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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Blissful company

QuintessenceWhat’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? The fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love might be a good time to reconsider Nick Lowe’s rhetorical demand. In these harshly polarised times, we might look back with wonder on a brief era when a young generation commanded the world’s headlines with a philosophy that was essentially generous, outward-looking and benevolent.

Quintessence were purveyors of Indian sounds and philosophies to the heads of Ladbroke Grove between 1969 and 1971. A lot of their material, some of it previously unreleased, has been unearthed in recent years on several albums compiled for the Hux label by the author and researcher Colin Harper, including a terrific live recording of their memorable 1970 concert at St Pancras Town Hall, released in 2009 as Cosmic Energy. Now their first three studio albums, recorded for Island, are compiled on Move into the Light, a two-CD set on Cherry Red’s Esoteric imprint.

Naturally, being an underground band, they were featured in IT and ZigZag, but they had their fans in the straight music press, too. I wrote favourably about them in the Melody Maker at the time, as did my friend Rob Partridge in Record Mirror. I remember their flautist and leader, Raja Ram (born Ron Rothfield in Australia), telling me that he’d studied in New York with the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano: “A dollar a minute, but believe me it was worth it.” Their singer, Shiva, another Australian, had been a star back home leading a blues-rock band under his birth name, Phil Jones. The excellent drummer, Jake Milton, was Canadian. Alan Mostert, the lead guitarist, was from Mauritius. The bass guitarist, Shambhu (Richard Vaughan), was American. Their rhythm guitarist, Maha Dev (Dave Codling), was British. The band’s manager, the somewhat intense Stanley Barr, was a poet.

They became regulars at places like the Roundhouse, Friars in Aylesbury, the Temple (formerly the Flamingo) in Soho and elsewhere before graduating to bigger venues around the country, including the Albert Hall, which they filled in December 1971. A disagreement over a deal to release their album in the United States provoked a rupture with Island, but they were already starting to disintegrate by the time they moved on to RCA, with whom they released their fourth and fifth albums in 1972.

The beatific preachiness of their lyrics would draw the odd chuckle today, and there’s a certain amount of 1970-style clumpiness in the rhythms, but much of the music on the three albums making up Move into the Light (In Blissful Company, Quintessence and Dive Deep, all produced by John Barham), still sounds pretty good. Taking their cue from the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, they mixed songs and extended jams as effectively as any band in Britain at the time, with confident flute and guitar solos.

But how things have changed in the part of London they once called home. “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We all sit around and meditate,” Shiva sings on a track from the first album. The hedge fund managers and investment bankers who nowadays populate the once shabby and affordable streets of London W11 might have their own variant on that refrain: “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We sit around and rig the LIBOR rate…”

Alice Coltrane

There’s more peace, love and understanding on The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane, the first volume in a series on the Luaka Bop label titled “World Spirituality Classics”. This is music made by John Coltrane’s widow for semi-private circulation after ending her recording career with commercial labels and taking herself off to become the spiritual director of an ashram in Malibu, California, where she was known as Turiyasangitananda.

Between 1982 and 1995 she made four cassettes available to initiates: Turiya Sings, Divine Songs, Infinite Chants and Glorious Chants. The Luaka Bop CD is a compilation drawn from those recordings (the vinyl edition, a double album, has two extra tracks), featuring individual and choral chants, based on drones created by various keyboards — harmonium, organ, synthesiser — and harp, strings, sitars and tamburas, sometimes accompanied by hand percussion. The result achieves a quietly glowing blend of South Indian timbres and tonalities and African American spirituals.

The opening track, “Om Rama”, gets straight under your skin, synths whooshing and skirling around an infectious group chant that changes gear and develops a gospel-music edge, featuring an impassioned male lead singer who reminds me a little of Philippé Wynne. There’s some poised solo singing — by Alice Coltrane herself, I’d guess — on “Rama Rama”, and “Er Ra” is a short piece for her solo harp, almost koto-like in its delicacy, and voice. A 10-minute version of “Journey in Satchidananda” (which had been the title track of one of her Impulse albums in 1970) is almost as stately and uplifting as one of her late husband’s musical prayers. She died in 2007, aged 69, having outlived John by 40 years. But when you listen to this music it’s easy to convince yourself that neither of them is really gone.

