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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

The art of the bolero

When someone mentions the bolero, most of us probably think of the hypnotic Ravel piece in slow three-quarter time used in the 1979 Hollywood comedy 10 as a signifier for sex and at the 1984 Winter Olympics by the ice-dancing champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. That kind of bolero was hybridised from Spanish dances and turned into art music. The other type of bolero was the sort that turned up in Cuba in the late 19th century, in the form of romantic ballads whose popularity spread throughout Latin America.

As a boy growing up in a housing project in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón heard boleros sung by the likes of Arsenio Rodriguez, La Lupe, Benny Moré and Sylvia Rexach: like French chanson, it was a music that transcended generations. His latest album, titled El Arte del Bolero, is a series of duets with the pianist Luis Perdomo — a member of his regular quartet — on the songs he heard back then, delivered with respect, understanding and affection.

Zenón, who was born in 1976, learnt the saxophone from the age of 10 and eventually won a place at a local music school. At 20 he left home with a scholarship to study at Berklee College in Boston, where he fell in with some interesting contemporaries from around the world. Since then he has become widely renowned not just as a wonderful improviser but as a composer, a bandleader, and a distinguished educator. For almost 10 years he has run a project called Caravana Cultural, taking free jazz concerts to young audiences and musicians in Puerto Rico’s rural areas. Grammy nominations and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations have come his way.

I was first made aware of his playing on Not in Our Name by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and several albums by the SFJAZZ Collective, an all-star band whose shifting personnel has featured the likes of Joshua Redman, Bobby Hutcherson, Mark Turner and Nicholas Payton. He is also a member of Guillermo Klein’s Los Guachos. In 2015 I invited him to play at Jazzfest Berlin with his quartet, a long-established line-up completed by Perdomo, the Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig and the drummer Henry Cole, sharing the bill with Keith Tippett’s Octet. Their repertoire included some of the pieces from a recent album, Identities Are Changeable, in which the four-piece was augmented to become a big band and blended with the voices of immigrants; the music retained its potency in the reduced format.

Zenón is a wonderful jazz improviser, clearly influenced by Charlie Parker but with a voice of his own — a warm, fibrous tone throughout the registers with phrasing as elegant at fast tempos as on ballads. El Arte del Bolero is the latest of several albums in which he examines the music of his heritage, but it isn’t a Latin album as such: it’s a record of thoughtful, beautifully balanced explorations with the occasional fleeting venture into ‘outside’ flurries (on Rexach’s “Alma Adentro”, which he first recorded several years ago with an ensemble arranged by Klein) and bebop (Bobby Capó’s “Juguete”, from the repertoire of Cheo Feliciano).

Recorded (without an audience) at the Jazz Gallery in New York last September, this is music of great intimacy, the saxophone so close-miked that you can sometimes hear the soft slap of the pads, the two musicians working as one to create music that combines passion and sophistication in perfect proportions. I can imagine it becoming one of those albums that you keep close at hand, ready for those times when all you want is to hear something beautiful.

* Released via the Miel Music label, Miguel Zenón’s El Arte del Bolero is available on Bandcamp: https://miguelzenon.bandcamp.com/album/el-arte-del-bolero. The photograph of Zenón was taken by Camille Blake on stage at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele in 2015.

Group Sounds Four & Five

From left: Jack Bruce, Lyn Dobson, Henry Lowther, Tom McGuinness, Mike Hugg and Manfred Mann

Tom McGuinness remembers a Sunday night in 1965 when he, Manfred Mann and Mike Hugg visited the Green Man pub on Blackheath Hill to see a modern jazz outfit called Group Sounds Five. He thinks they must have had a motive, because the band’s two horn players — the trumpeter Henry Lowther and the saxophonist Lyn Dobson — soon became members of Manfred Mann, staying until the summer of 1966. After the departure of Mike Vickers, and Tom’s switch from bass back to guitar, they were also joined by Jack Bruce. Tom recalls that Manfred lured Bruce away from John Mayall, who was miffed enough to write a song about the defection: “Double Crossing Time” appeared on the Blues Breakers album.

Group Sounds Five had acquired the habit of rehearsing three times a week, even though they landed on average no more than one gig a month, according to their drummer, Jon Hiseman, and Lowther and Dobson continued with them even after joining the Manfreds. The departure of their pianist, Ken McCarthy, turned them into Group Sounds Four, with Bruce taking over from Ron Rubin on double bass. Both incarnations appear for the first time on record in a new release called Black and White Raga, documenting recordings made by for the BBC Light Programme’s Jazz Club in November 1965 and April 1966, preserved in the extensive personal tape collection of Hiseman, who died in 2018.

