Skip to content

Archive for

Musica franca

Evan & Alex 1 Alexander Hawkins and Evan Parker were two of the winners at the recent Parliamentary jazz awards: the former for being the instrumentalist of the year, the latter for, well, being Evan Parker. Last week they appeared together at the Vortex. Alex is 35; Evan is 72. What they gave us was a demonstration of the special ability of jazz-based free improvisation to span the generations without forcing the younger man to play the older man’s music, or vice versa. Musica franca = lingua franca, you might say.

I heard one and a half sets. The first reminded me of what those famous Cecil Taylor quintet tracks on Into the Hot, “Pots” and “Bulbs”, might have sounded like if you’d taken out Jimmy Lyons, Henry Grimes and Sunny Murray, leaving only Taylor and Archie Shepp. Evan was a little gruffer than usual, while Alex produced octave-doubled figures that leapt and darted with precise aim. The whole 40-odd minutes sounded like two painters working their brushes in rapid up-strokes. It was urgent and practically unstoppable — until they contrived the most elegant of endings.

The first half of the second set was more mellow and discursive, with a stronger sense of an underlying blues tonality, putting me in mind of how Charlie Rouse and Thelonious Monk might have sounded without a rhythm section. I don’t usually like this shorthand way of writing about music, by describing one musician in terms of another. But those comparisons were what went through my head when I was listening, and they’re only intended in the most impressionistic sense.

Anyway, you can hear for yourselves what they sound like, in all the many dimensions that they bring to their dialogue through a quite magical degree of empathy, in a very fine CD called Leaps in Leicester, recorded last year at Embrace Arts in that city. A long track called “The Shimmy”, dedicated to the late Tony Marsh, contains powerful elements of the approach I heard in the first set.

During the interval they joked that, given the recent success of Leicester’s football team, they should plan a European tour to take in all the places where City are drawn to play in next season’s Champions’ League. Which, who knows, might mean a gig in Cardiff next May, to coincide with the final. (Anyone who finds analogies between jazz and football frivolous or distasteful is directed to an observation by Jean-Luc Godard, who said that listening to free jazz reminded him of the great Hungarian side of the 1950s. So maybe the best comparison is between Evan Parker and Ferenc Puskás. I can’t imagine Evan objecting to that.)

* Leaps in Leicester is out now on the Clean Feed label.

The real rhythm and blues

ChessWilko Johnson’s new autobiography, Don’t You Leave Me Here, received an eloquent recommendation from Mark Ellen in the Sunday Times at the weekend. To coincide with its publication, Universal’s Spectrum imprint is issuing a 40-track double CD set compiled by the former Dr Feelgood guitarist called The First Time I Met the Blues: Essential Chess Masters. Its appearance prompted me to dig out the records you see above: three 45s from my all-time Top 100 box, plus two magnificent albums, all licensed for release in the UK on the Pye International label in the early ’60s.

That red and yellow label still triggers an emotional response, particularly when the centre and the paper sleeve carry the “R&B Series” logo, as the copy of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” pictured above does. Why it didn’t also appear on records like Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and Bo Diddley’s “Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut” is a question that someone out there might be able to answer.

It’s a good compilation, equally valuable to those who no longer have their original copies and to newcomers who would like a compact introduction to a golden age of Chicago rhythm and blues. There are masterpieces here: Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”, Little Walter’s “My Babe”, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin'” and “Goin’ Down Slow”, Sonny Boy’s “Don’t Start Me to Talkin'”, John Lee Hooker’s “I’m in the Mood”, Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” — the songs that those of us who were in British R&B groups in 1963-65 were required to know.

Muddy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” — recorded in 1948 with Ernest “Big” Crawford’s stand-up bass accompanying the singer’s bottleneck guitar, the two of them sounding like the whole band Waters was soon to assemble — remains one of the great moments in American popular music: magical and mysterious, a perfect integration of voice and instruments, an endlessly fascinating essay in rhythmic subtlety. “Louisiana Blues”, from a band session two years later, runs it close in that respect. It’s interesting to think about the way these particular tracks sounded before a drummer came in to tie down the beat: they float so loose and free (Elgin Evans is credited on “Louisiana Blues”, but his contribution is practically subliminal).

