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Jimmy Cobb 1929-2020

Jimmy Cobb

Jimmy Cobb swung. That’s what he did, with a poise and a grace inherited from Kenny Clarke. He died from lung cancer in New York City on Sunday, aged 91, the last survivor of the seven musicians who played on Kind of Blue. The cymbal splash — however inadvertently and uncharacteristically heavy — that launched Miles Davis into his solo on “So What” seemed to open not only the album but a whole new world of feeling.

Drummers are praised for having “good time”, meaning they keep the beat steady. Of course Cobb had good time. Like his unshowy finesse, it was a quality that served him well throughout a long career. Great singers (including Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan) and soloists loved him for it. But Cobb was also a drummer who knew that time wasn’t a static thing, tied to a metronome.

I first noticed that when listening to the old bootlegs of the Davis quintet’s tour of Europe in the spring of 1960, and particularly on various renderings of “So What”, which habitually stretched from the 9min 25sec of the previous year’s studio version to around a quarter of an hour. You couldn’t miss how the tune had been speeded up. In the studio, on March 2, 1959, it had been taken at a relaxed 35 bars per minute. By the time they played it for a TV show that April, with Wynton Kelly at the piano in place of Bill Evans, it had accelerated slightly to 38.

A year later, on concert stages across Europe, they were kicking off the tune around 20 bars per minute faster than the original. More important than that, however, it was ending up even faster. At the first show in Paris on March 21, over the course of 13 minutes, it went from a brisk 56 to 65 bars per minute. At both concerts in Stockholm the following night it went from 60 to 68.

Does this mean that Cobb wasn’t doing his job? Of course it doesn’t. He and the other four — Davis, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers — were doing what they needed to do. Doing what the music required. Doing what it took, in that moment, to swing. RIP, Mr Cobb.

* The photograph of Jimmy Cobb was taken by Ted Williams, whose work was collected in Jazz: The Iconic Images of Ted Williams, published by ACC Editions in 2016. The European concerts are on Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Final Tour, released in 2018.  Kind of Blue is in your collection.

In Underground London

Underground London 2

I’ve taken a lot of pleasure in recent days from listening to Underground London, a three-CD set that attempts to recreate, through a mosaic of recordings, the feeling of being a certain kind of person in London in the first half of the 1960s, someone either growing out of, or who had been a little too young for, the full beatnik experience in the 1950s, but looking for similar sensations in a changing time: free speech, free jazz, free verse, free love.

The first disc starts with Ornette Coleman’s “W.R.U.”, ends with Jimmy Smith’s “Autumn Leaves”, and includes Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading “Dog”, Allen Ginsberg reading “America”, a track from Red Bird, the jazz-and-poetry EP Christopher Logue made with Tony Kinsey, and György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères”. The second opens with Jimmy Giuffre’s “Jesus Maria”, ends with Albert Ayler’s “Moanin'”, and includes Ravi Shankar’s “Raga Jog”, Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody, and the Dudley Moore Trio playing the theme from Beyond the Fringe. The third opens with Cecil Taylor’s “Love for Sale”, ends with Thelonious Monk’s “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie” and includes Davy Graham and Alexis Korner playing “3/4 AD”, Aldous Huxley reading from The Visionary Experience, the MJQ playing “Lonely Woman”, Luciano Berio manipulating Cathy Berberian’s voice in “Visage”, and “A Rose for Booker” by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with Charles Lloyd.

Add in Stockhausen, Don Cherry and John Coltrane, Annie Ross, John Cage and David Tudor, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy and Joe Harriott, and you get the idea. And to set up the mood for the sort of extended listening session the set deserves, I’d suggest candles in Chianti bottles, something vaguely cubist on the wall, the Tibetan Book of the Dead on the coffee table, and a black polo-neck sweater, or perhaps a chocolate-brown corduroy jacket. And if the party is going well, maybe a Beatle or two, in an adventurous mood, will drop by on the way home from Abbey Road.

But it’s not really a joke, or a caricature. There’s a lot of completely wonderful stuff here, some of it revealing new qualities when isolated from the context of its original full-album setting (an underrated virtue of anthologies or compilations). And practically everything is on the edge of something, some new discovery, some unexplored territory worth taking a risk to reach. How exciting was that?

* The photograph of Allen Ginsberg outside the Royal Albert Hall was taken in 1965 by John Hopkins and was used in the poster for the International Poetry Incarnation held on June 11 that year. It’s included in the booklet accompanying Underground London: Art Music and Free Jazz in the Swinging Sixties, which is on él records, via Cherry Red. 

Happy birthday, Mr Isley

Isley Bacharach 1

Ronald Isley is 79 today. Not a round number, but never mind. A happy birthday to him anyway. Perhaps it’s because he’s been a member of a group for his entire career that he isn’t generally mentioned in lists of the greatest male soul singers. For he certainly is one, up there with Sam, Smokey, Marvin, Otis, Levi, Al, Bobby, Philippé, Teddy, Luther and whoever else you want to include. Listen to the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Hello, It’s Me”, or “Harvest for the World”: no much doubt, is there? And if 3 + 3 isn’t in your collection, I beg you to do something about it.

