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Tom Skinner at Church of Sound

Long before hearing of Abdul Wadud’s death in August at the age of 75, Tom Skinner had been preparing his homage to the great cellist. Last night’s Church of Sound concert at St James the Great in Lower Clapton was a wonderful tribute from one musician to another, transmuting elements of Wadud’s solo album, By Myself, into a framework for a six-piece band called Voices of Bishara.

Taking their name from that chosen by Wadud for the label on which his album was released in 1977, the musicians were Chelsea Carmichael (tenor saxophone and flute), Robert Stillman (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet), Kareem Dayes (cello), Tom Herbert (bass), Paul Camo (samples) and Skinner himself (drums). Church of Sound is a terrific gig: the place was packed for the debut of a project led by a man known from his work with Sons of Kemet and more recently with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. Not many among the audience would have known of Wadud before last night, although there were a few whoops when Skinner mentioned the name of Julius Hemphill, with whom the cellist worked so memorably in the 1970s and ’80s, but they certainly responded to the music created in his honour.

Even at its most sophisticated there was something elemental about Wadud’s playing, something steeped in African ancestry, to which the name Bishara — ”gospel” or “good news” in a variety of languages, including Arabic and Swahili — made reference. Skinner’s arrangements enhanced this core sensibility, using the two stringed instruments and Camo’s samples to create a kind of desert blues atmosphere, floating on the drummer’s own loose-jointed propulsion and providing the setting for the two horn soloists. (At times it recalled the use of Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s oud and the basses of Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman on Coltrane’s 1961 Village Vanguard recordings). Dayes made fine contributions with his scrabbled pizzicato figures and keening arco, while Herbert raised the temperature in the second half with a majestic solo, setting up a two-tenor juxtaposition of Stillman’s asymmetrical agility and Carmichael’s confident power.

At St James the Great the musicians play in the round, and the church’s architecture means that the quality of the sound depends on where you’re sitting or standing. I moved after the interval and found that what had previously been swimming in echo now came into proper focus. The activities of two camera operators, filming the musicians at close quarters, was unhelpful and at times a distraction, but there’s an album of this music out soon, and on the evidence of the concert I’m looking forward to it very much. Rather than just settle for saluting the source of his inspiration, Skinner has found a way of going beyond it to discover something of his own.

* Here’s my Guardian obit of Abdul Wadud. As Tom Skinner told the audience, Wadud’s By Myself can now be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mff74JJKD40&ab_channel=HeathZiebell. The Voices of Bishara album is out in November.

Complain to the frog

On a fine but chilly day in January 2016, I took the train from Christopher Street in the West Village to Hoboken for a cup of coffee with Steve Lehman, the alto saxophonist and composer whose octet I was hoping to present at JazzFest Berlin later in the year. I’d seen them in Amsterdam and they’d confirmed the impression created by their albums that here was a band with a rare ability to use highly sophisticated compositional techniques as a vehicle for a group of superlative improvisers.

Lehman did indeed appear with the octet in the formal surroundings of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele that November, but something he said during our conversation on the western shore of the Hudson River led to a second gig the following year. When I asked what else he was up to, this tall, thin, bespectacled, generally studious-looking man, who studied the “spectral music” of Olivier Messaien in France, has lectured at the Royal Academy of Music in London and was about to head west to take up a post as a professor of music at the California Institute of the Arts, mentioned that he was working with a couple of MCs, one of whom rapped in English, the other in Wolof, the language of Senegal and the Gambia.

That project turned into a band called Sélébéyone, whose first album came out in 2017, shortly before Lehman brought them to Berlin to appear at the old Lido cinema in Kreuzberg as part of a two-night prelude to the main festival which also featured Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones, Shabaka and the Ancestors, and Heroes Are Gang Leaders. They were brilliant. And now their second album — Xaybu: The Unseen — continues their remarkable exploration of ancient and modern.

Sélébéyone are the MCs Gaston Bandimic and HPrizm, who write and rap in Wolof and English respectively, the drummer Damion Reid and the soprano saxophonist Maciek Lasserre, who shares the compositional duties and the instrumental solos with Lehman. The 15 tracks of Xaybu are as carefully constructed, intricately detailed and richly textured as the music of the octet, making extensive use of electronics to modify and layer the source sounds. Lehman’s alto improvisations, always bearing the thoughtfully metabolised influence of his teacher and mentor Jackie McLean, fit beautifully between the spoken words and Reid’s endlessly creative beat-making, as do Lasserre’s citrus-flavoured soprano solos.

The words you catch strike home, and it’s worth reading the translation on the record label’s website to find something like this: “Kou dakoroul sin Ou yalla ndogale clamel god / Kou goki gokk tere nelaw goudi blamel mboot (If you don’t agree with God’s decisions, complain to God / If the frog’s sound keeps you up at night, complain to the frog).” Not your usual hip-hop message. Not your usual hip-hop music, either, or even your usual jazz/hip-hop fusion, but something deep, distinctive, urgent and often exhilarating.

