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Sam Shepard 1943-2017

Sam ShepardIf you want to convince someone — even yourself — that Bob Dylan is a great singer, a place to go might be “Brownsville Girl”, an 11-minute epic from the otherwise threadbare 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded. More specifically, attend to the first line of the penultimate verse, at 8:51. “Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than those who are most content,” Dylan sings in a ruminative and rueful tone, delivering the line in a single breath, exhaling the sentence in such a way as to create a complete design, the internal rhythm gently coiling with a sing-song inflection and a slight but telling deceleration on the last four words, making the sense of it linger after the sound has moved on.

The chances are that the line which inspired that miniature masterpiece of phrasing was written by Sam Shepard, who composed the song jointly with Dylan and whose fingerprints are all over its wonderfully strange storyline and the details of character and incident with which it is studded. They were friends, and no library of books about Dylan is complete without Shepard’s The Rolling Thunder Logbook, originally published in 1976, the year after the tour it describes took place.

Shepard’s death, at his home in Kentucky at the age of 73, was announced today. About 20 years ago I went to hear him read his short stories at the Battersea Arts Centre. It was all there. The voice, the looks, the presence. After the reading had finished he remained on stage, talking quietly to someone, while the audience started to leave. As we reached the lobby there was an exchange between a handsome couple, a man of about my age and his wife, who was looking back over her shoulder. “Oh, all right, then,” he told her, in a tone of fondly amused tolerance. “Just go back and have another look.”

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‘Chasing Trane’

Chasing TraneI’m going to make no apology for returning to the subject of John Coltrane so soon after writing a short piece in recognition of the 50th anniversary of his death. A few days after posting that piece I was invited to a screening at Ronnie Scott’s Club of a new documentary called Chasing Trane. The 99-minute film gets its first UK cinema release in August, and I strongly recommend that you catch it.

John Scheinfeld, its writer and director, adopts an approach that is likely to please even the most demanding fan. Chasing Trane is neither a thorough biographical investigation nor a poetic reflection in the manner of Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan but a serious-minded inquiry into the meaning and evolution of Coltrane’s art, with reference to his life.

Some of the witnesses provide striking testimony. “He had a deep feeling for higher worlds than this world,” Sonny Rollins says. Kamasi Washington on his sound: “His tone was like looking at the sun — the brightest light you could hear.” Carlos Santana tries to evoke how it felt to hear that sound for the first time: “It was… a vortex of possibilities.” Wynton Marsalis on the impact of the great quartet: “People who heard them, their lives were transformed.” As we watch film of that group, we can only agree with McCoy Tyner, its pianist, who gives a brief but indelible summary of what made it special: “We were committed.”

The critic Ben Ratliff makes an important point about innovation when he talks about Coltrane’s relentless and often controversial stylistic development: “He’s pushing forward… such that he may not even know what he’s pushing forward to.” We’re watching a piece of film from the final Newport Jazz Festival appearance in 1966, and listening to the emotionally unfettered music of the last quintet, when Oran Coltrane, one of his sons (and one of the four children and stepchildren heard from in the film), adds: “Would you want him to tiptoe to where he’s trying to get to?”

Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s contemporaries and peers, talk movingly about their long friendships with him. We hear from John Densmore of the Doors and Bill Clinton, formerly of the White House. Coltrane’s own statements, from interviews and sleeve notes, are spoken by Denzel Washington. But some of the most powerful words come from the rapper Common, summing up the complex emotions expressed with such harrowing but elevating directness in “Alabama”, Coltrane’s threnody for the schoolgirls murdered in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963: “The pain that we went through but the hope that we have.”

The “Alabama” sequence is a good example of how, while making effective use of interviews, Scheinfeld remembers to allow the music to speak for itself from time to time. At this stage, I don’t suppose that all those sceptical of the stylistic evolution of his last two or three years (basically from Ascension on) will be converted, but they will not be left unmoved by the sound of the hymn-like “Peace on Earth” over the film’s penultimate sequence, dealing with the group’s visit to Japan in 1966, when 16 concerts in 17 days included a visit to Nagasaki, where Coltrane meditated at the shrine marking the site of the nuclear explosion 21 years earlier.

Japanese listeners seemed to have little problem with that late style, and the saxophonist’s many obsessive fans are represented in the film by Yasuhiro Fujioka, the self-described “world’s number one collector of John Coltrane memorabilia”. Fujioka fell in love with the music as a schoolboy and his hoard became so vast that he had to build a house in Osaka to contain it.