In some ways, however, my favourite among the 40 tracks has to be “Hi-Heel Sneakers”: a record that, in the early weeks of 1964, any young person with the slightest pretension to coolness simply had to own. It amazes me now that this modest little 12-bar blues could become not just a mod classic in the UK but such a big hit on the pop charts: No 11 in the US (Billboard), where it had the benefit of a huge number of black record-buyers, and No 23 in Britain (Record Retailer), where it didn’t.

Tucker (born Robert Higginbotham in Springfield, Ohio) sang and played organ on his own song. That exquisite and unforgettable guitar intro seems to have been played by Dean Young from Ripley, Tennessee — a member, along with bassist Brenda Jones and drummer Bo Tolliver, of Tucker’s regular band, who negotiated a then-fashionable chord pattern that echoed Jimmy Reed’s “Shame Shame Shame” and Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness”. The producer, Herb Abramson (an original co-founder of Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun), wisely left them to get on with it. They cannot have dreamed for a single instant that it would still be listened to and loved more than half a century later.

* This post originally credited the new compilation to the Ace label. Once the error was pointed out, I corrected it. The relevant label is Spectrum.

Bob Dylan’s ‘Fallen Angels’

Bob Dylan walking stickWhen the Great Director pulls back to frame the ultimate long shot of Bob Dylan’s career from start to finish, it will be interesting to see what the perspective tells us about his two albums of standards associated with Frank Sinatra. My suspicion is that last year’s Shadows in the Night and the new Fallen Angels will be seen as parallel works to the pair of albums, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, with which, in the early 1990s, he revisited the blues.

Those sessions, recorded in the simple solo acoustic format of his first four albums, seemed to declutter his mind. They were followed by Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times, which contained some of his most creative post-’60s work. And I was struck, listening to him at the Albert Hall last October, by how the decision to deal with songs written by the likes of Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin appeared to have influenced his attitude to the business of singing itself.

You don’t mess around with “Autumn Leaves” or “I’m a Fool to Want You”. You sing them properly or you don’t sing them at all. Dylan seemed to accept that imperative, and to be using it to refine his own delivery. His phrasing has always been exceptionally inventive, but he took the opportunity offered by these old songs to concentrate equally on tonal inflection and the meaning of the lyrics. The effect could be heard in concert when he included a handful of his own songs: “Blowing in the Wind”, “She Belongs to Me” and “Tangled Up in Blue” were treated by their author with a new respect for their original characteristics.

Fallen Angels follows the format of Shadows in the Night, employing his regular small band to create a gentle matrix of guitars and double bass plus brushes. With echoes of Western Swing, the Hot Club of France and Hollywood noir, the format allows Dylan to present these songs from an original point of view. If the new album doesn’t quite match the impact of its predecessor, if it feels a little lacklustre by comparison, that may be something to do with the loss of the element of surprise. But in the greater scheme of things, its significance may not be apparent until we see what he does next.

* A note on the packaging: Ever since Columbia’s art department stopped being in charge of the way Dylan’s new releases look, his albums have been characterised by their shoddy appearance and careless annotation (by contrast with the fastidious approach to the Bootleg Series, of course). Fallen Angels is typical in that respect. It’s all very well being a law unto yourself, but it’s impossible to forgive the failure to credit the composers of such jewels as “Come Rain or Come Shine” (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer), “All or Nothing at All” (Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence),  or “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke).

Elephant9 in the room

Elephant9For an hour or so at Ronnie Scott’s last night, I had the illusion of being in a different place and time: the Middle Earth club in Covent Garden, perhaps, or Implosion at the Roundhouse, or the Temple (formerly the Flamingo), back at the end of the 1960s or the very dawn of the ’70s. Once or twice I had the feeling that if I looked around, John Peel would sitting nearby. The creators of this sensation were a Norwegian trio called Elephant9, who find their inspiration in that era’s jazz-influenced progressive rock, as exemplified at its best by the three-piece version of Soft Machine or Tony Williams’s Lifetime.

Their keyboardist is Ståle Storløkken, a graduate of the celebrated Trondheim conservatory, and better known to me as a member of the improvising group Supersilent. The last time I saw him, a few years ago, was in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, where he was playing the pipe organ in a duo concert with his Supersilent colleague, the trumpeter Arve Henriksen (about whom I wrote, quite coincidentally, here last week). The drummer is Torstein Lofthus, a graduate of the Norwegian academy of music in Oslo, and the bass guitarist is Nikolai Hængsle Eilertsen, who is also a member of BigBang and the National Bank.

