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Clive James 1939-2019

Clive James 2

At school I was in a folk group with two chaps called Ian Taylor and Jeff Minson. Ian had the looks and the voice, Jeff had a 12-string guitar, and I just tagged along. When was this? Well, one Saturday afternoon we paused our rehearsal at Jeff’s parents’ house to watch the transmission of the very first episode of Dr Who. (Another clue: the coffee bar we played at was called the Jules et Jim.) Eventually Ian went up to Cambridge, where he joined the Footlights. In 1970 he invited me to one of their performances at the Hampstead Theatre Club, and that’s where I met another member of the troupe, the singer-songwriter Pete Atkin, and his lyricist, a talkative Australian called Clive James.

Clive died on Sunday. He and I once joked that we should start a club for people who had voluntarily stepped down from presenting a BBC television series; the two of us would be the only eligible members. But a couple of years later he returned to the small screen and went on to a fame far beyond that which he earned from his wonderful weekly TV reviews in the Observer.

He did a lot of stuff, and sometimes he overdid it, but what will last for me are some of his more serious poems — such “Japanese Maple”, the one in which, writing in 2014, he foresaw his own death — and a handful of his lyrics. The latter could be archly funny, like “The Only Wristwatch for a Drummer”:

The Omega Incabloc Oyster Acutron ’72 / Without this timepiece there’d have been no bebop to begin with. / Bird and Diz were tricky men to sit in with / Max Roach still wears the watch he wore when bop was new. / Elvin Jones has two and Buddy Rich wears three, / One on the right wrist and one on the left / And the third one around his knee.

A number of his lyrics were about musicians, always informed by his huge reservoir of knowledge and an understanding of the condition of, for instance, a session man or a pianist accompanying a torch singer. Above all, he knew how to draw popular culture into the art songs he and Pete wrote together. For me, their magnum opus was the title song of the 1971 album Driving Through Mythical America, in which James imagined the four students shot dead by the National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University the previous year hurtling to their tragic destiny through the landscape of the American imagination: Baby Face and Rosebud, Moose Molloy and Herman Kahn, Norman Rockwell and FDR, Jersey Joe and the Kansas City Seven. Being Clive James, he even chose their cars with precision: a Studebaker Golden Hawk and a Nash Ambassador.

James and Atkin took a high-risk approach to singer-songwriter music in the early ’70s. The combination of music, lyrics and voice didn’t always work. But it was a risk worth taking, and it still has an audience.

* The photograph is taken from Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James & Pete Atkin by Ian Shircore, published in 2016 by RedDoor.

‘Porgy and Bess’ revisited

Porgy 2

As he surveyed the ranks of musicians preparing to play Gil Evans’s score for Porgy and Bess at St John’s, Smith Square last night, Nick Smart knew that he had everything he needed: a 21-piece orchestra including the correct complement of French horns (three), bass clarinets (three), flutes of various sizes (four, when necessary), and a quartet of wonderful trumpeters — Henry Lowther, Martin Shaw, Steve Fishwick and Freddie Gavita — prepared to hand around the role of soloist. Since that soloist was, of course, Miles Davis, the task facing the four men was not without its challenge.

Smart also had the benefit of dealing with Evans’s actual score. As John Billett, the concert’s promoter, pointed out in his introduction, even the best intentioned reproductions of Evans’s pieces for Davis have been forced to make do with transcribed versions which inevitably miss some of the infinite subtlety of the original orchestrations. Thanks to the Evans family’s generosity, last night’s orchestra — consisting of alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, where Smart is in charge of the jazz programme — were able to work from the notes as Gil wrote them.

Of the three much loved albums Davis and Evans recorded together between 1957 and 1960, Porgy and Bess may be the most ambitious and fully realised, the pinnacle of the highly original approach to large-ensemble music that the arranger had been developing since his days with the Claude Thornhill band in the 1940s. Sixty years later, the richness and variety of gesture Evans applied to George Gershwin’s show tunes remain a source of wonder. And it can only be said that, under Smart’s direction, last night’s ensemble did the score complete justice in both execution and spirit.

