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Elvis Presley 16 August 1977

Elvis Presley died at his home in Memphis 40 years ago today. The president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, paid tribute with a statement in which he said that the singer had “permanently changed the face of American popular culture.” Here’s Elvis with an acoustic guitar and a song in a hotel room in Germany in 1958, aged 23:

‘When You Read This Letter’

Quand tu liras cette lettre 1To be frank, I went to see Jean-Pierre Melville’s Quand tu liras cette lettre (When You Read This Letter) at the BFI last night simply out of curiosity to see what sort of a leading actress Juliette Gréco was in 1953. Screened in a beautifully restored 35mm print, the film is an old-fashioned melodrama in which Gréco plays a novice nun who leaves the convent in order to look after her younger sister, the naive victim of a handsome, libidinous rotter. There’s a rape, a murder, an accidental death under the wheels of an express train, a very nice Cadillac Series 62 convertible, and some lovely scenes of the Cannes waterfront before it all got spoiled.

There’s also a soundtrack, featuring harpsichord doodling and sepulchral church organ. It was composed by Bernard Peiffer, a French pianist who worked with Django Reinhardt and many big American names in Paris in the early ’50s before emigrating to the US in 1954, where he settled in Philadelphia and earned the praise of critical heavyweights such as Barry Ulanov and Leonard Feather. Kidney surgery preceded his death in 1976, at the age of 53, two years after his final appearance in New York, at the Newport Jazz Festival. He had spent the last years of his life teaching piano — among his students was the young Uri Caine — and performing in clubs in his adopted home city.

I was familiar with his name, but I’d never really listened to him. So I went on to YouTube, and was immediately entranced by his versions of “Lullaby of Birdland”, made in Paris just before he left Europe, and “All the Things You Are”, a late recording from Philadelphia. Here, then, is another fine French jazz pianist of the post-war years, to rank with René Urtreger and Martial Solal, with a profound gift for improvisation and a technical imagination and a highly chromatic sensibility that may have been set free during his early studies with Pierre Maire, a student of the great Nadia Boulanger, and later at the conservatoires in Marseilles and Paris.

Thanks to the programmers at the BFI, then, for an unexpected bonus from their excellent Melville season. This was the second and last screening of Quand tu liras cette lettre, but the programme continues through September and includes the director’s classics: Le Deuxième souffleL’Armée des ombres and Le Samouraï.

Han Bennink at Cafe Oto

Han Bennink

Cafe Oto, 12 August 2017: John Coxon, Han Bennink and Ashley Wales

The great Dutch drummer Han Bennink is famous for his anarchic humour and his resistance to orthodoxy: he’s known for using the heel of his boot to alter the tone of his drums on the fly, and for finding the music in the scenery of a club — if there are pillars or heating pipes in the vicinity, he is likely to start playing them. He has an unparalleled gift for terminating a collective improvisation with a slap of two pieces of metal or the sort of rimshot that brooks no negotiation. What’s sometimes overlooked is his ability to swing in the traditional meaning of the term. Of all the European drummers to emerge in the modern era, maybe only Phil Seaman commanded the same deep sense of swing.

But he’s always been a hard man to pin down. I first heard him with the German tenorist Peter Brötzmann in Berlin in 1969, playing the most uncompromisingly loud and violent free jazz you could imagine. Maybe 20 years later I heard him in Paris with a band led by the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, playing the music of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, and you could tell that here was a man with a profound understanding of what Baby Dodds had been up to.

On Saturday, Han ended a three-night Cafe Oto residency in celebration of his 75th birthday with a series of collaborations in which his partners were the two men, the guitarist John Coxon and the electronics exponent Ashley Wales, together known as Spring Heel Jack; two guests from Amsterdam, the American violinist Mary Oliver and the Dutch guitarist Terrie Hessels, also known as Terrie Ex; and the pianist Steve Beresford. Amid the swirling anarchy, there were many moments when you could detect traces of the drummer who served a conventional rhythm-section apprenticeship with such visiting American giants as Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon and Wes Montgomery.

