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Art Ensemble at Cafe Oto

AEC Cafe OtoAmid the strangest weather in 30 years, with sand from the Sahara and dust from Iberian wildfires turning the air in London dark red at lunchtime on the hottest October 16th since records were first kept, there was another surprise awaiting the audience for the second of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s three sold-out nights at Cafe Oto this week.

We had bought tickets expecting the regular four-piece line-up of the current AEC: co-founder Roscoe Mitchell (saxophones) and long-time member Famoudou Don Moye (drums and percussion) plus trumpeter Hugh Ragin and double bassist Junius Paul. What we encountered was the band extended to a septet by the presence of Mazz Swift (violin and vocals), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Silvia Bolognesi (double bass, the only one not visible in the photograph above). It was a special treat.

As you would expect, the unbroken 80-minute performance was a mixture of the prepared and the spontaneous, moving easily through contrasting ensemble passages which gave way to solos from each of the participants. The extra string players never felt like a bolt-on extra: they were fully integrated into the ensemble, playing equal roles in the composed passages, in the textured backgrounds and in the long, boilingly intense collective improvisation which prefaced the sign-off with the familiar descending cadences of “Odwalla”.

Mitchell played an astonishing sopranino solo during which he manipulated rapid sequences of harsh cries against a sustained whistling sound. Ragin alternated between regular and pocket trumpets, four-valve cornet and flugelhorn with unfailing relevance. Paul’s wonderfully emotional solo and his fast walking 4/4 with Moye in one passage evoked the spirit of the late Malachi Favors. On the opposite side of the stage, Bolognesi responded with an improvisation making energetic use of the bow. Swift sang with restrained warmth and she and Reid both left, in their solos and in the ensemble, the impression of instrumentalists of great character and inventiveness, virtuosos of unorthodox techniques and startling effects that contributed to the overall scheme. Throughout the set Moye reminded us of what wonderfully subtle and propulsive drummer he is.

The two sustained standing ovations that greeted the end of the set and the brief hymn-like encore were the equal of anything I’ve heard at Cafe Oto. It was an unforgettable end to a day marked by natural wonders.

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Bunny Sigler 1941-2017

Bunny Sigler.jpgIn the world of Philadelphia soul music, Bunny Sigler was a backroom boy who occasionally made it into the spotlight. A writer, producer and backing singer (on Harold Melvin’s “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, for instance), he also made a handful of interesting singles. Among them, in 1967, was an expanded version of a Shirley and Lee hit retitled “Let the Good Times Roll / Feel So Good”, which became a Northern Soul favourite. The one I love, however, is his 1973 retread of “Tossin’ and Turnin'”, Bobby Lewis’s 1961 smash, which he subjects to the full Philadelphia International treatment: the great MFSB rhythm cooking at maximum heat in Sigma Sound studios, almost certainly with Earl Young on drums, Ronnie Baker on bass, Roland Chambers on guitar and — most gloriously of all — Harold Ivory Williams on delirious gospel keyboards. And there’s a divine moment at 1:50 when Sigler, listing the things that are keeping him awake, wails “There’s a phone out there ringin’ / There’s a group out on the corner singin’… hallelujah!” Enjoy. And read the nice New York Times obit here. RIP, Mr Sigler.

Arthur Jafa at Store Studios

Arthur Jafa 3Perhaps you’ve already seen Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern. If you haven’t, you should. It’s full of marvellous things, from the paintings of Romare Bearden, Wadsworth Jarrell and Bob Thompson to the photographs of Roy DeCarava and Beuford Smith via posters and murals and a vitrine full of covers of The Black Panther newspaper. One or two of the later rooms aren’t so compelling, and I was unpleasantly jarred by the mystifying inclusion of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Muhammad Ali. But the whole exhibition, curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, tells a great story and seethes with life.

On the other side of the Thames, there’s something strongly related. Installed in a black tent-like structure on the roof of Store Studios as part of Everything at Once, a kind of de luxe pop-up show in an old brutalist office building at 180 The Strand, overlooking the Shard and the National Theatre, Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, the Message is Death is very different in nature and scale but, because of its contemporaneity, even more affecting.

This is a seven-minute collage of snippets of film from all kinds of sources, set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam”. For those, like me, previously unfamiliar with his 30-year career, Jafa is a cinematographer who was born in Mississippi, lives in Los Angeles, has worked with Spike Lee, directed a couple of the videos for Solange’s masterpiece A Seat at the Table in 2016, and exhibited earlier this year at the Serpentine Gallery.

His new work uses newsreel and found film of black Americans marching, worshipping, performing, dancing, and being threatened, beaten and shot by officers of the law. These images are juxtaposed with footage of heroes: Nina and Aretha; Martin and Malcolm; Miles and Trane; Louis and Jimi; the two MJs, Jordan and Jackson; Serena and Lebron; Ali and Louis Farrakhan; and a 17-year-old Biggie Smalls rapping on a Bedford-Stuyvesant streetcorner. Having started with a clip of Barack Obama at the funeral of the murdered Rev. Clementa Pinckey in Charleston, South Carolina, it ends with James Brown in his ’60s prime.

The whole thing has the rawness of a crude assemblage of video grabs. Hardly anything lasts more than a few seconds, an exception being a harrowing sequence of a mother in distress as she’s ordered from her car by police at night and is handcuffed before her young son makes his way towards them with his hands raised. Jafa occasionally intersperses his chosen clips images with close-ups of the sun and footage from monster movies, whose relevance I don’t really understand. (There’s also a curious decision to include the famous clip of Derek Redmond, the British 400-metre runner, limping to the finish of the Olympic semi-final with a torn hamstring, supported by his father, in Barcelona 25 years ago.)

