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Where Jimi led

If you’re interested in guitar-playing, you probably need to know about Ava Mendoza. I first heard her at Subterranea in New York in 2016, during the Winter Jazzfest, when she played with a band led by the trombonist Jacob Garchik and including two other guitarists, Mary Halvorson and Jonathan Goldberger, and a drummer, Vinnie Sperrazza. You can see them in the photograph; she’s on the extreme left, with the Fender Jaguar.

Even in the company of the great Halvorson, Mendoza caught my ear. Born in Miami, Florida in 1983, she studied with Fred Frith at Mills College in Oakland, California before moving to New York in 2013. She seemed to have found a way of feeding the sound of early rock and roll guitar — think Dick Dale, Watkins Copicat echo units, and a time before tremolo arms became known as whammy bars — into the kind of thinking shared by the several generations of guitarists freed from the orthodoxies of jazz guitar by Jimi Hendrix, a list going from Sonny Sharrock, John McLaughlin, Ray Russell, Vernon Reid and David Torn to Bill Frisell, Elliott Sharp, Marc Ribot and Kim Myhr. She showed strength, inventiveness and confidence.

That first impression is confirmed on a new album which features her in a trio under the leadership of the veteran bassist William Parker, completed by the drummer Gerald Cleaver. It’s called Mayan Space Station, and it’s the sort of music you can easily imagine Hendrix making if he were still around today: loose, improvisatory, inspired, collective, which are all the words that come to mind when you think of his playing from more than 50 years ago on tracks like “Manic Depression”, “Love or Confusion” and “Third Stone from the Sun”, carried into the 21st century.

I was thinking about Hendrix anyway, since I’ve been enjoying a newly published book called Voodoo Child, in which two Los Angeles-based writers, my old Melody Maker colleague Harvey Kubernik and his brother Kenneth, compile an oral history of the guitarist’s life and work. It’s not a biography in the usual sense but a sort of 360-degree journey around the short but extraordinary life of the man who arguably had more influence on contemporary music than any individual instrumentalist since Charlie Parker.

The vast majority of the interview material is new, culled from dozens of conversations with those who knew, observed or were affected by Hendrix. They range from Brian Auger, John Mayall and Andrew Loog Oldham through John Echols of Love, Robby Krieger of the Doors, Ed Cassidy of Spirit, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane and James Williamson of the Stooges to Michelle Phillips, Ernie Isley, Michael Des Barres, Kim Fowley, Jerry Wexler, Billy Cox, Jim Keltner, Nils Lofgren, Patti Smith, Nels Cline and many others. Of course there’s lots of stuff about Monterey, Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, as you’d expect. But the authors aren’t afraid to dive into less obvious areas. In one of the later sections several witnesses, including Hugh Banton, the Van der Graaf Generator organist, and John Etheridge, the Soft Machine’s guitarist for the past few decades, have interesting things to say about the specifics of the equipment Hendrix used.

If I have a criticism, it’s that — like most Hendrix books — it doesn’t follow the money or go deeply into the late period when he became involved with black artists and activists such as the singer Emmaretta Marks and the percussionist Juma Sultan, getting closer to the world where free jazz intersected with political action. But as a kaleidoscopic assembly of impressions from an orbit around Planet Jimi, it has a value of its own.

The eminent composer and flautist James Newton, a professor of jazz studies who has taught a Hendrix course at UCLA, talks about Hendrix’s relationship to jazz: “Check out the floating quality in ‘(Have You Ever Been to) Electric Ladyland’. When Hendrix hits the guitar three times to establish the tempo, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, it’s in 3 but not really — most people hear it in 4/4… a polyrhythm is established, which is not something you hear in pop music, then or now. It’s Mitch (Mitchell) channelling Elvin (Jones).”

That was something you couldn’t miss when you heard Are You Experienced or saw Hendrix live in 1967, at least if you were conversant with the work of the John Coltrane Quartet in the first half of the decade. Mitch had clearly paid attention to Elvin’s sense of time — the 3-against-2 which is at the heart of the rhythms that came from Africa and became what we call swing. And Hendrix, who hadn’t (as far as I know) played jazz during his early career on the R&B circuit, responded to what he was doing. In that sense, Mitch was a liberating influence on Jimi.

It’s interesting to speculate on what would have happened had Chas Chandler recruited a more four-square British rock drummer of the time — say, Aynsley Dunbar (who was under consideration), Keef Hartley or John Steel, his former colleague in the Animals — to the Experience, as might easily have happened. John Mayall points out that “Jimi came to England and a blues world… going back to Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner, who started the blues boom. This attracted a lot of musicians who now had something new to inspire them.” But it was not just a purist’s blues world. Korner’s absolutely seminal Blues Incorporated was packed with jazz musicians, from Ginger Baker and Danny Thompson to Dick Heckstall-Smith and Art Themen, as were Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames and the Graham Bond Organisation. Even had Hendrix never listened to Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman before leaving the US in 1966, he would have absorbed something of their spirit from the musicians he heard and worked with in London.