Since then Han’s career has taken him through countless collaborations. He first appeared with Coxon and Wales on Amassed, an early Spring Heel Jack studio album, in 2002. The following year they took him on a short Contemporary Music Network tour of Britain, along with the saxophonist Evan Parker, the pianist Matthew Shipp, the bassist William Parker and the guitarist J. Spaceman (Jason Pierce, with whom Coxon played in the band Spritualized). I saw that fascinating line-up give an epic performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall — particularly in the second half, which began with a hyperactive duet between drums and bass and reached its climax in a long passage of richly textured improvisation over a mesmerising sequence of slowly descending piano chords that seemed, like an Escher staircase, to have no end. An album titled Live was assembled from the tour’s concerts in Bath and Brighton, and contains a version of that second half.

On Saturday, Han began with a trio set but soon left Beresford and Oliver to their own devices, listening from a chair at the side of the stage as they created a graceful two-part invention. Then the drummer was joined by Spring Heel Jack, creating a very different type of trio, the music constantly changing colours and momentum, restless but intensely satisfying (I loved a passage in which Coxon suddenly started running close-voiced jazz chords on his cherry-red Guild Starfire). Eventually Hessels, a member of the Dutch band the Ex, joined in, energetically lunging and retreating as he added jagged bursts of post-Hendrix noise.

After a third set in which the musicians joined in one by one until all six were together on stage, Han closed the evening with a short unaccompanied piece: brusque, urgent, very physical, unmistakably him but also unmistakably in the lineage of solo pieces by Dodds, Papa Jo Jones and Max Roach. This is a musician who stretched the vocabulary of his instrument, even changed it, while honouring and preserving the music’s essence.

Glen Campbell 1936-2017

Quite rightly, the majority of the eulogies for Glen Campbell — like this excellent one from Michael Hann in today’s Guardian — concentrate on the great trilogy of place-name songs written by Jimmy Webb: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”. The record I’ll remember him for came from the time before he started his run of hits: a song called “Guess I’m Dumb”, written by Brian Wilson and Russ Titelman and produced by Wilson in 1965.

Recorded at the same time as the Beach Boys Today album, it’s a prototype of what we were going to hear on Pet Sounds the following year: a carefully wrought song of tortured self-examination set to an imaginative adaptation of the techniques originated by Phil Spector, sung on this occasion by a member of the Wrecking Crew who, while trying to kick-start his own solo career, had stepped forward to take Brian’s place in the Beach Boys for a few weeks of live shows at the end of 1964.

“Guess I’m Dumb” opens with flat-toned tom-toms, a conga, a bass guitar and several strummed acoustic guitars layering the baion rhythm. And then: “The way I act don’t seem like me / I’m not on top like I used to be / I’ll give in when I know I should be strong / I’ll still give in even though I know it’s wrong / I guess I’m dumb, but I don’t care…” Campbell sings the beautiful ascending melody with perfect clarity, like an older Wilson brother might do, as the arrangement builds up: anxious bowed cellos and double basses, a thick brass-and-reeds chorale, humming male voices, sweeping violins answered by staccato trumpets in the instrumental interlude, sleighbells doubling the eighth-note rhythm, and female singers chanting the chorus against a trademark Hal Blaine drum fusillade on the fade.

The mono mix is a masterpiece. I’ve described the individual elements separately, but you’re supposed to hear them as a one giant instrument, as if recorded by a single microphone. It doesn’t have the steamroller impact of a vintage Spector 45, but Wilson and his friend Titelman were after a subtler and more complex portrayal of teenage uncertainties, and the result belongs up there with “Caroline, No”, “I Know There’s an Answer” and “I Wasn’t Made For These Times”. I’m still amazed that, in the greatest of all years for pure pop music, it wasn’t even a tiny hit.

* You can find “Guess I’m Dumb” on Ace Records’ Pet Projects, a 23-track compilation of Brian Wilson productions released in 2003.

Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘Bells for the South Side’

Roscoe Mitchell uncroppedI’ve been reading Message to Our Folks, Paul Steinbeck’s new biography of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and enjoying in particular the reminder of the impact the group made when they arrived in Europe in the spring of 1969. Their voluntary exile lasted a month short of two years, ending with their return to the US in April 1971. During that time, which was mostly spent in France, they made some important albums (including A Jackson in Your House, Message to Our Folks, the epic People in Sorrow and the soundtrack to the film Les Stances à Sophie) and participated in several significant events, including the five-day Actuel festival in Amougies in October 1969 — intended, as Steinbeck observes, to be continental Europe’s answer to Woodstock and the Isle of Wight — and Joachim-Ernst Berendt’s Free Jazz Meeting in Baden-Baden two months later, where they encountered Kenny Wheeler, Terje Rypdal, Albert Mangelsdorff and many others. They also met the drummer Don Moye, who became their fifth member.

What the Art Ensemble did was free up the idea of how a modern improvising group could go about its business. Their motto — “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future” — was startling at the time. In terms of form and structure, their unorthodoxy exerted a widespread influence. Doing away with the notion that modern jazz could only be played in groups employing certain instrumental combinations adhering to a particular balance, they made the use of “little instruments” — particularly percussive devices of all kinds — into an essential part of their strategy. Their costumes and face-paint brought a new dimension of theatricality and historical reference to the music, while their use of irony and satire extended its range of gesture and intention.

I was lucky enough to see them a couple of times in the 1970s, at their New York debut in Central Park in 1973 and at the Roundhouse in London half a dozen years later, and they were spellbinding on both occasions. (Brian Case, reviewing the Roundhouse gig in the Melody Maker, said that “it made nonsense of any critical reading, save surrender.”) Two members of that group — the trumpeter Lester Bowie and the bassist Malachi Favors — are now gone, but the spirit of the Art Ensemble suffuses Bells for the South Side, the new album by their former colleague Roscoe Mitchell, the great saxophonist and composer.

This 2CD set was recorded live in September 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago during a project in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, in which Mitchell and the other members of the AEC played a key role. For these performances the leader was joined in a series of four trios and aggregated larger groupings by James Fei (reeds and electronics), Hugh Ragin (trumpets), Tyshawn Sorey (trombone, piano, drums and percussion), Jaribu Shahid (bass, bass guitar, percussion), Tani Tabbal (drums, percussion), William Winant (vibes, marimba, percussion), Craig Taborn (piano, organ, electronics), and Kikanju Baku (drums, percussion).

For those interested in free improvisation and the way it can be directed by a great composer, here are two hours of music that provide a mosaic of marvels, from mysterious rustling and enigmatic flutters to thunderous epiphanies via passages of intense lyricism. Although the individual contributions can be isolated and admired, notably Ragin’s piercingly emotional piccolo trumpet, Taborn’s austere piano and Baku’s wild but beautifully controlled drumming, that’s not really the point. There is a much bigger picture here, just as there was in the Art Ensemble’s work. It reaches a wonderful resolution in a manner that I’m not going to spoil except to say that it achieves its full impact only if you’ve listened to the whole thing — or at least to the whole of the second disc.

As the personnel details suggest, percussion is important here, and it comes imbued with a strong sense of the Art Ensemble’s history. Baku — a young British drummer who wrote to Mitchell asking if he could play with him, and was immediately rewarded with a gig at Cafe Oto — plays Malachi Favors’ percussion set-up, Tabbal plays Moye’s kit, Winant plays Lester Bowie’s military bass drum and Sorey plays Mitchell’s own percussion cage, a thing of visual and aural wonder. The fine detail of the shifting textures is recorded by David Zuchowski and mixed by Gérard de Haro with Steve Lake, the album’s producer, to brilliant effect.