To watch and listen as the ensemble brought Evans’s unorthodox instrumental deployments and love of dynamic contrast to life was a delight, from the whispered accompaniment of the French horns behind the trumpet solo on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to the sudden brassy flares of “Prayer”. To hear each trumpet soloist pay the proper homage to Davis without forfeiting his own character was enormously impressive (and I’m not going to compare them: they were all outstanding). To admire the way Jeremy Brown coped with the bass lines written for Paul Chambers and the restrained panache with which Ed Richardson attacked the drum parts played in the studio by Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb was hugely impressive. Nor can one forget the trumpeter who didn’t solo: George Hogg, who played Ernie Royal’s lead parts with perfectly judged power and precision.

The nave of St John’s was packed for the occasion. The sessions for the original album took place in Columbia Records’ studio on East 30th Street in New York City, in a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church whose dimensions created a famously perfect natural reverberation. Apart from a hum that briefly emerged late in the set, the amplified sound in the former Anglican church in Westminster, built in 1728, severely damaged in the war and then restored as a concert hall, was equally sumptuous, revealing all the fine detail of the scoring.

This was the last night of the EFG London Jazz Festival, and earlier in the evening the pianist Chris Ingham had led a sextet through downscaled versions of pieces from Miles Ahead, the first of the three Davis/Evans albums. They included “Blues for Pablo”, “New Rhumba”, “Maids of Cadiz”, and a rearrangement of “The Duke” on which the combo managed to sound like a big band, and there was also a lively account of “Boplicity”, an earlier Evans arrangement for Davis’s 1948 Birth of the Cool nonet. Paul Higgs played the Miles parts on trumpet and flugelhorn with great finesse, flanked by two outstanding saxophonists, Jamie O’Donnell on alto and Colin Watling on tenor.

A long relationship with the music that Gil Evans and Miles Davis made together a lifetime ago tends to create an unusually strong emotional bond. Probably the greatest tribute that can be paid to the evening at St John’s is that the listener emerged with that bond not only confirmed but strengthened. Congratulations, then, to everyone involved in a sublime experience.

 

Soweto Kinch’s ‘The Black Peril’

Soweto Black Peril 2

Soweto Kinch doesn’t really do unambitious. That’s certainly true of The Black Peril, his 70-minute work for 18-piece band, string quartet, narration/rap, back-projected film and four dancers, which received its world premiere at the EartH arts centre in Dalston last night. The piece is a commission from the University of Hull, the EFG London Jazz Festival and the London Symphony Orchestra, all of whom could feel satisfied as their judgement was endorsed by the prolonged applause from a near-capacity crowd.

It was an absorbing, multi-faceted and often exhilarating experience as Kinch created a portrayal of the condition of people of African origin arriving on alien shores and attempting to make new lives in the early years of the 20th century. So many narrative strands were going on at once — visual, musical, verbal — that it was hard to disentangle and make sense of them on first exposure, particularly when so little of Kinch’s extended raps and the occasional audio clip of a voice from history was as audible as he would surely have intended. This morning I’ve been listening to the CD, which is just out and makes it possible to appreciate more clearly the historical connections he is making.

I suppose I went along for the music, first of all, and was amply rewarded by richly detailed writing that spanned the jazz spectrum from ragtime to no-time with a fluency and empathy that prevented the occasional bursts of wah-wah brass, chinking banjo, fruity tuba and New Orleans-style clarinet from feeling like mere pastiche. Kinch’s own alto saxophone playing burst through to brilliant effect from time to time, switching at will between his normal modernist voice and an early-jazz timbre. The distinguished orchestra also included Byron Wallen (trumpet), Rosie Turton (trombone), Giacomo Smith (clarinet) and Xhosa Cole (tenor), supported by the superlative rhythm section of Robert Mitchell (piano), Sonia Konate (guitar, banjo), Junius Paul (bass), Makaya McCraven (drums) and Yaheal Onono (congas and other percussion). The writing for the string quartet — whose members were drawn from the ranks of the LSO — was beautifully integrated.