James Newton connects Hendrix to the huge change taking place in jazz two decades after the heyday of bebop. John McLaughlin (in a quote attributed to Colin Harper’s biography, Bathed in Lightning) remembers taking Miles Davis to the Monterey Pop film just to see Jimi, and the effect it had on the trumpeter. The effect on guitarists — including McLaughlin — was even greater, in terms of encouraging a more adventurous approach to tone, texture and effects, and more enduring. As we can hear in the work of Ava Mendoza and others of her generation, it shows no sign of abating.

* Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik’s Voodoo Child is published by Sterling. William Parker’s Mayan Space Station is on the AUM Fidelity label: https://williamparker.bandcamp.com/album/mayan-space-station

Entangled in Berlin

Irreversible Entanglements - Jazzfest Berlin 2018 - Haus der Berliner Festspiele (C) Camille Bl ake - Berliner Festspiele -8

Moor Mother with Irreversible Entanglements in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele (photo: Camille Blake)

I’ve spent the past few days thinking about the enormous wealth of music I heard last weekend during the first edition of Jazzfest Berlin curated by Nadin Deventer, who selected some very fine artists, devised interesting combinations and highlighted provocative themes while moving the festival’s furniture around sufficiently to make the event feel fresh and new.

Among the things I carried away with me included a surprise encore on the final night with Mary Halvorson joining Bill Frisell for a lovely guitar duet on “The Maid With the Flaxen Hair”, the title track of their highly recommended recent album on the Tzadik label; Kara-Lis Coverdale’s dramatic and absorbing pipe-organ solo recital in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church; Jaimie Branch’s electrifyingly bold trumpet solos with a quartet driven by the drummer Chad Taylor; the fantastically creative cello solos of Tomeka Reid with Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star International and a 12-piece Art Ensemble of Chicago; Kim Myhr’s mini-orchestra of strumming guitars; and Jason Moran’s centenary tribute to the soldier/bandleader James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters, which moved me more than I had expected.

In a festival-related event, there was also a chance to see the artist Arthur Jafa’s “A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions” at the gallery of the collector Julia Stoschek. Having missed it at the Serpentine Gallery last year, I was particularly struck by one of the video pieces, which cut together YouTube footage of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Bootsy Collins, and an electrifying 10-minute performance by the gospel singer Lateria Wooten, singing “Nothing But the Blood” with the late Thomas Whitfield’s choir (which you can watch here).

The solo of the festival was played by Ingrid Laubrock with Mary Halvorson’s wonderful octet. Her tenor saxophone emerged from the warm textures of a ballad called, apparently, “No. 60” (the composer numbers her tunes before assigning them names), like Ben Webster taking his turn in an Ellington small group 80 years ago. The tone, the trajectory, the internal balance of the improvisation were all simply perfect. It was a moment of absolute beauty and the effect was spine-tingling,

But most of all I came away with the memory of Moor Mother, otherwise known as Camae Ayewa, a spoken-word artist from Chicago who was heard in several contexts, most notably with her group, Irreversible Entanglements, featuring Aquiles Navarro on trumpet, Keir Neuringer on alto, Luke Stewart on bass and Tcheser Holmes on drums. Her fierce, declamatory recitations seemed like the logical evolution of the poetry-and-jazz explorations of Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez. Over a highly expressive and flexible band, she drove her words home with a caustic power intensified by a command of economy and repetition echoing that of old blues singers. And then, after a short interval, she appeared in a duo with the Art Ensemble’s Roscoe Mitchell, who played his sopranino saxophone as she riffed on phrases borrowed from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Here we had the old and the new, speaking directly to today’s world.

Back on Highway 61

Generally speaking, I prefer Bob Dylan to make his own cover versions, just the way he’s been doing for the best part of 60 years. There are maybe not even a dozen exceptions, mostly the obvious ones: Presley’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, Jimi’s “Watchtower”, Stevie’s “Blowing in the Wind”, the Fairports’ “Si tu dois partir”, Ferry’s “Hard Rain”, Betty LaVette’s “Things Have Changed”. But now there’s a definite addition to the list: Dave Alvin’s version of “Highway 61 Revisited”, a highlight of From an Old Guitar, his new album of rare and unreleased stuff.

To be honest, I haven’t followed the career of the singer/guitarist from Downey, California who started out at the very end of the ’70s with the Blasters and more recently led bands known variously as the Guilty Ones and the Guilty Women. My bad, as the young people say. From an Old Guitar is full of great stuff, drawing on country, blues, R&B and, in Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “Perdido Street Blues”, old-time jazz, with other songs from Mickey Newbury, Earl Hooker, Doug Sahm and Marty Robbins.

