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A Mike Taylor discovery

When the English jazz pianist and composer Mike Taylor walked into the sea and died in 1969, aged 30, he left behind two albums — Pendulum, by his quartet, and the self-explanatory Trio, recorded in 1966 and ’67 respectively — as a memorial to a talent silenced by the kind of problems experienced by too many creative souls in that era.

Taylor’s gifts and instincts put him somewhere in the line of pianists running from Thelonious Monk through Herbie Nichols and Elmo Hope to the young Cecil Taylor. His playing had a similar sense of a private language being put on public display. There could be a hint of obsession in the way he jabbed at his phrases, testing their resistance before turning them to catch the light from a different angle, but there was nothing forbidding about his music.

His story, from bright promise to unexplained death, was told in a feature in Jazzwise magazine by Duncan Heining in 2007 and at greater length in a useful biography by the Italian writer Luca Ferrari, published six years ago. Taylor remains much mourned both by first-hand witnesses to his short career and by those who know him only from those two albums, produced by Denis Preston for EMI’s Columbia label and now collectors’ items.

A third Mike Taylor album, then, is quite a significant discovery. Mandala consists of a live session by Taylor’s regular quartet — with Dave Tomlin on soprano saxophone, Tony Reeves on double bass and Jon Hiseman on drums — at the Studio Club, Westcliff-on-Sea in January 1965. It was Hiseman who recorded the gig on a reel-to-reel machine and filed the tape away in his archive. On August 29 that year the same group would support the Ornette Coleman Trio in an historic concert at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon; the following May they would assemble at the Lansdowne Studios in Holland Park to record Pendulum.

Mandala contains one jazz standard and four of Taylor’s compositions, making 38 minutes of high-octane music in which the musicians display an obvious reverence for the John Coltrane Quartet of the early ’60s while conveying the impression that, given time and scope, they will find a way to move beyond the template towards the expression of their own character. It can be heard emerging in the hectic exuberance of “Night in Tunisia” — more linear and less dense than the version of the Gillespie favourite captured on Pendulum — and Taylor’s “Folk Dance #1” (a 6/8 tune with unexpected modulations), and in the interesting rhythm section figurations behind Tomlin on “Half Blue”.

Tomlin is the main soloist, confidently feeling his way towards a Trane-like level of incantation while keeping a few more emotional buttons done up. Reeves is slightly under-recorded, as was often the case on amateur recordings from the period, but he can be heard to work well with Hiseman, who is a rewardingly active presence throughout, providing an incessant but constantly stimulating commentary reminiscent to me of Charli Persip. Together they create a powerful momentum.

If there is a regret, it is that Taylor chose to take only two relatively short solos on this occasion, on “Son of Red Blues”, the agile opener, and “Night in Tunisia”. Both are typically intriguing, if somewhat subdued. There might have been a third solo: the title track, which closes the album (and was left untitled until the album’s compilers borrowed one from a painting by the pianist), fades to silence just as Tomlin closes his long, intense solo and Reeves appears to be bridging into what might have been a piano improvisation. Maybe the tape ran out. But Taylor’s accompaniments are so consistently interesting that this is a minor reservation: the point here is the music of a fine group, captured in full and free flight.

* Mandala is available as a download and a limited edition CD from the Jazz in Britain label: http://www.jazzinbritain.org. A vinyl release is forthcoming. Luca Ferrari’s Out of Nowhere: The Uniquely Elusive Jazz of Mike Taylor is published by Gonzo Multimedia.

The uneasy trio

It’s possible that, like me, you think there are already quite enough jazz piano trio albums in your collection. Think again. Uneasy, the new recording by Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey, demands attention.

The realignment of the piano-bass-drums hierarchy from “piano with rhythm accompaniment” to a full three-way conversation of equals has been going on for decades, and Uneasy is about as elevated as the format currently gets. Listen to the opener, “Children of Flint”, to appreciate the level of interaction between three musicians with virtuoso-level skills and giant imaginations. It sounds lyrical, even simple. But just concentrate on the astonishing touch displayed by each of the trio, whether on piano keys, bass strings, drums or cymbals, and the sense of three seamlessly interlocking and interdependent components.

