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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Fat John & John Burch

Fat John Burch

In the UK between about 1962 and 1964 you could detect, beneath the excitement of the Beat Boom, the emergence of a music that made anything seemed possible. Largely inspired by the Charles Mingus of Blues & Roots and Oh Yeah!, a new generation of British musicians applied jazz techniques to the form and spirit of the blues in an effort to give their music a strong emotional impact. The nodal point for this was Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, in which a guitarist who loved the music of the Delta chose to surround himself with a shifting cast of younger players who were listening to Mingus, Coltrane and Ornette. When these musicians moved on, some of them became a powerful force in the British rock movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The transitional period didn’t last long. Some of its most interesting bands never got beyond the clubs and pubs and the occasional BBC radio broadcast, and didn’t even get as far as releasing a record. That’s partially rectified by the appearance of new collections of mostly unheard music from two of them: the Fat John Sextet, led by the drummer John Cox, and the octet of the pianist John Burch.

Cox, born in Bristol in 1933, wasn’t all that fat; he was useful drummer who started out as a bandleader in London with a group playing “half mainstream, half trad”. That changed quite quickly. In 1962, with John Mumford on trombone and Dave Castle on alto, they had a Monday-night residency at the Six Bells in Chelsea, playing music of a more contemporary cast. Art Blakey’s “Theme” was among the three tracks they recorded at the Railway Hotel in West Hampstead for a Decca compilation titled Hot Jazz, Cool BeerIn December 1963, when they recorded an unreleased session at the Pye studio just off Marble Arch, the line-up featured Chris Pyne on trombone, Ray Warleigh on alto and flute, Tony Roberts on tenor, Pete Lemer on piano and the great Danny Thompson on bass.

Those two sessions make up Honesty, a new 2CD set that is, I think, the only memorial to John Cox’s career. The 75-minute Pye session includes such standards-to-be as Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”, Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie”,  Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” and Junior Mance’s lovely “Jubilation”, indicating that the prevailing wind was blowing from a hard-bop direction, with occasional gusts of soul. More than half a century later, it holds up well. And while any opportunity to hear Warleigh’s eloquence is not to be missed, it’s also good to be reminded of what a very expressive player Tony Roberts has always been, and how scantily represented he is on record (Henry Lowther’s Child Song and Danny Thompson’s Whatever and Whatever Next being the only examples that spring to my mind). This is fine post-bop jazz with a hint, in Mingus’s “My Jelly Roll Soul” and the Latin rhythms of which Cox was fond, of how the music would have sounded in a more informal live setting .

Pyne, Warleigh and Thompson had all been members of Blues Incorporated. So had Graham Bond, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who appear on Jazz Beat, by the Johnny Burch Octet. A fourth member of both Burch’s and Korner’s bands, the saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, was committed elsewhere when the band recorded a BBC Jazz Club session in 1963. Stan Robinson depped for him, joining a front completed by Mike Falana (trumpet), John Mumford (trombone), Bond (alto) and Miff Moule (baritone), with a rhythm section of Burch (piano), Bruce (double bass) and Baker (drums).

The music here has a rougher edge (and has survived with an appropriately raw sound quality) and at times it can be electrifying. I remember hearing this broadcast, and the version of “Early in the Morning” — a work song borrowed from Murderers Home, the Alan Lomax recording of prisoners’ songs at Parchman Farm — stayed with me through the decades until I heard it again. Apparently arranged (very effectively) by Baker, it was also in Blues Incorporated’s repertoire. Here it inspires good solos from all the horns and an absolutely incendiary one from Bond, very much on the form he showed a year or two earlier on Don Rendell’s Roarin’. Brewing up a fusion of Cannonball Adderley’s soulfulness and Eric Dolphy’s out-there angularity, he shows here what was lost when his instincts and appetites led him elsewhere. Burch’s nice arrangements of Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'” and Jimmy Heath’s “All Members” are other highlights of this session. Two years later Burch led a different line-up on a BBC Band Beat session. The mood on tracks like “The Champ”, “Oleo”, “Milestones” and “Stolen Moments” is relatively restrained by comparison with that of the Bond/Bruce/Baker line-up, but there is fine work from Hank Shaw (trumpet), Ken Wray (trombone), Ray Swinfield (alto) and Peter King on tenor, and the bass is in the hands of the young Jeff Clyne. The approach is more polished, and the fidelity is higher.