Dylan’s parable is set to a low-riding shuffle beat, the layered guitars of Alvin and Greg Leisz howling, nudging and screeching from multiple perspectives as the magnificent verses are recited in appropriately biblical tones. Alvin’s voice is one that wears its bruises, scars and calluses lightly, weighting and timing every line perfectly, drawing out the dark humour, simultaneously absurdist and apocalyptic. The video is well assembled and cut, particularly the chase towards the end between a hot rod and a Highway Patrol car on a two-lane blacktop.

My other favourite is a song called “Peace”, credited to Willie Dixon. It bears no resemblance to a song of the same name that gave the title to a 1971 Dixon album, but it carries the hallmarks of the composer of “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “The Seventh Son”. The buried hook — the thing that makes we want to listen to it again, straight away — is a funky little chorded figure from Joe Terry’s electric piano: peeping through two or three times, it seems to want to take the song in a different direction before thinking better of it and withdrawing.

I can happily listen to this album from start to finish, and then over again. Even better, I imagine, would be to wander into some bar or other — Dingwalls, perhaps, or the old Tramps on 15th Street in NYC — and drink a beer or two while listening to Alvin and his band working their way through the whole thing. One day, maybe. But whatever, that “Highway 61” is going to stick around.

* Dave Alvin’s From an Old Guitar is out now on the Yep Roc label.

Living for the weekend

To understand the full impact of Ready Steady Go!, you really had to live through the succession of British TV pop shows that preceded it: 6.5 Special (BBC, Jan 57-Dec 58, 96 episodes), Oh Boy (ITV, Sept 58-May 59, 38 episodes), Drumbeat (BBC, April-Aug 59, 22 episodes), Boy Meets Girls (ITV, Sept 59-Feb 60, 26 episodes), and Thank Your Lucky Stars (ITV, April 1961-June 1966, 250 episodes). Each of those series had something to offer the pop-starved teenager, but all of them — even the ones created by the great Jack Good — felt essentially as though they were made by grown-ups. That’s where Ready Steady Go! was different.

From its debut on the ITV network on 9 August 1963, it made a direct connection with its audience. Its creator, Elkan Allan, was smart enough to trust the creative instincts of the people around him — particularly those of the young Vicki Wickham, who started as Allan’s secretary but whose instinctive love of black music, absorbed from friends such as Dusty Springfield and Madeline Bell, became the show’s guiding spirit. Without Wickham’s enthusiasm and energy there would have been no Motown special, no James Brown special, no Otis Redding special to go alongside the regular appearances by the Who, the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. In essence, you knew that the people who made this programme believed, as you did, that Cilla Black’s cover version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was not a patch on Dionne Warwick’s original.

If you lived the the provinces, as I did, RSG! was an essential guide to what was happening in inaccessible London clubs like the Scene, the Ad Lib and the Scotch of St James. The show’s directors, from Bill Turner through Daphne Shadwell, Robert Fleming and Rollo Gamble to the brilliantly innovative Michael Lindsay-Hogg, allowed the members of the audience to crowd around the stage as if they were in a club and took the radical step of treating the cameras as part of the set. Graphics by Clive Arrowsmith and Arnold Schwartzman set the tone in the title sequences, which made use of fast-cutting images from popular culture. Responsible for shaping the whole package was the programme’s editor, Francis Hitching.

The story of RSG! has been told many times before, most recently in a fine documentary shown on BBC4 earlier thus year, but never so thoroughly, informatively and entertainingly as in Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here, a large-format (12″x12″) history by Andy Neill, who has been everywhere one could possibly go to unearth every scrap of information on the show’s birth, life and death.

You want a list of the precise contents of every episode? It’s here. You want a fantastic assembly of ephemera, such as tickets for the recordings at the original Associated Rediffusion studios in Kingsway and the later venue in Wembley, and hundreds of newspaper clippings? Also here. You want the memories of dozens of participants, from Mick Jagger to the dancers Patrick Kerr and Sandy Serjeant to Barbara Hulanicki, the founder of Biba and a regular at Kingsway? You want to know more about the presenters Cathy McGowan and Michael Aldred and the members of the production staff? You want the stories behind Ready Steady Goes Live, Ready Steady Win (the talent competition won by the Bo Street Runners), the Mod Ball and Ready Steady Allez!, the show broadcast live from the Locomotive in Paris in March 1966, with the Yardbirds, the Who, Hugues Aufray, Mireille Mathieu and Eddy Mitchell? You want an informed history of British TV’s treatment of pop music, along with Dennis Potter’s Daily Herald review of an early Beatles appearance on RSG!? You want a detailed history of its ratings, as well as the stories about Françoise Hardy’s refusal to sit down while wearing her new trouser suit and the letters from viewers disgusted by James Brown’s show? All here, in a volume with a great anecdote on practically every page, along with a fantastic selection of photographs.