So many trios, so little time

Trio Elf 2A few years ago, in response to a realisation that a phenomenon was under way, I reorganised my jazz CDs to provide a special alphabeticised section for piano trios. There were a lot of them, going back to Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans and incorporating Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, René Urtreger, Mike Taylor, Martial Solal, Howard Riley, Bobo Stenson and many others, and the number grew fast as the influence of Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, the Necks, EST and the Bad Plus took hold on the younger musicians who formed trios such as Phronesis and GoGo Penguin. Like the string quartet in classical music and the two-guitars–bass-and-drums group in rock and roll, its components are held together in perfect structural tension and offer limitless flexibility.

But I’ve just spent two and a half days at the Jazzahead festival in Bremen, a sort of trade fair for musicians, managers, agents, labels and promoters at which the public can buy tickets for a series of showcase gigs, with each band strictly limited to a set of 30 minutes. Of the 17 bands I caught during those two and a half days, no fewer than eight were piano trios. It’s a format I love, obviously, but during that time my enthusiasm for the genre began to undergo a degree of modification.

I wouldn’t say this was necessarily the result of bad programming on Jazzahead’s part. A plausible case could be made that it simply reflects the response of young musicians to the demands of the market. But such exaggerated exposure to a single format did provoke the thought that many of today’s trios feel not just inspired but obliged to offer a different slant on a familiar set of tools.

In Bremen, the extremes of this approach were probably represented by Britain’s Elliot Galvin Trio and Germany’s Trio Elf. The brilliant Galvin, with Tom McCredie on bass and Corrie Dick on drums, opened and closed one of his sparky tunes with a doctored recording of a Punch and Judy show (as featured on his recent album, Punch). Trio Elf  –pictured above, with drummer Gerwin Eisenhower, bassist Peter Cudek and pianist Walter Lang — closed a set displaying an interest in hip-hop beats by inviting the audience to choose between covers of songs by Blink-182 and Kraftwerk for their last number (unsurprisingly, given the location and the median age of the audience, Kraftwerk won — the song turned out to be “Showroom Dummies”).

In between, stylistically speaking, came Finland’s highly creative Aki Rissanen Trio (with Antti Lötjönen on bass and Teppo Mäkynen on drums), the comparatively gentle modalities of the trio led by the Swedish drummer Emil Brandqvist (with Tuomas Turunen on piano and Max Thornberg on bass), and a set from Germany’s Lorenz Kellhuber (with Arne Huber on bass and Gabriel Hahn on drums) that seemed uneventful and subdued on the surface but slowly blended its undertows into a compelling mood.

The best of those I heard, however, was the most familiar: the trio of the German pianist Julia Hülsmann, with Marc Muellbauer on bass and Heinrich Köbberling on drums. Together for almost two decades, they treated us to material from their new ECM album, Sooner and Later, written and run during a recent world tour that included a visit to Kyrgyzstan, where a traditional song sung by a 12-year-old girl provided the melody for one composition. The mature, thoughtful music of Hülsmann’s trio is about substance rather than effect — which is not necessarily intended as a criticism of those who, in the fight to establish themselves in a competitive world, look to distinguish themselves through gesture.

I was momentarily disappointed when Hülsmann announced that she and her colleagues were going to finish the set with a tune by Radiohead, who are to today’s jazz musicians (and piano trios in particular) what Lennon and McCartney were to an earlier generation — a sub-phenomenon that was probably kicked off by Mehldau’s trio version of “Exit Music (For a Film)” almost 20 years ago. The decision seemed a little predictable. But then they turned “All I Need” (from In Rainbows) into something of such quiet poise, purity and radiance that any uncharitable thoughts I was beginning to entertain about the entire genre were instantly vaporised.

