Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Mingus at 50

Today — 22 April 2022 — is the centenary of Charles Mingus’s birth. He was 50 when I interviewed him in London in the summer of 1972. The great composer, bassist and bandleader had been a hero of mine since I bought Blues & Roots as a schoolboy, a dozen years earlier. Since then I’d seen gigs that represented his highs and lows. It was the sort of encounter you don’t forget.

Charles Mingus was late. The hotel switchboard, he said, had forgotten his wake-up call. It was getting on for two o’clock in the afternoon and he’d been playing until three the previous night with his band at Ronnie Scott’s Club and now he was hungry. Wearing a blue and white striped seersucker blazer, patterned black velvet trousers and a carefully knotted green cravat, he wandered out of the lobby of the Mayfair Hotel and into the old narrow streets of Shepherd Market, a figure of vast bulk carving a bow-wave through the eddying currents of lunchtime strollers.

He paused to buy four fresh peaches from a barrow boy, and appeared shocked by the virulent response when he told the trader that the fruit he had bought there the previous day had been rotten. Clutching the bag of peaches, he set off against the tide, looking for a shellfish restaurant. As he peered through the window of one establishment, he commented unfavourably on the size of the live lobsters in the tank before moving on and finally settling down, with some grumbling, at a pavement table outside a sandwich bar.

Then he started talking. And over the course of a largely one-way conversation occupying the next hour, he proved that, behind an increasingly Buddha-like façade, the fires of rebellion were still burning bright.

My first mistake was to ask him a rather vague question about the contract he had recently signed with a major label, Columbia Records, which had produced a terrific big-band record called Let My Children Hear Music, full of complex, fascinating pieces with typically vivid titles, such as “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid, Too” and “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers”.

“I don’t see the importance of that question,” he said.

Well, I said, already feeling somewhat uncomfortable, did his decision mean that it was no longer possible for a musician to run his own record label, as he had occasionally tried to do in the ’50s and ’60s?

“It’s impossible for me, because I’m not educated to do that. I used to have a woman with me who did that. I don’t have nobody like that now. I’d rather not have to think about it. It can be done, though. Oxtail soup, please. And leave the menu. I’ll just go through it one thing at a time.”

So what was it like, working with Columbia?

“It’s just like being with a record company. I don’t see them doing much promotion on me. They don’t push jazz like they should. They push everything else. Unknown groups get a publicity party for each record they make. But it’s not just so-called jazz. If they pushed symphony enough, more people would buy it. And if you push shit, they buy shit. I tell you what, last night McPherson” — Charles McPherson, his gifted and highly experienced alto saxophonist — “played the worst he can play, and he smiled, and people applauded. He was making noise. He played quarter-notes for two choruses. Can you imagine a saxophone playing a quarter-note solo? They applauded and yelled. Do you see where the people are at? They don’t know. So immediately what you do is get a bunch of guys to play the worst they can, put a lot of publicity on it, and sell it. Play out of tune, anything you want. In this country, in America, everywhere, put a pretty cover on it, say a lot of pretty words, and it sells.”

It was nothing new, he said. “It’s always been true. If you smile and dance along, and be a clown. You couldn’t fool serious people, though. You couldn’t fool a classical audience into thinking he was playing good, someone who’d had a prior musical education. But the way the kids have been brainwashed, you can fool them.”

He went back to an event held a decade earlier, during the time when the New Thing — the avant-garde jazz of people like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler — was drawing the attention of critics and the public away from his own generation. In retaliation, he had put a bunch of children behind a curtain at the Village Vanguard and got them to play out of sight, while his own musicians mimed.

“Those kids were just beginning to learn the instruments,” he said. “They took the solos, and man, they broke the house up. They thought we had found some new Ornette Colemans. These kids were eight or nine years old, and they didn’t even know the notes they were playing. Or they were just sliding notes. It didn’t matter. If you blow any horn, some note will come out.”

His words may have been confrontational but the tone of his voice was soft. Sometimes he would lower the volume to let the words slide out in a rapid slur, as though he were talking to himself. Even when he got angry, there was a gentleness about him. Nevertheless his presence was powerful enough to make passers-by stop to listen as the intensity of his harangue rose and fell.

Let’s take painting, he continued. “Some painters draw seriously. They draw precise lines and certain perspectives that correspond with something you’ve seen before. Then you get guys who throw paint at a canvas, throw some sand on top of it. and they say they paint. Some people let monkeys and little children use their fingers on it, and they call it a good painting.” He looked up from his oxtail soup and fixed me with a sort of amiable glare. “It’s time for guys like you to decide what you want: bullshit, or something real.”

So did he fell that the increasing popularity of intelligent rock music had diminished the audience for jazz?

“Nobody’s going to make money in jazz, not even Louis Armstrong. Nobody expects to make any money. They’re playing it because they like to pay it. I don’t know anybody who expects to make a million dollars playing what you’d call jazz. But I do know some people who expect to make a good living once you drop the word jazz and integrate fair employment into music, so the white kids won’t copy the niggers. That’s all they’re doing. They’re minstrels, to me. I haven’t heard any white kids yet that could come up and play something from their own culture — although in a way the Beatles did, they used English music, and that’s why I respect them, and they’re just kids. Although I’m not sure they did it. I think they had some very clever people, learned people, not just one of them. Somebody said that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. I think it was a bunch of guys like Bacon that got together and said, ‘Let’s make one genius man.’ That’s what I think the Beatles were. They evolved from certain types of American music, and certain types of English music, but it was original. It was conceived mathematically. I can hear that. Like ‘Eleanor Rigby’. That wasn’t accidental. One thing that came out was a lot of good words. Bob Dylan, too. He said something, a little something, about his culture.

“But I haven’t heard any so-caed jazz guys from England that have any English culture in their playing. They’re still playing from Lennie Tristano, from Eric Dolphy and myself, the kind of things we did in that band we had, from Ornette Coleman, and based on Charlie Parker. Which is the most difficult of all to play. They haven’t played that yet. I don’t hear anything in their playing to say that they’ve found a culture in their own country to speak of. They’re still speaking of a music that came out of our culture, which is not theirs and they know nothing about it. They’ve only heard the surface and they don’t now what the guys have lived, the pains they’ve gone through to come up with this music.”

His principal argument with the younger players was against their lack of training and their ignorance of the roots. “These guys who want to pay ‘free music’ and can’t even play a melody or even play their solos exactly the same way twice… In the old days, Coleman Hawkins would play ‘Body and Soul’ and he’d play the solo that was on the record, and then he’d play a new one for you, or two or three new ones. Because he had this one solo that was considered like a Picasso, you know, a Picasso solo, and he was capable of doing it again. When I hear guys doing that, I respect them. But I haven’t seen any of them capable of doing the same thing twice, except the melody. I’m not saying that they’re not serious. They’re very serious. You can be crazy and be serious.

