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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Songs of the earth

From left: James Mainwaring, Fergus Quill, Michael Bardon, Aby Vulliamy, Steve Hanley (photo: Andrew Benge)

In a quiet, almost sidelong way, the new album by the British saxophonist and composer James Mainwaring is a meditation on the damage inflicted by the Anthropocene epoch on the ecosystems of its host planet. Its title, Mycorrhiza, refers to the interaction between fungi and trees, a scientifically observed phenomenon that allows trees to communicate with each other in order to aid their individual and collective survival in the face of threats.

This might not be an obvious topic for a composer whose work is rooted in jazz, but it’s a good one. Charlie Haden and Carla Bley reflected similar environmental concerns on Time/Life, the last album they made with the Liberation Music Orchestra, but Mycorrhiza finds its own tone and trajectory, largely through the discreet use of field recordings and of the possibility of occasionally and subtly using the organic sounds of free jazz to evoke — but not imitate — the noises of the natural world.

Apart from Mainwaring, who doubles on flutes and keyboards and also sings briefly on several of tracks, the players are Aby Vulliamy (viola, voice), Michael Bardon (cello), Fergus Quill (double bass), Steve Hanley (drums) and, on four of the 13 tracks, Chris Sharkey on electronics.

Mycorrhiza is a programmatic piece with a message, but the narrative content never feels didactic or overbearing. The first section is not even a minute long: a mood-setting hustle of free bass and drums under held notes from saxophone and viola. There’s a sharp cut to the rustlings, scrapings and chirpings of post-SME improvisation, followed by a sort of chamber chorale for bowed strings and saxophone, like a gentle English pastoral version of the Sauter/Getz Focus suite. A piece called “Roots” uses harmonics to suggest organisms communicating and growing together. “Machines”, 28 seconds long, introduces staccato syncopations from strings and horn. “Statues” is full of melody before Mainwaring and Vulliamy intone a lyric — “Did you hear the latest news / Shaking hands in marble rooms…” — in bleached-out unison tones that would fit nicely on to Robert Wyatt record. Against the restrained, finely phrased urgency of Quill’s bass and Hanley’s drums, the composer takes the first real solo of the piece, a rhythm-hurdling saxophone improvisation carefully blended into the ensemble architecture.

That description gets us halfway through a set of pieces that continue through a further variety of dovetailed moods and approaches, gathering in intensity through the scrabbling of “Web”, the etherised tintinnabulation of”Our Lungs” (its lyric a haiku-like four lines) and the baleful agitation of “Globe” until it reaches the finale, “Woken by Dogs”, the longest track at six and a half minutes. After a lyrical piano opening, Mainwaring sings: “Woke up by dogs / Barking in my ears / And just as I feared / The men in black and white are here / Road full of signs / Warpaint ’round my eyes / As they cuffed my hands / Ripping the Superglue began…” Short, fast saxophone-led unison figures are undercut by jolting drums and slowly rising string glissandi until all sounds evaporates into silence.

The warning is not new, but such a creative restatement as Mainwaring achieves in Mycorrhiza is welcome and necessary. You could, I suppose, mentally switch off the message and just enjoy the sounds for their own sake. But since those sounds in this form are driven by a belief in the necessity of repairing the damage done by the human race during its time on earth, and thereby extending the lease a little longer, that would seem foolish.

* James Mainwaring’s Mycorrhiza is out now on the Discus Music label.

Marc Johnson by himself

It’s more than 50 years since Barre Phillips made what I think was the first purely solo album by a jazz bassist. Since then there has been not exactly a flood of emulators, but certainly a steady stream, including albums by Dave Holland, Gary Peacock, Henry Grimes and John Edwards. I can think of lots of other bass players I’d like to have heard from in an extended unaccompanied setting, principally Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden.

Mingus would probably have responded to the idea, but died before such a thing would have seemed like a serious proposition. Haden, however, must have had many opportunities, not least because he often recorded for ECM, whose founder and producer, Manfred Eicher, was himself a bass-player and is a sort of patron saint of solo bass albums. But I guess Charlie, who recorded many times in a duo setting, saw music essentially as a conversation.

I thought of him, and sometimes of Mingus, too, while listening Marc Johnson’s new solo album, Overpass. There’s a weight to these eight pieces, a thoughtful lyricism and a very human sound on the instrument that link him to those forebears, along with a similar disinclination to show that he can make his fingers race up and down that long fingerboard in order to create horn-like lines. For Johnson, the bass isn’t a trumpet or a saxophone. It’s a bass, with its own values, virtues and character.