Sun Ra touches down in NW8

Sun Ra Alex HEveryone has their own Sun Ra. Mine is the one who made the Heliocentric Worlds albums for the ESP label in the mid-’60s, and whom I saw a few times in the early ’70s — at the Berlin Philharmonie, the Festival Hall and the Village Gate. Jez Nelson, the host of the monthly Jazz in the Round series at the Cockpit Theatre, had barely heard of him before interviewing him for Jazz FM in 1990, but quickly embraced the whole Sun Ra trip and gave us some lovely stories at the tribute evening he organised on Monday, as did Gilles Peterson, who came along with a bag full of rare Ra vinyl to play in the bar during the interval.

The first of the evening’s two performances was by Alexander Hawkins, who has studied Ra’s piano work and gave us a solo sequence at an upright instrument stripped of its casing. He begins with gentle strums of the strings and proceeded through a many-hued tapestry of Ra forms and sounds, with Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” at its heart, occasionally cutting to brief snatches of boogie-woogie figuration with great dramatic and emotional impact, and finishing by quietly singing the refrain of “We Travel the Spaceways”. Hawkins is now among the front rank of today’s improvising pianists and this was a stirring demonstration of his sensitivity to the tradition and its exponents.

Sun Ra PathwaysAfter Peterson’s DJ set came Where Pathways Meet, a nine-piece band comprising Axel Kaner-Lidstrom (trumpet), Joe Elliot (alto), James Mollison (tenor), Amané Suganami (keyboards and electronics), Maria Osuchowska (electric harp), Mark Mollison (guitar), Mutale Shashi (bass guitar), Jake Long (drums) and Kianja Harvey Elliot (voice). Named after a Sun Ra tune, and dedicated to making music animated by a reverence for his spirit, they went about their work with energy and enthusiasm. Any rawness in the execution seemed unimportant by comparison with the good feeling they imparted.

This was a perfect example of what Jazz in the Round, which takes place on the last Monday of each month, has to offer: a selection of interesting musicians at different stages of their careers performing in close proximity to a respectful audience consisting of old listeners and new listeners and some in between, all sharing a 360-degree experience. The next one, on May 29, features the harpist Alina Bzhezhinska playing the music of Alice Coltrane, a new band called Project M led by the bassist Dan Casimir, and a solo set from Cath Roberts on baritone saxophone. Presented in a small, unpretentious setting by a warm and knowledgable host, it’s my favourite gig these days, by a long way.

* Gearbox Records, the vinyl-only label based in King’s Cross, celebrated last weekend’s Record Store Day by releasing an EP with Sun Ra playing solo piano in the Jazz FM studio in 1990 on one side, plus Jez Nelson’s interview on the other. It’s a limited edition, but you might still find one if you hurry.

Smokin’ in Seattle

Smokin' in SeattleRecord Store Day seems to have made a natural partnership with the vinyl revival, and one excellent way of marking tomorrow’s 10th anniversary of a very worthwhile institution would be to invest in the specially timed 12-inch 33 1/3rd rpm release of Smokin’ in Seattle, 50-odd minutes of newly discovered 1966 club recordings by the trio of the pianist Wynton Kelly, with Ron McClure on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, plus their special guest, the nonpareil guitarist Wes Montgomery.

This line-up, with Paul Chambers on bass instead of McClure, was responsible for the classic Smokin’ at the Half Note, recorded in New York the previous year. The excerpts from two nights of music at the Penthouse in Seattle which make up the new release were broadcast live by a local radio station, limited by a dictate of the musicians’ union to the first 30 minutes per night. This means that each of the two sides begins with two tracks by the trio before the guitarist makes his appearance, and that the final track on each side is faded out, as it had to be on the original transmission.

These are no drawbacks. As the years go by more and more people are drawn to the special quality of Kelly’s playing, something that to me has always been summed up by one word. In one of several interesting interviews and essays contained in the large-format insert, the pianist Kenny Barron uses it over and over again: “The joy. Joy. That’s the word. He had such joy when he played. His playing was so joyful and infectious.”

