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Lou Gare: a souvenir

Lou Gare album

There was a special magic about Lou Gare’s saxophone playing, as many people rediscovered when going back to his slender discography on hearing of his death towards the end of last year, at the age of 78. Now Mike Westbrook, in whose bands Gare played in the 1960s and again in recent years, has done us an enormous favour by assembling and releasing a CD containing nine examples of his mature playing in latter-day concert and club performances with the Uncommon Orchestra.

I don’t know what effect his years as a free-improvisation pioneer with AMM had on Gare’s approach to music, but these performances show that he could infuse what you might call a fundamentally mainstream-modern approach with freshness and substance. In his conception, an almost old-fashioned warmth was no barrier to modernity.

In Memory of Lou Gare, as the compilation is titled, begins with the 12-minute version of Westbrook’s “D.T.T.M.”, an adaptation of a section of the suite On Duke’s Birthday, that I mentioned in a post written for this blog soon after his death. It’s a compellin extended meditation on the blues, including a marvellous unaccompanied section, and the inclusion of an earlier version gives us the chance to appreciate Gare’s reluctance to repeat himself.

There are shout-ups, like the stomping arrangement of Chris McGregor’s “Manje” which Westbrook created for the Dedication Orchestra, and moments of exquisite invention, like Gare’s spellbindingly allusive treatment of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”, almost entirely unaccompanied and bearing, as Westbrook remarks, traces of the influence of Paul Gonsalves. The extract from Westbrook’s extended rearrangement of “Johnny Come Lately”, another slice of Strayhorn, features a Mingus-like bass introduction from Marcus Vergette leading to a beautifully “down” groove over which Gare wails before the rest of the saxophone section join him for an exuberant collective improvisation.

“These are not studio performances,” Westbrook writes in his sleeve note. “There are rough edges and the sound balance is not always ideal. Yet, captured in the real world, in the heat of the moment, ad hoc recordings like this… perhaps offer an insight into Lou’s instant creativity… that a more controlled studio session might never achieve.” Exactly so.

* Mike Westbrook: In Memory of Lou Gare is on the Westbrook Records label: http://www.westbrookjazz.co.uk.

Spector / Hopper

 

Phil Spector noir

These days, nobody talks about him. I hardly ever listen to the string of epic records he made in the 1960s, and I once wrote a book about him. He’s nine years into a 19-year sentence for second-degree murder, and currently being held at a prison hospital in Stockton, California. He’ll be 88 when he comes out.

So there he was this afternoon, hanging on a wall in Somerset House at this year’s Photo London exhibition, immortalised by his friend Dennis Hopper in 1965.

Back in the days when Phil Spector was making his classic records at the Gold Star studio in Los Angeles, Hopper, who had acted with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, was one of those who sometimes dropped by. Spector always liked an audience.

“We hit it off right from the beginning, hanging out at Canter’s, chasing girls,” Hopper told Mick Brown, the author of Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, the definitive Spector biography. Hopper was also pursuing a side-career as a photographer, and after attending the sessions for “River Deep — Mountain High” he shot the cover photo for Ike and Tina Turner’s only Philles album.

In 1967 Spector became involved in a Hopper film project, The Last Movie, which collapsed the following year (and was revived and completed in 1970). In 1968 he played a coke dealer in the era-defining Easy Rider, written by Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, produced by Fonda and directed by Hopper. The Christmas following the movie’s release, Spector sent his friends a card featuring a still from his scene and the motto “A little snow at Christmas never hurt anyone…”

Hopper’s photograph of Spector laughing maniacally — blurred so that it looks oddly like one of Francis Bacon’s screaming Popes — catches him at his peak. Or just after it, actually. 1965 was the year of the Ronettes’ “Born to be Together”, the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” and Tom Wolfe’s essay for the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune, “The First Tycoon of Teen”. It was the year after the matchless triumph of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”, the year before the crippling debacle of “River Deep”.

The framed gelatin silver print is being offered by the Johannes Faber gallery of Vienna. It’s yours for £16,000.

* Photo London ends on Sunday, May 20.

Regarding Françoise Hardy

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One thing Françoise Hardy and I have in common is that we both gave Paris a wide berth in May ’68. In my case it was a question of force majeure: with my girlfriend, I was on my way from London to Istanbul on the Direct Orient Express (third class, £40 return each, three and a half days there and three and a half back, £5 supplement for a couchette on the homeward journey), and the general strike in France meant a detour via Brussels. For Hardy, it was a matter of choice: she and her new boyfriend, the singer Jacques Dutronc, were advised by their publicist to get out of town to avoid the évenements.