I suppose I could say that Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death doesn’t tell me anything really new, or make me feel any different. But the cumulative power of the collage is moving and shocking, and Kanye West’s spare, gospel-drenched piece provides the perfect musical accompaniment for the emotions evoked by the sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal images juxtaposed on the screen. In the Observer, the art critic Laura Cumming called it “as devastating ode to black America”, and I can’t do better than that. I watched it through several times without a break, and I expect I’ll go back for more before it disappears.

* Everything at Once, which is organised by the Lisson Gallery and the Vinyl Factory, also includes work by Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramović, Anish Kapoor, Richard Long, Julian Opie and others, and is on until December 10. Soul of a Nation closes on October 22; there’s a CD of music put together by the Soul Jazz label, featuring appropriate music from Don Cherry, Gil Scott-Heron, Joe Henderson and others. There’s a very good interview with Arthur Jafa here, from Interview magazine earlier this year.

Trio Da Kali / Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet photographed in Berkeley, CA December 12, 2013©Jay BlakesbergIt’s been my experience that no time spent checking out the Kronos Quartet’s latest activity is ever wasted, and the group’s new album, Ladilikan, in which they accompany Mali’s Trio Da Kali, is a beauty. The meeting between the voice of Hawa Diabaté, the balafon of Lassana Diabaté and the bass ngoni of Mamadou Kouyaté and the violins of David Harrington and John Sherba, the viola of Hank Dutt and the cello of Sunny Yang turns out to sound like something that has always existed, somewhere in the universe.

The primary impression is one of rhythmic vitality, with the quartet locking naturally into the trio’s two instruments to create a thoroughly integrated sextet, providing a lovely setting for Hawa Diabaté’s graceful contralto. In between the vocal passages, the band vamps with delicate power and a groove that is at times almost delirious. Approaching the conclusion of the stunning “Lila Bambo”, they come together in a unison coda that sweeps you off your feet.

Halfway through the album they give us something that might well become a classic. At Harrington’s suggestion, Hawa Diabaté sings Mahalia Jackson’s “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away”, with the original organ accompaniment transcribed for the string quartet; the words are translated into Bambara, the first among more than 40 languages spoken by Mali’s various ethnic groups. The controlled ardour of the voice and the grain of the strings — which together recreate the slightly wheezy sound of a portable harmonium — are irresistible (you can hear a snatch of it in this short trailer).

Meticulously produced by Nick Gold and Lucy Duran for the former’s World Circuit label, Ladilikan could well end up being the album I give to friends and family this Christmas. It’s hard to imagine anyone not loving it.

* Trio Da Kali play at the Musicport Festival in Whitby on October 21, then at Opera North, Leeds (22), St Barnabas Church, Oxford (25) and the Old Church, Stoke Newington,  London N16 (26).

John Jack 1933-2017

John Jack 100 Club 1Jazz never had a more faithful friend than John Jack, who died on September 7 and whose life was celebrated at the 100 Club yesterday, following a committal at the Islington and Camden/St Pancras crematorium. Among those musicians and poets queuing up to pay tribute by through performance were Mike Westbrook and Chris Biscoe (pictured during their duet), Evan Parker and Noel Metcalfe, Jason Yarde and Alexander Hawkins, Steve Noble (with Hogcallin’, one of John’s favourite British bands), Pete Brown and Michael Horovitz. Many others were present, along with scores of faces familiar from countless nights in dozens of clubs down the years, all of us having trouble believing that we won’t be seeing John again with his beloved Shirley at their usual table in the Vortex.

It occurred to me the other day that John probably heard more great music than the rest of us put together, and he knew the value of it. I met him on my first night in London, one Monday in the autumn of 1969. Earlier in the day I had reported for work at the Melody Maker and was told to go and review Westbrook’s band at the 100 Club. It was one of many great Monday nights there over the next few years, and John was a fixture. Maybe those sessions were a continuation of the work he’d done while running the Old Place in Gerrard Street for Ronnie Scott and Pete King between 1965 and 1968, offering a home to the new developments led by the generation of Westbrook, Chris McGregor and John Surman.

“The last of the Soho anarchists” was how the humanist celebrant, Jim Trimmer, described him during the committal ceremony. John was that, and more. He had been a roadie for the Vipers skiffle group; he had tried his hand as a painter; he had worked at the 2 Is, where British rock and roll was born; he had spent time at the Beat Hotel in Paris; he had been a founder member of CND; and much, much more, long before I ever met him. While working at Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop he took a flat opposite, in Charing Cross Road, and there he stayed for the rest of his life — on the side of that lovely street that wasn’t torn down by developers.

I was privileged to be one of his pallbearers, along with Matthew Wright, Mike Gavin and Glyn Callingham, all three of whom had known him when they worked at Ray Smith’s jazz record shop in Shaftesbury Avenue, where John ran his Cadillac Records operation from the basement. His co-worker in that venture was the wonderful Hazel Miller, who had known him longer than any of us and sat alongside Shirley in the chapel. On a beautiful bright day up in East Finchley, it felt like the end of an era.

* Here’s John Fordham’s fine summary of John’s lifehttps://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/24/john-jack-obituary