It’s something that first impressed me when I heard Miles Davis in Person: Friday Night at the Blackhawk, recorded in San Francisco in 1961, when Kelly was still a member of Miles’s quintet. The joy in full bloom in these recordings, particularly on the sparkling trio versions of the standard “There Is No Greater Love” and a funky blues by Blue Mitchell, “Sir John”. Kelly’s gloriously romantic ballad playing is perfectly displayed in a reading of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now”.

The pianist — who died of an epileptic seizure in 1971, aged 39 — is assisted by some beautiful (and beautifully recorded) playing from his bassist and drummer. McClure talks in the notes about how, aged 23 when he was first called to deputise for Chambers in the trio, this was a career-defining gig for him, and also typical of a period in jazz that has now almost passed: “In those days I played with all sorts of groups where there was no music, no conversation, you just started to play.”

Partly that’s because there was a core repertoire. When Montgomery makes his appearance, he storms through several familiar items, including the originals “Jingles” and “West Coast Blues” and the standard “What’s New”. On an untitled blues in F he gets as soulful as Grant Green, and his rapid chordal playing on “O Morro Não Tem Vez” is the sort of thing that set new standards for jazz guitarists in the ’60s.

Pat Metheny remains one of his most ardent admirers. “I always feel like I am enriched in ways that transcend music when I hear Wes,” Metheny says in the notes. “There was something special about who he was as a person contained in each note he played.” The same was true of Kelly, and the benign spirits of both men are very evident throughout this marvellously vivid document.

* Smokin’ in Seattle is released by Resonance Records. The vinyl edition is out on April 22, the CD version on May 19.

Intakt in London

Intakt monoA packed house celebrating the 70th birthday of the bassist and composer Barry Guy provided the best possible start to the Swiss record label Intakt’s 11-day festival at the Vortex on Sunday night. The opening evening showcased Guy in dialogues with three of his closest collaborators across a 50-year career: the violinist Maya Homburger, the saxophonist Evan Parker and the pianist Howard Riley.

He and Homburger began their set as they did the 2011 concert which formed the lovely album Tales of Enchantment, with the plain-spoken elegance of the ninth-century hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus”. Sunday’s performance also included their interpretation of H. I. F. Biber’s intensely beautiful Mystery Sonata No 9: “The Agony in the Garden”, two of its sections linked by Guy’s improvised conversation with the percussionist Lucas Niggli. Original compositions were carefully elided into the externally sourced material, and the overall impression was one of a confident unity of purpose and conception.

I haven’t always found Guy’s music the easiest to warm to, but here was irrefutable evidence of a genuinely original method of blending written composition with the free-improvisation techniques of which the bassist, during his time on the London scene in the late 1960s and early ’70s, was a noted pioneer and master. In Homburger, who shares his sensibility and matches his virtuosity, he clearly found a soul-mate.

Later in the evening Guy and Parker, who first met in 1966 during a Spontaneous Music Ensemble gig at the legendary Little Theatre Club, evoked memories of various stages of their long collaboration with an improvisation which proceeded conventionally enough for much of its duration of 20 minutes or so before coming to the sort of conclusion — unexpected, unpredictable, seemingly plucked out of the air but emphatically and satisfyingly logical — that is the special property of free improvisers of such quality and experience.

Guy and Howard Riley have played together in the pianist’s trio for five decades: first with Jon Hiseman on drums, then Alan Jackson, then Tony Oxley, in a series of albums that placed Riley’s group firmly among the most creative piano trios of their era. At the Vortex it was Niggli’s turn to complete the group. I hadn’t seen Howard perform for many years. His health has not been good, and on Sunday he looked frail. His playing, however, was nothing short of miraculous: its content pared right down, every note essential, still with hints of austerity in its outlines and astringency in its emotions but with the spirit of Ellington, Monk and Taylor warming its bones. All the technique he needs for this is happily still available, and the spontaneous reactions of Guy and Niggli could not have been more perfect. The audience held its breath — at first through concern, then swiftly enthralled by the distilled brilliance and profundity of what they were privileged to hear.