This was a remarkably creative time in the London scene, with musicians like Dick Heckstall-Smith, Ginger Baker, Harry Beckett, Danny Thompson, Brian Auger and John McLaughlin switching back and forth between the modern jazz and R&B scenes. Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, George Fame’s Blue Flames, Herbie Goins’s Nightimers and the Graham Bond Organisation welcomed players comfortable with both idioms. Lowther, Dobson and Bruce were able to make a living with Manfred Mann — whose repertoire included tunes like Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack o’ Woe” and Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” alongside “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and “Oh No, Not My Baby” — while continuing to pursue their commitment to the sort of avant-garde jazz exemplified by John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

The four pieces on the album by Group Sounds Five, with McCarthy on piano and Rubin on bass, most strongly reflect the Coltrane influence. An emphasis on modal structures is evident through “Red Planet” (a Coltrane original also known as “Miles’ Mode”), a hard-bop recasting of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, McCarthy’s driving “Celebrity Stomp” and an extended treatment of Mike Taylor’s complex “Black and White Raga”, based on shifting between the black and white keys of the piano. The brilliant but ill-fated Taylor was an admirer of the group (Hiseman, Rubin and Bruce recorded with him), and gave them this piece, which he never recorded himself; he would have been pleased with this intense and compelling treatment, which maintains its tension and narrative thread through 11 absorbing minutes.

Seven months later, now down to a quartet, the band recorded three tracks: Sigmund Romberg’s “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”, Bruce’s “Snow” and Dobson’s “Straight Away”. These are even more impressive: the confidence has grown, individually and collectively, and there is the feeling that something genuinely original is beginning to emerge. It’s most fully evident in “Snow”, a five-minute tone poem in which the composer’s bowed bass converses with the two horns, eventually joined by Hiseman’s mallets. There’s a distinctly Northern European cast to this piece, reminiscent of the writing of Krzysztof Komeda and Palle Mikkelborg.

It would be hard to overpraise the quality of improvising, particularly on the later tracks. Lowther’s endless flow of ideas and Dobson’s rhythmical fluency and tempered aggression are matched by the response of the bass and drums, Hiseman making a particularly powerful impression with a solo on “Straight Away” as architecturally coherent as it is technically advanced. Had this band been given the chance to make an album, the product would no doubt have stood alongside Joe Harriott’s “Abstract” and Mike Taylor’s “Trio” as an fine example of the forward-looking music being made in London at the time. Thanks to Hiseman’s archival instinct, this rediscovery fills an important gap.

Between these two sessions, on March 18, 1966, the Manfreds found themselves at Abbey Road recording a song called “Pretty Flamingo”. Jack Bruce sang the high harmony and Lyn Dobson played the distinctive flute part on what became the band’s second UK No 1 hit. Those were different times.

* Black and White Raga is out now on the Jazz in Britain label (jazzinbritain.org). The photograph is taken from the cover of Manfred Mann’s 1966 EP Instrumental Asylum, and is the only one I can find featuring all three of Jack Bruce, Lyn Dobson and Henry Lowther.

Meeting Ma Rainey

As films depicting imaginary incidents from a real life go, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t cut it. A version of August Wilson’s 1982 stage play, it falls into just about every trap laid for those who attempt to translate theatre to cinema. Viola Davis, as Rainey, is sensationally good, and Chadwick Boseman, playing the last role of his life as an angry young cornet-player, scarcely less marvellous, but that’s really all there is to recommend it. Even the music, directed by Branford Marsalis, seems tame.

It did remind me, though, of encountering Ma Rainey as a major figure in the first book I ever read about jazz. Rudi Blesh’s Shining Trumpets was first published in the US in 1946 and in the UK three years later. Towards the end of the next decade there was a copy in my school’s library, which I could read during lunch breaks and the free periods we were given for study. At that stage my knowledge of the music had moved beyond The Glenn Miller Story, but not all that far, particularly in terms of the music’s origins. So Shining Trumpets, subtitled “A History of Jazz”, was a revelation, despite being written by a man who considered the music of Duke Ellington to be “decadent” and saw Billie Holiday as “merely a smart entertainer”. By then I knew enough to question those views, while recognising the value of Blesh’s belief that jazz was a form of high art which owed pretty much everything to its African origins. In that sense he set a boy of 13 or 14 on the right track, although his path was straighter and narrower than mine would become.