And then there were the dancers: four of them, one woman and three men, dressed in period clothes acting out narratives in which the most minimal props — some chairs, a few sacks, a Union Jack — were used to echo and amplify the scenes from old newsreel film projected onto big screen at the rear of the stage: scenes of disembarkation, of street life, of troops marching off to war, of children dancing for coins in the street, and of dancers demonstrating the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Jade Hackett’s choreography, superbly executed, was a highlight of the evening.

At the end I had an unexpected feeling: I’d like to have sat through it alongside Charles Mingus. Within the teeming universe of this work, Kinch mirrors so many of the emotions and strategies that Mingus explored in his work, from miniatures like “My Jelly Roll Soul” through “Fables of Faubus” to the larger scale of “Epitaph”, while moving them forward into a new century through a subtle infusion of contemporary rhythms and attitudes. Mingus, too, had huge ambitions, often frustrated more by circumstances — a black jazz musician of his generation wasn’t encouraged to venture outside a circumscribed world — than by his volcanic temperament. Would he have admired The Black Peril? I’m sure of it.

Freedom songs

Wormwood Scrubs 2

The huge white chapel of HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs is cocooned in 20ft mesh fences topped with rolls of razor wire. Built along with the rest of the establishment in 1874, it is Grade II listed and, on the inside, very handsome. Last night it hosted a unique occasion: a concert at which Rhiannon Giddens and her partner Francesco Turrisi, the star attractions, were preceded by six men currently held in the facility, which is nowadays a place for about 1,200 held on remand from local and county courts, awaiting the next stage of their judicial procedure.

The project was organised by Koestler Arts, a charity which works with prisoners and has its HQ in a house next to the Scrubs, and Serious, the producers of (among other things) the EFG London Jazz Festival, as part of which 60 tickets for the event went on sale to the public. About 40 friends of the charity were invited. The remainder of the audience, about another 40, were men currently on remand.

We gave up our phones, keys and other prohibited items before passing through the security entrance beside the prison’s famous twin-towered main gate. Ushered through a yard and into the chapel, we were directed to sit to the right of the aisle. Shortly before the performance began, the men on remand took their places on the other side; later we would be asked to wait while they filed out and were checked back into their wings.

The Ensemble, as the group of six inmates were called, were introduced to us by Fusion, one of the hosts of the jazz festival. He named them as Dave, Vince, Archie, Mark, Roy and Dan. Fusion and another Serious-mandated person, Shelly Davis, had worked with them over the preceding two weeks, spending four two-hour sessions working from scratch on original songs, poems and raps that could be performed either unaccompanied or with the simplest backing track.

These were not professional performers, although one had an outstandingly soulful voice, another was nearly as good, and a third would undoubtedly have a future as a rapper. The music moved between modern R&B, rap and gospel, the words — inspired by works of art from the annual Koestler Awards — inevitably evoking yearnings for lost freedom and identity. One poem had the refrain: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder / I wonder what our life would have been like if our bond was stronger.” The rap went: “A tree without roots won’t stand in this land / You need the roots to become a man.”

It was extraordinarily moving, as was their visible reaction to the sincere ovations they received after each item in their half-hour performance. This, if you were in any doubt, was what music can do, what it can offer, not just as a way of transcending immediate circumstances but as a signpost to real hope.

Only something special could follow that. Rhiannon Giddens, the one-time opera student from North Carolina who embraced old-time music, is engaged on a mission of rediscovering and recombining the folk forms of the African diaspora with relevant collateral idioms; this could hardly have been more appropriate to the occasion, given that most of the Ensemble and a high proportion of the prison’s inmates share their origins in that historical phenomenon. Playing her minstrel banjo — a 19th century design whose own roots are in West Africa — and fiddle, with Turrisi on accordion, cello banjo and a variety of frame drums and tambourines, and with Jason Sypher on double bass, she presented a short version of the concert programme from their current British tour, including the song “I’m On My Way” (from her latest album, there is no Other), which received a Grammy nomination this week.