Intakt, based in Zurich, may not have the public profile of one or two of the other European independent labels specialising in contemporary jazz and related forms of improvised music, but the quality and consistency of its output is as high as any. Between now and April 27 the festival’s programme includes the percussionists Pierre Favre, Louis Moholo Moholo and Julian Sartorius, the violinist Mark Feldman, the saxophonists Rudi Mahall, Florian Egli, Ingrid Laubrock, Omri Ziegele and Christoph Irniger, and the pianists Sylvie Courvoisier, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Stefan Aeby, Aki Takase and Irène Schweizer (whose album Live at Taktlos was Intakt’s first release back in 1986). All 11 nights at the Vortex are being recorded by the label’s founder, Patrik Landolt. If there was enough of Riley’s unforgettable set to make a CD, I’ll be the first in line.

The Height of the Reeds

Humber Bridge 1Halfway through the 40-minute walk across the Humber Bridge on Saturday,  I started to slow down. Eventually I came to a halt and just stood there, looking out over the water. The reason: I wanted to enjoy the music.

What music? A sound installation titled The Height of the Reeds, a contribution by Opera North to Hull’s year as the UK’s City of Culture. It was composed by and features three of my favourite Norwegian musicians — the trumpeter/singer Arve Henriksen, the sampling wizard Jan Bang and the guitarist Eivind Aarset — in collaboration with the Hull-based sound artist Jez riley French, who made field recordings of the noises emitted by the suspension bridge’s component parts, including the resonances of its vast anchor chambers and the creaking of its many steel wires. The arrangements for Opera North’s orchestra and chorus are by another Norwegian, Aleksander Waaktar. Also embedded in the piece are translations of words by the Norwegian poet Nils Christian Moe-Repstad, read by three Hull voices: the actors Barrie Rutter and Maureen Lipman and seven-year-old Katie Smith, a pupil at a local primary school.

You listen to it on a pair of headphones attached to a small receiver worn on a lanyard. The piece lasts 41 minutes; it’s in eight sections, each transition triggered at a particular point during the 2.2km walk across the bridge. It begins quietly, with some of the sounds recorded by French, and with the young girl’s voice. Thereafter I was too busy listening to take notes, but there are several passages of heart-stopping beauty as the music accompanies your journey from the north to the south shore. Were it available on CD, I’d have bought one as soon as the walk was over, and I imagine many others will feel the same.

As for the bridge itself, you can’t spend time in proximity to such a thing without admiring the genius of the civil engineers who turned an architect’s design into physical reality. I was awed by the sheer mass of the tilted and tiered concrete blocks holding down the structure at either end, the soaring simplicity of the two towers, and — most of all — the sense of countless lines and points of tension held in stasis by spun steel wires (well, not exactly stasis: the centre of the bridge, which carries four lanes of traffic with a walkway on either side, is designed to accept lateral movement of 4m in high winds).

All sorts of thoughts cross your mind: some to do with the weather, which is liable to change during your passage, and others concerning the landscape’s ancient history and its reshaping in the age of human intervention. As you approach the southern shore, you see a bed of reeds, a muted orange against the pale grey-brown river and the dark green of the riverbank. Visible in the far distance are the steel chimneys of an oil refinery, an arrangement of silver pipes looking like some strange percussion instrument from another world.

The good news is that the installation is open to the public for the month of April; the bad news is that all 5,000 tickets have already been sold. In the light of that success, it’s hard to believe that Opera North and the Hull authorities won’t find a way of prolonging its run. The bridge was opened in 1982 and has a design life of 120 years, so future generations could be enjoying this remarkable creative response almost a century hence. I hope they get that chance.

Mind on the Run

hidden-orchestraIt was with regret that I had to leave Hull after only 24 hours of Mind on the Run, the weekend festival celebrating the life and work of Basil Kirchin, the visionary composer who spent three decades in the city, working in complete obscurity until his death in 2005, aged 77.

When the Guardian asked me to write a piece about the event, the first call I made was to Brian Eno. I had introduced the two men in 1973, while preparing the release of the second volume of Basil’s World Within Worlds on Island’s HELP label. Eno immediately recognised the value of his work with manipulated tapes of organic sounds, and more than 40 years later he was happy to talk about the impression it made.

