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Michael Mantler’s ‘Comment c’est’

Michael Mantler 1

What sort of music do we most need in these disturbed times? Something to soothe and console, certainly. Something to help us dance our way through the gloom, of course. Something to ensure, as well, that the finer instincts of the human mind remain open to stimulus. But perhaps most of all just now we need music that observes and warns. That’s the task of Comment c’est, a new extended work from the trumpeter-composer Michael Mantler which seems likely, at least to me, to be one of the most significant recordings of the year.

Born in Vienna in 1943, Mantler is probably still best known for what happened after he moved to New York in 1961 and teamed up with Carla Bley, with whom he founded the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association. His compositions for large ensemble were heard on the JCO’s first album in 1968, a series of bold compositions designed for soloists such as Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri and Pharoah Sanders, all of whom were known at the time for their work with small groups. Since then his many recordings have included a symphony, an opera, and settings of the words of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Paul Auster and others, often featuring a regular cast of collaborators including Jack Bruce and Robert Wyatt. With Bley, he was also a member of the first edition of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

Comme c’est is an agitprop song cycle in 10 parts, written for the voice of Himiko Paganotti, Mantler’s own trumpet, and the Max Brand Ensemble, a 12-piece chamber group, augmented by the piano of David Helbock and conducted by Christoph Cech. Its subject is the hell we are in the process of creating: a 21st century hell, but with immemorial echoes.

The lyrics are in French — perhaps because that’s the language in which Beckett, a long-time inspiration for Mantler’s work, chose to write. (Beckett wrote a novel in 1961 called Comment c’est. The English translation is called How It Is, which is also Mantler’s subtitle. The two works are not otherwise related, as far as I can tell, although Mantler quoted some paragraphs from the Beckett in the booklet that came with the JCO album.) Here’s how the first song begins, in the English translation provided in the album’s booklet: “Today / like everyday / facing the news / ignorance, intolerance, chauvinism, bigotry, nationalism, dictatorships, hostilities, assaults, invasions, wars, methodical violence, ethnic cleansing, genocide, hatred, the horror / and again, and again, and again, again…”

So humanity repeats its follies, from which Mantler doesn’t flinch. The lyrics deal with fear of the other, the military-industrial complex, the spread of hatred, the return of torture (if it ever went away), and other currently relevant concerns. There is definitely a kind of bleak poetry here, in the mostly unadorned language which cuts from the eye of an all-seeing observer to the first-person testimony of a nameless participant, witness, or victim, and back again.

These are art songs, making use of Mantler’s command of both contemporary classical music and jazz to create an idiom perfectly suited to the through-composed structures. The voice of Ms Paganotti, a member of Magma for the last few years, is grave and poised, avoiding melodrama even in its most impassioned moments (such as on the song called “Sans fin”), matching its poignancy to the sober textures drawn from the ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, French horn, tuba, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and vibraphone/marimba. The rhythms, although sometimes making use of a tuned-percussion ostinato, are usually episodic or rubato.

The prevailing mood is inevitably sombre but never gratuitously austere. Although restrained, the music is suffused with humanity. There are melodies here, if not necessarily the kind you sing along with, and Mantler’s concise solos — the music’s only improvised element, often responding to Ms Paganotti’s lines — stick in the mind. On a journey from Mike Westbrook’s Marching Song through Liberation Music Orchestra’s Not In Our Name, this could be seen as the next stop. Every minute of the album, all the way to its bleak ending, rewards concentrated attention. It would be wonderful to hear it performed live; it would be even better if, somehow, it could help to change the world.

* Comment c’est is released on the ECM label. The photograph of Michael Mantler is by Rainer Rygalyk.

