Skip to content

Archive for

Thomas Morgan, among friends

Thomas Morgan LJ2One of the gifts of Thomas Morgan, the unassuming 35-year-old bassist from Hayward, California, is to make every collaboration he undertakes sound like a perfect meeting of minds. No wonder Manfred Eicher, the founder of the ECM label, where intimate conversation between musicians is the dominant mode, likes him so much.

A week or so ago I heard Morgan with the trio of the Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi, making a return visit to the highly sympathetic environment of the Rosenfeld Porcini Gallery in London. Of all the current piano trios, this one — completed by the Portuguese drummer João Lobo — is my favourite: not the most blatantly adventurous, by any means, but a collective marvel of touch, precision, empathy and lyricism, the threat of sentimentality in something like their wonderful version of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” held at bay by Lobo’s unpredictable colouristic interventions (a repertoire of mysterious tapping, scraping and scratching).

Morgan also works well with guitarists, including Scott DuBois and Jakob Bro, and last year he appeared on Bill Frisell’s album of film themes, When You Wish Upon a Star. In March 2016 Frisell and Morgan played a week as a duo at the Village Vanguard, and a selection of recordings from that engagement makes up Small Town, the first ECM album on which Morgan has been given a leader’s credit, jointly with Frisell, who makes a return visit to the label with which he established his reputation in the 1980s.

The 30-year gap between their ages vanishes as they peel the layers off Paul Motian’s “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago”, respond to Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious Lee” with serpentine bebop lines, relish the deep lyricism of the country classic “Wildwood Flower”, conjure a spooky, spectral blues mode in Frisell’s “Small Town”, distil the spirit of Fats Domino’s “What a Party”, and amuse themselves and their audience by turning John Barry’s “Goldfinger” into something so slinkily and teasingly seductive that 007 might have been happy to slip it on to the hi-fi in his Chelsea apartment.

Perhaps the heart of the album is a 12-minute piece titled “Poet — Pearl”. Credited to both musicians, it is full of rich melody and satisfying harmonic movement, but it would be no surprise to discover that it was spontaneously improvised. Frisell’s singing tone takes the lead most of the way but Morgan moves to the forefront for a solo that demonstrates not just his spiritual connection to the late Charlie Haden but his lovely ability to make modesty an artistic virtue, with every note carefully considered and weighted for its contribution to the whole.

After the Guidi gig, Morgan told me in his diffident way that he has been composing pieces with an album of his own music in mind. After so much distinguished work in collaboration with or support of others, that’s something to look forward to. Meanwhile, Small Town is a place to visit.

The return of Little Steven

Little StevenNeed cheering up in these dark times? Look no further. Little Steven’s Soulfire — in which Steve Van Zandt returns to his true vocation after his adventures with The Sopranos and Lilyhammer — is a record that could start a party in an empty house.

This October it’ll be 35 years since Van Zandt brought his Disciples of Soul to London, promoting his first solo album, Men Without Women. Their appearance at the Marquee was not just one of the best gigs of a very good year but one of the most exhilarating nights I can remember in the old Wardour Street premises. A 10-piece band, with Dino Danelli, the former Young Rascal, on drums, they kicked through great songs like “Forever”, “Until the Good is Gone” and “Angel Eyes”, with an encore of “Can I Get a Witness”. Van Zandt’s singing reminded me then, as it does now, of Keith Richards and Pete Townshend: he might not possess the power or technique of a real lead singer, but there’s an honesty and a directness in his delivery that has its own special value.

Soulfire is the first album under his own name in 18 years, and mostly it sticks to the horns-and-Hammond template of the E Street Band. Some of the dozen songs are familiar: they include “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” from the repertoire of Southside Johnny, and “Standing in the Line of Fire”, written with Bruce Springsteen for Gary U. S. Bonds, now with a great spaghetti-western intro. Others are new, like “The City Weeps Tonight”, a meticulous evocation of East Coast doowop with the Persuasions providing support. “Down and Out in New York City” is a surprise cover of a song written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon in 1973 for James Brown’s Black Caesar soundtrack album, riding a laconic street-funk rhythm with wah-wah and chicken-scratch rhythm guitars, a Rhodes with its mirror shades on, and violins voiced in octaves: the full blaxploitation menu, in fact, and very well executed. Steve also gives us a howling Dylanesque version of “Saint Valentine’s Day”, first recorded by a Norwegian band called the Cocktail Slippers in 2009 and more recently heard in David Chase’s film Not Fade Away.

I started loving this album as soon as I put it on. It’s not bursting with originality, to say the least, but sometimes that’s not what you need. It’s good-time music with a heart and a human voice, made by a man with a profound love and understanding of rock and soul, and what could possibly be wrong with that?