The festival, held in the City Hall as part of Hull’s 2017 UK City of Culture programme, was quite brilliantly curated to include contributions from Matthew Herbert, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory (with a contingent of the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell), Wilco’s Jim O’Rourke, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of Saint Etienne, Evan Parker with Adam Linson and Matt Wright of his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, and a DJ set of Kirchin’s library music by Jerry Dammers.

On the first evening I heard a spirited set by a local five-piece band led by DJ Revenu (Liam van Rijn), heavy on imaginative electronics. That was followed by the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan with a piece inspired by several of Basil’s themes and performed by an nonet — including the outstanding harpist Serafina Steer — in a style that made me think of what might happen were Steve Reich to get it into his head to reinterpret those miniature tone poems that Brian Wilson used to drop into mid-period Beach Boys albums: things like “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” from Smiley Smile and the title track of Pet Sounds. O’Hagan’s music was minimalist, lyrical, unhurried and unrhetorical, with a fragile charm. (Just after it had finished I told a friend that I was particularly attracted to the way the music felt, even now and then, as though it might be about to fall apart; during a conversation an hour or so later O’Hagan mentioned, unprompted, that this was precisely the effect he’d been after.)

I enjoyed taking part in one of the panel discussions, alongside Bob Stanley and  Jonny Trunk, and listening to another that featured Matt Stephenson, co-director (with Alan Jones and Harriet Jones) of a 45-minute documentary film which did an excellent job of summarising Basil’s extraordinary life through interviews with those who had known him at various stages of his career. It also featured a wonderful film clip of the Ivor Kirchin Band in the early ’50s, with the leader’s young son as the featured drummer, from a time when dance band musicians wore cardigans and sensible slacks. (When someone in the audience likened Basil’s skin-pounding, cymbal-flaying antics to those of Animal from the Muppet Show, Matt was able to regale us with the priceless information that the real drummer of the Muppets had been the great session man Ronnie Verrell — who, in an earlier incarnation, had replaced the man who replaced Basil on the drum stool in Ivor’s band…)

Trunk, who has done so much over the past decade to create interest in Basil’s work, also mentioned that the handful of CDs released on his label represent no more than a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come from the archive of Kirchin soundtracks and library music.

Among Basil’s credits was the score to The Abominable Dr Phibes, the truly bizarre 1971 British horror film in which Vincent Price played the eponymous villain, who celebrated his dreadful deeds by letting loose on a pipe organ. The film was screened on Friday night, with the figure of a caped Alexander Hawkins emerging through a gauze screen from time to time, playing the music live on the City Hall’s mighty organ: the third largest in England, it is said, and the possessor of a massive 64ft pipe which, if unleashed at full volume, would probably turn the Victorian building’s foundations to dust.

Before leaving Hull I also managed to creep into the soundcheck of Joe Acheson’s Hidden Orchestra (pictured above), and was beguiled by the grooves and textures of a band featuring two drummers, violin, cello, harp, trumpet and keyboards. If you want to know more about that performance, and others, read Tony Dudley-Evans’s report for the London Jazz News website.

It was interesting to discover how Hull, a victim first of the Luftwaffe and then of the Cod Wars, is making use of the opportunity to present a new face to those lured by the year of cultural events. There are five excellent Francis Bacons on temporary loan at the refurbished Ferens Gallery in the main square, which is dramatically spanned until March 18 by a 75-metre aluminium wind-turbine blade created by Nayan Kulkarni. An exhibition devoted to the story of COUM Transmissions, the renegade art collective founded in Hull in the early ’70s by Genesis P. Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti and others, is at the Humber Art Gallery in the streets of the former Fruit Market, where all sorts of hipster enterprises are springing up.

It’s not all great, of course. Take a bow, “Sir” Philip Green, for the vacant hulk of the striking early-’60s building until recently occupied by British Home Stores. But if you can imagine a cross between Copenhagen and Hoxton, that seems to be how Hull is attempting to reshape itself, and the audiences who flocked to Mind on the Run demonstrated the potential of this culture-led Humberside renaissance. I hadn’t been to the city since a single visit in 1965. Now I can’t wait to go back and do some more exploring.