* The photograph of Steve Lehman performing with Sélébéyone in Berlin in 2017 is by Camille Blake. Xaybu: The Unseen is on the Pi Recordings label. Lyrics: https://pirecordings.com/selebeyonelyrics/

Olie Brice / JLG

Jean-Luc Godard once compared watching the great Hungarian football team of the 1950s to listening to free jazz. A few hours after the announcement of the great director’s death, it was possible to reflect on the meaning of his comparison during a performance at the Café Oto by the trio and octet of Olie Brice, launching the bassist’s new double album, Fire Hills.

Nowadays when we use the term free jazz we tend to mean music created from scratch, on the spot, with no prepared material. Back in the early ’60s, it tended to mean the use of composition to inspire improvisers to stretch the traditional boundaries, using the material as a launch-pad rather than a template while freeing soloists and accompanists to exchange roles. All that could be heard in the music made by Brice’s groups, both of them benefitting from his ability to use his role as a composer to guide rather than prescribe.

The first half featured the trio, completed by the tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger and the drummer Will Glaser, moving with great empathy through compositions dedicated to Johnny Dyani, Eric Dolphy and Andrew Hill. Linking two of the pieces, Glaser delivered a extraordinary solo that began with mallets rolling fast around his snare drum and two tom-toms, using the three pitches to produce something that had the quality of a song, before reversing one of the mallets to introduce a kind of counter-line. Drum solos are seldom poetic, but this was.

Between the two sets, the Oto sound system quietly played selections from the soundtracks of Godard’s movies, including Georges Delerue’s gorgeous orchestral compositions for Le Mépris: a nice touch on a day when a key figure of contemporary culture left the scene.

The six horns of Brice’s octet were assembled in a single line, but it soon became apparent that he would be using them as two units: a pair of trumpets (Kim Macari and Alex Bonney) and a baritone saxophone (Cath Roberts) to the left, an alto saxophone (Jason Yarde) and two tenors (George Crowley and Rachel Musson) to the right, with the drummer Johnny Hunter joining Brice in the rhythm section.

The short ensemble passages — sometimes just punctuations between the improvisations — had the kind of loose-woven, slightly ragged ebullience that could remind you of Mingus’s bands or Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, without borrowing moves from either. That made sense, since Mingus and Haden also figure strongly as inspirations for Brice’s own playing, in which virtuosity and passion are equally mixed.

The first two solos, by Macari and Musson, were the kind you want to wrap up and take home: on-the-nose power from the trumpet, beautifully controlled tonal distortion from the tenor. There were many duets, notably one between the soaring Yarde and the agile Bonney. One or two of the solos outstayed their momentum, but with this music that’s a risk worth taking. And what the evening showed was that Brice has his own way of applying organisation to music, shaping it in interesting ways without compromising the crucial spontaneity of expression and interaction.

* Olie Brice’s Fire Hills is on the West Hill label: https://westhill.bandcamp.com/album/fire-hills

The Beatles in 1962

“The deeper you dig,” Mark Lewisohn said, “the higher you fly.” He was introducing a preview of his new stage show about the Beatles in 1962, and talking about the methodology behind the research into the group’s history that has been his life’s work. And then he spent two hours proving his point.

Among the many amusing moments of the show is his speculation on what might have happened if Decca had made a deal with Brian Epstein and his band instead of signing Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. Since Decca immediately put the Tremeloes to work as the studio backing group for some of their other artists, it might have meant the Beatles accompanying Jimmy Savile on his 45rpm single of “Ahab the Arab”. Which, 60 years later, would not have looked great on their collective CV.

Where memories fade, he points out, documents are the key. And he has documentary evidence for lots of things, including a letter demolishing the story that Decca turned down the Beatles, showing that an offer was made and rejected by Epstein.

His shows, of which this is the second, tend to have rather odd titles. This one is called Evolver:62. It follows the success in 2019 of Hornsey Road, in which he celebrated the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road, and which I wrote about in the Guardian. The new one takes us through the calendar year of 1962, including the death in Hamburg of Stuart Sutcliffe, the approaches to Decca and EMI, the signing with the latter and the first encounters with George Martin, the replacement of Pete Best by Ringo Starr, and a week in August when something extraordinary happened every day, including Ringo’s debut with the band, Liverpool FC’s first match on their return to the old First Division under Bill Shankly, and John Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia Powell.

Lewisohn narrates the show on stage, an engaging presenter who finds clever ways to illustrate the story. Talking about how the US rights to “Love Me Do” were turned down successively by Capitol, Liberty, Laurie and Atlantic, he shows us mock-ups of what the 45s on those labels would have looked like, while pointing out that Jerry Wexler, who did the deed on Atlantic’s behalf, never had to suffer the sort of scorn that, probably unjustly, followed Decca’s Dick Rowe to the grave.

I’m not going to give much more away, because the surprises are part of the fun. Suffice it say that Lewisohn knows more than McCartney remembers about the inspiration behind “I Saw Her Standing There”. And he delighted me by discovering the first newspaper or magazine in which the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were mentioned in the same issue: a Melody Maker of late December 1962, when “Love Me Do” was in the charts, the American folk singer was in London to appear in Madhouse on Castle Street for the BBC, and a new R&B band were advertised as playing a gig at Sandover Hall in Richmond.

