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Jimmy Cobb 1929-2020

Jimmy Cobb

Jimmy Cobb swung. That’s what he did, with a poise and a grace inherited from Kenny Clarke. He died from lung cancer in New York City on Sunday, aged 91, the last survivor of the seven musicians who played on Kind of Blue. The cymbal splash — however inadvertently and uncharacteristically heavy — that launched Miles Davis into his solo on “So What” seemed to open not only the album but a whole new world of feeling.

Drummers are praised for having “good time”, meaning they keep the beat steady. Of course Cobb had good time. Like his unshowy finesse, it was a quality that served him well throughout a long career. Great singers (including Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan) and soloists loved him for it. But Cobb was also a drummer who knew that time wasn’t a static thing, tied to a metronome.

I first noticed that when listening to the old bootlegs of the Davis quintet’s tour of Europe in the spring of 1960, and particularly on various renderings of “So What”, which habitually stretched from the 9min 25sec of the previous year’s studio version to around a quarter of an hour. You couldn’t miss how the tune had been speeded up. In the studio, on March 2, 1959, it had been taken at a relaxed 35 bars per minute. By the time they played it for a TV show that April, with Wynton Kelly at the piano in place of Bill Evans, it had accelerated slightly to 38.

A year later, on concert stages across Europe, they were kicking off the tune around 20 bars per minute faster than the original. More important than that, however, it was ending up even faster. At the first show in Paris on March 21, over the course of 13 minutes, it went from a brisk 56 to 65 bars per minute. At both concerts in Stockholm the following night it went from 60 to 68.

Does this mean that Cobb wasn’t doing his job? Of course it doesn’t. He and the other four — Davis, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers — were doing what they needed to do. Doing what the music required. Doing what it took, in that moment, to swing. RIP, Mr Cobb.

* The photograph of Jimmy Cobb was taken by Ted Williams, whose work was collected in Jazz: The Iconic Images of Ted Williams, published by ACC Editions in 2016. The European concerts are on Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Final Tour, released in 2018.  Kind of Blue is in your collection.

In Underground London

Underground London 2

I’ve taken a lot of pleasure in recent days from listening to Underground London, a three-CD set that attempts to recreate, through a mosaic of recordings, the feeling of being a certain kind of person in London in the first half of the 1960s, someone either growing out of, or who had been a little too young for, the full beatnik experience in the 1950s, but looking for similar sensations in a changing time: free speech, free jazz, free verse, free love.

The first disc starts with Ornette Coleman’s “W.R.U.”, ends with Jimmy Smith’s “Autumn Leaves”, and includes Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading “Dog”, Allen Ginsberg reading “America”, a track from Red Bird, the jazz-and-poetry EP Christopher Logue made with Tony Kinsey, and György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères”. The second opens with Jimmy Giuffre’s “Jesus Maria”, ends with Albert Ayler’s “Moanin'”, and includes Ravi Shankar’s “Raga Jog”, Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody, and the Dudley Moore Trio playing the theme from Beyond the Fringe. The third opens with Cecil Taylor’s “Love for Sale”, ends with Thelonious Monk’s “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie” and includes Davy Graham and Alexis Korner playing “3/4 AD”, Aldous Huxley reading from The Visionary Experience, the MJQ playing “Lonely Woman”, Luciano Berio manipulating Cathy Berberian’s voice in “Visage”, and “A Rose for Booker” by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with Charles Lloyd.

Add in Stockhausen, Don Cherry and John Coltrane, Annie Ross, John Cage and David Tudor, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy and Joe Harriott, and you get the idea. And to set up the mood for the sort of extended listening session the set deserves, I’d suggest candles in Chianti bottles, something vaguely cubist on the wall, the Tibetan Book of the Dead on the coffee table, and a black polo-neck sweater, or perhaps a chocolate-brown corduroy jacket. And if the party is going well, maybe a Beatle or two, in an adventurous mood, will drop by on the way home from Abbey Road.

But it’s not really a joke, or a caricature. There’s a lot of completely wonderful stuff here, some of it revealing new qualities when isolated from the context of its original full-album setting (an underrated virtue of anthologies or compilations). And practically everything is on the edge of something, some new discovery, some unexplored territory worth taking a risk to reach. How exciting was that?