The vinyl version of Jazz Beat has eight tracks, three from the first session and five from the second. The CD has six from 1963 and lots of outtakes from the later broadcast, including Tony Hall’s introductions. I wrote the sleeve note but since no money changed hands I feel no embarrassment in drawing your attention to a release that, along with the Fat John CD, helps to fill an important gap in the history of British jazz. Within a short time, of course, some of the people featured on these records were taking their place in bands heard around the world.

Neither of the leaders is still with us. To judge from Simon Spillett’s notes for Honesty, Fat John led an eventful life after his career in jazz came to an end. Burch, a year older than Cox, died in 2006, his life having been made reasonably secure by the royalties from a song called “Preach and Teach”, which appeared on the B-side of “Yeh Yeh”, Georgie Fame’s No 1 hit, earning as much in songwriting royalties as the A-side. Many deserve a break like that; few get it.

* Honesty is out now on Turtle Records. Jazz Beat is on the Rhythm and Blues label: the LP came out on Record Store Day and the CD is released on April 26.

Guidi plays Ferré

Giovanni Guidi Avec le Temps

From left: Francesco Bearzatti, Giovanni Guidi, Thomas Morgan, João Lobo and Roberto Cecchetto (photo: Clément Puig)

Léo Ferré’s “Avec le temps” is one of the most exquisite sad songs ever written (Avec le temps va tout s’en va / On oublie le visage et l’on oublie la voix…). Giovanni Guidi is a lyric poet of the piano. The combination of the two, assembled for the title track of Guidi’s new album, is a natural. The pianist’s touch is at its most effecting on a piece like this, with never a note wasted as he searches for the song’s essence. But it’s not just him and Ferré. It’s Thomas Morgan, the double bassist who combines Gary Peacock’s ardent fluidity with Charlie Haden’s deep soul, suffused with a pensive quality that is all his own. It’s also João Lobo, who adds a dimension that makes this group something more than a conventional piano trio, his discreet splashes, scrapes and sussurations disrupting the perfection in a subtle and highly creative way.

It’s a seductive start, but the album has much more to offer. On the second track, guests appear. The first is the guitarist Roberto Cecchetto, whose opening duet with Morgan on the modal “15th of August” reminds me of Gabor Szabo and Al Stinson in that great Chico Hamilton group of the early ’60s. The comparison extends to the other guest, Francesco Bearzatti, who turns up later in the same piece, playing tenor saxophone with some of the contemplative quality of the mature Charles Lloyd, like a Coltrane who finally found that inner peace. Lobo’s playing behind Morgan’s thrumming figures on the closing section of this is so stunning that you just don’t want it to stop.

Gradually the album travels further out, very interestingly so as Bearzatti’s Aylerish squalls on “Postludium and a Kiss” add another disruptive element to roil the prevailing balladry before, in a thrilling process, the other musicians rise to match his energy. “No Taxi”, by the trio, turns in another direction, towards a meeting of Thelonious Monk’s angles and Lennie Tristano’s seamless flow, with Bearzatti playing the Charlie Rouse/Warne Marsh role. “Caino” is a pre-dawn tone poem, with fine shading from Cecchetto’s guitar, and “Johnny the Liar” feels like a continuation of the same dream-state. “Ti Stimo”, a Guidi favourite, has a lovely rustic simplicity that Bill Frisell would enjoy, and “Tomasz” — a dedication to the late trumpeter Tomasz Stanko — finds the trio summoning the ravishing beauty heard on their previous albums, City of Broken Dreams and This Is The Day, both released, like this new one, on ECM.

