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Bud Powell | 31 July 1966

BudPowellBud Powell never made being a genius look easy. Fifty years ago tomorrow — on July 31, 1966 — his death at the age of 41 put an end to an existence that seems to have been defined by two factors: first, his extraordinary talent; second, an incident that took place when he was not even 21, and which began the process of stifling his brilliance.

It happened in 1945, after a gig in Philadelphia with the band of the trumpeter Cootie Williams. Powell had already been marked out for greatness. While still in his teens, and thus technically underage, he had become a regular at Monroe’s Uptown House and Minton’s Playhouse, the crucibles of bebop, and had been befriended by Thelonious Monk. But that night in Philadelphia it seems that he was beaten by police while wandering the streets in an intoxicated condition after the gig, and was thrown into the cells. After his release, persistent headaches — seemingly induced by the beating — led him to treatment first in Bellevue hospital and then in a psychiatric institution.

Alcohol was a companion to him, but not a friend. His behaviour could be erratic and aggressive and in 1947, after a fight in a club, he was sent back to Bellevue and thence to Creedmore State Hospital in Queens, where he was kept for 11 months. From late 1951 to early 1953 he was in a mental hospital again, this time committed after being found in possession of marijuana. At some time or other he is believed to have been subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, which had come into use in 1938, and whose dangerous side-effects were little understood.

Some of those who heard him in his youth claimed that he was never the same player after 1945, which makes us shake our heads in disbelief when we listen to the trio recordings he made (with Curley Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums) for the Roost label in 1947, two years after that first incarceration. Through the terrible sound quality, the dazzling quality of his inventiveness on a track like “Indiana” still shines through.

Despite his misfortunes, there would be further great recordings, both live and in the studio: with Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro at Birdland in 1950, with Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Roach and Charles Mingus at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1953, and his own recordings for Alfred Lion and Norman Granz in the early 1950s, most notably the piece “Glass Enclosure”, whose title and disturbing melodic angles reflect his experiences in hospital and other institutions. He was, in fact, a brilliant composer — check out the profound lyricism of the 1958 piece “Time Waits” — as well as the only improviser of the post-war generation who could match Parker’s standards of inexhaustible creativity.

In 1959 he relocated to Paris, where he found supportive friends such as Nicole Barclay, the wife of the record label boss Eddie Barclay, and Francis Paudras, a young jazz-loving commercial artist who later wrote a touching memoir of their association, its title — Dance of the Infidels — borrowed from one of the pianist’s best known compositions. Powell became a regular at Left Bank clubs such as the Cafe Saint-Germain and the Blue Note, where he played with kindred spirits like the drummer Kenny Clarke, a fellow émigré, and the gifted French tenorist Barney Wilen, as well as with old friends visiting from New York. In France, his colleagues, acquaintances and fans knew that to offer him a drink would not be doing him a favour. Here’s a version of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” from 1963 which I love for the subtle way he infiltrates ambiguous voicing into such a well known tune.

One of my favourite pieces of Powelliana is a film of his guest appearance with Mingus’s quintet at the Antibes jazz festival in 1960. He played only one tune with them, but this long version of “I’ll Remember April” (which he had also recorded on that 1947 Roost trio session) contains six choruses of piano that repay close attention. The diamond-cutter articulation and lightning speed are gone, and there are occasional minor missteps, but the constant stream of lovely ideas and the relaxed intensity of the performance make it something to be treasured, even before the horns — Ted Curson (trumpet), Eric Dolphy (alto) and Booker Ervin (tenor) — have their say. And note the notably respectful way Mingus, an old sparring partner, and Dannie Richmond concentrate on providing solid support while staying out of his way.

In 1964, with his health precarious, Powell returned to New York, accompanied by Paudras, for a comeback engagement at Birdland. Although he was welcomed, his playing had lost its edge and its lustre. Paudras returned to Paris but Powell decided to stay on, dying two years later in a Brooklyn hospital of a combination of tuberculosis (contracted during his final year in Paris), alcoholism and malnutrition. A vast crowd filled the streets outside his funeral in Harlem, where he had been born and where he had first been acclaimed as a prodigy.