Coltrane’s life was such a big one, and its impact so extensive, that no 99-minute portrait could hope to encompass all its dimensions, never mind subject them to deep analysis. But while skating over the surface of several important aspects of the story, Scheinfeld makes so many good decisions that whatever your level of commitment to this music might be, his film is essential viewing.

* Chasing Trane is to be screened at the ICA Cinema in London from August 11-17.

Beach Boys: After ‘Smile’

Wild HoneyIf you wanted to isolate an individual moment that summed up the curious position of the Beach Boys vis à vis the changing modes of youth culture in 1967, you might come up with the one in “Darlin'”, a single released in that pivotal year, when Carl Wilson sings a phrase written by Mike Love which lands precisely in the space between a letterman’s sweater and a paisley kaftan, between the disappearing culture and the emerging one: “You’re so doggone outtasight…”

After reading his autobiography — Good Vibrations: My Life As a Beach Boy — last year, I had quite a lot more sympathy for Love, although I’m still not sure that I’d want to be in a band with him. While disclaiming responsibility for torpedoing the Smile project, he made an interesting point: “Brian … had tried to take the modular format that he used for ‘Good Vibrations’ and apply it to an entire album, creating a nearly infinite number of ways that it could be assembled. Everything was interchangeable with everything else…”

That was part of the appeal for those of us who were excited by the rapid evolution the Beach Boys underwent in 1965-67. Brian Wilson seemed to be rewriting the rules of pop songwriting, moving away from the standard AABA and 12- or 32-bar forms. There’s plenty of evidence on 1967: Sunshine Tomorrow, a new 2CD compilation of material centred around Wild Honey, the album released that year as a kind of recovery project from the controversy surrounding Smile and Smiley Smile, the latter being the album that emerged from the ashes of the former.

Intended as a kind of palate-cleanser for the band and their fans, Wild Honey was inspired by soul music. Most of the lead singing was done by Carl Wilson, whose voice turned out to have a kind of ardent purity that suited the material — particularly the two great singles: the title track and the wonderful “Darlin'”. The source of the inspiration is most clearly expressed in a better than respectable version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her”.

The compilation opens with a new stereo mix of the complete album by Mark Linett and Alan Boyd. The original stereo vinyl release was one of those fake affairs so common in the days when the mono version was the one that got priority and the stereo was an afterthought (the same thing happened with Sgt Pepper, of course).  The Wild Honey remix is interesting but, like hearing stereo remasters of Motown recordings, it isolates elements that were originally intended to be merged. “Darlin'” is a particularly good example: we were never supposed to hear the horn parts so clearly, and the track loses something of its focus and drive as a result.

Still, it’s great to be reminded of the sheer originality of tracks like the whimsical “I’d Love Just Once to See You” (with its brilliantly funny and unexpected pay-off), the dark, driving “Here Comes the Night” and the gorgeous “Country Air”. And there’s a lavish helping of out-takes and session fragments from all of the tracks, plus the odd reject, all of which illuminate Brian’s working method. “Darlin'” has always been a great track to sing along to, and here’s an exposed rhythm track so that you, too, can be the Beach Boys’ lead singer. There are also some Smiley Smile fragments and out-takes, including an alternative mix of “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter”, the loveliest of Brian’s miniature tone poems.

Most of the rest of the album consists of live recordings — including 14 tracks cut at Wally Heider’s Hollywood studio. The idea was to add canned audience applause before releasing the result under the title Lei’d in Hawaii, before someone thought better of it. Of course it’s interesting to hear them running through the hits and the covers of “The Game of Love”, “The Letter”  and “With a Little Help from My Friends” in such a setting, with live vocals and no overdubs. There are also three tracks from an actual concert in Honolulu, with Brian replacing Bruce Johnston, who had been recruited when he came off the road, and a terrifically impressive rehearsal take of “Heroes and Villains”, plus three tracks from their US tour later in the year, with Johnston restored and Brian out. (“If you have anything for nostalgia, you’d better take it now,” Love advises a Washington DC audience before they launch into the ineffably gloopy “Graduation Day”.)