Johnson came to prominence as the bassist in Bill Evans’s last trio and has since played and recorded prolifically, often with the guitarists John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Pat Martino, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Pat Metheny and the pianists Eliane Elias, who is his wife, John Lewis, Lyle Mays and Enrico Pierannunzi. Overpass, recorded in a São Paulo studio, is his fifth album for ECM, and his first solo effort.

Unusually for the genre, it doesn’t consist entirely of original compositions and/or free improvisations. Five of the pieces are by Johnson, but he kicks off with versions of Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance” and Miles Davis’s “Nardis” and also includes Alex North’s lovely “Love Theme from Spartacus“. These are all familiar themes, perhaps over-familiar (and two of them were staples of Evans’ repertoire), but in Johnson’s hands they’re transformed into pieces that sit perfectly within the whole 43-minute sequence.

His own compositions include “And Strike Each Tuneful String”, where he starts with deliberate low thrums which mutate into a fast-running river of notes influenced by Burundi rhythms, and “Whorled Whirled World”, where he shows how he build a phenomenal momentum over eight and a half minutes without showing off. Two pieces stretch the solo format by using overdubs: “Samurai Fly”, in which two arco lines run above pizzicato ground figures, and “Yin and Yang”, where the single plucked and bowed voices answer each other with a meditative gravity. “Life of Pai” illustrates the beauty and consistency of his tone and the ardour of his phasing, punctuated by passages of double stops moving against a ground note.

That’s the anatomy of it, roughly, but in this case the overall impression is what counts for more than the detail. Marc Johnson has made an album in which a single instrument acts as the filter for profound emotions, exploring a range of techniques and trajectories with a coherent voice. Solo bass albums probably aren’t for everybody, but this is one that comes as a friend.

* Marc Johnson’s Overpass is out now on the ECM label. The photograph of Johnson is by Roy Borghouts.

Tom Challenger’s ‘Imasche’

In the gig-free year and a half that ended only a couple of weeks ago, among the things I missed most was free improvisation. There’s nothing like the experience of being there when it happens, watching something being created from scratch, seeing as well as hearing the music take shape through the interaction of the players in a particular environment. Very occasionally an album succeeds in capturing the ephemeral nature of collective improvisation in a way that loses none of the music’s dimensions. Into that category comes Imasche, a new recording on which the tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger is joined by the pianist Alexander Hawkins and the drummer and percussionist Mark Sanders.

Recorded in London last December, it consists of three pieces, each with an enigmatic title. The first, “BriXII”, 17 minutes long, is the most extroverted, uncoiling from a furtive opening into an active three-way conversation full of inventive responses. Challenger has a lovely way of playing that reminds me of Sam Rivers: a light, fine-grained tone, a certain way of phrasing that brings phrases back on themselves, swift touches of note-bending and flutter-tongueing, exploiting mobility without agitation and velocity without aggression.

The second piece, “GesS”, at nine minutes, has the exquisite delicacy of a Japanese watercolour: gentle rustles and small bells and gongs from Sanders, damped and lightly strummed piano strings from Hawkins, false-fingered long tones and harmonics undergoing shifts of timbre and register from Challenger.

If you’ve ever thrown up your hands and decided that free improvisation was a dead end, listen to the final piece, “TanN”. Stretching over half an hour, it takes its time as it shifts focus and momentum, becoming a compelling slow burn that provides a perfect example of how successfully this generation of musicians has metabolised and extended the experiments conducted at the Little Theatre Club and elsewhere in the 1960s. Throughout Imasche we hear three musicians refining a language that is now as eloquent as any other — and sometimes, because of the demands it makes and the qualities it brings out of its finest exponents, even more rewarding.

* Tom Challenger’s Imasche is available as a limited-edition CD and a download from his Bandcamp page: https://tomchallenger.bandcamp.com/album/imasche. The photograph of Challenger was taken by Alex Bonney.

Another side of Charlie Watts

When a drummer takes temporary leave from an established band, the absence can sometimes make people think harder about the importance of that individual’s contribution. Roy Haynes wasn’t a downgrade in any sense when he depped for Elvin Jones at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1963, but it may have strengthened a recognition of what Elvin had brought — and would bring again — to the John Coltrane Quartet. Ditto Jimmie Nicol’s short stay with the Beatles on a tour of Australasia in the summer of 1964, replacing Ringo Starr, who was having his tonsils removed. (When George Harrison was given the news, he threatened to pull out too: “If Ringo’s not going, then neither am I. You can find two replacements.”)