In between whirling jigs from Ireland and southern Italy, she applied her exquisite precision and full-throated power to “At the Purchaser’s Option”, the song (from Freedom Highway, her 2017 album) provoked by a newspaper advertisement offering a young female slave, surplus to the vendor’s requirements, with a nine-month-old baby that could be included if the buyer so desired. “Ten Thousand Voices”, the declamatory lead-off track from the new album, featured Turrisi’s cello banjo, creating a desert-blues plangency answered by Giddens’s ardent fiddling.

I was praying that she’d do her version of “Wayfaring Stranger”, also from the new album: a traditional song of hope in the midst of travail. As Turrisi’s accordion solo pierced the deliberate plucking of the banjo and Giddens’s voice soared up into the high vaulted wooden ceiling of the chapel, it felt like as timeless and universal a piece of music as can ever have existed.

* Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi are at the Royal Festival Hall tonight (Friday 22 November) and then on tour around the UK. there is no Other is on the Nonesuch label. 

Berlin in London

Lucia Cadotsch Purcell 2

One of the dividends from three years of going back and forth between London and Berlin was an insight into the phenomenal amount of interesting music being made in the German capital by young musicians of many nationalities. In my first year I went to the Jazz Kollektiv festival in a Turkish theatre in Kreuzberg and heard a trio called Speak Low, led by the Swiss singer Lucia Cadotsch and completed by two Swedes, the bassist Petter Eldh and the tenorist Otis Sandsjö. While Cadotsch delivered standards — “Don’t Explain”, “Willow Weep For Me”, “Strange Fruit” — in a clear, steady voice somewhere between jazz and cabaret and all the more powerful for a sense of understatement, Eldh and Sandsjö used the extended instrumental vocabularies of free jazz to provide a dynamic underpinning. It felt fresh and creative.

Last night they played in London for the first time in three years, mixing material from their first album, released by Yellowbird/ENJA in 2016, with songs from their forthcoming release, due next year. What they demonstrated was how the strength of the original concept is providing a platform for further explorations. They chose to perform the songs grouped together mostly in twos and threes, so that Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” bled into Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” and Brian Eno’s “By this River” prefaced “Wild Is the Wind”. The most ambitious of these sequences linked Henry Mancini and Norman Gimbel’s “Slow Hot Wind” with Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke’s “What’s New” and a real surprise, Tony Williams’ “There Comes a Time” (which provided the title track for an unjustly neglected Gil Evans album of the mid-’70s). Other songs heard during the course of the 70-minute set included Duke Ellington’s “Azure”, “Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair”, Rickie Lee Jones’s “So Long” and, as a delicious encore, Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River”.

Every time I’ve seen them, I’ve been struck by the way they gradually draw an audience into the spell of their music. Sandsjö uses circular breathing and false fingerings to create skeins of feathery-toned notes that can function either as an obligato or a countervoice, while Eldh deploys the combination of strength and mobility that make him one of the most compelling of all current bassists, with the kind of emotional generosity that once belonged to Charlie Haden. Both were given the opportunity to create lengthy unaccompanied passages of startling inventiveness. As for Cadotsch, she deploys none of the usual tricks and only the barest minimum of gestures but relies on the quiet confidence of her delivery to create the tension between her poised, free-floating phrasing and the often roiling contributions of the others. It’s a brave project, but I’ve yet to see it fail to work its magic, and last night at the Purcell Room was no exception.

Julia Hulsmann Purcell

On Sunday afternoon, in the same intimate South Bank recital hall and also as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, another Berlin-based band, the all-German quartet led by the pianist Julia Hülsmann, played a set that came very close to perfection in its balance of thoughtful writing and expressive improvising. Based on the contents of their new ECM album, Not Far From Here, the material included compositions by Hülsmann, the tenorist Uli Kempendorff, the bassist Marc Muellbauer and the drummer Heinrich Köbberling, all of them outstanding. They played two covers: Leslie Feist’s lovely waltz “The Water” (familiar from an earlier album, In Full View) and David Bowie and Pat Metheny’s “This Is Not America” — which, as Hülsmann gently pointed out, is a song that carries greater resonance today than its composers could have foreseen when they wrote it in 1985 for the spy film The Falcon and the Snowman.