* The photograph of Allen Ginsberg outside the Royal Albert Hall was taken in 1965 by John Hopkins and was used in the poster for the International Poetry Incarnation held on June 11 that year. It’s included in the booklet accompanying Underground London: Art Music and Free Jazz in the Swinging Sixties, which is on él records, via Cherry Red. 

Happy birthday, Mr Isley

Isley Bacharach 1

Ronald Isley is 79 today. Not a round number, but never mind. A happy birthday to him anyway. Perhaps it’s because he’s been a member of a group for his entire career that he isn’t generally mentioned in lists of the greatest male soul singers. For he certainly is one, up there with Sam, Smokey, Marvin, Otis, Levi, Al, Bobby, Philippé, Teddy, Luther and whoever else you want to include. Listen to the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Hello, It’s Me”, or “Harvest for the World”: no much doubt, is there? And if 3 + 3 isn’t in your collection, I beg you to do something about it.

My subject here, however, is an album I’ve been playing a lot in recent weeks: Ron Isley’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which dates from 2003 and is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The circumstances of the recording were, by modern standards, exceptional. At the behest of DreamWorks Records’ John McClain, the two men prepared for sessions which took place over a handful of days in Capitol Records’ Hollywood studios: an orchestra of more than 40 pieces with Bacharach at the conductor’s podium and Isley at the microphone. Thirteen songs: 11 Bacharach and David classics plus two new Bacharach songs with lyrics by Tonio K.

And everything done live. On the spot. Rhythm section, string section, horns, and lead and backing singers. Together. Breathing the same air, feeling the same vibrations, responding to the same cues in real time. The way it used to be done. (I’d be surprised if there weren’t some touch-ups, but the principle is the thing.)

From the moment strings and harp usher in the first words of “Alfie”, the opening track, you realise that something special is happening. The exquisite delicacy of the singer’s delivery at the dead-slow tempo and the exacting control of his emotions bring something new to what might very well be the greatest of all the Bacharach/David songs. It’s hard to spoil lines like “If only fools are kind, Alfie / Then I guess it is wise to be cruel,” but Isley brings them a new poignancy. Bacharach’s arrangement manages to be both majestic and somehow weightless.

And the set goes on from there, Bacharach constantly inventing new way of reinvigorating familiar songs — the flugelhorn figures introducing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “The Look of Love”, for example. (Flugel and trumpet, a Bacharach trademark in his heyday, are used throughout as a counterpoint to the lead voice.) And the latter track has a light bossa/funk groove that you might feel you’d like to have running through the rest of your life. A solo alto flute introduces “Anyone Who Had a Heart”. Alone at the piano, Bacharach sings the opening lines of “The Windows of the World” in his husky tones before giving way to Isley’s polished virtuosity, like a weathered hand sliding into a fine kid glove.

The inclusion of the new songs might have been a quid pro quo for Bacharach’s agreement to participate in the project, but they pull their weight. “Count on Me” benefits from a lovely melody and “Love’s (Still) the Answer” has the qualities of a very good Sondheim song.

Most of all, though, there’s “In Between the Heartaches”, a great song hidden away on Dionne Warwick’s Here I Am album in 1965. Isley, who once dated Warwick, requested its inclusion; its composer had forgotten all about it. Neil Stubenhaus’s softly purring bass-guitar reminds me of Marcus Miller’s contribution to Vandross’s “Second Time Around”: there’s no higher praise. And when, on “Here I Am” itself, Ronald Isley adds flourishes of melisma, it’s never gratuitous: this is how it should be done.

Of course you’re not going to experience again the shock and the thrill of hearing Bacharach’s melodies and arrangements for the first time in the ’60s: a twangy guitar in the middle of silken strings, a fusillade of boo-bams, a sudden chromatic twist, a song whose first 11 words are all on the same note. But all I can say is that they’ve never sounded more gorgeous than this.

* The photograph is by the late, great William Claxton. Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach is on the DreamWorks label. Several songs from a PBS Soundstage concert in July 2004 are up on YouTube, including “Close to You” and “Here I Am”. There’s also a promo — with slightly compromised sound quality — for “The Look of Love”

Music from a Welsh chapel

Capel y Graig

Toby Hay and David Ian Roberts are Welsh guitarists who occasionally play together. They’ve just released three tracks recorded in the Capel Y Graig, a deconsecrated chapel in Ceredigion now used as an art space, on Bandcamp. I think they’re marvellous.