1965: Annus mirabilis

Jon Savage 1965

When Jon Savage compiled his excellent 2-CD sets of hits and curiosities from 1966 and 1967 for Ace Records, he was just clearing his throat. Now, with 1965: The Year the Sixties Ignited, he arrives at the real point of the exercise: a celebration of the best year in the history of popular music. OK, I’m biased: I was 18, which is a pretty important age to be. Jon’s selection of 48 tracks on two discs is characteristically idiosyncratic and stimulating; mine would be very different. I loved 1965 while it was happening, and I’ve felt that way ever since. Twenty years ago I wrote a piece about it for the Independent on Sunday’s Review section, and then expanded it slightly for inclusion in a collection of my music pieces titled Long Distance Call. Here, because you almost certainly won’t have read it in either form, is a truncated version.

 

Bob Dylan 1965 ticket

IT’S A FRIDAY evening in the spring of 1965. In a house in the Midlands, an 18-year-old boy is waiting to take a 17-year-girl to the opening night of Bob Dylan’s first British concert tour. He has two tickets in his pocket. Sheffield City Hall, grand circle, second row, seven shillings and sixpence each.

The television is on as they prepare to leave her parents’ house. It’s Ready Steady Go!, live from London, the weekly hotline to the heart of whatever’s hip. One of the presenters — either the dollybird Cathy McGowan or the incongruously avuncular Keith Fordyce — announces the appearance of a new group. They’re from America, they’re called the Walker Brothers, and this is their first time on British TV. Their song is called “Love Her”.

On the small black and white screen, the face of a fallen angel appears. The boy and the girl are already cutting things fine for Dylan, but still the girl freezes in the act of putting on her coat and, as if in slow motion, sits down to watch the 21-year-old Scott Engel, clutching the microphone as though it were a crucifix, delivering the straining, heavily orchestrated teen ballad in a dark brown voice borrowed from the romantic hero of a comic strip in Romeo or Valentine.

As the song ends and the image fades, the girl shakes herself lightly, refocuses on her surroundings and pulls on her coat. OK, she says. Ready to go.

A COUPLE OF hours later they would be among the first people in Britain to feel the impact of the new songs that were still a fortnight away from release on Dylan’s fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. With “It’s Alright Ma”, “Gates of Eden”, “Love Minus Zero”, “Mr Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, a flood of dazzling images and ideas was released. “The lamp post stands with folded arms, its iron claws attached…” “He not busy being born is busy dying…” “To dance beneath the diamond sky / With one hand waving free… ” He was bringing the unformed thoughts of his audience into focus, inventing new emotions and redefining old ones.

Reeling out into the night, speechless with awe, saturated by those visions, they couldn’t know that Dylan was already bored with the way he’d been presenting himself up. The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Animals may have worshipped him, but he wanted what they’d got. Less than two months after opening that tour in Sheffield, he would convene a full-tilt rock and roll band in a New York studio to record “Like a Rolling Stone”, the first six-minute 45. In July he took a band with him on to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, where he had been a hero in previous years but was now reviled for his supposed act of heresy. Highway 61 Revisited and “Positively 4th Street” followed, in all their ornate mystery.

But although his change of direction was a shock, it was not a surprise. Because in 1965 change was expected: every month, every week, almost every day. Every time you walked into a record shop, opened a book, bought a magazine, turned on the TV. Between picking up your coat and putting it on.

THE YEAR 1965 started with the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'” (the greatest of all orchestral pop records) and ended with the Beatles’ Rubber Soul (their most satisfying album) and contained so much great music that it would take a year to listen to it, even now. In the sense that pop musicians were still waking up to the reality of their own economic power, and had not yet taken the logical step of attempting to control the means of production, this was also the last year of innocence.