Nik Bärtsch at the Barbican

Nik Bartsch Barbican

This is how is began, with a seven-foot Steinway marooned on a dais in a lagoon of water installed on an enlarged stage at the Barbican Hall, silhouetted against a rhombus of light projected on to the back wall. As the house lights dimmed to blackness, the Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch, as usual shaven-headed and dressed in the black robes of a ninja monk, emerged from the wings and made his way to the instrument across a causeway which was then removed by stagehands. Bärtsch settled himself before launching into an hour-long piece called When the Clouds Clear, a “light and sound poem” created in conjunction the London-based visual artist Sophie Clements.

Bärtsch’s music is utterly sui generis: a highly personal version of minimalism that is most often expressed with the other musicians of his quintet Ronin, a project developed over almost 20 years at weekly sessions in a Zurich club that he co-owns. Each of his compositions is titled “Modul” and given a number. This mirrors the seemingly industrial precision with which they are conceived and performed, based on small melodic cells and exacting rhythmic overlays whose teasing syncopations generate tension, but it gives no idea of the emotion generated when, on a sudden shouted cue, one locked groove instantly gives way to another, the intensity rising exponentially.

All this was reflected in his unaccompanied playing last night, opening with a single repeated note tested for overtones and modified for attack and decay before evolving through an hour of contrasting moods and densities, often displaying his highly personal use of the prepared-piano techniques now common among those of his and subsequent generations of acoustic keyboard improvisers. Bärtsch can stun a note so that it acts like a rimshot from Philly Joe Jones or Clyde Stubblefield, laying it against a frantic weave of arpeggiation or letting it punctuate in a moment of silence. Sometimes he reached inside the instrument to make it hiss or growl, before building fantastic cataracts of sound that forfeited all note-definition and seemed about to burst the walls of the auditorium.

Sophie Clements’ lighting and projections began with minimalistic monochrome geometries creeping across the set before she introduced backdrops of waves and skies, washed in blue or grey. This seemed worryingly literal — waves of water, waves of sound — but only for the briefest moment until it became apparent how beautifully the visuals and the music were creating (to paraphrase Wallace Stevens) something beyond them, but themselves. Towards the end, drops of water began to fall from the roof into the lagoon: an illusion of the elements invading the music. (There was some wry amusement about this afterwards, given that parts of Britain had spent the week battling floods.)

The  austere, almost hieratic air of Bärtsch’s music and self-presentation is utterly deceptive; its end product is human warmth, and the prolonged ovation he shared with Clements was generated by art that, for all its refinement of technique and conception, communicated on the most immediate level. I’d be surprised if there were a soul in the hall who, having absorbed a genuinely extraordinary experience, wouldn’t have been happy to sit through it all again straight away.

* Nik Bärtsch and Sophie Clements were appearing on the first night of the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival. This was the second performance of When the Clouds Clear, which was co-commissioned by the Enjoy Jazz Festival and the Barbican and received its première in Mannheim earlier this year.

The essential Terri Lyne Carrington

TLC Waiting Game Cover3000R

What does it mean when a critic describes an album as “essential”? After all, you can live a full and satisfying life without ever hearing A Love Supreme, Eli & the Thirteenth Confession or Blood on the Tracks, all of which would justify the conventional use of that epithet. But sometimes it’s the word that’s closest to what you want to suggest. And that’s how it is with Waiting Game by Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science, an album which looks deep into the soul of 21st century America and comes up with something that, like all the best protest music, locates sparks of hope amid the darkness and despair it portrays.

For those unfamiliar with Carrington, she is a 54-year-old drummer, composer and bandleader noted for her work with Cassandra Wilson, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and many others. She began playing drums at home in Massachusetts, aged seven, on a kit handed down from her grandfather, who had played with Fats Waller. At 11 she received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston; at 18 she was in New York and playing at the highest level.