A few weeks ago, as part of a “financial stabilisation” programme, Mitchell was in danger of losing his teaching job at Mills College in Oakland, California. A petition to reverse the decision gained so much support that the college was forced to reconsider, and he remains in post as Darius Milhaud Professor of Music. For those who will come under his tutelage in the future, this is very good news. One way for the rest of us to celebrate might be to listen to Bells for the South Side, a perfect example of the continuing vitality and relevance of his imagination and a wonderful summary of his gift to generations of listeners and fellow musicians.

* Bells for the South Side is released on ECM Records. The photograph of Roscoe Mitchell is taken from the album’s insert. Message to Our Folks is published by the University of Chicago Press. Roscoe Mitchell and the latest configuration of the Art Ensemble of Chicago — with Hugh Ragin, Don Moye and the bassist Junius Paul — return to London for a short residency at Cafe Oto from October 15-17.

‘Big Wednesday’ revisited

Big Wednesday 4

Gary Busey, Patti D’Arbanville, William Katt, Lee Purcell and Jan Michael Vincent

In his introduction to Big Wednesday at the BFI last night, Geoff Andrew warned those new to the film that John Milius’s hymn to Southern Californian surf culture bore little resemblance to George Lucas’s portrait of the world of hot-rodding in American Graffiti. But Milius’s film gave us a similar dose of ’60s pop music in the opening section, set in 1962, which reaches its climax in a chaotic party scene. What amused me was that the records being played — “The Locomotion”, “Mama Said”, “Money (That’s What I Want)”, “Lucille”, “The Twist”, “What’d I Say” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — represented not Californian music but the sounds of New York, Detroit, New Orleans and Philadelphia. Only with the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” — recorded in Los Angeles, with Darlene Love singing lead — were we given a hometown sound, albeit under the name of a New York group.

As we waited for Geoff’s introduction, however, the cinema’s sound system was playing the backing tracks from Pet Sounds: a perfect prelude since that album, like Big Wednesday, looks beyond the template of teenage hedonism into a more uncertain world. In fact Milius’s film reminded me of More American Graffiti, a very underrated work (directed by Bill Norton but co-written by Lucas) which followed the protagonists of the original film into the darkness of the Vietnam era. Big Wednesday was made in 1978, More American Graffiti a year later; they shared a similar perspective on the soured dream.

Milius’s film is divided into four time periods: 1962, 1965, 1968 and 1974. In the 1965 “chapter” he shows us a hilarious but poignant scene set in a selection process for the military draft, with many of those called to attend trying to evade the call-up in a variety of bizarre ways. In the next scene, as one of the three main characters prepares to go off to war, the TV news is showing the Watts riots. A dark filter is starting to obscure the California sun.

The film is entirely Milius’s creation, and in its attempts to mythologise a milieu in which he had spent much of his own youth there are certainly times when you’re reminded this this is the man who co-wrote Apocalypse Now (no distinction in my book) and directed Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. But although it’s unmistakably a story about three men — William Katt, Jan Michael Vincent and Gary Busey — doing manly stuff together, it has a sense of humour and a respectable attitude to its principal female characters, played by Patti D’Arbanville (she who was once serenaded by Cat Stevens) and Lee Purcell. It was also amusing to note the presence in minor roles of Barbara Hale — best remembered as Della Street, Perry Mason’s secretary — playing Katt’s mother, as she was in real life, and of Charlene Tilton and Steve Kanaly, who only a year or so later would be better known as Dallas‘s Lucy Ewing and Ray Krebbs.

The film’s surfing scenes, shot by a specialist second unit, are still sensationally compelling, making me want to go back and read William Finnegan’s brilliant Barbarian Days, a Pulitzer Prize winner last year, all over again. The BFI added to the evening’s authenticity by showing the film on their biggest screen, NFT1, in a rare original 35mm print, featuring the sudden deterioration in quality that used to signal the switch from one reel to the next in pre-digital days. The most effective music came right at the end, in the deafening roar and crash of the surf in the climactic scene, conveying the awesome kinetic energy of the ocean. All told, a terrific rediscovery.

* Big Wednesday is screened again on Friday 11 August at 8.30pm in NFT3.