Maybe the best way of describing Elephant9 is to say that if you took Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Atomic Rooster and replaced their personnel with more interesting musicians playing more interesting compositions, you’d have something close to what we heard in Soho last night. I knew them only from their first album, but that record — Dodovoodoo, released on the Rune Grammofon label in 2008 — made me want to go and see what they were like in person.

Shaggy-haired and dressed-down in the style of the typical early-’70s jazz-rocker, they certainly looked the part. They were ferociously loud from time to time, and the structures of the music were sometimes relatively unsophisticated (even when they were playing in 10/4), but the volume and the simplicity were for a purpose, and there was always a feeling of substance and variety. The serpentine melodies seemed designed to lead somewhere, the thundering rhythm patterns were never merely bludgeoning, and the riffs provided an effective launching pad for Storløkken (playing Hammond B-3 organ and Fender-Rhodes electric piano, with the occasional use of heavy distortion on both) to build lengthy solos of genuine excitement. Impressionistic solo keyboard interludes added contrast to a set built around extended medleys of original material.

All in all, they provided an enjoyable and surprising reminder of why, in such bands as Egg and East of Eden, the jazzier end of British progressive rock once seemed to hold out hope for the future. Sincere congratulations, then, to Elephant9. Finding a way out of what once seemed like a dead end is quite an achievement.

* In the photograph above, from left to right: Nikolai Hængsle Eilertsen, Ståle Storløkken and Thorstein Lofthus.

A place of worship

Arve Henriksen 2During a public conversation at the ICA a couple of weeks ago, Brian Eno mentioned his interest in churches as potential performance spaces. After all, he pointed out, they were built with the idea of providing an environment for reflection. The truth of his words was evident in London last night, when the Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen presented the music from his 2014 album Places of Worship in the Jerwood Hall at LSO St Luke’s, the deconsecrated and repurposed Anglican church built in Clerkenwell by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James in 1733.

Thanks to a painstakingly sympathetic restoration, there isn’t a nicer place in London to listen to music. It certainly provided the perfect setting for Henriksen’s marvellous invention, a sequence of impressionistic pieces inspired by churches, chapels, cathedrals, cemeteries and other such places around the world, in which he was joined for this concert — and for the other dates of a short UK tour — by the guitarist Eyvind Aarset and the sound artist Jan Bang, both of them long-time collaborators, with lighting and projections by the artist Anastasia Isachsen.

Each musician had a table full of laptops and other sound-modifying tools, among them Henriksen’s mini-keyboard  and iPad, Aarset’s filters and looping devices, and Bang’s mixer and various other boxes of tricks, with a grand piano also at hand. There was a great deal of live sampling as they went about the job of re-imagining the pieces from the original album, creating soundscapes over which Henriksen could deploy his regular and pocket trumpets and his poignant counter-tenor voice.

The sounds shifted constantly in light, density and texture, making me wonder why we spend so much time listening to music that sounds the same all the way through — and also why anyone might ever have thought that electronically generated sounds necessarily robbed music of human warmth.

Henriksen’s extraordinary range of exquisite trumpet sonorities, from chapel-band brass to Zen-temple shakuhachi, found their perfect foils in Aarset’s great subtlety (including a perfect solo that consisted of widely spaced pings) and Bang’s artful manipulation of the available sonic material, including the establishment of unobtrusive rhythm beds. As the music and its visual accompaniment took shape over the course of an unforgettable 70 minutes, the hall itself, with its grey stone walls and pale columns, seemed like an equal participant in the act of creation.

Karsten Vogel in London

Karsten Vogel Soho 1Karsten Vogel made his London debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1968, alongside John Tchicai in Cadentia Nova Danica, one of the outstanding European bands of the ’60s jazz avant-garde. A little over a year later he was back as a member of Burnin Red Ivanhoe, the Danish jazz-rock band who played the Lyceum, the Speakeasy, the Marquee and other joints, and recorded their second album for John Peel’s Dandelion label. (Last year I wrote here about their reunion album.)