A soundtrack of the ’60s, Italian-style

la-notte-poster

The Jazz on Film series of compilations, curated with excellent taste and scrupulous attention to detail by Selwyn Harris, might be the best reissue programme since Hip-O Select’s Complete Motown Singles treasury. My favourites so far have been the French New Wave and Jazz in Polish Cinema boxes, but I’m very pleased to have the new vinyl single-album release titled Jazz in Italian Cinema, which collects soundtracks from 1958 to 1962 by such composers as Piero Piccioni, Piero Umiliani, Armando Trovajoli and Giorgio Gaslini.

As you would expect, the 11 tracks are full of atmosphere, mostly that of a smoky bar in Trastevere during the period when Italy was emerging the from the wartime ruins and making its own adaptation of the American culture disseminated by the occupying US forces. It begins with a track from Umiliani’s score for Marco Monicelli’s I Soliti Ignoti (released in the English-speaking world as Big Deal on Madonna Street), setting the tone for most of the set with an approach based on Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool band and Shorty Rogers’ medium-sized units.

Chet Baker, staying in Italy during one of his periods of personal turmoil, is featured on two tracks written by Trovajoli for Dino Risi’s Il Vedovo; sounding forlorn on “Oscar Is the Back” and sprightly on the film’s theme tune, he plays with poise, concentration and inventiveness. He’s even better on “Tensione”, the first of two tracks from Umiliani’s score for Nanni Loy’s Audace Colpo dei Soliti Ignoti (Fiasco in Milan), displaying the kind of up-tempo chops that suggest why Charlie Parker was so impressed when they played together in Los Angeles in 1952. “Relaxing’ with Chet”, the second of the tracks, is a lovely West Coast-style medium swinger.

Piccioni’s theme for Elio Petri’s L’Assassino (which starred Marcello Mastroianni) sounds charmingly like the sort of stealthy thing Henry Mancini, in a jazz mood, might have written for a detective movie. Gino Marinacci on baritone saxophone, the composer on piano an unidentified vibraphonist are the excellent soloists. No musicians are identified on Piccioni’s “Finale”, from Antonio Pierangeli’s Adua e le Compagne (Adua and Her Friends), which is a shame since it features some exceptional alto saxophone work from a player whose fluency and bitter-sweet tone are somewhere between Hal McCusick and John Handy. “Blues all’Alba” from Giorgio Gaslini’s quartet music for Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte is probably the best known piece here, a cigarettes-and-coffee nocturne featuring Eraldo Volonté’s eloquently world-weary tenor saxophone.

Next comes the only letdown: John Lewis’s “In a Crowd”, from Eriprando Visconti’s Una Storia Milanese (A Milanese Story), which teams good jazz players — guitarist René Thomas, flautist Bobby Jaspar and Lewis himself — with a string quartet but never emerges from behind a veil of effeteness. But Harris has saved the biggest surprise for last: two delightful tracks by by altoist Sandro Brugnoli and his Modern Jazz Gang from the soundtrack to Enzo Battaglia’s Gli Arcangeli (The Archangels), good examples of robustly swinging, bluesy post-bop jazz with modal inclinations neatly arranged for octet, in which Cicci Santucci’s bright-toned trumpet and Pucci Sboto’s vibes heard to good advantage.

All that, then, and a beautiful black and white shot of Jeanne Moreau on the front cover. A very entertaining and enlightening set, then — and, as the sleeve notes suggest, there’s potentially much more where this came from.

Earth Air Water… and Fire

michael-andrews-arthur-brownIt came as a bit of a surprise to walk into a high-end London art gallery this week and discover a small portrait of Arthur Brown, the madcap rocker of the late ’60s, taking its place in an extensive exhibition of the work of the late English painter Michael Andrews.

Andrews was born in Norwich in 1928 and died in London in 1995. A friend and contemporary of Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon, in 1962 he painted a famous group portrait of the denizens of Muriel Belcher’s Colony Room in Soho, for which he also provided a large Tuscan landscape of irregular shape, to be hung on a wall. He was particularly good at social groups and party scenes (as in The Deer Park, All Night Long, and the triptych Good and Bad at Games, none of them, unlike the two Colony Room pieces, included this exhibition).

