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Mose in middle age

I’d bought my first Mose Allison record in about 1962. It was an EP on the Esquire label, licensed from Prestige, and it contained all 10 atmospheric piano-trio miniatures making up Back Country Suite, the title of his first album, recorded five years earlier. Allison was clearly aware of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, but he was also steeped in the country blues that he’d heard growing up small-town Mississippi before studying English and philosophy at Louisiana State University. The result was was strong but fine-boned music, light on its feet, sultry as a southern night but as open as a big sky.

By the time I finally got to see him, during one of his many appearances at the Pizza Express in London in the 1980s, he’d moved on. He still sang the songs that had entranced the likes of Georgie Fame and Pete Townshend in the ’60s — his own “Parchman Farm”, Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind” and Mercy Dee’s “One Room Country Shack”. But his piano-playing had taken a wild left turn into a territory located somewhere between those staked out by Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor. A couple of time during a set he would suddenly rage up and down the keyboard, creating a torrent of two-fisted sound from waves of chromatic runs. Seems unlikely? If it was the antithesis of his early minimalism, it was certainly thrilling. Anyone turning up to hear the back-porch philosopher who sang “Well a young man ain’t nothin’ in the world these days” with such laconic resignation was in for a shock. I’m only sorry that I didn’t get to hear him many more times before his death in 2016, aged 89.

The young Mose could be heard on a 3-CD box set released on Fresh Sound in 2014, a compilation of the six albums he recorded for Prestige between 1957 and 1959: Back Country Suite, Local Color, Young Man Mose, Ramblin’ with Mose Allison, Creek Bank and Autumn Song. They formed the basis of the reputation that persuaded Nesuhi Ertegun to sign him to Atlantic in 1964 and to record 10 albums with him over the next dozen years. Those albums — I Don’t Worry About a Thing, Swingin’ Machine, The Word from Mose, Wild Man on the Loose, Mose Alive!, I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinkin’, Hello There Universe, Western Man, Mose in Your Ear and Your Mind is on Vacation — have now been coupled with two subsequent recordings for Elektra, Middle Class White Boy and Lessons in Living, in a new 6-CD box.

Seven of the 10 Atlantic albums stay with the trio format, featuring such fine musicians as the drummers Osie Johnson and Paul Motian and the bassists Earl May and Red Mitchell. Two of those trio sets were recorded live, one at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach in 1965 and the other at In Your Ear in Palo Alto five or six years later. The latter album, Mose in Your Ear, contains a track called “Powerhouse”, almost nine minutes long, which perfectly exemplifies the kind of pianistic eruption I mentioned earlier, ranging across almost all significant approaches to jazz pianism — stride, boogie-woogie, barrelhouse, bebop, Monk-to-Cecil angularity — while somehow retaining Allison’s signature.

The same album also has perhaps his best recorded version of Jimmie Davis’s “You Are My Sunshine”, one of the standards he loved to examine over and over again, nudging the tune’s melodic planes until he has reshaped it into something completely his own, an almost total reinvention.

Of the three Atlantic albums in which horns are added to the trio, the 1976 set called Your Mind Is on Vacation is the most interesting and fully realised. With Al Porcino on trumpet, David Sanborn on alto and Joe Farrell on tenor, Allison takes chances with his arrangements. “One of These Days” is a slow altered blues played in the style of a Mingus small band imitating the late-’50s Ray Charles outfit, with enigmatically stretched silences at odd moments. “Fires of Spring” is a sophisticated cabaret song, the sort of thing Fran Landesman used to write, with a brilliant rubato treatment and a conversation-stopper of an ending.

Lessons in Living, recorded live at the Montreux Festival in 1982, is the more interesting of the two Elektra albums, with Jack Bruce on bass and Billy Cobham on drums, both commendably concerned to accompany rather than draw attention to themselves, and there are guest spots from Eric Gale on guitar and Lou Donaldson on alto. A wild up-tempo version of Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son” — another old favourite — flirts with a wonderful chaos in the piano interlude, and there’s a perfectly weighted treatment of “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy”, in which he dispenses cosmic truth with that wry fatalism.

A lot of Mose, then, but certainly not too much, because he was a true original who work deserves to be brought to the attention of new generations of listeners. After the reissue producer Jordi Puyol’s fine work on the Prestige/Fresh Sound collection, Bob Fisher’s compilation and annotation of this Atlantic/Elektra set is immaculate, as is the stylish package design and artwork by Michael Robson. Now all we need is for someone to compile the eight albums for Blue Note and one for Verve, mostly produced by Ben Sidran, and one for Anti-, supervised by Joe Henry, that represent the balance of his recording career, spanning 1987 to 2010. Not too much to ask, I hope.