Waiting Game is a suite that, blending songs of protest with cutting-edge African American music, takes its place in the line stretching from Max Roach’s We Insist: Freedom Now Suite through Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On to Ambrose Akinmusire’s Origami Harvest. To the core six-piece Social Science band — Debo Ray (vocals), Kassa Overall (MC), Morgan Guerin (saxophones, bass, EWI), Matthew Stevens (guitar) and Aaron Parks (piano and keyboards) — Carrington adds guest appearances from singers, rappers and MCs including Mark Kibble, Rapsody, Meshell Ndegeocello, Raydar Ellis and Maimouna Youssef, plus the trumpeter Nicholas Payton, the bassists Esperanza Spalding and Derrick Hodge, and others.

The songs are contributed by all the members of the group. Although the words  — dealing with oppression and the rights of women, gay people, Native Americans, political prisoners (in the widest definition of the term) and others — are often confrontational, the music is easy to love. The grooves are slinky, the textures have a warm glow, the voices often soothe and seduce. While Rapsody fires up “The Anthem” with righteous fervour, Debo Ray croons Joni Mitchell’s “Love” (which applies gender reassignment to the famous verses from 1 Corinthians Ch. 13) with the sweetness of a Minnie Riperton. Stevens’s lucid guitar improvisations are a frequent delight, particularly on his own composition “Over and Sons”, which runs on the kind of perfectly lubricated rollers that would have Donald Fagen purring.

That’s the first CD. There’s a second, containing a 42-minute instrumental suite in four sections, titled “Dreams and Desperate Measures”. It seems to have been improvised by Carrington, Parks, Stevens, Guerin and Spalding, with the addition of a very spare orchestration — by Edmar Colón — for three violinists, a cellist, a clarinetist and a flautist. Ebbing and flowing quite beautifully, slowly changing with the light, it quietly compels the listener’s attention. You feel like you’re sitting in the middle of an intimate conversation, or — in places — a chamber-music version of Bitches Brew.

“Music transcends, breaks barriers, strengthens us, and heals old wounds,” Carrington says in a statement accompanying the album. If that’s a proposition which can ever be proved, here — in an album as good as anything I’ve heard all year — is some persuasive evidence.

* Terri Lyne Carrington will be at Kings Place on Saturday as part of the EFG London Jazz festival, she and Social Science Community performing Waiting Game at a 7pm concert before being joined by British guests — including the saxophonist Soweto Kinch and the trumpeter Emma-Jane Thackray — for a 9pm show. Information: efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk

Me, me, me

Elton John

Big disappointment, that Elton John. I’d been expecting his autobiography, Me, to contain a chapter gratefully acknowledging all the people who wrote about him with warmth and enthusiasm in the British music weeklies at a time when he couldn’t get arrested on Denmark Street. I’m thinking of Penny Valentine, Lon Goddard, Caroline Boucher. And, yes… me.

How soon, how completely, they forget.

For the benefit of readers who don’t get British irony: I’m joking. To an extent, anyway. But I interviewed him several times in 1970, his annus mirabilis; the first occasion, on April 7, seems notable in retrospect because he actually made his way by himself to the Melody Maker office on Fleet Street in order to be interviewed. He was that obscure. He was also a nice chap: quiet, seemingly modest and happy to talk about the music he loved, particularly the Band and Robbie Robertson. Later in the summer I bumped into him backstage at a rock festival — it might have been the one in early August at Plumpton racecourse — and after we’d said hello I asked him how things were going. I’ve never forgotten the substance of his reply.

Well, he said, he’d been giving it some thought and he’d decided to make his act more dramatic, more extrovert, more theatrical. More like the Jagger with the Stones, maybe. You know, get some costumes, leap about a bit more. He liked that kind of thing.

I was a bit flabbergasted. I looked at him. He was wearing his usual gear, something completely unobtrusive in that dressed-down environment, maybe jeans and some sort of brown jacket. I might even have said, “What on earth do you want to do that for?” But he was insistent. Heigh ho, I thought. Fair enough, if that’s really what he wants. But it seemed a bit of a shame. It wasn’t really the way the world was going.

