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Sounds of the square

Chorus 1As the shops started to close and the street-food vendors began to disperse, twilight was falling on Deptford High Street. Arriving an hour early for last night’s concert by Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra at the Albany Theatre, I heard a strange sound and walked towards it.

It was coming from half a dozen identical large tubular silver metal structures erected in Giffin Square, each of them a tripod about 15ft tall, all topped with horizontal arms that ended in a speaker horn at both ends. The arms rotated gently, like the horns in a Hammond B3’s Leslie speaker cabinet, while emitting soft sustained sounds that, in combination, made me think of Terry Riley’s all-night organ concerts of the 1970s and of Brian Eno’s Bloom, the generative-music software he invented a few years ago to turn your iPhone into a self-activating musical instrument.

Just my kind of thing, in fact, and even more so when the accumulated layers grew into the sort of sound you might expect if you made a loop of the bells of every village church in Tuscany and then re-recorded the results under water. You could wander between the metal structures, and many people did. As the last of the daylight faded, the little red lights on each horn glowed more distinctly, and the sound took on a magical quality.

This, it turned out, was Chorus, a piece by the award-winning sound artist and composer Ray Lee, who specialises in such installations. In its full iteration, Chorus features 14 of the tripods, but six was fine for the intimate space of Giffin Square. The piece had its premiere in Newbury in 2013 and has since been heard in many places, including WOMAD and festivals in Warsaw and Melbourne. I wish Lee would come and park it in my street for a week or two.

* Chorus is on again in Gifford Square, Deptford tomorrow (Saturday, September 30) at 1.30pm, 2.30pm and 3.30pm.

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Sandburg/Wilson

Carl Sandburg 2

Carl Sandburg

It’s National Poetry Day, and since I have a weakness for the much abused hybrid known as jazz and poetry that goes back to schooldays, this is a good excuse — if one were needed — to write about Matt Wilson’s new album, Honey and Salt, in which he sets the words of the poet Carl Sandburg to music.

Some people don’t like the star system of reviewing, but it was while reading the August edition of Down Beat in Ray’s Jazz Shop the other day that a five-star lead review sent me across the floor to search out a copy of Honey and Salt. It turned out to be a good tip.

Wilson, a fine drummer familiar in many contexts, whom I last heard with Liberation Music Orchestra, recruited an excellent band for this project: Ron Miles (cornet), Jeff Lederer (reeds and harmonium), Martin Wind (acoustic bass guitar), and Dawn Thompson, who plays guitar and sings on a handful of the 18 selections, plus an interesting group of readers better known as instrumentalists: Christian McBride, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Rufus Reid, Joe Lovano and Carla Bley. Oh, and the actor Jack Black.

Sandburg (1878-1967) won two Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry, and a third for a biography of Abraham Lincoln. He was from Knox County, Illinois, as is Wilson. Sandburg’s first cousin was married to Wilson’s great-great-aunt. While researching an essay on the poet during his college days, Wilson discovered Sandburg’s interest in jazz.

The poems are dry, pithy, witty and humane, some of them with a powerful resonance in the new century. Here’s one called “Choose”: “The single clenched fist lifted and ready, / Or the open asking hand held out and waiting. / Choose: / For we meet by one or the other.” And here’s one of his best known, called “Fog”: “The fog comes / on little cat feet. / It sits looking / over city and harbor / on silent haunches / and then moves on.” Wilson includes Sandburg’s own recording of “Fog”, accompanying the poet’s gentle voice with mallets on tom-toms.

The arrangements are unfailingly inventive, and the playing of the individuals — particularly the always brilliant Miles — is outstanding. The readers are all terrific, and to Bley falls the privilege of delivering, without accompaniment, the marvellous “To Know Silence Perfectly”: “There is a music for lonely hearts nearly always. / If the music dies down there is a silence / Almost the same as the movement of music. / To know silence perfectly is to know music.” On this evidence, their acute awareness of tone and cadence and expression makes jazz musicians great readers of poetry.