He was back in London this week on a rather unusual assignment, invited to play solo alto saxophone at the private view organised by a Danish galleries in a pop-up space on Greek Street in Soho. In a funky space — bare brick walls and open fireplaces, open ceiling beams, artfully minimalist lighting — and surrounded by the work of eight artists, he performed for 10 minutes or so, using a backing tape of almost subliminal sparseness.

There aren’t many alto saxophonists to whom I’d rather be listening. Kirsten has always tempered the raw passion of the music of his youth with a delicate lyricism that occasionally — and certainly in his short set on Wednesday evening — turns into a very touching fragility. He has a lovely tone — slender, fibrous and very human — and a shallow vibrato: a highly distinctive combination. If you listen to one of his improvisations and just concentrate on the shaping of his phrases, it can be a good reminder of how inventive and unpredictable a great jazz musician can be.

An audience of art lovers gathered for the show, which was mounted by Gold-Smidt Assembly and called Sølv. They seemed to find it very enjoyable — in turn, I liked the wall-hung ceramic honeycombs of Stine Jespersen and a 6ft block of South Wales coal carved into an enigmatically plain rectangular shape by Tom Price — but it would, of course, be great to hear Karsten playing at a music venue in London again.

Meanwhile he has a new album, Cry!,  on the Storyville label: a collaboration with the pianist Per Aage Brandt, his friend and compatriot, a poet and linguist who has lived for many years in France. In 1962 Brandt made a radio broadcast in Copenhagen with Albert Ayler, and the following year he became a member of Karsten’s quartet, which lasted until 1966, when the saxophonist joined Cadentia Nova Danica and Brandt went off to the Sorbonne to study semiotics.

Last October they reunited in a studio in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, where Brandt has made his home. Each of them brought one other musician: the bassist Flavio Perrella was summoned by the pianist, while the drummer Klaus Menzer came with Vogel. For five days they did nothing but play, the pianist and the saxophonist providing a set of challenging  but very appealing compositions and the four musicians coalescing into a a quartet that sounds like a genuine group.

The music is fresh and constantly surprising, with driving bop-influenced tunes and some gorgeous ballad-playing, and a slightly old-fashioned recording quality that suits it perfectly (what I mean is, you get a sense of room they’re in and the space between the musicians). To put it crudely, if Cecil Taylor had kept making progress on a straighter trajectory after his first handful of recordings, this is where his band might have ended up half a century later — which is no bad place to be.

Karsten switches to tenor saxophone for the final track, a duo version of “My Funny Valentine” chosen by Brandt as a homage to Ayler, with whom he used to play Richard Rodgers’ standard. The saxophone playing reminds the listener of Ayler’s idiosyncratic way with a ballad but also manages to be pure Vogel: a perfect way to close a deeply satisfying album which deserves wider international exposure than it will probably get.

Gold-Smidt Assembly’s Sølv is open to the public this weekend (May 13-15) at 49 Greek Street, W1 — but without music, alas.

Piano trios at XJAZZ

Vijay Iyer TrioXJAZZ is the name of an annual festival held in Kreuzberg, a district of Berlin that is home to a large immigrant population. The four-day event is dispersed between a dozen or so venues, all within walking distance of each other. Most of them are rock or dance clubs, but there are also the very striking 19th century Emmaus Church, reconstructed after 1945, and the Lido, built in the 1950s as a cinema.

Of the events I attended this year, the two most striking were both by piano trios. Vijay Iyer’s group (pictured above), completed by the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Marcus Gilmore, arrived at a packed Lido on Friday night intending to play the usual hour or so after being presented with the German jazz critics’ association album of the year award for their latest ECM album, Break Stuff. Such was the crowd’s enthusiasm that they ended up playing only a minute or three short of two hours.

They began by playing without pause for more than half an hour, and the applause that greeted the closing notes might have gone almost as long had a rather bemused Iyer not manage to bring it to a halt. The response was the same throughout the set as the trio explored complex but irresistible grooves that created and released tension with an exhilarating effect. They played many original compositions, several of which — such as “Hood” — showed off a love of playing rhythmic games, as well as Thelonious Monk’s “Work” and Henry Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Size Demons”.

Sooner or later the deluge of creative piano-trio music will dry up, but perhaps not for a while yet. The following evening another interesting group took the stage at Watergate, a house and techno club whose bar looks out on to the River Spree. As the light faded on the water through the windows behind them, the Bosnian-born drummer Dejan Terzic, the Danish bassist Jonas Westergaard and the German pianist Florian Weber created three-way conversations characterised by an astringent lyricism and a wonderful ability to play with full commitment while giving each other plenty of room.

