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Still Kokomo

No band is more likely to make me smile from the first note than Kokomo. Almost 50 years after they emerged in the pubs of London, they’re still at it. Much changed, as we all are since we first gathered in Islington’s Hope & Anchor to marvel at the authenticity of their feeling for funk, but still keeping the faith.

Of the original members, the singer Frank Collins, the singer/keyboardist Tony O’Malley, the percussionist Jody Linscott and the guitarists Jim Mullen and Neil Hubbard were present last night at the Half Moon in Putney, one of their favourite venues. They were joined by the bassist Jennifer Maidman and the drummer Andy Treacey, long-term replacements for Alan Spenner and Terry Stannard, the saxophonist Jim Hunt, filling Mel Collins’s shoes, and the singers Helena May Harrison and Charlotte Churchman, who since 2014 and 2017 respectively have replaced the late Dyan Birch and Paddie McHugh.

The repertoire doesn’t change much as these reunions come around. No Kokomo fan would go away entirely happy without having heard Bill Withers’ “Lonely Town Lonely Street”, O’Malley’s instrumental “Tee Time”, Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can”, Hubbard’s sweetly soaring “Anytime” or their traditional showstopper, Bobby Womack’s “I Can Understand It”.

The sound was rough last night, and one or two instrumental stretches went on a bit too long, but the general vibrancy made up for it. The highlights for me were Churchman’s storming delivery of Stevie Wonder’s great “So What the Fuss”, Harrison bossing “Stuff Like That”, the divine Linscott’s beautifully subtle conga-playing on the closing “Third Time Around”, and Jim Hunt’s gruff Texas tenor touches throughout. It all made me very glad that there are still nights like these.

Listening to the music of time

By the time I started listening to Charlie Parker, he’d been dead for five or six years. I was in my early teens, too young to have heard “Parker’s Mood” and “Ko Ko” and the rest of his music as it emerged, first as 78s on the Savoy and Dial labels and then on Verve albums, interacting in real time with everything else around it. That didn’t stop me forming opinions and eventually writing about it. But it was a long time before I realised that older listeners might consider their opinions to be worth more than mine, simply by virtue of their perspective on the music’s initial impact.

I think the penny dropped in the 1970s during a bad-tempered exchange of letters with Derek Jewell, then the jazz and pop critic of the Sunday Times. Twenty years older than me, he tried put me in my place by telling me that he’d been listening to Parker’s records when they were new, while doing his national service in, if I remember correctly, the RAF. With the arrogance of youth, I answered back. But I did so with the uneasy recognition that, however much we both loved Parker’s music, his feelings about it might be intrinsically different from mine, his connection more intimate.

Now, half a century later, it’s my turn to have the sort of feelings that underpinned his words. Occasionally I find myself wondering how someone in their twenties or thirties today can possibly understand the music of Jimi Hendrix, or Martha and the Vandellas, or Albert Ayler, or Anne Briggs, or Curtis Mayfield, or Laura Nyro the way I think I do. I mean, you had to discover “Heat Wave”. “Quicksand”, “Live Wire”, In My Lonely Room”, “Dancing in the Street”, “Wild One” and “Nowhere to Run” in sequence, at the time, to make proper sense of them, didn’t you?

Soon nobody alive will know how it felt to experience that music as it came into the world, all brand new. But people will still want to have opinions about it. And there’s a possibility — heavens above! — that their opinions will be just as valid as mine, and possibly a lot more interesting.

This came home to me while watching Lisa Cortés’s new documentary about Little Richard in order to review it for Uncut magazine (seen above in a page from the June issue). I found it an extraordinary piece of work, on two levels. First, and most obvious, is the enduring charisma of Richard himself, who sets fire to the screen every time he’s shown either performing or giving an interview. The second and more unexpected level is the one on which it made me listen to the director’s choice of talking heads: young academics of colour, female and male, some gay, from American institutions, discussing Richard in terms of his self-presentation — derived from a sexually fluid segment of the black entertainment world — and its wider impact.

White rock critics of my generation, in other words the sort of people who generally get rolled out for such projects, are conspicuous by their absence from this project. But, as I say in the review, I listened to the views of Zandria Robinson, Fredara Hadley, Jason King and others, threaded throughout Little Richard: I Am Everything, with the feeling that I was hearing a new kind of voice discussing a familiar subject from a different and extremely valuable perspective. It gave me a jolt, but an inspiring one.

It’s possible that none of those young academics could list Richard’s first half-dozen Specialty singles in chronological order. Certainly none is anywhere near old enough to remember the precise cultural explosion each one caused on its release, just as I’ll never know how it felt to absorb Duke Ellington’s compositions as they emerged, one after another, on 78s in the 1920s and ’30s. But at this stage, perhaps there are more interesting things to know, and more important things to be said.

* Little Richard: I Am Everything is in selected UK cinemas on 28 April. The June issue of Uncut is out now.

Fire! drill

From the experiments of the Sun Ra Arkestra and Alex von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity outfit in the ’60s through Charlie Haden’s long-running Liberation Music Orchestra and Mike Westbrook’s Marching Song band to Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers, serious attempts to integrate the extended techniques and strategies of free jazz within the format of a large ensemble have always been worth following. Fifty years ago, Keith Tippett’s short-lived 50-strong Centipede was a spectacular example; now we have a new album from the almost as populous Fire! Orchestra, founded in Sweden 14 years ago as an outgrowth of the trio comprising the saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, the bassist Johan Berthling and the drummer Andreas Werliin.

I saw a version of Fire! Orchestra in London a few years ago and was impressed more by the energy and diversity on display than by the subtlety of their music. In that respect, and others, they reminded me then of Centipede. Their new album, a 2CD or triple vinyl set, finds their membership up to 43 — still seven short of Tippett’s aggregation — but now capable of a much greater range of gesture, texture and attack from their four singers, four strings, eight brass, and 15 reeds and woodwind, plus a panoply of keyboards, electronics, guitar and percussion.