The whole thing ends with two total treats. The first is a voice-and-piano recording of “Surf’s Up” made in November 1967, during the final Wild Honey sessions, with restarts and adjustments, lasting just over five minutes. It also exposes the special sound of the doctored grand piano in Brian and Marilyn Wilson’s house at 10452 Bellagio Road in Bel Air, where most of these tracks were recorded: a 9ft instrument made by the Chickering company of Boston, Massachusetts, which Brian had detuned in order to make it “ring more”. It’s the characteristic sound of all the Beach Boys’ 1967 music, which is virtually devoid of electric guitars but full of swimmy organs and that strangely resonant, half-submerged piano. And Brian sings beautifully, as he does on the final track, an acappella version of “Surfer Girl”. Who could ask for more?

The return of Tony Kinsey

Tony Kinsey

At the Clock House: Dave Jones, Tony Kinsey, Tony Woods, Chris Biscoe

After six months off with an injury, the distinguished drummer Tony Kinsey returned to action last night, setting up his kit at the Clock House in Teddington High Street for one of the regular nights organised by the Way Out West collective, of which he is a member. WOW’s venues have included the Bull’s Head in Barnes and Cafe POSK, the Polish social club in Hammersmith; the latest location, the back room of a pub, feels appropriate to the informal vibe created by these West London-based musicians and their enthusiastic supporters.

Kinsey’s band mates on this evening were the double bassist Dave Jones and four saxophonists: Pete Hurt (soprano), Tony Woods (alto), Tim Whitehead (tenor) and Chris Biscoe (baritone). In the set I heard, they played in several different combinations.

The full sextet was assembled for the opener and closer, respectively Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait” (arranged by the late Eddie Harvey, a co-founder of the collective) and Oliver Nelson’s “Hoe Down” (transcribed by Hurt). The four saxophones were alone on Woods’ arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance”. The trio of tenor, bass and drums tackled “I Thought About You”. Alto, tenor and drums were heard on “Stella by Starlight”, for which Woods set Whitehead a puzzle by starting the piece in a fairly abstract kind of way, having given the tenorist a list of five songs from which the chosen one would eventually emerge — the correct answer was achieved pretty quickly. And alto, baritone and the rhythm section played a couple of tunes from Biscoe’s excellent recent album, Then and Now.

The occasional misunderstanding made a pleasant change from the blueprinted precision of so much contemporary jazz. “Moving on,” Whitehead declared brightly as Woods and Hurt debated a missed cue in “Good Bait”, to the audience’s amusement.

Kinsey, looking characteristically unruffled, played with superb empathy throughout. The elements of his style — the calm ride cymbal beat, the off-centre rimshots, the discreet brushwork, the crisp 2-and-4 hi-hat and the occasional bass-drum bomb — were perfectly deployed. This is a man who played with all the heroes of post-war British modern jazz — Tubby Hayes, Joe Harriott, Don Rendell, Johnny Dankworth et al — and with Billie Holiday and Ben Webster, and who in recent years has composed extended pieces for large jazz ensemble and string quartet.

Did I mention that, on October 11, Tony Kinsey will be 90?

John Coltrane 17 July, 1967

John Coltrane by Roy DeCaravaJohn Coltrane died in a Long Island hospital 50 years ago today. The singularly beautiful photograph above is by the great Roy DeCarava and was included in his wonderful book, The Sound I Saw. It was taken in 1960, and the figure dimly visible in the background is Elvin Jones.

My first encounter with Coltrane came through Miles Davis’s “Milestones”, in which he followed Cannonball Adderley and Miles with a solo that lifted an already elevated piece of music onto a different emotional plane. Then, because I’d bought a second-hand EP from a market stall, it was a quartet version of “You Leave Me Breathless” from his Prestige sessions. And then “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue. Then Giant Steps, My Favourite Things, Olé, “Chasin’ the Trane” and “Impressions” from the Village Vanguard, Africa/Brass, and, most of all, “Alabama”, his meditation on the racist murder of four schoolgirls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Followed, of course, by A Love Supreme, CrescentAscension and the rest of the stages on his journey, all the way to its untimely conclusion.

No one had sounded like Coltrane before. No one had exerted that effect. The product of intense contemplation and rigorous preparation, his music expressed a constantly evolving spirituality with a transfixing directness that went beyond specific belief-systems and deep into the essence of human feelings. His legacy is immeasurable.

* Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw was published by Phaidon Press in 2003.