It was filled with perfect examples of what we think of as ’60s moments. David Bailey wore a crewneck sweater to marry Catherine Deneuve. Mods and rockers spent the Easter holiday hurling deckchairs at each other on the Brighton seafront. Marianne Faithfull, much to her own surprise, turned down Bob Dylan’s advances (she was pregnant and about to marry a man who owned a bookshop and art gallery). Julie Christie starred in John Schlesinger’s Darling and Jane Birkin flitted in and out of Richard Lester’s The Knack, giving us two defining images of Swinging London. The Beatles reunited with Lester to make Help!, played Shea Stadium, visited Elvis at home in Beverly Hills, and went to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBEs and smoke dope in the lavatories — not quite all on the same day, but almost. Liverpool, probably not coincidentally, won the FA Cup for the first time. Jean Shrimpton (whose sister was going out with Mick Jagger) lived with Terence Stamp (whose brother was managing the Who) and horrified Australian society by turning up to the Melbourne Cup in a simple shift dress that terminated four inches above her knees.

That’s how easy it was to shock people in those days. When a small rip opened up in the weakened crotch seam of the American singer P. J. Proby’s velvet trousers on stage in Croydon in January, he was banned by the ABC theatre chain and excoriated by the newspapers. When three of the Stones — Jagger, Richards and Wyman — were reported to have urinated against a wall at a petrol station on the way home from a show in Romford, they made the front pages and were fined £5 each. There was a fuss about these incidents but under the outrage, much of it bogus, there was a sense that they were adding to the gaiety of the nation.

In what was left of the real world of Great Britain, the Kray twins were being remanded, the Moors Murderers were charged, Harold Wilson’s government announced an “experimental” 70mph speed limit, legal blood-alcohol limits for drivers were brought in, and incitement to racial hatred was banned. Heath succeeded Home as Tory leader and declared his intention to take Britain into the Common Market — to which, in any case, the government had just applied for a £500 million loan. Internationally, the big issues were the Vietnam war and civil rights, both of which spilled over the frontiers of the United States and commanded the attention and concern of young people throughout the world.

In January, Lyndon Johnson sent the B-52s to bomb North Vietnam. In June, the first American troops went into action on the ground against Vietcong bases near Saigon; by the time they got there, the VC had vanished. The President’s answer: send more troops. the Rev Dr Martin Luther King was arrested during a voter-registration protest in Selma, Alabama; eight weeks later he marched back into town at the head of 25,000 people, protected by 3,000 federal troops and the camera crews of the world’s television networks. Between times, Malcolm X had met an assassin’s bullet in New York. In August, 28 people died and 676 were injured when Watts exploded in three days of rioting.

Everything seemed connected, somehow or other. When Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston to take the heavyweight championship of the world, even that was part of the bigger deal: the youthquake, black power, the generalised feeling that the Establishment was there for the taking. Liston and Floyd Patterson, against whom Clay subsequently defended his title, were black, too, but other, older kinds of black. Clay was Dylan’s age, Jagger’s age, Lennon’s age. Our age.

And ours was also a visual age. Coming between the studied sloppiness of the Beat generation — sandals and shapeless sweaters — and the romantic self-indulgence of the hippies, it was the time of the mods, whose aesthetic may have ended up with the skinheads of the British Movement but had begun with better intentions in the jazz clubs of Soho, the tailors of Whitechapel and the liberal atmosphere of the London art colleges, among people who knew about Fellini and Jasper Johns.

Much of that came together in the Who, who began the year with the terse, staccato chords of their first single, “I Can’t Explain”. They ended it with the thrillingly anarchic feedback of “My Generation”. In between came “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere”, described by Pete Townshend, its composer, as “anti-middle age, anti-boss class, and anti-young marrieds”. If the Who had packed it all in at Christmas, after those three 45s, they’d have been regarded as the greatest rock group of all time, no contest.

British rock music, high on its own huge success in the US and fuelled by a profound admiration of Bob Dylan’s wilful unpredictability, was moving away from covers of Chess and Motown records and beginning to explore its creative potential. The Beatles started to enter the regions beyond two-dimensional love songs, distilling the darker complexities of “Help!” and “Norwegian Wood”, both indelibly marked by Dylan’s influence on Lennon, while George Martin’s experience enabled Paul McCartney to achieve the imaginative leap that led to “Yesterday”.

