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Posts from the ‘Jazz-rock’ Category

Soft Machine in Croydon, 1970

Softs in CroydonCroydon’s Fairfield Halls art complex closed this week for a complete renovation that is expected to take two years. The news reminded me of the night back in January 1970 when I got so badly lost in my Fiat 500 in the one-way system around the town’s high-rise office blocks that I missed most of the first half of an important Soft Machine concert.

It’s always interesting when a gig you attended turns up on a CD decades later, even though part of one track, “Facelift”, was taken and used, after editing and overdubbing, on the Soft’s first album for CBS, the classic Third, later that year. Some years ago the Cuneiform label released the complete 75-minute show under the title Noisette; it’s still available, and well worth investigating.

Back in 1970, this is how I started the review in the following week’s Melody Maker: “It seems to me that this might just be Soft Machine’s year. Having done things the unconventional way by finding first fame on the Continent, the group should find the musical climate of Britain coming round to embrace them in the near future.”

The hall was “all but sold out”, the audience “young and attentive”. I got there in time to hear “Hibou, Anemone and Bear”, the final number of the first half. Thanks to the Cuneiform disc, I now know that Robert Wyatt — for whom, having been brought up in Dulwich, this was practically a home fixture — introduced the concert with these words: “The programme for this evening is that we do a bit and then we stop for a bit and then we do a bit more.”

It turns out that I missed 25 minutes of excellent music. Had I heard it live, I might not – after praising the playing of Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean — have written the following about the fifth member, the saxophonist and flautist Lyn Dobson: “I have grave reservations about Dobson, who seemed to be trying to do too much. Only on tenor did he say the piece of which he is capable”.

Dobson had joined the Softs the previous year, as part of a four-strong horn section. The other three members — Dean, Marc Charig and Nick Evans — had been nicked from the Keith Tippett band. Charig and Evans had left at the end of 1969, after a French tour. (Here and here are rare glimpses of that shortlived seven-piece line-up on a French TV show, L’invité du dimanche, with the added attraction of the great Delphine Seyrig.) The five-piece didn’t last long, either. Here they are in Paris that spring, shortly before Dobson left, thereby missing the band’s historic appearance at the Albert Hall in August, when they became the first ensemble from the field of popular music to appear at the BBC Proms.

At the time of his stint with the Softs, Lyn was a well-known face on the London scene. He had played the flute solo on Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” and recorded with the Small Faces. He was a member, along with John McLaughlin, of Georgie Fame’s first post-Blue Flames bands in 1967, and could be heard with the People Band, which also included Terry Day and Mike Figgis. He played with the Keef Hartley Band, he would appear on the title track of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter and on John and Beverley Martyn’s The Road to Ruin, and in the 1990s he made a couple of albums with the Third Ear Band before going to live, I believe, on Crete.

Anyway, I can now admit that in the section of the evening I missed was one of the concert’s highlights: Lyn’s flute solo on Ratledge’s ballad, “Backwards”. Introduced by the composer’s wah-wah’d electric piano, he produces a beautifully constructed improvisation that achieves an excellent blend of Eric Dolphy’s pure-toned inventiveness and Roland Kirk’s funky distortion, the latter feature coming to the fore as the piece goes into a wild Mingus-like 9/8 vamp. (Mingus, along with the Coltrane quartet of “My Favourite Things” and Uncle Meat-era Zappa, seemed to be the Softs’ most powerful influences at the time.) His tenor solos, like the one on Hopper’s “12/8 Theme”, manage to retain their clarity and logic in the heat of a furnace stoked by the non-stop focused clatter of Wyatt’s impassioned drumming.

As it happens, Wyatt was already beginning to become detached from the band. “Hugh, myself and Elton were pursuing a vaguely jazz-related direction,” Ratledge told Rob Chapman in a Mojo interview in 1997. “Robert was violently opposed to this, which is strange looking back on it because he was passionate about jazz. But he had defined ideas of what pop music was and what jazz was.” Wyatt’s verdict, quoted by his biographer Marcus O’Dair in Different Every Time: “To me, fusion jazz was the worst of both worlds. It was rock rhythms, played in a rather effete way, with noodling, very complicated solos on top.”

Robert may have been right in general terms, but that’s not true of the music preserved from the Croydon gig, which has power and inventiveness and its own kind of authenticity. To me, the five-piece was the last great Soft Machine line-up, before the noodling began to take over.

By the time Dobson joined the Softs, he had already developed a serious interest in eastern music and mysticism. Not long after he departure he generously lent me Hazrat Inayat Khan’s book about Sufism and music. It stayed with me through many house moves but eventually went missing. Maybe, like the recording of the enthralling Croydon concert, it will one day magically reappear, ready to provide a reminder of a time of open-minded, open-hearted creativity.

* The photograph of Lyn Dobson, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean was taken by Mark Ellidge, and is from the booklet accompanying Noisette.

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Elephant9 in the room

Elephant9For an hour or so at Ronnie Scott’s last night, I had the illusion of being in a different place and time: the Middle Earth club in Covent Garden, perhaps, or Implosion at the Roundhouse, or the Temple (formerly the Flamingo), back at the end of the 1960s or the very dawn of the ’70s. Once or twice I had the feeling that if I looked around, John Peel would sitting nearby. The creators of this sensation were a Norwegian trio called Elephant9, who find their inspiration in that era’s jazz-influenced progressive rock, as exemplified at its best by the three-piece version of Soft Machine or Tony Williams’s Lifetime.