* The photograph of Bud Powell was taken in New York in 1964 by Robert James Campbell and is taken from Rebirth of the Cool, a book of Campbell’s work edited by Jessica Ferber and published by powerHouse Books.

Soft Machine in Croydon, 1970

Softs in CroydonCroydon’s Fairfield Halls art complex closed this week for a complete renovation that is expected to take two years. The news reminded me of the night back in January 1970 when I got so badly lost in my Fiat 500 in the one-way system around the town’s high-rise office blocks that I missed most of the first half of an important Soft Machine concert.

It’s always interesting when a gig you attended turns up on a CD decades later, even though part of one track, “Facelift”, was taken and used, after editing and overdubbing, on the Soft’s first album for CBS, the classic Third, later that year. Some years ago the Cuneiform label released the complete 75-minute show under the title Noisette; it’s still available, and well worth investigating.

Back in 1970, this is how I started the review in the following week’s Melody Maker: “It seems to me that this might just be Soft Machine’s year. Having done things the unconventional way by finding first fame on the Continent, the group should find the musical climate of Britain coming round to embrace them in the near future.”

The hall was “all but sold out”, the audience “young and attentive”. I got there in time to hear “Hibou, Anemone and Bear”, the final number of the first half. Thanks to the Cuneiform disc, I now know that Robert Wyatt — for whom, having been brought up in Dulwich, this was practically a home fixture — introduced the concert with these words: “The programme for this evening is that we do a bit and then we stop for a bit and then we do a bit more.”

It turns out that I missed 25 minutes of excellent music. Had I heard it live, I might not – after praising the playing of Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean — have written the following about the fifth member, the saxophonist and flautist Lyn Dobson: “I have grave reservations about Dobson, who seemed to be trying to do too much. Only on tenor did he say the piece of which he is capable”.

Dobson had joined the Softs the previous year, as part of a four-strong horn section. The other three members — Dean, Marc Charig and Nick Evans — had been nicked from the Keith Tippett band. Charig and Evans had left at the end of 1969, after a French tour. (Here and here are rare glimpses of that shortlived seven-piece line-up on a French TV show, L’invité du dimanche, with the added attraction of the great Delphine Seyrig.) The five-piece didn’t last long, either. Here they are in Paris that spring, shortly before Dobson left, thereby missing the band’s historic appearance at the Albert Hall in August, when they became the first ensemble from the field of popular music to appear at the BBC Proms.

At the time of his stint with the Softs, Lyn was a well-known face on the London scene. He had played the flute solo on Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” and recorded with the Small Faces. He was a member, along with John McLaughlin, of Georgie Fame’s first post-Blue Flames bands in 1967, and could be heard with the People Band, which also included Terry Day and Mike Figgis. He played with the Keef Hartley Band, he would appear on the title track of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter and on John and Beverley Martyn’s The Road to Ruin, and in the 1990s he made a couple of albums with the Third Ear Band before going to live, I believe, on Crete.

Anyway, I can now admit that in the section of the evening I missed was one of the concert’s highlights: Lyn’s flute solo on Ratledge’s ballad, “Backwards”. Introduced by the composer’s wah-wah’d electric piano, he produces a beautifully constructed improvisation that achieves an excellent blend of Eric Dolphy’s pure-toned inventiveness and Roland Kirk’s funky distortion, the latter feature coming to the fore as the piece goes into a wild Mingus-like 9/8 vamp. (Mingus, along with the Coltrane quartet of “My Favourite Things” and Uncle Meat-era Zappa, seemed to be the Softs’ most powerful influences at the time.) His tenor solos, like the one on Hopper’s “12/8 Theme”, manage to retain their clarity and logic in the heat of a furnace stoked by the non-stop focused clatter of Wyatt’s impassioned drumming.

As it happens, Wyatt was already beginning to become detached from the band. “Hugh, myself and Elton were pursuing a vaguely jazz-related direction,” Ratledge told Rob Chapman in a Mojo interview in 1997. “Robert was violently opposed to this, which is strange looking back on it because he was passionate about jazz. But he had defined ideas of what pop music was and what jazz was.” Wyatt’s verdict, quoted by his biographer Marcus O’Dair in Different Every Time: “To me, fusion jazz was the worst of both worlds. It was rock rhythms, played in a rather effete way, with noodling, very complicated solos on top.”