In the Summer of Love

Counter culture 2I’m looking at some 50-year-old cuttings from a morning newspaper called the Nottingham Guardian Journal. The first of them is dated Saturday, May 13, 1967. It’s from a page called The Younger Set, containing pieces on fashion and music. The reviews include Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” (“magnificent… the most creative musician in Britain today”) and Percy Sledge’s “Out of Left Field” (“reaffirms my faith in soul music”). A week later we have the Doors’ debut album (“a very cool, tight sound”), Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” (“a very mind-blowing cut from from one of the leading new-wave groups”) and, er, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich (“completely moronic”).

The Guardian Journal died in 1973 and is remembered only for having been the place where Graham Greene learned the craft of sub-editing before leaving for London to join The Times. And in 1967 it carried these reviews, along with others of The Velvet Underground and Nico, Pet Sounds, Are You Experienced and Vanilla Fudge’s first album. The editor and his senior staff didn’t know much about pop music, and didn’t much like what little they knew, but they knew they had to have some of it and that there was someone in the office who was known to take an interest. That would be me, aged 20.

It was quite a year — although not, in my view, the equal of 1965 or even 1966 in terms of quality. But I wouldn’t argue with those making the case for its historic value, and now along come Harvey Kubernik and Jon Savage — two colleagues of mine from the Melody Maker in the ’70s, as it happens — to sum it up very nicely: the former in 1967 — A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love , a coffee-table book containing nice photographs and a quantity of first-hand testimony, and the latter in Jon Savage’s 1967: The Year Pop Divided, a two-CD compilation of some of the year’s more interesting tracks.

Summer of LoveHarvey’s book moves mostly between San Francisco and Los Angeles on its journey from January to December, with detours to Monterey and London. Some of the oral history — from backroom people like Andrew Loog Oldham, Shel Talmy and Bones Howe as well as stars such as Jerry Garcia, Al Kooper and Carlos Santana — is of rich in opinion and anecdote, despite being mostly divided into bite-sized chunks and arranged around the visual material. There are some real gems, as when the actress Peggy Lipton, one of the great beauties of the time, tells Kubernik about her Monterey Pop Festival experience: “There was a light drizzle and we went to hear Ravi Shankar. I remember I left my body.”

It makes a nice companion to two other oral histories, Jonathon Green’s epic Days in the Life and Barry Miles’s In the Sixties, which tell the story of the era from the British perspective. (The Roy Lichtenstein pastiche at the top of this piece accompanied the publication of an extract from Days in the Life in The Times on the book’s original appearance as a hard-back in 1988; it was commissioned jointly by me and the paper’s then art director, David Driver.)

Among the 48 tracks on Jon Savage’s meticulously compiled and annotated CDs are some unexpected psychedelic gems and curios, such as the Marmalade’s “I See the Rain”, Tintern Abbey’s “Vacuum Cleaner” and the Third Bardo’s “I’m Five Years Ahead of My Time”. The more obvious choices include the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, Captain Beefheart’s “Yellow Brick Road”, Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” and the Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr Soul”. There are several fine examples of soul music fighting back with Joe Tex’s “Show Me”, James Brown’s “Cold Sweat Pt 1”, the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger”, the Four Tops’ “You Keep Running Away” and Aretha’s “Respect” and “Chain of Fools”.

So there was certainly plenty going on in 1967, and not just in the obvious places. A very minor example: in Nottingham, a friend of mine organised a Freak Out at the Co-operative Arts Centre, with the Social Deviants on stage, Scorpio Rising projected on the wall, and a bubble machine. The young Paul Smith accepted 25 shillings to make me a blue kaftan for the occasion, with floral trim and armholes so tight that I couldn’t move my upper limbs; not much good for letting it all hang out, never mind leaving your body.

In this morning’s Observer magazine, five participants in San Francisco’s Summer of Love were invited to reflect on its significance. Peter Coyote, a co-founder of the “anarchist gang” (his phrase) known as the Diggers, comes up with an interesting verdict: “The counter-culture may have lost every political battle — we didn’t end racism, we didn’t end war, we didn’t end capitalism, we didn’t end imperialism. But on a cultural level, we won every single battle. There’s no place today in the western world where there’s not an organic food movement, a women’s movement, and environmental movement.”

I’m pretty sure that I never left my body at all during 1967, but then I never got to listen to Ravi Shankar in a light drizzle with Peggy Lipton.

* Jon Savage’s 1967: The Year that Pop Divided is out now on Ace Records. Harvey Kubernik’s 1967: A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love is published by Sterling Books.

At last, Eurovision finds a song

Salvador Sobral 2A rather extraordinary thing happened at the Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv last night. Amid the overheated cavalcade of stadium-rock effects and terrible English lyrics, a young man in a shapeless black suit and a dark shirt, his long hair tied up in an untidy top-knot, stood along on an unadorned stage and just sang a song in Portuguese, accompanied by a piano and a small group of strings. A very lovely song, a graceful ballad with a shapely tune, delivered in a high and gentle voice that managed to convey the ardour of the lyric without pushing the buttons that tend to fall automatically under a singer’s fingers on such occasions. And the song won the contest, carrying the votes both of the juries around Europe and of the audience at home.

