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The story of Al Duncan

Al Duncan

Long before I knew his name, I was hooked on Al Duncan’s playing. In the autumn of 1963 the Impressions’ “It’s All Right” came on the radio, with its beautiful drum fills. Over the next couple of years there followed a procession of Curtis Mayfield-written songs by the Impressions and Major Lance, driven — like “Delilah” and “I Need You” — by that very distinctive drumming, so clean and relaxed.

Along with Motown’s Benny Benjamin in Detroit and Stax’s Al Jackson Jr in Memphis, Duncan propelled the cream of mid-’60s soul. Eventually I discovered his name, along with the information that he played a lot of blues, R&B and soul sessions in Chicago for Vee-Jay, Chess and other labels before being supplanted by a younger man, Maurice White (later, of course, the co-founder of Earth Wind & Fire). But I didn’t know anything else until this week, when I bought the new issue of Blues & Rhythm, the fine British monthly magazine, and there he was on the cover.

The story is an interview taped in 1975 in Santa Monica by the writer Bill Greensmith, and never previously published. Duncan talks at length about his entire career, from his early days as an aspirant jazz drummer in Texas and Kansas City, playing with the bandleaders Ernie Fields and Jay McShann, to his collaborations with Mayfield, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Phil Upchurch and many others, and his move in the 1970s to Los Angeles, where he played with people like Red Holloway but seemingly failed to break into the session scene.

He died on January 3, 1995, aged 68. For me, this interview is priceless testimony from a man whose playing has been part of my life for more than half a century. So thanks, Bill Greensmith, for disinterring it, and to the editors of Blues & Rhythm for not only publishing it but making Al Duncan their cover star.

Buell Neidlinger 1936-2018

Buell Neidlinger w CT at Newport 57

Buell Neidlinger (bass) and Cecil Taylor (piano) at Newport in 1957

What turned out to be Buell Neidlinger’s final contribution to this blog arrived on March 9, in response to a piece about Keith Jarrett’s latest release. Buell had seen the accompanying photograph of Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette relaxing on stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall: “Thought I recognised the floor… worked there for three years,” he wrote. In 1967 he had joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and also the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, where he taught bass and chamber music and, with George Russell, established the first jazz department of a major music school.

It astonished me when Buell sent some words to this blog, commenting on something I’d written about Cecil Taylor. His participation in Cecil’s trio version of “This Nearly Was Mine” made a huge impression on me when I first heard it in the early ’60s. It remains a favourite, not least for the way Buell’s bass shadows Taylor’s piano inventions with such devotion and beautiful note-choice.

As a young cello prodigy, born in New York City and brought up in Connecticut, Buell studied with Gregor Piatigorsky and had lessons from Pablo Casals. After switching to double bass, he played with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, with Hot Lips Page and Herbie Nichols, with Igor Stravinsky and Leopold Stokowski, with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, with Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, with John Cage and George Crumb, with Duane Eddy and Roy Orbison, with Sir John Barbirolli’s Houston Symphony and Neville Marriner’s LA Chamber Orchestra, with the Beach Boys and Earth Wind & Fire, with Frank Zappa and the Eagles.

The instrument he played on “This Nearly Was Mine” was the same one he used on “Hotel California”. Once owned by King George III, it had been played in the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. “I sold it years ago to a girl in Hollywood for $15,000,” he told me during the course of our only conversation, on the telephone from his home in Washington State.

He also talked about his friendship with James Jamerson, whom he had met in a Hollywood studio. Buell had acquired his first bass guitar in 1953, but by the time he bumped into Jamerson on a Michael Jackson date he had become a first-choice double bassist in the studio orchestras. “Basically he was through already,” Buell said. “When Berry Gordy moved to LA, he basically signed the death warrants of a bunch of great musicians.”

Neidlinger remembered the Motown studio in Hollywood as the first place he worked where they had a transmitter. “You’d cut your shit,” he said, “and you’d go out to the car park and listen to it on the radio. If it didn’t sound good, you’d go back and do it again.”

