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Jon Christensen 1943-2020

JonChristensen

On two occasions I was fortunate enough to be in very close proximity to the playing of the Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen, who has died at the age of 76 after a distinguished career that included collaborations with Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, George Russell, Bobo Stenson, Jan Garbarek, Tomasz Stanko and many others, most of them gathered under the ECM umbrella.

The first occasion came around 25 years ago when Stenson’s trio, with Anders Jormin on bass, played the Pizza Express. It was with this group — which can be heard on the albums Serenity (1998) and War Orphans (2000) — that Christensen showed how he had added something of Billy Higgins’s lift and swing to the colouristic approach pioneered by Paul Motian. His wonderful subtlety was also evident on the second occasion, at the Jazzahead! festival in Bremen five years ago, when he played with the guitarist Jakob Bro and the bassist Thomas Morgan, two musicians of matching depth and transparency.

He was a master of sticks, mallets and brushes. For Bro, Morgan, Stenson, Jormin and any of the countless other improvisers with whom he played over the decades, I can’t imagine there were many better gifts than the knowledge that you’d be sharing a bandstand with a musician of such profound sensitivity.

* The photograph of Jon Christensen is © Roberto Masotti / ECM Records.

Lyle Mays, soundpainter

As Falls Wichita

This September it will be 40 years since Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny went into a studio with the producer Manfred Eicher to piece together the 20-minute work that gave its name to an album: “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls”. A sidebar to their work together as members of the Pat Metheny Group, it soon became recognised as a remarkable free-standing piece of work.

Crudely put, it functions as the soundtrack to an imaginary film: starting with the babble of voices — a sports crowd? a street market? a political demonstration? — and the thrumming of a bass guitar, evolving into gorgeous tunes built sometimes simply of chords, sometimes of melodies whistled or played on a berimbau (a heartbreaking twang). All sorts of soundscapes are evoked, and all sorts of weather, through textures that are constantly shifting and blending. The sound of Metheny’s various guitars and Mays’s keyboards and synths is of its time, but timeless, too. The berimbau is played by Nana Vasconcelos, who also contributes percussion and is the only other musician present.

It’s a beautiful American tone poem, epic in its sweep but also intimate in its approach to the listener. Later in the decade Metheny’s group would record the great “Last Train Home”, which felt then, and still feels, like a coda to the longer piece.

Lyle Mays died on February 10, aged 66, after a long illness. “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” is likely to live as long as people are still listening to the recorded music of the twentieth century.

* The album As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls was released in 1981 on the ECM label. The photograph, taken by Klaus Frahm (father of Nils), is from the cover.

Bryan Ferry at the Albert Hall, 1974

Bryan Ferry Albert Hall

My most powerful memory of Bryan Ferry’s debut as a solo artist at the Albert Hall, four and a half decades ago, is of a blonde woman sitting just along the row from me in the ringside seats. She was in her early thirties, I’d guess, tanned and expensively dressed and coiffed; she’d arrived by herself, carrying a bouquet of flowers. After each song, she rose to her feet and shouted “Bravo!” several times, as if we were at the Royal Opera House. I think she might have been German, possibly Austrian or Swiss. At the end of the encore she reached under her seat to retrieve the bouquet, which she hurled towards the stage. It seemed a clear sign that Ferry had made a decisive move away from the college and club circuit on which Roxy Music had made their reputation, and had acquired a new audience in the process.

Now a recording of one of the concerts Ferry gave over three consecutive nights at the Albert Hall in December 1974 has finally been released, and it fully captures the sense of occasion. Barely two years after Roxy’s debut album had made them the object of mingled wonder and scorn, their singer now had two solo albums behind him and was confident enough to present himself alone in the spotlight in the country’s most famous concert hall.

Musically, it was a lavish production: John Porter and Phil Manzanera on guitars, Eddie Jobson on piano and violin, John Wetton on bass, Paul Thompson on drums, plus three female backing singers (one of them Vicki Brown, formerly of the Vernons Girls and the Breakaways), and a large orchestra, conducted by Martyn Ford, including Chris Mercer and Ronnie Ross on saxophones, Martin Drover on trumpet and Malcolm Griffiths on trombone. It sounded big at the time, and I’d guess not much 21st-century post-production was needed to make it sound impressive today.

The repertoire is mostly drawn from those two solo albums, from the arch teenage pop of the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” via the howling rock and roll of “Sympathy for the Devil”, “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” to the grown-up cocktail-hour balladry of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “These Foolish Things”. There are a couple of originals: “Another Time, Another Place” and “A Really Good Time”.

For me, the biggest successes are Ferry’s daring covers of two of my all-time favourite records: the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears”. You tamper with the masterpieces of Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson (and their co-writers) at your peril, but Ferry treated them with affection, respect and imagination. I remember being in AIR Studios on Oxford Street during the sessions for These Foolish Things — the first solo album — and listening to a playback of “Don’t Worry Baby”, during which I was particularly struck by the guitar solo, played by Porter. Ah yes, Ferry said — he’d told his old Newcastle University friend to start the solo at the bottom of the lowest string and finish, eight bars later, at the top of the highest. It was a perfect example of the application of art-school thinking to pop music. The Miracles song is rendered beautifully, with one minor niggle: I wish he’d sung “You’re the permanent one” — the way Smokey did — rather than “You’re the only one”, as subsequent interpreters (including Gladys Knight) have done.