I thought of those examples while reading this week that Charlie Watts won’t be with the Rolling Stones on their forthcoming US dates. He’s undergoing surgery for an unspecified condition. It’s worth recalling that Charlie was already a Rolling Stone when Haynes replaced Jones and Nicol replaced Starr; as far as I know he has missed not a single one of the band’s live appearances since joining them in January 1963.

Charlie’s adventures outside the band have always been worth following, from the extraordinary big band he brought to Ronnie Scott’s in 1985 to the adventurous and fascinating percussion project with his friend Jim Keltner in 2000. For the last month or so I’ve been listening to an album that happens to be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year: Long Ago & Far Away, in which his quintet — Gerard Presencer (trumpet and flugel), Peter King (alto), Brian Lemon (piano), Dave Green (bass) –and the singer Bernard Fowler are joined by the London Metropolitan Orchestra to perform arrangements by Lemon, King and Presencer of 14 standards from the American songbook.

These are great songs, and they’re handled with the appropriate respect. The opener, George and Ira Gershwin’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You”, is even treated to its proper out-of-tempo introduction (what used to be called the verse): “How glad the many millions / Of Annabels and Lillians / Would be / To capture me / But you had such persistence / You wore down my resistance / I fell / And it was swell…”

Fowler, a long-time Stones backing vocalist who has also recorded with Tackhead and Little Axe, pitches his vocals perfectly, somewhere between Bobby Short and Luther Vandross, with a pleasant tone and a well controlled vibrato. His voice rests easily on arrangements which tend to the lush and romantic but never get close to kitsch. The rhythm section is elegantly discreet (you’re hardly aware of Watts’s presence, which is how it should be) and the horns decorate the music perfectly, Presencer with a tone almost as gorgeous as the late, great Joe Wilder’s and King adding a dash of bitters to the smooth cocktail.

No, these fine versions of “Good Morning Heartache” and “What’s New” aren’t going to replace those by Holiday and Sinatra. But the whole thing runs together seamlessly, the arrangers the opportunity to liven things up with “In the Still of the Night”, which borrows its momentum from the version Gil Evans arranged for Charlie Parker, the group joined by the congas of Luis Jardim and the horns playing what sounds like a transcription of part of Bird’s original solo before King peels off into a variation of his own. “I’m in the Mood for Love” is delivered straight until Fowler gives us an extract from King Pleasure’s famous vocalese version of James Moody’s solo, in unison with Green’s pizzicato bass. For me, the only slightly unsatisfactory moment derives from the decision to take Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” at ballad speed rather than at the insouciant medium-up tempo that best sets off its sophisticated irony.

I was going to write about this album anyway, with a recommendation to those who don’t know it to file it alongside Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely and Holiday’s Lady in Satin, to be played in moments when those two harrowing masterpieces seem too intense. Let’s wish him all the best with the operation, in the hope that we see him back on the bandstand — whether in a stadium or a boîte — before too long.

* Charlie Watts’s Long Ago & Far Away was released in 1996 on the Virgin label. The photograph is from the accompanying booklet, and was taken by Jack English.

Henry Lowther at the Vortex

Still Waters (from left): Alcyona Mick, Henry Lowther, Dave Green, Pete Hurt.

The trumpeter and occasional bandleader Henry Lowther turned 80 a couple of weeks ago, and last night he brought his quintet, Still Waters, to the Vortex for a birthday celebration. It was the first gig I’d attended since seeing Bryan Ferry at the Albert Hall in March of last year — and when I mentioned to Ferry that I was going to see Lowther, he remembered immediately that Henry had played the muted obligato behind the opening verse of “These Foolish Things”, the title track from Bryan’s first solo album, back in 1973.

That’s Henry for you, a quiet and understated but ubiquitous presence on the British music scene for five and a half decades. You might have heard him in the bands of Gil Evans, George Russell, Mike Westbrook, Graham Collier, John Dankworth, Mike Gibbs, Stan Tracey, Kenny Wheeler or Colin Towns, with Barry Guy and the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, with Manfred Mann, on Talk Talk’s albums, on John Mayall’s Bare Wires, on Richard and Linda Thompson’s Pour Down Like Silver, Van Morrison’s Avalon Sunset, Elton John’s A Single Man and countless others.

