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One saint among many

Fans of the The Sopranos will watch The Many Saints of Newark, the new movie prequel to the six-season TV series, expecting to hear some good stuff on the sound track. They won’t be disappointed by a selection that runs from the Marvelettes’ “Danger Heartbreak Ahead” to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”. (And don’t leave before the final song overlaying the closing credits: the exquisite “Calling All Angels” by Jane Siberry with k. d. lang.)

But there was one choice that surprised and even shocked me. I hadn’t read anything about film in advance, entirely on purpose, so I wasn’t aware of the key role played in the narrative by the four days of rioting in Newark, New Jersey during the long hot summer of 1967, when the city’s black population rose up in protest against the beating of a black cab driver by two white police officers.

The sequences depicting the uprising are brilliantly staged and powerfully affecting. They are also subtly accompanied by the strains of John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, the five-minute studio recording made on November 18, 1963 and included the following year on the album Live at Birdland. My spine tingled when I heard it, but it also made me uncomfortable.

The piece is believed to have been composed by Coltrane in response to the bombing by white racists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 16, 1963, in which four black schoolgirls died as they were changing into choir robes in the church basement. (Say their names: Carole Denise McNair, aged 11, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.) It’s necessary only to mention Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders to evoke Alabama’s previous role as a key location in the civil rights struggle, but it’s fair to assume that, given the eight-week gap between the church bombing and the recording, Coltrane had that particularly tragedy on his mind.

The result was a piece of music that occupies a special place in the saxophonist’s history. The starkest and most distilled example of what might be called his hymnal mode, it reached his public at a time when the spiritual content of his music was beginning to make itself apparent. A couple of years later A Love Supreme would leave no doubt about his intentions (and after his death, a group of followers in San Francisco would set up the Church of St John Coltrane).

But in addition to its aura of spirituality, “Alabama” had a specific meaning. Ben Ratliff, the author of an excellent Coltrane biography, called it “an accurate psychological portrait of a time, a complicated mood that nobody else could render so well.” If anyone wanted to understand how Coltrane could begin to inspire awe, Ratcliff added, they needed to look no further than this track.

So was it legitimate for Alan Taylor, the director of The Many Saints of Newark, to co-opt this much revered musical prayer, divorcing it from its original meaning in order to underscore the drama of a cinematically rendered scene from a riot three years later in a different city, exploiting the piece’s authentic emotional depth in what is, for all its layers, essentially a Mob movie?

Of course it’s nice to know that it will now be heard for the first time by many of those who go to see the film. Some of them may wonder about the musician behind those few seconds of sound, and might pursue their interest further. And of course you could say that since “Alabama” was inspired by an episode from the civil rights struggle, it has hardly been wrenched out of its context. If I can’t help feeling a little uneasy, then perhaps I’m wrong.

Barney and the Blue Note

Almost 30 years after collaborating with Miles Davis on the historic soundtrack to Louis Malle’s 1958 film Lift to the Scaffold, Barney Wilen had disappeared from view. Then he discovered that he’d become the subject of a popular strip cartoon in the French magazine À Suivre. Written by Philippe Paringaux, the editor in chief of Rock & Folk magazine, and drawn by Jacques de Loustal, the bande dessinée titled “Barney et la Note Bleue” told the story of a French tenor saxophonist — young, white, gifted, bespectacled — as he made his way through a jazz life, all the way to a fatal overdose.

To begin with, Wilen was upset. For a start, he told Paringaux and Loustal, he was still alive. But the episode turned out well. Encouraged by Paringaux (who confessed that the inclusion of a doomed love affair had been based on an incident from his own life), Wilen returned to the recording studio and made an album titled after the strip, following its narrative and using Loustal’s distinctive artwork for the cover. A season at a Paris jazz club drew a new young audience who had followed the fictionalised story in À Suivre. Released in 1987, the album won the French jazz album of the year award, the Grand Prix of the Académie Charles Cros.