Jagger talks about how he used to go along even when the Stones weren’t on, just to be there. “RSG! wasn’t safe, it took risks,” he tells Neill. “It waded right into the wonderful chaos of the times. You always thought you were slightly on the edge there.” Pete Townshend agrees: “It reflected the colour and vivacity of the times better than almost any other medium.” He remembers how, for the first of the Who’s 16 appearances, performing “I Can’t Explain” in 1965, they were allowed to bring along their own fans from the Goldhawk Club in Shepherds Bush. Wickham and Lindsay-Hogg, he says, “conveyed the sense that we were, all of us, breaking every rule of television. I felt they were breaking societal rules as well.”

My old friend Keith Altham, then a journalist on Fabulous magazine, remembers it as a meeting place for young people starting out in the music business. “It was like a glorified youth club where your mates played guitars or drums or were in the business of reporting on the beat phenomenon. The writers and musicians were all contemporaries.” And afterwards there would be parties for the in-crowd, maybe at Tony Hall’s flat in Mayfair, with a Beatle and a Ronette and a Stone in attendance.

The programme was killed in December 1966 after 173 episodes. Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan were featured in the penultimate show and Chris Farlowe duetted with Jagger on “Out of Time” and “Satisfaction” in the final episode, two days before Christmas. Times and tastes were changing, and the sense of novelty and excitement had dulled. The mainstream audience was getting its fix of chart music from Top of the Pops (BBC, January 1964-July 2006, 2,267 episodes) while the mods were turning into hippies and no longer looked for guidance from television programmes. But it would be a long time before anything came along to replace it.

I can’t think of anything I’d want this book to have that it doesn’t include. As a thoroughly comprehensive and endlessly entertaining time-capsule, put together in exactly the spirit that the show was made, it’s something to cherish. The story of what Elkan Allan, Vicki Wickham and their friends and colleagues created will never be better told.

* Andy Neill’s Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here is published by BMG (£39.99). Recommended listening: The ‘Sound’ of the R&B Hits, the first anthology of Motown tracks released in Britain back in 1964, now expanded from 14 to 28 tracks and released by Ace Records. For more about pop and rock on the small and large screen, there’s Docs That Rock, Music That Matters by Harvey Kubernik, published in the US by Otherworld Cottage (about £35), including chapters on American Bandstand, D. A. Pennebaker, Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling, Concert for Bangladesh and many other subjects. The sequence of images at the top of this piece was created by Clive Arrowsmith for RSG!‘s title sequence in December 1964.

Arthur Jafa at Store Studios

Arthur Jafa 3

Perhaps you’ve already seen Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern. If you haven’t, you should. It’s full of marvellous things, from the paintings of Romare Bearden, Wadsworth Jarrell and Bob Thompson to the photographs of Roy DeCarava and Beuford Smith via posters and murals and a vitrine full of covers of The Black Panther newspaper. One or two of the later rooms aren’t so compelling, and I was unpleasantly jarred by the mystifying inclusion of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Muhammad Ali. But the whole exhibition, curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, tells a great story and seethes with life.

On the other side of the Thames, there’s something strongly related. Installed in a black tent-like structure on the roof of Store Studios as part of Everything at Once, a kind of de luxe pop-up show in an old brutalist office building at 180 The Strand, overlooking the Shard and the National Theatre, Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, the Message is Death is very different in nature and scale but, because of its contemporaneity, even more affecting.

This is a seven-minute collage of snippets of film from all kinds of sources, set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam”. For those, like me, previously unfamiliar with his 30-year career, Jafa is a cinematographer who was born in Mississippi, lives in Los Angeles, has worked with Spike Lee, directed a couple of the videos for Solange’s masterpiece A Seat at the Table in 2016, and exhibited earlier this year at the Serpentine Gallery.

His new work uses newsreel and found film of black Americans marching, worshipping, performing, dancing, and being threatened, beaten and shot by officers of the law. These images are juxtaposed with footage of heroes: Nina and Aretha; Martin and Malcolm; Miles and Trane; Louis and Jimi; the two MJs, Jordan and Jackson; Serena and Lebron; Ali and Louis Farrakhan; and a 17-year-old Biggie Smalls rapping on a Bedford-Stuyvesant streetcorner. Having started with a clip of Barack Obama at the funeral of the murdered Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina, it ends with James Brown in his ’60s prime.