“We didn’t need to be told twice,” she wrote 10 years ago in Le désespoir des singes et autres bagatelles, her fine and extremely candid autobiography. “We left for Corsica, where we spent several idyllic weeks — the first and the last of our long and strange relationship.”

Neither of them would have found a natural home on the barricades. “My political awareness was nulle, and it was the same for Jacques.” What she did know was that she disliked violence, which she believed would solve nothing. “Contrary to things I’ve heard Daniel Cohn-Bendit say,” she continues, “May ’68 didn’t transform society; it was because society had already been transformed that May ’68 could take place.” That’s quite an interesting argument.

Fifty years later, at the age of 74, she has a new album out. It’s one she never expected to make, her recent years having been occupied by treatment for lymphoma, from which she recovered after being given a new kind of chemotherapy. Created in collaboration with Erick Benzi, who produced and played many of the instruments, Personne d’autre fits very nicely into the sequence of Hardy albums of the last three decades: Décalages (1988), Le Danger (1996), Clair-obscur (2000), Tant de belles choses (2004), Parenthèses (2006), La pluie sans parapluie (2010) and L’Amour fou (2013).

There may be others that I don’t know, just as I didn’t know a much earlier album, La question (1971), until I was steered in its direction by Sean O’Hagan’s excellent interview with Hardy in the Observer a couple of weeks ago, in which it was described as her own favourite. I sent off for it straight away, and once I heard it I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been in my life for the past 47 years.

Her principal collaborator on this one was a Brazilian guitarist, songwriter, arranger and producer known as Tuca, born Valeniza Zagni da Silva. Together she and Hardy achieve a blend of the elegance of chanson and the lightness of bossa nova, using the latter’s familiar gut-string acoustic guitar but not the rhythms. There are strings everywhere, romantic but not cloying, and the occasional support of a double bass. Only in the latter stages of the album do an electric guitar, a piano, a swirl of organ and a brass section make brief and discreet appearances.

La question is a concept album in the sense that it constructs a wistful mood which endures and evolves without strain throughout its dozen songs and 32 minutes. In 1971 Hardy herself was still sounding like a girl rather than the woman she is on Personne d’autre, but this is nevertheless a grown-up record. To achieve such weightless poise takes time, talent and touch. And for me, at least, better late than never.

* Personne d’autre and La question are both on Parlophone. “Viens”, a track from the latter, is featured on Paris in the Spring, a new anthology of French pop from the late ’60s and early ’70s compiled by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs for Ace Records. An English translation of Hardy’s autobiography is due at the end of the month, titled The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles, published by Feral House. I haven’t seen it, so the translations included here are mine.

Ry Cooder’s ‘The Prodigal Son’

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The Prodigal Son, Ry Cooder’s first studio album in six years, arrived the other day, and I’ve been playing it non-stop. Following the political and social commentaries of Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and Election Special, this is his gospel album: the music of the church, black and white, filtered through his own approach, with Cooder playing guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and keyboards as well as singing, his son Joachim playing drums and percussion, and three of his regular singers, Bobby King, Arnold McCuller and Terry Evans (who died earlier this year), providing the necessary chorus here and there.

A gospel influence has been present in Cooder’s music all along, of course, from Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” on his debut album in 1970, Joseph Spence’s “Great Dream of Heaven” on Into the Purple Valley and “Jesus on the Main Line” on Paradise and Lunch. But this time it’s allowed to filter to the surface and stay there in a mixture of originals and songs borrowed from the Pilgrim Travelers, the Stanley Brothers, Blind Alfred Reed and others, including two more from Blind Willie Johnson. He was trying, he says in a little promo film for the album, not to make it heavy or preachy. It’s clear that what he was after was the spirit of the people who originally made this music, and of the timeless relevance of their hopes and yearnings.

If you already know Cooder’s music, you’ll know the way this album sounds, although Joachim’s interest in creating new percussion instruments subtly expands the palette of colours and textures. The most obviously appealing track is the version of the Pilgrim Travelers’ “Straight Street”, a redemption song with a chorus begging the listener to add her or his own harmonies, at least in the privacy of their own home, buoyed by Joachim’s electric mbira — a sound “like slow water”, in his father’s phrase — and Ry’s mandolin.

Of the original tunes, the most striking is “Jesus and Woody”, a plain ballad in which Cooder imagines the Lord inviting Woody Guthrie to bring his guitar and sit down next to the heavenly throne and “drag out your Oklahoma poetry, ’cause it looks like the war is on.” It’s the nearest the album gets to an outright declaration on the current state of the world: “Well, I’ve been the Saviour now for such a long time / And I’ve seen it all before / You good people better get together / Or you ain’t got a chance any more.”