He also remembered Jamerson’s addiction to alcohol. “He was living in a motel on Hollywood Boulevard. It was pretty ugly. After we had a meal on Santa Monica Boulevard, he invited me back. Whisky and gin bottles everywhere. He had a sliding closet. There weren’t many clothes in there, but there was his upright bass with no case. He played Fender bass on the Motown hits, of course, but really he was an upright bass player.”

Buell had strong views about everything, including bass players. He thought Paul Chambers was the greatest bass player who ever lived. He liked players who didn’t try to play the instrument as if it were a guitar, playing too many notes at the top of the instrument’s range. (This was a man whose first paying job in New York was as a dep for the ailing Walter Page, who had been the bassist in Count Basie’s pre-war band.) When Maurice White died, he sent a note to the blog saying that the EW&F man was the greatest drummer he’d ever recorded with.

In his later years Buell moved to Washington State, where he lived with his wife, Margaret Storer, another bassist. He had a group called Buellgrass, including the fiddler Richard Greene, which played his version of bluegrass music, and he and Margaret played baroque music with friends — he back on cello, she on violin.

Did I mention that he depped in Thelonious Monk’s quartet for a night at the Five Spot in 1957, alongside John Coltrane and Shadow Wilson? And for Charlie Haden in Ornette’s quartet in 1959, also at the Five Spot? And that his first No 1 was Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, on which he played in the string section? He seemed to have cherished every note, every encounter, every experience. I’m not sure there’s ever been anyone quite like him, or will be again.

Keith Jarrett’s ‘After the Fall’

Keith Jarrett TrioIn the summer of 2000 I spent an hour across a table from Keith Jarrett in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Baie des Anges in Nice. Infuriatingly, he chose to conduct the conversation while wearing mirror shades. An interviewer tries to establish some kind of rapport with his/her subject, in which eye contact plays a part; the shades meant that I spent the hour staring at reflections of myself. I thought it was discourteous, and possibly a bit passive-aggressive. Somewhat wryly, I thought back to the morning 30 years earlier when he had wandered unannounced into the offices of the Melody Maker, a couple of days after his appearance with Miles Davis at the Isle of Wight, hoping to persuade someone to interview him.

Anyway, he talked interestingly. He was in Nice with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, his fellow members of what had become known as the Standards Trio. They were on their first tour since Jarrett’s recovery from a bout of chronic fatigue syndrome, which had left him unable to play for two years. His gradual recovery had been indicated by the release of a solo album titled The Melody At Night, With You. Its gentle, almost unadorned treatments of standards and folk tunes, recorded at his home, make it a special favourite of mine. “I learnt something about playing the piano,” he told me when I asked him about it. “The heart determines where the music comes from, and there was more heart in that recording than there was virtuosity, but what I had as a pianist I put into the heart place, and that can translate into other contexts.” (You can read the whole interview, published by the Guardianhere.)

Now we have a new release of a trio album made during that period (in November 1998, in fact) at the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre in Newark, not far from Jarrett’s home. Called After the Fall, it’s a document — like The Melody at Night — of a man testing the state of his physical powers, on this occasion with the support of his two musical soulmates.

Wanting to keep things simple, they stuck to bebop and standards. “When I first came back to playing, I didn’t want to play as hard,” Jarrett told me in Nice. “I didn’t want to dig in to the piano as much. Bebop was the right thing to do, because there’s a lightness to it.” But isn’t bebop a notably athletic and competitive idiom, perhaps unsuited to convalescent therapy? “Yes, but it’s light-footed, if you think about it. Playing in large halls with the trio, and trying to project to the people, I ended up playing hard, and I didn’t want to do that. With bebop the phrasing is more like a voice phrasing, because most of the bebop players – except maybe Bud – were horn players. I wanted to have a chance to phrase like that.”

There’s no sense of frailty in evidence. Instead there’s a leanness and a clarity that make it exceptional. Jarrett is a great bebop player: a passage six minutes into Bud Powell’s “Bouncin’ with Bud” finds him unspooling a line that would make the tune’s composer stand and applaud, and there are moments of similar exhilaration on Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple” and John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”. He plays the blues elegantly on Pete La Roca’s “One for Majid”, produces characteristically lustrous ballad readings of “Late Lament” and “When I Fall in Love”, and exposes his sense of humour on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”. A 15-minute version of “The Masquerade Is Over” devolves from its medium-up tempo through a beautiful collective transition into the coolest lope imaginable, while a 13-minute “Autumn Leaves” ends on a glorious Latin groove, rocking along to Peacock’s bass riff .