The album’s title, Echoes, is the name for a work in 14 parts involving various composers, mostly Gustafsson, Berthling and Werliin but also the violinist Josefin Runsteen (who also provides arrangements for the two violins and two cellos) and guest saxophonist and singer Joe McPhee, plus one cover: “Cala Boca Menino” by the late Brazilian songwriter Dorival Caymmi. The horn arrangements are by Mats Äleklint, one of the band’s trombonists. The whole thing is beautifully mixed by the much-travelled Jim O’Rourke, a sometime member of Sonic Youth who also mixed Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Joanna Newsom’s Ys.

I won’t attempt a linear description of getting on for two hours of music; for one thing, the individual soloists aren’t identified, so I can’t tell you which of the baritone saxophonists plays the impassioned but beautifully balanced solo against hovering strings on the opening “I See Your Eye, Part 1” (which you can hear on this page from their label’s website) or which bassist contributes the insisted strumming above the atmospheric electronics and chattering woodwind on “Not Yet Born, the Blind Courage of Life”. But although that’s the kind of thing I usually care about, in this case it doesn’t really matter. As with Centipede, it’s the totality of the thing that counts: not just the weight and momentum of the riff passages but the fine detail (for example, the contrast of douss’ngouni and bass introducing “Forest Without Shadows”, or the exquisite tapestry of sound behind the beautiful lone female voice on “To Gather It All. Once.”) discernible even amid the mass.

If there are some familiar devices, such as the use of slow-moving written lines for horns and strings against busy percussion, there’s no sense of cliché. And what you won’t find is much in the way of the collective freak-outs familiar from the early years of such ventures. For all the musicians’ fervour, both explicit and implicit, this is music in which the free play of ensemble and individual imagination is tempered by an intelligent degree of control. When an explosion does come along (and there are a couple), it’s a shock and is either brief or carefully resolved: an example of the sort of tactical astuteness characteristic of what will undoubtedly be one of the albums of the year.

* Fire! Orchestra’s Echoes is on the Rune Grammofon label. The band photograph is by Johan Bergmark.

A portrait of Bud

There’s this portrait that I bought about 30 years ago from an English artist called Johnny Bull. At the time, he was concentrating on jazz musicians: Miles, Coltrane, Monk. I liked his work, so I invested a couple of hundred quid in one of the less obvious subjects, a large pastel portrait of the bebop piano master Bud Powell. It hung on a wall in the house for a while but then I got uncomfortable with it and put it away. It emerged recently and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Bud was one of jazz’s great tragedies as well as one of its great masters. He was a classically trained prodigy from a highly musical family. But in 1945, aged 20, after being arrested while drunk on the streets of Philadelphia one night after a gig with the trumpeter Cootie Williams’s big band, he was beaten on the head. The effect was to change his personality, putting him in and out of mental institutions, where he was subjected to electro-convulsive therapy.

Some of those who heard him in his teens said his playing was never quite the same after the beating. But still it was good enough to make him the leader among modern jazz pianists in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the only one who could take the stage with Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro and Max Roach and exist absolutely on their level, matching their creativity. At his best — in his 1947 trio session released as a 10-inch LP on the Roost label, for example — he was incomparable, although drugs prescribed for what was then known as manic depression sometimes dulled his mind and his edge. But he remained capable of composing, alongside bop standards like “Wail” and “Bouncing with Bud”, such extraordinary pieces as “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Glass Enclosure”.

After several years in Paris, where he had a trio with the great Kenny Clarke on drums and the French bassist Pierre Michelot and was looked after for a while by the writer, commercial artist and amateur pianist Francis Paudras, he returned to New York in 1964. He died there two years later, aged 41, of the effects of tuberculosis, exacerbated by alcoholism and general neglect.

If you want to know about Bud, there are several good biographies, including Paudras’s Dance of the Infidels (Da Capo, 1998) and Peter Pullman’s exhaustively researched Wail (available on Kindle). And I recommend an hour-long documentary called Inner Exile, made for French television in 1999 and now on YouTube, directed by Robert Mugnerot and featuring marvellous performance footage as well as interviews with those close to him. (The great René Urtreger, who made an album of Powell’s compositions in Paris in 1955, says of his hero: “He was not made to live in this society.”)

I contacted Johnny Bull via email a few days ago, wanting to talk about his portrait. As you can see, it shows Bud wearing a fez and what looks like some kind of hospital uniform. When I first saw it, it seemed a powerful way of dramatising the pathos of his story. So, after we’d become reacquainted, I told Johnny about my dilemma. It’s a very fine piece of art, and quite beautiful, but it brings too much sadness to a domestic setting. Exhibiting it in a public environment, like a gallery or museum, might not be the right way to introduce Bud to people who don’t know anything about him. It illustrates one aspect of his life with great sensitivity but gives no indication of what he brought to the world, which is why it wouldn’t really work on the wall of a jazz club, either.

The artist agreed. “It’s a distressing picture,” he said. “He looks such a lost soul. I made a painting of Lester Young once, towards the end of his life, and it was too disturbing to keep looking at, so I quite understand your feeling.”

Johnny Bull loves and understands the music. His intentions when he made the portrait were beyond reproach, his response to the subject was anything but superficial, and his execution was impeccable. I bought it because it moved me. But I have no clear idea of what its fate should be now. It seems wrong for it to spend any more years stacked away in my house. Maybe I’m writing this in the hope that someone will propose a solution. Failing a better idea, I’ll probably just give it back to the artist, who can put it in his archive. Then, one day, someone else will have to make the decision.