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Reuben Fowler’s ‘Black Cow’

reuben fowler 2

In my experience, jazz musicians tend to approve of Steely Dan. The mixture of sardonic outlook, funny chords and respect for fine improvisers seems to do it. Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Christian McBride and Mel Tormé were among those who covered their songs. A few months ago I enjoyed hearing the students of the Guildhall School of Music’s jazz course performing variations on Donald Fagen’s classic album, The Nightfly. Now comes Reuben Fowler, a gifted young London-based trumpeter, composer and arranger, with a download-only big band version of “Black Cow” — track one of the Dan’s album Aja — whose proceeds will go to Cancer Research’s oesophageal cancer unit, in memory of Walter Becker.

Steely Dan’s music wasn’t jazz. A rock body with a jazz head, maybe. Anyway, it responds well to being played by jazz musicians, as it usually was on the original albums, as long as they don’t try to play tricks with it. Fowler’s “Black Cow” is respectful to the work put in on the slinky groove of the original by the likes of Joe Sample, Victor Feldman, Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey and Paul Humphrey. Jason Rebello (Fender Rhodes piano), Rob Luft (guitar), Lawrence Cottle (bass guitar) and Ian Thomas (drums) hit all the marks, while Paul Booth’s muscular tenor solo loses nothing by a comparison with Tom Scott’s original. The Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart does a great job with the enigmatic lyric — a little hoarser and more wearied than Fagen, but that works, too. Fowler’s arrangement wisely plays it cool until the finale, when the power of four trumpets, four trombones and eight reeds filters through to stirring effect.

I’m not normally a fan of downloads and streaming, for reasons mostly to do with the shamefully inadequate way they remunerate the artists. In this instance, however, the music and the motive make it a must. It’s also a nice way to celebrate Aja‘s 40th anniversary (which was actually last September). And at some time in the future Fowler — who was born 12 years after that album made its appearance — might put together a whole album of this stuff, which would be a very nice thing indeed to have.

* “Black Cow” by the Reuben Fowler Big Band is released on the Ubuntu label and can be found on the regular download and streaming platforms, including Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer and Tidal. The photograph of Fowler is by James Gardiner Bateman.

Muddy Waters: Behind the sun

Muddy Waters

A new compilation of Muddy Waters’ recordings for the Chess label got me listening obsessively this week to “Louisiana Blues”, one of my favourite pieces of American music. The pleasure was enhanced by the fact that the mastering of Can’t Be Satisfied: The Very Best of Muddy Waters 1947-1975 gives the music, recorded on primitive equipment at the Chess Studio in Chicago almost 70 years ago, a new clarity without compromising its grainy warmth.

Recorded on October 23, 1950 with Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica, Ernest “Big” Crawford on string bass, the drummer Elgin Evans tapping something (possibly a washboard) almost subliminally, and an unknown second guitarist, “Louisiana Blues” has the subtlety and intricacy of chamber music. Opened by Muddy’s quivering unaccompanied bottleneck guitar, it eases quickly into a graceful pattern that switches between a light-footed stride and a funkier half-time rhythm as the instrumental lines wind around each other.

The time is hard to follow: there’s a basic 4/4, but Muddy throws in individual bars of 2/4 and 3/4. Unlike John Lee Hooker, however, he doesn’t do it because the symmetry of the conventional 12-bar blues is of no consequence to him. He does it because that’s what the natural cadence of the song, whose melody line echoes the bottleneck phrases, is demanding. You know that nothing was ever written down on a piece of manuscript paper that day in 1950, but this is nevertheless a fully composed piece.

If you’re trying to count the bars, it’s hard to follow — for me, anyway. And that’s what gives the record its everlasting mystery. It won’t stand still for you. It keeps moving to its own multi-layered momentum, seeming to slide out of your grasp while simultaneously pulling you forward with it.

Muddy wrote it, and I have a particular fondness for the first verse: “I’m going down in Louisiana / Baby, behind the sun / Well I just found out / My troubles just begun…” Behind the sun? That’s the poetry of the blues right there, in an image that leaps beyond literal meaning into the realm of the imagination. And the firm but gentle way he bends those words, laying them against the warping harmonica and bottleneck phrases, shows a supreme musicality at work.