When I interviewed Ry for The Times in 1982, he used an interesting word to describe a certain quality inherent in the voices of the early soul singers he so much admired. That word was “unbought”, and it stuck with me. It could equally well be applied to his own music.

At the time of the interview he was probably at the peak of his popularity as a performer, having arrived in London for a run of eight consecutive nights at the Hammersmith Odeon. Still, he was remarking drily that his records “end up in the disc jockeys’ homes, not on their studio turntables.” And he was not enamoured of the art of live performance: “The music should speak for itself, but you have to illustrate it and dramatise it in some way.” Which was not really his thing at all.

He remains a musician as loved as he is admired, the arrival of each new album eagerly anticipated. And when I tried to buy tickets for his October concert at Cadogan Hall the other day, they were all gone. The Prodigal Son, with its theme of consolation, will have to console me, too.

* The photograph of Ry Cooder was taken by Joachim Cooder.

Ten cheers for Cafe Oto

Cafe OtoIf I were given the freedom to design a place at which people could gather for the purpose of playing and hearing music, it would probably end up very much like Cafe Oto. Some of the Dalston venue’s features include an entrance straight off an interesting side street, chairs and tables on the pavement for use during the intervals between sets, large picture windows to give passers-by a glimpse of the goings-on inside, an informal and intimate performance space with no stage, with discreet lighting and perfect sound, a good piano, the option to sit or stand, unselfconscious interaction between musicians and listeners, excellent refreshments, bike parking. And, most important, an audience equipped with open ears and minds, not drawn from a single demographic.

Some of the best musicians in the world can be heard at Cafe Oto, usually for not much more than a tenner, and the atmosphere is such that I’ve never seen any of these distinguished figures — including Roscoe Mitchell, Marc Ribot, Annette Peacock, John Tchicai, the Necks and Louis Moholo-Moholo — give less than their absolute best. Maybe I’ve just been lucky in that respect, but I doubt it. In such ideal surroundings for improvised or otherwise adventurous music, what kind of musician would fail to produce a wholehearted response?

Cafe Oto is currently celebrating its 10th birthday, and two recent events fully illustrated its position in London’s creative musical life. The first was the latest of the club’s three-day residencies, this one granted to the pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins, whose breadth of knowledge and interests guaranteed that he would make the most of the opportunity to stretch out and create a diverse programme.

Alex Hawkins + 4

I went on the second night, opened by Hawkins in duets with the tenor saxophone of Evan Parker. Over the course of almost an hour the music came from many tangents and explored several different modes of collaboration: matched invention, accompaniment, dovetailing, even collision. For the second set (see photograph above) they were joined by Orphy Robinson (Xylosynth), Pat Thomas (Theremin-synthesiser), and Matthew Wright (laptop and turntable). Parker switched to soprano, and there were times when it seemed as though the others were providing a setting for him. Nothing to do with ego: that’s just how the music settled. The textures were fascinating and often beguiling, particularly when Robinson was using a bass-marimba effect to provide a slowly tolling background pulse. I was sorry to miss the third night, when Hawkins’s guests included the marvellous drummer Gerry Hemingway.

Ingrid Laubrock 4 2

This week it was the turn of Ingrid Laubrock, the German-born saxophonist who came to London in 1989 to study at the Guildhall and stayed for almost 20 years before moving to Brooklyn in 2008. The first band she formed there, Anti-House 4, with Kris Davis on piano, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Tom Rainey on drums, played at Cafe Oto on Monday and Tuesday; they stunned everyone present with the impact of music which is carefully wrought but retains the best qualities of free improvisation. I was so struck by the first night’s music that I booked myself straight back in for a second helping.

Each of the individuals is a virtuoso. Laubrock now belongs in the very highest class of improvising saxophonists, blending outright ferocity with hints of the elegance absorbed from her study of Warne Marsh. Davis has a lot of Cecil Taylor in the bones of her playing, but she also makes me think instinctively of George Russell’s piano playing: those beautiful stretched arpeggios, sometimes broken, sometimes in contrary motion, enunciated with a touch poised between firm and hard, like a 2H pencil. Rainey is a master drummer who can make playing with a stick in his right hand and a beer bottle in his left seem the most logical of propositions. And Halvorson is in such command of the promptings of her remarkable imagination that, as her lines and chords slip and warp and overlap, she can convince you that there must be a second guitarist hidden away somewhere (at different times I imagined that phantom alter ego to be Derek Bailey, Link Wray or Kenny Burrell).