* Mose Allison: The Complete Atlantic/Elektra Albums 1962-1983 is on Cherry Red’s Strawberry label.

Dylan in the shadows

I’d read that Bob Dylan had liked Girl from the North Country, the musical by Conor McPherson based on his songs which transferred from the West End to Broadway shortly before the pandemic closed everything down. The proof was in tonight’s streamed 50-minute concert, Shadow Kingdom, in which a baker’s dozen of his early or earlyish songs were subjected to the kind of treatment devised for the stage show by its musical supervisor, Simon Hale, who assembled a small acoustic band to play in a hotel bar.

That was the mood created for Shadow Kingdom: low-key, intimate, respectful of the songs. Acoustic and lightly amplified guitars, mandolin, accordion, double bass or (on a couple of songs) bass guitar and harmonica were lightly woven around Bob’s voice in three or four different settings, all in deep monochrome chiaroscuro and mostly approximating the ambiance of a funky roadhouse: the audience drinking, smoking, and dancing to one or two of the tunes.

It was all mimed, of that I’m pretty sure because the fingers didn’t always quite match what we were hearing and a microphone mostly obscured the singer’s mouth. But it didn’t matter at all — to me, anyway. Dylan has arrived at an ensemble style which suits songs from every one of his eras, and it’s a joy to hear. When he sat down to sing a beautiful “What Was It You Wanted”, it might have been taken from Rough and Rowdy Ways. That was a highlight for me, but so were a most elegant “Queen Jane Approximately”, a lazily swinging “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, a full-bodied “Pledging My Time”, a Mexicali “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and a rubato “Tombstone Blues”. The codas and intros linking the sings were a delight, and the whole thing would certainly justify an album release.

The players were masked. Their names were given in the credits as Alex Burke, Janie Cowen, Joshua Crumbly, Shahzad Ismaily and Buck Meek. The director was Alma Har’el and the DP was Lol Crawley. You can catch it again over the next 48 hours, until Tuesday night, at http://www.veeps.com.

‘Summer of Soul’

So much has been written about the documentary based on unseen footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that you won’t really be needing another recommendation from me. But among all the performances assembled by the director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, from the series of concerts in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park — now known as Marcus Garvey Park — during that summer 52 years ago, there are some things in particular that I wouldn’t want you to miss.

The gospel sequence, which begins with the profoundly thrilling sound of Dorothy Morrison’s deep contralto leading the massed Edwin Hawkins Singers on “Oh Happy Day”, stands as the foundation of the whole thing. Its climax comes when Mahalia Jackson, feeling unwell, invites Mavis Staples to start off “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, which the younger woman does beautifully. But then Mahalia, evidently revived by what she has heard, comes forward to join Mavis — and you can sense the bedrock of Manhattan Island shaking to the majestic roar of their voices.

It’s like one generation handing the torch to another, and there’s quite a lot of that feeling throughout the film: the elaborate stage costumes of the Fifth Dimension and the straw-thin David Ruffin giving way to the hippie threads of Sly and the Family Stone being one example, the contrast between restrained mohair-suited blues of B. B. King and Nina Simone’s closing recital of a challenging poem by the Last Poets’ David Nelson being another. As someone says, this “was when the negro died and Black was born.” (Ruffin, by the way, had just left the Temptations and sings “My Girl” magnificently, wringing the neck of his extraordinary falsetto.)

The director uses standard documentary techniques — a strong gallery of talking heads and the deployment of newsreel footage — but there were times, particularly in the opening sequences, when I thought he’d been influenced by the video montages of Arthur Jafa, whose shows in London and Berlin I’ve written about. That’s a good way to go, although Thompson doesn’t overdo it. The stories parallel to the music are well chosen. The activist Denise Oliver-Velez talks about the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault gives a shattering description of her experience in 1961 as the first black female student to be enrolled at the University of Georgia; she went on to become the first black female journalist in the New York Times newsroom.