Rather bracingly, his book began with a tabulated comparison between “African survivals” in jazz and what he called “Deformations”, illustrated by the contrast, for example, between Tendency to use any melody or harmonic pattern as a basis for free improvisation of melody (admirable) and Straight playing of melody (or) mere embellishment or rhapsody (deplorable). His ideal of “hot jazz” featured the use of intonation free of the fixed European scale, vocalised instrumental tones, displaced accents and polyrhythms, collective improvised antiphony and polyphony. He particularly disliked the infusion of influences from European classical music. He died in 1985, aged 86, and I have no idea what he made of Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, who restored those characteristics to jazz at a time when bebop, “progressive jazz” and the West Coast sound had taken the music into areas that would have earned his wholehearted disapproval. Or if he even heard them.

Nevertheless he was responsible for implanting in the mind of this listener the useful idea that the music came from West Africa via slave ships, cotton fields and chain gangs, and that there was a direct line from gospel singing and field hollers to whatever was on the cover of the latest issue of Down Beat. His arguments were backed up by musicology that was impressively diligent and open-minded. The book’s appendices include musical examples quoted in the text, carefully transcribed for Blesh by the modern classical composer Lou Harrison (a student of Schoenberg); another contemporary composer, Virgil Thompson, provided encouragement. And the author never for a moment attempts to divorce the music from its social and cultural contexts.

Shining Trumpets was where I first met the protagonist of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She was one of his heroes, representing to him a perfect example — like Jelly Roll Morton, Baby Dodds and King Oliver — of the application of great artistry to the raw materials of which he approved. “Ma Rainey’s singing, monumental and simple, is by no means primitive,” he wrote while discussing recordings such as “Shave ‘Em Dry Blues” and “See See Rider”. “It is extremely conscious in its use of her full expressive means, definitely classic in its purity of line and its rigid avoidance of the decorative. Such art as this must, of necessity, transcend the level of the spontaneous and purely instinctive. Thus her effects are carefully calculated and full of meaning; they are neither naïve nor spurious, sentimental nor falsely sophisticated. Rainey’s voice is sombre but never harsh, and its sad and mellow richness strikes to the heart.”

I hadn’t read the book for almost 60 years until I came across a second-hand copy last year and bought it for purely nostalgic reasons. I’d forgotten, if I ever realised it, how well Blesh wrote, and how hard he, an Ivy League graduate, tried to get to what he saw as the music’s essence. He could dismiss Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” as “an atmospheric bit of musical stuff too gauzy to hold a tragic content”, but he could also write this about what he heard while listening to the 78 of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed”: “In the record grooves are frustrated loneliness, hungry poverty, fanatical devotion to heaven, and the ascetic waiting for it. He enunciates cruel and peremptory phrases in a voice harsh and burred; in one that is thick, rough and crooning, he answers with pathetic melodic downward turns that are like appeasements, conciliations, solaces, and pardons. Throughout, the guitar, sweet and ringing, weaves a polyphony with the singer. These are, by implication, the voices of many people.”

You don’t get the sense that, unlike some of his contemporaries, Blesh wanted to freeze the music at the point he loved it best. He was keen for it to continue its development, as long as it adhered to the standards he upheld. Inevitably he sometimes patronised the musicians of whom he wrote, committing the error of wanting them to do things his way rather than theirs. He believed he had seen the truth of their condition, and was prepared to advise them on how best to express it in their art. Although he adored Louis Armstrong’s early work, he claimed that the trumpeter failed to understand the responsibility of accepting the baton handed on in turn by Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard and King Oliver: “Had Armstrong understood his responsibility as clearly as he perceived his own growing artistic power — had his individual genius been as deeply integrated into that of the music, and thus ultimately with his destiny, of his race — designated leadership would have been just.” Sadly, he felt, Armstrong had been diverted by the tides of commerce, as exemplified by his recordings with the big bands which did away with the principle of collective improvisation birthed in New Orleans. Blesh’s conclusion: “Jazz itself is revolutionary: Armstrong’s act was that of counter-revolution.”

At this distance, the offence is more picturesque than distasteful, but it does make me think of the best line in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “White folks don’t understand about the blues,” Rainey says. “They hear how it comes out, but they don’t know how it got there.” No matter how deeply one loves the music, how closely one studies its history and how genuinely one admires its creators, that’s always something to reckon with.

* Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix. Rudi Blesh’s Shining Trumpets was published by Alfred A. Knopf in the US and by Cassell & Co in the UK.