These two trios operate at a dauntingly high level of intellectual activity, but the spontaneous enthusiasm of both sets of listeners demonstrated the music’s ability to warm the spirit as well as stimulate the mind.

Cheering for Little Richard

Little RichardLittle Richard is said by his attorney to be “annoyed” at the rumours of his death which spread this week. He survived a heart attack in 2013 and underwent a hip replacement operation more recently, but apparently he’s otherwise fine at 83. Let’s hope so.

Let’s also take the chance to remind ourselves of one of his finest recordings: “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got But It’s Got Me, Parts 1 & 2”, a deep-soul ballad written by Don Covay and cut for Vee-Jay in the blessed year of 1965, apparently during a touring stopover in Los Angeles. Richard’s gospel roots have never been more apparent than here, accompanied by a version of the Upsetters featuring Jimi Hendrix (who had played on Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” the previous year) on guitar and Billy Preston on organ, both clearly audible. It was produced by Calvin Carter, whose sister Vivian was the “V” in Vee-Jay; he probably didn’t have to do much more on this session than give the engineer the signal to roll the tape.

A girlfriend introduced me to this one soon after its UK release, and the US copy pictured above has a permanent place in the box that holds my all-time Top Hundred 45s. If you don’t know it, you should.

Connecting with Empirical

Empirical 1

How many great modern jazz ballads are there? I’m not thinking of the kind of American Songbook standards, such as “Body and Soul” or “Lush Life”, that have offered their melodies and chord sequences to jazz improvisers over the decades. I’m thinking of strictly instrumental pieces written by jazz musicians: things like Monk’s “Round Midnight”, Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford”, Bill Evans’s “Blue in Green”, Elmo Hope’s “Mirror-Mind Rose”, Stan Tracey’s “Starless and Bible-Black”, or Dudu Pukwana’s “B My Dear”.

There’s one on Empirical’s new album. It’s called “Lethe”, written by the band’s vibraphone-player, Lewis Wright. It starts with soft chimes and Tom Farmer’s double bass in a rising four-note pattern, Shaney Forbes’s pattering mallets on his tom-toms introducing an exposed theme for Nathaniel Facey’s plaintive alto saxophone. Facey’s subsequent improvisation slips easily in and out of double and triple time, encouraging the others to get busier and thicken the textures, but the band never loses the enraptured mood of the theme, which turns the whole seven-minute piece into a complete and very elegant construction, rather than something that just happened.

I’ve heard them play it two or three times in various settings over the past year, along with some of the other new material, and one the things that strikes me about the album, which is titled Connection, is the way they’ve not only captured the spirit of their live performances in the studio but even taken the process a step further.

The band’s fifth release continues their 10-year exploration of the kind of jazz first measured out in those Blue Note albums of the mid-’60s — by Andrew Hill, Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson and others — that took bebop in a late-modernist direction, very harmonically and rhythmically demanding, avoiding the easier options offered by post-Kind of Blue modal jazz. The music is challenging, often superficially austere and angular, but never academic or unfriendly. The 10 compositions by Facey, Wright and Farmer come at the idiom from a variety of angles, offering plenty of light and shade and exploiting the basic tonal palette and their internal relationships to the full.

They can do many things extremely well, and one of them is swing. Forbes’s drumming on two of Farmer’s tunes, “Driving Force” and “Card Clash”, creates classic triplet-based propulsion of the highest quality, establishing a really inspiring platform for the soloists. By contrast, Farmer’s “The Maze” explores a favourite trick of Miles Davis’s second great quartet by having the lead voices — Facey and Wright — stick to a measured written theme while the rhythm instruments are allowed complete freedom to invent. Wright’s closing “It’s Out of Our Hands” brings their innate lyricism back to the surface, with passages utilising a great asymmetrical Latin groove.

Exceptionally well recorded by Richard Woodcraft at RAK Studios in London, and mixed by Alex Bonney, this is a staggeringly good album that stands comparison with the very best of jazz in the 21st century. And from the way “Lethe” has lodged itself in my head over the past 12 months, I’d say that one deserves to become a classic.

* The photograph of Empirical was taken at Foyle’s in London last year.