I know Toby Hay’s work from a fine 2018 album called The Longest Day, and from the series of morning and evening guitar pieces he recorded and filmed outdoors and put on YouTube in the first week of April (search @tobyhaymusic). He’s the right-handed player on the right of the photograph. His work reminds me a little bit of what the late Sandy Bull, a true visionary, was up to in the late ’60s, and of John Fahey in his Yellow Princess period: a fingerpicker blending various forms of folk, blues and eastern musics.

These three unnamed tracks are pure improvised duets, exploiting the special acoustics of the place. I love the quality of the sound, particularly in the first piece: glistening but raw, with a kind of chiming, pealing quality as the two players set off from a simple modal base on a seven-minute journey guaranteed to lift the spirits. If anyone were doing a remake of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, it would fit perfectly. Hay switches to piano for the second piece: an old and charmingly out-of-tune instrument whose overtones match the environment. The final track, another guitar duet, is more contemplative: there’s something of a worn music-box about the sound.

Capel Y Graig is a former Welsh Calvinist Methodist chapel, opened in 1765 and rebuilt in the mid-19th century. It’s in the hamlet of Furnace/Ffwrnais, between Aberystwyth and Machynllech, where iron ore was once smelted in a little rural works beside a waterfall on the River Einion. The chapel was in use until 2001, with living quarters in which to house the itinerant preachers so popular in Wales. It’s now an artspace operated by a small non-profit organisation.

“We let the space guide us as to what to play,” Hay says. “It’s an extraordinary place to play music. The building has a life of its own. One of the most unusual, and powerful natural reverbs I have ever heard. Listening to these recordings now reminds me how important it is to play music with friends.” For me, the whole set is something I’m happy to leave on infinite repeat, allowing it to define a mood in these lockdown days.

* For the month of May, all proceeds from the recording will go to Ty Hafan, the Welsh children’s hospice. If you want, you can explore and buy the music via this link: https://cambrianrecords.bandcamp.com/album/capel-y-graig-improvisations

A voice of sport (and other stuff)

Mike Ingham

When Mike Ingham put down his BBC microphone for the last time and walked quietly into retirement after the 2014 World Cup, English football lost its most lucid radio voice. Some readers of this blog might well be asking why that should matter to them. I can only respond by saying that when I picked up his autobiography for the first time, the first thing I saw when it fell open was a reference not to Kevin Keegan or David Beckham but to “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MGs. The paragraph in question also contains the sentence: “For me, the sound of ’60s was the Hammond organ.” No further justification necessary.

During the 20 years I spent covering sport for a living, Mike was someone I always looked forward to seeing. Judicious and unhysterical, he exemplified the best of the BBC well into the age of social media, for which football acted as a pathfinder towards a world devoid of nuance. “We want to know what you think,” the phone-in hosts began to tell their listeners. Well, I didn’t. I wanted to know what Mike thought.

Sports reporters — most of them, anyway — are human beings, too, and a fair number of them love music and like talking about it. Mike’s interest is made clear throughout After Extra Time and Penalties, from the moment, in his first year at grammar school in Derbyshire, he makes a new friend with life-changing information to impart: “Having acquainted you with Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, he would then suggest you lend an ear to Memphis Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson.” There are chapters headed “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Don’t Mess with Bill” and “Time Is on My Side”. Sometimes he’s able to combine these two interests, as in encounters with Ian Gillan of Deep Purple (rumoured to be taking over Reading FC) and Rod Stewart, who finds talking to Ingham about football a welcome respite from promoting his new album.

At the end of the book there are some lists — the best goals he described on air, his favourite stadiums and so on — and they include his most memorable concerts. These begin with Marty Wilde and the Wildcats at Bournemouth Pavilion in 1960 and conclude with Alabama 3 at the Looe Music Festival in 2016, by way of the Everly Brothers’ Albert Hall reunion in 1983 and Fun Lovin’ Criminals at the Viper Room in West Hollywood in 1999.

Of course the book is mostly about football and broadcasting, with a lot of insight into the characters among whom he lived and worked, from his days at Radio Derby in the mid-’70s onwards. He’s interesting on all the England managers he followed through successive World Cup campaigns, and of course the England manager who never was: Brian Clough, with whom he had a good relationship. It’s fascinating, too, to hear that he was taught the importance of breathing properly by Cliff Morgan, the great Wales fly-half who became a marvellous broadcaster. And there’s also a section, obligatory in the memoirs of former BBC employees, putting the latter-day corporation to rights — the regret, this being Ingham, voiced in the most civilised terms.