Salvador Sobral’s song was called “Amor Pelos Dois” (“Love for Both of Us”) and was written by his sister, Luísa. When invited up to receive the award, Salvador said this: “We live in a world of disposable music. Music is not fireworks. Music is feeling.” Quite brave, that, to deliver a rebuke to the contest you have just won. Then, when he performed the song again, he invited his sister to share the microphone, and they alternated lines.

This was the first time Portugal had won the contest in 53 years of trying. How marvellous that they should do it with a song and a performance true to the finest traditions of the country’s popular music. Next year, when Lisbon hosts the event, some of the contestants might find the time to visit not only the fado bars in the Bairro Alto but also the exceptionally fine Museo do Fado in Alfama, where they will learn a lot about the value of music that reaches the heart without the use of fireworks.

Blissful company

QuintessenceWhat’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? The fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love might be a good time to reconsider Nick Lowe’s rhetorical demand. In these harshly polarised times, we might look back with wonder on a brief era when a young generation commanded the world’s headlines with a philosophy that was essentially generous, outward-looking and benevolent.

Quintessence were purveyors of Indian sounds and philosophies to the heads of Ladbroke Grove between 1969 and 1971. A lot of their material, some of it previously unreleased, has been unearthed in recent years on several albums compiled for the Hux label by the author and researcher Colin Harper, including a terrific live recording of their memorable 1970 concert at St Pancras Town Hall, released in 2009 as Cosmic Energy. Now their first three studio albums, recorded for Island, are compiled on Move into the Light, a two-CD set on Cherry Red’s Esoteric imprint.

Naturally, being an underground band, they were featured in IT and ZigZag, but they had their fans in the straight music press, too. I wrote favourably about them in the Melody Maker at the time, as did my friend Rob Partridge in Record Mirror. I remember their flautist and leader, Raja Ram (born Ron Rothfield in Australia), telling me that he’d studied in New York with the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano: “A dollar a minute, but believe me it was worth it.” Their singer, Shiva, another Australian, had been a star back home leading a blues-rock band under his birth name, Phil Jones. The excellent drummer, Jake Milton, was Canadian. Alan Mostert, the lead guitarist, was from Mauritius. The bass guitarist, Shambhu (Richard Vaughan), was American. Their rhythm guitarist, Maha Dev (Dave Codling), was British. The band’s manager, the somewhat intense Stanley Barr, was a poet.

They became regulars at places like the Roundhouse, Friars in Aylesbury, the Temple (formerly the Flamingo) in Soho and elsewhere before graduating to bigger venues around the country, including the Albert Hall, which they filled in December 1971. A disagreement over a deal to release their album in the United States provoked a rupture with Island, but they were already starting to disintegrate by the time they moved on to RCA, with whom they released their fourth and fifth albums in 1972.

The beatific preachiness of their lyrics would draw the odd chuckle today, and there’s a certain amount of 1970-style clumpiness in the rhythms, but much of the music on the three albums making up Move into the Light (In Blissful Company, Quintessence and Dive Deep, all produced by John Barham), still sounds pretty good. Taking their cue from the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, they mixed songs and extended jams as effectively as any band in Britain at the time, with confident flute and guitar solos.

But how things have changed in the part of London they once called home. “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We all sit around and meditate,” Shiva sings on a track from the first album. The hedge fund managers and investment bankers who nowadays populate the once shabby and affordable streets of London W11 might have their own variant on that refrain: “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We sit around and rig the LIBOR rate…”

Alice Coltrane

There’s more peace, love and understanding on The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane, the first volume in a series on the Luaka Bop label titled “World Spirituality Classics”. This is music made by John Coltrane’s widow for semi-private circulation after ending her recording career with commercial labels and taking herself off to become the spiritual director of an ashram in Malibu, California, where she was known as Turiyasangitananda.

Between 1982 and 1995 she made four cassettes available to initiates: Turiya Sings, Divine Songs, Infinite Chants and Glorious Chants. The Luaka Bop CD is a compilation drawn from those recordings (the vinyl edition, a double album, has two extra tracks), featuring individual and choral chants, based on drones created by various keyboards — harmonium, organ, synthesiser — and harp, strings, sitars and tamburas, sometimes accompanied by hand percussion. The result achieves a quietly glowing blend of South Indian timbres and tonalities and African American spirituals.

The opening track, “Om Rama”, gets straight under your skin, synths whooshing and skirling around an infectious group chant that changes gear and develops a gospel-music edge, featuring an impassioned male lead singer who reminds me a little of Philippé Wynne. There’s some poised solo singing — by Alice Coltrane herself, I’d guess — on “Rama Rama”, and “Er Ra” is a short piece for her solo harp, almost koto-like in its delicacy, and voice. A 10-minute version of “Journey in Satchidananda” (which had been the title track of one of her Impulse albums in 1970) is almost as stately and uplifting as one of her late husband’s musical prayers. She died in 2007, aged 69, having outlived John by 40 years. But when you listen to this music it’s easy to convince yourself that neither of them is really gone.