As far as I know, Guidi, Morgan and Lobo have played together in London only twice, both times at the Rosenfeld Porcini art gallery. Someone should bring them back as soon as possible. This is one of the finest groups in contemporary jazz, and Avec le temps is not to be missed.

Gebhard Ullmann’s Basement Research

Gebhard Ullmann Jazzfest Berlin 2017 © Camille Blake - Berliner Festspiele-4

When Peter Brötzmann declined — in somewhat unnecessarily brusque terms, I thought — my invitation to join Tyshawn Sorey in a late-night duo performance at Jazzfest Berlin in 2017, my thoughts very quickly turned to Gebhard Ullmann, the highly experienced saxophonist, composer and bandleader who deserves to be a great deal better known outside his native Germany. The way it worked out, I was only sorry that I hadn’t asked Ullmann first. He and Sorey (the festival’s artist in residence) had never met or spoken before; their set was completely improvised, and provided a perfect exposition of what magic such musicians can create together in the right circumstances. I won’t forget it, and neither will anyone else who was in the Seitenbühne at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele that night.

Ullmann is one of those musicians whose inquisitive nature leads him to explore all sorts of environments. One of them is a multinational quintet called Basement Research, in which he plays tenor saxophone and bass clarinet and is joined by Steve Swell on trombone, Julian Argüelles on baritone saxophone, Pascal Niggenkemper on double bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Their new album, Impromptus and Other Short Works, is just out.

When he sent me a copy, Ullmann expressed his puzzlement that the early reviews had described the music as “free jazz”. “I’m not sure I get it,” he wrote. “Maybe times changed and now for the average people this is free jazz. Not that I have a problem with the term … but I do have a lot of other ‘free’ projects while this one focuses a lot on my compositions. I see myself here in the lineage of Mingus transferred using my and today’s composition techniques — but maybe Mingus would be call a free jazz musician today as well. Strange.”

Whatever you’d call Mingus, you could call Ullmann as well. To me his pieces for this group take their cue from Blues & Roots and Oh Yeah! — the bands with three or four low or low-ish horns, no trumpet or other high-pitched instrument on top, the spontaneity of their interpretation and the occasional burst of collective polyphony ensured by Mingus’s method of teaching them the pieces by ear. I doubt that’s how Ullmann does it, but whatever his method he achieves a similar level of warmth, flexibility and sheer humanity.

The tunes are often bluesy, sometimes hymn-like, encouraging each voice to interact with the others. Some of them have 12-tone components, adding a tart flavour to the underlying bluesiness. Each of the 11 tracks lasts between two and a half and six minutes, and the sense of compression may remind you pleasingly of the sort of event-density jazz records used to have before the invention of the LP.

Individually, the musicians are ceaselessly creative. I always love to hear Argüelles on baritone, and his solo on the opening “Gospel” is nothing short of magnificent. On “Lines — Impromptu #2” Swell reminds me of a young Roswell Rudd, with a wider repertoire of extended techniques. Ullmann’s impassioned and beautifully tapered bass clarinet solo on “Almost Twenty-Eight” receives excellent support from Niggenkemper and from the other two horns, who supply the sort of lightly sketched backgrounds that turn up throughout this very carefully structured album. Every track benefits from the presence of Cleaver, who is one of the most stimulating drummers around; here he gets a warm, slightly fuzzy sound from his snare-drum and tom-toms that suits the overall picture perfectly.

If you don’t know Ullmann’s music, this album is a very welcoming place to start. What it’s called is completely beside the point.

* The photograph of Gebhard Ullmann was taken in Berlin in 2017 by Camille Blake. The Basement Research album is on the WhyPlayJazz label.