If you share any of these enthusiasms, and particularly if you miss the sound of Mike Ingham bringing a match to life without hype, without prejudice and without the help of pictures, then you can take this as a warm recommendation.

* After Extra Time and Penalties by Mike Ingham is out now in paperback, published by Book Guild.

Ron Rubin 1933-2020

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Among many distinctions, the bassist Ron Rubin, whose death on April 14 was announced in the Hampstead and Highgate Gazette, was playing with a trad jazz band led by the banjoist Ralph “Bags” Watmough on the opening night of the Cavern Club in his native Liverpool in 1957. He went on to a long career in the mainstream and modern idioms, with the bands of Humphrey Lyttelton, Sandy Brown and Al Fairweather, Tony Coe, Bruce Turner, John Picard, George Melly and John Chilton, Tony Milliner and many others. He played with such visiting Americans as Will Bill Davison, Billy Eckstine, Red Allen and Ray Nance, and in the freewheeling spirit of the time he was also briefly a member of Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men and the New Departures jazz and poetry group.

One gig about which he had mixed feelings was his collaboration with the brilliant but ill-fated pianist and composer Mike Taylor, on whose second and final LP, Trio, he appeared in 1967. Rubin played with Taylor at various times between 1962 and 1968, notably at the Little Theatre Club and Ronnie Scott’s Old Place, the two crucibles of the “new thing” in London in the late ’60s, and his diary entries provided the author Luca Ferrari with valuable information for his valuable biography of the pianist, Out of Nowhere.

Rubin recognised Taylor’s talent, but he was uneasy about the avant-garde. He was even less comfortable when Taylor, his hitherto conservative personality and appearance transformed by LSD, started turning up for gigs barefoot and declining to play the piano, preferring a broken clay drum and some sort of flute. Taylor’s friends, such as the trumpeter Henry Lowther, feared he had lost his mind. In 1968 three of his tunes were recorded by Cream for Wheels of Fire, with lyrics by Ginger Baker, who had been his trio’s first drummer. The following year his body was washed up on the Essex shore. The coroner gave an open verdict, but suicide of some sort was assumed. He was 31.

The point of this, anyway, is not to rehearse the Mike Taylor legend. Trio is one of the great albums of British jazz, a document of such originality and confidence that it can still astound, and Ron Rubin was a part of it. Alongside the drummer Jon Hiseman, he appears on all but one of the eight tracks. He is the only bassist on “All the Things You Are”, “Just a Blues”, “The End of a Love Affair” and “Abena”, a wonderful ballad. He is joined by Jack Bruce on “While My Lady Sleeps”, “Two Autumns” and “Guru”. Bruce is the only bassist on “Stella by Starlight”. So, not exactly a trio, but never mind.

As so often happens with music on the cusp of a new movement, the standards are the listener’s way in. I suppose if you were to form a triangle with the young Cecil Taylor, Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans at its points, Mike Taylor might be somewhere in the middle, although he was no plagiarist. This was high-tension music, operating at a demanding intellectual level, requiring great commitment and creativity from all its participants, and Ron Rubin’s strong, assured and inventive playing was a big part of it, whatever his own feelings may have been at the time. (He was disconcerted, for example, when Taylor’s refused to give him the changes for “The End of a Love Affair”, which he didn’t know, telling him to play without them.) I hope he came to understand the esteem in which it is held today.

* The photograph of Ron Rubin with Mike Taylor in the early ’60s is from Luca Ferrari’s Out of Nowhere: The Uniquely Elusive Jazz of Mike Taylor, published by Gonzo Multimedia in 2015. Both Mike Taylor’s albums, Pendulum and Trio, were originally released in Columbia’s Lansdowne Series. The latter was reissued on CD in 2004 in Gilles Peterson’s Impressed Re-pressed series but is no longer available. (Pendulum — on which Rubin doesn’t appear — has never been properly reissued; the two vinyl copies currently for sale on the internet are priced at £1,280.01 and £1,372.95.)

Roland Kirk and friends

Roland Kirk poster

I found this flyer the other day in a box of old stuff. It’s from 1963, and it reminds me of a few things. The first is that this Roland Kirk concert was in Nottingham and not in Leicester, as I wrote in an earlier piece (now corrected). The second is that his tour was organised by Ronnie Scott’s, where he had been performing. The third is that there were some interesting musicians to be seen and heard that night.