Of course the deepest impression is left by the knowledge that here are black artists performing to black audiences numbered in the tens of thousands, on their home turf — something on a different scale from the Apollo Theatre a few blocks away. (Harlem was thought to be dangerous territory for white people then, and there are very, very few non-black faces to be seen in these vast crowds.) Sly Stone was also a star at Woodstock that summer, but you can’t watch his “Everyday People” in Harlem without thinking that this spine-tingling performance has gained an extra dimension from the context. And you can see very clearly why Miles Davis (who is not in the film) wanted this audience rather than those who came to see him in European-style concert halls, expecting to hear “My Funny Valentine”.

I remembered, too, the times I’d seen Nina Simone at Ronnie Scott’s or the South Bank, and been irritated and even infuriated by the distance she’d chosen to open between herself and her all-white audiences, expressed in bouts of brusqueness and truculence generally ascribed to a diva’s temperament. To see her in a Harlem park, gently crooning the brand-new “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” to her people, so centred, so serenely beautiful in her Afrofuturist hair and robes and jewellery, made me feel ashamed of those responses from 30-odd years ago. Sure, I loved the music in Summer of Soul, but I also came out of the cinema into a warm London night with a lot to think about.

* Summer of Soul is in cinemas and on the Hulu streaming platform now. Here’s the trailer.

Bookshelf 4: Jazz Power!

Billie Holiday was a fantastic subject for a photographer. Whatever the location or situation, whatever the lighting or the angle, the turn of her head or the expression on her face, the result was almost always extraordinary. Here’s an example, taken in Paris by Jean-Claude Bernath in 1958, during the second of her two visits to Europe. It was first used in France’s Jazz Magazine, and is among the images reproduced in a two-volume publication accompanying “Jazz Power!”, an exhibition of the monthly magazine’s photographs and artwork between 1954 and 1974, currently in show at the Rencontres d’Arles, the annual festival of photography.

The first of the two paperback volumes folds out into a panoramic reproduction of spreads from the magazine through those years, from Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Clifford Brown to Sun Ra, Sam Rivers and Sonny Sharrock. It’s a reminder of how, founded by Nicole and Eddy Barclay, nurtured by Frank Ténot and Daniel Filipacchi, with editors including Jacques Souplet, Jean-Louis Ginibre and Philippe Carles, Jazz Magazine did a wonderful job of reflecting the excitement of the music and its evolution during those 20 years. As it still seems to be doing under the current editor in chief, Frédéric Goaty.

The second of the volumes contains a text history of the magazine and full-page A4 reproductions of 22 memorable images from its history, of which the photo of Holiday is one. On the reverse of each is a reproduction of the back of the original print, with its photographer’s stamp and the mark-up pencilled in by the sub-editor or designer responsible for sizing it up and indicating how it was to be cropped it for use.

What you see on the reverse of the Holiday print is a set of marks clearly indicating that the page designer wanted to tighten the image to concentrate the focus on the singer, completely eliminating two of the three men surrounding her. That’s understandable in the light of the editorial priority: a picture of Billie Holiday, not of some bystanders. Looking at it today, more than 60 years later, we’re interested in the context.

Besides Bernath, who also took the image on the cover of Chet Baker’s celebrated album of Bob Zieff tunes, recorded for the Barclay label in Paris in 1954, those whose work is featured in the exhibition and the book include such great names of jazz photography as Jean-Pierre Leloir, Herman Leonard, Giuseppe Pino and Val Wilmer. Under its various editors, Jazz Magazine used their images well, consistent in its desire to stress the role of the emerging black consciousness and of women as full participants in the music.

Twenty-odd years ago I was fortunate enough to be in Arles on the eve of the Rencontres, and I remember the wonderful atmosphere surrounding the festival. No doubt the “Jazz Power!” exhibition would be worth the detour, if such a thing were possible this summer. As things are, this handsome publication will have to do.

* Jazz Power: L’aventure Jazz Magazine 1954-74 by Clara Bastid and Marie Robert is published by and available from Delpire & Co, €58 (www.delpireandco.com). Exhibition details are here: https://www.rencontres-arles.com/fr/expositions/view/992/jazz-power

Bookshelf 3: Shake Keane

In the days when well known modern jazz musicians travelled the country as soloists, performing with local rhythm sections, I was lucky enough to hear the trumpeter Shake Keane at the Riverside Jazz Club in Nottingham, accompanied by the unit from the house band: Tommy Saville on piano, Geoff Pearson on bass and Les Shaw on drums.