The fact that many of these tunes feature on the trio’s earlier albums shouldn’t deter anyone from investigating After the Fall. This is Jarrett with the shades off, the defences down, temporarily shorn of the extremes of his virtuosity but looking us straight in the eye. The music’s limitations, such as they may be, turn out to be the foundation of its strength.

* After the Fall is out now on the ECM label. The photograph of Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock is by Patrick Hinely.

‘Rhythm & Reaction’

Rhythm and Reaction 3

William Waldorf Astor, the richest man in America, had made a new home in England by the time he bought the late-Victorian Gothic mansion known as Two Temple Place in 1895. Set on the north bank of the Thames between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges, it became the headquarters for his various business and philanthropic interests. At a cost of $1.5m — imagine how much that would represent in today’s money — he turned the interior into a riot of mahogany staircases, ebony pillars, marble floors, cedar panelling and staggering stained glass. He was 71 when he died in his bath at home in Brighton in October 1919, six months after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had arrived in London to play at the Palladium, the Hippodrome and Hammersmith Palais and, astonishingly, at Buckingham Palace for King George V.

A century later, there’s a less tenuous connection between the building and the band. Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain is an exhibition illustrating aspects of Britain’s embrace of the music in its early decades, from minstrel shows to the end of the inter-war period. Curated by Professor Catherine Tackley, head of music at Liverpool University, it does a pretty good job of conjuring the atmosphere of Britain in the Jazz Age, via ancient banjos and drum kits, 78rpm discs, books (including Al Bowlly’s guide to crooning), blown-up photographs (Ellington arriving at Southampton docks in 1933, for example), early copies of publications such as the Melody Maker and Rhythm, paintings (including William Patrick Roberts’s “The Dance Club” of 1923, above), fabrics and ceramics, bakelite wirelesses, and Wyndham Lewis’s 1912 design for the programme and menu at the Golden Calf, a West End cabaret club.

Rhythm and reaction 4

Perhaps the most haunting exhibit is a pastel study for a work called “The Breakdown”, painted in 1926 by the Scottish artist John Bulloch Souter for the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts. At least one of the layered meanings of this study of a formally dressed black saxophonist sitting on a broken piece of classical statuary as a naked white woman dances to his music was provocative enough to upset the Colonial Office, which complained that it was “obnoxious to British subjects living abroad in daily contact with a coloured population.”

The Melody Maker had already joined in with an extraordinary editorial which, after admiring the artist’s technique, inveighed on behalf of dance-band musicians against “the habit of associating our music with the primitive and barbarous negro derivation…” The painting, it claimed, was “not only a picture entirely nude of the respect due to the chastity and morality of the greater part of the young generation but in the degradation it implies to modern white women there is the perverse anger to the community and the best thing that could happen to it is to have it… burnt!”

Forced to withdraw his painting, Souter destroyed it, leaving only the pastel study (above) and a version he recreated in oils in 1962, which is also on show.

Almost every aspect of Rhythm & Reaction deserves study in greater depth — e.g. minstrelsy, “jazz” motifs in the decorative arts, the “rhythm clubs” formed by the music’s early adherents — but as it stands the exhibition does an effective job of prompting reflection on an important phenomenon. It would be of particular interest, I think, to young members of the newest and highly multicultural generation of British jazz musicians, who might find it enlightening and (despite the fate of “The Breakdown”) even inspiring.

* Rhythm & Reaction is on show at Two Temple Place until April 22, daily except Tuesdays (information on opening hours and special events: “The Dance Party” is on loan from Leeds Museum and Art Gallery. The pastel study of “The Breakdown” is from a private collection. Those who want to know more about the subject should read the late Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain 1919-1950, republished in 2010 by Northway Books.