Stan Tracey was the house pianist at Ronnie’s, then still located in Gerrard Street, from 1960 to 1967, by which time it had moved to Frith Street. After a sticky patch in the ’70s he went on to a long and distinguished career as a composer and bandleader, leading to the award of an CBE in 2008, five years before his death at 86.

Malcolm Cecil was an excellent bassist (and early member of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated) who migrated to the USA, took an interest in synthesisers, and palled up with Bob Margouleff, a man of similar instincts. Together, as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, they released Zero Time in 1971 before going on to provide the crucial synthesiser expertise on Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, thus helping to shape the direction of music in the 1970s and beyond.

Johnny Butts was a very fine drummer who played with the Emcee Five in Newcastle (alongside Ian and Mike Carr) before moving to London and contributing to the groups of Ronnie Ross, Humphrey Lyttelton, Tony Coe, Dick Morrissey and Gordon Beck, and the Tubby Hayes Big Band. He died in a road accident in Bermuda in 1966, aged 25.

Brian Auger was a useful young bebop pianist with Tommy Whittle and others before switching to the Hammond organ in the year he made this tour with Kirk. In 1965 the Brian Auger Trinity was joined by Julie Driscoll, Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry to form the Steam Packet, a very fine live band who never had a proper recording session. The Driscoll/Auger version of “This Wheel’s on Fire”, a Bob Dylan/Rick Danko composition circulated on the original Basement Tapes publisher’s acetates, is on anyone’s list of great ’60 singles. Later Auger formed Oblivion Express and moved to California, where he still lives, aged 80.

Irish-born Rick Laird had left Australia for London in 1962 to study at the Guildhall School of Music and quickly became a first-choice bass player on the London scene, playing with many visiting Americans at the Scott Club. In 1966 he won a scholarship to the Berklee School in Boston, played with Buddy Rich’s big band, and switched to bass guitar. In 1971 he was recruited by John McLaughlin to help form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with whom he toured and recorded. Later he toured with Stan Getz and Chick Corea. More recently he has taught bass and pursued a second career as a photographer.

Phil Kinorra was a 20-year-old drummer whose nom de batterie was made up, in a touching display of hero-worship, of bits of the names of three of London’s finest modern jazz drummers of the time: Phil Seaman, Tony Kinsey and Bobby Orr. His real name was Robert Anson, he was born in Nottingham (so this gig was a return home), and he also appeared alongside Graham Bond and Johnny Burch on Don Rendell’s wildly exciting 1963 Jazzland LP, Roarin’. In the mid-’60s he adopted a new identity and led a mod-soul band called Julian Covey and the Machine, who recorded “A Little Bit Hurt” for Island in 1967 and whose constantly shifting personnel included the organist Vincent Crane (later of Arthur Brown’s band and Atomic Rooster), the guitarists Jim Cregan, Dave Mason and John Morshead, the ill-fated bassist Cliff Barton and the definitely not ill-fated bassist John McVie, and the saxophonist and flautist Bob Downes. When psychedelia beckoned, Anson/Kinorra/Covey metamorphosed into Philamore Lincoln, writing “Temma Harbour”, recorded by Mary Hopkin as the second follow-up to “Those Were the Days” in 1969, and releasing The North Wind Blew South, an album of what would now be called Sunshine Pop, on Epic in 1970. He left the music business later in that decade and seems never to have returned.

Quite a lot of history for one tatty bit of paper, which I stuck up on my bedroom wall as a 16-year-old and then carried around from place to place, from one life to another, for almost six decades.

Henry Grimes 1935-2020

Henry Grimes 2

Henry Grimes has laid down that dark green double bass for the last time. One day someone will make a feature film based on the life of a man who appeared at the end of the 1950s, appeared as a 22-year-old playing with Thelonious Monk in Jazz on a Summer’s Day, played on some pivotal recordings of the ’60s avant-garde (by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Pharoah Sanders, among others), and then disappeared at the start of the 1970s and was long presumed dead before he was found in Los Angeles, having spent 30 years working as a cleaner and a construction worker, sometimes homeless and knowing nothing about about the events that had occurred in jazz in the interim. Encouraged to return to activity, he spent the best part of 20 years playing as though he had never been away. Now he has died in a Harlem hospital, aged 85, from the coronavirus.