Robert may have been right in general terms, but that’s not true of the music preserved from the Croydon gig, which has power and inventiveness and its own kind of authenticity. To me, the five-piece was the last great Soft Machine line-up, before the noodling began to take over.

By the time Dobson joined the Softs, he had already developed a serious interest in eastern music and mysticism. Not long after he departure he generously lent me Hazrat Inayat Khan’s book about Sufism and music. It stayed with me through many house moves but eventually went missing. Maybe, like the recording of the enthralling Croydon concert, it will one day magically reappear, ready to provide a reminder of a time of open-minded, open-hearted creativity.

* The photograph of Lyn Dobson, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean was taken by Mark Ellidge, and is from the booklet accompanying Noisette.

Alan Vega 1938-2016

SuicideThe most interesting rock music is often made when people from different backgrounds or disciplines are thrown together, united in a desire to create something previously unheard. That was what made the Beatles, the Who, the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music so special, and it lay behind the brilliance of Suicide, too.

The singer Alan Vega, who died on Saturday at the age of 78, and the keyboardist Martin Rev formed their duo in New York in the mid-1970s: they were part of the downtown scene that revolved around the Mercer Arts Centre and CBGB. Suicide’s eponymous 1977 debut album, released on the Red Star label, belongs with the Ramones’ first album, Television’s Marquee Moon, Talking Heads’ 77 and — from outside the New York scene — Père Ubu’s The Modern Dance and Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo.

Vega was a visual artist who listened to La Monte Young and the Stooges. Rev had studied with the pianist Lennie Tristano (a unique figure who had a whole school of jazz named after him in the late 1940s) and admired Cecil Taylor. If they had a jukebox, it was probably packed with ? and the Mysterians and obscure early rockabilly 45s. Together they made outsider art that, although too scary for most tastes, influenced a generation of adventurous young musicians.

In January 1977 I reviewed their debut album for the Melody Maker; it seems to have been the first piece written about them in the British press. I loved their stripped-down aesthetic and Rev’s camouflaged musicianship. Naturally I focused on “Frankie Teardrop”, the album’s longest (at 10 minutes) and most extreme track: the story of a 20-year-old factory worker who, in a state of existential despair, kills himself and his young family. Against Rev’s minimalist backing of industrial electronic noise and racing-heartbeat drum machine, Vega’s breathless recitative is punctuated by screams, howls and whimpers.

A few months later they supported the Clash on a UK tour. Shortly afterwards I saw them at the Marquee, where they added an entire dimension to their recorded work, largely thanks to Vega’s compelling presence. My friend Howard Thompson, who had alerted me to their existence, got the album released in the UK in his capacity as head of A&R at Bronze Records.

That first album was recorded at Brooks Arthur’s 914 Studios in Blauvelt, Rockland County, where Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ had been created four years earlier. Its influence is all over Springsteen’s Nebraska, recorded in 1982, and in 2005 Bruce used Vega and Rev’s lovely “Dream Baby Dream” as a concert-closing anthem during his Devils & Dust tour. (In this interview with the Guardian‘s Martin Longley, Vega described Springsteen’s version as “America’s national anthem”.)

Every track on Suicide had something interesting to offer, whether it was a hymn to a revolutionary icon (“Che”), a hymn to a girl (“Cheree”), or hymns to a lost future (“Rocket USA”) and a lost American innocence (“Ghost Rider”). What Kraftwerk were to Europe in the mid-’70s, Suicide were to the US: a snapshot of the Zeitgeist, an artful simplicity and some great grooves concealing profound and often troubling complexities.

* The photograph of Alan Vega (left) and Martin Rev is by Michael Robinson. It is taken from the back jacket of Suicide’s first album.

Drones for peace

Catherine Christer Hennix 2Catherine Christer Hennix studied with La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath, which explains her interest in drones. Her music rejects the 12-step octave in favour of what we westerners would call microtonality. Her new album, Live at ISSUE Project Room, released under the name of the ensemble she calls Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage, is the most emotionally exhilarating and cathartic long-form piece of music I’ve heard in ages.

