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Mind on the Run

hidden-orchestraIt was with regret that I had to leave Hull after only 24 hours of Mind on the Run, the weekend festival celebrating the life and work of Basil Kirchin, the visionary composer who spent three decades in the city, working in complete obscurity until his death in 2005, aged 77.

When the Guardian asked me to write a piece about the event, the first call I made was to Brian Eno. I had introduced the two men in 1973, while preparing the release of the second volume of Basil’s World Within Worlds on Island’s HELP label. Eno immediately recognised the value of his work with manipulated tapes of organic sounds, and more than 40 years later he was happy to talk about the impression it made.

The festival, held in the City Hall as part of Hull’s 2017 UK City of Culture programme, was quite brilliantly curated to include contributions from Matthew Herbert, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory (with a contingent of the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell), Wilco’s Jim O’Rourke, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of Saint Etienne, Evan Parker with Adam Linson and Matt Wright of his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, and a DJ set of Kirchin’s library music by Jerry Dammers.

On the first evening I heard a spirited set by a local five-piece band led by DJ Revenu (Liam van Rijn), heavy on imaginative electronics. That was followed by the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan with a piece inspired by several of Basil’s themes and performed by an nonet — including the outstanding harpist Serafina Steer — in a style that made me think of what might happen were Steve Reich to get it into his head to reinterpret those miniature tone poems that Brian Wilson used to drop into mid-period Beach Boys albums: things like “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” from Smiley Smile and the title track of Pet Sounds. O’Hagan’s music was minimalist, lyrical, unhurried and unrhetorical, with a fragile charm. (Just after it had finished I told a friend that I was particularly attracted to the way the music felt, even now and then, as though it might be about to fall apart; during a conversation an hour or so later O’Hagan mentioned, unprompted, that this was precisely the effect he’d been after.)

I enjoyed taking part in one of the panel discussions, alongside Bob Stanley and  Jonny Trunk, and listening to another that featured Matt Stephenson, co-director (with Alan Jones and Harriet Jones) of a 45-minute documentary film which did an excellent job of summarising Basil’s extraordinary life through interviews with those who had known him at various stages of his career. It also featured a wonderful film clip of the Ivor Kirchin Band in the early ’50s, with the leader’s young son as the featured drummer, from a time when dance band musicians wore cardigans and sensible slacks. (When someone in the audience likened Basil’s skin-pounding, cymbal-flaying antics to those of Animal from the Muppet Show, Matt was able to regale us with the priceless information that the real drummer of the Muppets had been the great session man Ronnie Verrell — who, in an earlier incarnation, had replaced the man who replaced Basil on the drum stool in Ivor’s band…)

Trunk, who has done so much over the past decade to create interest in Basil’s work, also mentioned that the handful of CDs released on his label represent no more than a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come from the archive of Kirchin soundtracks and library music.

Among Basil’s credits was the score to The Abominable Dr Phibes, the truly bizarre 1971 British horror film in which Vincent Price played the eponymous villain, who celebrated his dreadful deeds by letting loose on a pipe organ. The film was screened on Friday night, with the figure of a caped Alexander Hawkins emerging through a gauze screen from time to time, playing the music live on the City Hall’s mighty organ: the third largest in England, it is said, and the possessor of a massive 64ft pipe which, if unleashed at full volume, would probably turn the Victorian building’s foundations to dust.

Before leaving Hull I also managed to creep into the soundcheck of Joe Acheson’s Hidden Orchestra (pictured above), and was beguiled by the grooves and textures of a band featuring two drummers, violin, cello, harp, trumpet and keyboards. If you want to know more about that performance, and others, read Tony Dudley-Evans’s report for the London Jazz News website.

It was interesting to discover how Hull, a victim first of the Luftwaffe and then of the Cod Wars, is making use of the opportunity to present a new face to those lured by the year of cultural events. There are five excellent Francis Bacons on temporary loan at the refurbished Ferens Gallery in the main square, which is dramatically spanned until March 18 by a 75-metre aluminium wind-turbine blade created by Nayan Kulkarni. An exhibition devoted to the story of COUM Transmissions, the renegade art collective founded in Hull in the early ’70s by Genesis P. Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti and others, is at the Humber Art Gallery in the streets of the former Fruit Market, where all sorts of hipster enterprises are springing up.