Murakami’s elevator music

Haruki MurakamiOne of the things I love about Haruki Murakami’s fiction is the way he uses music to enrich the narrative: all kinds of music, from Haydn to the Beach Boys via Brenda Lee and Sly Stone. But jazz is his main thing, and my favourite example is probably the appearance in South of the Border, West of the Sun of Duke Ellington’s “The Star Crossed Lovers”, the gorgeous saxophone duet for Johnny Hodges’ alto and Paul Gonsalves’ tenor from Such Sweet Thunder, Duke’s 1957 suite on Shakespearean themes.

That’s just one occasion on which the author clearly allows his choices to reflect his own excellent taste. But in his new collection of short stories, Men Without Women, there’s an amusing twist. The closing story, from which the collection takes its title, centres on a man’s relationship with a woman whose taste in music is completely at variance from the protagonist’s own, or (we presume) Murakami’s. Here’s an extract:

What I remember most about M is how she loved elevator music. Percy Faith, Mantovani, Raymond Lefèvre, Frank Chacksfield, Francis Lai, 101 Strings, Paul Mauriac, Billy Vaughn. She had a kind of predestined affection for this — according to me — harmless music. The angelic strings, the swell of luscious woodwinds, the muted brass, the harp softly stroking your heart. The charming melody that never faltered, the harmonies like candy melting in your mouth, the just-right echo effect in the recording.

I usually listened to rock or blues when I drove. Derek and the Dominos, Otis Redding, the Doors. But M would never let me play any of that. She always carried a paper bag filled with a dozen or so cassettes of elevator music, which she’d play one after the other. We’d drive around aimlessly while she’d quietly hum along to Francis Lai’s “13 Jours en France”. Her lovely, sexy lips with a light trace of lipstick. Anyway, she must have owned ten thousand tapes. And she knew all there was to know about all the innocent music in the world. If there were an Elevator Music Museum, she could have been the head curator.

It was the same when we had sex. She was always playing music in bed. I don’t know how many times I heard Percy Faith’s “A Summer Place” when we were doing it. It’s a little embarrassing to say this, but even now I get pretty aroused when I hear that tune — my breathing ragged, my face flushed. You could scour the world and I bet you’d only find one man — me — who gets horny just listening to the intro to “A Summer Place”. No — maybe her husband does, too.

The thought occurs that, on this occasion, perhaps Murakami actually likes the music for which his protagonist affects disdain. I’m quite fond of “Theme from A Summer Place” myself.

Steve Winwood in London

Steve Winwood 2In 1964, while just about everybody else was still learning how to be a musician, Steve Winwood made his first national appearances seemingly fully formed in every way: already, at 16 years old, a great blue-eyed soul singer, a lethal exponent of the Hammond organ and a fluent blues-rock guitarist. That precocity was both his great gift and, in a way, his handicap: he had less ground to cover in his adult years, and perhaps it made him less ambitious.

At Hammersmith Apollo on Wednesday night, on a rare return to London to promote a new live album, he began with “I’m a Man” and ended his encores with “Gimme Some Lovin'”, a tactic admission that he knew where the audience’s interests lay. In between came some lovely music that veered from hard-driving grooves to mellow reflection, assisted by a fine band: Jose Neto (guitar), Paul Booth (saxophones, flute and keyboard), the great Richard Bailey (drums) and Edwin Sanz (percussion). Some of the extended pieces — including a cover of Buddy Miles’s “Them Changes” — reminded me that Traffic, particularly in their expanded configurations, were a jam band as well as a songs band.

Lilly Winwood, Steve’s 21-year-old daughter, came with him from Nashville, where he has lived for many years, to play an opening singer-songwriter set which grew in confidence, despite the heat of the night making it a bit of a struggle to keep an acoustic guitar in tune. She returned to join the band for “Higher Love” and the encores.

Her dad’s voice has survived the years unimpaired: that slight straining in the upper register was always part of his soulful appeal. And, less than a year away from his 70th birthday, he retains the boyish silhouette of that teenaged prodigy who went off to get it together in a country cottage with his mates from the West Midlands, and the modest, unaffected charm of a man who held a special place in the affections of all Island Records employees in the 1970s.

I particularly enjoyed “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”, seated in a very typical chilled-funk Traffic groove, and the beautifully poignant “Can’t Find My Way Home”, a relic of the Blind Faith project on which Steve played a very interesting Telecaster solo much closer to a country picker’s approach than to his regular Stratocaster style, itself on double-helping display in “Dear Mr Fantasy”. I’d like to have heard “Walking in the Wind”, “While You See a Chance” and “Valerie”, but you can’t have everything. At the end of a too-short 100-minute set, the standing ovation from a full house was well deserved.