Born in Stockholm in 1948 of Swedish and American parents, CCH studied contemporary western classical before meeting Young and Pandit Pran Nath in 1970 at the Foundation Maeght gallery in St Paul-de-Vence, during the famous music festival in which Albert Ayler also took part. That encounter changed her approach, which was also affected by studies of the medieval music of Japan (gagaku) and Europe.

Her most famous work is probably The Electric Harpsichord, a 25-minute piece recorded at a festival of modern music in Stockholm in 1976, on which she is the only performer, playing a keyboard and a sine wave generator. Static but enveloping, it sounds like Nico’s harmonium processed through a machine introducing the sonorities of bells, gongs and finger cymbals, with a gentle undertow of cello-like sounds. It was reissued by Die Schachtel in 2010, in a special edition including several haiku-like poems by Young and an essay by CCH’s friend Henry Flynt (the dedicatee, back in the mid-’60s, of Young’s composition X for Henry Flynt, which John Cale seized upon during his time at Goldsmiths College).

The other albums of which I’m aware are Central Palace Music From 100 Subjects for H, in which Hennix meets Peter Hennix (renaissance oboe) and Hans Isgren (sheng), and Chora(s)san Time Court Mirage’s Live at the Grimm Museum Vol 1, recorded by a five-piece ensemble in Berlin in 2011. Both are released on the Important label, the latter in collaboration with the Dutch festival Sonic Acts.

Live at ISSUE Project Room, also on Important, is a different kettle of fish altogether, a much more extensive exploration of resources. The musicians involved at this Brooklyn concert in 2014 were Hennix, Imam Ahmet Musin Tüzer and Amirtha Kidambi (voices), Amir Elsaffar and Paul Schwingenschlögl (trumpets), Hilary Jeffrey (trombone), Elene Kakaliagou (French horn), Robin Hayward (microtonal tuba) and Stefan Tiedje and Marcus Pal (computers and live electronics).

The single 80-minute piece, which is titled “Blues Alif Lam Mim in the Mode of Rag Infinity / Rag Cosmosis”, begins conventionally enough with tambura-like drones (presumably produced by electronic means) setting the scene for the introduction of elegant vocal ululations. Thereafter the music evolves in long, slow waves, its textures gradually thickening and then being pared away, the brass chorale and electronics coming and going beneath the voices: sometimes delicate and reticent, sometimes reaching a mindquaking intensity. This is a different kind of wall of sound, one on which an ever-changing variety of colours and images can be projected.

The listener might be occasionally made aware of the use of an unfamiliar tonality, but it is never remotely disconcerting. I have no idea of the belief system from which this music originates, but I do know that it stirs and nourishes something in my spirit. In its richness, in its patience, in its emotional generosity, a piece which seems to come from another world ends up feeling like the most natural sound imaginable.

Radiohead’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’

Since its 11 songs include previously unreleased compositions whose origins date back to 1995, 2000 and 2008, I suppose it’s just a coincidence that Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool sounds like exactly the music the world needs at moment: reflective, sometimes sombre, but not ashamed to offer the consolation of beauty.

In my view, Radiohead keep getting better and better, and this is a work of great maturity. While, on the surface, regret and apprehension are the album’s dominant emotions, the music is subtly laced with a sense of hope that derives from the elegance of the songwriting and the inventiveness of the finely textured settings.

There isn’t a song and scarcely even a note here that I don’t love, but at this early stage (I waited until the CD release before buying it) I’m particularly taken with “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers”, both of which Thom Yorke sings against backings based on acoustic or near-acoustic guitar. The electronic washes on the former are typical of the care and imagination with which all the pieces have been assembled by the band and their producer, Nigel Godrich, while the latter introduces its bedrock minor-to-major strum via a brief visit to the land of Alice Coltrane.

If you haven’t already heard the lovely “Daydreaming”, click on it above to hear a good example of the ingredients coming together in a sonic collage which demonstrates that the work begun by the Beatles and George Martin is not yet exhausted. Throughout the album, Jonny Greenwood’s arrangements for string orchestra and female voices are like an additional limb of the band rather than a bolt-on extra.

A Moon Shaped Pool succeeds in one of the greatest tasks that art can attempt, which is to expand the personal into the universal. To the violence and bitterness and cynicism that surround us in this strange, misshapen and unfamiliar moment of history, it represents a quiet rebuke and — as much as art can be — an antidote.