This would have been around 1962. I was too young to be allowed official admission to the wooden extension behind the Town Arms pub on Trent Bridge where the weekly sessions took place, but I’d been managing to get in and enjoy the sounds of the regular quintet, completed by the tenor saxophones of Mel Thorpe and John Marshall. Their versions of hip tunes like Nat Adderley’s “Work Song”, his brother Cannonball’s “Sack O’Woe” and Jimmy Heath’s “Big P” gave me my first precious experience of live jazz at close quarters.

I was anxious to hear Keane because I’d been listening to Abstract, the Joe Harriott Quintet album which had earned a five-star review in Down Beat. The trumpeter played an important role in a band that had found its own perspective on the general loosening of the rules then taking place at the sharp end of jazz. Now we can see that the combination of two Caribbean musicians in the front line — Harriott from Jamaica, Keane from St Vincent — gave the music a special flavour.

In person he was physically imposing — 6ft 4in tall, bespectacled, with a full beard — and sonically powerful. I have no memory of what tunes were played but I remember the sound of his flugelhorn in particular, big and warm but avoiding the luscious plumminess that some trumpeters drew from the big-bore horn. When I listen to his recordings now, I hear an improviser whose phrases were full of interesting angles.

Philip Nanton’s newly published Riff: The Shake Keane Story tells us that Ellsworth McGranahan Keane arrived in London in 1952 on the steamship Colombie. Then 25 years old, he had received an excellent education at the Boys’ Grammar School in Kingstown, he had played in bands and orchestras, he had worked as a magistrate’s clerk and a teacher, and he was already a published poet before deciding to join the Windrush generation of emigrants to Britain. His qualifications and aptitudes soon earned him a job on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme. Before long he was also a member of local jazz scene, while spending two years studying English literature at London University.

He joined forces with Harriott in 1960, and the work they did together — recorded by Denis Preston for the Jazzland and Columbia labels — still sounds fresh, vigorous and imaginative. The other members of the quintet were the always underrated Pat Smythe on piano, Coleridge Goode on bass and Phil Seamen or Bobby Orr on drums. Keane also collaborated with the pianist Michael Garrick, notably on projects with the poet/publisher Jeremy Robson.

You could look at Keane, Harriott, Goode, the saxophonists Harold McNair and Wilton “Bogey” Gaynair and another trumpeter, Harold Beckett, all post-war arrivals from the Caribbean, as giving British modern jazz the kind of creative infusion that was provided later in the 1960s by the refugees from apartheid-era South Africa: Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, Harry Miller.

In 1965 Keane accepted an offer to join Kurt Edelhagen’s big band in Cologne. The money was good, the standards were high, and he stayed in Germany for seven years, alongside the likes of Gaynair, the lead altoist Derek Humble and the trombonist Jiggs Whigham. His soloing with the band is featured on a handful of the tracks on a recent Edelhagen three-CD set titled The Unreleased WDR Jazz Recordings 1957-1974. It’s not my kind of big-band jazz — too conventional — but of course it’s very well done.

After leaving Edelhagen he freelanced around Europe before accepting an offer to return to St Vincent in 1973 as the island’s director of culture. A play of his was given its first performance, but the following year a change of government cost him his job, forcing him to find work as a teacher and as a provider of music for tourists. In 1981, fed up, he left the island for New York, and would never return.

Settled into a Caribbean community in Brooklyn, he played a little and wrote poetry but found life hard. In 1989 he returned to the UK to take part in a reunion tour of the Harriott quintet, and two years later he was back again at the behest of his fellow poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, recording an EP with Dennis Bovell and becoming the subject of an Arena documentary made by Anthony Wall. He visited Norway on several occasions during his final years, and it was in Oslo that he died from stomach cancer in 1997.

His story is very well told in Riffs, whose author, also born in St Vincent, does not dodge the difficult marriages or the drinking problem that made him, in the words of the first of his wives, Christiane Ricard, “a difficult and provocative man”. It’s worth noting that they remained in touch, and she gave Nanton a illuminating interview — one one many collected during what was clearly a lengthy and thorough research process — before her death in 2005.

One way and another, Keane wasn’t able to leave the sort of legacy on record that his talent deserved. But this excellent book will help to ensure that his story won’t be forgotten.

* Philip Nanton’s Riffs: The Story of Shake Keane is published by Papilotte Press (www.papilottepress.co.uk). The Kurt Edelhagen set is on the Jazzline Classics/WDR label. Keane’s work with Joe Harriott can be heard on a compilation of three albums — Southern Horizons, Free Form and Abstract — on the Fresh Sounds label.