It’s not all great, of course. Take a bow, “Sir” Philip Green, for the vacant hulk of the striking early-’60s building until recently occupied by British Home Stores. But if you can imagine a cross between Copenhagen and Hoxton, that seems to be how Hull is attempting to reshape itself, and the audiences who flocked to Mind on the Run demonstrated the potential of this culture-led Humberside renaissance. I hadn’t been to the city since a single visit in 1965. Now I can’t wait to go back and do some more exploring.

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A soundtrack of the ’60s, Italian-style

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The Jazz on Film series of compilations, curated with excellent taste and scrupulous attention to detail by Selwyn Harris, might be the best reissue programme since Hip-O Select’s Complete Motown Singles treasury. My favourites so far have been the French New Wave and Jazz in Polish Cinema boxes, but I’m very pleased to have the new vinyl single-album release titled Jazz in Italian Cinema, which collects soundtracks from 1958 to 1962 by such composers as Piero Piccioni, Piero Umiliani, Armando Trovajoli and Giorgio Gaslini.

As you would expect, the 11 tracks are full of atmosphere, mostly that of a smoky bar in Trastevere during the period when Italy was emerging the from the wartime ruins and making its own adaptation of the American culture disseminated by the occupying US forces. It begins with a track from Umiliani’s score for Marco Monicelli’s I Soliti Ignoti (released in the English-speaking world as Big Deal on Madonna Street), setting the tone for most of the set with an approach based on Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool band and Shorty Rogers’ medium-sized units.

Chet Baker, staying in Italy during one of his periods of personal turmoil, is featured on two tracks written by Trovajoli for Dino Risi’s Il Vedovo; sounding forlorn on “Oscar Is the Back” and sprightly on the film’s theme tune, he plays with poise, concentration and inventiveness. He’s even better on “Tensione”, the first of two tracks from Umiliani’s score for Nanni Loy’s Audace Colpo dei Soliti Ignoti (Fiasco in Milan), displaying the kind of up-tempo chops that suggest why Charlie Parker was so impressed when they played together in Los Angeles in 1952. “Relaxing’ with Chet”, the second of the tracks, is a lovely West Coast-style medium swinger.

Piccioni’s theme for Elio Petri’s L’Assassino (which starred Marcello Mastroianni) sounds charmingly like the sort of stealthy thing Henry Mancini, in a jazz mood, might have written for a detective movie. Gino Marinacci on baritone saxophone, the composer on piano an unidentified vibraphonist are the excellent soloists. No musicians are identified on Piccioni’s “Finale”, from Antonio Pierangeli’s Adua e le Compagne (Adua and Her Friends), which is a shame since it features some exceptional alto saxophone work from a player whose fluency and bitter-sweet tone are somewhere between Hal McCusick and John Handy. “Blues all’Alba” from Giorgio Gaslini’s quartet music for Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte is probably the best known piece here, a cigarettes-and-coffee nocturne featuring Eraldo Volonté’s eloquently world-weary tenor saxophone.

Next comes the only letdown: John Lewis’s “In a Crowd”, from Eriprando Visconti’s Una Storia Milanese (A Milanese Story), which teams good jazz players — guitarist René Thomas, flautist Bobby Jaspar and Lewis himself — with a string quartet but never emerges from behind a veil of effeteness. But Harris has saved the biggest surprise for last: two delightful tracks by by altoist Sandro Brugnoli and his Modern Jazz Gang from the soundtrack to Enzo Battaglia’s Gli Arcangeli (The Archangels), good examples of robustly swinging, bluesy post-bop jazz with modal inclinations neatly arranged for octet, in which Cicci Santucci’s bright-toned trumpet and Pucci Sboto’s vibes heard to good advantage.