After a decade bathed in the light cast by his second coming, and many more concerts and recordings, Wilen died of cancer in 1996, aged 59. Now the Note Bleue album has been reissued, in a version remastered by the original engineer, Hervé Le Guil, and with added outtakes plus a second disc devoted to a set from a Paris nightclub, Le Petit Opportun, in 1989.

Wilen is one of my favourite European jazz musicians of the post-war era, a beautifully balanced post-bop soloist with an inquiring mind that took him into adventurous engagements with free jazz, rock and African music before he found his way back to his original idiom. This celebrated album found him delivering concise versions of some of his favourite vehicles — Consuelo Velázquez’s “Besame Mucho”, Duke Pearson’s “No Problem”, Monk’s “Round Midnight”, a legato rephrasing of Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” — plus several originals, Earle Hagen’s “Harlem Nocturne” and a gorgeous, near-definitive reading of Gordon Jenkins’s ballad “Good-Bye”, which he had never heard before it was suggested to him at the session. There’s also an amusing nod to the episode of the strip in which Barney plays a Twist number with a rock and roll band. The other members of his fine quintet are the guitarist Philippe Petit, the pianist Alain Jean-Marie, the bassist Riccardo Del Fra and the drummer Sangoma Everett. The outtakes include a spellbinding unaccompanied reprise of “Besame Mucho”.

The live session features most of the same tunes, performed in stretched-out versions with the brilliant pianist Jacky Terrasson, then 24 years old, Gilles Naturel (bass) and Peter Gritz (drums). The mood is looser, the playing more fiery. Wilen plays soprano on a couple of the tunes, and there are interesting interjections by the compère, Claude Carrière (in French, naturally).

With the two discs comes a booklet including many images captured during the original studio session by the Magnum photographer Guy Le Querrec and English texts from many of the original participants, including Paringaux, Loustal, Jean-Marie, Del Fra, Everett, Le Guil and Patrick Wilen, Barney’s son, who supervised the project with his wife, Satomi Wilen.

It’s great to have this wonderful record available again, enhanced by the improved sound and the inclusion of additional music that is not merely tacked on but feels wholly integral, expanding our understanding of the life and work of a great musician.

* Released on the Elemental label, Barney et la Note Bleue is available as a boxed set including a vinyl version of the original album and a paperback edition of the original strip, or as a set of two CDs. The illustration is taken from one of Jacques de Loustal’s preliminary sketches.

Songs of the earth

From left: James Mainwaring, Fergus Quill, Michael Bardon, Aby Vulliamy, Steve Hanley (photo: Andrew Benge)

In a quiet, almost sidelong way, the new album by the British saxophonist and composer James Mainwaring is a meditation on the damage inflicted by the Anthropocene epoch on the ecosystems of its host planet. Its title, Mycorrhiza, refers to the interaction between fungi and trees, a scientifically observed phenomenon that allows trees to communicate with each other in order to aid their individual and collective survival in the face of threats.

This might not be an obvious topic for a composer whose work is rooted in jazz, but it’s a good one. Charlie Haden and Carla Bley reflected similar environmental concerns on Time/Life, the last album they made with the Liberation Music Orchestra, but Mycorrhiza finds its own tone and trajectory, largely through the discreet use of field recordings and of the possibility of occasionally and subtly using the organic sounds of free jazz to evoke — but not imitate — the noises of the natural world.

Apart from Mainwaring, who doubles on flutes and keyboards and also sings briefly on several of tracks, the players are Aby Vulliamy (viola, voice), Michael Bardon (cello), Fergus Quill (double bass), Steve Hanley (drums) and, on four of the 13 tracks, Chris Sharkey on electronics.