‘The Nightfly’ at Milton Court

The Nightfly at Milton CourtEven though it meant missing the first set of Michael Gibbs’ 80th birthday concert at the Vortex, the idea of hearing Donald Fagen’s first solo album played by the new intake of students on the jazz course at the Guildhall School on Monday night was impossible to resist. The Nightfly is a wonderful album, made by a man in early middle aged in the era of Reagan looking back at how things felt as the era of Eisenhower shaded into that of Kennedy, in that brief period of illusory optimism when prosperity and progress seemed to be the prevailing forces, before the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights marches and the Vietnam protests took over. I thought it might be interesting to see how it sounded in the era of a president whose name I don’t even want to type out on this blog.

Also I wanted to hear a bunch of young players. And first, as an hors d’oeuvre, came a succession of seven small groups under the supervision of their tutors — Tom Challenger, Yazz Ahmed, Gareth Williams, Gareth Lockrane, Robbie Robson, Barak Schmool and Stuart Hall — playing short pieces based on ideas suggested by the album, each group having the benefit of a mere three hours’ preparation. All were interesting, but my ear was caught most readily by a lovely Mingusian variation on a phrase from “New Frontier” played by Challenger’s septet and by Williams’s sextet arrangement of “Ruby Baby”, which soured the harmonies in a George Russell-ish way and provided space for cracking solos by the altoist saxophonist Albert Hills Wright and the trumpeter James Beardmore.

Introducing the evening, Scott Stroman, a professor in the jazz department since 1983, had reminded us: “These guys didn’t even know each other last week” — the start of the academic year. It hardly seemed possible. There were also fine individual contributions from the fiery tenor saxophonist Asha Parkinson, the astonishingly eloquent pianist Jay Verma, and the assured drummer Zoot Warren.

After the interval came the main course. Malcolm Edmonstone, the head of the Guildhall’s jazz programme, had transcribed and arranged the entire album for a group of 57 students, including 13 singers who shared the lead around and fleshed out the close harmonies, and a load of pianists, guitarists, bassists and drummers who alternated the rhythm section roles.

Under the precise, assertive and invigorating baton of Giles Thornton, the band soared through “I.G.Y.” on Mark Fincham’s confident bass lines, articulated the strut of “Green Flower Street” with crisp power, absolutely nailed the sublime hip-swinging arrangement of “Ruby Baby” (with Parkinson’s tenor again making its mark), glided through the yearning “Maxine”, hustled through “New Frontier” (although there doesn’t seem to be a chromatic harmonica player in the class of ’17), locked into the fingerpopping groove of “The Nightfly”, and sauntered and shuffled through “The Goodbye Look” and “Walk Between Raindrops”.

When you think about it, these young musicians were pitting themselves against the achievements of Marcus Miller, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, the Brecker brothers, Greg Phillinganes, James Gadson and the rest of the crew of first-call virtuosi assembled by Fagen back in 1982. The result was joy and exhilaration all the way, delighting the large audience of friends and family assembled in the concert hall at Milton Court.

(And I made it to the Vortex for the second half of Mike Gibbs’ birthday celebration with his 14-piece band, a glorious series of glowing set-ups for soloists like the trumpeter Percy Pursglove, the altoist John O’Gallagher and the guitarist Mike Walker. It was nice to think that some of this year’s Guildhall students will be carving out similar reputations before too long.)

Doubling Downes

Vyamanikal 2

Vyamanikal + 2: Tom Challenger, Alex Bonney, Lucy Railton, Kit Downes

The profound sense of peace that descended over Hall 2 of Kings Place last night as the set by an expanded version of Vyamanikal glided towards its close was unlike anything I’ve encountered all year. The pianist Kit Downes and the tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger, normally a duo in this guise, were joined on the stage by the cellist Lucy Railton and by Alex Bonney, who sat at a laptop. Bonney was processing the music and sounds recorded by Downes and Challenger in 2015 in the small churches of five Suffolk villages, collecting the sounds of organs in various states of repair for an album released last year, and feeding it into the live performance.

In the absence of a church organ, Downes alternated between a piano and a small hand-pumped harmonium. For the better part of an hour the musicians wove tapestries of sound in which individual elements blended seamlessly. There were certainly gorgeous details, but they fade in the memory next to the overall impression of a glowing organic whole.