I first met him in 1969, on a plane to Germany, where he was touring with his regular employer of the time, the drummer Keef Hartley. He told me about the recent experience of playing with the band at the Woodstock Festival, where they had appeared on the Saturday afternoon, between John Sebastian and the Incredible String Band. A few months later he asked me to write a sleeve note for his first album, Child Song, released on the Deram label and now a collectors’ item.

The Vortex on Saturday night, with its reduced socially-distanced attendance, wasn’t exactly Woodstock, but Still Waters — Pete Hurt on tenor, Dave Green on bass, Paul Clarvis on drums and Alcyona Mick depping for the regular pianist, Barry Green — produced a set of lovely music. Henry’s compositions are like his improvising, characterised by an innate lyricism, and I particularly enjoyed the chance to hear a live performance of “Can’t Believe, Won’t Believe”, the beguiling title track from his most recent album. Throughout the set the trumpet solos had that typical blend of beautiful tone, song-like phrases and surprising twists. The piano solos also caught the ear, Mick deploying a variety of resources, from silvery single-note lines to beautifully formed chordal inventions, as she took every chance to add a sense of elegant drama.

As we applauded Henry Lowther’s music, all you could think was what an adornment this modest but brilliant and much cherished man has been to the British jazz scene, adhering to the highest standards while maintaining the most open of minds, his work as a player and a teacher inspiring generations of younger musicians. Many happy returns to him.

* Henry Lowther’s Can’t Believe, Won’t Believe was released in 2018 on the Village Life label.

Bookshelf 5: Gilles Peterson

Everybody has a story about how they got through the first wave of the coronavirus. Gilles Peterson, the famed London DJ, record label boss and general man-about-music, certainly has one, and he tells it in an extremely handsome volume with the title Lockdown FM: Broadcasting in a Pandemic. It’s arranged as a kind of diary or almanac, running through the first six months of 2020, containing a cornucopia of material: playlists of his programmes for Worldwide FM and the BBC, poems, manifestos, tributes to those who died during the year (including McCoy Tyner, Hamilton Bohannon, Betty Wright, Henry Grimes and Tony Allen), birthday greetings to Stevie Wonder, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Hermeto Pascoal and others, and of course a vast amount of beautifully assembled visual material, including the sleeves of dozens of highly collectable vinyl, from Mary Lou Williams’s Piano Contempo and a 1955 Juliette Gréco EP to Roy Brooks’s Black Survival and Cachao y su Descarga ’77.

There are also a number of original photographs taken in London during the six months when normal human interaction was curtailed, laid out across double-page spreads with minimal captioning but together painting a picture of the city and its moods during a year in which the silence of lockdown was broken by an eruption of political protests and counter-protests. Many of the photographs are credited to Dobie, which is the name used by Anthony Campbell, a hip-hop artist and producer who began using a camera to record the skateboarders under the South Bank in the early 1980s. I like his images very much, particularly the one you can see above, which captures a historic moment in British life.

Reflecting on the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, Peterson recalls an earlier element in the same pattern of tragedy: the fatal shooting of the saxophonist Don Myrick, a founder member of Earth Wind & Fire, by a policeman in Santa Monica in 1993. What can a DJ do in response? “I will play music from Nina Simone to Gil Scott Heron and Childish Gambino,” he writes. “I will play these songs to push back against systemic and institutionalised racism that’s been given a refreshed energy by the current power structures which continue to manipulate and divide the people.”

The ingredients of this 600-page book are given a chance to speak so eloquently by the people who, with Gilles, put it together: its editor, Paul Bradshaw (founder of the much missed magazine Straight, No Chaser), and its designer, Hugh Miller. They’ve made a thing that’s not just lovely to own but will act as a poignant memento of a time from which we’re still struggling to emerge with bodies and souls intact.

* Lockdown FM is published by Worldwide FM, price £40: https://worldwidefm.ochre.store/

Mose in middle age

I’d bought my first Mose Allison record in about 1962. It was an EP on the Esquire label, licensed from Prestige, and it contained all 10 atmospheric piano-trio miniatures making up Back Country Suite, the title of his first album, recorded five years earlier. Allison was clearly aware of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, but he was also steeped in the country blues that he’d heard growing up small-town Mississippi before studying English and philosophy at Louisiana State University. The result was was strong but fine-boned music, light on its feet, sultry as a southern night but as open as a big sky.