The Stones, with Jagger and Richards forced into the role of composers by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who recognised the value of copyrights, used the influence of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters to create the template for riff-based rock music with “The Last Time” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, benefitting from Keith’s acquisition of something called a fuzz box and from the funkier ambiance of American studios. The Animals built a denser sound, more conscious of dynamics, with “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life”. The Yardbirds were experimenting with mood and structure on “For Your Love” and the quasi-liturgical “Still I’m Sad”. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames emerged from the Flamingo all-nighters with the finger-popping “Yeh Yeh”, the sound of an Ivy League jacket and a French crop. The Kinks progressed from the kinetic power chords of “Tired of Waiting for You” to the prophetic quasi-oriental drone of “See My Friends”, which anticipated raga-rock and a certain strand of psychedelia. The Small Faces (real, rather than art-school, mods) made their debut with the pugnacious “Whatcha Gonna Do About It?”, a healthy plundering of the chord-riff from Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”. Out of Belfast came the incomparably surly Them with “Baby Please Don’t Go”, a devastatingly supercharged version of a country-blues text, followed by “Here Comes the Night” and the opening chapter of the Van Morrison legend.

“Gloria”, the B-side of “Baby Please Don’t Go”, may have been the first punk-rock record. Or perhaps that was the pounding “I Want Candy” by the Strangeloves, a non-existent group created to counter the British invasion by a bunch of New York studio-hack writer-producers. Or possibly it was the magnificently silly “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, or the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover”, out of Texas. Or, from New York once more, the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy”, a kind of punk-bubblegum hybrid based on the Vibrations’ vastly superior “My Girl Sloopy”. The year was full of one-offs like these as American groups (and the commercial interests behind them) fought back, producing guitar-driven music to counter that coming from the other side of the ocean.

The Byrds — not a one-off — took an electric 12-string guitar to his “Mr Tambourine Man” and invented jangling folk-rock (refined later in the year with “Turn Turn Turn”, their version of Pete Seeger’s take on the Book of Ecclesiastes). Music producer Lou Adler bought his staff songwriter Phil Sloan a corduroy Dylan cap, handed him a copy of Highway 61 Revisited and an acoustic guitar, and locked him in a Hollywood bungalow for a weekend. On the Monday morning Sloan handed Adler the demo tape of “Eve of Destruction”, an instant worldwide No 1 for the hoarse-voiced Barry McGuire.

Harold Battiste, a veteran of the New Orleans R&B scene, helped a couple of Hollywood brats, Salvatore Bono and Cherilyn LaPier, to become Sonny and Cher with “I Got You Babe”, a folk-rock minuet with an oboe where most records would have a guitar or a saxophone. Brian Wilson, fiddling about in his studio while the rest of the Beach Boys toured the world, pushed the enrichment button on surf music so hard that it turned into the sunlit symphonies of “Help Me Rhonda” and “California Girls”. The Everly Brothers, relics of pop’s first golden age, a duo with roots in the music of the Appalachian chain, were reborn with the crunching drive of “Love Is Strange”, as powerful a sound as any in the whole year,

In cities around America, soul music had reached its mature phase. Detroit’s Hitsville USA was in top gear with Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar”, Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run”, Kim Weston’s “Take Me in Your Arms”, Jr Walker’s “Shotgun”, the Marvelettes’ “I’ll Keep Holding On”, Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight”, the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” and “It’s the Same Old Song”, the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again”, and half a dozen Smokey Robinson masterpieces: three for the Temptations (“My Girl”, “It’s Growing” and “Since I Lost My Baby”) and three for his own group, the Miracles (“Ooo Baby Baby”, “Goin’ to A Go-Go” and the incomparable “Tracks of My Tears”). In Chicago, Curtis Mayfield was using the memory of his grandmother’s Sunday morning church sermons to create “People Get Ready”. In Memphis, the Stax house band was launching Wilson Pickett into “In the Midnight Hour” and Otis Redding into “Respect”. James Brown stopped off while touring to record “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in Charlotte, North Carolina and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” in Miami, Florida.