Mycorrhiza is a programmatic piece with a message, but the narrative content never feels didactic or overbearing. The first section is not even a minute long: a mood-setting hustle of free bass and drums under held notes from saxophone and viola. There’s a sharp cut to the rustlings, scrapings and chirpings of post-SME improvisation, followed by a sort of chamber chorale for bowed strings and saxophone, like a gentle English pastoral version of the Sauter/Getz Focus suite. A piece called “Roots” uses harmonics to suggest organisms communicating and growing together. “Machines”, 28 seconds long, introduces staccato syncopations from strings and horn. “Statues” is full of melody before Mainwaring and Vulliamy intone a lyric — “Did you hear the latest news / Shaking hands in marble rooms…” — in bleached-out unison tones that would fit nicely on to Robert Wyatt record. Against the restrained, finely phrased urgency of Quill’s bass and Hanley’s drums, the composer takes the first real solo of the piece, a rhythm-hurdling saxophone improvisation carefully blended into the ensemble architecture.

That description gets us halfway through a set of pieces that continue through a further variety of dovetailed moods and approaches, gathering in intensity through the scrabbling of “Web”, the etherised tintinnabulation of”Our Lungs” (its lyric a haiku-like four lines) and the baleful agitation of “Globe” until it reaches the finale, “Woken by Dogs”, the longest track at six and a half minutes. After a lyrical piano opening, Mainwaring sings: “Woke up by dogs / Barking in my ears / And just as I feared / The men in black and white are here / Road full of signs / Warpaint ’round my eyes / As they cuffed my hands / Ripping the Superglue began…” Short, fast saxophone-led unison figures are undercut by jolting drums and slowly rising string glissandi until all sounds evaporates into silence.

The warning is not new, but such a creative restatement as Mainwaring achieves in Mycorrhiza is welcome and necessary. You could, I suppose, mentally switch off the message and just enjoy the sounds for their own sake. But since those sounds in this form are driven by a belief in the necessity of repairing the damage done by the human race during its time on earth, and thereby extending the lease a little longer, that would seem foolish.

* James Mainwaring’s Mycorrhiza is out now on the Discus Music label.

Bob, Peter and Joe

From left: Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and Joe Higgs in Los Angeles

When the Wailers visited the US for the first time in October 1973, they were already changing shape from the group that had made the beginnings of a breakthrough to the rock audience earlier in the year with Catch a Fire. Peter Tosh was still alongside Bob Marley, but Bunny Livingston had opted out of the tour in protest against the lure of Babylon. His replacement, for this short expedition only, was Joe Higgs, an older singer who had mentored the group in their earliest days. In fact it was said to have been in Higgs’s Trenchtown yard that Bob, Tosh and Bunny had first met.

Once they’d been relieved of their slot as support act to Sly and the Family Stone, they found themselves in Los Angeles, where the producer Denny Cordell persuaded his friend Chris Blackwell of Island Records, the Wailers’ producer, to allow him to film the group in the studios of Capitol Records on Hollywood and Vine, in front of a small invited audience. Forty-eight years later, the results have finally seen the light of day in a DVD and an album titled Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Capitol Session ’73.

It’s a fascinating document for a number of reasons. The 88-minute film shows what is really a semi-public rehearsal, with lots of stops and starts to make minor adjustments of tempos and feels. Amid clouds of ganja smoke, the grooves are allowed to settle and flourish, permitting a clear sight of the contribution of Earl Lindo on keys, Aston Barrett on bass guitar and Carlton Barrett on drums, with Tosh’s guitar fills spicing Marley’s steady ska-derived strumming. Higgs is a discreet presence in the front line, singing high and low harmonies and adding percussion touches on timbales, cowbell and hand-drum.

Marley, once a member of an equally balanced triumvirate, is clearly moving to centre-stage. Of the dozen songs they play, Tosh sings lead on only two, his own “Can’t Blame the Youth” and “Stop that Train”. The rest, apart from the co-written “Get Up, Stand Up”, are all Bob’s. For me the strongest groove is on “Rastaman Chant”, which drifts and surges like some piece of funk-sodden minimalism from Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, with Tosh, Marley and Higgs all on Rastafarian hand drums, and there’s a stinging poignancy in hearing Bob singing “One bright morning, when my work is over, man will fly away home…”

With a year Tosh would have followed Bunny and the group would be billed as Bob Marley and the Wailers on the cover of Natty Dread. The following year’s Live at the Lyceum would establish once and for all Marley’s position as the sole focal point. The Wailers were now the rhythm section and the harmonies were supplied by three women, the I-Threes. Fans of their earliest music — the mid-’60s singles like “Put It On” and “Sunday Morning” — believed that something had been lost, but there can be no doubt that the emphasis on promoting the charismatic Marley gave reggae its push towards international recognition and success. Watch the DVD and you can see it starting to happen.