By the time I finally got to see him, during one of his many appearances at the Pizza Express in London in the 1980s, he’d moved on. He still sang the songs that had entranced the likes of Georgie Fame and Pete Townshend in the ’60s — his own “Parchman Farm”, Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind” and Mercy Dee’s “One Room Country Shack”. But his piano-playing had taken a wild left turn into a territory located somewhere between those staked out by Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor. A couple of time during a set he would suddenly rage up and down the keyboard, creating a torrent of two-fisted sound from waves of chromatic runs. Seems unlikely? If it was the antithesis of his early minimalism, it was certainly thrilling. Anyone turning up to hear the back-porch philosopher who sang “Well a young man ain’t nothin’ in the world these days” with such laconic resignation was in for a shock. I’m only sorry that I didn’t get to hear him many more times before his death in 2016, aged 89.

The young Mose could be heard on a 3-CD box set released on Fresh Sound in 2014, a compilation of the six albums he recorded for Prestige between 1957 and 1959: Back Country Suite, Local Color, Young Man Mose, Ramblin’ with Mose Allison, Creek Bank and Autumn Song. They formed the basis of the reputation that persuaded Nesuhi Ertegun to sign him to Atlantic in 1964 and to record 10 albums with him over the next dozen years. Those albums — I Don’t Worry About a Thing, Swingin’ Machine, The Word from Mose, Wild Man on the Loose, Mose Alive!, I’ve Been Doin’ Some Thinkin’, Hello There Universe, Western Man, Mose in Your Ear and Your Mind is on Vacation — have now been coupled with two subsequent recordings for Elektra, Middle Class White Boy and Lessons in Living, in a new 6-CD box.

Seven of the 10 Atlantic albums stay with the trio format, featuring such fine musicians as the drummers Osie Johnson and Paul Motian and the bassists Earl May and Red Mitchell. Two of those trio sets were recorded live, one at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach in 1965 and the other at In Your Ear in Palo Alto five or six years later. The latter album, Mose in Your Ear, contains a track called “Powerhouse”, almost nine minutes long, which perfectly exemplifies the kind of pianistic eruption I mentioned earlier, ranging across almost all significant approaches to jazz pianism — stride, boogie-woogie, barrelhouse, bebop, Monk-to-Cecil angularity — while somehow retaining Allison’s signature.

The same album also has perhaps his best recorded version of Jimmie Davis’s “You Are My Sunshine”, one of the standards he loved to examine over and over again, nudging the tune’s melodic planes until he has reshaped it into something completely his own, an almost total reinvention.

Of the three Atlantic albums in which horns are added to the trio, the 1976 set called Your Mind Is on Vacation is the most interesting and fully realised. With Al Porcino on trumpet, David Sanborn on alto and Joe Farrell on tenor, Allison takes chances with his arrangements. “One of These Days” is a slow altered blues played in the style of a Mingus small band imitating the late-’50s Ray Charles outfit, with enigmatically stretched silences at odd moments. “Fires of Spring” is a sophisticated cabaret song, the sort of thing Fran Landesman used to write, with a brilliant rubato treatment and a conversation-stopper of an ending.

Lessons in Living, recorded live at the Montreux Festival in 1982, is the more interesting of the two Elektra albums, with Jack Bruce on bass and Billy Cobham on drums, both commendably concerned to accompany rather than draw attention to themselves, and there are guest spots from Eric Gale on guitar and Lou Donaldson on alto. A wild up-tempo version of Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son” — another old favourite — flirts with a wonderful chaos in the piano interlude, and there’s a perfectly weighted treatment of “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy”, in which he dispenses cosmic truth with that wry fatalism.

A lot of Mose, then, but certainly not too much, because he was a true original who work deserves to be brought to the attention of new generations of listeners. After the reissue producer Jordi Puyol’s fine work on the Prestige/Fresh Sound collection, Bob Fisher’s compilation and annotation of this Atlantic/Elektra set is immaculate, as is the stylish package design and artwork by Michael Robson. Now all we need is for someone to compile the eight albums for Blue Note and one for Verve, mostly produced by Ben Sidran, and one for Anti-, supervised by Joe Henry, that represent the balance of his recording career, spanning 1987 to 2010. Not too much to ask, I hope.