The photograph above is of the green bass that was sent him by William Parker, shipped from New York to LA as part of his rehabilitation. This was one snowy New York night in January 2016 at the Stone, on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street, where Grimes was appearing during a four-night season devoted to various line-ups curated by the saxophonist Matana Roberts. She had invited the man she described as “an inspiration for ever” to join an improvising quartet with two lesser known musicians, the guitarist Kyp Malone and the drummer Mike Pride. Together they produced an exceptional set, bound together by Grimes’s strength and wisdom.

Those were the qualities he’d shown at Cafe Oto a couple of years earlier, playing alongside the drummer Chad Taylor and the guitarist Marc Ribot in the latter’s wonderful trio. There was also space for him to play a solo improvisation on the violin, his first instrument in childhood, filling the room with energy while maintaining his sphinx-like countenance.

It’s worth remembering that when Charles Mingus decided he’d rather be playing piano, he entrusted Henry Grimes with his seat in the band, and with his bass. Luckily, there are plenty of recordings by which we can remember him. Some are from the first phase of his career: Taylor’s three boiling tracks on Into the Hot, followed by Unit Structures and Conquistador; Ayler’s mighty Spirits and Spirits Rejoice; Sanders’s gorgeous Tauhid; the 1963 recordings with Sonny Rollins’s quartet (including Cherry and Billy Higgins); and Cherry’s own trio of sublime Blue Note albums, Complete Communion, Symphony for Improvisers and Where Is Brooklyn?.  From his renaissance there are a couple of great albums with Ribot, Spiritual Unity (an Ayler tribute) and Live at the Village Vanguard, and an album of solo bass and violin improvisations from 2014, The Tone of Wonder.

Thank you for all of it, Mr Grimes.

* Barbara Frenz’s Music to Silence to Music, an excellent biography of Henry Grimes, was published in the UK by Northway Publications in 2015, translated from the German by J. Bradford Robinson.

Chris Barber turns 90

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Chicago, 1959: Muddy Waters, St Louis Jimmy Oden, Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson

Chris Barber is 90 today. Few people have had a more profound impact on the course of my generation’s musical tastes in the six and a half decades since he encouraged his banjoist/guitarist, Lonnie Donegan, to continue the habit — started when they were both members of Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen — of breaking up an evening of New Orleans music with a skiffle turn in the intervals, thus leading directly to “Rock Island Line” and all else that followed.

That was no fluke. Barber had broad taste and was a lifelong proselytiser for great music and great musicians. He loved the blues, and in the late ’50s he brought Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Muddy Waters to Britain. The legend goes that purists turned up to hear Muddy sing the “authentic” Delta blues on an acoustic guitar and were scandalised when he plugged in his Telecaster and let rip with the electrified Chicago version. Luckily, at least as far as history goes, the purists were in the minority. Barber also brought over Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, thus helping to shape the tastes of a generation who would soon become Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Blues Breakers and thousands more.

Barber’s own ensembles veered gently away from the strict New Orleans format, adding an electric guitarist and extra horns (including saxophones, anathema to traddies). Later Paul Jones was often the featured singer with the Big Chris Barber Band, which I last saw playing in the park in central Baden-Baden on a sunny summer afternoon during the 2006 World Cup. On that occasion the bandshell was only 100 yards or so from the five-star hotel where the wives and girlfriends of the England team were staying, staked out by Fleet Street’s paparazzi, but I don’t recall any of them leaving their poolside loungers to listen.

Last year Chris announced his retirement. On his 90th birthday, I’d like to thank him for all he did, directly and indirectly, to guide so many of us towards the music that changed our lives. And, of course, to wish him many happy returns.

Lee Konitz 1927-2020

Lee Konitz William Claxton

One of the things we value most about jazz is the way it encourages — even relies on — the expression of individual character. A musician’s “sound” (a combination of factors, including tone, phrasing, attack and harmonic sense) is as personal as a fingerprint. Learning to differentiate between them is one of the tests and pleasures of being a young fan. Lee Konitz, who has died at the age of 92 from the effects of the coronavirus, had a more identifiable sound than most right from the start, but what was different about him was that he never allowed it to harden into a series of familiar gestures. Instead he showed a willingness to allow his style to evolve naturally as time passed.