As you work your way through the 10 tracks — eight compositions by Iyer, plus Geri Allen’s “Drummer’s Song” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” — you’ll also notice a complete absence of ego-projection. No one is showing off. On the sole standard, it’s easiest to hear how far Iyer can take the line of piano-playing founded by Bud Powell. Oh displays the deep sense of swing, nimble melodic imagination and beautiful sound of a 21st-century Paul Chambers. Sorey creates a momentum at once light but deep, exploiting a combination of technique and intellect that redefines the investigation of rhythm.

Recorded in a studio in Mount Vernon, NY three months before pandemic arrived, the album comes with a cover photograph of the Statue of Liberty seen through mist and against clouds. In his sleeve note, Iyer writes that Uneasy was originally the title of a collaborative piece with the choreographer Karole Armitage in 2011, exploring “the instabilities that we then sensed beneath the surface of things… the emerging anxiety within American life. A decade later, as systems teeter and crumble, the word feels like a brutal understatement.”

That heightened disquiet, however, remains implied. You’re not thinking about the end of the world. You’re remembering how even the darkest of times can’t extinguish such astonishing creativity. One of the records of the year, no doubt.

* Uneasy is on ECM Records. The photographs of (from top) Iyer, Oh and Sorey are from the CD’s booklet and were taken by Craig Marsden.

The sound of two

Daniel Cano is a Spanish trumpeter who was born in Huelva in 1983 and has lived in London since 2014. Doug Sides is an American drummer who was born in Los Angeles in 1942, moved to Europe in 1989 and now lives, improbably enough, in Ramsgate, a fishing and ferry port on the eastern tip of Kent. This week they released a four-track digital EP called Duplexity.

It slots into the modern tradition of trumpet-and-drums duets stretching back to Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, taking in Bobby Bradford and John Stevens and going all the way to Eyebrow, the contemporary Bristol-based pair of Pete Judge and Paul Wigens. If it reminds me of anything, it’s of the best parts of the duo concert by Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie at the Maison de la Culture de Seine Saint-Denis, released as Max + Dizzy: Paris 1989 by A&M. That’s an album which came a little too late in the careers of two great men, making you wish they’d done it 30 or 40 years earlier, when the fires were burning brightest. Duplexity, by contrast, seems to have been made at exactly the right time.

Cano, whose involvements as a leader and a sideman include membership of the London Improvisers Orchestra, studied at the conservatoire in San Sebastián. His groups — including an Ornette Coleman tribute band — have won festival prizes. Sides studied at the University of South California, New York University and Berklee College in Boston, where he was taught by the great Alan Dawson, a mentor of Tony Williams. Over a long career which featured an early stint as the house drummer at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, he has played with Illinois Jacquet, John Handy, Teddy Edwards, Phineas Newborn, Bobby Hutcherson, Abbey Lincoln and many others.

Recorded last October at Big Jelly Studios in Ramsgate, Duplexity is a fine showcase for the evidently strong relationship between a trumpeter whose warm, bright open tone evokes the hard-bop masters of the ’50s and ’60s and a drummer with a light touch and a supple sense of swing. Restricted means, in terms of instrumentation, but the result is a rich experience with no sense of austerity — or of overplaying to fill the spaces.

Trajectories and densities are chosen to make the most of the available resources. The session feels informal and spontaneous, with the rough edges left in. Two of the pieces were composed by Sides and two by Cano, and none of them, ranging from four and a half to six minutes, outstays its welcome. Most of all, it’s good to hear two musicians from different generations and of such diverse backgrounds revelling in the common language.

* Duplexity is available at www.danielcanomusic.bandcamp.com (click on the track “Perpetual Motion” to see a video). Cano and Sides will perform together in a livestream from Ronnie Scott’s Club on April 15: http://www.ronniescotts.co.uk/scheduledaily/2021/April/15. The photograph is by Martin Goodsmith.

The arts of Bob Crewe

Perhaps the greatest week of Bob Crewe’s life was the one in 1975 when Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You”, which he had produced and co-composed with Kenny Nolan, fell from the No 1 position in the Billboard Hot 100 and was immediately replaced by Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade”, which he and Nolan had also written together.