* Mose Allison: The Complete Atlantic/Elektra Albums 1962-1983 is on Cherry Red’s Strawberry label.

Bookshelf 4: Jazz Power!

Billie Holiday was a fantastic subject for a photographer. Whatever the location or situation, whatever the lighting or the angle, the turn of her head or the expression on her face, the result was almost always extraordinary. Here’s an example, taken in Paris by Jean-Claude Bernath in 1958, during the second of her two visits to Europe. It was first used in France’s Jazz Magazine, and is among the images reproduced in a two-volume publication accompanying “Jazz Power!”, an exhibition of the monthly magazine’s photographs and artwork between 1954 and 1974, currently in show at the Rencontres d’Arles, the annual festival of photography.

The first of the two paperback volumes folds out into a panoramic reproduction of spreads from the magazine through those years, from Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Clifford Brown to Sun Ra, Sam Rivers and Sonny Sharrock. It’s a reminder of how, founded by Nicole and Eddy Barclay, nurtured by Frank Ténot and Daniel Filipacchi, with editors including Jacques Souplet, Jean-Louis Ginibre and Philippe Carles, Jazz Magazine did a wonderful job of reflecting the excitement of the music and its evolution during those 20 years. As it still seems to be doing under the current editor in chief, Frédéric Goaty.

The second of the volumes contains a text history of the magazine and full-page A4 reproductions of 22 memorable images from its history, of which the photo of Holiday is one. On the reverse of each is a reproduction of the back of the original print, with its photographer’s stamp and the mark-up pencilled in by the sub-editor or designer responsible for sizing it up and indicating how it was to be cropped it for use.

What you see on the reverse of the Holiday print is a set of marks clearly indicating that the page designer wanted to tighten the image to concentrate the focus on the singer, completely eliminating two of the three men surrounding her. That’s understandable in the light of the editorial priority: a picture of Billie Holiday, not of some bystanders. Looking at it today, more than 60 years later, we’re interested in the context.

Besides Bernath, who also took the image on the cover of Chet Baker’s celebrated album of Bob Zieff tunes, recorded for the Barclay label in Paris in 1954, those whose work is featured in the exhibition and the book include such great names of jazz photography as Jean-Pierre Leloir, Herman Leonard, Giuseppe Pino and Val Wilmer. Under its various editors, Jazz Magazine used their images well, consistent in its desire to stress the role of the emerging black consciousness and of women as full participants in the music.

Twenty-odd years ago I was fortunate enough to be in Arles on the eve of the Rencontres, and I remember the wonderful atmosphere surrounding the festival. No doubt the “Jazz Power!” exhibition would be worth the detour, if such a thing were possible this summer. As things are, this handsome publication will have to do.

* Jazz Power: L’aventure Jazz Magazine 1954-74 by Clara Bastid and Marie Robert is published by and available from Delpire & Co, €58 (www.delpireandco.com). Exhibition details are here: https://www.rencontres-arles.com/fr/expositions/view/992/jazz-power

Bookshelf 3: Shake Keane

In the days when well known modern jazz musicians travelled the country as soloists, performing with local rhythm sections, I was lucky enough to hear the trumpeter Shake Keane at the Riverside Jazz Club in Nottingham, accompanied by the unit from the house band: Tommy Saville on piano, Geoff Pearson on bass and Les Shaw on drums.

This would have been around 1962. I was too young to be allowed official admission to the wooden extension behind the Town Arms pub on Trent Bridge where the weekly sessions took place, but I’d been managing to get in and enjoy the sounds of the regular quintet, completed by the tenor saxophones of Mel Thorpe and John Marshall. Their versions of hip tunes like Nat Adderley’s “Work Song”, his brother Cannonball’s “Sack O’Woe” and Jimmy Heath’s “Big P” gave me my first precious experience of live jazz at close quarters.

I was anxious to hear Keane because I’d been listening to Abstract, the Joe Harriott Quintet album which had earned a five-star review in Down Beat. The trumpeter played an important role in a band that had found its own perspective on the general loosening of the rules then taking place at the sharp end of jazz. Now we can see that the combination of two Caribbean musicians in the front line — Harriott from Jamaica, Keane from St Vincent — gave the music a special flavour.