The whole thing has the rawness of a crude assemblage of video grabs. Hardly anything lasts more than a few seconds, an exception being a harrowing sequence of a mother in distress as she’s ordered from her car by police at night and is handcuffed before her young son makes his way towards them with his hands raised. Jafa occasionally intersperses his chosen clips images with close-ups of the sun and footage from monster movies, whose relevance I don’t really understand. (There’s also a curious decision to include the famous clip of Derek Redmond, the British 400-metre runner, limping to the finish of the Olympic semi-final with a torn hamstring, supported by his father, in Barcelona 25 years ago.)

I suppose I could say that Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death doesn’t tell me anything really new, or make me feel any different. But the cumulative power of the collage is moving and shocking, and Kanye West’s spare, gospel-drenched piece provides the perfect musical accompaniment for the emotions evoked by the sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal images juxtaposed on the screen. In the Observer, the art critic Laura Cumming called it “a devastating ode to black America”, and I can’t do better than that. I watched it through several times without a break, and I expect I’ll go back for more before it disappears.

* Everything at Once, which is organised by the Lisson Gallery and the Vinyl Factory, also includes work by Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramović, Anish Kapoor, Richard Long, Julian Opie and others, and is on until December 10. Soul of a Nation closes on October 22; there’s a CD of music put together by the Soul Jazz label, featuring appropriate music from Don Cherry, Gil Scott-Heron, Joe Henderson and others. There’s a very good interview with Arthur Jafa here, from Interview magazine earlier this year.

Terje Rypdal at 70

Terje Rypdal 1If you were to draw a straight line connecting Hank B. Marvin to Jimi Hendrix and then extend it a bit further, the next point on the line would be Terje Rypdal, the Norwegian guitarist and composer who celebrated his 70th birthday this weekend with a couple of concerts at Oslo’s Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene, an old cinema converted into a 300-capacity theatre for improvised music. I went to the first of the concerts, in which Rypdal was joined by the trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and the drummer Pål Thowsen. It was an unforgettable evening, and a reminder of his singular importance.

When I first heard Rypdal, in Berlin in 1970, I had no idea that he would become one of the most interesting and influential musicians of my lifetime. Not long after that, however, I wrote a piece in which I ventured the opinion that if Miles Davis were looking for a really interesting new accomplice, he need look no further than a young guitarist who seemed to have a wholly original approach to things — and to tone and texture in particular. Perhaps attempting to give Miles Davis advice was not the smartest idea, but I still think it would have led him in a rewarding direction. After John McLaughlin, Rypdal would have brought something different to Miles’s world.

The son of a classical composer, Rypdal spent his teenage years with a successful Norwegian beat group called the Vanguards. In 1968 he became a member of George Russell’s European band, and in 1971 he released his first album on ECM, the label with which he has spent his entire career as a leader. (Mikkelborg, who is five years his elder, was featured on several of those recordings.) Some of those albums featured a variety of small groups, while others included compositions for orchestras and choirs. In 1995 a couple of Rypdal’s more noir-ish pieces were borrowed by Michael Mann for the soundtrack to his great thriller, Heat. Some years ago Rypdal endured a period of poor health, but he came through it and, although he does not move around so easily, his playing is unimpaired.

The Victoria was built as a cinema in 1915 and, apart from the swap of a stage for a screen, appears little changed. On Friday night it was packed to hear Storløkken begin the set with one of Rypdal’s ethereal tone-poems, manipulating his Hammond B3 to produce piercing textures. With the exception of a delightful duet by Rypdal and Mikkelborg (on flugelhorn) on “Stranger in Paradise”, a melody by Borodin borrowed for the 1953 musical Kismet, the programme explored Rypdal’s themes, which alternated between ecstatic skycaps and outbreaks of wonderfully thunderous hooliganism. The guitarist, manipulating the sound of his Fender Stratocaster via effects units and his volume pedal, and sometimes using a bottleneck, found the perfect ally in the organist, whose bass lines, played on a small keyboard, made the building shudder.

If you were to extend the line that starts with Hank B. Marvin beyond Rypdal, you would find people like David Torn, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Henry Kaiser, Jim O’Rourke, Hedvig Mollestad, Reine Fiske, Even Helte Hermansen, Raoul Björkenheim and Hans Magnus Ryan. All of those are involved in a new album called Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal, released on the Oslo-based Rune Grammofon label. Again, Rypdal’s themes provide the basis. Frisell opens with a lovely meditation on “Ørnen”, Cline creates a lyrical meditation on “What Comes After” with the cellist Erik Friedlander, and Torn displays his extended techniques to fine effect on “Avskjed”.