“But I think we’re trying to show that civilisation has given us an attunement of the self, a calmness, a peace of mind, and an inventiveness. You shouldn’t go on the bandstand, meditating and praying in front of the audience all the time. That’s what ‘free music’ is. Like a drone, an Indian religious meeting. Difference is, it’s probably a bunch of atheists playing. Meditating with the devil. And the main thing I’m trying to say is that they’re probably all in one key. I don’t hear them change key. I don’t hear no B natural, no E, no A, no F sharp. It’s mainly around C and D flat. Like Ornette Coleman, a pedal-point C. I was with Phineas Newborn when I first heard Ornette, and Phineas said, ‘What key’s that in?’ Sounded like C. He started playing with Ornette. He said, ‘That’s all it is, man. The key of C.’ I don’t know, man, but have you heard Ornette play any melodies? I know before he was successful he had a band with a piano-player, and he played some melodies. But he sounded like a beginner playing saxophone, trying to copy Charlie Parker. On the very next record he had a thing with no piano on it, and I could see where he became very happy. When there’s no chord structure, the guy can pay anything he wants to play.”

A dozen years earlier, Mingus had greeted Coleman’s arrival on the scene with scepticism, although they had played together at the famous Newport Rebels concert at Cliff Walk Manor on the shore of Rhode Island Sound, when a group of disaffected musicians got together and decided to make a protest against the programming of the official Newport Jazz Festival by staging their own alternative event.

“I don’t want to sound like I don’t like Ornette Coleman,” Mingus said now. “He’s one of the nicest people in the world. And I don’t want to say I don’t understand him. I’ve heard him discuss musical theory, and he has a different approach to that. He’s added a different feeling, a different embellishment, a different mood. I think that’s good. Some of the beboppers need to learn it. For instance, I don’t think they know that you can play sad on one note, or happy. You can play the same bridge happy, or sad, or angry, or frustrated. You should be able to play hate, love, anger, fear. Bird did it, but these kids never heard him in person, they only heard the notes off the records, and they don’t know that Bird played tearful some nights, for just one or two bars, he’d cry on one note.

“Guys today know how to play like a very hip old guy or a very hip young guy. They’re afraid to be unhip. To be a musician, you should be able to play hip, unhip, sad, happy, or like the devi, and with imagination a creative person should even be able to play like a saint. It’s too bad that this may be lost in this camouflage of so-called free music, where everything is distorted into sounding like chaos, or another way it sounds is like guys praying or being high or being some place doing something no one else has done, yet if you listen, it’s been done. I haven’t heard nothing yet that hasn’t been done in the so-called avant-garde except that they all do it together. I’m going to have to go back and repeat myself and do what these guys call avant-garde, because I’m sure I was one of the guys that started it, along with Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. I’m sorry I never had a group that believed in me enough to play my music properly, because that’s exactly what’s always missing in my music, except it did happen when Eric Dolphy was there, because he had so many moods in his playing. But most guys don’t.”

But didn’t jazz have to find a route away from the rigid chord structures of standard ballads and the blues?

“I didn’t say you have to use chord changes, man. It’s just so hip. There’s a thousand chords in one chord, anyway. So why call it a chord? That’s just for dumb piano players, block-chording. If you listen to Duke Ellington, you don’t hear chords all the time. He plays linear things, rhythm patterns, one note, bass note, pedal-point. Bud Powell did it, too. You weren’t conscious of the exact chord changes every time. Nor with Monk, either. I heard some things that Monk did in 1940 that sounded like Ornette, or let’s say the avant-garde. But he didn’t do it for the whole piece. You can do it on the introduction and the ending, and it sounds nice. But not the whole thing.

“I’ve worked in clubs with bands who’ve played that shit for a whole set, and it’s annoying. I’m not concerned about a guy’s sickness, because he’s meditating and praying to some kind of Allah or Buddha. He can go to church in his closet at home, like the Bible says. When you pray, pray in your closet. When you’re on the bandstand, play some music. And if you’ve got a bunch of guys all playing what they want, then everybody’s right, aren’t they? If you’ve got appendicitis, you don’t want no doctor that’s never studied. You want a doctor that can handle that knife and cut you open properly. You don’t want no ad lib free-form doctor to cut you open, no avant-garde jazz doctor improvising by ear. I want a guy who’s studied from the very beginning.”

He talked about his own youth, and how he had to prove his ability to play solos recorded by men like Jimmy Blanton and Slam Stewart before he was allowed to improvise.

“You had to study until you knew where to go on your own. They used to do that at Minton’s, too. Before you could get on the bandstand to play with Charlie Christian, you had to do through an audition. I liked Jimmy Blanton’s playing, so I tried to find out what he was doing. I discovered that he had studied legitimate bass to learn to play properly. So I followed that. One day I came to take a solo, and in those days when you were training it meant you had to play a solo that someone had already played. So I went out and tried something of my own. They told me to go back and study Blanton and Stewart.

“I think the kids today don’t really love the music they copy. They choose them because they’re popular. It’s the latest thing, and it’s going to make them a dollar. 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 what it was. Ask me and Duke to make an avant-garde record, and we’d cut everybody. Me and Duke, Clark Terry, Jerome Richardson, Buddy Collette, Cat Anderson — don’t ask nobody to be weird, man. We’ll make you sick. Make ’em all put their horns away.”

At several points in the conversation, during the oxtail soup and the plain salad — lettuce, tomato, cucumber — that followed it, I tried to get Mingus to talk about the music he’d been playing recently. This was not well received.

“Why do you always have to ask a guy about his music? You should talk to Mal Waldron, and you can talk to me about his music. He’s made some good comments about my music, about what I’ve contributed. Duke even said it one time. I went up to him and said how much I loved his music, and he said, ‘Well, you did this, and you did that.’ He mentioned two or three things that I did. He called me the Two-Beat Waltz King. He knew how I loved and respected his music.’ And the memory of that caused Mingus to smile, for the first time in almost an hour of virtually unbroken monologue.

But he would talk a bit about the future. “Complication is progress,” he said. “That’s one way of getting rid of the amateurs. For instance, on the trumpet it’s a little difficult to make very wide intervals. Now if you start working those intervals into jazz, the public would realise that this is a technician who has control of his instrument and can make melodic sense on it. I’m working on it now, music with a wider range. Pretty soon it’s going to cancel out all the guys who say, ‘I play trumpet,’ and have a trumpet and a case but don’t master their instrument.