In person he was physically imposing — 6ft 4in tall, bespectacled, with a full beard — and sonically powerful. I have no memory of what tunes were played but I remember the sound of his flugelhorn in particular, big and warm but avoiding the luscious plumminess that some trumpeters drew from the big-bore horn. When I listen to his recordings now, I hear an improviser whose phrases were full of interesting angles.

Philip Nanton’s newly published Riff: The Shake Keane Story tells us that Ellsworth McGranahan Keane arrived in London in 1952 on the steamship Colombie. Then 25 years old, he had received an excellent education at the Boys’ Grammar School in Kingstown, he had played in bands and orchestras, he had worked as a magistrate’s clerk and a teacher, and he was already a published poet before deciding to join the Windrush generation of emigrants to Britain. His qualifications and aptitudes soon earned him a job on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme. Before long he was also a member of local jazz scene, while spending two years studying English literature at London University.

He joined forces with Harriott in 1960, and the work they did together — recorded by Denis Preston for the Jazzland and Columbia labels — still sounds fresh, vigorous and imaginative. The other members of the quintet were the always underrated Pat Smythe on piano, Coleridge Goode on bass and Phil Seamen or Bobby Orr on drums. Keane also collaborated with the pianist Michael Garrick, notably on projects with the poet/publisher Jeremy Robson.

You could look at Keane, Harriott, Goode, the saxophonists Harold McNair and Wilton “Bogey” Gaynair and another trumpeter, Harold Beckett, all post-war arrivals from the Caribbean, as giving British modern jazz the kind of creative infusion that was provided later in the 1960s by the refugees from apartheid-era South Africa: Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, Harry Miller.

In 1965 Keane accepted an offer to join Kurt Edelhagen’s big band in Cologne. The money was good, the standards were high, and he stayed in Germany for seven years, alongside the likes of Gaynair, the lead altoist Derek Humble and the trombonist Jiggs Whigham. His soloing with the band is featured on a handful of the tracks on a recent Edelhagen three-CD set titled The Unreleased WDR Jazz Recordings 1957-1974. It’s not my kind of big-band jazz — too conventional — but of course it’s very well done.

After leaving Edelhagen he freelanced around Europe before accepting an offer to return to St Vincent in 1973 as the island’s director of culture. A play of his was given its first performance, but the following year a change of government cost him his job, forcing him to find work as a teacher and as a provider of music for tourists. In 1981, fed up, he left the island for New York, and would never return.

Settled into a Caribbean community in Brooklyn, he played a little and wrote poetry but found life hard. In 1989 he returned to the UK to take part in a reunion tour of the Harriott quintet, and two years later he was back again at the behest of his fellow poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, recording an EP with Dennis Bovell and becoming the subject of an Arena documentary made by Anthony Wall. He visited Norway on several occasions during his final years, and it was in Oslo that he died from stomach cancer in 1997.

His story is very well told in Riffs, whose author, also born in St Vincent, does not dodge the difficult marriages or the drinking problem that made him, in the words of the first of his wives, Christiane Ricard, “a difficult and provocative man”. It’s worth noting that they remained in touch, and she gave Nanton a illuminating interview — one one many collected during what was clearly a lengthy and thorough research process — before her death in 2005.

One way and another, Keane wasn’t able to leave the sort of legacy on record that his talent deserved. But this excellent book will help to ensure that his story won’t be forgotten.

* Philip Nanton’s Riffs: The Story of Shake Keane is published by Papilotte Press (www.papilottepress.co.uk). The Kurt Edelhagen set is on the Jazzline Classics/WDR label. Keane’s work with Joe Harriott can be heard on a compilation of three albums — Southern Horizons, Free Form and Abstract — on the Fresh Sounds label.

Bookshelf 2: John Tchicai

John Tchicai arrived in New York from his native Denmark in December 1962. Over the next three and a half years the sound of his saxophone became one of the most distinctive elements in jazz’s turbulent New Wave. He was a member of two foundational combos, the New York Contemporary Five and the New York Art Quartet, and took part in New York’s celebrated October Revolution in Jazz in 1964. He appeared with John Coltrane on Ascension, with Archie Shepp on Four for Trane, with Albert Ayler and Don Cherry on New York Eye and Ear Control, and on the first album by the Jazz Composers Orchestra. Then he went home, with other work to do.

Home turned out not to be just Copenhagen, where he founded the group Cadentia Nova Danica. In the years to come he would live in an artists’ colony in Switzerland; in Northern California, where he taught at Davis University; and, from 2001 until his death in 2012, a small village near Perpignan, on the French side of the Pyrenees. His extensive travels also included visits to India, Afghanistan, Iran, Japan, Sierra Leone and Mexico.