That’s to say nothing of Barbara Mason’s swooning “Yes I’m Ready”, the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” and Shirley Ellis’s “The Clapping Song” (which both found new uses for children’s playground songs), Lou Christie’s falsetto tour de force on “Lightning Strikes”, Betty Everett’s “Getting Mighty Crowded”, Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual”, the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Any More”, the Ronettes’ “Born to Be Together” (their finest moment), the Drifters’ “At the Club”, Dusty Springfield’s glowing “Some of Your Loving”, Petula Clark’s “Downtown”, and the boiling, gospel-driven “Heartbeat Pts 1 and 2” by Gloria Jones. Or Dionne Warwick’s staggering “(Here I Go Again) Looking With My Eyes (Seeing With My Heart)”, the Searchers’ “What Have They Done to the Rain”, Wayne Fontana’s “Game of Love”, Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me”, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?”, Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd”, Little Richard’s utterly magnificent “I Don’t Know What You Go But It’s Got Me Pts 1 and 2”, and, to get back to where we started, two further Walker Brothers classics, “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “My Ship Is Coming In”. All of them — and many others — still played and recognised today.

MOST SIGNIFICANTLY, though, and paradoxically in the light of all this frantic activity, 1965 was the year in which pop music started to slow down. First there was the way in which the working process itself became more leisurely, a result of increasing affluence among musicians who had started out two or three years earlier traipsing up and down the M1 crammed into Transit vans, and the freedom it gave those who had previously been the slaves of managers and record companies. And there was the accompanying desire to spend more time creating records in the studio, exploring the potential of both the developing technology and the musicians’ own imaginations.

In 1965 the Beatles, as they had every year since signing with EMI, released two albums, Help! and Rubber Soul. The Stones released No. 2 and Out of Our Heads. The Beach Boys released Today and Summer Days (and Summer Nights!). That was the standard working schedule. But in 1965 the sense of artistic competitiveness was growing fast. The Beatles would hear the new Beach Boys single and know they had to top it. The only way was to spend more time in the laboratory. The following year, there would be only one album from each of these three leading bands: Revolver, Aftermath and Pet Sounds. And that would remain the pattern.

The music also slowed down in a more literal and far-reaching sense, thanks to the combined influence of James Brown and Andy Warhol. Together, the effect of Brown’s one-chord funk in the clubs and the influence of Warhol’s image-repetition in the art colleges began to thin out the music’s layers, simplifying its structure and reducing the density of its content. This was the birth of pop minimalism, and it also led directly to the inversion of what might be called the music’s weight distribution. Where the aural focus had been on the lead voice(s) — an emphasis reflecting the old “Vocal with rhythm accompaniment” tag that used to be printed on the labels of pre-war 78s, under the singer’s name — now the bottom end of the rhythm section began to take greater prominence. This shift of balance arrived hand in hand with technological developments allowing discothèques to install sound systems which played extra emphasis on the elements of the music that made people dance: the bass and drums. In that sense the most important records of 1965 were not “Satisfaction”, “Ticket to Ride” or “My Generation”, but “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, whose long-term effect on the time-frame and event-horizon of popular music is all around us today — in disco and house music, hip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass, trance, and just about everything else.

Buried within 1965, then, were the seeds of 1966, which also included the debut of Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix in San Francisco and of the Grateful Dead at the first Acid Tests. In November, the two bands shared the bill at the opening night of Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium. That same month, on the east coast, Lou Reed and John Cale gave their new band a name under which they played their first gigs in a New Jersey high school auditorium. Around the corner of the new year lay Cream, Pet Sounds, “Paint It Black”, “Eleanor Rigby”, the aloof visions of Blonde on Blonde and the tumultuous tour that prefaced Dylan’s motorcycle crash. And The Velvet Underground and Nico, with which another future would begin.