Two years later he was at the Hollywood Bowl in an outfit covered in white marabou feathers, taking a stage occupied by five grand pianos whose lids flew open to release dozens of white doves, with an audience going wild. So there we are.

I never saw any of the tours where his love of flamboyance was on full display. In fact the two best Elton John gigs I ever attended were memorable for everything except his own performance. The first of them is something else that doesn’t get a mention in Me.

It was on October 30, 1970 at the Revolution Club in Bruton Place, just off Berkeley Square — a Mayfair alternative to the Speakeasy as a late-night hangout for rock musicians on the way up, and also sometimes a place where record companies put on showcase gigs. This night was a double showcase. Elton and his band — Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums — had just returned from their breakthrough in the US, where every star in Hollywood had turned up to see them at the Troubadour. (“Dylan Digs Elton!” was the front-page headline in the Melody Maker — a Ray Coleman special.) They were about to go back the next day, but their record label wanted the British media to see them in their new, confident flowering.

The evening was shared with Randy Newman, brought over by Warner Brothers to promote his second album, the great 12 Songs. By that time I was a lot more interested in Randy Newman than Elton John, so I turned up in a mood of great anticipation. By the time Randy came on the drinks had been flowing for a while and the assembled company — all embroidered denim, satin loon pants and Anello & Davide snakeskin boots — had been tucking into the free canapés. The waitresses were dashing round filling glasses and taking orders. Seated at ringside tables, the audience chattered away.

Randy sidled on to the stage and sat down. He gave no sign of being impressed by the significance of the occasion. He had his owlish glasses on, and his pursed expression, and he seemed to be in the clothes he’d worn on the flight over from LA. He started into his first song without ceremony, and then did another one. I’m pretty sure they were “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Lover’s Prayer”. They were wonderful. He hadn’t said a word. But the conversations were still going on, and the waitresses were still circulating busily.

Still without a word, he changed the mood, going back to his first album for “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”, a song of despair for the human condition. First verse: quiet, intense, spellbinding if you happened to be listening. Still the ringside noise went on. Second verse: “Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles / With frozen smiles chase love away…” And he lifted his hands from the keyboard, paused for a couple of seconds, very quietly said, “That’s all, folks,” and got up and walked off. Most of the audience barely noticed his departure.

I’ve never admired Randy Newman as much as I did that night. For me, it was a perfectly judged reaction to the environment in which he found himself. Extraordinarily brave, too, in the circumstances. That’s not how a new artist with a major record company behind him is expected to behave when they’ve been flown 5,000 miles for a showcase gig. A little while later Elton and his band were rocking out, getting an ovation from people keen not to be missing out on what looked like being the latest sensation.

Elton owns up to the second memorable gig, at Wembley Stadium on June 21, 1975, a night when he topped the bill but might as well not have turned up at all. On that glorious midsummer’s afternoon the Beach Boys grabbed the sunshine and simply wiped out the headliner. It became a music-business legend how, after their exhilarating surf-ride from one hit to another, Elton’s attempt to present the unfamiliar songs from the brand-new Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy turned into a catastrophe. Almost from the start the audience were making for the exits like thousands of iron filings drawn by powerful magnets.

Maybe it was a kind of widescreen karmic revenge for the time at the Albert Hall, five years earlier, when he’d done to Sandy Denny and Fotheringay what the Beach Boys did to him. That’s something else he owns up to in Me, which is so expertly ghostwritten by Alexis Petridis, the Guardian‘s chief rock critic, that the reader never pauses to consider that the vividly remembered anecdotes, so amusingly drenched in self-mockery, aren’t coming directly from the man whose name is on the cover.

You’ve probably read the extracts and the reviews, which concentrate — understandably enough — on the vast quantities of coke and sex and some of the dafter things that can happen to a chubby boy from Pinner, like dancing to “Rock Around the Clock” with the Queen of England and having an epic row with Tina Turner. It’s a cracking read on that level alone. But in the final chapters you’ll find a lot of very moving stuff about less exotic subjects: doing the school run, getting treated for cancer, that kind of thing.