If there was a kind of English pastoral vibe in the air, it was implicit rather than declarative, and never suffocating. I suppose the most obvious precedent might be some of John Surman’s recordings, from Westering Home onwards, but really this music seemed to stand alone, without need for comparison. As they neared the end, the three instrumentalists stopped playing but the music continued, thanks to Bonney, in a many-layered drone which seemed to distill everything that had been played in the previous 50 minutes. And then came a few moments of silence in which we could find our own way out of the trance.

The first half of the evening had featured Tricko, the duo in which Railton and Downes perform a kind of sui generis cello-and-piano chamber music that manages to be intricate without inducing strain and immediately attractive without becoming winsome. “I’m aware that this music is cripplingly quiet,” Downes said at one point. “If I were listening, I’d probably be asleep by now.” That might indeed be the initial impression. But the longer you listen to them, the more awake you feel.

* Vyamanikal’s album is on the Slip Imprint label. Downes’s solo organ album, Obsidian, will be released by ECM early next year.

Extraordinaire: Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cécile McLorin SalvantTwo years ago I presented Cécile McLorin Salvant and her trio at the Berlin jazz festival. At that point, most of the audience hadn’t heard of the young Franco-Haitian singer who was brought up in Miami before studying classical and baroque music at the conservatory in Aix-en-Provence. To say they were impressed by her performance would be an understatement.

For me, however, the greater privilege was to be present at her soundcheck, when she ran through two or three songs to get the feel of the hall. Among the pieces she ran down was Cole Porter’s “So in Love”, which happens to be one of my favourite songs, thanks largely to Mabel Mercer’s 1956 version. Still in her overcoat (it can be chilly in Berlin in November, and singers need to be careful), she had me transfixed by the way she drew out the song’s elegance with simple, unaffected directness.

A few hours later, during the concert itself, she gave it a very different delivery: much more highly wrought, full of decoration and elaboration and dynamic contrast, making full use of her phenomenal vocal technique and fine imagination. And it didn’t move me nearly as much.

This, I thought to myself, is a brilliant young artist still discovering and celebrating her own extraordinary abilities. At this stage, is natural for her to push everything as far as she can. Come back in 20 years’ time, I concluded, and she’ll be singing “So in Love” the way she did at the soundcheck, with an understanding that sometimes less is more.

Her new album, Dreams and Daggers, has a lot of that exuberance, and you can hear its effect on an audience in the tracks recorded live with the trio at the Village Vanguard in September of last year. There’s an almost audible attentiveness and a lot of whooping when, having executed a breathtaking series of vocal aerobatics, she finally brings a song back to earth.

She’s not a show-off, and she doesn’t scat (thank goodness). She has some of the girlish flexibility of the young Ella Fitzgerald, some of Sarah Vaughan’s ability to manipulate her tone in quietly jaw-dropping ways, and some of Betty Carter’s combination of daring and sheer musicianship. That’s a fair old combination. Occasionally she can overdo it, as in a highly dramatised version of “My Man’s Gone Now”, but most of the time her twists and turns are at one with the material.

Her originality will take time to emerge, but it is certainly there. At the moment it reveals itself most clearly in her choice of material, which is built on a foundation of standards — “You’re My Thrill”, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, “Mad About the Boy” and so on — but also includes items intended to prod her listeners in interesting ways, through “Si je serais blanche”, from the repertoire of Josephine Baker, “Somehow I Never Could Believe”, Kurt Weill’s setting of Langston Hughes’s lyric, and the feminist irony that bubbles away in her readings of “Never Will I Marry” and “If a Girl Ain’t Pretty”.

She and her brilliant trio — Aaron Diehl (piano), Paul Sikivie (bass) and Lawrence Leathers (drums) — make a formidable unit, particularly on something like a tightly arranged version of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”. There are delightfully insouciant treatments of the two ultra-hip Bob Dorough tunes, “Nothing Like You” and “Devil May Care”, recorded by Miles Davis in 1962.

Half a dozen studio-recorded tracks on this 2-CD set feature a string quartet, arranged by Sikivie to add a welcome astringency. By contrast there’s the singer’s penchant for covering the work of the early classic blues singers: here we get lusty versions of Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” and Bessie Smith’s haughtily dismissive “Sam Jones’ Blues”. “Don’t need your clothes, don’t need your rent,” she sings, “don’t need your ones and twos. Though I ain’t rich, I know my stitch. I earned my strutting shoes.”