The Sokratic method

Sokratis Sinopoulos's lyraGenerally speaking, the chances of one of the gigs of the year taking place as part of an academic seminar titled “Sounds of the Hellenic World, Ancient & Modern” would probably be pretty slim. But that’s what happened yesterday evening at King’s College London, when the Greek lyra virtuoso Sokratis Sinopoulos brought his quartet — completed by Yann Keerim (piano), Dimitris Tsekouras (double bass) and Dimitris Emanouil (drums) — to make their UK debut in the Great Hall in front of an audience whose members had spent the day discussing Homer, Xenakis, Keats and Satie’s Socrate.

The traditional lyra is a tiny instrument which stirs big emotions. It has three strings, tuned by large wooden pegs, and its pear-shaped body contains its fingerboard. Today’s performers usually tune the strings a fifth apart and play it with a violin bow. Sinopoulos tunes his strings to a fifth and a fourth. (See footnote)

I first heard him as a member of the Charles Lloyd group that performed Wild Man Dance at the Barbican in 2014 and then in Berlin last November (a recording of the piece’s premiere, at the Jazztopad festival in Warsaw in 2013, was released by Blue Note). The lyra added a wonderful extra colour to the band (as did the cembalom of Lukács Miklós), and Sinopoulos’s solos were impressive. So I jumped the opportunity to attend last night’s concert.

The quartet’s first album, Eight Winds, was released by ECM last year, and they played several pieces from it, together with a couple of new ones. The live performance added an extra dimension of immediacy to compositions that had already made a strong impression on record, ranging from keening laments through elegant romantic melodies to exuberant dances.

But it was the sound of the lyra that filled the listeners’ hearts. Played straight, it more or less resembles a violin. Its available range of timbre and texture, however, is very different. Sometimes, when Sinopoulos bows near the bridge, the parched tone makes the instrument sound as though it’s been sitting on a windowsill under a burning Greek sun for a thousand years, left to gather dust and memories.

* In the original version of this post, I described Sinopoulos’s instrument as a Cretan lyra, and said that he followed the modern practice of tuning in fifths. A couple of readers challenged the description, so I checked with Sokratis himself. There are several variants of the lyra, he pointed out. His the very similar  Constantinople lyra — but he adds: “I prefer to name my instrument just ‘lyra’, which for most Greeks connects directly to the Cretan lyra, which is the most popular of all.”

Bernie Worrell 1944-2016

I saw Bernie Worrell twice, and both occasions were memorable. The first time was with Talking Heads at Hammersmith Palais in 1980: after starting the set as the basic four-piece with “Psycho Killer”, they added musicians at regular intervals until they’d become (I think) a 10-piece and were whomping out a kind of supercharged avant-funk. The second was at the Knitting Factory in NYC sometime in the mid-’90s, soon after the club had moved to Tribeca, with Third Rail, a band featuring Bill Laswell on bass guitar, James Blood Ulmer on guitar, Worrell and Amina Claudine Myers on keyboards, and — on this night, as I recall — Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums.

Like everyone, however, I’ve listened to Worrell on countless records. And the one that always sticks out is Parliament’s “Chocolate City”, which he co-wrote in 1975 with George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, and to which he contributes absolutely superlative gospel-funk piano. It’s among the most powerful records of its era, not just musically — taking that fractured funk pioneered by Sly Stone to a new level — but in its message, both tough and witty, about the potential upside of “white flight” from the cities (specifically Washington DC) to the vanilla suburbs:

“And when they come to march on ya, tell ’em to make sure they got their James Brown pass / And don’t be surprised if Ali is the White House / Reverend Ike, Secretary of the Treasury / Richard Pryor, Minister of Education / Stevie Wonder, Secretary of Fine Arts / And Miss Aretha Franklin, the First Lady…”

And this, of course: “They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition, too.”

Listen to it again, and marvel at the sheer creativity involved in piecing the whole thing together. And then listen once more, this time just for the piano, the binding ingredient of the track, digging in against the guitars of Garry Shider, Eddie Hazel and others, and the trumpet and tenor of Randy and Mike Brecker, then dancing free in the last minute and a half. Hard to believe that it’s more than 40 years old.