“Same thing goes for saxophone players. They got harmonics on it, they can play chords on it, also wider intervals. It’s the way for good musicians to show that they’re superior to the guys who call themselves avant-garde. It’ll also help the guys who’re avant-garde to make more precise leaps and be more in tune with what they’re doing. Advance the thing technically and people will appreciate it more. It may not be as soulful at first, because it’ll be a hell of a mechanical chase to see who can do this kind of playing. Even piano players, you have to be as good as the guys who play classical. When you get to that point, then you’re really something.”

He had just written a string quartet, he said. “The guys played it at sight. And I rehearsed my music for months with the big band, but that music hasn’t been played yet. But the string quartet was nine thousand times more difficult. If that’s the kind of musicianship they have, where string quartets get played in one day, then I’m going to quit right now and write string quartets. And we call ourselves virtuosos. Think about that. I’m even going to have to do a little woodshedding myself, because I’m writing music I can’t play. I’ve got to do it because all these little kids, they’re all great bass players now. I’ve got to find something they can’t do. I’ve got one thing they can’t do, but if I do it, they’ll be doing it on a record before I get to do it myself. That’s why I don’t play solos on jobs, not until I come to Europe. If I do that in New York, I go to a record date and hear what I played already.

“It’s not funny. Oscar Pettiford told me the same thing. I didn’t believe it. Lester Young told me the same thing. He had a record the next day, and he was in a hotel with Stan Getz, and he heard Stan playing this solo that he’d played the night before, and he wanted to record it. So he had to go and work a new one out. What a nice world it would be if Jewish guys played music from their heredity, from their environment, from what their families had given them. Or if the Scottish guys would do it, or ex-slaves, black men, if the Africans would do it, improvise, but play music from their own culture. The Spanish people do it, with flamenco — see how great that is? Because it’s pure. Flamenco is about their people, Spanish gypsies, and their suffering. The Indians are doing it, too, Americans and them other Indians. But all the so-called civilised countries are copying what came from the past of jazz. It’s not real, man. can’t make it.”

And with that he got up and lurched away, seeming to block out the daylight as he headed up an alley towards Curzon Street, people coming in the opposite direction having to squeeze past on either side of him. I stayed at the table, ordered a cup of coffee and thought about the anger, the sweetness, the love of music and musicians (even, deep down, those of whom he seemed to disapprove), the frustration and the joy that flowed out of his character, and how it had all been poured into his astonishing music.

* The photograph of Charles Mingus was taken in 1959 by Lee Friedlander, and is from the cover of Blues & Roots. A new three-CD set from Resonance Records, The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s, documents Mingus’s season at the Frith Street club in August 1972.

Ornette and the skies of London

Fifty years ago today, at 10 o’clock on the morning of Monday 17 April 1972, the photographer Val Wilmer and I arrived at Abbey Road Studios to hear Ornette Coleman recording The Skies of America with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was the first of four three-hour sessions, held on consecutive days, during which the entire work was committed to tape. Here’s one of Val’s pictures, reproduced by her kind permission, and my report, published in the Melody Maker later that week.

“This is The Skies of America, take one.” The smoothly modulated voice of Paul Myers, the head of CBS Records’ classical department, halts a conversation among the second violins.

David Measham, the conductor, counts off a bar, and the orchestra launches itself into a jagged ensemble in which it’s hard to perceive a lead voice. But Measham hears a goof, and drags it to a halt.

“We’ll do it without the trumpets and trombones,” he says. “Are the horns comfortable with this?”

“No more uncomfortable than anywhere else,” mutters a youngish, bespectacled musician, one hand wedged firmly up the bell of his French horn.

He seems to be expressing the consensual view of the London Symphony Orchestra. Mild bewilderment and a certain amount of genteel exasperation are mingled with rather smaller amounts of genuine interest and curiosity about the nature of the work that confronts them this morning in the famous Studio No 2.

This is quite an unusual day in the life of the LSO. The Skies of America is a new work, and they are recording it in the presence of the composer, Ornette Coleman. It’s his first symphonic piece. And it seems to be quite unlike anything the musicians have had to face before.

Some of the problems have been caused by the composer. Certain passages of the work, which consists of 21 short sections and will last about 40 minutes, are almost impossible to play. The strain on the trumpeters, for instance, is such that they’ve made an agreement between themselves to alternate the high-note passages, in order to save their lips from damage.

This is the first day of recording. Last week there were three days of rehearsal, but the parts are still causing trouble. Poor copying, for example, has led the tuba-player to confuse his sharps and flats. “You just have to approximate it,” he sighs. Is it hard? “Bloody impossible.”

The work was to have been recorded with the LSO and Coleman’s quartet, but Musicians’ Union restrictions prevented the use of the American players. “So then we wanted to take the tapes back to New York and overdub the quartet,” Coleman explains, “but they wouldn’t let us even do that. And I always thought electronics were supposed to make things quicker and easier, didn’t you?”

During the takes, Ornette sits on his upturned saxophone case, next to the conductor’s rostrum. He’s wearing a charcoal mohair suit with a flared flap in the back, and a silky cream shirt. His boots are made of multicoloured patchwork leather. As has been his habit for many years, he designed them himself. Beside him, there’s a table. On it lie his packet of Gauloises, his cup of coffee, a red telephone which connects him with the producer in the control room, and his alto saxophone.

Every so often he makes quiet suggestions to Measham or goes over to the drum booth to discuss some point or other with Mike Frye, the LSO’s young percussionist, who is playing a part intended for Ed Blackwell. Frye has never heard of Blackwell, the brilliant drummer from New Orleans who played in the quartet with which Coleman set the jazz scene on its ear a dozen years ago. But he’s doing fine, particularly in view of the fact that what he’s being called upon to play bears only the most tenuous of explicit relationships to the patterns written for the rest of the orchestra.

“We need three conductors, really,” he remarks gravely to Ornette, who nods.

At one point, Ornette takes up the sticks to give Frye a practical demonstration of what he wants. He plays a couple of brief phrases on the snare and top tom-tom, and the immediate resemblance to Blackwell’s unique top-of-the-beat style is startling.

Seated around Coleman, Measham and Frye are 26 violins, 10 violas, eight cellos, six double basses, four flutes, four oboes, four bassoons, four clarinets, four trumpets, four trombones, four French horns, a tuba, a harp and a tympanist. It is, of course, the biggest ensemble Coleman has ever been involved with. This is a man who played on the chitlin’ circuit in his youth, honking out the simple phrases of rabble-rousing rhythm and blues, and who then became the most compelling figure to emerge from the avant-garde of the late ’50s, when his quartet made a series of recordings that seemed to embody both extreme complexity and a love of unfettered melody and irresistible rhythm, implying that perhaps sophistication and naturalness were not polar opposites but could co-exist within music. In the ’60s he also took his first steps into music written for chamber groups — which, on the rare occasions it was recorded or performed in concert, was generally received with a mixture of bafflement and disapproval.