Bebop and Basquiat

Basquiat Bird 3

There’s only another week in which to see Boom for Real, the big Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective at the Barbican, before it closes on January 28. I left it until last week to pay my first visit and I’m going to try to go again. There’s a lot to see and I want to spend a bit more time thinking about his relationship with modern jazz in general and Charlie Parker in particular, which is what struck me most of all as I was going around the show.

Basquiat, who came to fame as a teenage graffiti artist on the streets of New York and died in 1988 at the age of 27, must have really loved Parker’s music. It can’t have been a pose. The names and phrases scrawled in many of the paintings show an intimate knowledge of Bird’s work. Crispus Attucks High School was the one Parker attended in Kansas City. Buster Smith was the alto saxophonist he admired in his apprentice years. Doris Sydnor was his third wife. Joe Albany was one of his pianists. Dial and Savoy were two of the labels for which he made his finest recordings. “Half Nelson”, “KoKo”, “Now’s the Time” and “Warming Up a Riff” were some of the tunes he cut. The Stanhope Hotel was where he died.

There’s a real feeling for jazz here. Not just Parker but Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie are referenced in the works included in Boom for Real. Basquiat’s blend of the heroic and the grotesque seems to me a fair representation of an art form that had to fight its way first into existence and then towards acknowledgement. The harshness and challenges of a jazz musician’s life are as present in the paintings as the aesthetic value of what they produce. There’s a title of a Monk tune that sums it up: “Ugly Beauty”.

“Jean-Michel says his paintings are jazz on canvas,” Jennifer Clement writes in Widow Basquiat, a portrait of the painter’s relationship with his girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, first published in 2002. There’s a passage in which, having discovered that Billie Holiday’s grave has no headstone, he spends a weekend designing one with the help of his friend, the art curator Diego Cortez, while Suzanne makes trips to get them cocaine.

There are people who don’t appreciate the way Basquiat turned street art into something for which collectors now pay vast sums. To them, the $110.5m paid for one of his canvases last May, setting a record for a painting by any American artist sold at auction, represents an insult to the history of art. But I think he did something important in getting the spirit of the music on to canvas. I wish he could have done it without feeling the need to copy Parker’s heroin habit, but I’ve felt that about a lot of people and there’s really no point. Just go and look.

* Untitled (Charlie Parker) was painted in 1983 and is in the Barbican exhibition, on loan from the Schorr Family Collection.

The Clapton movie

Eric Clapton film

Quite the most striking thing about Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is its chronicling of the evolution of the guitarist’s hairstyle throughout his life, and the way its constant revision so accurately mirrors the changing modes of popular culture: a perfect early mod cut growing out into a bubble perm and then an early-70s stoner straggle and through countless other stages until reaching the present-day elderly rockandroller look, of which there were many versions in the audience at the Richmond Odeon last night.

Whatever you think of Clapton’s music (and I was never a fan of that style of blues-rock guitar playing), he always had great hair — and he knew it. It’s unsurprising that a strikingly emotional moment in Lili Fini Zanuck’s film occurs when, on a visit to his estranged mother and her husband on a Canadian army base in Germany in his mid-teens, he is forced to have it cut short. No man of roughly Clapton’s generation who lived through a similar ordeal in his own adolescence will fail to recognise that excruciating, almost life-threatening humiliation.

The walk to the cinema took me past the site of the old Railway Hotel opposite Richmond station, a key location in the history of the Thames Delta. It was in the back room of those premises that the Yardbirds made their first impression on the public, succeeding the Rolling Stones as the resident band at Giorgio Gomelsky’s Crawdaddy Club and allowing Clapton’s extraordinary magnetism to emerge.

The voice of the Yardbirds’ Chris Dreja is one of many heard in the documentary. Another from that period is the late sculptor Ben Palmer, the pianist in the Roosters, Clapton’s first band, and clearly a powerful influence on the sensibility of a young man who, during his year at Kingston Art College, was reading Baudelaire and Steinbeck while discovering the music of Blind Blake and Big Bill Broonzy. Clapton’s mother, his sister and his grandmother (who brought him up as her son) are also heard.