Sarah Tandy at Ronnie Scott’s

Sarah Tandy at RS 1

The first time I heard the pianist Sarah Tandy in person, with Camilla George’s band at the Vortex, I was struck how far she went inside the music. As she improvised, mind and body seemed completely engaged at an unusually deep level. I’ve heard her a number of times now —  with Maisha, with her own trio and with the quintet with which she launched her debut album in London last night — and that impression remains just as strong.

Her keyboard technique is pretty impressive. She was a prodigy in the classical field — a finalist in the BBC’s young musician of the year competition — before turning to jazz while studying Eng Lit at Cambridge. As an improviser, therefore, she can make her hands do pretty well anything her mind suggests. In jazz, this is not invariably an advantage. But what Tandy does at all times, however fast her fingers are flying, is to convey a sense of soul and lyricism. It was no surprise to me when she mentioned, during a conversation a couple of years ago, that she admires Wynton Kelly, a pianist whose ability to convey joy through his playing was second to none.

Last night she led a band consisting of Sheila Maurice-Grey on trumpet, Binker Golding on tenor, Mutale Chashi on double bass and bass guitar, and Femi Koleoso on drums. That’s the line-up heard on her album, Infection in the Sentence, which is released at the end of this week by Jazz re:freshed. When she asked Ronnie Scott’s if she could launch the album at the club, she was shocked to be offered two 45-minute sets. “The album’s only 50 minutes long,” she told the audience, “so we’re going to have to get creative.”

It’s hard to imagine them being anything else. Tandy’s tunes were consistently stimulating — particularly the extended opener, “Under the Skin”, which included a ferocious section of very fast straight-time blowing and ended with a delicate fade. For “Timelord” she switched to electric piano, locating an irresistible late-night/big-city groove. Her rousing arrangement of “Afro-Blue” was more Mongo Santamaria (who wrote it) than John Coltrane (who made it famous); a packed house loved it, responding to the relaxed interaction between the musicians, and to the sense that although the music is serious, it’s still fun to play like this.

When she had a residency for her trio at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston, I used to wait for her to play “Everything Happens to Me”, the Matt Dennis/Tom Adair ballad first recorded by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey in 1940, an exceptionally beautiful and poignant song with which she seemed to have a special rapport. She didn’t play it last night, but she did open the second set with her own “Half Blue”, a graceful solo piano piece which demonstrated the qualities of touch and voicing that help to make her so special.

She also loves to hit a groove, and there was a lot of that last night. It never lacked subtlety, thanks to the endlessly inventive Koleoso — who blends Billy Higgins’s floating grace with Alphonse Mouzon’s brusque power, adding flourishes of his own — and the excellent Chashi, who manipulated his bass guitar on a couple of tunes with the purring authority of Marcus Miller.

A motif of both sets was the way pieces often ended with a long, carefully improvised collective diminuendo tapering to silence; so much more dramatic than a crash-bang-wallop coda. And at the end of the night the groove changed, with Maurice-Grey singing “You Are My Sunshine”: not the way Ray Charles or Sheila Jordan and George Russell did it, but with a New Orleans second-line feel. A terrific night, and a launch that should give impetus not just to a single album but to an important career.

Riot in Dalston

Riot in Dalston

There are many worthwhile things going on in jazz at the moment, and one of them is the collaboration with open-minded young musicians from the straight world. Last night at Cafe Oto there were two such efforts, both featuring an eight-piece contingent from the Riot Ensemble, a London-based group who might be compared, I suppose, to Berlin’s Stargaze Orchestra.

The first half of the evening began with two members of the ensemble, Ausiàs Garrigós on bass clarinet and Amy Green on baritone saxophone, playing a fully composed piece called ‘We Speak Etruscan’, written 20 years ago by Lee Hyla, a New York composer who died in 2014. Beautifully conceived as two voices twirling around each other, it was performed with an irresistible momentum and a virtuosity that left plenty of room for the human sound of the instruments.