As the orchestra struggles through another section, it’s hard to describe how the music sounds. There are broad melodies which seem never to repeat themselves, and fast staccato phrases which give the trumpets no end of trouble. But in the control booth, even in this rough state, the impression is hugely striking.

“It’s not meant to be a symphony orchestra playing,” Ornette explains, in his characteristically elliptical way, during a break. “Not that particular sound. It’s just supposed to be the way these instruments sound when they play together. In fact it’s not supposed to sound like particular instruments at all. It’s written so that you can’t tell who’s playing what. Listen to that high note. You can’t tell whether it’s the strings or the brass.”

In the booth, he talks about his attitude to melody. He prefers to work with instrumental melody because it allows a more open interpretation. Listeners have to put something of themselves into it in order to get something out. “It’s like this part, here. If you and I were singing it, we’d probably sing different notes, because it sounds different to each of us. You can’t do that with song form. I think that’s one reason why classical music is so unpopular. Working people don’t have the time to put themselves into this music.”

The orchestra returns. While some of the musicians tune up, others read books and magazines propped on their music stands. A few of them return to their reading matter even during eight-bar rests.

Next they’re going to tackle a section that begins with a small section of the strings and the woodwind, playing a long seamless line that wanders without retracing its steps. The spare voicing and muted timbre make it sound like something by Charles Ives — Central Park in the Dark, maybe. Gradually the rest of the orchestra joins in, building on the slow line in a lengthy and deliberate crescendo which has an air of wonderment and discovery. “Like a flower opening,” Ornette remarks.

They get a good take, and Ornette rushes up to the booth. “That part after the melody — where it’s reversed — does it sound too dark? It’s supposed to be like night, with the stars shining through.”

No, he’s told, it’s fine. Even Measham agrees, although he’s been constantly troubled by a conductor’s score that doesn’t tally with some of the individual parts. “It’s such a waste of time when that happens,” he says. “It costs a of money on a session this size. But Ornette is amazing. He knows every note of music on this score by memory. And there’s a lot of music in it.”

The digital clock flicks over to 13:00 and the session is at an end. The musicians pack up and head for the door. Ornette hooks his alto to his sling and walks around the emptying floor, playing a handful of lyrical phrases in that tone which prompted a participant in one of his early recording sessions, the drummer Shelly Manne, to say that “he sounds like a person laughing, and a person crying.”

He pauses and takes the horn from his mouth. “Hey,” he says. “We’re getting there, aren’t we? And we’ll do better tomorrow.”

* The following evening, at the BBC TV Centre, I interviewed Ornette live on an edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test that also featured music by the Stooges, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and Linda Lewis. Two months later I heard him play The Skies of America with his quartet and the American Symphony Orchestra at Philharmonic Hall in New York, a world premiere coinciding with the album release. In 1988, before a London performance of a revised version with Prime Time and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Ornette told me about how the idea for the piece had come to him on a visit to a Native American reservation in Montana in the 1960s: “I participated in their sacred rites, and it made me think about the many different elements existing in America, in relation to its causes, purpose and destiny. For some reason, I got that feeling from the sky. I feel that everything that has ever happened in America, from way before the Europeans arrived, is still intact as far as the sky is concerned.”

Where Jimi led

If you’re interested in guitar-playing, you probably need to know about Ava Mendoza. I first heard her at Subterranea in New York in 2016, during the Winter Jazzfest, when she played with a band led by the trombonist Jacob Garchik and including two other guitarists, Mary Halvorson and Jonathan Goldberger, and a drummer, Vinnie Sperrazza. You can see them in the photograph; she’s on the extreme left, with the Fender Jaguar.

Even in the company of the great Halvorson, Mendoza caught my ear. Born in Miami, Florida in 1983, she studied with Fred Frith at Mills College in Oakland, California before moving to New York in 2013. She seemed to have found a way of feeding the sound of early rock and roll guitar — think Dick Dale, Watkins Copicat echo units, and a time before tremolo arms became known as whammy bars — into the kind of thinking shared by the several generations of guitarists freed from the orthodoxies of jazz guitar by Jimi Hendrix, a list going from Sonny Sharrock, John McLaughlin, Ray Russell, Vernon Reid and David Torn to Bill Frisell, Elliott Sharp, Marc Ribot and Kim Myhr. She showed strength, inventiveness and confidence.

That first impression is confirmed on a new album which features her in a trio under the leadership of the veteran bassist William Parker, completed by the drummer Gerald Cleaver. It’s called Mayan Space Station, and it’s the sort of music you can easily imagine Hendrix making if he were still around today: loose, improvisatory, inspired, collective, which are all the words that come to mind when you think of his playing from more than 50 years ago on tracks like “Manic Depression”, “Love or Confusion” and “Third Stone from the Sun”, carried into the 21st century.

I was thinking about Hendrix anyway, since I’ve been enjoying a newly published book called Voodoo Child, in which two Los Angeles-based writers, my old Melody Maker colleague Harvey Kubernik and his brother Kenneth, compile an oral history of the guitarist’s life and work. It’s not a biography in the usual sense but a sort of 360-degree journey around the short but extraordinary life of the man who arguably had more influence on contemporary music than any individual instrumentalist since Charlie Parker.

The vast majority of the interview material is new, culled from dozens of conversations with those who knew, observed or were affected by Hendrix. They range from Brian Auger, John Mayall and Andrew Loog Oldham through John Echols of Love, Robby Krieger of the Doors, Ed Cassidy of Spirit, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane and James Williamson of the Stooges to Michelle Phillips, Ernie Isley, Michael Des Barres, Kim Fowley, Jerry Wexler, Billy Cox, Jim Keltner, Nils Lofgren, Patti Smith, Nels Cline and many others. Of course there’s lots of stuff about Monterey, Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, as you’d expect. But the authors aren’t afraid to dive into less obvious areas. In one of the later sections several witnesses, including Hugh Banton, the Van der Graaf Generator organist, and John Etheridge, the Soft Machine’s guitarist for the past few decades, have interesting things to say about the specifics of the equipment Hendrix used.

If I have a criticism, it’s that — like most Hendrix books — it doesn’t follow the money or go deeply into the late period when he became involved with black artists and activists such as the singer Emmaretta Marks and the percussionist Juma Sultan, getting closer to the world where free jazz intersected with political action. But as a kaleidoscopic assembly of impressions from an orbit around Planet Jimi, it has a value of its own.