(Another bluesman, Louisiana Red, used the phrase to introduce himself a dozen years on his first album, The Lowdown Back Porch Blues: “I am Louisiana Red / And I come from behind the sun…” Were they Muddy’s original words, or had he already borrowed them from someone else? I have no idea. But he makes them belong to him.)

Anyway, this three-minute act of perfection, characterised by a wonderfully delicate balance of interplay which we white boys of the 1960s could hope to do no more than crudely approximate, gave Muddy his first Top 10 hit in the R&B chart in February 1951, which says something about the good taste of his public. Now it’s hard to imagine a time when people all over the world won’t still be listening to it.

* Can’t Be Satisfied is a 2CD set, released on Universal’s Spectrum imprint. Its 40 tracks, selected by Russell Beecher, include material from many of Muddy’s single and album releases during his time with Chess, including selections from his 1960 Newport live album, Muddy Waters: Folk Singer, Folk Festival of the Blues, Electric Mud, Live at Mr Kelly’s and The London Muddy Waters Sessions. Listening to it sent me back to Robert Gordon’s Waters biography, also called Can’t Be Satisfied, published by Jonathan Cape in the UK in 2002 and still highly recommended.

Music for cellos, organ and gamelan

 

Tre Voci 3

The lights were already down as I fumbled my way into a back pew of the Union Chapel last night. Thirty seconds later, the performance began. I’d bought a ticket after seeing that Kit Downes would playing the chapel’s pipe organ in company with Tre Voci, a trio of cellists, and the Southbank Gamelan Players. It sounded like an intriguing combination but I didn’t have time to get any clearer idea of what they’d be doing, and I rushed to find a seat without picking up the A4 sheet giving details of the programme. So I was in a position to let the music come as a complete surprise, which is sometimes the best way.

As I’d hoped, the combination turned out to be a happy one, at its best when there was no real attempt to “blend” the ingredients. Juxtaposition was the most rewarding method. So, in the course of an unbroken hour-long open half, the gamelan ensemble played pieces of their music, the cello group played theirs, Downes played a solo piece, and they came together at various junctures.

It proved to be a rich experience. One piece for the cellos (Alexander, Torun Stavseng and Gregor Riddell) found them bowing phrases entirely in harmonics, skittering in three directions at once: very exhilarating. The four members of the gamelan group — Robert Campion, Helen Loth, Cathy Eastburn and Jonathan Roberts — produced the anticipated meditative sounds from their metallophones and gongs, gently striking and occasionally bowing the bars of their xylophone-like instruments. Downes played a piece I recognised, since it came from his new solo organ album, Obsidian. But it was when they came together that the music was at its most convincing, the players fitting the diverse layers of sound together with great sensitivity as they improvised (so I later learnt) on pieces by John Cage, Tre Voci’s Colin Alexander, and Beni Giles, a young graduate of the Royal Academy of Music’s masters course in composition.

If I found the second half, devoted to the world premiere of a new composition by Bryn Harrison titled “To Shadow”, less compelling, it may have been because the ensemble played together almost all the time in this through-composed hour-long piece. The contrasts of the first half were lost, and with them went the dramatic shifts of timbre and texture. But the evening ended in a moment of great beauty, with Laura Moody — invisible in the gallery above and behind the audience — tapping the body of her cello to provide percussive accompaniment as she intoned Cage’s “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs”, her treatment of the short song pitched somewhere between those of Cathy Berberian and Joey Ramone.

But I left with my head still in the first half, when the music had held not just greater contrast but, perhaps paradoxically, something of the seductive qualities of Terry Riley’s all-night keyboard concerts and La Monte Young’s Dream House. In this, the surroundings certainly helped. The instrumentation suited the chapel’s acoustic, with lighting that enhanced the meditative atmosphere — particularly when a semi-abstract mandala pattern was projected on to the rose window above the organ chamber. And on the way out I bought Tre Voci’s EP of transcriptions for three cellos of medieval choral works by Ockeghem, Dunstable and Byrd, which turned out to be a perfect souvenir.