** Due to authorial carelessness, the original version of this post gave the name of the actress playing Ma Rainey as “Viola Wills”. The film was also mischaracterised as a “biopic”. Both these errors, pointed out by readers, have been corrected.

Mingus in Germany

“When I was young, nobody told me that Duke Ellington made any money. I turned on the radio and heard something that I loved, and I followed it until I found out where it was.” Charles Mingus said that to me in the summer of 1972, at a pavement table outside in restaurant in Shepherd Market, London, during the course of a sometimes bemusing but always fascinating interview.

Two years earlier I’d gone to hear him in person for the first time at the Top of the Gate in Greenwich Village. He was torpid, listless, uninterested, all reflected in the music of his quintet. It was one of the most depressing musical experiences of my life. Ten years or so after falling in love with the turbulent sound of Blues & Roots, I was foolish enough to write a review suggesting that this giant of the music was washed up.

It was a judgement I soon came to regret. Within two years he had rediscovered much of his physical and spiritual vigour, and was once again leading bands that boiled with an energy that had its source in the leader’s soul. I was lucky enough to be present at Philharmonic Hall to hear him play an epic blues with the great tenorist Gene Ammons and then to hear several nights of a fine season at Ronnie Scott’s.

Did anyone incarnate the spirit of jazz more effectively than Mingus? The life-enhancing combination of high skill and wild spontaneity, of the most finely tuned sensibility and the deepest roots, of romantic beauty and unapologetic political commitment? All that is present throughout a four-CD set titled @Bremen 1964-75, divided between tours 11 years apart with two marvellous groups, recorded and preserved by Radio Bremen and now — although the earlier concert has been much bootlegged — officially released for the first time.

The 1964 band featured Johnny Coles on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on alto, bass clarinet and flute, Clifford Jordan on tenor, Jaki Byard on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums. Nine weeks later Dolphy would be dead, his diabetic coma misdiagnosed in a Berlin hospital; here we can listen to him in full flight. On “Parkeriana”, notes shoot out of his alto at unexpected angles like beams of light refracting in a hall of mirrors while Mingus uses his bass to push the beat in the way he did at certain medium-fast tempos. On “Fables of Faubus”, an eventful 33-minute performance that prefigures a lot of what the Art Ensemble of Chicago would later get up to, Dolphy’s bass clarinet makes useful interventions behind Coles’s long, characteristically plaintive solo before leading the piece to its climax with an extended solo of such hair-raising audacity that you can’t believe it happened almost 60 years ago. Other highlights include Byard’s introductory piano soliloquy, a typical history lesson including chunks of ragtime and stride, and Mingus’s restless exploration of “Sophisticated Lady”.

The 1975 band — with Mingus and Richmond joined by Jack Walrath (trumpet), George Adams (tenor) and Don Pullen (piano) — is the one that, six months earlier, had recorded the two-volume Changes for Atlantic, and the set list contains several pieces from those albums: “Remember Rockefeller at Attica”, “Sue’s Changes”, “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”, “Free Cell Block F, Tis Nazi USA”, Walrath’s “Black Beans and Poles” and Sy Johnson’s “For Harry Carney”. If this quintet isn’t as lairy as some of Mingus’s small combos, it produces high-level creativity at every turn, true to the leader’s vision of a music once collective in nature and a vehicle for individual character — perhaps the most important lesson that he took from his adoration of Ellington.

Walrath fires out bright-toned multi-noted lines that sound relaxed and assured even at the most demanding tempos, artfully varying his trajectory. Adams shows himself to be among the most emotionally generous of the tenorists who emerged in the wake of John Coltrane, the unaccompanied section of his solo on “Sue’s Changes” quoting exquisitely from Ornette Coleman’s “Beauty Is a Rare Thing” and demonstrating (as had Dolphy) that although Mingus often said disobliging things about the avant-garde, he was happy to incorporate the movement’s innovations when they came from musicians who’d satisfied him that they had real chops and a proper grounding.

Pullen, like Byard before him and successors such as Roland Hanna and John Foster, had the technique and the imagination to pursue a pan-stylistic vision of jazz piano. His relaxed improvisation on “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” is the epitome of chilled-out “inside” improvising at a long-legged medium-slow tempo; when he extends the approach deep into the realms of abstraction, as in the dense conclusion to his “Sue’s Changes” solo, it’s clearly with the leader’s approval.