Then came the other members of the group — Mandira de Saram and Marie Schreer (violins), Jenny Ames (viola), Louise McMonagle (cello), Marianne Schofield (double bass) and Sam Wilson (percussion) — to play a sequence of pieces by Alexander Hawkins, conducted by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, with Hawkins on piano and Evan Parker on soprano saxophone. Parker led off with unaccompanied solo, quietly joined by the strings and a bowed vibraphone, holding a cloud-like chord. Already the textures were new and gorgeous.

The four pieces making the continuous sequence could be played in any order, discreetly cued by the conductor. The music shifted tone and weight constantly, using extended instrumental techniques (including one fantastic passage of drifting harmonics from the strings), and occasionally making space for solos, including one from Hawkins in which he used devices on the piano’s strings to get a kalimba effect. The music was intense and rarified, but never overbearing.

The Riot Ensemble musicians returned for the second half, this time to work with the trio known as ENEMY — Kit Downes on piano, Petter Eldh on bass and James Maddren on drums — on pieces written and arranged by Downes and Eldh. This was a very different formula: much more predetermined, much more vertical and horizontal structure, but enormously dynamic and involving, and greatly appreciated by the audience.

Everything played at Cafe Oto is professionally recorded. This was one of those nights when you leave with the hope that what you’ve just heard will eventually be released, so that you can enjoy it again and think about it some more.

Que Vola?

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It’s so cold this morning that I’m typing this with gloves on (fingerless ones, knitted by my daughter, since you ask). But all the ambiant heat I need is being provided by the debut CD from a Franco-Cuban band called Que Vola?, who stir new and inspiring life into an old formula.

The Cuban influence on jazz has been coming and going for the best part of a century, getting its biggest boost in the 1940s, when the immortal conguero Chano Pozo joined the Dizzy Gillespie big band. The story of Que Vola? — literally, “what flies?”, or “wha’ happen?” in the vernacular — began in 2012, when the trombonist Fidel Fourneyron visited Havana and was seized by a desire to blend jazz horns with the deep rhythms he was hearing in clubs.

Back in Paris, he added three Cuban percussionists — Adonis Panter Calderón, Ramón Tamayo Martínez and Barbara Crespo Richard — to an assembly of local musicians: Aymeric Avice (trumpet), Hugues Mayot and Benjamin Dousteyssier (saxophones), Bruno Ruder (electric piano), Thibaud Soulas (double bass) and Elie Duris (drums). As I say, it’s not a particularly new idea, but Fourneyron has come up with a different sound, a new set of textures and balances, as you can hear here and here. The effect is something akin to Grounation, the classic album in which Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari fused nyabinghi rhythms with post-bop jazz soloists 45 years ago.

What makes Fourneyron’s approach different from most earlier Latin-jazz fusions, I think, is that he accepts the Cuban rhythms at their most complex and sophisticated. He doesn’t try to water them down for a popular audience, even one familiar with salsa, but matches them to the complexity and sophistication of the contemporary jazz musician. What, really, could be closer to the spirit of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo?

* Que Vola? is released on January 25 on the Nø Førmat label. The band will appear at EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney) in Stoke Newington on April 10, with Oumou Sangaré and Gérald Toto.

Joseph Jarman 1937-2019

joseph jarman

By a coincidence that seems extraordinary, at least to me, Joseph Jarman’s death on Wednesday, at the age of 81, took place two days after a group of London-based artists had performed his 1966 poem-with-music “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City” to a packed audience at Cafe Oto. Dante Micheaux read Jarman’s words beautifully, sharing the stage with the singer Elaine Michener, Byron Wallen on trumpet, Jason Yarde on saxophones and electronics, Alex Hawkins on piano, Neil Charles on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. It was a surprising and welcome choice in an unbroken two-hour set that also included works by Jeanne Lee, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp and Jayne Cortez. (Here is Mike Hobart’s excellent FT review of the gig.)