The preview I attended was full of that kind of stuff (including the postcard in the photograph above, the first known example of all four Beatles autographing a single object). Lewisohn is doing the show to finance his continuing work on the second volume of his epic trilogy, All These Years, which can legitimately be thought of as the definitive Beatles history. One of the things I like about him is that although he’s gone to enormous lengths to acquire all this information, he never seems proprietorial about it. He likes sharing his treasure, using it to enrich everyone else’s enjoyment of a story that will never be repeated. So while it’s for a worthy cause, it’s also a really entertaining couple of hours.

* Mark Lewisohn’s Evolver:62 is at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London for three shows on October 7 and 8, 2022. Tickets: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-theatre-studio. Tune In, the first volume of his trilogy, is published by Little, Brown.

Angus Gaye (Drummie Zeb) 1959-2022

As I recall, just two members of a band called Aswad arrived at the Hammersmith office of Island Records with a cassette tape one day in the summer of 1975. They were Brinsley Forde, the singer and rhythm guitarist, and George Oban, the bass player. There wasn’t much on the tape beyond a few scratchily recorded rhythm tracks. But I liked what I heard and I wanted to know more and to meet the rest of them. We arranged for them to return a few days later, at five o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 15.

The timing was important because one member of the band was still at school. That was Angus Gaye, their drummer, who turned up along with Brinsley, George, Donald Griffiths, the lead guitarist, and Courtney Hemmings, the keyboards player. They were young — Angus was 16 — and they had a nice combination of energy (particularly Angus) and seriousness (particularly George). I liked the fact that they chosen a name that meant “black”.

It was obvious that they worshipped Bob Marley and the Wailers, who would be playing their historic gig at the Lyceum two nights later, on Thursday, July 17. Their song titles would make the influence explicit: “I A Rebel Soul”, “Concrete Slaveship”. I liked the idea of a young British reggae band taking that as their inspiration and doing something of their own with it, infusing their songs with their own experience as the children of immigrants from the Caribbean. There wasn’t yet a Steel Pulse or a Misty in Roots on the scene, while Greyhound and Matumbi were still basically pop rather than roots reggae bands.

A combination of memory and diaries tells me that we gave them some time in the rehearsal room and the studio to make demos, and eventually I played something to Chris Blackwell on one of his visits to London and told him I wanted to sign them. He was fine with that, so we gave them a contract. They went into the studio at the back of our building on St Peter’s Square, with Tony Platt — who had worked with Blackwell on Catch a Fire and Burnin’ — as their engineer and co-producer, and came out with the 16-track tapes that they and Platt mixed at Basing Street into a debut album that was something to be proud of.

By the time it came out they were adopting new names. Angus would become Drummie Zeb. He sang lead on “Back to Africa”, the track that was pulled from the album to make the first single, and eventually he became the group’s main lead singer. I left Island soon after the album was released, just as they were starting what I believe to have been the first experiments by a band using dub techniques in live performance. I was able to watch in admiration from afar as they made great records like “Three Babylon” and “Warrior Charge”, as they backed Burning Spear on his concert dates, as Angus played drums on Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party”, as — much later — they had their No 1 hit with “Don’t Turn Around”, and as they played big gigs like Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday celebration at Wembley and Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay.

Angus/Drummie died last Friday, September 2, aged 62. I think of him and his band, and of their youthful enthusiasm on the day they came to see me at St Peter’s Square, with great fondness.

* The portrait of Angus/Drummie was taken by Dennis Morris for the cover of Aswad, the band’s debut album.

Gumbo on the King’s Road

Along with the Chelsea Potter, John Sandoe Books and Peter Jones, the Pheasantry is a rare reminder of how the King’s Road used to be before it was ruined by retail and food chains, a process that started in the 1970s. I hadn’t been there for many years until a couple of friends invited me to go with them to hear Jon Cleary on one of three sold-out nights this week.

It’s a Pizza Express now, and like the ones in Dean Street and Holborn it has a thriving music programme in the basement, taking over the cabaret function of the old Pizza on the Park. Cleary, the English-born singer and pianist who has lived in New Orleans for many years, was an ideal choice to perform solo on the club’s Steinway in the intimate, 70-seat environment.

To say he has metabolised the music of New Orleans during his decades in residence, and particularly that of its great pianists, is no exaggeration. In the first set, he started with Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and then mixed it all together in a great gumbo whose ingredients included Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Mac Rebennack and Allen Toussaint. He did the Booker thing of bringing Brahms to the boogie-woogie and the rumba to Rachmaninoff, wandering along the highways and byways of the keyboard to find lurid climaxes, crafty turnarounds and outrageous false endings that brought spontaneous cheers.

The second set was something else. This was about the songs. And not just the fine covers of “Lucille”, “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” and “Blueberry Hill” but his own compositions. One, the soulful “Frenchmen Street Blues”, was heard in season two of Treme. Another, a lovely wistful blues-ballad called “All Or Not At All”, is something he’s apparently been working on for years. A third, “When You Get Back”, is a strutting blue-eyed soul song that I can’t get out of my head. A very good night indeed.