These are all wonderful. But it is the group performances that steal the show. Supported by Storløkken, the bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the drummer Gard Nilsen, the guitar squadron of Mollestad, Fiske, Kaiser, Hermansen, Bjorkenheim and Ryan — in various combinations, but mostly all at once — attack such pieces as “Silver Bird Heads for the Sun”, “Chaser” and a dramatic medley of “Tough Enough” and “Rolling Stone” with verve and devotion. My favourite track also carries the most appropriate title: “Warning: Electric Guitars”. The result is heavier, in every sense, than the heaviest metal, while being enormously creative and totally exhilarating.

The album was conceived by Kaiser in collaboration with Rune Kristoffersen, the founder of Rune Grammofon. I can’t recommend it too highly, particularly to anyone who has previously been touched by Rypdal’s work — or, more generally, to anyone with an interest in guitar music.

Lambert & Stamp

Lambert & StampIt amazes me that so many documentary makers fail to heed the principal lesson of Asif Kapadia’s Senna, which is that any relevant archive footage, however scrappy, is more interesting than a talking head. It’s a pity that James D. Cooper didn’t learn it before he started putting together Lambert & Stamp, his film about the two men who managed the Who from their first success in 1964 until the relationship broke down in acrimony 10 years later.

A compelling subject is enough to carry the first half of the film. After that the viewer tires of extended close-ups of Pete Townshend, Chris Stamp and Roger Daltrey sitting in hotel rooms or studios, even when they’re saying interesting things. The archive clips are chopped up and edited fast on the eye, to borrow Bob Dylan’s phrase. Too fast, in fact. The eye wants to rest on them, to be given time to absorb the details. A technique wholly suited to the titles of Ready Steady Go! is not appropriate to this very different project. The exception is a wonderful piece of footage of Stamp and Kit Lambert encountering Jimi Hendrix and Chas Chandler in a London club, possibly the Ad Lib or the Bag O’Nails; we do get to look at that properly, thank goodness.

It’s a story that certainly deserved to be told. Stamp — born in London’s docklands, the son of a tugboat captain — brother of Terence, the male face of ’60s London — almost as good looking but sharp and tough, with more front than Harrods. Lambert — Lancing, Oxford, the Army — the gay son of a celebrated English composer — explaining mod culture to foreign TV interviewers in fluent French and German — empathising immediately with Townshend’s latent talent and Keith Moon’s very unlatent lunacy.

A pretty bruiser and a bruised prettiness: it was a potent combination. “I fell in love with both of them immediately,” Townshend recalls. It’s easy to see how he and, to varying degrees, the other members of the Who were jolted into self-actualisation by the vision and audacity of a pair of energetic wide boys whose real ambition was to get into the film business and who initially saw the music as a vehicle for their ambition.

The viewer does not come away with the impression that the whole truth about the break-up in 1974 has been told, and a few other salient features of the story have gone missing. One is any acknowledgment of Peter Meaden, their first manager when they were still the High Numbers: an authentic mod who helped establish their direction. Another is Shel Talmy, the producer of their first three (and greatest) singles, given only a passing and mildly derogatory mention, without being named.

Lambert died in 1981, aged 45, worn out by his destructive appetites, although the immediate cause of death was a cerebral haemorrhage following a domestic fall. Stamp had conquered his own addictions long before his death in 2012 at the age of 70, having spent many years as a therapist and counsellor. His interviews with the director are used extensively but, lacking the matching testimony of his former partner, his wry eloquence inevitably seems to unbalance the narrative.

At 120 minutes, the film eventually feels bloated. If the first hour passes like a series of three-minute singles, the second is a bit of a rock opera, the occasional interesting fragment separated by long stretches of filler. But, of course, anybody interested in the era should see it.

The first rock critic

author pic by DannyBrightBefore there was Lester Bangs, before there was Robert Christgau, before there was Dave Marsh, before there was even Greil Marcus, there was Richard Goldstein, a man with some claim to having invented the job of rock critic. I began reading Goldstein’s pieces in the Village Voice in 1966, at about the time he started his weekly column, which was titled “Pop Eye”. He was aged 22 and had actually witnessed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable; he wrote about the Velvet Underground in terms that made them sound like the most exciting thing happening that year. Which they turned out to be.

It would be more accurate to use Goldstein’s own scrupulous self-definition: “The first critic to write regularly about rock music in a major publication.” And the Voice was indeed then a major publication, a beatnik broadsheet ready-made for the incoming counterculture.

In Another Little Piece of My Heart, his new memoir of his life in the ’60s, he mentions that there is some dispute about whether he was actually the first. “A small magazine called Crawdaddy, which featured serious essays on rock, appeared a few months before my column began,” he writes. “If any of its writers want to claim that they got there first, I say, Go for it, dude! (And I’m sure you’re a dude.)”

I didn’t agree with everything he wrote. (In particular, he seemed rather too keen on the early work of the Bee Gees.) But I found myself in agreement with his provocative review of Sgt Pepper, in which he attracted scorn by claiming that the album represented a fall from the pinnacle represented by Rubber Soul and Revolver. Now he says that he has recanted. I haven’t.