My subject here, however, is an album I’ve been playing a lot in recent weeks: Ron Isley’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which dates from 2003 and is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The circumstances of the recording were, by modern standards, exceptional. At the behest of DreamWorks Records’ John McClain, the two men prepared for sessions which took place over a handful of days in Capitol Records’ Hollywood studios: an orchestra of more than 40 pieces with Bacharach at the conductor’s podium and Isley at the microphone. Thirteen songs: 11 Bacharach and David classics plus two new Bacharach songs with lyrics by Tonio K.

And everything done live. On the spot. Rhythm section, string section, horns, and lead and backing singers. Together. Breathing the same air, feeling the same vibrations, responding to the same cues in real time. The way it used to be done. (I’d be surprised if there weren’t some touch-ups, but the principle is the thing.)

From the moment strings and harp usher in the first words of “Alfie”, the opening track, you realise that something special is happening. The exquisite delicacy of the singer’s delivery at the dead-slow tempo and the exacting control of his emotions bring something new to what might very well be the greatest of all the Bacharach/David songs. It’s hard to spoil lines like “If only fools are kind, Alfie / Then I guess it is wise to be cruel,” but Isley brings them a new poignancy. Bacharach’s arrangement manages to be both majestic and somehow weightless.

And the set goes on from there, Bacharach constantly inventing new way of reinvigorating familiar songs — the flugelhorn figures introducing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “The Look of Love”, for example. (Flugel and trumpet, a Bacharach trademark in his heyday, are used throughout as a counterpoint to the lead voice.) And the latter track has a light bossa/funk groove that you might feel you’d like to have running through the rest of your life. A solo alto flute introduces “Anyone Who Had a Heart”. Alone at the piano, Bacharach sings the opening lines of “The Windows of the World” in his husky tones before giving way to Isley’s polished virtuosity, like a weathered hand sliding into a fine kid glove.

The inclusion of the new songs might have been a quid pro quo for Bacharach’s agreement to participate in the project, but they pull their weight. “Count on Me” benefits from a lovely melody and “Love’s (Still) the Answer” has the qualities of a very good Sondheim song.

Most of all, though, there’s “In Between the Heartaches”, a great song hidden away on Dionne Warwick’s Here I Am album in 1965. Isley, who once dated Warwick, requested its inclusion; its composer had forgotten all about it. Neil Stubenhaus’s softly purring bass-guitar reminds me of Marcus Miller’s contribution to Vandross’s “Second Time Around”: there’s no higher praise. And when, on “Here I Am” itself, Ronald Isley adds flourishes of melisma, it’s never gratuitous: this is how it should be done.

Of course you’re not going to experience again the shock and the thrill of hearing Bacharach’s melodies and arrangements for the first time in the ’60s: a twangy guitar in the middle of silken strings, a fusillade of boo-bams, a sudden chromatic twist, a song whose first 11 words are all on the same note. But all I can say is that they’ve never sounded more gorgeous than this.

* The photograph is by the late, great William Claxton. Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach is on the DreamWorks label. Several songs from a PBS Soundstage concert in July 2004 are up on YouTube, including “Close to You” and “Here I Am”. There’s also a promo — with slightly compromised sound quality — for “The Look of Love”

Music from a Welsh chapel

Capel y Graig

Toby Hay and David Ian Roberts are Welsh guitarists who occasionally play together. They’ve just released three tracks recorded in the Capel Y Graig, a deconsecrated chapel in Ceredigion now used as an art space, on Bandcamp. I think they’re marvellous.

I know Toby Hay’s work from a fine 2018 album called The Longest Day, and from the series of morning and evening guitar pieces he recorded and filmed outdoors and put on YouTube in the first week of April (search @tobyhaymusic). He’s the right-handed player on the right of the photograph. His work reminds me a little bit of what the late Sandy Bull, a true visionary, was up to in the late ’60s, and of John Fahey in his Yellow Princess period: a fingerpicker blending various forms of folk, blues and eastern musics.

These three unnamed tracks are pure improvised duets, exploiting the special acoustics of the place. I love the quality of the sound, particularly in the first piece: glistening but raw, with a kind of chiming, pealing quality as the two players set off from a simple modal base on a seven-minute journey guaranteed to lift the spirits. If anyone were doing a remake of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, it would fit perfectly. Hay switches to piano for the second piece: an old and charmingly out-of-tune instrument whose overtones match the environment. The final track, another guitar duet, is more contemplative: there’s something of a worn music-box about the sound.

Capel Y Graig is a former Welsh Calvinist Methodist chapel, opened in 1765 and rebuilt in the mid-19th century. It’s in the hamlet of Furnace/Ffwrnais, between Aberystwyth and Machynllech, where iron ore was once smelted in a little rural works beside a waterfall on the River Einion. The chapel was in use until 2001, with living quarters in which to house the itinerant preachers so popular in Wales. It’s now an artspace operated by a small non-profit organisation.

“We let the space guide us as to what to play,” Hay says. “It’s an extraordinary place to play music. The building has a life of its own. One of the most unusual, and powerful natural reverbs I have ever heard. Listening to these recordings now reminds me how important it is to play music with friends.” For me, the whole set is something I’m happy to leave on infinite repeat, allowing it to define a mood in these lockdown days.

* For the month of May, all proceeds from the recording will go to Ty Hafan, the Welsh children’s hospice. If you want, you can explore and buy the music via this link: https://cambrianrecords.bandcamp.com/album/capel-y-graig-improvisations