Whether in 1964 or 1975, Mingus and Richmond keep the fire burning, raising and lowering the flame at will, switching metre and tempo with wonderful understanding, developing the unique brand of swing they created together when they first joined forces in 1957. Here they can stretch out with like-minded companions in front of two sets of enthusiastic listeners, their work preserved in a set that belongs in even the most comprehensive Mingus collection.

* Charles Mingus’s @Bremen 1964 & 1975 is released on the Sunnyside label, in partnership with Radio Bremen. The terrific photograph of Mingus was taken at Montreux by the late, great David Redfern.

‘The Monk Watches the Eagle’

My last memory of Keith Tippett comes from a night in Berlin in 2015, when he brought his octet to play a new suite, The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon. He was always edgy before a performance, and this concert was no exception. There was a fine new 9ft Steinway for him to play, tuned twice during the day — once before the afternoon soundcheck, once after. An hour before the start of the concert, however, he went back to the piano, played a few notes, and came to me with an urgent request that it be retuned.

At that point the only thing a festival director can do is keep the artist happy. The piano tuner had gone home hours before. But his home number was found, and he was summoned in time to give the instrument another going-over. (After completing the task, he muttered to me that it had remained perfectly in tune.) Keith and his musicians proceeded to play a glorious set that delighted the audience, who were transfixed when Julie Tippetts, Keith’s wife, materialised next to the piano towards the end to sing “The Dance of Her Returning”. It was a triumph, one of many in his long career.

Keith was a wonderful man and one of the finest British composers of his generation. Following his death n June 2020, the first posthumously released Tippett recording is a piece of which he was specially proud: The Monk Watches the Eagle, a cantata for two saxophone quartets, the BBC Singers, and his wife, Julie, who provided a libretto evoking the last earthly thoughts of a holy man on his deathbed.

The recording is of its first and only performance, performed in 2004 as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, which had commissioned it, and recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in Norwich Cathedral. Dedicated to his late father, the nature of the work and the setting of the performance remind us that Keith’s early musical experience included spells as a chorister and church organist in his native Bristol.

His whole career showed us that he was comfortable in many idioms, from his astonishing solo piano improvisations to his appearance with King Crimson on Top of the Pops and his marshalling of the extraordinary 50-piece Centipede. The Monk Watches the Eagle finds him flying free of genre, blending the gestures of contemporary classical choral music with perfectly integrated saxophone improvisations — by Paul Dunmall (soprano), Kevin Figes (alto), Ben Waghorn (tenor) and Chris Biscoe (baritone) — and Julie’s powerfully affecting singing.

Keith’s use of his resources here is flexible and imaginative. His deployment of the singers is in a very English tradition of choral music, the voices sometimes soaring up to the 12th century cathedral’s vaulted stone ceiling. There are times when he makes the saxophones sound like a pipe organ powered by human breath; even more astonishing is a passage where you imagine you’re hearing distant gongs and bowed cymbals.

The 40-minute piece is continuous, but for our convenience the CD is programmed with seven divisions. The fourth of them, a 14-minute passage, contains some of the most moving music I’ve heard this year: a series of slow movements featuring lean a cappella vocal writing, a dissonant slow upward swirl of voices and reeds giving way to a glowing melody emotionally related to John Tavener’s “The Lamb”, Julie’s mbira (thumb piano) and her wonderfully poised vocal solo over saxophone harmonies, and the return of the choir, with Biscoe’s soft baritone tiptoeing gently between their legato phrases.

“Now it is silent, and words hang warm,” they sing in this section. “All is calm. All that remains… All that remains in my heart is still. All is still. Now in the quiet — and quite alone — not alone!” But the luminous serenity is disturbed by a writhing Dunmall soprano solo, emerging from a babble of voices, demonstrating that the inherent possibilities of such collaborations did not end with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Singers. The parallel harmonies of the closing movement have an unadorned elegance reminiscent of plainsong.

It’s a work of great spiritual depth and power, radiating its beams of light as though shining through stained glass — the motif of the cover design. I remember Keith telling me about it with special pride. Now everyone can hear it, and join the long applause that filled the cathedral at the conclusion of a marvellous performance that reveals a different and very precious facet of the soul of a great musician.

* Keith Tippett’s The Monk Watches the Eagle is released on the Discus label. The photograph of Tippett, by Paolo Soriani, is from the CD sleeve.

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.