The bands he played in and the recordings he made were many. But of equal importance were the lessons and workshops he gave, sharing with young musicians the philosophy developed during the years in which a man born in 1936 to a Danish mother and a Congolese father absorbed musical ideas from around the world.

It was at a workshop in Rotterdam in 1989 that he met Margriet Naber, a young Dutch musician who became his fourth wife and his collaborator for 20 years. She was with him in California — where they had a band called the Archetypes — and France, and although they split up in 2009 and eventually divorced, they continued to live in the same village and she was with him when he died in a nursing home following a stroke. It is from their conversations, her very clear memories and the material he left behind that she has assembled a book which answers the description of a biography in conventional terms but is also, thanks to the close personal and artistic relationship between the author and her subject, something more.

Tchicai’s stories of growing up as a mixed-race boy in a white world are fascinating. His much older half-brother, Kaj Timmermann, formed a popular band called the Harlem Kiddies in 1940, and in 1953 John saw the Stan Kenton Orchestra in Copenhagen. It was hearing Lee Konitz with Kenton that inspired him to take up the alto saxophone, leaving an influence on the lighter, purer sound that made Tchicai’s own alto stand out amid the maelstrom of 1960s free jazz.

Although his many adventures and countless collaborations are part of the narrative, this is not the place to look for a deep analysis of his music. Instead Naber gives us insights into his thoughts and his teaching methods. Like John Stevens (with whom he played at a famous Cambridge concert with Yoko Ono and John Lennon in 1969), Tchicai favoured an open and practical approach that encouraged musicians of all levels of ability to express themselves though improvisation, illustrated by the score of a piece which gives the book its title: “A Chaos with Some Kind of Order”. From another example, his instructions are very similar to those Stevens used to give: “…try to anticipate and play some of the same tones in the same moment as other players would do them…”

Poetry was important to Tchicai. He wrote it — a few of his poems are included — and he recited it in his beautifully modulated voice. Naber tells us that he only consented to record with John Coxon and Ashley Wales (of Spring Heel Jack) in 2005 if they agreed to let him read Steve Dalachinsky’s “These Pink Roses”, which appeared as a kind of epilogue to the wonderful album called John Tchicai with Strings. Naber uses appendices to give us his advice on improvising and on building a set list, lead sheets of a handful of his tunes, and an outline discography.

Tchicai also looked after himself, through yoga and other practices. Naber describes his routine: “He got up around 6am and sat down for a meditation of around an hour. Then he would make some tea and a piece of rye bread for breakfast before doing more exercises, for instance pranayama (yoga/breathing exercises). That could also take an hour. After that, he’d eat some more and tend to work. Sometimes this would be musical work, working with notes, with an instrument, a piece of paper, his keyboard or sequencer. Sometimes it would be business work, like writing letters. When he was done with that, often it was lunchtime and John liked to have a hot meal for lunch. We took turns cooking meals. In the afternoon he’d go out to get some air and do chores like going to the post office or to the copyshop to make photocopies of charts and send them to musicians he played with. Or he’d go into nature. In the evening he went to hear music, watched a movie on television, or turned back to music to continue working. He didn’t go to bed late, didn’t smoke and didn’t drink much alcohol. This was John’s rhythm. When he was on tour he also tried to maintain it as much as possible, at least by doing a meditation in the morning. He was always busy, and often it was work-related, but it was always in a relaxed way. He played his musical rhythms in a relaxed way and he did the same with his life-rhythm. It was a nice rhythm to live next to…”

Remembering all the pleasure John’s music gave me on record since the early ’60s and in live performance from the first encounter in Berlin in 1969 to the last at Cafe Oto in 2009, I was delighted to respond to Naber’s request to read and comment on her manuscript before publication. I was able to give a little help, but she had it all there. It’s her great feeling for what he represented, as well as her diligence and persistence, that courses through this intimate and valuable account of his life and work.

* John Tchicai: A Chaos with Some Kind of Order by Margriet Naber is published by Ear Heart Mind Media and is available from http://www.johntchicai.com. John Tchicai with Strings is on the Treader label. The drawing of Tchicai is by the Dutch artist Marte Röling and is from the cover of Mohawk, a 1965 album by the New York Art Quartet, originally released on Fontana.