Jarman, who died in a New Jersey home for actors, spent his last decades as a teacher of Shin Buddhism, having significantly reduced his involvement in musical performance from about 1993 onwards. He’ll be best remembered as a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which evolved in the mid-’60s out of Roscoe Mitchell’s quartet and Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band, in both of which he played. This made him an early member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, now into its sixth decade.

Like many other great musicians — including Gene Ammons, Bo Diddley, Johnny Griffin, Dinah Washington, John Gilmore, Nat King Cole, Richard Davis, Eddie Harris, Freddie Below, Wilbur Ware and Johnny Hartman —  he had been taught at DuSable High, on Chicago’s South Side, by the legendary Captain Walter Dyett, the school’s music instructor from 1935 to 1962. His instrument at that time was the snare drum, which he played in the school band.

He began studying the saxophone and woodwinds while stationed in Germany with the US Army from 1955 to 1958. On returning to Chicago he met Mitchell and Malachi Favors, and his course was set. He became part of a music that absorbed, metabolised and reimagined everything from the country blues to John Cage, breaking down the conventions and creating new approaches. The impact of their arrival in Europe in 1969, together with Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and others, has yet to be properly assessed.

I was fortunate enough to hear the Art Ensemble on several occasions in what I suppose we think of as their classic incarnation — notably in Central Park’s open-air Wollman Auditorium in 1973, their first New York concert, when they played the epic “People in Sorrow”, and at the Roundhouse in London later in that decade — and on both occasions I had my consciousness rearranged in a very fulfilling way. With their slogan “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future”, they took ownership of what they were doing with a visionary confidence that continues to exert an influence on new generations.

In her book As Serious As Your Life, Val Wilmer describes Jarman as “poet, philosopher and polemicist as well as musician.” On his last studio recording with the Art Ensemble, Sirius Calling (Pi, 2004), he opened a saxophone-and-drums duet with Don Moye by speaking these words:

Every day is a perfect day

Every moment a perfect moment

Every second a perfect second

We can see complete darkness simply by closing our eyes

We can see complete light by truly opening our eyes

* The photograph of Joseph Jarman is from the cover of his first album, Song For (Delmark, 1967), and was taken by Joe Banks.

Mark Lockheart’s ‘Days on Earth’

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Most of the interesting new big-band music these days tends to be of the experimental variety, from Darcy James Argue to Ingrid Laubrock. Too much is the kind of warmed-over bombast you get from people steeped in the tradition of Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and the University of North Texas Lab Band. So it’s always welcome to come across someone using the established language to say new things, as Mark Lockheart does with great success in Days on Earth, a large-scale work for sextet and orchestra premiered at Milton Court in London last night.

Lockheart (above), the saxophonist and composer who first attracted attention with Loose Tubes 30 years ago and has since played with Polar Bear, Perfect Houseplants and others, was leading the distinguished core group, which included John Parricelli (guitar), Liam Noble (piano), Tom Herbert (bass), Seb Rochford (drums). John Ashton Thomas conducted the 33-piece Guildhall Studio Orchestra: 14 violins, four violas, three cellos, harp, four woodwind, six brass and percussion.

Normally I don’t like doing that jazz-critic thing of describing a piece of music by triangulating it with a couple of other things it resembles, but I don’t see the harm in mentioning here that Lockheart, whether he meant to or not, has drawn together aspects of Eddie Sauter’s work behind Stan Getz on Focus with Gil Evans’s setting for Wayne Shorter on “The Barbara Song”. Which is not to suggest that Lockheart’s seven-part suite is a concerto for tenor saxophone and orchestra, which it is not, or that it reflects the early 1960s, the time when those works were made. The infectious grooves alone — and there are many of them scattered throughout Days on Earth — are definitely contemporary.

The use of his resources to create new textures, however, would do credit to Sauter or Evans. I heard some imaginative groupings; two examples would be bass clarinet and double bass repeating a staccato motif as an undercurrent, and a clarinet against harp and plucked cellos . The big ensemble passages were perfectly integrated and, thanks as much to the skill and enthusiasm of the students in the orchestra as much as the pros in the rhythm section, swung like mad. That wouldn’t have happened half a century ago.