By a distance, she is the most interesting jazz singer to come forward in the past couple of decades. The new album reaffirms the impression that her virtuosity, such a double-edged gift, could take her anywhere.

* Dreams and Daggers is released by Mack Avenue Records on September 29.

Lucinda Williams in London

Lucinda Williams 1It had been an enjoyable enough concert for the first 40 minutes or so, but when Lucinda Williams dismissed her band and introduced “The Ghosts of Highway 20”, the mood of the evening deepened. “I’ve been filled with the need when I’ve sung this song lately to say that not everybody from the South is a bad person,” the woman brought up in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas told the crowd at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. They knew what she was getting at.

Delivering the title track of her most recent album alone with an acoustic guitar, she managed to surpass the fine recorded version, which featured the entwined lead guitars of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz. Somehow she found a lilt within the song that added an emotional dimension. It introduced the evening’s satisfying central section, which included the exquisite “Over Time”, from the 2003 album World Without Tears; it had, she said with pride, been covered by Willie Nelson (here’s their duet version), and in London the band found a lovely gliding gait.

Earlier she had talked a bit about how, when her long career began to take off, she was criticised for writing too many dark and gloomy songs. So it was amusing that, when she did lift the tempo to a rockabilly shuffle late in the concert, it accompanied a song (also from the last album) called “Bitter Memory”. And it’s true that the bleakness in her raw voice might not be what you want all the time. But sometimes she can confront a distressing subject such as her late father’s Alzheimer’s disease (in “If My Love Could Kill”) and make it not just painful but uplifting.

Another of last night’s highlights was “Sweet Old World”, the title track of a 1992 album which she has re-recorded in its entirety for release next month on her own label. It features the band with which she is touring: Stuart Mathis on guitar, David Sutton on bass guitar and Butch Norton on drums. They’re a capable unit, and Norton in particular is a fine colourist and energiser, but to me it was interesting how the evening lit up each time the music reached for something beyond the generic shuffle and boogie of the old roadhouse beside the two-lane blacktop.

Walter Becker 1950-2017

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen 2

Chinese music always sets me free / Angular banjos sound good to me

In a single couplet, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen made fun of themselves with wonderful grace and wicked sophistication: the qualities that imbued the music they made together. It’s so sad to think that the announcement of Becker’s death today, at the age of 67, puts an end to one of popular music’s great songwriting and record-making partnerships.

Amid the booming rock scene of the 1970s, in which anything seemed possible, Steely Dan made music that will last. That doesn’t make them unique, but it is a tribute to the enormous care and effort Becker and Fagen put into constructing the nine studio albums they made together under that name between 1972 and 2003. Their clever words, clever time-signatures and clever chords were the product of two enthusiasts dissatisfied with anything but the cleverest music they could possibly produce.

Fagen first encountered Becker at Bard College in upstate New York. He was walking past a building used for musical practice and heard someone playing a guitar in the style of Howlin’ Wolf’s records. The two bonded quickly over their shared interest in, as Fagen put it in his statement today, “jazz (from the ’20s through the mid-’60s, W.C Fields, the Marx brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films… Also soul music and Chicago blues.” All that, and much more, was in their music.

They were also unique in that, as musicians in their own band, they usually preferred to call on others to enhance their vision. Becker started as Steely Dan’s bass player, but he was also very fine rock guitarist — just listen to his lead parts on “Black Friday”, from Katy Lied“Josie”, from Aja and “West of Hollywood” from Two Against Nature. Yet he was happy to hand that job to a succession of players with different skills and sensibilities. Some of them were Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Elliott Randall, Dean Parks, Hugh McCracken, Lee Ritenour, Jay Graydon and Steve Khan. The same would be true of the attitude he and Fagen shared towards the keyboard players, drummers and saxophonists they chose to articulate their vision: only the best, on their very best day, would do.

And so, very unusually in their chosen field, their wild imaginations were matched by their obsessively exigent craftsmanship. They were also some kind of weird cats. They were lucky to have their partnership, and so were we.

* The photograph of Becker (left) and Fagen is, I believe, by Anton Corbijn. I hope he doesn’t mind my use of it on this occasion. For the story of the duo in great detail, concentrating on the music, I recommend Anthony Robustelli’s Steely Dan FAQ (Backbeat Books, 2017).