In later years, however, he concentrated on landscapes and paintings of the natural world, which is why the exhibition of 61 of his works at the Gagosian gallery is titled Earth Air Water. There are several large paintings of Ayers Rock (nowadays also known by its Aboriginal name, Uluru), the River Thames and the Scottish moorlands, where he painted men in tweeds stalking and shooting deer. The intention of the show must be raise his status closer to that of his more celebrated fellow regulars at the Colony Room, something probably denied him by his own modest nature.

He was a perceptive portraitist, and one of the most striking works in the show is a self-portrait from 1988, that of a man with pleasant but unremarkable looks wearing an expression of restrained anxiety. The painting of Brown was made in 1967, when the extrovert singer was still an underground hero and a few months away from an appearance on Top of the Pops, promoting his latest release with flames apparently emerging from his head. Given the theme of that record, Brown’s one big hit, the exhibition’s curator might have added a fourth element to the title of his show: Fire.

I recognised Brown’s distinctive features straight away, of course, but an adjacent portrait — of similar size and vintage — puzzled me.

michael-andrews-dave-brubeck

Then I looked at the catalogue: it was Dave Brubeck, painted from a photograph. Both portraits are listed as “studies” for works on a larger scale. They play very minor roles in the show, but it was certainly nice to bump into them on a rainy morning in Mayfair.

* Michael Andrews: Earth Air Water is at the Gagosian gallery, 20 Grosvenor Hill, London W1, until March 25. The painting of Arthur Brown is from a private collection; that of Dave Brubeck is owned by the Arts Council Collection.

In the groove with Dennis Coffey

denniscoffey1_courtesy-of-clarence-avant---interior-music-corpDennis Coffey is still playing Tuesday nights at a Detroit club called the Northern Lights Lounge. It’s what he and his 1963 Gibson Birdland have been doing for the best part of 50 years. He started making a local reputation as a session man in the mid-’60s when he played on Darrell Banks’s “Open the Door to Your Heart” and the classic sides on the Golden World label by J. J. Barnes and others. Later in the decade he was absorbed into the Motown studio band, adding the rock-influenced sounds of a wah-wah pedal and a fuzz box to the more classic approaches of the established Hitsville USA guitarists: Robert White, Eddie Willis and Joe Messina.

It was Coffey who played on Norman Whitfield’s psych-soul productions, like the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion” and Edwin Starr’s “War”, as the Motown Sound updated itself to suit a new era. He had his own hit, the funky instrumental “Scorpio”, which highlighted his interest in effects. But he was still playing in the clubs, as we can hear from the rather wonderful product of the latest piece of successful treasure-hunting among previously unknown tapes by the Resonance label: an album titled Hot Coffee in the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, recorded in 1968 with a trio completed by the Hammond organist Lyman Woodard and the drummer Melvin Davis.

Woodard and Davis were musicians with local reputations. The organist went on the road with Martha and the the Vandellas as their musical director. The drummer also toured with Vandellas, and with the Temptations. Like many of the members of the Funk Brothers, they could also be found in the night spots, entertaining their predominantly black listeners with a style of jazz that was heavy on the groove and on the feeling of the blues.

So what we have here is just under an hour of what you’d have heard if you’d wandered into this particular club in 1968: a brand of social music mixing jazz, funk and R&B, completely devoid of pretension, being delivered by highly sophisticated players with a wonderful directness and without any hint of strain. This recording features a handful of lively originals, ultra-cool instrumental versions of Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” and Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, and a nice reading of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”. The rhythms are deep in the pocket and the solos aren’t about showing off.

Whenever you’re lucky enough to find yourself in such an environment, you  know that no boundaries are being stretched and no rules are being rewritten. But it doesn’t matter. There are truths in this kind of music that are no less valuable for being relatively simple. And while it’s happening you want it to go on for ever.

* The photograph of Dennis Coffey is from the booklet accompanying Hot Coffey in the D, which includes valuable interviews and background material.