Days on Earth was conceived as a big statement: “a defining moment for me,” the composer says, “not just in the scale of the instrumental forces but also the culmination of many musical (and life) journeys.” Without burdening the listener, in both live and recorded forms it feels like a thoughtful outpouring of human emotions, choosing to deploy beauty as a response to confusion, carefully channeled through great artistry. Lockheart’s own tenor solos were exquisitely formed and perfectly flighted — it’s no news that he has a singularly beautiful tone — and some of the students, including the violinist Nicole Petrus Barracks and the harpist Lise Vandersmissen, made striking individual contributions.

Before the interval, Lockheart led nine other student musicians through five of his earlier pieces, showcasing the powerful bass of Joe Lee and the alto of Asha Parkinson, whose quietly intense closing solo — a moment of wonderfully understated drama — reminded me of how impressive she was in the Guildhall School’s concert presentation of Donald Fagen’s Nightfly a couple of years ago.

Pretty much a five-star evening, then, which really deserves to be repeated. And in its CD form, recorded at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove studio and released next week on the Edition label, Days on Earth is definitely a five-star album, demanding a place at the forefront of Britain’s extremely active contemporary jazz scene.

Herbie Nichols at 100

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This week the Stone in New York City is hosting a four-night celebration of the centenary of Herbie Nichols, the composer and pianist who remained in obscurity during his lifetime but has since, thanks to the enthusiastic advocacy of such admirers as Roswell Rudd, Misha Mengelberg, Buell Neidlinger, Steve Lacy and George Lewis, been acknowledged as one of the most interesting figures of his era.

I read about Nichols before I heard him, as one of the figures profiled in A. B. Spellman’s great book Four Lives in the Bebop Business, published in 1967, four years after his death from leukemia at the age of 44. By placing his story alongside those of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Jackie McLean, all of them much better known, the author granted him a certain standing. In career terms it was a tale of woe, very largely, but it seemed clear that public neglect never dimmed the light of Nichols’s creativity.

Then I got to hear his music — which wasn’t so easy at the time — and, like everybody else who “discovered” him for themselves, immediately recognised his great combination of complete originality and total accessibility. He was kin to Thelonious Monk, quite evidently, and also to Elmo Hope and Dick Twardzik, but with a different outlook.

Here are “23 Skidoo”, “Step Tempest” and “Shuffle Montgomery”, all from the two-volume set of 10-inch LPs recorded for the Blue Note label in 1955, titled The Prophetic Herbie Nichols, with Al McKibbon on bass and Art Blakey on drums (and great abstract cover art by Martin Craig, proving that there was visual life at Blue Note before Reid Miles). And here’s “Love Gloom Cash Love”, the title track of another trio album recorded for Bethlehem three years later, with his old friend George Duvivier on bass and Dannie Richmond on drums.

So that’s Herbie Nichols, born on January 3, 1919 to parents who’d come to New York from St Kitt’s and Trinidad. These pieces are typical in that their characteristic jauntiness seems to be a light disguise for more nuanced feelings. He was great with titles — “House Party Starting”, “Terpsichore”, “S’Crazy Pad”, “Hangover Triangle” — but even better at coming up with combinations of melody, rhythm and harmony that sound completely fresh but also like something that’s been there all your life.

According to Spellman, he wrote a lot of poetry, too, particularly in hard times. I’d love to read that.

* The photograph of Herbie Nichols is by Francis Wolff.

Eric Dolphy, still out there

Eric Dolphy - Photo by © Hans Harzheim

When I think about Eric Dolphy, I wonder what he would be doing now, had he not died of undiagnosed diabetes in a Berlin hospital in 1964, aged 36. Quite a lot of the more adventurously astringent music to be heard today at Cafe Oto in London, The Stone in New York or Sowieso in Berlin could be described as Dolphyesque, in that it launches itself from a jazz platform in search of a relationship with other idioms, in particular the techniques of various forms of modern classical music.

