Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Classical music’ Category

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. 

A Bach chord

johann-sebastian-bach-1-1335786183-view-0

Intellectually, even though my dad was an Anglican priest, I’m an atheist. But the human yearning for grace and otherness, which finds its most obvious expression in places of organised worship and their liturgies, must come from somewhere. It’s the urge uniting the music of John Coltrane, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Johann Sebastian Bach.

This is a blog about music, so there’s no reason to exclude Bach, and perhaps the most intriguing chord ever devised — at least until the Beatles closed “A Day in the Life” with 10 hands on four keyboards more than two centuries later. It comes at the very end of his St Matthew Passion, written in 1727 and performed on three Good Fridays during the composer’s lifetime. The massive work then lay fallow for 85 years until, in 1829, Felix Mendelssohn, aged 20, conducted it in Berlin. After that it became a standard work in the repertoire of choirs and orchestras, a piece meant to accompany and intensify the reflection of Christians at the beginning of the Easter weekend.

I’ve been listening to Otto Klemperer’s 1961 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Choir, and an all-star group of soloists including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Pears and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. As was the fashion in those days, Klemperer takes it slowly, emphasising the breadth of the choral melodies, filling the space (and three CDs) with the sound of a large vocal group and an orchestra using modern instruments. Today’s interpreters favour period instruments, a smaller choir and a brisker tempo, sometimes knocking a whole hour off Klemperer’s three hours and 45 minutes. I’m with Otto on this one.

Listening to one CD per day on Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings, I found myself constantly looking forward to the closing seconds of the climactic chorale, “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (We sit down with tears)”, in which that extraordinary chord makes its appearance. It’s a C minor 7th — a C, an E flat and a G, with the addition of a B**. It’s with the B — played (I think — I don’t have a score) by one of the three oboes*** — that Bach inserts a dissonance made more enigmatic by its designation as an apoggiatura: a grace-note sliding up a semitone to the next C, delaying the sense of resolution.

The chord has already been played, so unemphatically that you might almost take it for a mistake, three times throughout the eight minutes of this finale to the oratorio; on each occasion it concludes a passage, and the effect grows increasingly unsettling. Its reiteration as the closing chord of the piece carries more emphasis, the grace-note this time held long enough to remove all ambiguity. The dissonance, not the resolution, is what hangs in our minds. The inventor of western harmony wants to disturb us as the Easter story unfolds, and he succeeds.

* A remastered version of Klemperer’s 1961 recording of St Matthew Passion is on the Regis label.

** I really shouldn’t have attempted this piece without a score and a keyboard to hand. My old friend Peter Brown points out that the grace-note is not a B-flat, as I suggested, but a B natural. Sorry to have misled anyone, not least myself.

*** My cousin Penny, who knows a thousand times more about these things than I do, checked the score: it’s played by a pair of flutes in each of the two orchestras.

Buell Neidlinger 1936-2018

Buell Neidlinger w CT at Newport 57

Buell Neidlinger (bass) and Cecil Taylor (piano) at Newport in 1957

What turned out to be Buell Neidlinger’s final contribution to this blog arrived on March 9, in response to a piece about Keith Jarrett’s latest release. Buell had seen the accompanying photograph of Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette relaxing on stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall: “Thought I recognised the floor… worked there for three years,” he wrote. In 1967 he had joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and also the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, where he taught bass and chamber music and, with George Russell, established the first jazz department of a major music school.

It astonished me when Buell sent some words to this blog, commenting on something I’d written about Cecil Taylor. His participation in Cecil’s trio version of “This Nearly Was Mine” made a huge impression on me when I first heard it in the early ’60s. It remains a favourite, not least for the way Buell’s bass shadows Taylor’s piano inventions with such devotion and beautiful note-choice.

As a young cello prodigy, born in New York City and brought up in Connecticut, Buell studied with Gregor Piatigorsky and had lessons from Pablo Casals. After switching to double bass, he played with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, with Hot Lips Page and Herbie Nichols, with Igor Stravinsky and Leopold Stokowski, with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, with Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, with John Cage and George Crumb, with Duane Eddy and Roy Orbison, with Sir John Barbirolli’s Houston Symphony and Neville Marriner’s LA Chamber Orchestra, with the Beach Boys and Earth Wind & Fire, with Frank Zappa and the Eagles.

The instrument he played on “This Nearly Was Mine” was the same one he used on “Hotel California”. Once owned by King George III, it had been played in the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. “I sold it years ago to a girl in Hollywood for $15,000,” he told me during the course of our only conversation, on the telephone from his home in Washington State.

He also talked about his friendship with James Jamerson, whom he had met in a Hollywood studio. Buell had acquired his first bass guitar in 1953, but by the time he bumped into Jamerson on a Michael Jackson date he had become a first-choice double bassist in the studio orchestras. “Basically he was through already,” Buell said. “When Berry Gordy moved to LA, he basically signed the death warrants of a bunch of great musicians.”

Neidlinger remembered the Motown studio in Hollywood as the first place he worked where they had a transmitter. “You’d cut your shit,” he said, “and you’d go out to the car park and listen to it on the radio. If it didn’t sound good, you’d go back and do it again.”

He also remembered Jamerson’s addiction to alcohol. “He was living in a motel on Hollywood Boulevard. It was pretty ugly. After we had a meal on Santa Monica Boulevard, he invited me back. Whisky and gin bottles everywhere. He had a sliding closet. There weren’t many clothes in there, but there was his upright bass with no case. He played Fender bass on the Motown hits, of course, but really he was an upright bass player.”

Buell had strong views about everything, including bass players. He thought Paul Chambers was the greatest bass player who ever lived. He liked players who didn’t try to play the instrument as if it were a guitar, playing too many notes at the top of the instrument’s range. (This was a man whose first paying job in New York was as a dep for the ailing Walter Page, who had been the bassist in Count Basie’s pre-war band.) When Maurice White died, he sent a note to the blog saying that the EW&F man was the greatest drummer he’d ever recorded with.

In his later years Buell moved to Washington State, where he lived with his wife, Margaret Storer, another bassist. He had a group called Buellgrass, including the fiddler Richard Greene, which played his version of bluegrass music, and he and Margaret played baroque music with friends — he back on cello, she on violin.

Did I mention that he depped in Thelonious Monk’s quartet for a night at the Five Spot in 1957, alongside John Coltrane and Shadow Wilson? And for Charlie Haden in Ornette’s quartet in 1959, also at the Five Spot? And that his first No 1 was Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, on which he played in the string section? He seemed to have cherished every note, every encounter, every experience. I’m not sure there’s ever been anyone quite like him, or will be again.