But it’s the years of superstardom and addiction that are the film’s real priority, and where it becomes repetitive to the point of tedium. We hear from some of the principal figures of Clapton’s life in the ’70s and ’80s — notably Bobby Whitlock, his keyboard player, and Pattie Boyd, his muse — at what seems like inordinate length, accompanied by endlessly repeated home-movie clips and stills. These are deployed with only the most cack-handed grasp of the lessons taught by the innovative documentarist Ken Burns to a generation of directors in the creative use of the combination of a rostrum camera and limited visual material. In terms of Clapton’s musical history and the influences that reshaped it, the complete absence of any mention of Music from Big Pink, J. J. Cale, the Delaney and Bonnie tour of 1969 or the Pete Townshend-directed Rainbow comeback concert of 1973 seems a bit strange.

Nevertheless there are many affecting sequences. They include a brief clip of Clapton crossing a London street and getting into his Mercedes 600 in the company of his then fiancée and fellow junkie, the ill-fated Alice Ormsby-Gore, vividly evoking the darker side of the lives of the jeunesse dorée of the late ’60s, and the reconstruction of the death of his four-year-old son in a fall from the 53rd-floor window of a New York hotel in 1991. His dreadful racist outburst on stage in Birmingham in 1976, after brandy and wine had taken over from heroin, is not glossed over; others may disagree, but to me it seems consistent with what we know about the radically distorting effect of an immense alcohol consumption on his personality at the time (Boyd is eloquent on that subject).

It’s good that Clapton is living through the golden sunset of a settled family life and the fine work done by his Crossroads charity to rescue others from addiction. As far as the film goes, however, I’d have been happier staying at home and listening to the only two records of his that I ever play: the sublimely sentimental “Wonderful Tonight”, a song that absolutely hits its chosen spot, and, more seriously, the Unplugged version of “Old Love”, where in both his voice and his playing you can hear echoes of the sensitive, troubled boy whose instinctive love of the blues earned him a ride on a roller-coaster that he was lucky to survive.

* Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is in cinemas from January 12. The Richmond Odeon screening was supposed to include the live transmission of a Q&A between Jools Holland and Clapton taking place on stage at the South Bank; some technical problem blacked it out, but neither explanation nor refund was offered.

Freedom now… and then

Trevor Watts 1

L to R: Veryan Weston, Alison Blunt, Hannah Marshall and Trevor Watts

No musicians get more of my admiration than those working in the field of jazz-derived free improvisation. An idiom under development for more than 50 years, it has never offered public acclaim or material reward to its practitioners, despite requiring levels of creative imagination and technical ability far beyond the norm in other genres. For the attentive and sympathetic listener, nothing offers quite the same degree of reward as the experience of hearing a group of musicians — or even a solo improviser — imagining the music from scratch, relying on their inner resources from start to finish and (in the case of ensembles) on an extreme sensitivity to the other individuals and to the group dynamic.

It’s a music best heard live, when the listener is able to witness that dynamic at work and watch the musicians exploring the extended instrumental vocabularies developed during the music’s long period of evolution. Given the sounds and skills involved, too, visual evidence sometimes helps in sorting out who is playing what. And so, no less than a Bob Dylan studio album, a recording of free improvisation is a snapshot of a moment.

Sometimes, however, the snapshot can carry a lasting meaning that makes it more than just a souvenir. In the second section of this piece I’ll deal with an album that has carried such significance for half a century. But this part is about a new recording from a group of experienced improvisers who have been playing together for a while, and which seems to me to convey a value beyond the hour it took to play it.

The saxophonist Trevor Watts was one of the originators of British (and European) free music, as a founder member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1966 with his former RAF colleague John Stevens. Trevor’s passionate alto playing was heard on the SME’s first album, Challenge, recorded soon after their formation, and later in his own groups, including Amalgam and Moiré Music. Now approaching his 79th birthday, Trevor retains the combination of finely tuned energy and emotional generous energy that has always distinguished his work.