He would have turned 90 this year, and there’s no doubt that he would have used those lost years productively, extending his already formidable vocabulary on alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute, continuing to develop a personal improvising voice that — like his great contemporary Ornette Coleman, but in a very different way — moved beyond the influence of Charlie Parker, and exploring the possibilities of new instrumental groupings and compositional techniques. Just imagine a Dolphy quintet album with Ambrose Akinmusire, Alexander Hawkins, Thomas Morgan and Tyshawn Sorey!

A new release from Resonance Records provides a fine illustration of the things he was up to in the couple of years before he died, and of how modern he still sounds. After an apprenticeship with Chico Hamilton, Dolphy came to the attention of the jazz world primarily through his work with John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, but he found a path to his own music, to be heard on such albums as Out There (Prestige, 1960), the marvellous series of quintet recordings at the Five Spot with Booker Little from 1961 (also Prestige), and the celebrated Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964).

The Resonance collection, called Musical Prophet and currently available as a triple vinyl set, is based on two days of studio sessions supervised by the producer Alan Douglas for his own label in New York over two days in July 1963. The sessions featured various instrumental combinations from a pool of mostly young players: Woody Shaw (trumpet), Sonny Simmons (alto), Prince Lawsha (flute), Clifford Jordan (tenor), Bobby Hutcherson (vibes), Richard Davis or Eddie Kahn (bass), J. C. Moses or Charles Moffett (drums), and the veteran Garvin Bushell on bassoon. It seems to have been typical of Dolphy’s generosity of spirit that he made solo space for other musicians who played his instruments (Simmons in particular), and featured compositions other than his own.

Two albums, Conversations and Iron Man, were issued from these sessions, but the new set also contains outtakes of all the original tracks, and more besides. Given the relatively small size of Dolphy’s output during his short recording career, anything new is particularly welcome, and it’s a treat to hear — for instance — a pithier version of Lawsha’s Caribbean-inflected “Music Matador”, two extra takes of the solo alto treatment of the standard “Love Me”, and the astonishingly inventive solos by Dolphy and the 18-year-old Shaw on an alternate take of “Mandrake” that is stronger than the one originally selected.

There’s also a bonus track from another session: a 15-minute piece called “A Personal Statement”, originally included under the title “Jim Crow” on an album culled from random tapes left by Dolphy with some friends and released by Blue Note in 1987 under the title Other Aspects. It now transpires that this striking piece was written by the pianist Bob James for his own trio, plus Dolphy and a counter-tenor, David Schwarz, and recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in March 1964, shortly before Dolphy left for what turned out to be his final trip to Europe. The fact that Dolphy didn’t write it, and that James would soon (after recording a trio album for ESP) turn away from the avant-garde towards an engagement with the more commercial form of jazz that made him famous, doesn’t make it any less interesting; it also means that Dolphy recognised the promise in these young musicians, who were students at the time.

For me, however, the heart of this set is the second of its six sides, entirely devoted to duets between Dolphy’s bass clarinet and the bass of Richard Davis: two virtuosi in conversation. The first of the three tracks, the originally released 13-minute take of “Alone Together”, is a known masterpiece (and there is another take, previously unreleased, on the final disc). The second and the third pieces, two takes of a composition by the pianist Roland Hanna called “Muses for Richard Davis”, slowly explore the timbral relationship between the two instruments with enormous care, subtlety and beauty. You can ignore the track breaks and treat the side as one half-hour piece: half an hour of genius.

* Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 Studio Session is out now as a vinyl limited edition and will be released on CD on January 25. The photograph above, by the German jazz photographer Hans Harzheim, appears in the lavish booklet, along with the work of Francis Wolff, Val Wilmer and other photographers, and many essays and interviews with musicians whose lives Eric Dolphy touched.