All that, then, and a beautiful black and white shot of Jeanne Moreau on the front cover. A very entertaining and enlightening set, then — and, as the sleeve notes suggest, there’s potentially much more where this came from.

‘Alone with Chrissie Hynde’

chrissie-in-car-in-akron-1There’s an hour-long Arena documentary about Chrissie Hynde on BBC4 this week. During a preview of a longer 90-minute version the other day, I remembered that what I always liked about her was the subtlety underlying the ferocious four-piece rock and roll attack of the Pretenders’ music. It was present in February 1979, when — at the urging of my friend and Melody Maker colleague Mark Williams — I went to see them at the Railway Arms in West Hampstead, a room once known as Klooks Kleek but then renamed the Moonlight Club.

Mark had seen them a week before and had already written a rave review in the paper. I followed up with another one a week later — somewhat unusual, certainly for an unknown band, but they were so extraordinary that it seemed worthwhile. Before the end of the month Mark had written a terrific feature, outlining their background: how Chrissie had left Akron, Ohio for London, hooked up with the NME crowd and the punks congregating at the McLaren/Westwood Sex shop in the King’s Road, formed a band with three guys from Hereford, and copped a deal with Real Records, which had the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic promotional muscle behind it. Mark’s piece went on the cover, giving them greater prominence than the news of Dylan’s forthcoming UK tour, a piece on Siouxsie Sioux in Berlin, an interview with Dennis Bovell, and an examination of the future of disco by Davitt Sigerson.

It’s always nice to be knocked out by something new. The set I heard in West Hampstead featured the razor-sharp rock and roll of “The Wait” and “Tattooed Love Boys”, but the song that really grabbed my attention, and suggested that there might be a real originality at work, was “Private Life”. A hypnotic song set against a slow, spare reggae rhythm, it had a brusquely dismissive lyric that demonstrated Hynde’s gift for skewering complex, uncomfortable and sometimes unreliable or contradictory emotions: “Attachment to obligation through guilt and regret / Shit, that’s so wet…” Grace Jones did a good version a couple of years later, with Sly and Robbie, but the original was the one that cut deepest.

Hynde could be brutal, but the subsequent hit singles “Brass in Pocket” and “Kid” quickly showed us the unusual variety of emotional shadings — including tenderness — at her command. She was already a great singer, her strong, deep voice given its impact by a distinctive quaver and an ability to make a note that you didn’t think she was going to reach. And she looked the part, of course: a monochrome dream of black fringe, waistcoat and jeans against a ruffled white shirt.

When she was approached to make the documentary, Hynde said she wouldn’t talk about personal topics since she had covered all that ground in her recent autobiography (Reckless, Ebury Press, 2015). But she agreed to spend time with the director, Nicola Roberts, and the cameraman/editor, Alex Jones, last summer, inviting them not just to her home in London but on trips to Paris, New York and Nashville, and back to Akron, where she could hardly help but talk about her early years, although she is at her most interesting when reflecting on her life today.

Throughout the film she’s as sharp as you’d expect, occasionally self-mocking and, in an appearance on the comedian Sandra Bernhard’s radio show, endearingly silly. There’s a lot of music, with a bias towards the songs from the Pretenders’ latest album, some of them played with the current line-up, but also rewarding stuff from the archive, like a storming version of “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” with the original quartet augmented by Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.

It’s more than a little sad to watch the footage in which James Honeyman-Scott, one of the most creative lead guitarists of his generation, and Pete Farndon, the bass guitarist, are visibly diminished by the addictions that would end their lives, Honeyman-Scott at 25 in 1982 and Farndon — who brought the musicians into Hynde’s orbit — at 30 the following year. That first band was a wonderful outfit, full of the spirit and inventiveness so apparent in their recordings together.

There’s another noise you hear in this film: the subdued growl emanating from the V8 engine of the metallic green 1970s Pontiac in which Hynde tours Akron, revisiting the topography of her adolescence. It’s the almost-vanished soundtrack of the American highway.

* An hour-long cut of Alone with Chrissie Hynde is on BBC4 this Friday, February 10, at 9pm. The full 90-minute version will be transmitted later in the year.