The sound of London 2020

Guitarist Shirley Tetteh at Church of Sound during the EFG London Jazz Festival

Half an hour into BBC4’s special Jazz 625 programme on Saturday night, the journalist Emma Warren remarked that everybody in London’s new jazz scene has their own role to play. You might be making your contribution as a musician, or taking the money on the door. Or, she suggested, your role might be as the first person on the dance floor that night, leading the way for the rest of the audience to join in. That sense of collective commitment was strong throughout the programme.

Timed to coincide with the 2020 London Jazz Festival, the 90-minute show featured many of the most prominent names of the current scene: the drummer Moses Boyd and his band Exodus, the tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s quartet, the trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey’s irresistible Kokoroko, the singer Poppy Ajudah with a searing Black Lives Matter song, the powerful Ezra Collective, the drummer Sarathy Korwar, the clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings with Sons of Kemet, the tuba-player Theon Cross with the rapper Consensus, and others. There were interludes exploring the work of Gary Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors project in mentoring so many of the new generation, and a shift up to Manchester reflected the contributions of the trumpeter Matthew Halsall and the saxophonist Nat Birchall.

Boyd co-hosted the show with Jamz Supernova, and something he said was also striking. Every young black jazz musician, he remarked, knows what it feels like to play to a room full of middle-aged white people. And that’s fine, he added. But sometimes you want to play to people like yourself. A sequence of clips from Steam Down in Deptford, the Fox & Firkin pub in Lewisham, Total Refreshment Centre in Hackney Downs and other London venues in pre-pandemic times showed what he meant.

This music restores a sense of jazz’s old physicality. While strong on a belief in the tradition, it blends in elements of the music absorbed by younger players: hip-hop and its offshoots, reggae, Afro-beat. In that way, too, it recalls jazz’s origins as a musical broth, a bouillabaisse, a gumbo, embracing influences rather than distilling the flavour out of them.

It believes in rhythm and it believes in warmth. Communication is the priority, but without compromise. Lessons from the more abstract directions of contemporary jazz are deployed as extra tools. There are rough edges and signs of what some older listeners might see as naivety. But to watch and listen to the development of these musicians, to hear them stretching their limbs and discovering their own potential, is a thing of wonder and infinite pleasure.

In Saturday’s show the various groups were playing without an audience and in a socially distanced format. The same was true of the livestreams of the festival gigs I was able to watch. What really impressed me was that a movement nourished by the spontaneity and feedback of an intimate live setting proved able to flourish in a completely different environment. If they were being set a test, they passed it en bloc, with distinction.

The BBC4 programme is available now on iPlayer. Some of the livestreams from the festival are also free to watch, like the Charlie Parker centenary tribute from Church of Sound in Hackney, featuring Gary Crosby’s Groundation, with Nathaniel Facey on alto, Shirley Tetteh on guitar, Hamish Moore on bass and Moses Boyd on drums: a quicksilver set of Bird tunes and originals. Facey’s own quartet, completed by two of his fellow members of Empirical, the drummer Shaney Forbes and the bassist Tom Farmer, and the guitarist Dave Preston, were captured at the Green Note in Camden Town, letting air and light into knotty themes by the leader and the guitarist. And at Total Refreshment Centre the impressive young trumpeter/singer Emma-Jean Thackray led her quintet — Lyle Barton on keyboards, Matt Gedrych on bass guitar, Dougal Taylor on drums and Crispin Robinson on percussion — through a wholly absorbing, convincing and thoroughly contemporary investigation of the moods suggested by Bitches Brew 50 years ago.

Tickets were £12.50 to livestream Cassie Kinoshi’s SEED Ensemble and their guests performing an 80th birthday tribute to Pharoah Sanders at the Barbican, and that’s what it’ll cost you to catch up with it via the Barbican’s website. I can only urge everyone do make the investment, since Kinoshi presents an hour of music of the highest quality, carefully devised and packed with all the best qualities of the new London scene.

The core SEED line-up — Kinoshi (alto), Sheila Maurice-Grey and Jack Banjo-Courtney (trumpets), Joe Bristow (trombone), Hannah Mbuya (tuba), Chelsea Carmichael (tenor, flute), Shirley Tetteh (guitar), Rio Kai (bass) and Patrick Boyle (drums) — kicked off with the ever-hypnotic riff of “Upper and Lower Egypt” before being joined by the clarinet of Shabaka Hutchings (on a beautifully flighted “Astral Travelling”), the pianist Ashley Henry (a heartfelt “Greeting to Saud”), the percussionist Yahael Camara-Onono (“Elevation”) and the singer Richie Seivwright (“Love Is Everywhere”). The horn arrangements were perfect, the rhythm section subtle and skilful, each of the soloists offering something of substance.