* Kit Downes’s Obsidian, recorded on organs at the Union Chapel and in two small churches in Suffolk, is released on the ECM label. To hear recordings of Tre Voci, go to  http://trevocicelloensemble.com/media/ And here’s a larger grouping of the Southbank Gamelan Players at David Byrne’s Meltdown a couple of years ago: https://youtu.be/99B-CrJYG9I

Nubya Garcia takes off

Nubya Garcia

I was planning to write about Nubya Garcia anyway, but today seems particularly appropriate, this being the centenary of the bill that gave women the right to vote in Britain. In 2018, one in three MPs in the House of Commons is now a woman, and I’d say that we’re getting close to that kind of gender split at the creative end of jazz. Garcia, a young tenor saxophonist and composer who came through Tomorrow’s Warriors and the Royal Academy of Music’s junior programme, is an example of a trend also exemplified by the likes of Matana Roberts, Eve Risser, Linda Oh, Kaja Draksler, Sarah Tandy, Mary Halvorson, Anna Lena Schnabel, Susana Santos Silva, Alice Zawadzki, Jaimie Branch, Ingrid Laubrock, Lucia Cadotsch, Tomeka Reid, Shirley Tetteh, Sylvie Courvoisier, Lucy Railton and many, many others.

I’m at the point now that when I go to see a band made up entirely of male musicians, it feels like there’s something wrong, something out of balance, something old-fashioned going on. And there certainly aren’t many bands that wouldn’t be improved by Garcia’s presence.

Nubya’s 5ive is her first album, and it’s a scorching debut. She’s riding the wave of a new interest in young British jazz musicians, exposed in a recent feature by Giovanni Russonello in the New York Times, and her disc is useful evidence — along with two of last year’s best albums, Shabaka and the Ancestors’ Wisdom of Elders and Binker & Moses’ Journey to the Mountain of Forever — that this is no hype. Here we have a version of smart modern jazz that knows what’s going on around it but also knows better than to deal in fashionable tricks and artificial grafts.

One thing I like about Garcia is that she doesn’t sound like Coltrane or Shorter. She has a commanding tone, pliable, fibrous and full of power, and she digs hard into the grooves established here by her excellent band on tunes that are strong and memorable. Each of the individuals takes an opportunity to stand out: Daniel Casimir with a compelling solo introduction to “Lost Kingdoms”, Joe Armon Jones with a boiling acoustic piano solo on “Contemplation”, the hugely promising Theon Cross with a tuba improvisation on “Hold”, Sheila Maurice Gray with a bold trumpet solo on “Red Sun”, and Moses Boyd with a display of thrillingly flexible drumming all the way through (joined on a couple of tracks by Femi Koloeso).

This is a snapshot of a scene that is currently humming with excitement, giving London a kind of vibe it hasn’t had since the Jazz Warriors and Loose Tubes broke through in the mid-’80s. Most important of all, it seems to be finding a new audience, attracted by its energy and its inclusiveness. Not all of it is going to be ground-breaking, but it’s here and now and it needs to be noticed.

* Nubya’s 5ive is released on the Jazz:Refreshed label.

Dennis Edwards 1943-2018

Temptations

The Temptations in 1968 (left to right): Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams (front), Dennis Edwards and Eddie Kendricks

Dennis Edwards, who died on February 1, two days before what would have been his 75th birthday, was given an unusually demanding job back in 1969 when he was called upon to replace David Ruffin as one of the Temptations’ lead singers. Ruffin had left the group after being voted out by his colleagues, who were prepared to lose the matchless voice of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You” in order to rid themselves of a man whose drug intake contributed to an ego running out of control.