Or perhaps it wasn’t. Maybe it was the one in 1994 when the first retrospective show of his paintings and mixed-media artworks opened at a gallery in West Hollywood, after he had left the music business behind and climbed out of the valley into which his addictions had led him.

Crewe must have had a lot of great weeks in his life, as the man whose credits as a co-writer and/or producer, running all the way from doo-wop to disco, included the Rays’ “Silhouettes”, Diane Renay’s “Navy Blue”, Freddy Cannon’s “Tallahassie Lassie”, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Jenny Take a Ride/See See Rider”, Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” and Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes’ “I Wanna Dance Wit’ Choo”. And, of course, towering above everything, that fabulous string of hits he produced and co-wrote with Bob Gaudio for the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli, including “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Rag Doll”, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Any More)”, “You’re Ready Now”, “The Proud One” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”.

Born in 1930 in Newark, New Jersey, Crewe was a blond Adonis in the Tab Hunter mould. He looked like a star, custom-built for American Bandstand, and he had a decent voice, as Jerry Wexler recognised when he persuaded him to record a solo album in Muscle Shoals in 1977. But the studio was where he expressed himself. He couldn’t read a note of music but he had well tuned ears and an instinct for a great hook, musical or lyrical, and he knew how to hire the best arrangers, men like Charlie Calello and Hutch Davie. The idiom didn’t matter. As Andrew Loog Oldham put it: “No one spoke more dialects of ‘hit’ than Bob Crewe.”

But there was another side to his talent, and it was one he seemed to have abandoned after ending his studies at the Parsons School of Design in Greenwich Village after only a year. Mentored by two older gay men, Austin Avery Mitchell, who showed him the art galleries of New York, Paris and Rome, and the photographer Otto Fenn, an early Warhol collaborator, he had begun painting and had his first show in 1950. Soon, however, music took over and ruled his life for the next quarter of a century, first as a crooner and then as a writer-producer. But a love of the visual media was merely dormant, and after being knocked over by a car in Los Angeles in 1977 he began to rededicate himself to art.

Influenced by Jean Dubuffet, Antoni Tàpies, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, he made abstract pieces out of a variety of materials, characterised by a love of texture acquired from Dubuffet and a feeling for outline and repetition that may have come from Johns. Leafing through Bob Crewe: Sight and Sound, a new book about his artworks, it’s easy to respond to his instinct for shape and surface. Here’s one of his pieces, Excavation 8/3/96, juxtaposed with one of the hit singles for which he’s remembered:

I chose that painting because, like many of his pieces, it contains the motif of a perfect circle — in this case three of them, half-hidden within the complex surface markings inscribed on three wooden panels, 7ft tall by 9ft wide. Whether those circles reminded him of all the hits he’d helped to make, I have no idea. I’m not a psychologist. And I am not, of course, an art critic; that side of things is explored by the painter Peter Plagens in one of the book’s three essays. But I do like much of what I see here, and it would be interesting to be able to examine it in a gallery one day.

Crewe’s role in the Four Seasons story was brought back to public attention in Jersey Boys, the musical that opened its run on Broadway in 2005 before enjoying success around the world. He died in 2014, in the retirement home where he had lived after receiving serious injuries from a fall down a flight of stairs in the home of his younger brother Dan, who had been his business partner in the 1960s.

In the first of the book’s essays, Andrew Loog Oldham locates Crewe within the rapid evolution of post-war American popular culture, alongside such figures as Hugh Hefner, Lenny Bruce and James Dean. Oldham knew him in the hit-making days and watched him at work, making and selling his music in the days when he could start a song with lines like “Loneliness is the cloak you wear / A deep shade of blue is always there.” And, linking Crewe’s two artistic preoccupations, he observes: “He liked to think of music in terms of colour and challenged his musicians to think that way along with him.” Alone with his paints and his brushes and his palette knives, he challenged himself.

* Bob Crewe: Sight and Sound: Compositions in Art and Music, edited by Dan Crewe, is published in the US by Rizzoli Electa ($55). The photograph of Crewe in the studio in 1966 is from the book. The 45 is “Music to Watch Girls By” by the Bob Crewe Generation (DynoVoice, 1967).