“Catch you soon, when life is normal again,” Kinoshi told her invisible audience at the end of the set. But if it was sad not to be able to witness this music in person, to share the experience with the players and to make them feel the listeners’ response, it was wonderful to be able to hear it all, staged and played and recorded so beautifully in all the venues.

If you browse the festival’s website, you’ll find other fine performances available: the trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, the guitarist Hedvig Mollestad and the poet Moor Mother with Irreversible Entanglements are some of them. But maybe watch Jazz 625 first, all the way through. At a time when the streets of the city are drained of life, it’s a reminder of what’s waiting around the corner. If it doesn’t fill you with the kind of optimism that’s been in short supply for the past nine months, I’ll be very surprised.

‘Ronnie’s’ on BBC4

Val Wilmer’s classic portrait of Ronnie Scott leaning against the entrance of his Frith Street club captures the man as most of us thought we knew him: the epitome of Soho cool. Ronnie’s, a new documentary written and directed by Oliver Murray, goes deeper to show us the man known to his intimates. Something that could easily have been banal and superficial becomes a sensitive and finely nuanced depiction of a life lived under pressures both external and internal.

The film is being shown on BBC4 this weekend and should be watched by everyone who ever set foot in the club, or even wished they had. It starts out conventionally enough, as if it is going be a straightforward celebration of the 60-year-old institution that has played host to Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan, Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Roland Kirk, Bill Evans and so many other famous names. Before long, however, it is describing the relationship between Ronnie and Pete King, his business partner, the man who kept the wheels turning when times got tough, as they often did.

They’re both gone now, but Murray brings them back to life through their own words and those of others, building a picture of two men united by stoicism, sardonic wit, and a love of music and (mostly) musicians. Ronnie’s complex character is fully explored, including his near-ruinous gambling habit and the depression that afflicted him — which, combined his inability to play the saxophone following extensive dental treatment, probably led to his death from what the coroner described as “an incautious dose of sedatives”.

Clips of many great musicians at the club keep things swinging along, but darker undertones gather in the second half and the final section is elegiac and extremely affecting. By acknowledging the darker truths, this superlative film makes us cherish the continued existence of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club even more.

* Ronnie’s is transmitted on BBC4 this Sunday, November 15, at 9pm. Here’s the trailer. Val Wilmer’s photograph is used by her kind permission.

Sounds from the silence

The challenge of putting on a jazz festival in November 2020 would be hard to overestimate. But for four days last week the 57th edition of Jazzfest Berlin presented music to the world with imagination and ingenuity, making the most of the available technology to bring musicians and listeners together in the era of social distancing.

The event’s customary home, the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, is currently being refurbished, so the festival’s director, Nadin Deventer, built a digital bridge between her alternative choice of home venue, Silent Green (a repurposed crematorium in the Wedding district), and the Roulette club in Brooklyn. Bands played in both spaces, alternating sets. Forty separate performances totalled 1,500 minutes of music, all of it broadcast via the ARTE Concerts network (and available to view for the next 12 months).

So, for instance, from Berlin we got to hear two of the expatriate American drummer Jim Black’s groups, a trio and a sextet, and the saxophonist Silke Eberhard’s expanded Potsa Lotsa band playing pieces by Henry Threadgill, who was to have been the festival’s special guest until the pandemic made physical travel from the US impossible. From Brooklyn we heard the intense saxophone/piano duo of Ingrid Laubrock and Kris Davis, the drummer Thomas Fujiwara’s sextet, with Ralph Alessi on trumpet and Mary Halvorson on guitar, the altoist Lakecia Benjamin paying homage to Coltrane, and the pianist Craig Taborn’s new trio, with Halvorson and the drummer Ches Smith. And many others in both locations.

The set that nailed my attention was a 57-minute composition/performance by the British pianist Alexander Hawkins and the Berlin-based Lebanese poet, rapper and visual artist Siska, whose collaboration had to overcome the enforced inability of Hawkins and his two UK-based collaborators, Matt Wright (electronics) and Shabaka Hutchings (clarinet), to travel to Berlin. Instead they recorded their contributions to the piece, with Siska, the trumpeter Lina Allemano and the bassist Nick Dunston located in Silent Green and improvising on the template of Hawkins’s graphic and notated score, with the occasional appearance of film of First and Third World scenes and social rituals on a suspended screen sharing the space with the musicians and a large mirror ball used as a reflective light source.

