long series called In the Round which has also been featuring Marianne Faithfull, Edwyn Collins, Mulatu Astatke, Scritti Politti and others.

Even if, like many of his songs from the mid-’70s, it sounds as though he never quite got round to completing it, “Close Watch” remains Cale’s most poignantly affecting ballad. It’s perfectly fine when sung straight and solo, as he did with the version included in the excellent Fragments of a Rainy Season, recorded during a 1992 tour and released by Hannibal that same year. But last night he and his three-piece band subjected it to a complete overhaul, stretching its sturdy sinews and ligaments almost to snapping point with an arrangement based on waves and surges of growling, shrieking electronic sound. It was a mighty noise, and it gave the song a devastating impact.

Wearing a conductor’s black tail coat, black T-shirt and jeggings and brown lace-up ankle boots, with his hair dyed silvery blonde in a sort of Small-Faces-circa-Itchycoo Park style, Cale was in relatively genial mood, although he didn’t say much. There was a “Hello, London — good to see you” and an unsatisfactory introduction to his keyboards-player (doubling bass guitar), guitarist and drummer, both of whom doubled on electronic bits and pieces: “This is Nick, this is Dusty, and this is (indecipherable).” Given the attitude with which the three musicians approached arrangements that required not just precision but commitment, and in the absence of any other way for the audience to identify them, he might have done better.

The repertoire in his 100-minute set included “Coral Moon”, “Changes Made”, “Hemingway” and a densely propulsive final pass at Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso”, a reminder of what a creative rearranger of other people’s classics he can be. But, with the exception of “Close Watch”, it was still mostly generic rock and roll. At 73, and seemingly in good nick, there’s time for him to stretch his capacious intellect and wide range of technical skills in other directions once more. I do wish he would.

Larry Young rediscovered

Larry Young 4When a friend asked me this week to name the most memorable gig I’ve ever attended, I could answer him in a heartbeat: the Tony Williams Lifetime at the Marquee on October 6, 1970. Nothing has ever felt more like the future exploding in the audience’s ears.

The organist Larry Young was a part of that band, along with John McLaughlin on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass guitar and Williams on drums. Earlier in the year I’d heard them at Ungano’s, a New York club, without Bruce but with Miles Davis leaning against the bar in a tan suede patchwork suit, listening intently, his silver Lamborghini Miura parked at the kerb outside on West 70th Street.

In such places, i.e. clubs with a capacity of around 200, Lifetime were mercilessly volcanic. And Young, the least-known member of the band, was a vital component of a sound that surged and howled and crashed off the walls.

This was no real surprise to those who’d heard his run of Blue Note albums, which started in 1965 with the release of Into Somethin’, on which he was joined by Sam Rivers (tenor), Grant Green (guitar) and Elvin Jones (drums). It’s one of those great recordings, like Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond, Grachan Moncur III’s Some Other Stuff, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure and Sam Rivers’ Fuchsia Swing Song, with which the label made a bridge between hard bop and the avant-garde, creating an inside-outside music that satisfied all kinds of demands.

Young came up in R&B bands, and it might have been expected that he would simply follow the example of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, John Patton, Freddie Roach, Baby Face Willette and all the other Hammond exponents whose playing was strongly influenced by the organ’s traditional role in gospel music. Young’s playing was soulful, certainly, but he steered absolutely clear of cliché. His chosen tone was rounder and softer than that preferred by most of his peers, although it lacked nothing in attack; his nimbleness around the B3 keyboard was unexampled, enabling him to absorb the influence of the new music, and he could more than hold his own alongside McLaughlin and Williams at their most ferocious (listen to “Spectrum” from the first Lifetime album, Emergency!, which is much better than its reputation might suggest, and where, before Bruce’s arrival, he is still using his pedals to supply the bass line).

Miles Davis had included him in the Bitches Brew sessions in 1969, and he had jammed with Hendrix the same year (a track released on Nine to the Universe) shortly before joining Williams’s project. I last saw him in a revamped version of Lifetime at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1971, with Ted Dunbar on guitar and Juni Booth on bass: a much less overwhelming proposition.

By that time he had renamed himself Khalid Yasin. He died in 1978, in slightly mysterious circumstances. Complaining of stomach pains, he checked himself into a hospital, but died there, apparently of untreated pneumonia. He was 37 years old and had just signed a contract with Warner Brothers.

Any new evidence of his talent, then, is to be welcomed, and the 2-CD set titled Larry Young in Paris is a real gift. Recorded in sessions for the ORTF radio network in 1965, the majority of the tracks at the station’s studios but others at the Locomotive night club, it presents him in generally favourable circumstances, with sidemen including the trumpeter Woody Shaw, the tenorist Nathan Davis and the drummers Billy Brooks and Franco Manzecchi.

The music is hard-swinging post-bop spiced with a strong Coltrane influence, signalled by the titles of two compositions: Davis’s “Trane of Thought” and Young’s “Talkin’ About J.C.” (which he had recorded the previous year on Grant Green’s Talkin’ About). More conventional than anything Lifetime attempted, these 105 minutes of music nevertheless offer an extended view of his brilliant melodic imagination and the great sense of swing evident in his comping for the other soloists. Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile” and Shaw’s “Zoltan” (which also appeared in a studio version on Young’s Unity) are among the tracks that inspire burning solos from Shaw and Davis. You can hear the music’s gathering sense of adventure starting to strain the seams of the players’ Italian suits.

Issued by Resonance Records with a well edited booklet featuring a great deal of valuable material from the sons of Young and Shaw, plus interviews with Dr Lonnie Smith and Bill Laswell, some background on the Paris scene, and photography by Francis Wolff and Jean-Pierre Leloir, this is a really wonderful discovery.

* The photograph of Larry Young was taken outside the ORTF studios by Francis Wolff.