Their keyboardist is Ståle Storløkken, a graduate of the celebrated Trondheim conservatory, and better known to me as a member of the improvising group Supersilent. The last time I saw him, a few years ago, was in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, where he was playing the pipe organ in a duo concert with his Supersilent colleague, the trumpeter Arve Henriksen (about whom I wrote, quite coincidentally, here last week). The drummer is Torstein Lofthus, a graduate of the Norwegian academy of music in Oslo, and the bass guitarist is Nikolai Hængsle Eilertsen, who is also a member of BigBang and the National Bank.

Maybe the best way of describing Elephant9 is to say that if you took Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Atomic Rooster and replaced their personnel with more interesting musicians playing more interesting compositions, you’d have something close to what we heard in Soho last night. I knew them only from their first album, but that record — Dodovoodoo, released on the Rune Grammofon label in 2008 — made me want to go and see what they were like in person.

Shaggy-haired and dressed-down in the style of the typical early-’70s jazz-rocker, they certainly looked the part. They were ferociously loud from time to time, and the structures of the music were sometimes relatively unsophisticated (even when they were playing in 10/4), but the volume and the simplicity were for a purpose, and there was always a feeling of substance and variety. The serpentine melodies seemed designed to lead somewhere, the thundering rhythm patterns were never merely bludgeoning, and the riffs provided an effective launching pad for Storløkken (playing Hammond B-3 organ and Fender-Rhodes electric piano, with the occasional use of heavy distortion on both) to build lengthy solos of genuine excitement. Impressionistic solo keyboard interludes added contrast to a set built around extended medleys of original material.

All in all, they provided an enjoyable and surprising reminder of why, in such bands as Egg and East of Eden, the jazzier end of British progressive rock once seemed to hold out hope for the future. Sincere congratulations, then, to Elephant9. Finding a way out of what once seemed like a dead end is quite an achievement.

* In the photograph above, from left to right: Nikolai Hængsle Eilertsen, Ståle Storløkken and Thorstein Lofthus.

The return of Burnin Red Ivanhoe

Burnin Red IvanhoeWhen I saw them playing with their Danish compatriot John Tchicai at the Berlin Jazz Festival in November 1969, Burnin Red Ivanhoe impressed me as the first significant contribution made to rock by a band from continental Europe. This was before Focus, Shocking Blue and Golden Earring from Holland, before the flood of German bands that included Amon Düül II, Can, Kraftwerk, Neu! and Tangerine Dream, before Wigwam from Finland, before PFM from Italy.

Basically, Burnin Red Ivanhoe had a rock rhythm section (guitarist Ole Fick, bassist Jess Stæhr and drummer Bo Thrige Andersen) and jazz horns: Kim Menzer on trombone, flute and harmonica and Karsten Vogel on alto and soprano saxophones. There was a bit of Uncle Meat-era Zappa in there, a bit of Soft Machine, maybe a bit of Who and Floyd. I was particularly taken by the eloquent, heartfelt playing of Vogel, who had also been a member of Tchicai’s Cadentia Nova Danica. Rather fashionably, they had just released a double album, titled M 144, which showcased their various dimensions: riffy rock, free blowing, the occasional burst of Scandi-whimsy.

I wrote about them a couple of times in the Melody Maker (in the days when the sub-editors were not above inventing headlines that made play with phrases such as Great Danes and Viking Invasion). John Peel played them on his programme and gave them a deal for a new album on his Dandelion label, which he co-produced (under his favourite pseudonym, Eddie Lee Beppeaux) with Tony Reeves, Colosseum’s bass guitarist, at CBS Studios in London. They toured a few times, and recorded another album in Copenhagen, called W.W.W., but eventually they disappeared from general sight.

Over the years I kept in occasional touch with Karsten. He’d give me recordings that showed his remarkable range: with his own fusion band, Secret Oyster (Straight to the Krankenhaus, CBS, 1976); on a nice solo album called Birds of Beauty (CBS, 1976), in a duo with the great Carnatic violinist Dr L Subramaniam (Meetings, Calibrated Records, 2007); playing tunes associated with Charlie Parker on a lovely quartet album called My Old Flame (Calibrated, 2010). There’s also an extraordinary album recorded with two singers, Hanne Siboni and Skye Løfvander, in Copenhagen’s vast disused underground water cisterns: Stained Glass Music (Oyster Songs, 2004) is a fascinating study in the sensitive exploration of a cathedral-like natural echo.

But the point of this post is the arrival of a new Burnin Red Ivanhoe album. Released by Sony in Denmark in artwork echoing the cover of M 144, with stencilled lettering on a plain background, the new one is called BRI and features two original members, Vogel and Menzer, with the latter’s son, Klaus, on drums, Assi Roar on bass, Aske Jacoby on guitar and Lone Selmer on voice and keyboards.

Quite often these late-life revivals don’t work. But this band — and Vogel, the chief composer, in particular — seems to have as much to say as it did 45 years ago, perhaps more. And the musicians certainly have better resources with which to say it. The mix of idioms sounds richer and much more assured as they switch from the whispered recitative and soprano/harmonica conversation over the irresistible descending sequence of “Natlig Rejse” to the folkish bluegrass strum of “Det Er Det”, the brittle power chords of “Tiden Om Tiden”, the gorgeous jangly pop of “Alting Var Bedre”, the gliding, glistening beauty of “Cafe Blåhat”, and the insistent “Mind the Gap”, whose lyric juxtaposes lines from Baudelaire and Poe with an announcement familiar to users of the London Underground (“Stand clear of the closing doors…”).

For old times’ sake, there’s also an absolute killer remake of “M 144”, with great alto from Vogel over a driving groove. But this album isn’t about the recreation of past glories. It’s about creation in real time, by real musicians who’ve made excellent use of the intervening years. What a shame Peel isn’t around to hear how good they’ve become.

* Photograph of Lone Selmer and Karsten Vogel by Mette Kramer Kristensen.