The recent explosion in Beirut, Siska said, had inspired him to use Arabic lyrics he had written in the Lebanese capital between 2001 and 2008. Allemano contributed strikingly expressive interludes and accompaniments, while Dunston provided sonorous arco playing, a fluid drive when necessary and, to introduce the final section, a memorable solo of his own.

The composition began with plain electronic drones and overtones like something from a La Monte Young installation or a Necks studio album. Slowly unrolling through passages supported by prepared gamelan-like patterns, a clarinet ostinato and the whirring of a 16mm projector, it gradually gained emotional weight until achieving something very like catharsis in its closing passages: imagine, if you can, a fruitful meeting between the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Arthur Jafa, with a global perspective. If the meaning of Siska’s urgently whispered and muttered words was inscrutable to non-Arabic speakers, the accretional impact of the whole work was undeniable, at least in this corner of the digital auditorium. Here it is.

* To see recordings of all the livestreamed performances from Jazzfest Berlin 2020, go to https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/RC-020309/jazzfest-berlin/

Count Basie in his own write

Jeremy Marre made so many great documentaries about music and musicians that a full retrospective would probably fill a 24-hour TV channel for the rest of the year, from Roots Rock Reggae in 1977 and Rhythm of Resistance (which inspired Paul Simon to write and record Graceland) two years later to profiles of Roy Orbison, Otis Redding, the Grateful Dead, Youssou N’Dour and countless others, plus Soul Britannia, Reggae Britannia and episodes of the Classic Albums series, including the one dedicated to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. When he died in March, aged 76, Marre left us a parting gift: a film on the life of the enigmatic Count Basie, shown on BBC4 last week and now available on iPlayer.

Bill Basie’s music was anything but enigmatic. Rooted in the cadences of the blues and the imperatives of 4/4 swing, it avoided the sophistication found in the work of Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford and demanded nothing of those looking for straightforward enjoyment, as I found when I was lucky enough to see a late edition of the band at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City almost 50 years ago. Nevertheless it invited study that was always rewarded.

In 1930s recordings like “One O’Clock Jump” and “Taxi War Dance”, the Basie band brought the concept of riffing — as an armature for soloists and a lure for dancers — to a peak. And by pairing the contrasting elemental approaches of the tenor saxophonists Lester Young (air) and Herschel Evans (earth), the leader created one of the great stylistic juxtapositions. His own piano-playing, a minimalist reduction of his entire orchestral concept, epitomised the creative use of economy.

In public, however, Basie wore a mask. A genial, gracious mask, but still a mask. His greatest contemporary wore one, too, but Ellington’s relative effusiveness conveyed the illusion of intimacy with his audience. Basie was never aloof, but he gave away nothing of his own feelings.

The masterstroke of Marre’s film is to give us an insight, through the use of letters, autobiographical notes and home movies, into Basie’s existence offstage, and in particular with his family. He was, of course, out on the road almost all his adult life, but the revelation of the close relationship he and his second wife, Catherine, shared with their daughter Diane, who was born severely handicapped by what would now be diagnosed as cerebral palsy, is extraordinarily moving.

Count Basie Through His Own Eyes concentrates on the man rather than the music, which is lightly sketched through an excellent selection of clips and interviews with associates, including the drummer Harold Jones and the arranger Quincy Jones, and the critics Gary Giddins and Will Friedwald. The man himself comes alive in his own words and in those of surviving relatives.

Ten months a year on the road for 30 years took the man once billed as the Sepia Swing Sensation from the grind of touring the kind of towns where hotels turned blacks away to the sort of acclaim that enabled him to buy a retirement home in the Bahamas. He died in 1984, almost exactly a year after Catherine, whom he had met soon after his arrival in New York in the late ’30s, when she was a 15-year-old exotic dancer (her active involvement in the civil rights movement led her to take part in the March on Washington in 1963).

Marre takes us behind the imperturbable half-smile Basie wore while sharing the stage with Frank Sinatra or becoming the first African American to receive a Grammy (for The Atomic Mr Basie in 1958), showing us a man whose 42-year marriage had its ups and downs and who, as Jones puts it, “loved anything he could gamble with.” If I don’t quite buy Friedwald’s claim that Basie’s band was the favourite of the Luftwaffe’s wartime fighter aces, that’s a small hiccup in a valuable piece of work.

* Jeremy Marre’s Count Basie Through His Own Eyes can be seen until late December on BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000nnyq/count-basie-through-his-own-eyes