Juliette Gréco paints her nails

juliette-grecoJuliette Gréco is 90 today. When ill-health forced her to cancel last summer’s concert at the Barbican, I consoled myself with the memory of having seen her at the Royal Festival Hall in the early ’70s, when she was still in her compelling prime. I listened again to some of her countless recordings — the album (above) I bought when I was a teenager and  the early classics such as “Déshabillez-moi”, “Je hais les dimanches” and “Les Feuilles mortes”, from the era when she sang for Jean Cocteau and Albert Camus at the Tabou and her friends and admirers included Jean-Paul Sartre and Boris Vian, Jacques Prévert and Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens and Miles Davis.

And I listened to my all-time favourite, a wonderful song called “Mickey travaille”, which appeared on a 1993 album called just Juliette Gréco, written and produced for her by the great Étienne Roda-Gil, whom she had encountered in Paris at a meeting at the Ministry of Culture, where artists had been invited to discuss the imminent threat to the historic Olympia music hall (where she had sung for the first time in 1954). In her memoir, Je suis fait comme ça, published in 2012, she described the impression he made: “An outpouring of generosity and affection, a man of refinement and culture, attentive to others. But also fragile.” When she visited his apartment on the rue Cassini, he showed her the studio of his late wife, an artist. He had left it untouched since her death: “Even the roses, wilted, remained in their vases.”

She called him “a painter with words”, and for “Mickey travaille” he gave her an unforgettable entrance. Accompanied by the acoustic guitar of Caetano Veloso, strumming a light samba rhythm, she whispers: “Je peins mes lèvres et mes ongles en noir…” If the thought of Juliette Gréco painting her lips and nails black while awaiting her lover’s return doesn’t stir you, well…

Earth Air Water… and Fire

michael-andrews-arthur-brownIt came as a bit of a surprise to walk into a high-end London art gallery this week and discover a small portrait of Arthur Brown, the madcap rocker of the late ’60s, taking its place in an extensive exhibition of the work of the late English painter Michael Andrews.

Andrews was born in Norwich in 1928 and died in London in 1995. A friend and contemporary of Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon, in 1962 he painted a famous group portrait of the denizens of Muriel Belcher’s Colony Room in Soho, for which he also provided a large Tuscan landscape of irregular shape, to be hung on a wall. He was particularly good at social groups and party scenes (as in The Deer Park, All Night Long, and the triptych Good and Bad at Games, none of them, unlike the two Colony Room pieces, included this exhibition).

In later years, however, he concentrated on landscapes and paintings of the natural world, which is why the exhibition of 61 of his works at the Gagosian gallery is titled Earth Air Water. There are several large paintings of Ayers Rock (nowadays also known by its Aboriginal name, Uluru), the River Thames and the Scottish moorlands, where he painted men in tweeds stalking and shooting deer. The intention of the show must be raise his status closer to that of his more celebrated fellow regulars at the Colony Room, something probably denied him by his own modest nature.

He was a perceptive portraitist, and one of the most striking works in the show is a self-portrait from 1988, that of a man with pleasant but unremarkable looks wearing an expression of restrained anxiety. The painting of Brown was made in 1967, when the extrovert singer was still an underground hero and a few months away from an appearance on Top of the Pops, promoting his latest release with flames apparently emerging from his head. Given the theme of that record, Brown’s one big hit, the exhibition’s curator might have added a fourth element to the title of his show: Fire.

I recognised Brown’s distinctive features straight away, of course, but an adjacent portrait — of similar size and vintage — puzzled me.

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Then I looked at the catalogue: it was Dave Brubeck, painted from a photograph. Both portraits are listed as “studies” for works on a larger scale. They play very minor roles in the show, but it was certainly nice to bump into them on a rainy morning in Mayfair.

* Michael Andrews: Earth Air Water is at the Gagosian gallery, 20 Grosvenor Hill, London W1, until March 25. The painting of Arthur Brown is from a private collection; that of Dave Brubeck is owned by the Arts Council Collection.