The eminent composer and flautist James Newton, a professor of jazz studies who has taught a Hendrix course at UCLA, talks about Hendrix’s relationship to jazz: “Check out the floating quality in ‘(Have You Ever Been to) Electric Ladyland’. When Hendrix hits the guitar three times to establish the tempo, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, it’s in 3 but not really — most people hear it in 4/4… a polyrhythm is established, which is not something you hear in pop music, then or now. It’s Mitch (Mitchell) channelling Elvin (Jones).”

That was something you couldn’t miss when you heard Are You Experienced or saw Hendrix live in 1967, at least if you were conversant with the work of the John Coltrane Quartet in the first half of the decade. Mitch had clearly paid attention to Elvin’s sense of time — the 3-against-2 which is at the heart of the rhythms that came from Africa and became what we call swing. And Hendrix, who hadn’t (as far as I know) played jazz during his early career on the R&B circuit, responded to what he was doing. In that sense, Mitch was a liberating influence on Jimi.

It’s interesting to speculate on what would have happened had Chas Chandler recruited a more four-square British rock drummer of the time — say, Aynsley Dunbar (who was under consideration), Keef Hartley or John Steel, his former colleague in the Animals — to the Experience, as might easily have happened. John Mayall points out that “Jimi came to England and a blues world… going back to Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner, who started the blues boom. This attracted a lot of musicians who now had something new to inspire them.” But it was not just a purist’s blues world. Korner’s absolutely seminal Blues Incorporated was packed with jazz musicians, from Ginger Baker and Danny Thompson to Dick Heckstall-Smith and Art Themen, as were Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames and the Graham Bond Organisation. Even had Hendrix never listened to Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman before leaving the US in 1966, he would have absorbed something of their spirit from the musicians he heard and worked with in London.

James Newton connects Hendrix to the huge change taking place in jazz two decades after the heyday of bebop. John McLaughlin (in a quote attributed to Colin Harper’s biography, Bathed in Lightning) remembers taking Miles Davis to the Monterey Pop film just to see Jimi, and the effect it had on the trumpeter. The effect on guitarists — including McLaughlin — was even greater, in terms of encouraging a more adventurous approach to tone, texture and effects, and more enduring. As we can hear in the work of Ava Mendoza and others of her generation, it shows no sign of abating.

* Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik’s Voodoo Child is published by Sterling. William Parker’s Mayan Space Station is on the AUM Fidelity label: https://williamparker.bandcamp.com/album/mayan-space-station

Old and new gospel

Among the many projects initiated by the inspirational drummer and educator John Stevens between the creation of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1966 and his early death in 1994, the most unexpected was a septet called Splinters, convened in 1972 to bring together musicians spanning the bebop and avant-garde sectors. From the older generation came the tenorist Tubby Hayes, the drummer Phil Seaman and the pianist Stan Tracey. Representing the newer thing were Stevens himself and the altoist Trevor Watts, his SME co-founder. Straddling the eras were the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and the bassist Jeff Clyne, both of whom had played with the SME but were equally comfortable with the music of Hayes, Seaman and Tracey.

I remember the excitement of their debut at the 100 Club in May that year, and the realisation that it was working much better than might have been imagined, thanks to the commitment of all the musicians involved. About 80 minutes of music from that night was released a dozen years ago by Reel Records on a CD titled Split the Difference, long unavailable. Now the whole 100 minutes is to be found on a handsome three-CD package issued by the Jazz in Britain label, along with just over an hour from a gig by the same line-up at the Grass Roots club in Stockwell, South London four months later, both performances taped by Watts on a cassette machine with a couple of decent microphones.

Hayes, the giant of British modern jazz, stood at the pinnacle of a virtuosic tradition, and had only recently recovered from serious illness, but he was able to throw himself into the collaboration with great generosity, finding a place for himself in a music that operated according to very different parameters. For Tracey, who came from the language of Monk rather than that of Bud Powell, assimilation was also possible. And Stevens’ boundless admiration for the greatness of Seaman helped to ensure that the two of them found a common vernacular founded in a kind of swing falling somewhere between Max Roach and Ed Blackwell.

For Watts and Wheeler, this kind of time-based free improvisation, rooted in the discoveries of Ornette Coleman, was home territory, and both play with great distinction, but the success of the project was really ensured by the presence of Clyne, a bassist with all the necessary instincts and virtues honed to the highest degree. He had made his reputation alongside Hayes and Ronnie Scott in the Jazz Couriers, but listening to him with this band, you can easily believe that he could have depped for Charlie Haden with Coleman at the Five Spot in 1959 or for Reggie Workman or Jimmy Garrison with John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard a couple of years later without any appreciable loss of quality. He was a remarkable musician and his death in 2009, aged 72, left a big hole.

Although full of vigour and substance, the music Splinters played at the 100 Club gig sounds almost tentative by comparison with the Grass Roots set. By the time of the later gig they seem to have relaxed into the format, producing the kind of uninhibited, exuberant shout-up which characterised that era, and which had its roots in the influence of Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes as well as of Coleman’s Free Jazz and Coltrane’s Ascension. Hayes plays a superlative solo, Clyne is phenomenal, and the wildly exciting stuff Seaman and Stevens get up to towards the end could give drum battles a good name.

Historically speaking, this is an important release. Seaman died four weeks after the Grass Roots gig, aged 46. Hayes died the following June, aged 38. It’s interesting that these two should have chosen to plunge into an environment offering such a different sort of test. In a lengthy essay contained within the beautifully produced 12″x12″ hardbacked sleeve, Simon Spillett describes the background to the project, sketching in the histories of the Jazz Centre Society, which organised the Monday-night series at the 100 Club, and the Musicians’ Action Group, which ran Grass Roots, and the crosscurrents of the London jazz scene at the time, using material from archive interviews and fresh testimony from Watts, now the only survivor of a fascinating experiment.

* Splinters’ Inclusivity is on the Jazz in Britain label, available as a digital download as well as the three-CD set (www.jazzinbritain.co.uk). The photographs are from the album’s cover, and were taken by Jak Kilby. Clockwise from top left: Phil Seaman, Jeff Clyne, John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Kenny Wheeler and Tubby Hayes. Centre: Stan Tracey.

The blues came down from Richmond

Around the corner from where I live is an apartment that was once a crash-pad for Paul Simon, Jackson C. Frank and John Martyn. If I carry on to the train station, I pass the building where the Rolling Stones played the early gigs that attracted the attention of Andrew Loog Oldham and the four Beatles. On the way I see another building, now a Nando’s, where Eric Clapton and his fellow art students would while away an afternoon over a single cup of coffee. A couple of doors above it is the site of a clothes shop that was once vital to the Mod culture. I walk on past an independent book shop which, 50-odd years ago, was owned by Pete Townshend (who still lives a few hundred yards away, up the hill, past the house where Syd Barrett once had a flat). Beyond the station lies a rugby ground, the site of the festivals that, starting in 1961, created the enduring pattern for such open-air, multi-stage events.