There was a good example one night in 1992, when Gerry Mulligan arrived in London with a version of what is thought of as the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet, containing several original members (with Lew Soloff playing Miles’s role). Konitz had joined up for their European tour, and at the Queen Elizabeth Hall it was noticeable that the altoist was the only one who, when his solos came round, did not in any way attempt to reproduce his work on the original recordings 40-odd years earlier. His timbre had thickened and his lines no longer flew with the blithe adroitness of someone who could play whatever lay under his fingers, but there was a deeper kind of thought in every weighted phrase.

He was the most open of musicians: a career that began with Claude Thornhill and Lennie Tristano ended in collaborations with Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson. En route he played with an astonishing cornucopia of musicians, from Warne Marsh and Chet Baker through Jimmy Giuffre, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Elvin Jones, Henry Grimes, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Gary Peacock, Bill Frisell and countless others. He played with Charlie Parker, on tour with Stan Kenton in 1953, and with Ornette Coleman at the 1998 Umbria Jazz Festival. He was great in a formal setting, playing Gil Evans’s charts with Thornhill’s big band or Miles’s nine-piece, and he could be even better with an unfamiliar pick-up rhythm section, using the most mundane of formats to explore the extensions of melody and harmony.

During an earlier visit to London, in June 1983, on an otherwise perfectly ordinary night in a perfectly ordinary jazz club, in front of a perfectly ordinary audience, he produced one of the most extraordinary jazz performances I’ve ever heard. Here’s what I wrote about it a few years later, in the introduction to Jazz Portraits, a book of photographs:

On this night, a few evenings into a fortnight’s season that was part of a typical American jazz musician’s summer spent moving between the clubs and festivals of Europe, Konitz was working with three British players: Bob Cornford, a classically trained composer and pianist; Paul Morgan, a young double bassist; and Trevor Tompkins, a highly experienced drummer. Within a month of this engagement, the quiet, unemphatic Cornford, who revered Béla Bartók and Bill Evans in equal measure, would be dead of a heart attack at the age of 43, his immense promise unfulfilled, his gifts revealed only to a handful of his peers.

Konitz, like all of Tristano’s pupils, was known for his reliance on the chord sequences of standard Broadway ballads. They had been good enough for Lester Young and Charlie Parker, Tristano’s twin avatars of improvisation, and they were good enough for Lee Konitz. But this set on this particular night began with what seemed like a free improvisation: brief snatches of elliptical melody, angular and discontinuous, connected to each other only by the most tenuous logic. Or so it seemed. But gradually, with Cornford, Morgan and Tompkins following every step, the saxophonist’s phrases began to form more explicit links, even starting to describe familiar shapes. Slowly, as if from a pale mist, a tune emerged.

The process described in that paragraph may have taken five minutes, or it may have taken fifteen. No one was keeping score, and one of the special properties of improvisation — and not just jazz improvisation — is that it can take hold of chronological time and distort it: speeding it up, slowing it down, bending it, stopping it altogether. Now Konitz briefly ruled time, making it obey his commands as he lingered over the revealed contours of his design, sprinting forwards and pulling back until he judged the moment right to unveil the unmistakable shape of a standard.

Imagine a three-dimensional jigsaw, made out of glass, assembling itself in mid-air. Such was the quiet strength of Konitz’s creative conviction that his partners in the rhythm section never felt the lack of specific directions or signposts. When the tune of “On Green Dolphin Street” finally emerged as a more or less complete entity, it was the product of an organic process. Unlike most improvisers of his generation, who take the material and reassemble it into something of their own, Konitz had reversed the process.

A dozen years later, it was impossible to recall specific phrases from a piece of music that disappeared into the air as soon as it had been played. But the sound and the shape of the music, and the quality of absolute uniqueness that they gave to this apparently mundane event, were etched indelibly upon the memory.

Today I’ll listen to Konitz on Gil Evans’s recasting of “Yardbird Suite” for Claude Thornhill in 1947, to his participation in Lennie Tristano’s “Intuition”, the first attempt at pure collective improvisation in modern jazz in 1949, to his sound colouring the texture of the Davis/Evans version of “Moon Dreams” in 1950, to this “All the Things You Are” with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet at the Haig Club in LA in 1953, to this “All of You” with Sonny Dallas on bass and Elvin Jones on drums from 1961, and this “Alone Together” with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden from a great Blue Note trio album of the same name, recorded in 1996.

* The photograph of Lee Konitz was taken by William Claxton and appeared in Jazz Portraits (Studio, 1994). Andy Hamilton’s book Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art (University of Michigan Press, 2007) is highly recommended.