Maybe the most successful piece of all is “The ‘In’ Crowd”, a Top 20 hit for Ferry earlier in 1974, in which he gives Dobie Gray’s Mod-era anthem a thorough update: those implacable opening electric-piano chords, the screeching, chopping guitars of Porter and Manzanera, the double-beating thunder of Wetton and Thompson, and a vocal speaking directly to party people from Bigg Market to Saint-Tropez. As the song ends and the applause erupts, I’m almost sure I can detect a German-accented shout of “Bravo!”

* The photograph of Bryan Ferry, © Michael Putland, is from the jacket of Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974, released by BMG.

Andy Gill 1956-2020

Take an ounce of Wilko Johnson, a teaspoon of Sonny Sharrock, an echo of Robert Fripp’s solo on “A Sailor’s Tale”, marinate those ingredients in a powerful sense of political disenchantment, and you had Andy Gill, whose splintered electric guitar chords were the defining sound of Gang of Four, one of the most creative — and ultimately influential — bands of the late ’70s. Gill died on February 1 at the age of 64, and it was interesting to read so many tributes by people whose lives had been touched by his music. Among the most eloquent of those commentators, not surprisingly, were Jon Pareles in the New York Times and Simon Reynolds, who wrote about him for Pitchfork: “Remembering Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, Who Ripped Punk to Shreds”. I saw the band at the Electric Ballroom in 1979, and they left a powerful impression. To tell the truth, though, it had been a long time since I played one of their records. But listening again to “At Home He’s a Tourist” brought an immediate reminder of how fresh and smart they sounded back then, at a time when they, the Pop Group, Talking Heads and Television made it seem as though there might be a future for rock music.

ECM in London

Craig Taborn at RAM

No apologies for returning, one last time, to the continuing celebrations of ECM’s 50th anniversary. For a short festival at the Royal Academy of Music, the director of the jazz programme, Nick Smart, invited several of the label’s luminaries — the bassist Anders Jormin, the pianists Craig Taborn and Kit Downes, the singer Norma Winstone and the saxophonist Evan Parker — to spend a week working with students before presenting the results in two public concerts on Thursday and Friday night.

Jormin’s compositions — very much what many people would think of as archetypal ECM music, with a restrained lyricism that seemed to have its deepest roots in Nordic folk music — were played by a septet notable for the outstanding singing of Ella Hohnen-Ford and Alma Naidu. Downes and his colleagues in the trio called ENEMY, the bassist Petter Eldh and the drummer James Maddren, enhanced their tricky compositions with arrangements for string quartet, three woodwind and two percussionists, of which the most successful were “Last Leviathan”, a piece from Downes’s ECM debut, Obsidian, fetchingly rearranged for strings and piano, and Eldh’s eventful “Prospect of K”, cunningly scored by Ole Morten Vågan.

For the festival’s closing set, Smart led the Academy big band through a sequence of rare and unheard compositions by the late Kenny Wheeler, another ECM stalwart, featuring Winstone, Parker and Stan Sulzmann. The juxtaposition of the two tenors of Parker and Sulzmann created a contrast that exemplified the breadth of Wheeler’s conception — although their thunder was almost stolen by the alto saxophone of Lewis Sallows, a student whose long solo displayed a disinclination to plump for stylistic orthodoxy and a powerfully dramatic imagination. The crisp and flexible drumming of Ed Richardson, an Academy graduate, also took the ear.

Twenty four hours earlier, Sallows had also been part of the 12-piece band (pictured above) which provided the festival’s highlight. Craig Taborn is already known as one of the most creative and original pianists of the current era; those who were present at the Vortex for his solo gig last year speak of it in awed tones. Friday’s set showed him to rank alongside Steve Lehman, Vijay Iyer, Mary Halvorson and Eve Risser as an adventurous composer-leader who knows how to exploit the resources of a larger ensemble while retaining all the spontaneous interaction of a small group.

Although this was music of great sophistication, there were times when its sheer fire put me in mind of those great Mingus units of the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the members of the Jazz Workshop learnt their parts by ear and took it from there. The trombonist Joel Knee, the trumpeter Laurence Wilkins and the two altoists, Sallows and Sean Payne, threw themselves into the project with enormous skill and gusto, and the ear was also taken by the guitarist Rosie Frater-Taylor, whose opening solo was strikingly thoughtful and who made significant contributions to the riff-ostinatos on which several of the pieces were built.

Taborn’s own solos on acoustic and Fender-Rhodes pianos demonstrated his gift for gathering all the energy once associated with Cecil Taylor and using it to activate the coiled springs of his own imagination. During an unaccompanied introduction, he made the Rhodes roar in a way that completely divested the instrument of its familiar role as a provider of a cool funky background sound. It was one of many moments, individual and collective, that made the event such a success.