If, instead of heading for the station, I were to walk in the opposite direction, I’d come to the footbridge to an island where, as the ’60s picked up speed, trad jazz gave way to R&B bands in a semi-derelict hotel whose ballroom featured the Cyril Davies All Stars, Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men with Rod Stewart, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Downliners Sect, the Art Woods, the Graham Bond Organisation, and so on.

The place that featured the Stones was the Station Hotel in Richmond, where the back room hosted the first incarnation of the Crawdaddy Club. The coffee bar was called L’Auberge. The men’s boutique was John Simon’s Ivy Shop. Townshend’s book shop was called Magic Bus. The rugby ground is the home of Richmond RFC and London Scottish; their clubhouse became the second Crawdaddy, where the Yardbirds — mostly local boys — took flight. The Eel Pie Island Hotel is the legendary venue in the middle of the Thames at Twickenham, which opened with local trad jazz bands in 1956, closed in 1970 with Quintessence and burned down while being demolished the following year. Those are some of the locations, and there are many more, including the Hanging Lamp folk club, held in a church crypt, where the local teenager who would become Elvis Costello went to listen to guitarists like Davey Johnstone and John James.

The story of how Richmond and Twickenham — and particularly Eel Pie Island — became a seed-bed for the British R&B bands that, in conjunction with the Mersey Beat, reset the course of rock music is such a great one that I’ve often thought it was worth a proper book, particularly after I came to live here 20 years ago and realised that the buildings and the pavements had tales to tell. I never got around to it. But now someone else has, and he’s done it so well that I’m glad I didn’t.

Andrew Humphreys spent many years working on travel guides, first for Lonely Planet and then for Time Out. He lives in Richmond and runs a publishing company of his own. When he had the idea for the book, he offered it to three well-qualified music journalists, none of whom was interested. Eventually he decided to do it himself, and I’m glad he did because it could hardly have been done with a finer combination of basic enthusiasm, thorough research and authorial skills. Apart from getting the facts right and in the correct order, he’s talked to many of the people who made up the audiences and customers at these places, creating a vivid portrait of an extremely exciting and important time.

Alongside the musicians and their listeners, several key figures are identified. The first is a local businessman called Michael Snapper, who bought Eel Pie Island Hotel — built in 1830, mentioned by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, in and out of fashion over the decades — in 1951, when it was all but abandoned. The second is a young trumpeter named Brian Rutland, who persuaded Snapper to let his Grove Jazz Band use the dilapidated ballroom. The third is a rum cove called Arthur Chisnall, who managed one of Snapper’s shops in Kingston, saw his vocation as scooping up lost youth and putting them on the straight and narrow, took over the running of the venue and, responding to police demands that it be properly organised, created something called the Eelpiland Club, which soon became a focal point for beatniks, students from the area’s several art colleges, and other adventurous types.

The fourth is Harold Pendleton, a former accountant who loved jazz, managed the Chris Barber Band, ran the National Jazz Federation, founded the Marquee Club in an Oxford Street basement in 1958, organised the NJF’s first National Jazz Festival at the Richmond Athletic Association’s grounds in 1961 and saw it grow into an event of national significance, with the trad and modern jazzers gradually pushed out by the young R&B bands, first represented in 1963 by Georgie Fame, Graham Bond, Cyril Davies and, at the bottom of the bill, the young Stones.

The fifth is Giorgio Gomelsky, a refugee from Soviet Georgia who arrived in London in 1955, aged 21, and soon became known on the scene as a hustler and fixer, a colourful character never short of an idea. Through knowing Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies he met Brian Jones, whose new band he heard at a pub in Sutton in February 1963. It was Gomelsky who created the Crawdaddy for them at the Station Hotel later that month, first with an audience that could be numbered on one hand but soon with queues down the street. Gomelsky printed flyers, ran ads in the Melody Maker, buttonholed journalists on the music papers, and in general hyped the Rolling Stones as best he knew how. He did a great job, but within weeks he’d lost them to a younger hustler, the 19-year-old Andrew Loog Oldham, who came to see them in Richmond and persuaded them he could take them to the next stage. As, of course, he did, leaving Gomelsky to manage the Yardbirds and cook up countless further schemes — some good, some bad, none of them quite as good as the Stones — before his death in New York five years ago.

All this and much more is in Humphreys’ book, which is well illustrated with period photos, flyers, posters and adverts, and useful maps on the end-papers. It’s also hugely enjoyable, written with a delightful touch and an ear for the colourful anecdote. Here, for instance, is a trad-band musician describing the task of getting their instruments across to Eel Pie Island on the original chain ferry, before the footbridge was installed in 1957: “A decidedly dodgy affair, like the D-Day landings but without the gunfire.”

I hope I haven’t made Raving upon Thames sound like a book of local history. In fact it’s about us — all of us, even if we weren’t there.

* Andrew Humphreys’ Raving upon Thames: An Untold Story of Sixties London is published by Paradise Road (www.paradiseroad.co.uk). The photograph was taken at Eel Pie Island in 1960 for a feature in Weekend magazine headlined “Down Among the Dead Beats”.

London Jazz Festival 5: Yazz Ahmed

Given the times we’re in, it was pretty wonderful to witness the scale of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, which shows no sign of losing its ambition under its new artistic director, Pelin Opcin. Typical of its scope was last night’s meeting of the trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, under the title Fusing Forces.

In recent years Ahmed has been pursuing a strand of thought which blends her jazz training at the Guildhall with an exploration of the music of Bahrain, where she lived until she was nine. Two striking albums, La Saboteuse and Polyhymnia, gave evidence of her success, and last night’s project took the process a stage further. With the help of arrangers including Noel Langley and Tim Garland, her compositions were enhanced by the use of the orchestra’s resources, under the empathetic baton of Bramwell Tovey.

Ahmed’s exceptionally gifted quintet — completed by Ralph Wyld on vibes, Dave Manington on bass guitar, Martin France on drums and the percussionist Corrina Silvester — was positioned across the front of the stage, separated from the orchestra by a perspex barrier, presumably for reasons of acoustic separation (the concert was being recorded for radio). But, thanks to Tovey and the sound engineers, there was no separation of thought or action. The calibre of the writing ensured that both elements were often perfectly integrated into a single organism, with no sense of excess baggage or impediment on the occasions when the orchestra simply added its weight to the smaller group.