* Winwood: Greatest Hits Live, a box set of two CDs or four LPs, is released on September 1 on Wincraft Records. It includes “Walking in the Wind”, “While You See a Chance”, and many other songs not played at Hammersmith.

Remembering Major Lance

When I met Major Lance he was living near Southend, of all places. This was January 1973 and it was not quite a decade since he had raced into the US Top 10 with his first hit, “The Monkey Time”. Now he had just signed with an English company, Contempo Records, run by John Abbey, the proprietor and editor of Blues & Soul magazine. The idea was to capitalise on his hero status with Northern Soul fans by issuing his new cover version of an established dancefloor favourite, Billy Butler’s “The Right Track”, as the label’s first release.

His biggest hits had been cut in Chicago and issued on the OKeh label. Subsequently he had recorded for Dakar, Curtom and Stax, with mixed results. And now he had found his way to Contempo, which was also providing a home for Otis Leavill, his fellow Chicagoan, whom he planned to produce. “I don’t sign long contracts now,” Lance said. “I go for a year, with an option, and if nothing happens, I move on somewhere else.”

He told me how he had found his way into show business as a dancer on the Bandstand Matinee TV show in Chicago. “The dances changed so fast,” he said. “Every month we’d invent something new, and they came and went so quickly that we didn’t even have time to give names to most of them.”

“The Monkey Time” was one that got a name. It was also one of those records that came out of the radio in the autumn of 1963 and changed everything. Others were Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and the Impressions’ “It’s All Right”. This was before the term “soul music” had come into widespread use; for a while these records and others like them were referred to by UK fans as “new wave r&b”.

The three men who created “The Monkey Time” were Curtis Mayfield, the leader of the Impressions and Lance’s friend from their teenage years in the Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side, who wrote the song; Johnny Pate, the jazz bassist turned arranger, whose chart made such powerfully rhythmic use of brass; and the shrewd producer Carl Davis, whose first hit had come a year earlier with Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”. But it was Major’s modest, almost homespun tone that made it so distinctive; he sounded like an ordinary kid having a good time with a new dance craze.

That team was behind a string of hits, all of which are included among the 53 tracks on Ain’t No Soul (In These Old Shoes), a new 2-CD set released by RPM and subtitled “The Complete OKeh Recordings 1963-1967”. They include “Hey Little Girl”, “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”, “The Matador”, “Rhythm” and “Come See”, as well as great non-hits and B-sides like “Sometimes I Wonder”, “Mama Didn’t Know”, “Gonna Get Married” and “You Don’t Want Me No More”, and a handful of covers of current hits such as “Pride and Joy” and “Land of a Thousand Dances”.

He told me that the good times at OKeh ended when Columbia, the parent label, wanted Carl Davis and his artists to move their operation to New York. Davis refused, stayed put, and started his own label, Dakar (which would do well with Tyrone Davis and Hamilton Bohannon). “It had a lot to do with jealousy inside the company,” Lance said, “and problems that could have been solved but weren’t.”

My favourite of all Major’s OKeh tracks, however, is one I didn’t discover until the early ’70s, when I bought a US promo copy at the original Selectadisc shop on the now-demolished Arkwright Street in Nottingham. It was the singer’s first release on OKeh, and it made so little impact on its home market in the spring of 1963 that it wasn’t even released in Britain. But “Delilah” is one of Curtis Mayfield’s sweetest little story-songs, a typical tale of a country boy trying to charm a city girl with humility and sincerity, perfectly suited to Major’s characteristic tone: “I ain’t got much money / Just a farm on the the outskirts of town / Please don’t think that this is funny / But with you I’d like to settle down…”

Later in his life, Major hit hard times. He stayed with Contempo for a couple of years, touring the Northern Soul clubs, and then went home, where he recorded for Playboy, his own Osiris imprint and Soul, the Motown subsidiary. He served a jail term for cocaine possession, lost most of his sight, and died in 1994.

The new compilation is a good way to remember him. “Delilah” leads it off, and what has always drawn me back to it is the combination of Major’s voice, Curtis’s song, and an irresistible rhythm track, with Al Duncan’s lovely tom-tom figures and Floyd Morris’s jaunty Latin-accented piano fills, hammered in octaves in the upper register and particularly prominent on the fade. It’s just a scrap of a thing, really, but I’d hate to be without it.