But it was as a collective that they left their deepest impression, thanks to Laubrock’s developing gift as an organiser of music. Her compositions are complex but seldom sound that way: there is no twiddling. The occasional hurtling unison passage grows naturally out of the improvisations, while the endings are often deliciously unexpected. One piece ended a couple of brief, cryptic phrases, guitar following piano, dissolving into silence, as if the music’s final traces had been blown away by a last puff of wind. That was every bit as dramatic as the piece with which they opened the first night: a sequence of violent stabs of sound that would have put any death-metal band to shame.

The second night began with unaccompanied improvisations from all four players, and it is a sign of the strength of the quartet’s character that this sequence never sounded like a series of solos. Even when only one person was playing, the music was that of a band — part of an overall scheme that has taken 10 years to emerge as something genuinely extraordinary, and whose fruition was enthusiastically appreciated by the audience. Perfect, of course, for Cafe Oto, one of those rare spaces that go beyond the simple function of presentation to achieve something more valuable, by providing encouragement and inspiration to creative musicians. In other words, a home.

Shirley Ellis and ‘The Nitty Gritty’

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It starts with the buzz of a crowd, a splash of cymbal, and a snare-drum roll. For a second or two, it sounds like a circus warming up. But then a deep rhythm kicks in, with a heavy emphasis on the “one” and a double handclap on the backbeat. And a no-nonsense female voice speaks up: “Some folks know about it, some don’t / Some folks learn to shout it, some won’t.” In response, a bass voice provides an echo, doo-wop style: “Some don’t… some won’t.” Then you get the female backing singers, the double-time soul clapping under strict instruction: “Double beatin’, keep repeatin’, right down to the real nitty gritty.” South-of-the-border trumpets join in with Latin triplets, and the crowd noise rises until there’s a kind of delirium going on as the track fades after a mere two minutes and 14 seconds.

That’s Shirley Ellis’s “The Nitty Gritty”, one of the most intriguing singles of the ’60s: a whole tribal rite contained in a 45rpm side. It doesn’t matter whether or not the crowd noise was overdubbed. I remember its electrifying effect on me when I heard it in September 1963, at a time when a new wave of soul music was breaking out of Detroit, Chicago and New York. And yet it seemed different, perhaps because it was an independent production that wasn’t part of a specific “sound”.

Born in 1929 in New York to parents from Montserrat and the Bahamas, Shirley Ellis grew up in the Bronx and began her career as a singer and songwriter in her teens, winning the celebrated talent contest for amateurs at the Apollo Theatre. In 1959 she met Lincoln Chase, another New Yorker of Caribbean parentage, who became her co-writer and manager. “The Nitty Gritty” was their first US hit, reaching the US top 10 on the Congress label, and it was followed in 1964 by “The Name Game”, which made the top three, and 1965 by “The Clapping Song”, which made the top 10 in both the US and the UK.

“The Name Game” and “The Clapping Song” were based — like the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” (1963) and the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” (1965) — on children’s playground rhymes. Ellis and Chase emphasised the syncopations inherent in both songs, helped by magnificent playing from their New York session men, under the baton of the great Charlie Calello, who arranged and produced both sides (“The Nitty Gritty” had been supervised by Hutch Davie). In “The Clapping Song”, the rhythm was in the stressed words: “Three six nine, the goose drank wine / The monkey chewed tobacco on the street-car line / The line broke, the monkey got choked / And they all went to heaven in a little row boat…” Any child who learnt that rhyme was absorbing a sophisticated groove, a variant of the hambone (Bo Diddley) beat.

Ellis made a number of other singles, only one of which, the hard-driving “Soul Time” (1967), was in the class of those first three hits. Nevertheless before she retired from performing in 1968 she had recorded enough sides of sufficient quality for Ace Records’ Mick Patrick to compile a 24-track CD titled Three Six Nine: The Best of Shirley Ellis. Comprehensively annotated by Harry Young, it gives a good all-round view of a singer who began by wanting to emulate Sarah Vaughan and ended up becoming famous for her high-grade novelty hits. “The Puzzle Song” and one or two others may have stretched the formula beyond its useful limits, but there’s a great up-tempo version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me”, a hip-swinging uptown soul arrangement of Lou Christie’s “Back Track”, and a nice treatment of Barbara Mason’s swooning “Yes I’m Ready”.

She died in 2005, aged 76, having left a small but lasting mark on one of pop music’s golden ages. And “The Nitty Gritty” still sounds like nothing else you ever heard.