The most striking of the compositions were those that brought Middle Eastern patterns and modes into the music, such as “A Paradise in the Hold” (inspired by the songs of Bahraini pearl divers) and “Al Emadi”, with their distant echoes of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration on “Solea” from Sketches of Spain. The blend sounded completely organic, the rhythmic drive providing a fine setting for inventive solos by Wyld, who was heavily featured, and Ahmed herself, who made use of reverb and other electronic effects to emphasise the legato quality of her playing but sounded even more impressive when she allowed the natural qualities of the flugelhorn to be the vehicle for her tone and ideas.

Other interesting Ahmed compositions included “A Shoal of Souls”, dedicated to refugees who lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean in small craft, in which Garland’s chart made dramatic use of tubular bells and timpani against the strings, and “2857”, inspired by Rosa Parks, its title using the number of the bus on which she refused to give up her seat to a white customer in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, the two-part piece moving from sombre reflection to urgent hustle.

The programme also included short pieces by Jessie Montgomery (a fantasy on “The Star-Spangled Banner”) and Judith Weir (gentle nightmusic). At Ahmed’s behest, the orchestra’s strings played Arvo Pärt’s “Silouans Song”, a compositions of great loveliness that might have resulted from Vaughan Williams visiting a Baltic monastery in winter. All in all, an absorbing evening which fully justified the audience’s prolonged ovation.

* Fusing Forces is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 tomorrow night (Tuesday 23 November) from 7.30-10pm.

London Jazz Festival 4: What’s Going On

When the photograph of Marvin Gaye appeared on a large screen above the stage late in the evening, just as the rhythm section of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra was cranking up one of the familiar vamps from What’s Going On, the eyes started to prickle and a round of applause arose from the audience in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Fifty years after his masterpiece entered our lives, what would Gaye have made of this occasion, had he lived to see it?

He would certainly have noticed that the concerns he voiced throughout the cycle of nine songs are even more relevant today. The point was driven home when that same screen carried the words of Rosa Parks, Margaret Mead, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass and others over contemporary images of protest.

Fifty years ago! Gaye was 32. I was 24. So young! It’s sad for someone of my age to see today’s 24-year-olds still having to confront worldwide poverty, systemic racism, pointless war and the threat posed by climate change, which were the themes of What’s Going On. Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter are responses to some of those concerns, and more effective ones that we managed in our younger days, but the issues remain unresolved.

Maybe some of them will be sorted out by the generation represented on stage last night: a 27-piece orchestra of strings, brass, woodwind and rhythm under the baton of Peter Edwards, drawn from the ranks of the invaluable Tomorrow’s Warriors project run for the past three decades by Janine Irons and Gary Crosby. None of the young musicians was born when Gaye recorded the pieces they were playing last night in Edwards’ rearrangements, but all of them clearly understood and were committed to its meaning and significance.

The 28th member of the ensemble, the South London-born soul singer Noel McKoy, brought a depth of experience as well as great vocal expertise to the role of Gaye. Without attempting an imitation, he inhabited the songs and negotiated their contours beautifully. But he was one among equals with the other musicians. A special commendation must go to the tenor saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael, who added immense presence and character to the solo parts originally played by Wild Bill Moore. The funk was brought by the unflagging team of Sarah Tandy (keyboards), Sonia Konate (guitar), Jihad Darwish (bass guitar). Romarna Campbell (drums) and Noda Oreste (congas), who hit a quietly simmering groove on one transitional passage which — with Tandy on electric piano — reminded me that Bitches Brew was released just a couple of months before Gaye embarked on the first sessions for what would become What’s Going On.

Edwards shuffled the running order of the individual songs, starting out with “What’s Happening, Brother” and “Right On”, leaving the title song until the middle of the set, and ending with the spiritual lift of “Save the Children” and “God Is Love”. There were photographs of modern urban wastelands to accompany “Inner City Blues” and wildfires and melting ice sheets for “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”. The actor Colin Salmon, the 29th member, delivered a poem/rap that summarised the album’s themes with emotional precison and dignity.

That was the second half of the evening. The hors d’oeuvres, before the interval, had been a selection of pieces from Trouble Man, the soundtrack to a blaxploitation movie, released in 1972 as the successor to What’s Going On. The hipsters’ favourite Gaye album, Trouble Man is an instrumental suite with vocal interludes, cutting and pasting the work of LA session men — Earl Palmer, Victor Feldman and so on — with Gaye’s own multi-instrumental rhythm tracks. Brass and string arrangements commissioned from a variety of seasoned pros — Dale Oehler, Jerry Long, Bob Ragland, J. J. Johnson, Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken — created and sustained a powerful mood of noir soul. Once more Edwards shook the pieces up, using Salmon as a narrator/commentator and again featuring Carmichael in the role, this time, of Trevor Lawrence, Gaye’s preferred saxophone soloist of the time.

A rearrangement of one of the original work’s gentler passages for the string section (led by Olivia Moore), with improvised solos passed in a round-robin between individual violin and viola players, was for me the musical highlight of the entire triumphant evening. In the way it developed and transformed an idea from the original recording, it reminded me of something Gaye said in 1976 while discussing Trouble Man in a radio interview with Paul Gambaccini: “If somebody took that album and did a symphony on it, I think it would be quite interesting.” I’d say Edwards and the Nu Civilisation Orchestra have done the groundwork on that project. They’re halfway there, and should be encouraged to see it through.

* The Nu Civilisation Orchestra perform What’s Going On at Birmingham Town Hall tonight (Friday 19 November), at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on Wednesday 24, and at Canterbury’s Gulbenkian Theatre on Friday 26. Donations to the Tomorrow’s Warriors project can be made here: https://tomorrowswarriors.org/support/jointhemovement/

London Jazz Festival 3: SooJin Suh

K-Music is an annual festival of contemporary South Korean music which ended last night with an event at the Purcell Room on the South Bank, held in conjunction with the EFG London Jazz Festival. The closing concert featured the drummer SooJin Suh and her Seoul-based Coloris Trio, completed by the pianist Jaehun Kang and the bassist Hoo Kim.

It would be easy to place the group somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of 21st century piano trios that has the Bad Plus and EST at one end and GoGo Penguin at the other. But it soon became apparent that they have something of their own to offer: a thoughtful, spacious music based on compositions, mostly by Suh, that include dedications to Andrew Hill and Herbie Nichols, which gives some idea of what they’re about.

Piano ostinatos and ground bass figures triggered many of the pieces, often providing a platform for Suh to show her command of flow and texture. She began with a solo cymbal passage whose grace reminded me of Billy Higgins, and seldom failed to be doing something interesting, whether with sticks, mallets or brushes. Much of the music was rubato, with time fluid and implied rather than explicit, which suits her perfectly, although long passage of 4/4 swing on Hoo Kim’s “Rain Drops” had an impressively lithe propulsiveness. Her companions played their part in a three-way conversation, loosening up as the long set went on.