I wanted more detail about what was discovered when he subjected his dealings with his longest-serving manager to an independent audit in 1998. I also think it would have been a graceful gesture to have identified the local-paper journalist who tipped him off in 1974 that Watford FC could do with his help, since it led to a period of great personal happiness. And I wish he’d said a bit more about the music, and the musicians who worked with him along the way and never became famous. But that’s just me.

* Me is published by Macmillan.

A Nordic Sunday

Hubro 1

Why, I asked Andreas Mæland today, did he call his record label Hubro? “It’s a North European eagle owl,” he said. “I thought we should name it after an endangered species, because this is endangered music.”

Mæland was in London to celebrate Hubro’s 10th anniversary, bringing with him from Norway three of the label’s groups. For members of an endangered species, they sounded in pretty good condition as they played short sets at the Spice of Life, a Soho pub whose basement is a regular venue for jazz.

Like his compatriot Rune Kristofferson, the founder of Rune Grammofon, Seth Rosner of Pi in New York and Patrik Landolt of Intakt in Zurich, Mæland has succeeded in demonstrating that record labels still have a significant role to play in documenting important music, building trust with listeners along the way through the taste of their producers. Kristoffersen and Mæland both served an apprenticeship working for Manfred Eicher’s ECM company: in fact Mæland succeeded Kristoffersen as ECM’s label manager in Norway, whose music Eicher has done much to promote. Eventually Mæland wanted to start his own label. “I released Christian Wallumrød’s first solo album,” he told me between sets. “And then it wasn’t possible to be ECM’s label manager any more.” Over the past decade he has released 120 albums by artists such as the percussionist Håkon Stene, the harmonium player Sigbjørn Apeland, the bassist Mats Eilertsen, the trio Moskus, the multi-instrumentalist Geir Sunstøl and the mixologist Erik Honoré.

The first of the three bands — all trios — to perform at the Spice of Life was led by Erland Apneseth, a specialist in the Hardanger fiddle, accompanied by the bass guitarist Stephan Meidell and the drummer Øyvind Hegg-Lunde. As is usual with this generation of Norwegian musicians, the music floated free of genre but was strongly rooted in the cadences and modes of folk music. It was delicate but adventurous: in one passage all three musicians were bowing something — a violin, a bell, the bass guitar — to create an texture that seemed somehow appropriately early-Novemberish The closing section of an absorbing set was underpinned by Meidell’s use of a handheld single-bladed electric propeller to strike the strings in rapid succession, controlling the rate and weight of the notes with precision.

Building Instrument featured Mari Kvien Brunvoll on voice, zither and sampler, Åsmund Weltzien on keyboards and Hegg-Lunde on drums. Brunvoll is an intriguing singer, the purity and flexibility of her voice particularly well suited suited to a long passage in which her zither and Weltzien’s ability to reproduce the sound of Mellotron flutes evoked the baroque-psychedelic phase of British pop circa 1968. At times the whole trio sounded appealingly like a melting Chinese musical box.

Last came Bushman’s Revenge, a sort of power trio fronted by the guitarist Even Helte Hermansen, with the noisest and most assertive music of the afternoon. Their regular bassist is recovering from a broken arm, so Meidell stepped into the breach; there were times when the music made me think of how I’d like Cream to have turned out, freed from the thumping repetition of witless blues clichés. The group’s most recent album, Et Hån Mot Overklassen, is more of an essay in resraint and texture: lots of heavily reverbed Stratocaster with rolling tom-toms, that kind of thing (and it includes a track titled “Ladies Night at the Jazz Fusion Disco”).

The little woodcut of a flying owl on the album jackets, the naïve hand-lettering and the snapshot photography of the covers give Hubro albums a visual signature as distinctive as, but quite distinct from, ECM and Rune Grammofon. What the signature says is that the contents are likely to be worth hearing, as today’s showcase amply demonstrated.

* The photograph shows (from left) Stephan Meidell, Øyvind Hegg-Lunde and Erland Apneseth.