His book is an entertaining account of growing up in a time of discovery. An unprepossessing (by his own account) kid from the Bronx, a seemingly unexceptional student at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, he found his way into the Voice, into Clay Felker’s trend-setting New York magazine, into the New York Times (whose editors censored his mention of Diana Ross farting during their encounter), and into many other publications.

It is a very ’60s story. He has extremely interesting things to say about Mailer, McLuhan, Marcuse and the Maharishi, about Janis and Jim, about Sontag and Spector (he attended the “River Deep — Mountain High” sessions), about William Burroughs and Brian Wilson. Jimi Hendrix’s flaming guitar narrowly missed his head at the Monterey pop festival (it was caught, he says, by Robert Christgau, his eventual successor at the Voice). The Velvets played at his wedding, MC’d by Murray the K at the Cheetah discotheque (a week later there was a proper Jewish ceremony, for his parents’ benefit).

He went to San Francisco to cover the Summer of Love with high hopes of witnessing the emergence of a new society, and has vivid memories of the disillusionment: “…the love-in lasted until it became apparent that the kids wandering around stoned and senseless were so many sitting ducks. Dope dealers and bruisers looking for sex descended on them, resulting in rapes and an influx of heroin. It was presented by the media as proof that the land of commodification was the only safe place; beyond lay dragons. It took less than a year for the festival to turn ugly.”

Those who chronicled the scene at the time will recognise his description of the business world’s swift adaptation to the new reality: “By 1967 the music industry had mastered the art of appealing to writers like me. Record executives wore their own version of the hippie look: a requisite Nehru jacket with a discreet string of beads. Publicists would flash a peace sign at the end of a pitch. At the major labels, there were rooms set aside for previews of albums not yet released. I remember being invited to one of those special private concerts. The president of the company, which specialised in rock with vaguely folkie credentials, greeted me personally. He ushered me into a sound-baffled chamber with huge speakers and plush chairs. He pointed to a butterfly-shaped box on the table, and then he left the room. Inside the box was a small pipe and a block of hashish. The music started. I sank into a chair and lit up. It was much harder than payola to resist.”

I haven’t read many first-person accounts of the era that make more responsible and convincing use of hindsight. Goldstein’s revolutionary politics — which extended to his own sexual identity — made him an uneasy observer quite early on. “Try as I might to be faithful to the spirit of the music,” he says, zooming in on the Who’s famous performance at Monterey from a vantage point among the hippie royalty in the VIP enclosure, “there was always something to remind me of the gap between authenticity and artifice that was such a central issue for me during the sixties. Rock, for all its power to stir and subvert, to shake and rattle the establishment, was also show business.”

Attracted to the world of Sontag, who encouraged but also patronised him, he writes: “I watched uneasily as intellectuals descended on radical culture and politics like tourists from the developed world. They were enchanted by what should have made them sceptical, and since they generally lived safe lives they were quite susceptible to the thrill of chaos.” The best thing about the ’60s, he says, was “the willingness to try nearly anything that hadn’t been tried before. It was a truly stimulating strategy, because it allowed young people to imagine the future in practically limitless terms. But it placed all our impulses on an equal footing, suppressing our ability to think and behave strategically.”

Goldstein was a believer in the revolutionary potential of art, and rock music turned out not to be quite the agent of revolution that he wanted it to be. His internal struggle reached the point at which “there was no way to justify remaining outside the battle.” The turning-point came when he went to Chicago in August 1968 to cover the protests at the Democratic Party convention and finally gave up the pretence of journalistic objectivity. In the face-off between the protesters and the police in Lincoln Park, he experienced his epiphany: “The moment when I removed my press pass was the instant when I crossed over from the regretful life of the protected to the thrilling zone of risk. Everyone here had seen, if not shed, blood. They were the hardcore, and I was finally among them.”

If his ultimate commitment to the music was not as deep, or his desire to turn it into a career as single-minded, as some of those who followed him, that makes his account, with its cherishable vignettes and constant self-questioning, all the more readable and thought-provoking.

Richard Goldstein’s Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ’60s is published by Bloomsbury Circus. The photograph of the author is by Danny Bright.

Heavy makes you happy

Hedvig MollestadWhen it comes to heavy rock, I draw the line at Jimi Hendrix and the first Vanilla Fudge album: that’s a frontier beyond which I do not choose to venture. But a late-night gig at the Berlin Jazz Festival last weekend persuaded me that the Hedvig Mollestad Trio have found a way to make head-banging feel good.