“Eddie (Kendricks) and I first noticed a singer named Dennis Edwards at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., when he was still with the Contours,” group member Otis Williams wrote in his autobiography (Temptations, Fireside Books, 1989). “We watched from the wings as he sang lead on Lou Rawls’s ‘Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing’. Dennis not only had a stirring, soulful voice, but he was a showman with real command of the audience. His style was a little rougher and grittier than David’s, but we could tell that David would be able to handle David’s songs and bring a new sound to the Tempts as well. Eddie looked at me and said, ‘That’s who we should get. If David don’t straighten up, that’s who we should keep in mind.”

In one sense, the transition was easy: a simple matter of a personnel transfer from one Motown group, a mid-level attraction with their best years behind them, to another at the much higher peak of their powers. But it was far from straightforward. Ruffin refused to accept his rejection, turning up at the group’s gigs on several occasions and trying to join them on stage so persistently that for a while they had to hire security guards to keep him away.

Edwards was fortunate in that his arrival coincided with a change in the group’s style, masterminded by their visionary producer, Norman Whitfield, and his co-writer, Barrett Strong. Whitfield yanked Motown into the era of psychedelic soul, expressed in 10-minute tracks with lengthy instrumental interludes and strange sound effects, wah-wah guitar licks and chattering hi-hats, laconically minimal bass riffs and soaring strings, and lyrics with a strong dose of social realism shared around between the contrasting voices, from Kendricks’s falsetto to Melvin Franklin’s bass.

The new singer’s first recording with the group was the one that announced the new approach: “Cloud Nine”, a No. 2 hit on the U.S. pop charts in 1968. The lead is switched around throughout the track, but Edwards kicks it off, his raw, gospel-schooled tenor establishing the unvarnished tone: “The childhood part of my life, it wasn’t very pretty / See, I was born and raised in the slums of the city / It was a one-room shack we slept in, other children beside me / We hardly had enough food or room to sleep / It was hard times, needed something to ease my troubled mind . . . ” Whitfield’s rhythm track made inventive use of Motown studio stalwarts James Jamerson on bass guitar and Uriel Jones on drums, bringing in Melvin “Wah-Wah” Ragin to play rhythm guitar, Spider Webb on a second drum kit, and — so it’s said — Mongo Santamaria on congas.

The record won a Grammy for best performance by an R&B group, confirming the commercial validity of Whitfield’s decision to venture away from Motown’s tried-and-true methods. Again Edwards was the dominant voice as the combination spent the next four years rolling out hits like “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Psychedelic Shack” and “Ball of Confusion”. The great run reached its climax in 1973 with the epic “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”: a 45 with a six-minute A-side but a full 12 minutes on the album. The long instrumental sections featured the jazz trumpet of Maurice Davis, who combined his frequent appearances in the Motown studios with a teaching job in the Detroit public school system, and the guitars of Ragin (wah-wah rhythm, left channel) and the 19-year-old Paul Warren (blues licks, right channel), a Whitfield protégé who went on to long-term road gigs with Joe Cocker, Eros Ramazotti and Rod Stewart. Plus, of course, Jamerson and Jones, and Eddie “Bongo” Brown’s congas, and Paul Riser’s superb arrangement for a contingent of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. And the finest double-time handclaps ever committed to record.

In fact this one-chord jam was Whitfield’s Symphony in B Flat Minor, one of the high points of 20th century popular music. And at its centre was Dennis Edwards, the voice of the song’s protagonist: “It was the third of September / That day I’ll always remember (yes I will) / ‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died / I never got a chance to see him / Never heard nothin’ but bad things about him / Mama, I’m depending on you to tell me the truth . . . ”

Maybe a group with so many superb lead singers always contained the seeds of its own destruction. Kendricks had left by the time of “Papa”, disliking the extravagance of Whitfield’s productions and missing Ruffin’s voice alongside him. Paul Williams, the group’s first lead singer until Kendricks and Ruffin took over, left the following year, suffering from a combination of sickle-cell anaemia and alcoholism; he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1973. Ruffin died of a cocaine overdose in 1991. Kendricks succumbed to lung cancer in 1992. Franklin suffered a fatal cerebral seizure in 1995. Otis Williams still leads the Temptations — the last survivor of the original Famous Five and now also of the group who, with Edwards’ arrival, turned the page to begin a brilliant new chapter.