They were joined for a handful of pieces by the British alto saxophonist Camilla George, who had earlier played an enjoyable short opening set in a duo with the brilliant guitarist Artie Zaitz. Adjusting to a more straightforward hard-bop groove, the quartet produced a particularly buoyant reading of Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream”. After George had left the stage, they finished with a tender version of Suh’s “Tear Down a Wall”, a ballad with the simplicity of a child’s song that ends their excellent recent album and gave the evening a perfect closure.

* Colorist by SooJin Suh’s Coloris Trio is on the Mirrorball Music label. The photograph of Suh at Purcell Room was taken by Ikin Yum.

London Jazz Festival 2: Cécile McLorin Salvant

With Grammy awards on her mantelpiece for each of her last three albums, Cécile McLorin Salvant could be cruising. Instead she’s challenging herself and her audience. Listening to her at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday, I was reminded of Rhiannon Giddens: these are women with powerful voices, vast musicality, great curiosity, and a disinclination to opt for the comfortable life that could be the reward for the acclaim both have received in recent years.

For the tour preceding the arrival of her next album, Ghost Song, early next year, McLorin Salvant has jettisoned the familiar support of a jazz piano trio in favour of a kind of chamber quintet featuring flute (Alexa Tarantino), guitar (Marvin Sewell), piano (Glenn Zaleski), bass (Yasushi Nakamura) and percussion (Keito Ogawa). Carefully deployed, the ensemble is flexible enough to cover all the territory she now explores as she expands her range from the basic repertoire of ballads and blues.

Her own songs at this concert included “Fog”, from the 2015 album For One to Love, the new “Thunderclouds”, inspired by Les Enfants du Paradis and finished with a couple of lines from Colette, “Obsession”, from 2018’s The Window, and the haunting “Ghost Song” itself, her voice on its final chorus plaintively joined by that of Tarantino. In these compositions, Broadway theatre music meets art song and the virtuosic inventiveness of Betty Carter meets the emotional focus of Nina Simone.

Her choice of cover versions was intriguing. “I Want to Know” was an ’50s-style R&B song, a 12-bar blues with a bridge, showcasing Sewell’s fine bottleneck playing. Brecht and Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” came from Simone’s repertoire, sung with a teasing lightness. Sting’s “Until…”, from the soundtrack to the 2001 film Kate & Leopold, was interestingly rearranged to culminate in a Latin section featuring fine flute and piano solos. But the biggest surprise came with “Wuthering Heights”, a song I cordially detest in its original version, here slowed and spun into something mesmerisingly beautiful, its gimmicks completely removed in order to facilitate this remarkable transfiguration.

She’s on a journey, just as Cassandra Wilson, a member of a previous generation, was when she moved from the supper-club safety of Blue Skies in 1988 to the uncharted waters of Blue Light ‘Til Dawn five years later, using different instrumentations to tackle Robert Johnson, Joni Mitchell and the Monkees. Even McLorin Salvant herself may not know where her well-stocked mind and innately inquisitive spirit will take her in the coming years, but from the sound of Tuesday’s ovation she will not be alone on the trip.

London Jazz Festival 1: The peak of their art

After an hour of Mike Westbrook’s autumnal musings at the Pizza Express’s piano on Sunday afternoon, in which the great composer, arranger and bandleader stitched together the memories of a life in music into a seamless reverie with a quiet intensity that held the room in thrall, the scene at the 2021 London Jazz Festival moved to the South Bank, where Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey stormed the Queen Elizabeth Hall with something belonging entirely to the here and now.

Sometimes you get lucky and witness something that makes you realise how high the standards can be. Doesn’t matter what it is. Tennis, poetry, carpentry. On Sunday night it was jazz. A pianist, a bassist and a drummer dropped in to examine the art of the possible, demonstrating over the course of two hours of high-density interplay what can happen when three like-minded virtuosi get it into their heads to create something in which 1+1+1 = infinity.

Basically, they played their way through their recent album, Uneasy. It’s one of the year’s finest releases, but here they stretched it, expanded it, tossed its elements around, and gave it a completely new existence. So many bases were covered — 21st century takes on bebop, Latino patterns, reggae, the circular rhythms of Tyner-Garrison-Jones — that the time passed very quickly.

Linda Oh is the least known of the three, but her bass playing was the heart of the group: slight build, total physical commitment, wonderful tone, great agility, an endless flow of ideas. Vijay Iyer is a cerebral pianist who nevertheless relishes any involvement with rhythm (one night at the Lido in Berlin a few years ago, he and his regular acoustic trio — completed by the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Marcus Gilmore — locked into an endless groove that any funk band would have envied). Tyshawn Sorey operates with complete comfort at the absolute extremities of the dynamic range, from whisper-quiet to shatteringly loud, plus every setting in between. On this occasion he made you wonder why anyone would ever need more than a small bass drum, a medium-sized snare, a single cymbal and a hi-hat, from each of which he drew an astonishing variety of tones and timbres.

Their music rattled, jolted, cruised, purred, broke apart, blended back, cantered, swung, faked a stumble, slowed to a sigh. The audacity made you gasp. Solos were taken, but were always part of the whole. Oh’s leaping grooves made you want to dance. Iyer’s upper-register filigree made your mind soar. Sorey’s sudden whipcracks straightened your back.

Another side of the multi-dimensional Sorey is on view in For George Lewis / Autoschediasms, a two-CD set in which his compositions are performed by Alarm Will Sound, a New York-based 16-piece chamber orchestra here made up of brass, woodwind, strings and percussion, tuned and untuned. “For George Lewis”, a 50-minute piece dedication to his mentor and fellow composer, conducted by Alan Pierson, bears the imprint of Sorey’s interest in the music of Morton Feldman: fully composed, based on a process of accretion and subtraction of single held notes, it moves with mesmerising deliberation through austere and refined layers of sound, creating the musical equivalent of colour-field painting.

“Autoschediasms” is Sorey’s name for his version of the approach to creating real-time music with large ensembles pioneered by Butch Morris (who called it “conduction”) and Anthony Braxton. In these two performances, recorded in St Louis in May 2019 and in various US cities via internet video chat in October 2020, Sorey takes the rostrum, giving the musicians prompts via gestures and prepared cue-cards. “The method can involve the use of up to four batons simultaneously by the conductor,” he writes in his informative notes, and anyone who has seen him at a drum kit will know that this is a challenge well within his scope. The result is a much more obviously active ensemble music, its details and densities sometimes clashing or overlapping, but with an emerging coherence and, like a master of action painting, an excellent sense of drama.

* Uneasy by Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey is on ECM. For George Lewis / Autoschediasms by Tyshawn Sorey and Alarm Will Sound is on Cantaloupe Music (www.cantaloupemusic.com).