Mollestad, a guitarist with a Valkyrie’s blonde tresses and a sparkly red mini-dress, studied musicology at the University of Oslo before spending five years at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Evidently all that academic training didn’t get in the way of a desire to turn her amp up to 11. She and her trio — Ellen Brekken on bass and Ivar Loe Bjornstad on drums — wail away with such intensity and at such volume that ear-plugs were being offered at the entrance: a first for a jazz gig, in my experience.

I left my hearing unprotected, and I was glad I had. The conditions were ideal: a smallish darkened room with a bar and lots of standing room. It reminded me of the Marquee in the late ’60s, and so did the music — in a good way. The sound of Mollestad’s band might be that of heavy rock, the sort of thing that evolved from the British blues scene of the mid-’60s, but the heart is very different. Yes, there are riffs, but they’re not just riffs. Best of all, nobody tries to sing on top of such a hurricane of sound. And although this is a genre powerfully associated — thanks to a generation of British rockers — with gothic gloom, the trio make it sound like enormous fun (their energy is vivacious rather than bludgeoning), while making it clear that they’re serious about finding a new direction in which to take this music.

Mollestad met Brekken and Bjornstad during her time at the Academy, and all three bring to their work not just a high degree of technical command but a collective sense of imagination and, yes, subtlety. The leader uses her effects pedals to the full, but there’s always something wild and worthwhile happening in her solos, demonstrating a phenomenal deftness and gift for detail. Brakken plays both electric and acoustic basses with an impressive physicality, and it’s amusing that she drives the band just as hard on the latter instrument. Bjornstad can start a solo like a regular rock drummer, but then he flicks a switch and plays something of which Billy Higgins or Frank Butler would be proud. When they play a ballad, they’re so quiet that you strain forward to catch every nuance, as if that were Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian up there on the stage.

I wrote about Tony Williams’ Lifetime in a piece on Jack Bruce a week or so back, and that’s the group of which, in some respects, they remind me — along with the early Experience, just a bit. Not at that level of invention, unsurprisingly, but on the right path. Others have made comparisons with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Motorhead and Black Sabbath, but I don’t hear those, except in the very crudest terms. I suppose the Trio of Doom, which briefly united Williams, McLaughlin and Jaco Pastorius in 1979, might be a point of comparison, but Mollestad’s band are much less egocentric and actually more genuinely creative within the form.

What’s particularly interesting is to hear this kind of music, traditionally associated with male guitar-hero posturing, completely stripped of its machismo while retaining every ounce of what I suppose one can only call its heaviness. And, naturally, all the better for it.

They’re supporting McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension at the EFG London Jazz Festival on November 20. I don’t expect the Festival Hall will provide as helpful an environment as a small dark room packed with fans, but they’ll give the great man some competition.

* The photograph of Hedvig Mollestad is © Per Ole Hagen. It is used by permission of the photographer, and all rights are reserved. It’s one of a set that can be seen on his website: http://artistpicturesblog.com.

The N.E.W. thing

N.E.W. liveI could only stay for a single set of the trio called N.E.W. — Steve Noble (drums), John Edwards (double bass) and Alex Ward (guitar) — at Cafe Oto tonight, but it was enough to get excited about. This is an improvising group of ferocious intensity: for my taste, maybe the most effective high-volume band I’ve heard since Tony Williams’s Lifetime set the standard for such adventures more than 40 years ago.

The first piece lasted half an hour, in which everybody played without a break. They work with patterns rather than tempos, usually set by Noble’s relentlessly attacking sticks, mallets or brushes (he also has a way with cymbals that makes me think he’s the post-industrial Billy Higgins). Edwards, surely the most remarkable bassist ever produced by Britain, works off and around the drums, tugging and hammering the strings to produce huge surges of sound and in one passage bowing them above his left hand on the fingerboard while the drummer momentarily toyed  with a light Latin vamp. As for Ward, he is a constant astonishment: Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner”, Sonny Sharrock’s work with Herbie Mann and Last Exit, Robert Fripp’s solo on King Crimson’s “A Sailor’s Tale” and Derek Bailey’s amplified solo pieces — he doesn’t sound like any of them, but they might be some of the sources of inspiration behind the barrage of howling, squealing, chattering and whining but always coherent and compelling noise that he sets up.

They’ve been playing together in this configuration for half a dozen years, and the degree of empathy is phenomenal. You can hear it on their new album, Motion, a vinyl-only release on the Dancing Wayang label, limited to 300 copies (www.dancingwayang.com). The product of a studio session, it can’t possibly convey the impact of hearing them playing to an audience in a small room, but it has other, equally worthwhile qualities.

Try to imagine how a combination of Hendrix, Charles Mingus and Keith Moon might sound, stripped of ego, transported to Dalston in 2014, with modern amplification turned all the way up. If that might be your idea of a good time, don’t miss ’em.