It was during the sessions for Catch A Fire in September 1972 that Joe Higgs took me to Trenchtown, at Chris Blackwell’s behest. With Dickie Jobson at the wheel of Blackwell’s Mini Moke, Higgs showed me the shacks for which families paid a government-controlled rent amounting to 60p a week, talked about the iniquities of the Jamaican music business and told me how he was having to work as a dental assistant to supplement his meagre earnings from music. As we stopped and talked, he was mildly berated by a passer-by for bringing a white man into the neighbourhood.

Born in Kingston in 1940, Higgs had made his first records as a teenager in a duo with Roy Wilson, known as Higgs and Wilson. He had spent a little time in the US and when I met him he had just released a fine single, “Let Us Do Something”, on his own Elevation label. As with the Wailers, Blackwell was paying for him to make an album, which eventually came out three years later, not on Island but on Adrian Sherwood’s Pressure Sounds label, which also released a follow-up, Unity Is Power, in 1979. Probably Blackwell felt he had enough on his hands with the Wailers and Burning Spear; maybe, too, he concluded that Higgs, already in his thirties, was unlikely to make a crossover to a wider audience.

Higgs gave me a copy of ‘Let Us Do Something”, which I’ve always cherished for its unusual out of tempo intro — acoustic guitar and bowed double bass — and his lead vocal, which sounds like Richie Havens transported from Washington Square to the government yard on First Street, infused by a characteristic sense of wisdom imparted without rhetorical flourishes. He died of cancer in Los Angeles in 1999, mentioned in all the histories of Marley and the Wailers but with his own work still mostly unrecognised. Apart from the film’s more obvious value as a historical document, it’s nice to have it as a memento of his significance.

* The Capitol Sessions ’73 is released on DVD, CD and vinyl by Universal Music.

The return of Abba

Abba’s decision to release an album of new songs and to prepare a new live show for London next spring led me straight into a row with an old friend who thinks the idea of turning themselves into “avatars” via motion-capture and de-ageing technology is pathetic. I disagree. While nothing would persuade me to attend a show featuring a hologram of a dead artist — Elvis, Amy, Roy Orbison, Michael Jackson — I’m fine with Abba doing it. That’s for two reasons. First, they’re still alive: the decision is entirely theirs. Second, I’m guessing that they’re not attracted by the idea of taking the stage 40 years after their last shows and doing versions of the routines they performed when they were in their twenties and thirties. They want to give us something that is both themselves and true to our memories of them.

This isn’t like Bob Dylan performing into his eighties, unafraid of showing his signs of age. Abba are a pop band, almost a cartoon of the genre, as the Monkees were 10 years before them. What made them different was the self-generated outpouring of great songs that captured a worldwide audience who responded not just to the glittery surface but to the real feelings inside “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Name of the Game”. Perhaps I’m being too generous, but it seems to me that the avatar business is a way of respecting their audience’s vision of them. With career sales of 400 million records, it can’t be about the money.

I saw them at the Albert Hall in 1977, when they were, I suppose, in their prime. Afterwards I drove from Knightsbridge back to the office of The Times on Gray’s Inn Road to tap out a review that appeared in the next morning’s paper. I’m amused to see that I mentioned the influence of Phil Spector, many years before I discovered — via a biography of the band — that something their studio engineer had read in my 1972 book on Spector had influenced the way they made their records, right from the beginning. (If you think I’ve written about this before, you’re right. But I’m not going to let it go…)

Anyway, amid this morning’s lavish coverage of their announcement is a piece in The Times purporting to list their top 20 greatest singles. It excludes “The Day Before You Came”, which might just be their masterpiece. Honestly, I don’t know where they find them these days.