His latest venture is a co-operative quartet with the violinist Alison Blunt, the cellist Hannah Marshall and his long-time musical partner, the pianist Veryan Weston. Last year Watts and Weston released a fine duo album called Dialogues for Ornette (a reminder that 50 years earlier Challenge contained a track titled “2B Ornette”)The new quartet’s debut is titled Dialogues with Strings, but it would be a mistake to assume the existence of any kind of hierarchy, or even the feeling of a pair of duos.

This is densely woven music, sometimes hectic, sometimes legato, but motivated, whatever the velocity or trajectory, by a sense of urgency from four musicians playing together as unit for the first time. It isn’t the heavy-metal variety of free jazz; there are passages of wonderful delicacy, but the overall impression throughout the album’s three pieces, recorded last spring at Cafe Oto, is one of a powerful momentum that continues to surge even through the occasional silences. It’s full of the kind of magic that the best free improvisers can conjure when they work together in the right environment.

SME 1Free improvisation is a complex business. Is the idea to create something from nothing that nevertheless sounds as though it was pre-composed? Surely not, although that can be an occasional effect. The reissue of Karyōbin, the SME’s second album, taped in February 1968, shows the music in an embryonic state, when individuals were still mixing and matching their discoveries and feeling their way towards a true group music.

Recorded at the behest of Island Records’ Chris Blackwell for a short-lived label called Hexagram, produced by the engineer Eddie Kramer in a single evening using free after-hours time at Olympic Studios in Barnes, this Watts-less version of the band features — from left in the photo above — Dave Holland (bass), John Stevens (drums), Evan Parker (soprano saxophone), Kenny Wheeler (trumpet and flugelhorn), and Derek Bailey (guitar). The album captures the sound of the musicians as they were heard in many different combinations at the Little Theatre Club in Covent Garden, a crucible of the new jazz.

The individual musicians are at various angles in their relationship to this music, but their personal voices are unmistakeable: Wheeler’s liquid squiggles, Bailey’s surreptitious scrabbling, Parker’s terse flutter and stutter, Stevens (on his skeletal Launcher kit, adopted to bring his playing down to the prevailing volume level of this unamplified music) alternating dry tapping with the pings of cymbals and small gongs. Each of these adventurous approaches would eventually be widely imitated as other musicians joined the cause.

Remastered from the original master tapes, now in Parker’s possession, and cleaned up and rebalanced by Adam Skeaping, this new reissue of the only LP to appear on the Hexagram label is a vastly better proposition than earlier efforts (a Japanese reissue, for instance, was dubbed from a vinyl album), and is matched by packaging which retains the original artwork but adds new essays and a selection of previously unseen black and white photographs taken with Parker’s camera during the session.

It’s a cornerstone of this music and has repaid repeated listening throughout its long life. If you don’t know what happened after Karyōbin, and want to find out, get hold of the 2014 reissue of the SME’s third album, Oliv, recorded in 1969 for Giorgio Gomelsky’s Marmalade label, coupled with an unissued session from the previous year featuring an extended piece called Familie. Both feature Watts back in the fold alongside various other additions, including the bassists Johnny Dyani and Jeff Clyne and the singers Maggie Nichols, Pepi Lemer and Norma Winstone.

It’s all the stuff of history. And, thanks to Watts and others, history is still being made.

* Dialogues with Strings is on the FSR label. The photograph of the quartet is from the album’s jacket, and was taken by Mark French. The reissues of Karyōbin and Oliv & Familie are on Emanem. The photograph of the SME is from the sleeve of the former and was taken by Jak Kilby. Evan Parker and Dave Holland, the only survivors of the Karyōbin quintet, will be playing at the Vortex in Dalston on Friday March 2, in a benefit for the club (www.vortexjazz.co.uk).